Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Savarkar's Heroic Historic Marseilles Leap

Hi, Everyone! Savarkar’s Marseilles leap is my favorite subject of research, and fortunately, I have been able to ferret out all kinds of details about it—two of my favorites are: the actual location where the S.S. Morea was docked and the mapping out of Savarkar’s escape route—I am giving a link below to my articles that give particulars of Savarkar’s Great Escape (as I like to call it) and also the videos that I have made for it. I was not able to include this topic in my book Burning for Freedom. It was beyond the scope of it. I compromised by including it in the introduction. Here it is:




he day—July 8, 1910; the hour—early morning; the place—the harbor at Marseilles, France. As the fingers of dawn curled across the sky, a tiny figure wriggled out of the porthole from the belly of the SS Morea and took the historic leap into the ocean, the cry “Hail! Victory to Mother India!” on his lips. That was the twenty-seven-year-old Vinayak Damodar Savarkar devoted heart and soul from childhood to just one cause: India for the Indians!

By the early 1900s, Indians were brainwashed into being satisfied with their slave status under the British rule. In this ambience, Savarkar—a Chitpavan Brahmin Hindu with the blood of the warrior Peshwas[1] flowing through his veins—was the first freedom fighter to proclaim that nothing less than total independence would do for India. Certainly, more drastic measures were required than the mewling of the Indian National Congress[2] to the British government for mere concessions for India. Savarkar applied his considerable brilliance, intelligence, and charm to the problem. He established Abhinav Bharat, his secret revolutionary society, which spread surely and swiftly within India. In July 1906, at the age of twenty-three, he set off for London, ostensibly to become a barrister. In reality his goals were manifold: studying the British law to circumvent it in his mission; spreading patriotism in the hearts of the intelligentsia of India, the Indian youth studying there; contacting revolutionaries of other countries and making a common cause for freedom of all slave countries; and making the plight of India an international issue.

This young lion was extraordinarily successful in his mission. The British realized the danger Savarkar posed to their empire. But they had only enough proof to make a case against him for supplying arms to India. To doom him for eternity on that flimsy evidence, he had to be extradited to India. The laws there were molded, like putty, to quash the first sign of any threat to the British Empire. They had no grounds for it, though. Desperate, they tangled Savarkar in a concocted charge by using a speech he had given four years earlier in India! A warrant was then issued to extradite him to Bombay, India. He was charged with sedition, waging war against the King of England, and procuring and distributing arms in London and India. After a few gyrations by the courts in London, to circumvent Savarkar’s valid legal appeals that he be tried in England, an order was issued to execute the warrant. Now the Jaws of Hell—the judiciary system of India—could swallow him whole!

And here he was on this day making a final bid to escape just that fate. He swam single-mindedly until he reached the nine-foot high quay wall. At the second attempt—with only the grout between the dressed stone of the wall for toes and fingertips to grip!—he scaled that sheer wall. Incredibly, he had made it …! He now had a right to claim asylum in France. But no—he was not yet safe; his guards were chasing after him down the ramp to the quay. With no time to even catch his breath after that courageous, daredevil escape, he ran for his life—the guards hot on his heels. Seeing a French sergeant, he stopped and tried desperately to communicate his plight to him. But it was too late …! His guards swooped down upon him in French jurisdiction—quite, quite illegally—and dragged him willy-nilly back to the Morea—trampling all over the territorial sovereignty of France in the process.

His escape plan had failed, but in this failure was also success. Such gross miscarriage of justice would not, could not, be swept under the rug. An international hue and cry was raised. Savarkar’s heroic escape and the treachery of the British were exposed throughout the world. But the die was cast. Savarkar was now at the mercy of the British to do with him as they pleased. He was sentenced to a total of fifty years transportation[3] to the Cellular Jail in the remote and dreaded Andaman Islands.

The British had hoped, no doubt, that this was the last they would hear of this Prince of the Revolutionaries. They could not have been more wrong. At sixteen, he had taken an oath to fight for the freedom of his beloved country—Mother India must be freed from the British stranglehold; her honor must be reinstated! And even under the most horrendous conditions, there was never a day, never a moment, that Savarkar swerved from his path.

He suffered within the walls of the Cellular Jail from July 4, 1911, until May 21, 1921; he was then transferred to the Indian mainland jails as the Andaman Penal Colony was closed down. Hard labor, even being yoked to the oil mill like a bullock, was his lot for almost thirteen long years before he was conditionally released—though not set free—from jail on January 6, 1924.

Throughout his life, Savarkar remained ever uncompromising of his principles and duty. He says in his poem, Upon the Death Bed:

Those for the essence of the welfare of the human race,

Only such deeds did I consider to be righteous.

 Joyously have I borne this burden of my duty,

Ever true to my oath have I been.

He stood, unequivocally, for freedom and equality of all people. His ultimate political goal was a World Commonwealth of Nations. Savarkar believed that Hindus could work toward freedom and equality in the whole world. But first they needed to be free themselves.

