A G Noorani: How Savarkar escaped the gallows

Immediately after Madanlal Pahwa’s failed attempt on Gandhi’s life on January 20, 1948, suspicion fixed on V.D. Savarkar as the brain behind the crime. Investigations confirmed the suspicion; evidence at the trial court all but proved his complicity. He, however, escaped with an acquittal. Deputy Prime Minister Vallabhbhai Patel was convinced of his guilt. In 1969, a Commission of Inquiry set up on March 22, 1965 comprising a respected Judge of the Supreme Court, J.K. Kapur, concluded after a thorough probe: “All these facts taken together were destructive of any theory other than the conspiracy to murder by Savarkar and his group.”

Freedom At Midnight (1976) by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre contains a wealth of material since they had access to police and intelligence records besides recollections of key surviving players. Madanlal told the police after his arrest that he had met Savarkar before the attempt and also revealed Godse’s identity: “Hindu Rashtra, A Marathi daily of Poona. Editor: N.V. Godse, Proprietor N.D. Apte, a Savarkarite group newspaper.” The apparel left behind by Madanlal’s accomplices who fled after his failure bore one common laundry mark, the initials ‘N.V.G.’
No policeman could have wished for more. Collins and Lapierre remark that the “inquiry, so well begun, was now to be pursued in a manner so desultory, so ineffectual, as to inflame controversy three decades later.” The ineptness of senior officials in New Delhi was in contrast to the efficiency of the Bombay Police. Jamshid Naganvalla (32), Deputy Commissioner of Police, in charge of the Bombay CID Special Branch, was assigned the case by Bombay’s Home Minister, Morarji Desai, after Madanlal’s attempt. Convinced that Savarkar was behind that, he asked Morarji for permission to arrest him on the basis of Madanlal’s confession. Morarji angrily refused. Naganvalla’s Watchers Branch had kept Savarkar’s house under surveillance. Shortly after the assassination, Savarkar gave an undertaking to the police on February 22, 1948 not to take part in any “political public activity” for as long as was desired.
He was prosecuted all the same. The main witness against him was the approver Digamber Badge. Two other witnesses corroborated his version on his visits to Savarkar’s house. Judge Atma Charan found Badge to be a truthful witness. On most points his version was corroborated “by independent evidence” but no corroboration was produced in court on his evidence that Godse and accomplice Narayan Apte visited Savarkar at his house on January 14 and 17, 1948. On each occasion Badge was asked to stay outside. On the second occasion he heard Savarkar’s encouraging words to Godse and Apte: “Yashasvi houn ya” (succeed and come). The two corroborating witnesses said no more than that the three had got down before the house; but it had two other residents besides. Since the law requires independent corroboration of an approver’s testimony, Savarkar was acquitted.
However, a year or two after Savarkar’s death, his bodyguard, Apte Ramchandra Kasar, and his secretary Gajanan Vishnu Damle, filled the loopholes before the Kapur Commission, which noted: “The statements of both these witnesses show that both Apte and Godse were frequent visitors of Savarkar at Bombay and at Conferences and at every meeting they are shown to have been with Savarkar…This evidence also shows that Karkare was also well known to Savarkar and was also a frequent visitor. Badge used to visit Savarkar. Dr. Parchure also visited him. All this shows that people who were subsequently involved in the murder of Mahatma Gandhi were all congregating some time or the other at Savarkar Sadan and sometimes had long interviews with Savarkar. It is significant that Karkare and Madanlal visited Savarkar before they left for Delhi and Apte and Godse visited him both before the bomb was thrown and also before the murder was committed and on each occasion they had long interviews. It is specially to be noticed that Godse and Apte were with him at public meetings held at various places in the years 1946, 1947 and 1948.”
Had the two testified in court, Savarkar would have been convicted. There was no ambiguity surrounding Godse’s and Apte’s visits to Savarkar on January 14 and 17, 1948. Kasar, Savarkar’s bodyguard, told the Commission that they visited him on or about January 23 or 24, after the bomb incident. Damle, Savarkar’s secretary, deposed that Godse and Apte saw Savarkar “in the middle of January and sat with him [Savarkar] in his garden.”
In his Crime Report No.1, Nagarvala had stated that “Savarkar was at the back of the conspiracy” and that “he was feigning illness.” Nagarvala’s letter of January 31, 1948, the day after the assassination, mentioned that Savarkar, Godse and Apte met for 40 minutes “on the eve of their departure to Delhi.” This he did on the strength of what Kasar and Damle had disclosed to him. “These two had access to the house of Savarkar without any restriction.” In short, Godse and Apte met Savarkar again, in the absence of Badge, and in addition to their meetings on January 14 and 17. Why they were not produced as witnesses in court is a mystery.
Vallabhbhai Patel was vindicated. He had written to Nehru on February 27, 1948: “I have kept myself almost in daily touch with the progress of the investigation regarding Bapu’s assassination case.” His conclusion was: “It was a fanatical wing of the Hindu Mahasabha directly under Savarkar that [hatched] the conspiracy and saw it through.”
Many years later, the BJP had his portrait hung in Parliament House.

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