Many untruths have been propounded to justify Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s murder. They have been repeated so often that people have started believing them. This is a time-tested strategy used by the Sangh Parivar to falsify history. The latest example of this was attempted by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh while speaking at the launch of a book on VD Savarkar, who the Sangh idolises. Singh claimed that Savarkar wrote his well-documented petitions for mercy to the British Crown – after he was jailed – on the advice of Gandhi.
It’s such a ludicrous a claim, that one is tempted to laugh it off but it’s not an innocent blunder. It’s part of a well thought out strategy to falsify the life and work of Gandhi – an ongoing campaign of the Sangh ever since he was murdered and its own role in it was examined. When the Sangh realised that murder had gotten rid of the person but only strengthened his ideology, it launched a campaign to malign his legacy. This is the latest episode in that well-orchestrated conspiracy to murder the idea of Gandhi.
The defence minister’s assertion is far-fetched but it can’t be allowed to pass unchallenged. Savarkar began appealing for pardon from 1911 when Gandhi was in South Africa, busy leading the Satyagraha there. He had no time for the happenings in India nor did he have the ability to communicate with Savarkar, who was in jail.
Gandhi’s first documented opinion of him is in a letter to Savarkar’s brother in 1920. He expressed support for the appeal for Savarkar’s early release. This was a natural response; he had voiced a similar one when Bhagat Singh was sentenced to death too. He even appealed to the Viceroy for clemency for Bhagat Singh and his partners.
However, even in the letter to Savarkar’s brother, Gandhi did not advocate an apology or mercy plea. What’s more important, Savarkar negotiated a home to stay during his confinement in Ratnagiri and got the British to sanction him a lifelong pension of Rs 60 per month – which was the salary of a District Collector. From time to time, Savarkar pleaded with the British to increase the amount.
Gandhi, on the other hand, never resorted to such methods to reduce his prison sentences. This is borne out by an incident in South Africa. In 1908, he was imprisoned in Volksrust Prison. Meanwhile, his wife Kasturba fell ill. Soon her condition worsened, and everyone feared the worst. Albert West, publisher and editor of Indian Opinion, wrote to Gandhi informing him of Kasturba’s condition and suggested he apologise to the colonial administration and ask for an early release. Gandhi was devastated by the news but wrote to Kasturba explaining his helplessness. I reproduce the letter from the biography of Kasturba, written by my parents Arun and Sunanda Gandhi, The Forgotten Woman. The Untold Story of Kastur Gandhi.
My Dearest Kastur,
Mr West has just given me the news of your ill health. Though I feel anxious about your health, I am not in a position to come and nurse you. I hope you will understand that I have renounced everything in life for the sake of the struggle. Now if I am to come to you, I would have to plead guilty of breaking the law and pay the fine so that I can be released from jail. You know this is not possible for me. It would reduce the struggle to a farce. However, I am sure you will feel better if you keep your courage and eat well. Even so, if it is destined that you shall die, I think it is preferable that you go before me. You know I love you very much. And you must know that I will continue to love you just as much even after you are gone. Even if you die, for me you will be eternally alive. Your soul is deathless.
On my part, I would like to assure you that I have no intention of marrying another woman after your death. I have told you this a number of times. You must have faith in God and set your soul free. Your death will be another great sacrifice for the cause of Satyagraha.
My struggle is not merely against the authorities, but against nature itself. I hope you will understand this and not feel offended. This is all I ask of you.
At the bottom of the letter, he added a post-script addressed to his son Manilal and other son Harilal’s wife Gulab: I want you both to read the above letter yourselves and read it aloud to your Ba… I feel very worried, but I am helpless. You must keep me informed of Ba’s health regularly. Look after Ramdas and Devadas [Gandhi’s other sons]. I shall pray that Ba is up and about soon. Blessings from Bapu.
This was not uncaring behaviour; it was an absolute commitment to the cause. It required moral and ethical courage, but that was Gandhi. To believe that someone with such commitment to a cause would counsel someone else to meekly surrender, as Savarkar did, is ridiculous.
In 1931, in the editorial published in Young India, Gandhi gave the following advice to Satyagrahis: In the code of a Satyagrahi, there is no such thing as surrender to brute force. Or, the surrender then is the surrender of suffering and not to the will of the wielder of bayonet. A Satyagrahi’s surrender has to come out of his strength not out of his weakness.
There is no reason to believe that Gandhi would have advised revolutionaries differently.
Even while selecting land to establish an ashram away from Ahmedabad city, Gandhi chose a plot across the Sabarmati river between the prison and the cremation ground, calling it the ideal location for soldiers of Satyagraha since it would constantly remind them that their true destination was either prison or the cremation ground and they must be prepared to happily embrace either. Such a man would never seek a pardon nor counsel another to do so.
Distracting us from the realities of the present by trapping us in discussions about history is a strategy this government employs masterfully. It does this to divert our attention from its glaring failures. How long will we keep falling into this trap? The past matters but the present is much more important.
Tushar Gandhi, great-grandson of the Mahatma, is an activist, author and president of the Mahatma Gandhi Foundation.