At the opening session of the All India Hindu Mahasabha conference in Calcutta in December 1949. Savarkar is in the centre.
On July 12 Swapan Dasgupta made an interesting disclosure in the evening on television. L.K. Advani had told him that according to Morarji Desai, V.D. Savarkar was complicit in Mahatma Gandhi’s murder but got away with it. Morarji was Home Minister in the Province of Bombay and he had once stated on oath, “[I] kept myself in touch with the investigation that was going on in the Bombay Province.” He knew the truth. So did Jamshed Nagarvala, Deputy Commissioner of Police in charge of the Bombay Criminal Investigation Department’s (CID) Special Branch Sections One and Two. He was responsible for the gathering of political intelligence and was close to the Home Minister.
Union Home Minister Vallabhbhai Patel wrote to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru on February 27, 1948: “I have kept myself almost in daily touch with the progress of the investigation regarding Bapu’s assassination case.” It was a fanatical wing of the Hindu Mahasabha directly under Savarkar that “[hatched] the conspiracy and saw it through” ( Sardar Patel’s Correspondence, Volume 6, page 56). Not surprisingly Syama Prasad Mookerjee, a member of the Cabinet, incongruously pleaded with Patel on behalf of Savarkar, whom he had succeeded as president of the Hindu Mahasabha, on the very day the Special Court was set up. Patel replied, “As regards Savarkar, the Advocate-General of Bombay, who is in charge of the case, and other legal advisers and investigating officers met me at a conference in Delhi before I came here. I told them, quite clearly, that the question of inclusion of Savarkar must be approached purely from a legal and judicial standpoint and political considerations should not be imported into the matter. My instructions were quite definite and beyond doubt and I am sure they will be acted upon. I have also told them that if they come to the view that Savarkar should be included the papers should be placed before me before action is taken. This is, of course, insofar as the question of guilt is concerned from the point of view of law and justice. Morally, it is possible that one’s conviction may be the other way about.
“I quite agree with you that the Hindu Mahasabha, as an organisation, was not concerned in the conspiracy that led to Gandhiji’s murder; but at the same time, we cannot shut our eyes to the fact that an appreciable number of the members of the Mahasabha gloated over the tragedy and distributed sweets. On this matter, reliable reports have come to us from all parts of the country. Further, militant communalism, which was preached until only a few months ago by many spokesmen of the Mahasabha, including men like Mahant Digbijoy Nath, Prof. Ram Singh and Deshpande, could not but be regarded as a danger to public security. The same would apply to the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh], with the additional danger inherent in an organisation run in secret on military or semi-military lines” (ibid., pages 65-66).
Atmosphere of hatred
As an experienced criminal lawyer, Patel distinguished between acquittal in a court of law and the guilt which the evidence in court establishes “morally”. He wrote to the persistent Mookerjee again: “As regards the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha, the case relating to Gandhiji’s murder is sub judice and I should not like to say anything about the participation of the two organisations, but our reports do confirm that, as a result of the activities of these two bodies, particularly the former, an atmosphere was created in the country in which such a ghastly tragedy became possible. There is no doubt in my mind that the extreme section of the Hindu Mahasabha was involved in this conspiracy. The activities of the RSS constituted a clear threat to the existence of government and the state. Our reports show that those activities, despite the ban, have not died down. Indeed, as time has marched on, the RSS circles are becoming more defiant and are indulging in their subversive activities in an increasing measure” (ibid., page 323).
Morarji’s disclosure should cause no surprise. This is what Robert Payne wrote of Savarkar in The Life and Death of Mahatma Gandhi in 1969: “Among those who sat in the dock he alone seemed to be well cast for the role he was playing. Some inner fire burned in him, in that deathly pale face which had been reduced by illness and suffering to the dimensions of a skull. He had been placed under house arrest within eight hours of the assassination, and the only surprising thing is that he was not arrested earlier, for he was the prime suspect, the one man who would inevitably be suspected of the crime. Suspicion would have fastened on him even if he had been living in London.
Morarji Desai. Did ke know more than he cared to reveal?
“The prosecution had no difficulty in showing that Nathuram Godse had organised the conspiracy, but it was a vastly more difficult task to prove the direct complicity of Savarkar. He claimed that he was ill during the months preceding the assassinations, saw very few people, and had not been in communication with Godse or Narayan D. Apte for more than a year.
