A Centenary of that marvellous leap to freedom
Savarkar made history by his adventurous feat
By Dr Shreerang Godbole
Having succeeded in effecting his escape, Savarkar swam ashore and began to run. A French brigadier at once went in pursuit of the fugitive and coming up to him after running about five hundred metres, arrested him. With the help of the three men who had followed Savarkar from the ship, he was taken back to the vessel.
Savarkar’s return to London was a deliberate act of uncommon bravery. He was promptly arrested on arrival at Victoria Station on March 13, 1910 and sent to Brixton Jail. Savarkar was remarkably composed in prison. When his associate Niranjan Pal asked him why he had knowingly courted arrest despite the advice of his compatriots, Savarkar replied bravely, "I came to London to be arrested, because my shoulders are broad enough to bear the consequences."
THE historic leap of Veer Savarkar (1883-1966) into the ocean near the port of Marseilles, France on July 8, 1910 is a momentous event in our freedom struggle. . For sheer drama and audacity, it has few parallels in world history. The extraordinary chain of events starting with Savarkar’s extradition from Britain to India on board the S.S. Morea ( July 1, 1910) and culminating in the award by the Arbitral Tribunal at The Permanent Court of Arbitration, Hague (February 24, 1911) has been referred to as ‘The Savarkar Case’ and "L’affaire Savarkar’ by British and French chroniclers of that time.
Inside the enemy camp
Except for a brief period from January 6 to March 13, 1910 which was spent in Paris, Savarkar was in Britain from June 24, 1906 to July 1, 1910. The pace of Savarkar’s revolutionary activity inside the enemy camp was breath-taking. Inspiring Indian students to participate in the struggle for freedom, establishing contacts with revolutionaries from various countries, sending pistols and bomb manuals to India, writing scholarly books on Mazzini, The Indian War of Independence 1857, History of Sikhs, composing patriotic poems, raising the question of India’s freedom at international forum, sending newsletters to Indian newspapers, writing in American periodicals were part of Savarkar’s revolutionary activities. The conviction of elder brother Ganesh, assassination of Sir William Curzon Wylie by Madan Lal Dhingra , Dhingra’s martyrdom, assassination by Anant Kanhere of AMT Jackson, the District Magistrate of Nashik were events that were linked directly or otherwise to Savarkar. On the advice of his compatriots, Savarkar went to Paris. But the widespread arrests and tortures in India made him return to London. The British Government had already slapped the Fugitive Offenders’ Act 1881 on him. His mentor Shyamji Krishnavarma told him: "You are a general and must not rush to the firing line with the rank." But Savarkar replied, "But it is only by fighting first by their side in the firing line that I can prove my worth of being exalted to the position of a general: otherwise every one would think himself, by a deceptive notion of one’s self importance to be as indispensable, as a general and thus claim to remain at the Headquarters. Then who would fight? Will not, moreover, this kind of argument serve the cowards as a handy shield to hide their fear?" (Chitragupta, The Life of Barrister Savarkar, p 130-131; Chitragupta was the pen name of Savarkar himself). Savarkar’s return to London was a deliberate act of uncommon bravery. He was promptly arrested on arrival at Victoria Station on March 13, 1910 and sent to Brixton Jail. Savarkar was remarkably composed in prison. When his associate Niranjan Pal asked him why he had knowingly courted arrest despite the advice of his compatriots, Savarkar replied bravely, "I came to London to be arrested, because my shoulders are broad enough to bear the consequences."
Extradition to India and escape
To ensure his prolonged imprisonment, the British Government was determined that Savarkar should stand trial in India, not England. He was extradited on the basis of speeches delivered by him some years earlier. He was charged with sedition and incitement to murder. The final arrest warrant was issued on June 21, 1910 by Winston Churchill and the decision to extradite Savarkar to India to stand trial was finalised. Fearing that his revolutionary associates would rescue him, the British authorities put him on board the SS Morea amid heavy security. The Morea left England on July 1, 1910. Savarkar was planning his escape even while he was in Brixton Prison. En route in the Bay of Biscay, the ocean became turbulent and passengers were thrown around. Seizing this opportunity, Savarkar dashed himself against a porthole and measured it. Its diameter was 12 inches. As per his measurements taken on February 10, 1911 as a ‘criminal’, Savarkar himself was five feet two and half inches in height, his chest circumference was 32 inches and collar size was 13 inches. The connecting rod of the Morea broke down a short distance from Marseilles forcing the Captain to dock her a little closer than normal to the quay.
At around 6.30 am on July 8, 1910, Savarkar requested that he be taken to the toilet. Savarkar put his dressing gown over the glass window on the door of the water closet. He latched the door and started to crawl through the porthole. Before the attending guards realised, he managed to squeeze through the porthole and leap into the sea. Savarkar swam a short distance of around 10-12 feet and climbed up the quay wall (vertical distance of some 9 ft) by riding on rings fixed to the quay. In seeking asylum on French soil, Savarkar was challenging the law-abiding credentials of the British Government in the international arena!
Having succeeded in effecting his escape, Savarkar swam ashore and began to run. A French brigadier at once went in pursuit of the fugitive and, coming up to him after running about five hundred metres, arrested him. With the help of the three men who had followed Savarkar from the ship, he was taken back to the vessel. The entire incident took less than ten minutes.
The sensational event remained hushed up for three full days till finally it was dismissed in a few lines in the Paris edition of the Daily Mail of July 11, 1910. There was a tremendous furore in the French Press and the French Socialist circles. From the socialist paper L’Humanite to the conservative Journal des Debates, all French papers were unanimous in denouncing the abominable violation of the right of asylum. Even The Nation, London was constrained to observe that "We are in the wrong". The furore forced the French Government to ‘approach" the Britih Government as admitted in the British House of Commons on July 21 by the Foreign Secretary, Edward Grey. Finally by an agreement dated October 25, 1910, France and Britain agreed to submit to an international arbitration on the matter. The Arbitral Tribunal was composed of five arbitrators chosen from the members of the Permanent Court at The Hague. The tribunal consisted of five members, one each from Belgium, England, France, Norway and Holland. The sessions began on February 14, 1911 and ended on February 17, 1911, the decision being rendered on February 24, 1911.
The decision of the tribunal was a foregone conclusion. As Gaelic American ( March 25, 1911) remarked, "What chance a political prisoner has before the Hague Tribunal of Arbitration when the parties in interest have a friendly alliance is exemplified in the case of Vinayak Savarkar. The majority of the court was favourable to Great Britain and it was unanimously decided that France had no claim on the prisoner." The Tribunal concluded, "The Arbitral Tribunal decides that the Government of His Britannic Majesty is not required to restore the said Vinayak Damodar Savarkar to the Government of the French Republic" (Reports of International Arbitral Awards, The Savarkar Case (Great Britain, France), February 24, 1911, Volume IX; pp 243-255, United Nations 2006; available on www.savarkar.org).
Savarkar’s heroic attempt to escape has tremendous significance not only in our freedom struggle but is inspiring to all freedom-loving people throughout the world. Humble salutations to Savarkar on the occasion of the centenary of his historic leap.
(The author is a Pune-based endocrinologist and author. He has contributed to the development of www.savarkar.org)