Arun Shouries Articles

What a Precedent to Cite! | May 26, 2008

Arun Shourie

Who wrote the book, Sri Ramachandra, the ideal King? Who wrote that he was “Not simply a great warrior, a mighty King. He was an Avatara, a divine incarnation, and a divine incarnation of a special kind.” “All men are divine incarnations,” the person wrote. “But when we speak of an Avatar we mean more than this. An Avatara… is a special incarnation, a human form being taken in which the Divinity veils Himself and through which shines forth His glory. Not in germ, in ‘divine fragments’, as in us, but in full radiance of Deity, God reveals Himself in man to man.”

Who wrote that the reason Sri Rama had taken form is the one which has been stated by Lord Krishna in the resounding verse of the Gita, “Yada yada he dharmasya… “? Who wrote that sometimes the purpose of Divine incarnation is to teach — as in the case of Lord Krishna “whose divine ‘song’ is still the world’s wonder”? That “Sometimes He [the Avatara] is also an Example; and as an example for men of the world… Ramachandra stands supreme, the ideal man in every relation of life… “? Who wrote that in Sri Rama’s instance there was the additional mission — “to shew forth the ideal Kshatriya”, and that this is the ideal that India needed most at the time?

Who founded the Central Hindu College which became, in the words of a distinguished biographer, “a nucleus radiating the Hindu culture and ideals”, and which eventually became the nucleus for the formation of the Benaras Hindu University? Who brought out — in association of one of our most learned philosophers — the Sanatan Dharma series to impart both knowledge of our religious traditions as well as reverence for and pride in them? Who wrote in association with that great philosopher what is till today one of the most instructive translations of the Gita? Who brought out a series of publications narrating the heroism of our Aryan ancestors to instill pride in our past?

The very Annie Besant whom sycophantic Congressmen are citing as precedent today! There literally cannot be a greater contrast between her and the one these sycophants seek to legitimize by invoking her. She did not alight into the Congress presidency from a helicopter. She had been in the forefront of Indian public life for two decades before she was anointed President. Indeed, for twenty years before she came to India, she had been in the forefront of almost every struggle for reform in Britain. It has been well said that the history of reform in Britain from 1874 to 1893 — the year she came to India — is coterminous with her biography of those years.

Struggles to improve working conditions of workers? She was in the forefront — from the conditions of work of women making matches to those of municipal workers to those of dockers. The heartless eviction of tenants? She was the vanguard in the movements against the Coercion Act in Ireland. The establishment of the National Secular Society? She was the co-founder. The work of the Fabian Society? The spread of socialist ideas and the socialist movement in Europe? She was in the forefront. The rights of women? She was in the vanguard…

From architectonic measures to the minor things that we do not even think about, her role was of the first order. We live under that impact to this day. Consider a matter which seems simple in itself but has had a vital place in the evolution of freedom in regard to religious expression and belief. When a person assumes high office in India today — from becoming the President to Prime Minister to Chief Justice to member of Parliament, whatever — she or he has to take an oath. Our Constitution and laws provide that he may take an oath in the name of God or he may swear an oath of affirmation. Where does this option come from?

From a great agitation — in which Annie Besant played a central role. The fighter and reformer that she was, she began working with Charles Bradlaugh. Both of them became anathema to the establishment — in particular to the clerical establishment. Bradlaugh stood for Parliament. They were heckled, they were set upon. They were soon imprisoned for republishing a proscribed pamphlet advocating contraception — they felt that, whether one agreed with its contents or not, it is important in the cause of free speech that it be printed and circulated. Her former husband, a narrow-minded clergyman, sued to snatch custody of their children: the case itself became one of the spurs to remedying the law that favoured husbands in such matters.

Bradlaugh won the election to Parliament. But he refused to take the oath in the name of God. The clergy and others seized this. A committee of Parliament was appointed to determine whether he could take his seat in Parliament by making a solemn affirmation. The House voted to disallow him. Declaring that its order was contrary to law, Bradlaugh refused to comply with it. The Sergeant-at-Arms was directed to remove him. Demonstrations flared up everywhere. The House rescinded its resolution. The opponents took the matter to court. The court held against him.

