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Sketches of Eminent Indians
Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948)

Part One: 1869-1914 (South Africa years)

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born in Porbandar, a small town on the coast of Saurashtra, Gujarat, in 1869. He was the third son of his parents Putlibai and Karamchand. He married Kasturbai when he was 13. Mohandas passed his matriculation in 1887, a year after his father died. At the suggestion of a friend of the family, he was sent to England to become a barrister. In addition to acquiring his degree, he spend considerable time acquiring social graces during his initial years in England; something that he realised was a waste of time.

After he was called at the bar in 1891, he sailed for home. But he was a complete failure as a barrister in Bombay. On his brother's advice, he shifted base to Rajkot, but Rajkot proved no different, and finally through his brother's connections, Mohandas found a job with Dada Abdulla & Company in South Africa. Mohandas set sail for South Africa in 1893 and arrived in Natal. This trip to South Africa was to change his life, and have a direct bearing on the future events of the Indian subcontinent.

On a train journey from Durban, Mohandas was thrown out of his first class compartment, because a white-skinned fellow traveler could not bear to share the compartment with a coloured passenger. Despite his pleas, the constable threw him out of the train, and Mohandas spent the cold night shivering on a bench at Martizburg station. It was here that he set for himself the task of redressing the extreme prejudice that the whites harboured against the non-whites.

Thereafter, Mohandas' interest began to be increasingly focused on the conditions of the Indian migrants in South Africa. He began his first agitation against the Indian Franchise Bill, which, if passed into law, would prevent the Indians from electing their candidates to the Natal Legislature. Then, he fought the case of Balasundaram, the indentured labourer, who had been ill-treated by his European master. Then, the tax on indentured labour.

During his stay in South Africa, Gandhi visited India twice -- in 1896 and again in 1901. On his return to South Africa in 1897, he was quarantined for 23 days. During the Boer war between the native Europeans of South Africa and the British, Gandhi exhorted Indians to help the British in the war effort by forming the Indian Ambulance Corps. During his stay in South Africa, Mohandas, who was now respectfully referred to as Gandhi, was introduced to John Ruskin's Unto This Last. Gandhi has himself admitted that it was this book that changed his life and thinking. He translated Ruskin's book into Gujarati calling it Sarvodaya. It was after this that he started his Phoenix settlement and started his publication, the Indian Opinion. Later, through the help of a German friend, the Tolstoy Farm was started.

It was here that Gandhi began to work on his ideas that were to become a powerful force in the world arena and acquire the dimensions of a political and social philosophy and ideology. Truth, non-violence, celibacy, fearlessness, manual work. Satyagraha, the word that a reader of Indian Opinion had coined, and modified by Gandhi became the spirit of Indian nationalism in the years to come. And it embodied all these virtues. Satyagraha was first used as a political means to achieve justice by Gandhi in South Africa against the Asiatic Registration Bill. This brought him direct conflict with General Smuts.

Part Two: 1915-1948 (Taking India towards freedom)

By 1914, Gandhi was ready to return to India, and plunge himself in the struggle for Indian independence. Prior to that, in 1909, he wrote Hind Swaraj, the book that is considered as the core of Gandhi's political and social philosophy. After reaching India, Gandhi -- on the advise of his political mentor, Gopal Krishna Gokhale -- began the process of acquainting himself with the reality of India. But before Gandhi could establish himself, Gokhale died in 1915. Gandhi began the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad. He stayed away from contemporary politics because of World War I.

However, he could stay away from it for long. The 1917 Champaran agitation saw him entering the national scene. Gandhi's unique style of operation took the British administration completely unawares, and he succeeded in securing the demands of the indigo peasants when the administration abolished the unjust tinkathia system. Almost immediately, he was recruited to fight for the textile labourers of Ahmedabad, then for the peasants of Bardoli (Kheda district), where Sardar Patel, played an important role. The Khilafat movement saw him advocating the cause of Hindu-Muslim unity. The Khilafat movement saw Gandhi come into his own, and take charge of the Congress party, never to relinquish it till his death in 1948.

Just as the World War I was ending, the government published the Rowlatt Committee Report. This provided Gandhi and the Indian nationalist movement the much-needed boost. The Rowlatt Act became a focal point for Indians' anger against the British Raj and it led to the Amritsar massacre in 1919 at Jallianwala Bagh. It was the Amritsar event and the Khilafat issue that resulted in the adoption of Gandhi's non-cooperation movement by the Congress in 1920. Gandhi was now officially the leader of the nationalist movement in India. Satyagraha and Swadeshi became the non-violent methods of opposing the British rule.

In 1921, the Congress gave its leadership to Gandhi and he started the non-cooperation movement. The entire country was seized with an unprecedented hysteria. Nobody had seen anything like this before. Gandhi had turned the struggle for Indian independence into a truly mass movement. But he continued to be ruled by his belief in non-violence. And, a small incident at Chauri Chaura in Gorakpur district of United Provinces, resulted in Gandhi calling off the entire agitation. In his view, the nation was not yet ready for Swaraj. Gandhi was held responsible for the violence and was sentenced to imprisonment.

The unity that he had tried to forge between Hindus and Muslims during the Khilafat movement had become a distant memory, by the mid-1920s, communal rioting had become fairly regular. Gandhi used his most potent weapon to quell these disturbances -- fast unto death. The country's reaction was immediate. A Unity Conference was called and leaders of different religious and political affiliations pledged to work for peace. Gandhi broke his fast after 21 days. For most part of the the 1920s, Gandhiji worked towards building of the Indian society -- eradication of untouchability, spinning of khadi, and other themes which were to hold the nation's attention.

At this point the British administration almost dismissed him as a spent force. But he was turning into a cult figure across the country. Between 1923 and 1927, Gandhiji virtually went into political seculsion. But by the end of the decade, he was again ready to capture the centrestage. The Simon Commission provided the spark needed to revatilise the Congress. The Motilal Nehru Report was the Congress' answer to the Simon Commission. The Congress gave a deadline to the administration. Accept the Nehru Report by December 31, 1929 (granting of dominion status to India), or the Congress would re-launch the civil disobedience movement for Purna Swaraj. As Gandhi himself wrote. "The call of 1920 was a call for preparation. The call in 1930 is for engaging in final conflict."

On January 26, 1930, he called upon the nation to celebrate the Independence Day. But later that year, he delivered a masterstroke in political strategy -- the Dandi March. The march from Sabarmati Ashram to Dandi (in south Gujarat) to break the salt tax law. This was the launch of the civil disobedience movement, and Gandhi said he would himself become the first one to offer passive resistance to the British rule. He was arrested and put in prison at Yerwada, near Pune. To quell the growing unrest, the British administration offered a Round Table Conference in London.

The Gandhi-Irwin pact was signed in 1931, but it did not offer anything that the Congress wanted. It only released political prisoners, and gave some breathing time to the British government. Gandhi went to London to participate in the Round Table Conference. But the conference did not lead to anything substantial. By the time he returned, the civil disobedience movement was destined to re-start and he was again him jail. Within a year, Gandhi was ready to battle against the Communal Award of 1932, which had accorded separate electorate to the Dalits. This brought him in direct conflict with the leader of the dalits -- Bhimrao Ambedkar. After some hard bargaining, and thanks to Ambedkar's underlying respect for the Mahatma, the Poona Pact was signed, offering reservations to the oppressed sections of the Hindu society.

By the mid-1930s, Gandhi was completely convinced that nation building and not political freedom were his personal priorities. He quit the Congress officially in 1934, though continued to guide its destiny. For the next three years, Gandhiji devoted himself completely to rural economics, village development and such other concerns which revealed in more ways than one his complete rejection of mechanisation and industrialisation. In this, he was completely alone. None of his followers shared his views. But he could manage to build a completely non-political cadre of Sarvodaya, which included notables like Vinoba Bhave.

The Constitutional Reforms of 1935 came into effect from 1937, but Jawaharlal Nehru described it as a 'Charter of Slavery'. The Congress did contest elections, and won over-whelming majorities across the country, including in areas which had been reserved for the minorities. It formed government in six provinces. It was then that World War II broke out, and the politics of India, and of Gandhi changed. Changed by one man -- Mohammed Ali Jinnah. Jinnah led from the front in his demand for a separate state for the Muslims of India -- Pakistan. "Vivisect me before you vivisect India," implored Gandhi, but Jinnah was not interested in listening to this plea.

The decade of 1940s witnessed a complete division between Jinnah and the Congress on the issue of Pakistan, and his own party men increasingly sidelined Gandhi. The British administration was not willing to offer any concessions to the Congress after the War began in 1939. Gandhi was not willing to embarrass the government at the time when it was at War. But the Congress leaders were impatient. By the early 1940s, the War had reached Indian shores, and the British Empire was under Japanese attack in the East. The United States of America was now completely in the war effort and President Roosevelt forced Winston Churchill to send a conciliatory gesture to the Congress.

