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HISTORY

Grit and gumption: Annie Besant and the Indian freedom movement

Print edition : Apr 22, 2022 T+T-
Annie Besant, a 1925 photograph.

Annie Besant, a 1925 photograph.

The golden jubilee celebration of Theosophical Society, at Madras, with Annie Besant in the middle and to her right is Bishop Leadbeater. J.Krishnamurthi is third from left.

The golden jubilee celebration of Theosophical Society, at Madras, with Annie Besant in the middle and to her right is Bishop Leadbeater. J.Krishnamurthi is third from left.

Mahatma Gandhi at The Hindu office in Mount Road, Madras, after unveiling the portrait of the newspaper's late Editor, Mr. S. Kasturi Ranga Iyengar, on March 22, 1925. Seen with him on the dais are (from left) are Annie Besant, Rt. Hon. V.S. Srinivasa Sastri and S. Srinivasa Iyengar. The photogeraph was published in “The Hindu” dated March 24, 1925

Mahatma Gandhi at The Hindu office in Mount Road, Madras, after unveiling the portrait of the newspaper's late Editor, Mr. S. Kasturi Ranga Iyengar, on March 22, 1925. Seen with him on the dais are (from left) are Annie Besant, Rt. Hon. V.S. Srinivasa Sastri and S. Srinivasa Iyengar. The photogeraph was published in “The Hindu” dated March 24, 1925

An assessment of Annie Besant’s (1847-1933) role in the Indian freedom movement on the 175th anniversary of her birth.

Annie Besant was an extraordinary person by any standard; and Indians especially have every reason to remember and honour her as such, especially this year which marks the 175th anniversary of her birth. Indians ought never to forget the contribution to the nationalist struggle of other men and women of Irish origin, including Allan Octavian Hume, the moderate civilian counted among the founders of the Indian National Congress; Sister Nivedita (Margaret Noble), the militant social reformer and close associate of Swami Vivekananda; and Charles Freer Andrews, who combined in himself the teachings of Christ (he was trained to be a missionary) with the example of Gandhi and Tagore.

“Though born in this life in a western land and clad in western body”, Annie Besant (1847-1933)—socialist, theosophist, women’s rights activist, writer, orator, and educationist—was given to expressing the belief that she had been an Indian in her previous birth. Indian politics, education and social reform were greatly enriched by her active participation in these fields. Perhaps, it is necessary to mention that there are some people who are skeptical about her ‘contribution to philosophy and religion’ which, at times, appears to be mixed up with the occult and the irrational.

Although Annie Besant made Madras (now Chennai) her home, she was often to be found in Benaras or Allahabad, the storm centres of nationalist politics of central India. In Benaras, she founded the Central Hindu School which, with time and legendary effort on the part of Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya, flowered into a college and finally the Hindu University. And in Allahabad, she was a frequent visitor to Anand Bhawan, where she enjoyed the friendship of Pandit Motilal Nehru and the admiration of his son, Jawaharlal.

Among those who pronounced the mantra of Home Rule in 1916-17 with the most telling eloquence, Annie Besant was pre-eminent. Indeed, one commentator has described her as “the high-priestess of Home Rule”. However, not everyone was pleased with the political doctrines and methods she preached, which held a special fascination for the extremist faction in the Indian National Congress. In response to her statement “I am an Indian tom-tom waking up all sleepers so that they may wake and work for their motherland”, Dinshaw Wacha, devoted lieutenant of Pherozeshah Mehta and one of the leaders of the moderate group in the Congress, wrote to the patriarchal Dadabhai Naoroji: “We do not approve of the methods of Mrs. Besant who late in the day has come forward to support the Congress movement…. We are alarmed at the way in which she is going about on her own responsibility, supported from behind by the Extremists…. [It] is a distinct menace to the peaceful progress of the country.”

