Rt.Hon.V.S.Srinivasa Sastri

How Indian Nationalism evolved?

Life and Times of Sir Pherozeshah Methta
By Rt.Hon.V.S.Srinivasa Sastri, 1945, PP 225

This is an old book, almost moth-eaten; I laid my hand in an old bookshop. But what a book!

This book, as I see, has lots of lessons, even warnings, to the present day India, the present day Congress party.

This book is a series of lectures given by the moderate statesman, Sastri(1869-1946),who was so intimately associated with Gokhale, Gandhiji (Gandhiji and Sastri used to call  each other as  brother)and as such with the times, from the beginning of the years,1885,,when the  Congress was founded to the times 1915,when Gokhale and Sir. M.Mehta, two big names then, died and later when Gandhiji was very much on the ascendant on the Indian political scene.

The author, born poor in a Tamil village, with so many children, transformed in an unbelievable manner into one of the great statesmen, standing shoulder to shoulder with giants, like Dadabhai, Gokhale, P.M.Mehta and Tilak (he was present throughout the trial that ended in exile for the great Tilak, he was eye-witness to the Surat Congress in 1907 when the party split and also he was already a star on the Indian political scene when the British started giving gradually self-government.

Though Gandhiji, starting as a Gokhale disciple, went his own ways, Sastri notes how Gandhiji took to non-co-operation and Satyagraha that first started as extremism for the moderates who under so many highly gifted Indians formed as moderates, Liberal Union. The point is that Sastri’s lectures bring out some lessons for the 121 year old Congress party even now!

The party first started as a forum to plead for solving Indians, grievances. By 1905, it had to face the partition of Bengal and so the 1907 session saw the emergence of extremists and moderates who believed in constitutional means to gain self government.

But the party had to split into two. The moderates went into liberal approach, while the extremists following Tilak’s death aligned with Gandhiji. Says Sastri at one place:” Even without being a four ana member Gandhiji was a dictator of the Congress”! So, Gandhiji was always his own man, he saw to it whoever came across his path was subdued, Subhas Bose was one such case!

The point here is that even by 1920 or so the Congress was not clear about its goals. Even Gandhiji was pleading to remain within the Empire. In 1929, Lahore Congress Nehru asserted full independence, so in 1942, Quit India movement. But what the leaders, more so the moderates and the extremists(we can use such a term for Gandhiji’s Congress then)didn’t imagine was what the other greater, historical and international factors  that were impacting India and the Indian people. Muslim League had had a long history. So too the Empire’s fortunes in the first and the second world wars. Now, we can look back and see that Gandhiji led the people but he failed to look beyond his narrow world. The world was changing, Muslim League politics was also growing, so when the Cripps Mission came Gandhiji didn’t make use of it, he behaved in his own quirky way and that paved the way for India’s partition.

So, just to blame Jinnah is not enough. This is not the whole truth. Indian leaders also played a role, may be without knowing! Now the point is that what is the likely future of India, which is in the near and distant future?

There is a danger that the Congress party as the 121 year old organization has a greater responsibility. It has to survive as a nation-building force. Yes, the Congress split more than once. In 1969 too it split. Now? It is faced with the danger of further weakening. Unless the leaders take corrective and visionary action. That is the lesson from Sastri’s book. Yes, moderates were pro-British all the time, and then were the extremists, now the loyalists are showing the right path? Today, the party faces the dilemma of who the loyalists and the disloyalists are!

Sonia Gandhi has a great historic duty to think deeply. She has to, in our opinion, introduce, given our experiences of the day, a strong element of elective element inside the organisation.Say,50% elected members from district, to the state to the Working Committee. The other 50% may be nominated, keeping in mind the present times.

The non-Congress parties, invariably, from the CPM to the regional parties are taking extremist, separatist and even unpatriotic stands just to win elections and perpetuate themselves as relevant forces, given the caste and communal configurations.   

Though I am deluged with many books, some new and old books this one seemed out of the ordinary. It was so, even after I spent a whole afternoon, foregoing my mandatory nap! The new books were very interesting. One was “Brahmacharya, Gandhi and his women associates”, by Girija Kumar. The other was by Tariq Ali.It is provocatively called, Street Fighting Years. Both were so provocative and I had some personal links, directly or indirectly, with the authors. Even this one by Srinivasa Sastri led me to the old links, first Oxford and then, Gokhale’s life and times!