Churchill sent Stafford Cripps to India. His offer was Dominion Status. It was demand the Congress had made more than a decade ago. Gandhi's response was the Quit India Movement. He gave the slogan "Do or Die", and in one fell swoop, the entire country just went on a rampage. The Congress leaders were sent behind bars, but the second and third rung of leaders continued with the agitation. Gandhi was imprisoned at the Aga Khan Palace in Pune, where Kasturba died. When his own health became suspect, the British government released him in 1944.

Gandhi tried once again to find a solution with Jinnah. But Jinnah was unwavering. Finally 1945 when Lord Wavell was the Viceroy set the process of the final disolution of the British Raj in India in motion. It was by now more or less certain that two independent countries would be carved out of the Indian subcontinent -- India and Pakistan. Despite all his efforts, Gandhi did not succeed. The entire sub-continent went up in flames during the run up to Partition and freedom. "All is lost," said Gandhi on Partition.

Following independence, Gandhi insisted that the Indian government give Rupees 55 crore to the newly formed Pakistan, as had been agreed by the leaders of the Congress during the talks with Lord Mountbatten. He also announced that he would start something similar to the Dandi march and cross the borders of the two countries, as these were artificial borders that could not deter him. All this was just not tolerable to the Hindu nationalists. On January 30, 1948, the Mahatma was shot dead by Nathuram Godse.

Gandhi has been rightly called the father of the nation. He was the creator of modern India. About Gandhi's impact, B. R. Nanda, one of Gandhi's biographers, says, "Few men in their lifetime aroused stronger emotions or touched deeper chords of humanity than Gandhi. While millions venerated Gandhi as the Mahatma, the great soul, his political opponents saw in him only an astute politician. Not until 1946-7, when the transfer of power enabled them in their minds to disengage Mr. Gandhi the man from Mr. Gandhi the arch-rebel, were the British able to see him in a gentler light. And it was his tragic death which finally convinced his Pakistani detractors that his humanity encompassed and transcended his loyalty to Hinduism."




Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964)

Part One: 1889-1947 (Struggle for Independence):

Jawaharlal Nehru was born on November 14, 1889. His mother Swarup Rani and father Pandit Motilal Nehru gave Jawaharlal an upbringing befitting a prince. As he writes in his autobiography, "An only son of prosperous parents is apt to be spoilt, especially so in India. And when that son happens to have been an only child for the first eleven years of his existence there is little hope for him to escape this spoiling."

Motilal Nehru was an extremely successful lawyer. The family originally hailed from Kashmir, but had migrated to Delhi and then to Allahabad by the time Jawaharlal was born. In 1905, after his initial schooling was over, Motilal sent his son to one of England's famous educational institutions, Harrow. Jawaharlal was 15-years-old. Within a year at Harrow, Jawaharlal decided that he would go to Cambridge. Jawaharlal was an average student, and by 1911, Motilal decided that it was time for his son to get married, but Jawaharlal managed to get it postponed. The Inner Temple admitted him to the Bar in 1912. Thereafter, he was ordered to return to India by his father.

In 1916, the 26-years-old Jawaharlal married Kamala Kaul. On his return, he emersed himself into the national struggle for freedom. Motilal already enjoyed considerable influence in these circles. Motilal, like so many others who were younger to the Mahatma, and yet were completely in awe of his methods, relinquished every creature comfort they were so accustomed to, and joined the national struggle. In Motilal's case this led to a substantial reduction in family wealth, but regardless, the family went ahead. Jawaharlal practiced the law between 1912 and 1920.

His formal entry into politics would come in 1920. In the interim, Jawaharlal began to get involved with writing for The Leader and other publications. The Independent was started by the father and son duo, when The Leader did not approve of their confrontationist approach. It was also around this time that he first concretised his ideas of democratic socialism -- a middle path between capitalism and communism. An idea that would shape India's future after independence. Differences arose between the father and the son over the nationalists' response to the Rowlatt Act. While Motilal (along with Jinnah and others) wanted to adopted the constitutional approach, Jawaharlal joined forces with Gandhi's Satyagraha Sabha. Gandhi declined to take him in, on Motilal's advice. But within a year, both the father and son were with Gandhi. For Jawaharlal this was triumph of belief and conviction.

The Khilafat movement saw Gandhi's ascendency in the Congress, the old guard was left behind, and Jawaharlal had found his mentor. In 1921, both the father and son were imprisoned. Gandhi called the Nehru family women to Ahmedabad, they travelled for the first time in a third class compartment. The civil disobedience movement was withdrawn in 1922 because of the Chauri Chaura incident, and many of the old guard of the Congress was unhappy with Gandhi's decision. Jawaharlal and the other group of young leaders like Patel, Azad, Prasad, did not oppose Gandhi, despite their disbelief at the decision.

After the agitation was called off, Jawaharlal concentrated on the boycott of British goods, for this he was again sent to prison in 1922. It was during this internment that he began to write letters to his daughter Indira. This practice, of writing for his daughter, produced three magnificient books -- An Autobiography, Glimpses of World History and The Discovery of India. By the mid-1920s, the differences in the approach of Motilal and Gandhi again surfaced, when Motilal joined the ranks of the Swarajists, who were willing to enter the legislatures. The No-changers, led by the younger Congress leaders did not want any of this. But the Congress recanted, and went on to capture local bodies and municipal corporations. Jawaharlal was the consensus candidate for the presidentship of the Allahabad municipality, his first public office.

By this time (mid-1920s), Jawaharlal openly began to differ with Gandhi's economic philosophy. Clearly, Jawaharlal saw future only in democratic socialism. He had no patience with Gandhi's doctrine. His Leftist ideals received a tremendous boost when he attended the first International Conference against Colonial Oppression and Imperialism. But his personal attachment to Gandhi did not take him completely away from his leader's chosen path. Following the Simon Commission's report, and the growing differences between the old guard and the new leadership in the Congress, the time was now ripe for Gandhi to anoint Jawaharlal.

In 1929, Gandhi declared that it was time Jawaharlal be made the president of the Congress. At 40, he was among the younger leaders of the national movement, and immediately the Congress was infused with enthusiasm that was remarkable and infectious. He declared that India must have nothing but Purna Swaraj. Spoke Jawaharlal: "We stand today for the fullest freedom of India...India submits no longer to any foreign domination...There will be no turning back. A great nation cannot be thawarted for long when once its mind is clear and resolved." In the 1930s, Jawharlal lost both his father Motilal and wife Kamala. But this decade also saw Jawaharlal emerge as a true leader in his own right.

By now, the old guard of Congress -- represented by the likes of Pal, Malaviya and others -- had passed into history. But the differences in the Congress had now sharpened along ideological lines, and clearly Jawaharlal had gained access to the party through the young brigade of party members who harboured socialist inclinations. Added to this was Jawaharlal's undisputed popularity with the masses. All this made him the natural successor of Gandhi. But these differences that had surfaced within the Congress would dog Jawaharlal throughout his life.

The run up to freedom saw Jawaharlal play a dominant role in the end game of the British Raj. Jinnah ensured Paritition, and Hindu chauvinism murdered Gandhi. Jawaharlal Nehru became the first prime minister of independent India. From the ramparts of the Red Fort, the leader spoke, and the world listened in rapt attention:


"Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time has come when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed finds utterance..."

Part Two: 1947-1964 (Nation building):

Nehru was 57-years-old when he became the prime minister of India. But his transition was smooth and effortless. All these years of opposing the British, coupled with his own understanding of the world, made Nehru both effective and popular. Thanks to Nehru, despite the ravages of Partition, India remained a secular country. Despite his opposition to British rule, India became part of the British Commonwealth. It was his sense of idealism, coupled with a deep understanding of real politics that led him to keep an equal distance from the two powers -- the U.S. and Soviet Union -- that had emerged after the World War II. Along with Nasser and Tito, Nehru formed the Non-Aligned Movement. Nehru's vision of the world was Panchsheel (five principles): Sovereignty, non-aggression, non-interference, equality, and peaceful co-existence

On the home front, Nehru took an active interest in the formation of the Constitution, and participated with vigour and style during the debates of the Constituent Assembly. Though he had never been a legislator, he turned out to be an extremely effective parliamentarian. (He admonished Ram Manohar Lohia and ordered him to maintain parliamentary decorum when the latter brought in one of the first no-confidence motions against Nehru. Lohia, knowing it would be defeat, made light of the event, but Nehru gave it the importance it deserved.)