“[Digambar] Badge, the informer, claimed that on January 17, three days before the assassination, he accompanied Godse and Apte to Savarkar’s house in Bombay at nine o’clock in the morning. While Badge waited downstairs, Godse and Apte went upstairs to Savarkar’s study to receive the last darshan of their political leader and to obtain his final instructions. Five or ten minutes later they came downstairs accompanied by Savarkar, who said: ‘Be successful and come back.’ … Savarkar bore a heavy moral responsibility for the murder, and when he presented himself as a man who deplored the death of Gandhi with every fibre of his being, he was never convincing.
“In 1909 he had shown that he was perfectly capable of ordering a young Indian to murder Sir Curzon Wyllie. To his biographer Dhananjay Keer, who wrote an account of Savarkar and his times, he claimed full credit for the murder. He had given Madanlal Dhingra a nickel-plated revolver, saying curtly: “ Don’t show me your face if you fail this time.” Dhingra had acted like an automaton, blindly obedient to him, convinced that he was sacrificing himself on the altar of India’s freedom, and throughout the trial Savarkar continually encouraged him in the belief that he was a martyr whose name would be remembered for centuries. The London police strongly suspected Savarkar of complicity in the crime, but there was never enough evidence to convict him. He was finally convicted of complicity in the murder of Mr A.M.T. Jackson at the Nasik conspiracy trial and sentenced to transportation for life.
“The memory of this earlier murder hovered like a ghostly presence over the trial at the Red Fort, never mentioned in court, forgotten except by the oldest members of the audience who crowded the public benches. Savarkar had achieved respectability, and his crimes had taken place so long ago that they could be discovered only in the crumbling pages of ancient newspapers” (pages 616-7).
More, he had attained an iconic status as the author of the concept of Hindutva, in a tract by that name (1923). He was at pains to stress that it was not synonymous with Hinduism. He was a confirmed atheist.
In 1975 came the famous best-seller Freedom at Midnight by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre. It was based on police records. Madanlal’s (Madanlal K. Pahwa, a refugee from West Pakistan) explosion of a gun cotton slab at Gandhi’s prayer meeting on January 20, 1948, had set the alarm bells ringing. His accomplices, Godse and others, fled. The next day, Morarji assigned the case to Nagarvala. The authors record: “Nagarvala set the machinery in motion to identify him. For the young officer there seemed no question that, sooner or later, the road to the men who had tried to murder Gandhi had to pass by the quiet house among the palms and meddler trees of Keluksar Road, Savarkar’s residence in Bombay. Nagarvala had asked Desai for permission to arrest Savarkar on the basis of Madanlal’s visit to him the week before. Desai had refused with the angry query: ‘Are you mad? Do you think I want this whole province to go up in smoke?’” If Nagarvala could not confine Savarkar to a prison cell, however, he could at least confine him to a brilliant organisation created by the British that was the pride of the Bombay CID, its Watchers’ Branch” (page 417).
Savarkar was put under surveillance. “Jimmy Nagarvala’s Bombay investigation had yielded little new after its first 48 hours. The Bombay Watchers’ Branch continued its vigilance at the gates of Savarkar Sadan, but the Machiavellian leader inside was too clever to reveal his mind. And yet, some malignant radiation seemed to emanate from that house. Something in the constant flow of Savarkar’s followers in and out of its premises spoke to Nagarvala’s policeman’s instincts. ‘Don’t ask me why’, he told Sanjevi [the head in Delhi], ‘but I just know another attempt is coming. It’s something I can feel in the atmosphere here’” (ibid., pages 429-30).
Morarji’s reticence, a judge’s restraint
But there is much more to Morarji’s belated comment. He gave evidence at the Gandhi murder trial. The Times of India of September 1, 1948, carried the text of Chief Prosecution Counsel C.K. Daphtary’s application to Judge Atma Charan the previous day. The portion concerning Savarkar read thus: “In cross-examination of the Honourable Mr Morarji Desai, counsel for accused number seven [V.D. Savarkar] asked the following question: ‘Did you have any other information about Savarkar, besides Professor Jain’s statement for directing steps to be taken as regards him?’
May 27, 1948: On the first day of the Gandhi murder trial held at the Red Fort. (From left, front row) Nathuram Vinayak Godse, Narayan Dattatraya Apte and Vishnu Ramkrishna Karkare. Seated behind are (from left) Digambar Ramchandra Badge, Shankar, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and Gopal Vinayak Godse.