Girija Kumar, the author on Gandhiji, was the librarian of the Indian Council for World Affairs in the early Sixties and Seventies. I had gone for an interview to the Council where there was an offer and I, fresh from England and Oxford with yet to decide my future, was a frequent visitor to Delhi and that notice attracted my attention. I used to have a Chinese family; the Chinese couple was from Santiniketan where I was a student at the Cheena Bhavan. Prof.Tan Chung and his dear wife (they are now retired and settled with their son in the USA) used to be my hosts whenever I was in Delhi those days and it was very often then, as I was also seriously interested to enter politics when Nehru was very much around.

The offer was for a Reader in Chinese economy and the condition was that one must have a diploma or proficiency in Chinese language. I was the perfect candidate, my friends told me and I had impressive credentials, from Prof.Tan Yun Shan, my teacher himself and a certificate from Tan is enough to open the world then! So, I was feeling very gingerly and I walked into the interview room.

What I saw? The great and the wisely! There was Pandit Hrudayanath Kunzru himself, the chairman of the Council, besides, V.K.R.V.Rao, Arun Nehru and one or two names I forget now and one Chinese scholar I didn’t know.  Before I entered the interview room I was greeted by a pleasant looking man who handed over some papers and also congratulated for good luck! He was none other than Girija Kumar! So, when I saw his imprint on the book I bought the book even without bothering to know the contents! Such was the faith I had in this gentleman who, as I look back, was a father figure when I was finding my way in this world! Now the Ganges had flown down under my feet! I am in another planet itself! Life has so many hidden surprises, it seems!

Yes, life too has its own paths that lead you through its own cris-crosses too!  When I left him that day, I returned to my Chinese hosts and they told me after a day or two that the very same Chinese scholar came to their home and told them: “Pandit Kunzru liked the young man from Oxford but the other members thought otherwise”. I never once imagined that I would meet Pandit Kunzru once again in my life. But it was many years later I became a politician and a changed politician for that, this time I had won an election to the Madras Legislative Council as an Independent defeating the three powerful candidates, the Congress, the Swatantra and the most powerful one set up by none other than the late C.N.Annadurai of the DMK which had captured power in Tamil Nadu by a landslide.

Yet, here I was with no backing of any political party or funds and yet with my own methods and manner I was able to swing the voters to my cause! So, in this mood I was moving about and one day, finding myself in Pune I walked into the Servants of India Society grounds where I was led to meet the President. He was the very same great Kunzru himself! He spoke to me so feelingly and his eye sight was poor and yet he warmly embraced me and at the very instant I thought of enrolling myself as a member of the society!

Of course I also walked into the great Tilak’s house too and only then, after visiting these two “dens” of lions, I realized how the early Indian politics was shaped by such great ideals.

Now, I find myself before me an old book (I buy regularly such books from my favorite antiquarian book shop in Bangalore) that pushed the other books, new and not so new books!

The book is Rt.Hon.V.S.Srinivasa Sastri’s “Life and Times of Sir Pherozesha Mehta”. This is an old book but it connected me immediately to Gokhale and Tilak and the times they lived.

What a time it was! It was when the Congress party was founded, the book has some of the rare photos and for which alone the book is a treasure. One whole afternoon, I sat up and read through the pages, missing my regular nap! Such spellbinding the book was, in fact, it is the great orator’s lectures. Sastri is known for his English language eloquence and I am greatly impressed by his command over the language.

In fact, I used to keep a skeptical view of the old time Tamil Brahmin leaders and others, more so the Mylapore Brahmins who all made it good under the British rule, as lawyers and ICs men and here too I find so many of them. Yet, Sastri dispelled my skepticism’s am rather surprised and even amazed by the sacrifice Sastri made for serving the country, giving up a regular teacher career, he was at that time the Headmaster of the Triplicane Hindu High School and yet, he dared to forego the job just to join the Servants of India Society. So, in these pages we see not the life of P.M.Mehta (that life itself seems extraordinary, so dedicated, so public spirited) but the great many other leaders who all emerge as rare persons of the times.

There are all the founders of the Indian National Congress, there are the views and opinions of Sastri himself on the character of Indians then. He says perceptively that the Tamils had always a weakness. They would always fall at the feet of leaders from outside the state. But the Bengalis, says Sastri, had the arrogance of egoticism. They always thought they are leading the rest of India. How true!

Even today we see the same servitude on the Tamils and the same, though subdued, beliefs of the present day Bengali leaders to imagine they are something, while this is of course not anymore, with the other states coming up with lots of developments.