His first cabinet included political opponents like B. R. Ambedkar and Shyama Prasad Mukherjee. His 17 years as the prime minister shaped the future course of India, politically, economically and socially. On virtually all major issues that he faced within India, Nehru's approach was always concilatory and non-confrontationist -- whether it was the use of Hindi as an official language or the re-organisation of the states on the basis of language.

But his single biggest contribution was economic planning. As historian B. R. Nanda writes, "After he came to power, he tried to reduce economic disparities without seriously hampering the growth of the economy. His aim was, he said, 'to convert India's economy into that of a modern state and to fit her into the nuclear age and do it quickly'. The Industrial Policy Resolution of 1948 was a pointer to this strategy, but it was the establishment of the Planning Commission in 1950 which constituted a landmark in his economic policy."

The true break from the past, however, came in 1955, when at the Avadi Congress session, Nehru moved the Congress party's economic resolution. When he spoke to the 300,000 people attending the 60th session of the Congress, he was creating history. Everything that we now do should be governed by the ideal of socialistic society...I put this resolution because I think it represents the hopes and aspirations of the Indian people, and much more than that. It is a pledge which you and I take -- not a pledge but a challenge to the future that we are determined to conquer." The Congress resolution on socialism and the new Industrial Policy Resolution of 1956 turned the party into Nehru's party. As M. J. Akbar, another biographer of Nehru says, "Till 1919, the Congress was Hume's party. Till January 1955 it was Gandhi's party. After 1955 it became a Gandhi-Nehru party." In all this he was guided by one primary aim: eradication of poverty

Nehru wrote: "There are three fundamental requirements for India...heavy engineering and machine building industry, scientific research institutes and electric power. These must be the foundations of all planning." The result was economic planning, five year plans, larger role for the public sector, huge investments in public infrastructure like big dams at Bhakra-Nangal, mega steel plants -- temples of Modern India, he called them. Of course, Nehru's ideas were a product of his times. Five decades later, India is in a desperate hurry to dismantle all that he constructed, because it did not provide solutions to India's problems that Nehru had hoped.

His political idealism also did not help him. The problems with Pakistan over Kashmir have resulted in a mess that cannot be unraveled, and his complete trust of the Chinese was paid back with aggression in 1962. It was a blow from which he never recovered. There were other problems, too. After Vallabhbhai Patel's death in 1950, Nehru became the only leader of the Congress, and let his daughter Indira play an important role in the party's affairs -- including adhering to her advice of dismissing the first Communist government in Kerala.

By the time he died in 1964, he had already become one of the tallest leaders of the 20th century. His place in history assured and undeniable. As B. R. Nanda writes: "His role in the fight against British imperialism in India and abroad was so important, that if he had died in the summer of 1947 and never taken office, he would still have occupied a high place in history. As it was, he became the chief architect of post-independent India, and led her in the difficult years of transition from colonialism to democracy, from traditionalism to modernity, and from a stagnant to a developing economy. In a period of deep cynicism and doubt, Nehru was an incorrigible idealist, but his idealism was, as he once put it, 'the realism of tomorrow.'"


Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel: 1875-1950

Vallabhbhai Patel was born in 1875 at Naidad, Gujarat. The exact date of his birth is not known, but for the purpose of matriculation examination, he put it as October 31, 1875. His grew up at Karamsad, Gujarat, with his parents Jhaverbhai and Ladbai. His education was first in his own language Gujarati. At 16 he was married to Zaverbai. Vallabhbhai continued with his education in English at a nearby town of Petlad. Subsequently, he shifted to Naidad, where at the age of 22 he passed his matriculation examination.

Within the next three years he began his practice as a lawyer, becoming a district pleader. He wanted to qualify as a barrister from England. He made all the necessary arrangement, but when the letter arrived it was addressed to V.J. Patel, also his brother Vithalbhai's initials. Vallabhbhai agreed to his brother's demand that as he was the elder of the two, he should go first. Vallabhbhai gave the ten thousand rupees that he had saved for himself to Vithalbhai, who returned a barrister in 1908.

Soon thereafter, Vallabhbhai's wife took seriously ill and had to be hospitalised in Bombay. On January 11, 1909, when Vallabhbhai was busy saving a man from the gallows in the court, he received a telegram informing him that his wife had passed away. Knowing that the cross-examination of the witnesses in the case could not wait, Vallabhbhai did not seek the postponement of the hearing, and despite the grave tragedy that had hit him, he continued with the case. After his wife's death, he left for England for his law education. In February 1913, he was called to the Bar, and thereafter he returned to India.

After his return to India, he started his law practice in Ahmedabad. It was then that he first came in contact with Gandhi. Vallabhbhai was one of the elite lawyers of Ahmedabad and had just a little interest in the struggle for independence that had taken a new turn with the advent of Gandhi. But Vallabhbhai could not ignore Gandhi for long. The Champaran agitation of 1917 made Gujarat sit up and take notice of the man who had forced the mighty British empire to stop injustice being perpetrated on Indians. The Gujarat Club, an Ahmedabad-based club of the social elite, which during its three decades of existence had achieved little of significance, invited Gandhi to be its president.

Gandhi as president and Vallabhbhai as the secretary made the Gujarat Club into an organisation of the masses. Gandhi insisted that all members address the meetings in Gujarati and not English (forcing even Mohammed Ali Jinnah to speak in Gujarati). Soon, the Sabha was actively involved in people's agitation. In early 1918 occurred the event that would change Vallabhbhai permanently. The farmers of Kheda district came to him and asked him to lead an agitation against high tax rates.

Heavy rains that year had destroyed most of the crops in the Kheda district, and under the provisions of the law the tax was exempted if the yield from land was less than 25 percent. But the government assessed the yield at 48 percent and taxed the farmers accordingly. Vallabhbhai wrote to the Commissioner, who threatened to use force to recover the tax. Gandhi agreed to lead the agitation, and Vallabhbhai agreed to be his deputy. For the first time, he wore a khadi dhoti, discarding for ever the western clothes.

From 1917 Vallabhbhai was also involved with the Ahmedabad municipality, and was elected as its president in 1924. But he was now completely immersed in the freedom struggle led by Gandhi. Patel stood resolutely by Gandhi when the non-cooperation movement was called off after the Chauri Chaura incident. He also defended Gandhi's stand opposing entry into the legislatures that the Swaraj Party members wanted. His brother Vithalbhai Patel was a Swarajist.

By February 1928 the stage ws set for the historic Bardoli struggle. The annual land tax from Bardoli taluka was increased from Rs. 5.14 lakhs to Rs. 6.7 lakhs. The farmers requested Patel to lead their agitation. Vallabhbhai warned that reprisal would come in fast, and it came as expected, only with more severity. But Patel ensured that almost each and every citizen of the taluka was involved in the struggle. It reached such proportions that barbers would refuse to shave government officials. By July, the Governor, who had earlier refused to even respond to Patel's written requests for a fresh inquiry into the tax hike, now actually came down to Surat to hold consultations with him.

The culmination of the entire episode was that the tax was hiked by 5.7 percent instead of the proposed 22 percent. Vallabhbhai became the Sardar that we all know after the successful conclusion of the Satyagraha. Subsequently, he was made the president of the Congress party at a time when Gandhi decided to challenge the British government with the Dandi March. Both men were jailed together for about 16 months and the Guru and his disciple became close companions. Once Gandhi suggested that the Sardar should also undertake a fast unto death. Patel's wry response was: "If I fast, people will let me die. They are your friends and they exert themselves to end your fast. Not for me." He did not lose his sense of commitment to Gandhi even when his mother died in 1932 and brother Vithalbhai in 1933, at a time when he was in jail.

By the mid-1930s, the Sardar had become the organisation man. He was an active force in the party and was the leader of the majority group opposed to the Congress socialists. This is the genesis of the sardar's competition with Nehru. The competition was not just for the control over the party, but over who was the first among equals as Gandhi's chosen disciple. On both counts the Sardar was tragically unlucky. Had it not been for the Mahatma, the Congress would have chosen Patel, both as the leader of the party and the prime minister of free India. But Gandhi chose Nehru. And the Sardar did not question his Guru's choice, promising just hours before the Mahatma was assassinated that Nehru would have his full cooperation in running independent India.

During his control of the party, the Sardar had running battles with Subhash Chandra Bose (including a high court battle over Vithalbhai Patel's assets), K. F. Nariman and several other leaders who were taken in by the socialist ideals. Events moved with a great rapidity after the Quit India movement of 1942, and communal violence broke out after the Muslim League's call for direct action for Pakistan. The Sardar was among the first Congress leaders to realise that Partition would be inevitable and the Congress Working Committee accepted his view on March 8, 1947. Patel has been blamed -- among others by Maulana Azad -- for being one of the primary reasons why the Muslims League and Jinnah turned obdurate. The League wanted the home portfolio in the government, but Patel was unwilling to relinquish it.

