Savarkar did not favour cow worship: Vikram Sampath

The Bengaluru-based author's latest work is a biography of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar aka Veer Savarkar

Vikram Sampath, historian and author, made his debut with ‘Splendours of Royal Mysore: The Untold Story of the Wodeyars’. His two subsequent works were musically inclined as he is a student of Carnatic music. His latest, ‘Savarkar: Echoes from a Forgotten Past, 1883–1924’, the first of a two-volume book. It was released in August. Metrolife caught up with him ahead of the launch of the book in Bengaluru on November 22 at Landmark store.  

What motivated you to write about Savarkar?

His name keeps coming the time in contemporary politics. Every political party, regardless of which side of the spectrum they fall on with respect to his ideologies, talks about him. Just before the Maharashtra election, the demand to award him Bharat Ratna began. He's a part of controversy and debate among people all the time. As an 'objective' historian I wanted to look at what had been actually written about him and I realised that the last comprehensive biography of his was written way back in the 1960s. There has been no material about him, no reevaluation of him, or his contributions to the country. That inspired me to pick him up as a subject to write about. 

You say in your prologue that this book is neither a ‘glorifying hagiography’ nor a ‘reproachful demonisation’. How did you manage to maintain this supposed neutral ground?

When you write a biography, you tend to get emotionally attached to the subject. You generally pick a particular character because you are in love with it. You spend so much time researching and writing that it is impossible to not form a bond. Sometimes your opinion changes during the course of reading, for the worse or the better. However, it's very important for a biographer to cut those emotional cords when it comes to writing the book. Your biases should not matter. I don't go with preconceived notions, and allow my research to take its course. It is important to let the facts speak for themselves. I think readers are wise and discerning enough to make their own opinions. As a historian, I don't need to sit in judgement. 

Did you change your opinion on him?

For me, a lot of it was revelations, because I had never read about many of his contributions in my history textbooks in school. I just knew about me vaguely or had heard about him in news channel debates. He was the person who founded India's first secret society. He organised the first student bonfire of foreign clothes in 1905 and gave a call for complete freedom at a time that nobody else in the country was actually asking for it. He was a revolutionary, both in India and in London, during the five years that he stayed there as law student. He inspired later revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh and Subash Chandra Bose. I didn't know these things, and it was endearing to find out. 

What do you think was his greatest contribution to Indian politics?

One is, of course, his idea of revolution. There are two parallel narratives when it comes to the Indian freedom struggle. One is that of non-violence. The other is of an armed revolution. Savarkar played a very important role in this, both actively and intellectually. He was the first to refer to the sepoy mutiny as the ‘first war of Indian independence’. His idea of infiltrating the army and creating an uprising is what probably got us our freedom. His ideas of a casteless society and eradicating untouchability were also great contributions. In the time of pre-partition, he was an important voice for the Hindu community. 

What about Savarkar do you think makes him a contentious personality?

I don’t know, because even in the 1970s he was not this contentious. When he died, Indira Gandhi had such high praise for him; calling him a symbol of valour and sacrifice. Today, her grandson is saying something else. Maybe, that’s just how politics works. With the BJP in power, the opposition feels that the best way to beat them is by bashing their ideological ancestor. I think that is what makes him a casualty in contemporary political football.

How do you think the response to this book would have been if Congress had been in power?

I don’t think the response would have been affected by these factors. I don’t belong to any political party. There is a hunger for stories of people who have been maligned. It is this curiosity that contributed to the book’s success. This is irrespective of even me, let alone political parties. But, maybe if the Congress was in power, my book might have been banned. I’m not sure, though.

How challenging was it to dig out material about Savarkar?

Getting the material was actually not difficult. I’m a senior research fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in Delhi. There’s a lot of material about him there. The National Archives of India, the Maharashtra State archives in Mumbai and Pune, the British Library, and the National Archives of UK, were great sources. I also travelled to France and Germany, where I interviewed people who knew him. More importantly, a lot of material about and by him was written in Marathi, which has never been accessed. I spent about three to four years researching and writing. Sifting through thousands of pages and distilling it into a coherent and interesting story was the biggest challenge. The research was laborious but interesting.

How much of ‘Hindutva’, as Savarkar proposed it, does the Sangh Parivar draw from?

Most of his views were progressive, be it his vision of casteless society or the emphasis on national security. The idea of one nation, abrogation of Section 370, introduction of a uniform civil code, the removal of triple talaq, militarised India are all things that he stood for. He wanted us to be a capitalist economy, a progressive, modern, rational and science-based society. A lot of this has been adopted. He thought of cow worship as superstition. So, he would not appreciate mob lynching, all of which will make even those who support him uncomfortable.

Do you agree with the Shiv Sena’s demand to award him the Bharat Ratna posthumously?

After so many decades after his death, it wouldn’t matter to him or to his family that suffered so much. It would be a symbolic way to show our gratitude to somebody who sacrificed so much for the country. For the longest time, these awards have been the preserve of one particular ideology or worse, one particular family. This would just be an acknowledgement of the fact that alternate narratives exist. 

 

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