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Interview: Vikram Sampath – ‘I have been at the receiving end of such calumny’

What made you venture into writing about Savarkar after authoring books on singer-dancer Gauhar Jaan, and veena player and filmmaker S Balachander?

As a historian and writer, my interest is aroused in characters of the past who are either wilfully forgotten – like Gauhar Jaan was – or are misunderstood, maligned and misrepresented, as S Balachander was. Savarkar fell in the latter category too. Here was a man whose life and philosophy intrude on the contemporary Indian political space like few other leaders of the past. Yet, there has been an alarming lack of academic curiosity about him or a re-evaluation of his writings in the original. Dhananjay Keer wrote the last comprehensive biography of Savarkar in English in the 1960s when his subject was still alive. It baffled me as to why a man with so many complexities and contradictions, in addition to contemporary relevance, was not picked up for revisiting. That was when I embarked on a journey to rediscover the many aspects of this much-debated figure.

Tell us about the research you undertook. What were the sources you found most useful while writing both your books?

The research for the two volumes took me almost five long years. In the course of the journey, I also got a Senior Research Fellowship from the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) in New Delhi. Apart from accessing several documents from places like the National Archives of India, NMML, Maharashtra State Archives in Mumbai, Kesari Archives in Pune, I also spent significant time outside India at London’s National Archives of UK and the British Library, and in France and Germany to ferret out documents around the life and times of Savarkar. In addition, what several mainstream historians had missed was accessing the original writings of Savarkar in Marathi (compiled as Savarkar Samagra Vangmay), a language that I can thankfully comprehend, as also writings in Marathi and other Indian languages that were relevant to the subject. His secretary Balarao had maintained copious documentation in the form of ledgers of Savarkar’s many meetings, press clippings and his public life from 1924 to 1947 and these are compiled as Ratnagiri Parva, Hindu Mahasabha Parva and Akhand Hindustan Ladha Parva. All of these, in addition to interviews with numerous proponents and opponents of the man, helped me create a more rounded and holistic picture of my protagonist.

624pp, ₹999; Penguin

I gather that you also visited places connected to Savarkar’s life, and spent time with Savarkar’s descendants. What did you learn?

It was quite an experience to visit his birthplace Bhagur in Nashik district and also the room in Nashik where he and his fellow-teens formed India’s first secret society to eradicate British rule — the Abhinav Bharat. The place is still extant, though in crying need for better maintenance. I also visited locations associated with him in Pune where, as a student of Fergusson College, he organised the first student bonfire of foreign clothes in India, and India House in London that was the hotbed of Indian revolutionaries of the time. It was a deeply emotional to spend time at the Cellular Jail in the Andamans where Savarkar and several other revolutionaries were given the worst of punishments. Visiting Ratnagiri, the laboratory of his social reform experiments, and the Patit Pawan Mandir that was opened in 1931 to people of all castes, was illuminating. His grandnephew Ranjit Savarkar and the Savarkar Rashtriya Smarak offered immense help in terms of making several rare documents, family archives and albums available to me for my research. At the same time, it was a revelation that Ranjit did not dictate the tone of the book or demand a hagiography and let me have a free hand in scripting the narrative that has been critical too of Savarkar’s several lapses.

What are the main differences between popular historians and academic historians? Have you felt or been made to feel like an imposter in the field of history because your academic training is in engineering and finance rather than history?

To me, these distinctions that you mention are artificial and mischievous. It’s quite like saying you are less of a journalist since you freelance and are not associated with one media house. A historian is anyone who is deeply invested in unravelling the past. Some do it within the confines of universities while others do the same as independent researchers, choosing not to be affiliated to any institution. The sense of proprietorship that some academic historians have is disconcerting. I have been at the receiving end of such calumny often where I am made to feel like a lesser person, quite like an Ekalavya in the company of the privileged Kurus of the Drona club! History is nobody’s personal fiefdom and establishing these entry barriers and creating islands of class privilege are detrimental to the growth and dissemination of the discipline. At a time when lateral entry in the corporate sector or even government is being increasingly hailed on the basis of merit, skills, interest and passion for the work and not merely a paper certificate, why should the study of history be held hostage? Just for the record, I hold a PhD degree in history and music from the University of Queensland, a research-intensive institution of Australia that is in the top-50 universities worldwide. I also bagged a plethora of competitive scholarships in the pursuit of this degree.