It serves as a sad commentary on the state of infighting in the Congress even then that the efforts of one not Indian-born to bring about a reconciliation between the rival factions in the party, as well as to force the pace of struggle against British rule, should have been so unfairly assessed. To connect the past with the present, if the beneficiary of the internal feuds in the party then were the British, in present times it is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), whose earliest political and ideological initiators divined great virtues in British rule and were known to work against national interests.

Also read: Annie Besant's many lives

It speaks volumes about Annie Besant’s fierce commitment to the nationalist cause that she refused to be discouraged by such adverse reactions as Dinshaw. Wacha’s. On the contrary, she decided to go alone, if need be, and in late 1916 founded the All India Home Rule League. Employing her knowledge of the tactics of Irish nationalists and English suffragettes, she soon gained a sizeable following. Her stirring words addressed to Indian youths make for inspiring reading to this day: “Let India remember what she was and realise what may be; then shall the Sun rise once more in the East and fill the western lands with light.” Speaking on her aim of self-government for India within the British Empire, which was nothing short of a revolutionary idea in what was then a largely abject and forlorn country, she used stronger language: “India no longer wants your [Britain’s] boons, your concessions [this was both a defiance of Britain and derision of the praying-petitioning moderate Congressman], and those offers you make… Autocracy is destroyed in Russia, tottering in Germany; only under England’s flag it is rampant …”

Several political stalwarts of the day saw wisdom in Annie Besant’s Home Rule League, but none with so formidable a reputation or so popular an appeal as Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who had thundered years earlier, “Swaraj is my birthright, and I shall have it.” It was decided that while the Lokmanya would reach the message of Home Rule to all corners of western and central India, Annie Besant would take care of the rest of the country. The result of their combined exertions was that the “atmosphere became electric”, to quote Jawaharlal Nehru.

Naturally, pucca Englishmen could not share in the enthusiasm for the Home Rule movement. Geoffrey Dawson, editor of The Times of London, described Annie Besant as an “obstreperous old harridan”, and Sir Richard Craddock, Home Member of the Government of India, referred to her as “a vain old lady influenced by a passionate desire to be a leader of movements”. It is perhaps inevitable, almost akin to a rule of nature, that rare personages as extraordinary in thought, word and deed as Annie Besant should excite deep-seated passions; the extreme loyalty of those befriended and the extreme hatred of those opposed.

Predictably, the Government of India came down heavily on Annie Besant: Lord Pentland, Governor of Madras, “decided to silence her by demanding and forfeiting securities from her journals, by imposing restrictions on the movements of her lieutenants and finally by issuing order under the Defence of India Rules (June 16, 1917) for her internment in Ootacamund and Coimbatore…”

The news of her internment rocked the entire country, especially the educated class which had been closely following her activities as an integral part of the country’s political aspirations. Gandhi echoed the feelings of many when in a letter to J.L. Maffey, Private Secretary to the Viceroy, he wrote: “… In my humble opinion, the internment is a big blunder. Madras was absolutely calm before then, now it is badly disturbed. India as a whole has not made common cause with Mrs. Besant, but now she is in a fair way towards commanding India’s identity with her methods.”

Proudly Irish

To adequately appreciate the mental equipment and the intellectual personality of this distinguished woman who played such a momentous role in Indian politics for several years in the early 20th century, one can profitably turn to her autobiography, which starts with her birth and childhood and takes the reader up to the year 1893 when, at the age of 46, she turned her gaze eastwards after decades of active involvement in many unpopular, if not lost, causes ranging from the occult to the spiritual, from the spiritual to the social, and finally to the political.

Annie Besant (nee Wood) was born of a highly gifted and scholarly father who died when she was still a child, and a mother who combined in herself the milk of human kindness with a firmness of character that enabled the family to scrape through a period of intense struggle following the premature death of her husband. Regarding the place of her birth, Annie Besant wrote: “It has always been somewhat of a grievance to me that I was born in London, ‘within the sound of Bow Bells’, when three-quarters of my blood and all my heart are Irish. My dear mother was of the purest Irish descent and my father was Irish on his mother’s side …” This fierce pride of being Irish was to stay with her all through her long and turbulent life, as indeed also her strong dislike of the English.