The seat was declared vacant. But Bradlaugh won again. A vast crowd, with Annie Besant in the lead, marched to enable him to enter the House. As they had forsworn violence, Bradlaugh was forcibly removed from the precincts. A huge protest movement erupted: a petition bearing a quarter million signatures was presented to Parliament. The movement was stoked by the incessant tours and writings of Annie Besant as much as by anything else: Sir C P Ramaswami, from whose brief biography of Annie Besant facts about this episode have been taken, recalls Mrs Besant writing that by the great wrong which has been inflicted on him, Charles Bradlaugh has become the incarnation of a great principle.

Bradlaugh was elected a third time — this time in a general election. He introduced, and the House eventually passed an Oaths Bill — from which flows the option we have today — to take an oath in the name of God or to solemnly affirm…

It was this enormous work on a entire array of issues which had made Annie Besant one of the most conspicuous reformers long, long before she came to India. How considerable her reputation was can be gauged from the effect that the mere news of her accepting Theosophy had on Gandhiji at the time. Sir C P reproduces Gandhiji’s observation:

“When I was studying in London in 1888 and after, I had become, like many like me, an admirer of Bradlaugh and Besant. Imagine my excitement when one fine morning I read in the London press that Annie Besant had become a Theosophist under Blavatsky’s inspiration. I was a mere boy practically unknown to anybody. I would have been more than satisfied if I could have touched the hem of the garments of Madame Blavatsky and her distinguished disciple. But I could not, though some friends had kindly taken me to Blavatsky Lodge. When Dr Besant came to India and captivated the country, I came in close touch with her and, though we had political differences, my veneration for her did not suffer abatement.”

Back in India, with the triumphs in South Africa on everyone’s lips, Gandhiji broke journey in Benaras more than once just to pay his respects to Annie Besant. Even when they had parted ways because of political differences, Gandhiji’s words for her remained reverential. Introducing her to the audience in Ahmedabad in 1918, we find him saying: “I have often said that there have been, and there may still be, differences between her and me; there are quite a few even today… Having said this, I admit I cannot but look up to her with reverence, honour her, pay tribute to her for her excellent qualities, for she has dedicated her very soul to India. She lives only for India — to live thus is her sole aspiration… In my view, Ahmedabad has covered itself with unsurpassed honour by honoring one who has rendered such great services as she has… “

Pandit Nehru described his first meeting with Annie Besant as “one of the outstanding events in my life.” “Her personality, the legends that had already surrounded her heroic career and her oratory overwhelmed me,” he wrote. “With a young boy’s admiration and devotion I gazed at her and followed her about.” In his autobiography, Panditji writes of his going to attend her lectures in Allahabad: “I was deeply moved by her oratory and returned from her speeches dazed and as in a dream. I decided to join the Theosophical Society, although I was only thirteen then….” Mrs Besant herself conducted the initiation ceremony, he records, and adds, “I was thrilled.” This was the impact she had on persons before her great work in India reached anywhere near the heights it eventually did.

Because of her, “Home Rule” has become a mantra in every village, Gandhiji said of her political work. She worked ceaselessly for an array of reform movements. Her contribution in restoring pride in Hindus for their own culture, religion, history was of the highest order. She crafted legislative proposals of far-reaching significance: from manifestos, statements, declarations, resolutions, which led, among other things, to the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms; from these to the Commonwealth of India Bill of 1925, one of the first attempts within India to draw up the principles of a constitution for the country.

Where is the comparable record of Sonia in public life? On every issue of the day, Annie Besant’s view was known, it was thoroughly thought-through, openly and widely expressed: she was a prodigious writer, and an even more prodigious speaker — her voice was incomparable, carrying to ten thousands in the open air even at that time, writes a biographer who heard and saw her for decades. On what issue do we know Sonia’s view? Is there any indication at all even of the possibility that on any issue whatsoever she has a view of her own?

Indeed, by recalling Mrs Besant, Congressmen remind us how in every particular, she was the exact opposite of the one for whom they make her out to have been a precedent.

Writing: In his memoir of her, Sri Prakasa, the son of Dr Bhagvan Das, the erudite philosopher who was her collaborator for decades, and one who himself knew her since he was a toddler, writes, “All her letters… are in manuscript. She wrote all her articles, whether for newspapers or learned magazines, herself. The manuscript of all her books is also in her own handwriting… ” Yes, two collections of letters have been put out as if they have been edited by Sonia: the letters were written by Panditji and Indira Gandhi, they were collated by others, the explanatory footnotes — a few words a piece about persons and events alluded to in the letters — have been compiled by the staff of the Nehru Memorial Library!