Hail! Attaining freedom themselves—

To uphold the cause of love and equality,

For the protection of the good people—

The Hindus shall set free the world![4]

To this end he developed and published the concept of Hindutva in 1923—while still incarcerated—and later put forward his basis for a constitution for free India. The heritage and history of Hindustan[5] is age-old, going back thousands of years before the birth of the three great monotheistic religions. The people of Hindustan should feel a sense of belonging to it; Hindustan should be their fatherland[6] and their holy land. That is the crux of Savarkar’s Hindutva. As Savarkar puts it:

O Beloved Hindustan, you are

Our holy land! Our fatherland!

Our honor and our pride![7]

In 1937, Savarkar once again burst upon the political scene of India, free after twenty-seven years of British bondage. India was in dire straits; the political milieu then was one of Muslim appeasement, one of sacrificing Hindu rights. Injustice to anyone was intolerable to Savarkar. Undeterred by adverse publicity, maligning, or misrepresentation by his detractors, he fought to defend the rights of the Hindus; he fought to preserve the integrity of India, to reinstate the honor of his motherland without ripping her heart out or chopping off her arms and legs.

Burning for freedom, his heart beat but one refrain:

“O Goddess of Freedom,

Life is to die for you,

Death is to live without you!”[8]

Savarkar: The Great Escape, Part I

Savarkar: The Great Escape, Part II

Link to my article on Savarkar: The Great Escape:

-          Anurupa

[1] Prime Ministers of the Maratha rulers wielding the actual power.
[2] To be referred to as Congress throughout the novel.
[3] Exile to a penal colony.
[4] Quote from the translation of Savarkar’s poem, Hark What the Future Portends.
[5] Age-old name of India. Meaning of Hindustan is “Land of the Hindus.”
[6] In Hindutva, perspective of Hindustan is pitrubhumi, “the Land of the Ancestors.” Fatherland is the closest English translation of that Sanskrit word.
In the freedom movement, perspective of Hindustan is matrubhumi—motherland—the Divine Mother who gives birth to and nurtures the Hindustanis.
[7] Quote from the translation of Savarkar’s poem, Beloved Hindustan.
[8] Quote from the translation of Savarkar’s poem, Hail to You!

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Savarkar arrives in the Cellular Jail

Hi, Everyone! So often people ask me: “But why do you want to write on Savarkar? Why Savarkar?” This question will immediately be answered upon reading my book Burning for Freedom, of course—as one of my literary critics has written, “the author pays unabashed homage to Savarkar in the book” and therein also I have revealed why I am doing so. But for those who have not the opportunity to read it, I will say in short that, even if we were to consider his character alone, Savarkar is greatly estimable as is revealed in every phase of his life. What to say when we have his dynamism, daring, very many talents, magnetic personality, and more thrown into the equation? To me Savarkar is the foremost karmayogi of unparalleled patriotism. From the earliest childhood he was devoted to doing his very best for his beloved Hindustan and never, ever committed any mean or underhanded act, nor held grudges; “country first” was his mantra and he carried it out to the very end, always being true to his country and people.

On this 104th anniversary of Savarkar’s entry into the Cellular Jail, I am writing of that time with quotes from Savarkar’s My Transportation for Life. It does illustrate Savarkar’s qualities very well.

June 27, 2011: A handcuffed Savarkar was taken aboard the S.S. Maharajah and lodged in the dark, dank, smelly area in its belly below the deck which was partitioned off by iron bars. He writes: “Climbing into that steamer to be transported for life was like putting a man in his own coffin. . . .I was being put on my funeral pyre. The only difference was that I felt what was happening to me while my corpse would have felt nothing.”

He was to share this “iron cage” with fifty of the most hardened criminals “inured to filth, cruelty, and crime . . . some even stricken with foul diseases”. The space was so inadequate that there was not even an inch to spare between their beddings. Savarkar writes: “My feet touched their heads, and their feet came up near my mouth. If I turned on the other side, I found that a mouth nearly touched my mouth.” As Savarkar suffered from bronchitis, he was given the only space—one that gave slightly more room and the merest breath of air—located by two casks in the corner over by the partition.

But this was no blessing. A terrible stench emanated from the casks—they were to be used as chamber pots for the convicts to relieve themselves. And indeed, one was actually using it when Savarkar arrived at his spot. Savarkar was greatly respected even by these hardened criminals. His fifty-year sentence made their fifteen years appear negligible. They had taken up the attitude “behold him, he is a barrister . . . what is our grief before him? Brothers, let us not think of ourselves, let us think of him”—and so in shame, the convict was about to leave the cask before his business was complete. But Savarkar would have none of that. Signaling him to carry on, Savarkar said: “The claims of the body cannot be put off. There is no shame in answering the call of nature. In a moment, I may follow you. Do it freely. We cannot help it. We cannot afford to feel ashamed in this wretched condition. I can smell, so you think, but do you not have a nose too? Why then should I feel the stink any more than you do?” At this another convict offered to swap spots with him. Savarkar declined the offer: “Why should I put you in the midst of dirt by exchanging my place with yours? I also must inure myself to this kind of life.” He writes re this incident: “My hearted melted when I heard this. His generous offer was a wonder to me. I said, ‘O my God, even in the hearts of the most sinful ones, thou makest thy abode, turning it into a shrine of worship and prayer. Thou turnest what is dirty and untouchable into the holiest of the holy—the sacred basil pot it becomes when it is no more than a sink of filth and crime.”

