I propose to dedicate four posts, inclusive of the present, to illuminating the clemency petitions written by the freedom fighter Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (28 May 1883 – 26 February 1966) to the Government of British India, while he spent excruciating years in the Cellular Jail.
- Each post shall treat of one petition.
- For the purpose alike of easy reference and explanation, I have chosen rather to provide commentary after every quoted paragraph of his petitions, than to quote them in their entirety and comment thereafter.
- In such cases wherein a paragraph of Savarkar’s text alone is not of such sufficient substance as to require commentary, two or more paragraphs have been quoted together, and commentary thereafter adduced.
- Savarkar’s text is formatted as a quotation in Helvetica (12pt), and my own commentary is in the form of regular text in Times New Roman (14pt).
- Such words as include a link will direct the reader to the reference in question on a new tab.
- In my commentary, I have referred to myself as ‘the editor’.
- Such formatting shall be adhered to, in such subsequent posts as constitute this four-part series.
The source of Savarkar’s petitions is the first volume of a two-part biography of the revolutionary by Dr. Vikram Sampath.
Before I proceed, I deem it necessary to comment on a few elementary factors that must be taken into account while perusing these petitions. Of foremost importance is the fact that these petitions were submitted for the consideration of a colonial entity, namely, the Government of British India. In that context, it is axiomatic that they were intended to be of legal consequence, and must, therefore, be formal in tone. Secondly, with the gradual decline of the British Empire and the ascendancy of the United States as the pre-eminent global power, the English language has changed over the decades to rid itself of dated modes of address, and of such words — such valedictions, as an instance — as today seem obsequious to our modern and egalitarian fancies. It would be a grave error, therefore, to regard the employment of such language in the 1910s and the 1920s as evidence of craven submission of spirit, or of treasonous credentials of Savarkar.
I conclude this introduction with a note of reproach with regard to the prevailing trend of reducing history to an exercise in the crossfire of vituperation, in which an individual heaps calumnies on a historical figure based purely on his diseased politics. I am of the possibly controversial opinion that history is best left to the pensive, the perspicacious, the philosophic, the eloquent, and to those whose panoramic view of the age surveyed unites with their minute writing of events and people in a lively symphony, and produces thus a history rich alike with verbal finesse and information. The prevailing trend, to which I alluded, betrays the inability of tribalist sentiment to acquire the traits of civilization. I do not, however, view the prospect of Indian historiography with despondence. There have been such luminaries as Sir Jadunath Sarkar and Dr. R.C. Majumdar, whose unswerving fidelity to truth will ever serve as an example to those to whom history is alike a passion, and a medium by which one transmits, from academic halls to the commons, and from one generation to the next, the treasure of civilization.
Petition from V D Savarkar (Convict No. 32778) to Reginald Craddock, Home Member of the Government of India, dated November 14, 1913.
I beg to submit the following points for your kind consideration:
- When I came here in 1911 June, I was, along with the rest of the convicts of my party, taken to the office of the Chief Commissioner. There, I was classed as ‘D’ meaning dangerous prisoner; the rest of the convicts were not classed as ‘D’. Then, I had to pass full 6 months in solitary confinement. The other convicts had not. During that time, I was put on the coir pounding, though my hands were bleeding. Then, I was put on the oil-mill—the hardest labour in the jail. Although my conduct during all the time was exceptionally good, still at the end of these six months, I was not sent out of the jail; though the other convicts who came with me were. From that time to this day, I have tried to keep my behaviour as good as possible.
- When I petitioned for promotion, I was told I was a special class prisoner and so could not be promoted. When any of us asked for better food or any special treatment, we were told, ‘You are only ordinary convicts and must easy what the rest do.’ Thus Sir, Your Honour would see that only for special disadvantages we are classed as special prisoners.
The author was sentenced to fifty years of rigorous imprisonment, intended to last from 1910 to 1960. By means of these paragraphs, he seeks to invite the attention of the Member of the Home Department, to inconsistencies in the manner of treatment in prison. For the jail regarded him as a ‘special’ convict on certain occasions, and ‘ordinary’ an convict on other occasions. No more than the author’s desire for clarity on his legal position may be inferred from these paragraphs.