“Witness answered the question as follows: ‘ Shall I give the full facts? I am prepared to answer. It is for him [Savarkar] to decide.’ Counsel for accused number seven thereafter stated that he dropped the question. The prosecution submitted that the question, answer and the statement of counsel should be recorded but Your Honour declined to do so. It is submitted that the question, the answer and the statement of counsel for accused number seven should have gone on the record.”
The restraint is hard to understand, especially since Moraji had explicitly told Bombay’s Legislative Council on April 8, 1948, that “Savarkar’s past services are more than offset by the present disservice”.
In all such murders, the case against the top figure would rest on the testimony of one of his accomplices who turned approver. In this case it was Digambar Badge. In his judgment, Judge Atma Charan meticulously analysed Badge’s testimony on oath:
“The examination and the cross-examination of the approver went on from 20.7.1948 till 30.7.1948. He was cross-examined for nearly seven days. There was thus an ample opportunity to observe his demeanour and the manner of his giving evidence. He gave his version of the facts in a direct and straightforward manner. He did not evade cross-examination or attempt to evade or fence with any question. It would not have been possible for anyone to have given evidence so unfalteringly stretching over such a long period and with such particularity in regard to the facts which had never taken place. It is difficult to conceive of anyone memorising so long and so detailed a story if altogether without foundation….
“…The approver in his evidence says that in the Marina Hotel on 20.1.1948 they fixed primers to the gun cotton slabs and detonators to the hand grenades, discussed the plan and distributed the ‘stuff’ among them. Of course, no direct corroborative evidence to the effect could possibly have been produced on behalf of the prosecution. However, there is an illuminating piece of indirect corroborative evidence to the effect on behalf of the prosecution. The evidence of Nain Singh as supported by Exs. P/17 and P/24 goes to show that three extra teas had been ordered and supplied that day in Room No. 40.
“It is a well-known principle in the estimation of evidence that the earlier events may be construed in the light of the subsequent ones. The approver’s story as given above fits in fully with the events that took place subsequently and stands corroborated otherwise by independent evidence. There is thus no reason as to why reliance be not placed on the approver’s evidence that stands generally corroborated. Now I take up the approver’s evidence that does not stand corroborated in regard to the identity of a certain accused—Vinayak D. Savarkar.
“The approver in this evidence says that on 14.1.1948 Nathuram V. Godse and Narayan D. Apte took him from the Hindu Mahasabha office at Dadar to the Savarkar Sadan saying that arrangements will have to be made for keeping the ‘stuff’. He had the bag containing the ‘stuff’ with him, Nathuram V. Godse and Narayan D. Apte then went inside leaving him standing outside the Savarkar Sadan. Nathuram V. Godse and Narayan D. Apte came back 5-10 minutes later with bag containing the ‘stuff’.
“The approver then says that on 15.1.1948, in the compound of the temple of Dixitji Maharaj, Narayan D. Apte told him that Tatyarao Savarkar had decided that Gandhiji should be finished and had entrusted that work to them. The approver then says that on 17.1.1948 Nathuram V. Godse suggested that they should all go and take the last ‘darshan’ of Tatyarao Savarkar. They then proceeded to the Savarkar Sadan. Narayan D. Apte asked him to wait in the room on the ground floor. Nathuram V. Godse and Narayan D. Apte went up to the first floor and came down after 5-10 minutes. They were followed immediately by Tatyarao Savarkar. Tatyarao Sarvarkar addressed Nathuram V. Godse and Narayan D. Apte ‘ yashasvi houn ya’ (be successful and come).
“Narayan D. Apte on their way back from Savarkar Sadan said that Tatyarao Savarkar had predicted ‘ Tatyarao yani ase bhavishya kele ahe ki Gandhijichi sambhar varshe bharali ata apale kam nischita honar yat kahi sansaya nahi (Gandhiji’s hundred years were over – there was no doubt that their work would be successfully finished).
“The prosecution case against Vinayak D. Savarkar appears to rest just on the evidence of the approver and the approver alone. The contention on behalf of the prosecution is that part of the approver’s story as against Vinayak D. Savarkar to certain extent stands corroborated by the evidence of Miss Shantabai B. Modak and Aitappa K. Kotian.” The court found their accounts less than specific.
A Sikh priest reciting from the scriptures as Mahatma Gandhi's body lay in state.
