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When Savarkar jumped ship

Trying to escape British custody, V.D. Savarkar unleashed havoc in international law on French territory

A ‘rangoli’ dedicated to Veer Savarkar at the BDD Chawl in Worli, Mumbai, prepared on the occasion of his birth anniversary in May. Photo: Hindustan Times
A ‘rangoli’ dedicated to Veer Savarkar at the BDD Chawl in Worli, Mumbai, prepared on the occasion of his birth anniversary in May. Photo: Hindustan Times

A little after 6.30am on 8 July 1910, V.D. Savarkar made more than a ripple in history when he plunged from The Morea into the Mediterranean Sea. The ship, on the way east with this high-profile prisoner, had docked at Marseilles when Savarkar expressed a desire to use the toilet. Two “native constables" stood guard outside, but before they knew it, their charge shot the door-bolt, deciding to seek personal liberty via the porthole. Even as Constable “Amarsing" and his colleague took after him—choosing the land route for sensible reasons—Savarkar swam to the quay and climbed into Marseilles harbour. He was quickly apprehended, of course, and this sensational attempt at escape soon became part of the Savarkar legend. But what he inadvertently provoked in the process was also a diplomatic headache for Britain and France, Savarkar’s brief, wet moments on French territory opening up a can of legal worms.

Though The Morea and its precious cargo set sail from Marseilles the very next day, by 18 July the affair was being discussed at the highest levels of state. The French envoy in London set forth his government’s view that “As the prisoner had reached French soil…questions of international law were involved." In other words, the moment Savarkar set foot, it was argued, on the sovereign territory of France, his British-Indian keepers no longer enjoyed legal rights over him—and certainly not the right to apprehend, seize, and cart him back to a foreign vessel. Since Savarkar was already out of hand, the request of the French government was simple: until the matter was settled as per law between the two nations, the prisoner should not be tried for the charges that had provoked his arrest in London in the first place.

The British authorities were puzzled by the French claim, and, by 29 July, the home office, India office, and foreign office were all involved in this bureaucratic nightmare. Among those in the loop, interestingly, was a certain Winston Churchill, then home secretary, whose note emphasized that “Great Britain should maintain an attitude of dignity and of dispassionate submission to the law of nations (i.e. international law). The petty annoyance," he added, “of a criminal escaping may have to be borne." Curious as it is to picture Churchill inadvertently promoting the cause of “Veer" Savarkar, he was stoutly resisted by the India office. Unlike their colleagues, the India hands insisted that while a pious commitment to international law was admirable, it was “of the utmost importance from a political point of view" that Savarkar should be tried.

A somewhat topsy-turvy solution suggested, then, was to have Savarkar tried as scheduled, to suspend the sentence when delivered, hand him over to the French thereafter, and finally have him extradited to India to serve that sentence—all this involving Savarkar being given a two-way ticket to sail overseas and back simply to satisfy legal requirements. But the charges against him being what they were—“Waging and abetting the waging of war against the King", “Collecting arms with intent to wage war against the King", “sedition", “abetment to murder", and more—it was decided to explore all possibilities to retain him in India while the matter was resolved. Churchill might have wanted to preserve British dignity in the face of French legal incandescence, but, for the colonial authorities in India, Savarkar was the “head of a widespread conspiracy, the threads of which it was essential to unravel" through trial.

As both the French and the British got into the matter, there appeared two versions of what had transpired in Marseilles. The French asserted that once Savarkar appeared on the docks, it was a gendarme who caught him—he claimed to have chased him “about 400 metres" before catching up. He then walked 10m with Savarkar in his physical custody before the Indian policemen showed up. Constable “Amarsing" and his colleague, however, said that while the gendarme’s action was crucial, he had appeared from the left while they were closing in on Savarkar, and that they arrived moments after the Frenchman had the prisoner by the arm. Savarkar himself may have been aware of a legal opportunity to obtain asylum, for he appealed to the officer to take him to a local magistrate. Instead, he was marched back to the ship.

Pressed immediately after by the French press, which raised issues of law and national pride, the authorities in Paris came to regret the actions of the otherwise efficient gendarme. In London, the claim that the French had any kind of right over Savarkar was, meanwhile, rejected. The French, it was accurately argued, were informed in advance of Savarkar’s presence on the ship, and the gendarme had been posted precisely to prevent his escape—that he succeeded in doing what he was meant to do merely confirmed Savarkar’s position as British prisoner and could not be construed as creating a right of asylum. “His Majesty’s Government," it was communicated by September, “are therefore unable to admit that they are under any obligation to restore Savarkar to French territory."

The matter did not end there, however. In October 1910, it was decided to take the dispute to the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which in February the next year ruled in favour of Britain—while there was an “irregularity" in Savarkar’s arrest, London’s logic made sense. Perhaps, if the gendarme had handed over Savarkar to his superiors instead of taking him back to the ship, the story might have been different. But in the circumstances as they were, the British prevailed. And so—even as the press erupted in righteous protest—the matter finally came to an end, and the 50 years Savarkar was sentenced to serve began. Fifty years, that is, till he composed his infamous mercy petitions, which, of course, is another story.

Medium Rare is a column on society, politics and history. Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne (2015) and Rebel Sultans (2018).

He tweets at @unampillai

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