When the majority of the casemen were sent outside, I requested for my release. But, although I had been [caned] hardly twice or thrice and some of those who were released, for a dozen and more times, still I was not released with them because I was their casemen. But when after all, the order for my release was given and when just then some of the political prisoners outside were brought into the troubles, I was locked in with them because I was their casemen.
If I was in Indian jails, I would have, by this time, earned much remission, could have sent more letters home, got visits. If I was a transportee pure and simple, I would have, by this time, been released, from this jail and would have been looking forward for ticket-leave, etc. But as it is, I have neither the advantages of the Indian jail nor of this convict colony regulation; though had to undergo the disadvantages of both.
The point concerning ‘casemen’ is not abundantly clear, for the very word seems not to be of frequent use. The word ‘caseman’ is revealed to have two meanings. The first is, “a person who examines a building to determine whether it is worth burgling.” The second meaning is, “a person who sets and corrects type from which books are printed.” Neither meaning seems to have been the author’s intent, for neither seems appropriately pertinent to his legal grievance. A tenuous case may be presented for the first meaning, The first meaning, if it be applicable, would only be in an extrapolative sense, in that the word is not meant specifically to refer to burglary but to crime in general, in consequence of which he used it with reference to his being a ‘caseman’ in the judgment of jail officials, for they unjustly suspected him of being a ‘caseman’ — of suspected association with other prisoners who might have shown defiance of jail regulations. However, this explanation, to the editor, seems tenuous.
The only natural interpretation that seems to the editor conceivable, is that the author purposed to use it as a word signifying two other meanings. The first may well be ‘prisoners on whose behalf I have pleaded’ — thus, ‘men’ relevant to my ‘case’, which seems suitably to explain the sentence “When the majority of the casemen were sent outside…” in the third (overall) bullet point. The second may well be ‘one who has pleaded on behalf of other prisoners’ — referring, therefore, to himself, which seems suitably to explain the two sentences in the same bullet point that end with “…because I was their casemen”. Interchanging the meanings for these respective interpretations of the word ‘casemen’ would render the paragraphs most insensible. The editor thinks the two meanings reasonable in light of two points of historical context: the one being the author’s education in law, which would have bestowed him with the knowledge requisite to plead on behalf of others, even in an informal sense in that he could not do so in court but nonetheless present arguments of jurisprudence; and the other being the author’s propensity to do so, that shall reflect with greater clearness in other petitions. Furthermore, not all the sentences by the author in his petitions, as shall later emerge, are in accord with conventions of grammar; therefore, his usage of imprecise words is not a possibility too remote. This would also explain his reference to himself with the plural world, ‘casemen’ — the correct word would have been the singular ‘caseman’.
The point subsequent to it, however, is abundantly clear; the author alleges mistreatment in prison; such as would have been in contravention of the legal norms of the Government itself, notwithstanding its colonial nature. He seems conversant with the laws of the Government.
Therefore, will your Honour be pleased to put an end to this anomalous situation in which I have been placed, by either sending me to Indian jails or by treating me as a transportee just like any other prisoner. I am not asking for any preferential treatment, though I believe, as a political prisoner, even that could have been expected in any civilized administration in the Independent nations of the world; but only for the concessions and favour that are shown even to the most depraved of convicts and habitual criminals? This present plan of shutting me up in this jail permanently makes me quite hopeless of any possibility of sustaining life and hope. For those who are term convicts, the thing is different, but Sir, I have 50 years staring me in the face! How can I pull up moral energy enough to pass them in close confinement when even those concessions which the vilest of convicts can claim to smoothen their life are denied to me? Either please to send me to an Indian jail, for there I would earn (a) remission; (b) would have a visit from my people come every four months, for those who had unfortunately been in jail know what a blessing it is to have a sight of one’s nearest and dearest every now and then! (c) and above all a moral—though not a legal—right of being entitled to release in 14 years; (d) also more letters and other little advantages. Or if I cannot be sent to India, I should be released and sent outside with a hope, like any other convicts, to visit after 5 years, getting my ticket leave and calling over my family here. If this is granted, then only one grievance remains and that is that I should be held responsible for my own faults and not of others. It is a pity that I have to ask for this—it is such a fundamental right of every human being! For as there are on the one hand, some 20 political prisoners—young, active and restless, and on the other the regulations of a convict colony, by the very nature of them reducing the liberties of thought and expressions to the lowest minimum possible; it is but inevitable that every now and then some of them will be found to have contravened a regulation or two and if all be held responsible for that, as now it is actually done—very little chance of being left outside remains for me.