“There is nothing on the record of the case to show as to what conversation had taken place just prior to that on the first floor between Nathuram V. Godse and Narayan D. Apte on the one hand and Vinayak D. Savarkar on the other. There is thus no reason to suppose that the remarks said to have been addressed by Vinayak D. Savarkar to Nathuram V. Godse and Narayan D. Apte in the presence of the approver was in reference to the assassination plot against the life of Mahatma Gandhi.
“It would thus be unsafe to base any conclusions on the approver’s story given above as against Vinayak D. Savarkar.”
Given the state of the evidence, the judge’s analysis was fair. It was, he felt, ‘unsafe’ to convict Savarkar on Badge’s uncorroborated evidence even though he had found him to be a truthful witness. However, his observations in the next Chapter (XXV), only seven pages later, dealing with individual culpability, contradict his own findings on Badge’s unchallenged credibility. As it stood, his evidence damned Savarkar totally; only, it was “unsafe” to send him to prison in view of the law of evidence. Yet, while dealing with Savarkar’s role the judge said: “Vinayak D. Savarkar in his statement says that he had no hand in the ‘conspiracy’, if any, and had no control whatsoever over Nathuram V. Godse and Narayan D. Apte. It has been mentioned above that the prosecution case against Vinayak D. Savarkar rests just on the evidence of the approver and the approver alone. It has further been mentioned earlier that it would be unsafe to base any conclusions on the evidence of the approver as against Vinayak D. Savarkar. There is thus no reason to suppose that Vinayak D. Savarkar had any hand in what took place at Delhi on 20.1.1948 and 30.1.1948.” This conclusion does not follow from the premises. The last sentence, italicised here, is pure obiter. Badge’s testimony showed that Savarkar very much had a hand in what took place in Delhi on January 20 and January 30, 1948. It did not suffer from lack of credibility, but from lack of corroboration. The obiter was uncalled for and contradicted the judge’s own findings on Badge’s credibility.
Evidence corroborated, but too late
Only a year or two after Savarkar’s death, his aides spoke up before the Justice J.L. Kapur Commission on Gandhi’s murder and provided ample corroboration of Badge’s evidence. (Justice J. L. Kapur was a distinguished and former judge of the Supreme Court.) The Commission’s report notes: “The statement of Appa Ramchandra Kasar, bodyguard of V.D. Savarkar, which was recorded by the Bombay Police on 4th March, 1948, shows that even in 1946 Apte and Godse were frequent visitors of Savarkar and Karkare also sometimes visited him…. In August 1947, when Savarkar went to Poona in connection with a meeting, Godse and Apte were always with Savarkar, and were discussing with him the future policy of the Hindu Mahasabha, and he told them that he himself was getting old and they would have to carry on the work. In the beginning of August 1947, on the 5th or 6th, there was an All India Hindu convention at Delhi and Savarkar, Godse and Apte travelled together by plane. At the convention the Congress policies were strongly criticised. On 11th August, Savarkar, Godse and Apte all returned to Bombay together by plane…. On or about 13th or 14th January , Karkare came to Savarkar with a Punjabi youth and they had an interview with Savarkar for about 15 or 20 minutes. On or about 15th or 16th Apte and Godse had an interview with Savarkar at 9-30 p.m. After about a week or so, may be 23rd or 24th January, Apte and Godse again came to Savarkar and had a talk with him at about 10 or 10-30 a.m. for about half an hour….
“Gajanan Vishnu Damle, secretary of Savarkar, was also examined on 4th March 1948 by the Bombay Police. He said that he had known N.D. Apte of the Agrani for the last four years. Apte started a rifle club at Ahmednagar and also was an Honorary Recruiting Officer during the war. Apte was a frequent visitor to Savarkar’s house and sometimes came with Godse. Savarkar had lent Rs.15,000 to Apte and Godse for the newspaper when security was demanded from the Agrani. That paper was stopped and the newspaper called the Hindu Rashtra was started. Savarkar was one of its directors and Apte and Godse were the managing agents. He knew V.R. Karkare, who was a Hindu Mahasabha worker at Ahmednagar for about three years and occasionally visited Savarkar. Badge was also known to him for the last three years. He also used to visit Savarkar.