The four days journey, especially under these circumstances is indescribable. In addition, what Savarkar had gone through in the past year as the British used all the force of their might—and indeed they needed to do just that!—to aggravate his condition should never be forgotten: the contrived warrant issued for him; his voluntary return to London from the guaranteed safety of Paris and immediate capture; the bending of the laws of Britain to execute the dastardly warrant; his fantastic escape in Marseilles; his kidnap back to the S.S. Morea; the tense journey in close proximity of officers thoroughly aggravated by the spot his escape had put them in; his incarceration (under inhuman conditions) in Indian mainland jails as another farce was dragged out in the courts of India; and the incredible, unheard of sentencing of fifty years of transportation to the dreaded Andaman Islands.

There was one relief in that interminable journey. Some Indian travelers and officers aboard the S.S. Maharajah wanted to express their reverence towards Savarkar in some tangible way by doing something special for him. Not being able to single him out for any special treatment, they arranged for a special meal for all of them. Instead of the dried grams and peas which was the standard food for the convicts for duration of the journey, everyone one was taken out of the “iron cage” to the open deck above—that in itself was a high treat—and given a delicious meal of rice, fish, and more. The convicts expressed their good fortune in having Savarkar in their midst, to which Savarkar would invariably reply: “Well then, it was right, after all, that I was sentenced to transportation for life. You, at least, welcome it, it seems.”

And even here, Savarkar could only think of the good of his beloved country. He writes: “When anyone spoke to me, full of  passion and sincerity, that it grieved his heart to find me in this pitiable condition, my answer to him always was, ‘Then you must be ready to fight. India must be fully armed and ready to fight and win her freedom, whatever the cost of that struggle, whatever the ordeal she has to through to reach the goal.’ From the ordinary sailor to the highest officer of the ship, from the prisoner right up to the soldier, I had become an object of political discussion all around . . . And conviction came to them on matters of which they were never convinced previously.”

July 4, 2011: Upon disembarking at Port Blair, as Savarkar waited for his turn to be taken to the Cellular Jail he was struck by an idea—country first, as always! He writes: “it suddenly struck me that the islands were so located in the Bay of Bengal that they constituted the bastion in the naval fortification of India from the East. As such they had an abiding importance in the future defence of our country.  . . . We must turn this base of defence into a Naval fortress, not unlike the formidable Sindhu Durga in the glorious days of Shivaji.”

Even as Savarkar dreamed on of the future navy of a free India, he was rudely roused and told get on. “I got up, I took the bedding on my head, my pots and pans in one hand, and girding up the chains around my waist, I stood ready for further orders. The mind suffers pain like the body hurled suddenly from a great steep height into the deep valley below. Disillusioned, and consigning to the future the glorious picture I had drawn, I stood up to face the grim reality of the present. I was led from the wharf to go up a steep ascent. With heavy weights on my legs and with bare feet, I could not walk up as rapidly as I wished. . . . we reached the top and saw the main gate of the “Silver Jail” [the actual name of the Cellular jail]. The gate began to grate on its hinges. It opened, I went in, and it was shut behind me. I felt that I had entered the jaws of death.”

And indeed, that’s exactly what it was like.

The main purpose of the Cellular Jail was the housing of 600 convicts in utter isolation that the spirit of the most hardened rogue might be utterly broken within six months. Humanity and rehabilitation of the convicts was not a concept that the British were familiar with then. A diabolical plan, one that was successful beyond their wildest dreams, was developed and executed.

Indeed, just being incarcerated there, day in day out was enough to break the toughest convict. For the political prisoners, the unhygienic conditions, the beatings, insults, and excruciating hard labor crushed their soul. Six months was considered the outside limit by the authorities to house the most hardened rogue, Savarkar spent almost ten years within the walls of this monstrous torture chamber—many of them without even getting a glimpse of the world beyond.

I had the good fortune to pay homage to Savarkar, and all the political prisoners incarcerated there, at the Cellular Jail. It is a never-to-be-forgotten experience. Several months after that it occurred to me that there is precious little information on the architecture of the Cellular Jail and wrote an article on it. I also drew sketches (from memory) to illustrate the stark, brutal reality of the Cellular Jail. I am giving the sketches as well as the link to my article here:

- Anurupa Cinar