How did you feel when you became a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society in London?

It was an important milestone in my career as a historian to be recognised by a body as prestigious as this and be made a Fellow in recognition of my contribution to historiography and also historical preservation, through efforts like the establishment of the Archive of Indian Music that I set up in 2011, as possibly the country first online digital archive for vintage gramophone recordings of India. It was a satisfying moment.

Vinayak Damodar Savarkar addressing a Hindu Mahasabha Working Committee meeting in Delhi. (Lalit Gopal/HT Photo)
Vinayak Damodar Savarkar addressing a Hindu Mahasabha Working Committee meeting in Delhi. (Lalit Gopal/HT Photo)

Recently, three scholars – Audrey Truschke, Rohit Chopra and Ananya Chakravarti – wrote to the President of the Royal Historical Society, accusing you of plagiarism and requesting that your membership be revisited. You rejected the allegations, and filed a defamation suit in the Delhi High Court. What is the current status of this situation?

Yes, this was an unpleasant and malicious campaign seeking to discredit me and my work. I always knew that I would have to pay a heavy price for writing on Savarkar, who has been successfully made persona non grata for decades now. The Honourable Delhi High Court took notice of my grievance and in its order dated 18th February 2022, explicitly stated: “Plaintiff has made a prima facie case for grant of ad interim injunction in his favour. The continued publication of the aforesaid letter has been causing considerable harm to the plaintiff’s reputation and career. Balance of convenience is in favour of the plaintiff and further irreparable harm and injury would be cause to the plaintiff if ad interim injunction is not granted.” The judicial process in which I have the greatest trust has now been set into motion and I do hope to take it to its logical conclusion.

How have these allegations affected your relationship with the Royal Historical Society?

The answer lies in your question itself – “allegations” and that is all this scurrilous campaign is all about. A body as reputed and respected as the Royal Historical Society would not be what it is if it responded to every passerby’s motivated accusations.

Plagiarism is a serious charge, not only for a historian but for any author regardless of their subject. How have your publisher and editor stood by you?

It is indeed a serious charge and hence the serious step taken of dragging those making these unsubstantiated allegations to court for defamation. Penguin Random House India is not your average-Joe publisher but one of India’s – and the world’s – most respected and leading publishing houses. They have a very vigorous internal process of editing, legal checks and other due-diligence and hence they stand by their own processes, as much as they stand by my work. It is not difficult for anyone, including my publishers, to fathom that the entire objective of this malevolent campaign is to de-platform and assassinate a career and a well-established, spotless reputation.

712pp, ₹999; Penguin
712pp, ₹999; Penguin

In your view, do practices of citation and acknowledgement work differently in the US and India, or are they universal in nature? Does this have to do with the relationship that cultures and civilizations have with printed texts and oral traditions?

That is an interesting question that demands an expansive answer. We in India are indeed essentially an oral tradition and all knowledge has been passed down this way from times immemorial. But even by the same standards that are set for citation for the West, it must alarm you and the readers that the chief protagonist of this campaign against me has written an entire biography of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb without any footnotes at all! “For the sake of narrative flow and ease of reading,” she states in her preface, “the text is presented without footnotes.” Since when did footnotes become an obstacle in ease of reading in a scholarly genre of history like the biography? Contrast this with 2072 endnotes in both my Savarkar volumes and 145 pages of notes and bibliography. Are they indicative of a plagiariser? Such is their own adherence to methodology and scholarship, which they expect of others, even in a transcribed speech. This absence of appropriate citation is one among numerous flaws that some of their revisionist propaganda work sans any academic rigour suffers from.

What projects are you working on now?

My PhD thesis is becoming a book that is being brought out by Routledge in London. It deals with the historical event of the advent of the gramophone and what it did to musical consumption in India in the early 20th Century. With Penguin, I have a three-book deal. The first of this series will be out later this year and deals with unsung heroes and heroines from various geographies and time spans of Indian history. Additionally, I am working on two big biographies that are very relevant in our times – that of Tipu Sultan and Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj.

Chintan Girish Modi is an independent writer, journalist and book reviewer.

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