“In the first week of January 1948, Karkare and a Punjabi refugee boy came to see Savarkar and they both had an interview with Savarkar for about half an hour or 45 minutes. Neither of them came to see Savarkar again. Apte and Godse came to see Savarkar about the middle of January 1948, late at night. The statements of both these witnesses show that both Apte and Godse were frequent visitors of Savarkar at Bombay and at conferences and at every meeting they are shown to have been with Savarkar. …. This evidence also shows that Karkare was also well known to Savarkar and was also a frequent visitor. Badge also used to visit Savarkar. Dr Parchure also visited him. All this shows that people who were subsequently involved in the murder of Mahatma Gandhi were all congregating sometime or the other at Savarkar Sadan and sometimes had long interviews with Savarkar. It is significant that Karkare and Madanlal visited Savarkar before they left for Delhi and Apte and Godse visited him both before the bomb was thrown and also before the murder was committed and on each occasion they had long interviews. It is specially to be noticed that Godse and Apte were with him at public meetings held at various places in the years 1946, 1947 and 1948.”
Had the bodyguard and the secretary but testified in court, Savarkar would have been convicted. There was none of the ambiguity surrounding Godse and Apte’s visit to Savarkar on January 14 and 17, 1948. A.R. Kasar, Savarkar’s bodyguard, told the Kapur Commission that they visited him on or about January 23 or 24, which was when they returned from Delhi after the bomb incident. G.V. Damle, Savarkar’s secretary, deposed that Godse and Apte saw Savarkar in the middle of January and sat with him in his garden.
Savarkar Sadan in Mumbai, where Savarkar held many meetings with his followers.
Justice Kapur’s findings are all too clear. After listing the information available to Nagarvala, he concluded: “ All these facts taken together were destructive of any theory other than the conspiracy to murder by Savarkar and his group. In his crime Report No. 1, Nagarvala had stated that ‘Savarkar was at the back of the conspiracy and that he was feigning illness’. Nagarvala’s letter of January 31, 1948, the day after the assassination, mentioned that Savarkar, Godse and Apte met for 40 minutes ‘on the eve of their departure to Delhi’ on the strength of what Kasar and Damle disclosed to him. These two had access to the house of Savarkar without any restriction. In short, Godse and Apte met Savarkar again, in the absence of Badge and in addition to their meetings on January 14 and 17 (page 132).
P.L. Inamdar, advocate for one of the accused and a Hindu Mahasabhaite, wrote of his astonishment at Savarkar’s acquittal: “All I remember even today is that I had tried to look hard at [Judge] Atma Charan, asking myself if he was the same Atma Charan who had one day said to me: ‘Believe me, I shall do full justice to the case which you have so ably put up’” ( The Story of the Red Fort Trial 1948-49, Popular Prakashan, 1979; page 147).
Inamdar mentions how anxious Savarkar was about his fate. On February 22, while in detention at the Arthur Road Prison in Bombay, Savarkar gave a written undertaking to the Commissioner of Police: “I shall refrain from taking part in any communal or political public activity for any period the government may require in case I am released on that condition” (Exhibit D/104 in the case). This is not the conduct of a man innocent of the crime.
No appeal was filed against his acquittal. Yet another undertaking was given to Chief Justice M.C. Chagla and Justice P.B. Gajendragadkar in the Bombay High Court on July 13, 1950, while he was in detention. “He would not take any part whatever in political activity and would remain in his house” for a year. These were part of a sordid series of abject, demeaning apologies.
The first was on July 4, 1911, within six months of his entry in the Cellular Jail in the Andamans, where Advani wanted to build a memorial to him. The second and third were in October and November 1913 to Sir Reginald Craddock, Home Member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council. “I am ready to serve the government in any capacity they like…Where else can the prodigal son return but to the paternal doors of the government,” this “nationalist hero” wrote.
The fourth and fifth were submitted in 1914 and 1917. The sixth came on March 30, 1920. Its text was published in full in Frontline (see the writer’s article “Savarkar’s mercy petition”, Frontline; April 8, 2005). The seventh was submitted in 1924 ( Frontline, April 7, 1995). The ones of 1948 and 1950 were the eighth and ninth. Which other political figure had such a disgraceful record of abasement before the British during the Raj?
Gandhi’s murder was also one in a series—Curzon Wylie’s in London in 1909, A.T.M. Jackson, Collector of Nashik, in 1910; and the attempted murder of Acting Governor of Bombay Ernest Hotson in 1931. In each case Savarkar used others as his pawns.
Those who laud him ignore this long and consistent record from 1911 to 1950 because they value his doctrine.
(Letters to the Editor should carry the full postal address)
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