Seeing as the petition is naturally purposed as an appeal, its employment of such words as bespeak exasperation, even desperation, may not be supposed as unnaturally supplicative. There emerge in substance from this bullet point two rightful demands: better treatment, and not a complete release; and to be held responsible for his actions as an individual, and not for the actions of others. In other words, he seems to accuse jail authorities of regarding him as culpable for the contumacious actions of other prisoners.
In the end, may I remind your honour to be so good as to go through the petition for clemency, that I had sent in 1911, and to sanction it for being forwarded to the Indian Government? The latest development of the Indian politics and the conciliating policy of the government have thrown open the constitutional line once more. Now, no man having the good of India and Humanity at heart will blindly step on the thorny paths, which in the excited and hopeless situation of India in 1906–1907 beguiled us from the path of peace and progress. Therefore if the government in their manifold beneficence and mercy release me, I for one cannot but be the staunchest advocate of constitutional progress and loyalty to the English government, which is the foremost condition of that progress. As long as we are in jails, there cannot be real happiness and joy in hundreds and thousands of homes of His Majesty’s loyal subjects in India, for blood is thicker than water; but if we be released, the people will instinctively raise a shout of joy and gratitude to the government, who knows how to forgive and correct, more than how to chastise and avenge. Moreover my conversion to the constitutional line would bring back all those misled young men in India and abroad who were once looking up to me as their guide. I am ready to serve the government in any capacity they like, for as my conversion is conscientious so I hope my future conduct would be. By keeping me in jail, nothing can be got in comparison to what would be otherwise. The Mighty alone can afford to be merciful and therefore where else can the prodigal son return but to the parental doors of the government?
Hoping your Honour will kindly take into notion these points.
We may not unjustly infer aught else but that which the author sought to convey, and the points of the penultimate (overall) paragraph is quite in accord with reason. The Indian Councils Act of 1909, more popularly called the Morley Minto Reforms, was introduced by the Government of British India as a ‘reform’ policy, so as to grant Indians representation in the governance of British India. We may today differ, rightly not regarding this decision as an instance of British largesse or beneficence, but another colonial policy designed for British interests alone. The Indian zeitgeist, however, seemed favourably inclined to them, for the British had erewhile entertained no such thought, and were uniformly adversarial towards Indians.
It is in this context that the bullet point must be understood, for it expresses the author’s willingness to participate in constitutional reforms. It consists of no apology for his revolutionary activities, but a justification thereof citing the ‘hopeless situation of India in 1906–07’. It is logically possible to demand of a government constitutional reforms only upon acceptance of its suzerainty and sovereignty. It is, therefore, in that regard that the author’s willingness to ‘serve’ the government must be understood. He is also acutely aware of his stature as a leader in the judgment of other revolutionaries, for it is thus that he submits the assured position that his own conversion to the ‘constitutional line’ would prompt many another revolutionary to follow suit. The penultimate sentence, “The Mighty alone…parental doors of the government?” is likely the author’s attempt to appeal to the religious character of the Raj officials, for the ‘prodigal son’ could well refer to the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The Parable speaks of a son who, after unwisely squandering his portion of the family estate that he had received as early inheritance, remembers his father, returns to him and begs for forgiveness and mercy, and the father receives his son with compassion, asking his servants to prepare an enormous feast for the ‘return’ of his son who had been ‘prodigal’. The author seems to liken himself to the Prodigal Son, and to beseech the Government to pardon him as the ‘compassionate and merciful parent’. This supposition is supported by the author’s own record that he had read the Bible, and that he would ponder on it with “deep thought and meditation” (pg. 189), and on other scriptures (other references to the Bible: pgs. 21, 202).
Here endeth the first post.
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