With independence came new responsibilities. Patel as the deputy prime minister and home minister was called upon to quell the mass rioting that had engulfed the entire country. But his real challenge was in bringing the 554 princely states under Indian dominion. Aided by his able lieutenant V. P. Menon, the Sardar managed to convince most of the states to become part of independent India, and in some cases -- against the princely states of Hyderabad and Junnagad -- he had to use force. It has been noted by historians that while partition led to a loss of 3.6 lakh square miles of territory, with a population of 81.5 million, the integration of the princely states by India led to an acquisition of 5 lakh square miles of territory and 86.5 million population. This was truly the Sardar's greatest achievement, for which he is also called the Bismarck of India. After this death took him away on December 15, 1950.

The Mahatma had once said, "Jawaharlal is a thinker, the Sardar is a doer."


Maulana Abul Kalam Azad (1888-1958):

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad was born in the holy city of Mecca in 1888. His father Maulana Khairuddin brought the family to Calcutta in 1890, and in Calcutta Maulana Azad began his education. Calcutta was also the city where he started his career in journalism and spent most of his formative years. Maulana Azad’s real name was Firoz Bakht and was known as Muhiyuddin Ahmad. It was his deep interest in Urdu language, its poetry, polemics and Islamic theology that shaped his concerns and he adopted Azad as his pen name, following a suggestion from Maulvi Abdul Wahid Khan, who introduced him to Urdu and Persian poetry.

Azad was a keen student. In his autobiographical narrative (written by Humayun Kabir) India Wins Freedom (published by Orient Longman, Hyderabad), Azad says, “Students who followed the traditional system of education normally finished their course at the age between 20 and 25. This included a period when the young scholar had to teach pupils and thus prove that he had acquired mastery over what he had learnt. I was able to complete the course by the time I was sixteen, and my father got together some 15 students to whom I taught higher philosophy, mathematics and logic.” It was at this stage that Azad was introduced to the philosophy of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan. “I was greatly impressed by his views on modern education. I realised that a young man could not be truly educated in the modern world unless he studies modern science, philosophy and literature,” observes Azad, about Sir Syed Ahmad’s impact on him.

He learnt English. This was a period of great mental crisis for Azad. He explains, “I was born into a amily which was deeply imbued with religious traditions. All the conventions of traditional life were accepted without questions and the family did not like the least deviation from orthodox ways. I could not reconcile myself with the prevailing customs and beliefs and my heart was full of a new sense of revolt. The ideas I had acquired from my family and early training could no longer satisfy me. I felt that I must find the truth for myself. Almost instinctively I began to move out of my family orbit and seek my own path.”

Most of these doubts pertained to religion. Azad emphasis this in his autobiography. “If religion expresses a universal truth, why should there be such differences and conflicts among men professing different religions? Why should each religion claim to be the sole repository of truth and condemn all others as false. For two to three years, this unrest continued and I longed to find a solution of my doubts, I passed from one phase to another and a stage came when all the old bonds imposed on my mind by family and upbringing were completely shattered. I felt free of all conventional ties and decided that I could chalk out my own path. It was about this time that I decided to adopt the pen name Azad or ‘Free’ to indicate that I was no longer tied to my inherited beliefs.”

He became politically conscious when Lord Curzon decided to partition Bengal in 1905 on the basis of religious majorities. He met the young Bengal revolutionaries led by Sri Aurobindo Ghosh. He was, in fact, among a handful of Muslims who joined the revolutionary movement. It was during this period that he traveled extensively to Egypt, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. It was during his interaction with the young revolutionaries in these countries (which were also under foreign rule) that Indian Muslims should not fall prey to the British designs of dividing the two religious communities in India. He was convinced that all Indians, irrespective of their religious beliefs, should work together for freedom from British rule.

On his return to Calcutta, he launched a modern Urdu news weekly Al Hilal. In a short time it became the most popular weekly in the region, selling 25,000 copies every week. The old Muslim leadership was appalled at the line adopted by Azad’s newspaper. The old leadership, schooled in the Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s line of thinking that Muslims should remain loyal to the British, vehemently opposed Azad’s advocacy that the Muslims should whole-heartedly participate in the national movement. Of course, the young readers of Azad’s weekly eagerly accepted Azad’s views.

Expectedly, his views got him into trouble with the British administration, and with onset of World War I, his news weekly was closed down. But Azad started another weekly, Al Balagh. This forced the British to use the Defence of India Regulations and Azad was externed from Calcutta in 1916. He had to go to Ranchi in Bihar where he was put behind bars. Gandhi, at that time leading his Champaran agitation, expressed a desire to meet with Azad, but the jail administration would not allow that. It was only after Azad was released in 1920 that he could meet Gandhi, who was spearheading the Khilafat movement.

Gandhi outlined his progamme for non-cooperation. The Muslim leadership wasn’t sure whether it wanted to agitate in the manner that Gandhi was planning. But Azad was absolutely certain this was the right path, subsequently even the Ali Brothers, Mohammed and Shaukat, joined hands with Gandhi on Khilafat. The old guard of the Congress had to give into the pressure of the cadres who were just waiting to start Gandhi’s programme. By 1920, Gandhi had complete control over the Congress. The Lokmanya had died and Jinnah had left the party. Azad was in the mainstream of the Congress. He remained so till the time of his death in 1958, at that time he was independent India’s education minister. Azad was made the president of the All-India Khilafat Committee.

Azad was a true patriot and forcefully argued against the partition of the country along religious lines. Throughout his political career, he remained convinced that both Hindus and Muslims had to work together and in close cooperation. Though he was aware of the universality of Islam, he was equally passionate in upholding India’s unity. He was bitterly opposed to Muslim separatism or aggressive Islamic politics. In his autobiography, Azad perceptively notes, “It is true that Islam sought to establish a society which transcends racial, linguistic, economic and political frontiers. History has however proved that after the first few decades or at the most after the first century, Islam was not able to unite all the Muslim countries on the basis of Islam alone.”

He vehemently opposed the idea of Pakistan. In 1946, at the height of the communal madness that had engulfed the entire subcontinent, Azad issued a statement that clearly explicated his views on Pakistan. “I have considered from every possible point of view the scheme of Pakistan as formulated by the Muslim League. As an Indian I have examined its implications for the future of India as a whole. As a Muslim I have examined its likely effects upon the fortunes of Muslims of India. Considering the scheme in all its aspects I have come to the conclusion that it is harmful not only for India as a whole but for Muslims in particular. I must confess that the very term Pakistan goes against my grain. It suggests that some portions of the world are pure while others are impure. Such a division of territories into pure and impure is un-Islamic and is more in keeping with orthodox Brahmanism which divided men and countries into holy and unholy – a division which is a repudiation of the very spirit of Islam. Islam recognises no such division and the prophet says, ‘God has made the whole a mosque for me.’”

Azad worked hard to avoid the partition, he even offered a solution wherein the Muslim dominated regions would be granted full autonomy within the larger Indian union. But events were moving in another direction, and Azad (along with Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan) was left behind. He remained unshakable in his belief of a united India, and independence, because it was also accompanied with partition became a sad event for him. He worked tirelessly with Gandhi and Nehru to fight the fires of communalism that engulfed the newly independent country. He was equally keen that even after the partition, India and Pakistan, especially its people, should strive to maintain good relations. He equated partition with drawing a line with a stick in water – this would certainly create temporary ripples, but could not result in a permanent division of the water.

Azad died in 1958 having served for nearly decade as independent India’s education minister. He was an instinctive administrator, a visionary who laid the foundations of a strong system. “In the advancement of nations, there is no greater hindrance than narrow-mindedness. It is our duty to keep ourselves free from this disease in this new era of independence.” This remained his guiding philosophy while he shaped the future of India through his efforts at giving India a solid base in education.


Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose (1897-1945?):

Subhash Chandra Bose was born to Janakinath Bose and Prabhavatidevi in 1897 at Cuttack in Orissa. He was brilliant as a student and also topped the matriculation exams. After completing his matriculation he went on to complete his graduation in philosophy from the Presidency College in Calcutta. As a young man he was influenced by Swami Vivekananda’s thoughts. Like all middle class young and educated Indians of that era, he was sent to England by his parents to study for the Indian Civil Services. During the course of his studies, he heard of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, and that determined the course of life for the young Subhash. He returned to India and met Gandhi. Gandhi himself relatively new to the Indian political scene (he had returned to India from South Africa only in 1915) advised the young Subhash to work with Chittaranjan Das, the Deshbandhu.

His dedication to the national cause saw him rise fast in esteem and popularity. Within a matter of a few years, Subhash Chandra Bose was among the handful of Congress leaders who were the main stay of the nationalist, anti-imperial struggle. Subhash Chandra Bose was clearly with the new set of leadership that was slowly emerging in the Congress. These leaders were keen to break away from the old guard of the Congress that had believed in working along with the British masters to achieve a modicum of political reforms.

