"There's an alarming lack of scholarship on Savarkar": author Vikram Sampath

Asia's Tech News Daily

Few figures in Indian political history are reviled or revered with as much passion 55 years after their death as Vinayak Damodar Savarkar.

Earlier this week, a fresh row over whether Savarkar applied for mercy under the direction of Mahatma Gandhi while incarcerated in the Andaman jail kicked up the dust again.

#1924-1966, #Author interview, #books, #Hindu Mahasabha, #history, #India Independence, #interview, #Nationalist history, #Vikram Sampath, #Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, #‘Savarkar: A Contested Legacy, fresh row
In his two-part biography of Savarkar, the final volume of which came out in May 2021, Vikram Sampath wrote that Savarkar’s “demonization is so absolutist in nature that there hardly seems to be any trace of positive virtue that his opponents can find in him”. Dr Sampath added that his purpose in writing the books was not to correct “historical wrongs done to a national figure” but to let the records “speak for themselves”.

In an earlier Zoom conversation, Dr Sampath spoke about the research he did for the book, its reception, and some of Savarkar’s key ideas. Excerpts:

The first book in your ‘Savarkar’ biography (‘Savarkar: Echoes from a Forgotten Past, 1883–1924’) came out in 2019. The second and final volume (‘Savarkar: A Contested Legacy, 1924-1966′) was released this year. When did you start working on this, and where all did this research take you?

It took me almost five years. Biographies, for me, demand that type of emotion(al investment) into the character that you’re trying to uncover.

There was no paucity of information; there is, in fact, a lot of material on Veer Savarkar. It’s just that nobody had bothered much to access a lot of this.

What kind of material did you access?

A lot of what Savarkar himself wrote was in Marathi, which, fortunately, I understand… A lot of archival work (on him is) at the National Archives of India in Delhi. I was a senior research fellow at the Memorial Museum and Library there (in Delhi), which has a tranche of private papers and letters that went in and out of his house right from 1924-25 – again, seldom accessed by historians and chroniclers. In Mumbai, the Maharashtra State Archives, the police archives, which had a lot of newspaper cuttings of the time. The National Library in Kolkata (was another resource).

Outside India, my research was largely in London – The British Library, the National Archives of UK – and also in France, and Germany. So all these places, where there was so much material that was screaming to be heard, and perhaps never accessed. So it was really a kind of reconstruction of his life from so much material.

Why do you feel historians have stayed away from this material? 

The historian wants to spin a narrative. It’s very easy for him or her to do that, perhaps by being selective in their usage of material. And I think that’s one problem that has plagued the narratives (about Savarkar) post-Independence.

As a historian, you collect material, assess its significance and organise it to tell a story – that’s just the nature of the job, right?

Sometimes availability of records can be limited on a particular issue, which could limit the objectivity, not necessarily by design, but by accident – that something is not available, then you connect the dots and recreate the narrative.

But when I say, objective – and I’m trying to be that in both the books – (I mean) one is not getting too much of value judgement on him (the subject) or, in fact, any of the characters of the past. Because we just have the luxury of retrospective viewing to say anyone could have done this or that, within just laying out the facts. And I think letting a discerning reader make up his/her mind, that is what is most important.

Often, historians also assume the mantle of judge, jury and executioner, which in my view is not the best thing to do. I’ve always maintained that the historian’s job is to illuminate the records, which a layperson may not have the appetite for so much legwork… so you just take it all out and lay it bare for people to see.

Given that Savarkar continues to be a polarising figure, are you at all concerned about who uses your research and how?

This (Savarkar) is a politician who intrudes contemporary political discourse more than several others. In fact, someone who is part of election manifestos and election rallies. The government spent valuable time on deciding whether you need to have a Veer prefixed to his name or not. And if a young person today in India wants to look back and see what is all this hullabaloo about, what about this man raises so many heckles, both among his proponents as well as opponents, there’s an alarming lack of scholarship, interest in academically evaluating this person. A large biography, a comprehensive one in English, was written in the 1960s. And nobody (had since) thought it prudent to evaluate a man who raises their heckles as well and that says a lot about us as a nation and the quality of our scholarship. So when a book comes out on a person as polarising, it’s obvious that either side, you know, whichever side of the political spectrum wants to use it to their advantage, it is inevitable. I personally have no political ambitions or leanings, and other than the ones in five years when we go and get our fingers inked. So as I said, it’s the conscience of the historian that matters. What people use it for, it’s really very tough to control that.

Obviously, those who are his proponents will probably get a lot more ammunition to defend him well. Probably a lot of the criticism might get blunted, because even they (the critics) were criticising without any information. Now, probably, you’d have to do double the amount of research to probably counter the accusations against him; which is good, I mean, if you oppose the book, the best way to oppose it is by writing another book. … As a writer and historian, I am happy that it brings in that kind of discourse, hopefully, which was much needed.

What is your read on Savarkar, as a politician, and as a leader?

Right from starting as a firebrand revolutionary to forming India’s first secret society, Savarkar was someone who wrote copious amounts … including revolutionary literature, which was a source of inspiration for revolutionaries till the very end.

He worked hard to build a classless society and eradicate not just untouchability, but caste divisions in all forms, and consolidation of the Hindu society.

The five, six years that he was the president (of the All India Hindu Mahasabha), the way he made the party fighting fit for elections… that aspect of his life. All the different characters, the different situations that were at play in India, in that very crucial decade of the 1940s up to the Quit India movement… and, of course, eventually Independence. And the latter half of his life, where he got so dejected and disillusioned with everything, especially post his arrest in the Gandhi murder case of which he was later acquitted. But then I think that albatros kept coming back to haunt him. And he ended his life by not taking food and water and medicines – that’s how he died in 1966. So, from 1947-66,  there were so many years post-Independence when he probably would have or could have contributed to free India. But there was no opportunity. The kind of clamp down on political opponents that was made during that time probably added to the disillusionment.

So, it was a very, very stormy life, with so many ups and downs, so many different ideological strands, all culminating in this man whom some people loved and some people reviled as much.

There has been some criticism that his thoughts and writings were geared towards the upper-caste Hindus. How do you respond to that charge?

I don’t think that that holds any water. There’s a chapter only on his caste reforms in my book. (His) idea was not piecemeal reforms, it was, as I said, a complete elimination of caste and all forms (of it) … (He) advocated inter-caste dining in Maharashtra… inter-caste marriages, universalization of the Vedic knowledge, which he thought was universal knowledge and not the preserve of the Brahmin community, despite being one himself, eradication of untouchability in toto by allowing and actually achieving the entry of children of all castes into schools.

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