I had to read through the pages with interest for I find that I was running through names and places where I had also warm personal recollections. Of course, in Tamil Nadu itself I see V.Krishnaswamy Iyer who at that age and time emerges as the greatest statesman in Madras. He was a lawyer but had the vision to found institutions that till now bear witness to his vision. He was a great friend of Gokhale who relied upon Iyer’s advice in many critical decisions. Sastri himself emerges from these pages as a remarkable man. He was a teacher for a long time in Salem in TN and Salem emerges as an enlightened town. Sir C.Vijayaraghavachariar was a bold man with daring courage to fight the British officials then in Salem. Closely comes C.Rajagopalahcariar, another Salem advocate then.

There were others, J.Krishnamurthy’s relation was the deputy Collector when some controversy arose in the municipality. Sastri used to write even then good English, he wrote for Vijayaraghavachariar, he wrote articles in The Hindu, he used to recruit candidates for the Congress sessions and even then, just before 1095,he says Gandhiji was  dictatorially -minded! Even when he was not a four ana member! Sastri joined the Servants of India Society when Gokhale was alive and he was witness to Gokhale-Gandhi meetings. The book is so worth for the many rare insights it gives into the minds of those who all played such great national roles.

About Gokhale, we will know some of the rarest qualities that made him such a great man. In one place Sastri narrates, Gokhale was a perfectionist when it comes to use the English words, in writing and in speaking. One day, early in the morning Sastri noticed Gokhale was restless and was walking forward and backward. When he asked the great man what is the matter, he said” I have to say something in praise of Dadabhai Nowroji and I am searching for the right words. Gokhale considered Dadhabai a divine leader!

The right words came as follows: “Dadabhai bears on his head the snow of age and wisdom and the fire of youth and idealism in his heart”!  Another moving picture is the trial of Tilak, Sastri personally witnessed the trial and when the judgment was given ,late at night at 10 P.M. deliberately to avoid trouble, troops were stationed all over Bombay and the moving  arguments Tilak put forward and the final heart-rending scenes would bring tears even now! Tilak was a sick man, so too Mrs.Tilak and yet the ruthless government sentenced the great man to exile! There were pleas to Gokhale to take steps to approach his English supporter, the great Lord Morley and yet nothing came of it. So too the death of Gokhale. Gokhale was also weighed down by the attack of the extremists.

As soon as Gokhale died in 1915, there was dilemma as to who would head it, whether Gandhi would join and take up the Presidentship. There is a graphic account in the books as to how Gandhi engaged the members of the Society in a grilling type argument. The members, given Gandhi’s reputation even then, were really frightened, speechless and it was given to Sastri to plead with Gandhi:” Please have mercy on us, we are ordinary mortals!”

That time was marked by politics in the city municipal councils and in the three universities and the local legislative council. P.M.Mehta in Bombay, Subhas Bose (later) in Calcutta and others in Madras.

There are so many rare pieces of historic significance. The Congress Creed as, self-government, was given by V.Krishnaswamy Iyer, the slogan of Swaraj was also given by one other person, later it was taken up by Tilak and the evolution of the Indian nationalist thought came about in so many unexpected ways, through so many highly gifted individuals, whom was we can see now, were otherwise eminently qualified to be the first citizens of the country in their times. Certainly these were the people who starting from Dadabhia to Ranade to Gokhale, Tilak and then Gandhi. So too were persons like Anni Besant and the others who worked for the country without exactly knowing whether India would become a free country or remain within the Empire. They were all dedicated to improve the conditions of the Indian people, to raise their political consciousness and it was almost nearly half a century later, when the world events also coincided Indians ever had the idea of Independence possible within a time frame.

Such was the dedication of people who, with their education and opportunities could have lived a different life!

The history of the Congress party shows that the moderates, the liberals (in the sense in which the term was understood then) did much to educate the middle classes. Yes, extremists helped to bring in the masses into the political stream.

But freedom came not because of one set of people like extremists. Even otherwise, even if the moderates had succeeded, may be much bloodshed might have been saved, the very world events, two world wars and the pressure of USA which entered the second world war, the dropping of the atom bomb and much more important, the growth of the Muslim League into a powerful extremist force all might have forced the British to part with India. What ultimately happened was much worse, so much bloodshed, the partition of the country. History would judge the players who all contributed to this end. Was this a glorious end? That question would continue to haunt the Indians of this generation, the future generations too!

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