The new leaders were impatient with this approach and were clear that the struggle for freedom would not materialize into anything concrete if the Congress did not confront the British head-on. The other aspect that bound this new group together was an international outlook, the ability to focus their struggle and place it in a historical perspective. In addition, these leaders were bound by a firm belief in socialistic ideals, a clear inspiration from the events that had shaped Soviet Union after the Communist revolution.

Subhash Chandra Bose’s popularity ensured that people all across the Indian subcontinent and especially in Bengal began to address him as Desh-nayak. It was in the 1940s, when he led the first Indian army against the British in 1943 that he was called Netaji. With the Congress he began to move ahead of his peers both in terms of forming fresh strategies as well as making the Congress more mass-based and politically meaningful. He was instrumental in the formation of the idea of Purna Swaraj (complete freedom) in the late 1920s, the idea that the Congress finally adopted as official policy. By the advent of the decade of 1930s, Subhash Babu had clearly grown substantially in stature to formulate his own ideas and was keen that the Congress would follow them. He was keen that the Congress take a firm, active stand in the court case against Bhagat Singh.

Unfortunately for Subhash Babu, the Congress was in complete control of Gandhi, and nobody else really mattered. This came to fore more clearly during the run up to the 1939 elections to the Congress president’s post. Bose announced his plan to seek a re-election, something that the party machinery (controlled by Sardar Patel and others who were clearly considered right-wingers) was not willing to support. In fact, matters came to such a pass that Pattabhi Sitaramayya who was propped by the anti-Bose faction had the support of Gandhi.

Despite the entire working committee and the official Congress machinery ranged against him, Bose won the election. Gandhi issued a statement that clearly stated, “Since I was instrumental in inducing Pattabhi not to withdraw…the defeat is more mine than his…” Bose understanding the gravity of his achievement was more conciliatory. “…it will always be my aim and object to try and win his confidence for the simple reason that it will be a tragic thing for me if I succeed in winning the confidence of other people but fail to win the confidence of India’s greatest man.”

After this, it was only a matter of time before Bose was forced out of the Congress. He formed the Forward Bloc and then moved into a completely different direction with the advent of World War II in September 1939. Bose cautioned the imperial rulers against using Indian resources and men in the war. The British administration promptly jailed him. Bose launched a hunger fast, and the British were forced to take him out of the prison and put him under house arrest. It was from this house in Elgin Road in Calcutta that Subhash Chandra Bose escaped from India (on January 17, 1941), never to return. He reached Germany through Afganistan and Russia. In Germany, Bose began to actively mobilize support for starting an army that would fight the British. His broadcast from German radio shocked the British and delighted the Indian followers.

The Germans welcomed Bose and provided him with necessary help. Rashbehari Bose in Japan (Rashbehari was in exile in Japan since 1915) formed the Indian National Army. The army comprised Indian prisoners of war detained by the Japanese government. Rashbehari invited Subhash Chandra Bose to lead the army. When Subhash Babu arrived at Singapore in 1943, the Indians gathered at Singapore honoured him with the title of Netaji. He was now the supreme leader of the INA. It was at Singapore that he gave that rousing call of “Chalo Delhi”. The Indian National Army was the most inspiring moment for Indians, who had seen nothing like this before. The INA had two wings, one the female wing named as ‘Jhansi Rani Brigade’. The male wing was organised into three brigades. The distinctive feature about the INA was its completely secular outlook, and equal respect to all religious communities and women.

On October 21, 1943, Subhash Chandra Bose announced the formation of Azad Hind government under his leadership. The Japanese government gave the Andaman and Niccobar Islands to the newly formed Azad Hind government. Netaji renamed these islands as the ‘Sahid dwep’ and ‘Swaraj dwep’. Eight countries included Japan and Germany gave recognition to the Azad Hind government. On October 23, 1943, Azad Hind government declared war against Britain and America. The INA started advancing towards Delhi. In 1944 Netaji reached Rangoon with his army and proceeded towards India. The army occupied ‘Moudak’ British camp after defeating the British army there. It was in Imphal that the national flag of India was first hoisted in the Indian soil liberated by the INA. But at that point Japan surrendered after the atomic bomb attack by America. In the absence of support from Japan, the INA was compelled to retreat and ultimately surrendered to the British army. Bose left for Japan to plan his next course of action but never reached Tokyo. It is believed that his plane crashed and so did the hopes of millions of his countrymen.

The INA’s mission remained unfulfilled and the army couldn’t proceed beyond Imphal. However, the contribution of INA struggle under the leadership of Netaji is a glorious chapter in the history of Indian freedom movement because of the unsurpassed heroism, and a completely new direction that Netaji gave to the Indian nationalistic struggle. Nationalist historians, however, have not adequately addressed his alliance with fascist forces. Even that involvement does not take away anything from their towering patriotism, dedication and military skills. The INA created a sense of fear in the minds of British rulers and a sense of great inspiration in the mind of Indians.

The British could not take any serious action against the members of the Azad Hind Fauj and had to release the captured INA soldiers in the face of strong opposition from the eminent politicians, lawyers as well as the Indian masses in general.

Subhash Chandra Bose was a unique leader of the Indian freedom struggle. He went against the then prevalent thinking of Gandhian non-violence and passive resistance. He carved a name for himself in history through robust nationalism and patriotism. He was the tragic hero of Indian nationalism. The man who had he lived, become one of the biggest contenders for leading free India.


Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar (1891-1956):

Bhimrao Ambedkar is better known as Babasaheb Ambedkar. He was born on April 14, 1891 to Bhimabai and Ramji Sakpal, in the Mahar caste, once considered untouchable. Bhimrao was born in Mhow, Madhya Pradesh, where his father was an army officer. His grandfather, too, had been an army officer. It was British policy to provide education to the children of its soldiers. This proved to be a boon for Bhimrao, who thanks to his ‘untouchable’ status in the society would otherwise have been deprived of a decent education. However, as fate would have it, Bhimrao turned out to be an impressive student.

Personally, Bhimrao had to face a series of crises. His father had retired from the army and the family had moved back to their village in Ratnagiri district, in the Konkan region of what was then the Bombay presidency. When Bhimrao was six, his mother died. The family had by then moved to Satara. It is during his education in Satara that he came in contact with a local Brahmin teacher whose surname was Ambedkar. Bhimrao used Ambavadekar as his surname, drawing upon the Maharashtrian tradition of using the name of ancestral village for surnames. It is said that this schoolteacher was so impressed with Bhimrao that he changed Bhimrao’s surname from Ambavadekar to Ambedkar.

Through personal efforts alone, Bhimrao managed to overcome his circumstances. At every step, he had to face the stigma that the higher caste Hindus attached to those who were born in the lower caste. Whether it was during his schooling or at a later stage in life. But Bhimrao did not let these pinpricks deter him from his ultimate goal of getting the best possible education. Bhimrao’s father shifted the family to Bombay and began to stay in the mill areas of central Bombay in single-room tenements. Bhimrao enrolled himself at the Elphinstone school and later the Elphinstone College from where he completed his graduation in 1912. Earlier, Bhimrao got married to Ramabai in Bombay’s Byculla Market. Bhimrao had managed to complete his graduation thanks to the financial assistance provided by the Maharaja of Baroda, Sayajirao Gaekwad, Bhimrao began to serve the Maharaja’s estate after he acquired his Bachelor of Arts degree. Unfortunately, within a fortnight of his joining the service, Bhimrao’s father died, and he had to return to Bombay.

Now virtually on his own, Bhimrao’s quest for higher education again made him seek different avenues. He got a scholarship from the Maharaja of Baroda. In 1913, Bhimrao signed an agreement with the Maharaja’s estate that he would serve for a decade with the Maharaja after he returned from his higher studies in the United States of America. Bhimrao joined the Columbia University. In 1916, the University awarded him the Doctor of Philosophy for his thesis titled The Evolution of Provincial Finances in British India. Writes Dhananjay Keer in Dr. Ambedkar Life and Mission (published by Popular Prakashan, Bombay), “This famous book became a companion of the Members of the Indian Legislative Councils and Central Assembly at the time of budget discussions during the British regime, a ready reference to men in authority.” In 1916, he left Columbia University after acquiring his post graduation and doctoral degrees. His next stop was London to enroll himself at Grays Inn for law and the London School of Economics. But the Maharaja of Baroda’s people in India insisted that Bhimrao returned to India as per the agreement.

