THE LIFE AND TIMES OF V.D. SAVARKAR
There are, as a result, many problematic sections, in which Sampath, to confirm evidence for Savarkar’s account, has turned to Savarkar’s own account.
For instance, he takes Savarkar at his word when he vents his full-throated prejudice against Muslims. He accepts Savarkar’s account that Muslim warders and jamadars in the Andamans Islands were “fanatical Pathans, Sindhis and Baluchis from Sindh and the North-West Frontier Province”. What is the evidence that it gave “these men a special thrill to brutalise a Hindu kafir?” In the footnote, we find cited Savarkar’s own account of his time in jail, which reveals more about Savarkar’s perception about Muslims than anything else, as evidenced in many other of his writings.
Sampath’s admiration for Savarkar leads him in other peculiar directions as well. On the Moplah rebellion, Sampath does not refer to recent scholarship but accepts that the Moplahs were a band of fanatical Muslims bent on violence and that “[m]ass murders of Hindu families, brutal rapes of women in front of their family members, murders of pregnant women, desecration of temples [note the many plurals here], cow slaughter, forcible conversions, pillage, arson and loot reigned till the British troops took control”, (page 401). This is far from being objective history and reflects an official and motivated colonial account, citing only the Manchester Guardian (now The Guardian) and C. Sankaran Nair, whose 1922 takedown of Gandhi turned out to be more about his possibly being a colonial agent than a reliable observer of the political scene.
Sampath does give us facts and yet, as Robert Caro put it, “biography should not be just a collection of facts”. Instead, the biographer has to put those facts together in search of a truth that is not the same as the stories great figures tell. Moses and Johnson were both great men—but Caro shows they were men who let nothing get in the way of their ambition, including (most of all) the truth.
Savarkar is revered in sections of Maharashtra by those who are convinced he was misunderstood by the mainstream. This is true. But it is also true that a full engagement with Savarkar must confront directly the way in which his love of the nation was the flip side of his conviction that Muslims were not authentic members of it, or that Gandhi was a traitor to India because of his support of the Khilafat movement. Savarkar was a brilliant but deeply flawed historical figure and these flaws played a determining role in his life as well as in the contemporary politics in India. It is, therefore, of overriding importance that we not accept Savarkar’s own account of his life. Unfortunately, for all its manifold contributions, that is what Sampath does in this work of uncritical biography. ■
Janaki Bakhle is an associate professor of Indian history at U.C. Berkeley. Her published work includes Country First? Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and the Writing of ‘Essentials of Hindutva’
THE AUTHOR INSERTS VERY LITTLE CRITICAL DISTANCE BETWEEN HIMSELF AND SAVARKAR, A CONTENTIOUS FIGURE TO BEGIN WITH