Speaking: Annie Besant gave thousands of lectures. She would speak for an hour or more. Audiences used to be mesmerized by her eloquence, her knowledge, to say nothing of her immersion in our culture and religion. Sir C P recalls as acerbic an appraiser as Bernard Shaw saying of her that she was the greatest orator in England and possibly in Europe. “I have never heard her excelled. She was then [he was writing of the time she took to socialism] unapproached.” Just a single detail will speak to the distance between her and what we see today: Sri Prakasa writes, ” …She never carried any notes. She never consulted any papers as she spoke. Her memory must have been remarkable, and I believe she just rehearsed her lectures to herself once, before going into the lecture hall; and that was enough for her. She never faltered for a word and her voice never broke…”

All testified to the extreme generosity of spirit: she never spoke an ill-word of anyone, she bore calumny — and much was heaped on her throughout her life — without any thought of avenging it. Sir C P’s observation is typical: narrating her isolation in the years when she had fallen out of step with the national movement, he writes, “Easy it is, if success blesses us, to possess some facile virtues and to prove and demonstrate them. But it is difficult for one living amidst calumny and obloquy, at all junctures to remain sweet-tempered, patient and forgiving, long-suffering, and yet hopeful of the future. As one who came across Mrs Besant very often during these years, I can say that I did not see one bitter expression on her face, nor did I hear from her lips one vengeful word.”

Contrast the appropriation by Sonia of one governmental Trust after another, their conversion in effect into family Trusts with Mrs Besant making over the Central Hindu College to the Benaras Hindu University. Contrast it with what Sir C P writes of Mrs. Besant’s uniform practice. She received large sums, he recalls, all of these she distributed in scholarships, in charitable gifts, in donations to worthy institutions. He writes that he “is personally aware of the circumstance that, generally speaking, at the end of each year, Dr. Besant used to draw cheques on all the banks in which monies were deposited to her credit and denude herself of all property…”

On every occasion, as at the Resurrection speech in Talkatora Stadium, all we hear is “Me and my family.” Even in the Address she delivered at the very occasion these Congressmen cite as the precedent, the one she delivered on assuming the presidentship of the Congress in 1917, what is it that Mrs. Besant said? “….I have no words with which to thank you,” she told the delegates, “no eloquence with which to repay my debt. My deeds must speak for me, for words are too poor. I turn your gift into service to the Motherland; I consecrate my life anew to Her worship by action. All that I have and am, I lay on the Altar of the Mother, and together we shall cry, more by service than by words: Vande Mataram!”

The very expressions — Motherland, Mother, worship of the Mother, the Altar of the Mother, and of course Vande Mataram — communal anathemas in the eyes of our Congressmen.

Every act, every thought had been in the public domain for forty years in Mrs Besant’s case. Every act, every thought has been shrouded behind the speech-writer’s script, the PR advisor’s sheen today.

The Congress-presidency came after twenty years’ unremitting labour in the service of India in Mrs. Besant’s case. It has come as a measure of desperation by persons who have no other way of acquiring office today.

Even more important, indeed it is ludicrous to even have to recall it, was another fact. Even as she laboured for India, the Congress transformed — under the Lokmanya, under Gandhiji. Mrs Besant withdrew to Adyar. It is too harsh to say that her foreignness was the inevitable factor, but something like it was. She could never reconcile herself to the demand for complete independence, the apogee of her aspiration for India remained Home Rule as part of the British Empire. So also her adoration for Hinduism. Even so adoring a devotee as Sri Prakasa expresses this — ever so delicately. In one lecture at Benaras he heard her extol Hindu ceremonies for their ancestors, he writes. I don’t believe any of this, he remarked to his neighbour. He was roundly reprimanded. But has she ever made offerings for her own ancestors?, he wondered…

Even during her lifetime — she died in 1933 — the Congress had moved far away from the 1917 in which it had elected her President. And that too for a year only. Today we are being told that because she was the President eighty years ago — for one year, it is all right to have Sonia as President — for life!

Every detail an opposite. And yet the claim, “We have a precedent.”

And the one thing that enables them to get away with such travesty: the near-total ignorance of the rest of us.

India Connect
June 6, 1999

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