This was a temporary setback. Bhimrao returned to Baroda and tried to work there. Unfortunately, his caste became a major issue with not onlt those who were working with him but also seemingly with the entire town. He was forced out of the only hotel that had given him accommodation (owned by a Parsi), by a group of Parsis when it became known that Bhimrao was a Mahar. He returned to Bombay, and tried to earn a living by providing private tutions and turning into an investment advisor. Again, his caste ensured that he did not have any clientele. Finally, he got a temporary job at Sydenham College. During this entire struggle, he did not forget his social responsibility. He continued to build opinion against the caste oppression. He came in contact with the Maharaja of Kolhapur, the famous Maharishi Sahu Maharaj, and began to work with him for emancipation of the lower castes.

In 1920, Bhimrao started a Marathi-language publication Mook Nayak (Leader of the Voiceless). It is perhaps indicative of the deep-seated orthodox attitude of the higher castes that Kesri, the newspaper started by Lokmanya Tilak refused to announce its launch, despite Bhimrao’s publication willing to pay advertisement rates for the announcement. As Keer indignantly observes in Ambedkar’s biography, “And this happened when Tilak was yet alive!” In 1920, Bhimrao finally managed to arrange for his finances to complete his education at the London School of Economics and Grays Inn in England. He was awarded the degree of Master of Science in 1921 and completed his thesis, The Problems of the Rupee in 1922. At about the same time, he was called to the Bar. On his return to India, Bhimrao began his practice as an advocate in 1923.

In 1924, he started the Bahiskrit Hitkarini Sabha (The Congregation for the Betterment of the Socially Ostracised) and began to mobilise the oppressed castes into a political force. The Governor nominated him to the Legislative Council in Bombay. The stage was now set for one of the most momentous events of Bhimrao’s (by now he was being called Babasaheb) political career, the Mahad agitation. The Mahad Municipality had opened the Chowdar Tank to the dalits. However, the resolution of the Municipality remained a mere gesture in that the dalits had not exercised their rights owing to the hostility of the upper castes. Ambedkar and his followers gathered at Mahad on March 19 and 20, 1927, and began to march towards the tank. Ambedkar performed the act of drinking water from the tank. The upper caste Hindus began to whip passions by rumour mongering that after drinking water, the dalits would also force entry into the local temple. This led to rioting. Subsequently, these upper castes Hindus performed purification ceremony at the tank. The agitation was revived later in December 1927, where Ambedkar burnt the Manusmriti. Explaining his action later, Ambedkar said, “We made a bonfire of it because we view it as a symbol of injustice under which we have been crushed across centuries.”

The years that followed witnessed Ambedkar taking lead on the issue of human rights of the dalits. He utilised every for a, every opportunity to express his resentment against the unjust system that virtually ensured permanent slavery of a majority of people who were Hindus, but did not have the right caste. He also got involved with several issues pertaining to the economic situation of the dalits, whether these pertained to their traditional rights over land (watan lands) or in the textile industry of Bombay where most of the migrant dalits were employed. With the beginning of the decade of 1930s, Ambedkar moved at the centrestage of the national movement. He launched the temple entry movement in Nasik in 1930 at the Kalaram temple. He now began to demand political power for the dalits that was commensurate with their numbers in the Indian society. He also eagerly began to advocate political freedom from the British as one of his goals.

His activism ensured that he was invited to the first Round Table Conference held in London in 1930. He made his opposition to the foreign rule clear in his speech. “Our wrongs have remained as open sores and they have not been righted, although 150 years of British rule have rolled away.” The Second Round Table Conference was scheduled for 1931, and the stage was now set for the historic Gandhi-Ambedkar clash. Gandhi was slated to attend the Second Round Table Conference. However, he was keen to keep the dalits within the Hindu fold, and was not keen to let Ambedkar have his say about separate electorates for the dalits. Their first meeting in 1931 on the issue ended in bitterness, with Gandhi firmly saying, “I am against the political separation of the untouchables from the Hindus. That would be absolutely suicidal.” There was obviously no meeting ground between the two leaders on this matter.

Gandhi specifically stated the Congress’s opposition to separate electorates for the dalits, while accepting those for other religious minorities. For the dalits, the British government’s communal (announced in 1932) award granted separate seats in the Provinvial Assemblies and the right of double vote under which they were to elect their own representatives and to vote also in the general constituencies. As Bombay Chronicle said, the communal award’s main objective was to turn the national majority of the Hindus into a minority.” Gandhi’s reaction was instantaneous. Interned at Pune’s Yerwada jail, he decided to launch a fast unto death. His opposition to the communal award was only directed against the dalits. The fact that other religious minorities had been granted separate electorates did not really bother him as much as the fact that the dalits had been given this right also. Gandhi’s views were clear on this. He considered the dalits as an integral part of the Hindu religion, and was the first to act against the injustices that the dalits had to suffer. But to the young Ambedkar, this was nothing but hypocrisy.

Gandhi’s fast was nothing short of political blackmail. And Ambedkar was put under tremendous pressure. B.G. Horniman, the European editor of Bombay Chronicle, who had made India’s independence his and his newspaper’s goal, reprimanded Ambedkar by saying that “(the) man who assumed a proud and solitary position in a crisis of that kind was apt to find his solitariness become permanent.” Ambedkar’s response was pithy: “Mahatmas have come and Mahatmas have gone but the untouchables have remained untouchables.” The Hindu leaders called for a conference, but it did not achieve any results. Ambedkar was summoned to Yerwada Jail for a meeting with Gandhi.

Then the conversation began between the two adversaries (quoted from Dhananjay Keer’s biography of Ambedkar). Ambedkar said, “Mahatmaji, you have been very unfair to us.” “It is always my lot to appear to be unfair,” replied Gandhi, “I cannot help it.” After Ambedkar had explained his stand, Gandhi replied, “You have my fullest sympathy. I am with you, Doctor, in most of the things you say.” He pressed Ambedkar to agree to his terms. “I know you do not want to forego what your people have been granted by the Award. I accept your panel system, but you should remove one anamoly from it. You should apply the panel system to all the seats. You are untouchable by birth and I am by adoption. We must be one and indivisible. I am prepared to give my life to avert the disruption of the Hindu community.” But talks broke down on issues of details on how exactly the arrangement for the panel system would work. The agreement was finally arrived at when the Congress leaders agreed to Ambedkar’s demand of a referendum on the issue of separate electorates. Gandhi agreed to this demand.

There after, though Ambedkar continued to grow in stature in the national freedom movement, his disillusionment with the Hindu religion and the upper castes continued unabated. In 1935, newspapers in India reported Ambedkar’s decision to change his religion at Yeola Conference. At the conference, he announced, “I solemnly assure you that I will not die a Hindu.” It was in 1936, after this announcement, that he wrote the famous thesis Annihilation of Caste. He explained that the Hindus observe caste not because they are inhuman and wrong-headed. They observe caste because of their religious beliefs. The real enemy, according to Ambedkar, is the Hindu shastras that teach the Hindus to discriminate on the basis of caste. The cure for this ill, therefore, was to deny the validity, the divinity and sanctity of the shastras.

In the early 1940s, Ambedkar clearly moved out of the Congress’s ambit and chartered a new course for himself. He did not joint the Quit India movement, instead worked with the British government as the labour member. As the national scene moved inexorably towards freedom, Ambedkar found himself sidelined by the Congress and the scene shifted to Hindu-Muslim issue. He concentrated his efforts on starting the educational institution that he had always been his dream. In 1946, he started the People’s Education Society. It started a college – Siddharth in the heart of Bombay’s Flora Fountain area. However, he continued to remain involved with the national scene, giving invaluable suggestions on several issues, including the use of the Ashok Chakra in the national flag, the interpretation on the work of the boundary commission, etc.

When the new ministry was announced (one that would eventually rule independent India), Ambedkar’s name was a natural choice. Nehru wanted him to head the Law Ministry and later take charge of planning. Ambedkar was entrusted with the task of drafting the constitution, a task he completed by the first week of February 1948, a few days after Gandhi had been assassinated. The draft constitution contained 315 articles and eight schedules. This was the single-biggest achievement of Ambedkar’s political achievement. Ambedkar’s relations with the Congress never really became cordial, and he was soon out of the government and into the opposition. He remained focussed on the needs of the dalits. In 1956, he started the Republican Party, but it did not really take any concrete shape, because soon after its formation, its founder died. On October 14, 1956, Ambedkar along with his followers converted to Buddhism. Less than two months later, on December 6, 1956, he died.

Future generations to come will need to reassess the contribution of this leader to the making of modern India. So far, Babasaheb Ambedkar has been portrayed as a leader of the dalits alone, and here, too, his contribution has not often been adequately recognised. This will change when a revision of history occurs, as it will with every new generation getting acquainted with his achievements.


Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941)

Rabindranath Tagore was born on May 7, 1861 in Jorasanko, Calcutta. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913 for his book of poems Gitanjali. Rabindranath’s grandfather, Dwarkanath Tagore was a contemporary of Raja Ram Mohun Roy whose contribution to the Bengali Renaissance is considered formidable. Rabindranath’s father Debandranath re-launched the Brahmo Samaj that Raja Ram Mohun Roy had begun, though he gave it a substantially orthodox turn. Rabindranath’s mother Sarda Devi was a very religious woman. Rabindranath was the 14th child, and the youngest, after the 15th did not survive.

The extended Tagore family was full of talented people, who have left an indelible mark on arts, literature and culture of Bengal as well as India. As a child, Rabindranath was not a keen student. In fact, he resisted formal schooling. But because of his wealthy family, Rabindranath was imparted formal education at home. An education that was comparable to the best public school education imparted in England. At the age of 17, Rabindranath went to England with his brother Satyendranath, and a year later was enrolled at the University College in London. This early exposure to foreign climes helped him acquire a robust understanding of western civilisation and its rich cultural heritage. But this sojourn proved to be short when in 1880, both the brothers had to return home.

He continued with his education at home, and became well versed in Sanskrit, French and German languages, in addition to his own Bengali and English. Rabindranath Tagore is without question, the foremost poet of India. It has been said, and with good reason that Rabindranath Tagore was a creative epoch, whose influence on Bengali culture in particular is enormous. His talent and creative genius were so profound that he over-shadowed not only his contemporaries and peers, but left behind a legacy that was exacting and far too myriad for the future generations of creative writers. Tagore has often (and rightly so) been compared to is many European poets by western writers. But in his entirety, he was a combination of a creative writer, a philosopher and a revolutionary. Tagore wrote poetry but it would wrong to call him just a poet. His long life was packed with innumerable interests, and his achievements reflect his mastery over everything that he tried. From politics to painting.

Ketaki Kushari Dyson in her book I Won’t Let You Go, Rabindranath Tagore, Selected Poems (Published by UBSPD, New Delhi, 1993), observes, “When Tagore began his literary career, Bengali literature and the language in which it was written had together begun to joint leap into modernity, the most illustrious among his immediate predecessors being Michael Madhusudan Datta in verse and Bankim Chandra Chatterjee in prose. By the time of Tagore’s death in 1941 Bengali had become a supple modern language with a rich body of literature. Tagore’s personal contribution to this development was immense. The Bengali that is written today owes him an enormous debt.” In addition to his great poetry, Tagore’s contribution to the field of education are equally noteworthy. He abhorred formalised education and started his own ‘surrounded by and situated in nature’ educational system in 1901 with Shantiniketan, and later the Visvabharti University in 1921.

In addition to his creative contributions, Tagore was a thinker-philosopher rather ahead of his time. He sympathised with the nationalist movement, but did not share the narrow, limited perspective of the freedom struggle. To him, nationalism was the bane of civilisation, and he vigorously advocated the rights of the individual over the collective, and the importance of internationalism over nationalism. However, he was not an undiscerning and abstract thinker. “Tagore’s thinking mind and the times in which he lived inevitable involved him in political gestures,” writes Ketaki Kushari Dyson. “He write songs which protested against Curzon’s partition of Bengal; returned his knighthood after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre; spoke out against terrorism as a political strategy, to the displeasure of those who favoured it; criticised aspects of Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement and engaged in dialogues and debates with him. These activities made him an all-India figure and won him the admiration of both Gandhi and Nehru.”

Tagore never entered politics quite so directly after his disillusionment with Swadeshi. Tagore and Gandhi were great admirers of each other, despite their differences in matters of politics, nationalism and social reform. Tagore called Gandhi “The Mahatma in a peasant's garb” and Gandhi called Tagore “The Great Sentinel”. Navjivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad, has published a book compiled and edited by R. K. Prabhu and Ravindra Kelekar highlighting the differences between Gandhi and Tagore called Truth Called Them Differently – Tagore-Gandhi Controversy. In October 1921, Tagore published his essay on Gandhi’s non- cooperation, ‘The Call of Truth,’ which argued against Gandhi’s philosophy of inner truth and love by stressing that truth was of both the head and the heart. He also rejected Gandhi’s demand for complete subjugation to the economic philosophy of the charkha (the spinning wheel).

Tagore wanted a serious economic inquiry into the economics of swadeshi, as espoused by the nationalist movement. Tagore did not take too kindly to the ultra nationalism displayed in the burning of foreign cloth. Gandhi’s answer was published in Young India in October 1921. Titled ‘The Great Sentinel’, Gandhi replied that the spinning wheel had been chosen as the mainstay of his swadeshi program after due reflection and he wanted everyone to adopt the charkha because, “when a house is on fire, all the inmates go out, and each takes up a bucket to quench the fire.” Gandhi did not give credence to Tagore’s demand for an economic inquiry into the economics of swadeshi.

Leonard Gordon’s book Brothers Against the Raj (biography of Subhash Chandra Bose and Sarat Chandra Bose) succinctly narrates Tagore’s position. “Tagore was never in full agreement with any of the political leaders, though in the last decade of his life he was sympathetic to the approach of Jawaharlal Nehru. He remained, however, a frequent and penetrating commentator on the development of the movement and his relinquishment of his knighthood after the Jallianwalla Bagh incident in 1919 was widely applauded in India. Certainly from the year of his Nobel Prize, 1913, Tagore stressed his international concerns, and shrewdly denounced the excesses of nationalism not only in India, but in Japan, China, and the West.”

But both Gandhi and Tagore remained each other’s ardent admirers. An incident involving Subhash Chandra Bose and Tagore offers a glimpse of Tagore’s admiration for Gandhi. Bose asked Tagore to seek an internationally reputed writer to write the preface of his book The Indian Struggle. Tagore suggested Romain Rolland’s name, but Bose rejected this suggestion outright by saying, “I had also thought of Rolland, but he is too much an admirer of Gandhi. I am not that and I have told him that. So I cannot hope that M. Rolland will agree to write the introduction to my book. Bernard Shaw or Wells have a high opinion of Mahatmaji, but they are not his blind admirers, so they might agree. I had also thought of you, but I do not know whether you would be inclined to write something for a book concerning politics. Besides, you yourself have recently become Mahatmaji's blind admirer - at any rate, people might get this impression from your writings. Under the circumstances whether you would be able to tolerate criticism of Mahatmaji, I do not know.”

Taken aback at this effrontery (Tagore was not accustomed to be treated so bluntly), Tagore refused to oblige to Bose’s request. He then lectured Subhash on the history of Indian politics, and Gandhi’s pre-eminent place in the freedom struggle. The multitude of this vast land, Tagore told Bose, had remained dormant for centuries. It was Gandhi who had awakened the Indian masses to their strength. To Tagore, anyone who said that Gandhi could be ignored was actually unaware of the realities of modern India. Though when Subhash finally left the Congress in the wake of his second bid for the party’s presidentship, and the insurmountable differences that arose between him and Gandhi, Tagore stoutly supported Subhash.

Tagore implored Gandhi and Nehru to accommodate Subhash. But Gandhi was resolute in his decision. Gandhi, in a message to C. F. Andrews, mentioned Tagore’s efforts on behalf of Subhash. He wrote to Andrews, “If you think it proper tell Gurudev that I have never ceased to think of his wire and anxiety about Bengal. I feel that Subhash is behaving like a spoilt child of the family. The only way to make up with him is to open his eyes. And then his politics show sharp differences. They seem to be unbridgeable. I am quite clear the matter is too complicated for Gurudev to handle. Let him trust that no one in the Committee has anything personal against Subhas. For me, he is as my son.”

Tagore actively collaborated with the younger nationalist leaders in giving a truly secular outlook to the freedom struggle. In the mid-1930s, Jawaharlal Nehru was keen to have a greater participation from the Muslims in the national movement and become supporters of the Congress. He had expressed some concern over the Muslims’ displeasure over the use of Vande Matram as the anthem of the national movement. Nehru had read the English translation of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s novel Anand Math in which the song Vande Matram had been included. And he felt that even if the Muslims could not logically object to the song, the tone and tenor of the novel could give rise to their ire.

On Subhash Chandra Bose’s suggestion, Nehru met Tagore at a session of the All India Congress Committee in Calcutta. After some deliberations, one of Tagore’s songs was transliterated into Hindi, and adopted as the anthem of the Congress party. Jana Gana Mana went on to become independent India’s national anthem. In fact, Tagore is perhaps the only poet in the world whose songs have become national anthems of two nations (Jana Gana Mana in India and Sonar Bangla in Bangladesh).

After a rich and varied life, Tagore died in August, 1941. Shortly after Tagore's death, Jawaharlal Nehru, in a letter to Krishna Kripalani (Krishna Kripalani is also Tagore’s biographer), wrote,

“How long ago it all seems! People must die some time or other and Gurudev could not have lived much longer. And yet his death came as a grievous shock to me and the thought that I would never see his beautiful face and hear his gentle voice again oppressed me terribly. Ever since I came to prison this thought had haunted me. I wanted to see him once again so much. Not that I had anything special to say to him, and certainly I had no desire to trouble him in any way. Perhaps the premonition that I was not fated to see him again itself added to this yearning. However, all that is over and instead of sorrow, let us rather congratulate ourselves that we were privileged to come in contact with this great and magnificent person. Perhaps it is as well that he died when he was still pouring out song and poem and poetry – what amazing creative vitality he had! I would have hated to see him fade away gradually. He died, as he should, in the fullness of his glory.

“I have met many big people in various parts of the world. But I have no doubt that in my mind the two biggest I have had the privilege of meeting have been Gandhi and Tagore. I think they have been the two outstanding personalities in the world during the last quarter of a century. As time goes by, I think this will be recognized, when all the generals and field marshals and dictators and shouting politicians are long dead and largely forgotten.

“It amazes me that India in spite of her present condition (or is it because of it?) should produce these two mighty men in the course of one generation. And that also convinces me of the deep vitality of India and I am filled with hope, and the petty troubles and conflicts of the day seem trivial and unimportant before this astonishing fact – the continuity of the idea that is India from long ages past to the present day. There is another aspect which continually surprises me. Both Gurudev and Gandhiji took much from the West and from other countries, especially Gurudev. Neither was narrowly national. Their message was for the world. And yet both were one hundred percent India's children, and the inheritors, representatives and expositors of her age-old culture. How intensely Indian both have been, in spite of their wide knowledge and culture! The surprising thing is that both of these men with so much in common and drawing inspiration from the same wells of wisdom and thought and culture, should
differ from each other so greatly! No two persons could probably differ so much as Gandhi and Tagore! Again, I think of the richness of India's age-long cultural genius which can throw up in the same generation two such master-types, typical of her in every way, yet representing different aspects of her many-sided personality.”


Rabindranath Tagore's legacy of creativity, freedom, harmony with people and nature, international brotherhood is the best that Bengal and India has offered to the world. Tagore provided inspiration to poets, writers, linguists, historians, painters, musicians, singers and philosophers. He was among the first of the ‘greens’. It is, indeed, difficult to capture the true essence of Tagore, because he was such a multi-faceted personality. As his eldest son Rathindranath wrote in On the Edges of Time, “No biography, however laboriously written, could ever give an adequate picture of such a complex personality as his. The subtle nuances of a life so delicately lived could only be expressed by a pen as delicate as his own. As a matter of fact, his writings constitute the best commentary on his life. These reveal him as nothing else does. ‘You cannot find the poet in his biography,’ he says in one of his poems. Yes, the poet is to be found in his poems. His poems are his best life-story and may I conclude by saying that his greatest poem is the life he has lived.”



C. Rajagopalachari (1878-1972):

C. Rajagopalachari was born on December 10, 1878 in Tamil Nadu. Rajaji, as he was fondly called, straddled three generations of Indian leaders, and was one of the most important and erudite leaders of the Indian freedom movement. He was a contemporary of Gandhi, younger to the Mahatma by nine years, and elder to Jawaharlal Nehru by eleven years. Rajaji’s role in Indian public life did not end after India attained independence. In fact, he was among the only important leaders left from those pristine days that had the stature and the calibre to oppose Jawaharlal Nehru in independent India. It was a role that Rajaji performed with a rare degree of maturity. He opposed Nehru’s economic policies, but always remained his friend. He continued with his opposition of the Congress even after Nehru’s death, and provided guidance to the resurgence of the anti-Congress forces in the 1960s.

Rajaji’s early education was in Bangalore and Madras. He qualified himself for the Bar and had a healthy law practice. His initial foray into public life began with the Congress session that witnessed its first split – the Surat session of 1907. But his active political life began when he met Gandhi in 1919, and participated in the non-cooperation movement in 1920. From then onwards, Rajaji was a familiar figure in the inner circle of Gandhi. And was identified increasingly with the right-wing political opinion led by Vallabhbhai Patel; of course, Rajaji was a leader too tall to be a camp follower of anyone except Gandhi. Rajaji led the Salt Satyagraha in south in 1930. He was arrested and put behind bars for nine months.

Rajaji became the Prime Minister of Madras Presidency in 1937, but relinquished the office in 1939, following the Congress’s decision to re-launch non-cooperation movement following Britain’s decision to force India into World War II. Rajaji played an important role in persuading the Congress to continue supporting Gandhi and not get swayed by Subhash Chandra Bose, during the famous clash between the two in 1939. His vociferous and vocal support of Gandhi helped the situation, but it was to haunt him later when as the Governor of Bengal (just after India’s independence), he had the arduous task of resorting communal peace and harmony in most of Bengal. It was at this time that he had to hear taunts of rejecting Bose. Earlier, as the member of the interim government in 1946, he tried hard to work towards a rapprochement between the differing groups, but could not really help prevent the partition.

Independence Day saw Rajaji taking over as the Governor of West Bengal. Nehru and Patel (the prime minister and the deputy prime minister) had asked him to man that post. As Rajmohan Gandhi (grandson of both Rajaji and Gandhi) explains in The Rajaji Story: 1937-72 (Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1984), “CR’s brief was to preserve communal peace in an incendiary climate. Many voices were urging Muslims living in India to be loyal to their country, but no one spoke as CR did in Calcutta: ‘I acknowledge the loyalty of Muslims to India, I realise also that such loyalty requires sacrifice. If anyone doubts this, he has only to place himself in the position of a Hindu in Pakistan and imagine that he qwas offering allegiance to that state and flag.’”

But violence did erupt, and Gandhi had to start a fast-unto-death. Rajaji, as the Governor, was responsible for bringing the city under control. And he spoke directly, “This time we can throw the blame on no outside or foreign government if his (Gandhi’s) precious life ebbs away…It would be a shame too awful for words if those who in their folly are disturbing the peace of Calcutta refuse to melt.” He spoke with a directness that went straight to his people’s heart. To his law-enforcing officials, he said, “It is your sacred duty to protect the person, the property and the honour of everyone. You should strike down the offender even though he belongs to your own community. If you betray any partiality, it will break even my stony heart, not to speak of him who is crucifying himself for our sake in Belliaghata.” When violence subsided, Rajaji declared that Gandhi and the citizens of Calcutta shared the credit. He wrote to a friend saying, “Calcutta has added to the glory of Mahatmaji and, incidentally, to my poor stock of religious faith.”

The crowning moment of Rajaji’s life came when he was asked to step into the shoes of Lord Mountbatten, who was to leave for Britain to attend Elizabeth’s marriage to Philip. Nehru, Patel and Mountabatten met to find a replacement. “During the course of the discussion,” Mountabatten was to record later, “it was absolutely clear that the only possible choice was Rajaji.” He thus became the first (and the last) Indian Governor-General of India. Rajaji’s biggest achievement was to play host to Gandhi at the Viceroy’s palace in New Delhi. As Rajmohan Gandhi evocatively writes in his book, “For decades, the Mahatma had not graced occasions or places. He went anywhere for duty, nowhere for form.” On the day Elizabeth married Philip (November 20, 1947), was also that rare day when Rajaji, as the Indian head of the state, received Gandhi at the Viceroy’s palace.

On Gandhi’s assassination, when the clamour against Nehru and Patel (especially Patel) reached a cresendo, Rajaji firmly stood by Patel. “Is it not idiotic to blame the government of India because God has taken him away?” His reaction to Gandhi’s death was also typical. “Mahatmaji was very dear to me, but I do not grieve for him. No man can find a death so glorious. He was walking to join and lead a prayer; he was going to speak to his Ram. He was a few minutes late and so he was walking fast…How many of you would not like to did when running to pray?”

After Gandhi’s exit from the national scene, Rajaji replaced him as the mediator between Nehru and Patel. But he could not really play that role half as effectively as Gandhi had. In the end, after Patel’s death, the relations between Rajaji and Nehru became estranged, and the two, despite high regard for each other, grew apart. In 1952, Rajaji became the Chief Minister of Madras as a challenge to fight the communists in the Madras State Legislature. He relinquished office in 1954. He bestowed with the nation’s highest award, the Bharat Ratna in 1954.

Rajaji was a great champion of free enterprise, and the increasingly socialistic policy decisions of Nehru did not get his approval. In 1959, he started the Swatantra Party, a party that opposed the Nehruvian socialism and argued for non-regulatory growth models for the Indian economy. Rajaji’s other role, one that is not often well recognised, is that of translator of the Hindu epics into English. Rajaji’s English translations of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana are considered classics. He also translated the Bhagwad Gita and the Upanishads into English. He died in 1972.