Also read: On being foreign and being nationalist

One of the more important influences in the moulding of Annie Besant’s personality was her mother, “the tenderest, sweetest, proudest, purest of women”. Her love for the woman who bore her comes out most strongly: “It is well to be able to look back to a mother who served as ideal of all that was noblest and dearest during childhood and girlhood, whose face made the beauty of home, and whose love was both sun and shield. No other experience in life could quite make up for missing the perfect tie between mother and child—a tie that in our case never relaxed and never weakened. Though her grief at my change of faith [Annie Besant “had travelled from Christianity to Theosophy via rationalism and atheism”, writes B.R. Nanda in The Nehrus: Motilal and Jawaharlal ] and consequent social ostracism did much to hasten her death-hour, it never brought a cloud between our hearts….”

Marriage and separation

Annie Wood was not yet twenty when, in the summer of 1866, she drifted into an engagement to a young clergyman, “even though our knowledge of each other [was] an almost negligible quantity”. The marriage took place in the winter of 1867.

From the very outset, they proved to be an ill-matched pair, the Reverend Frank Besant holding very definite ideas about a “husband’s authority and a wife’s submission”. On close examination it would seem that her unhappy marriage played an important role in endowing her with the strength and resolve to speak up against whatever impressed her in later years as being unjust and arbitrary. Finally, in 1873, the marriage tie was broken, after years of ill-adjustment with a person who never really made any effort to understand, far less appreciate, her.

However, it was not only the clergyman who had failed her; it would seem that for quite some time preceding the dissolution of her marriage vows, a storm of doubt had been raging in Annie Besant’s breast about her faith in the doctrines of the Church. “At last, in July or August, 1873, the crisis came. I was told that I must conform to the outward observance of the Church, and attend the Communion; I refused. Then came the distinct alternative; conformity or exclusion from home—in other words, hypocrisy or expulsion. I chose the latter.”

The failure of Annie Besant’s marriage was closely followed by the death of her mother. Even though she considered the latter event as tragic, she regained her customary composure quickly enough and resumed her writing and lecturing on theological , social and political issues.

August 2, 1874, is an important date in the life of Annie Besant. On that day, for the first time she met Charles Bradlaugh, the renowned critic of Christian superstition whose all-embracing erudition was matched only by his concern for the commonweal. He had suffered much on account of his beliefs but had never felt the need to regret having held them or expressed them in public. Annie Besant writes of that meeting: “From that first meeting… dated a friendship that lasted unbroken till death severed that earthly bond, and that to me stretches through death’s gateway and links us together still. As friends, not as strangers, we met—swift recognition, as it were, leaping from eye to eye…” A few days after this meeting, Bradlaugh offered her a place on the staff of his National Reformer . Her first contribution appeared in Reformer ’s issue dated August 30, 1874, and she wrote for it regularly until Bradlaugh’s death.

Also read: Tryst with the West

The late 1870s, the 1880s, and the early 1890s saw Annie Besant busy writing and speaking on such diverse subjects as the political status of women, the necessity of searching for actual religious truth, and the lessons of the French Revolution for all enslaved peoples. Some of the lecture work involved extensive travel across the British Isles, sometimes in inclement weather and all alone, a fact which would turn worse in the face of hostile crowds not yet ready for the kind of blasphemous talk she was wont to give on matters moral, social and political. In this connection, at least one incident deserves re-telling if only to illustrate the popular reactionary mood in England in those days towards dissenters like Annie Besant.

She writes: “In September, 1876, at Hoyland, thanks to the exertions of Mr. Hebblethwaite, a Primitive Methodist, and two Protestant missionaries, I found the hall packed with a crowd that yelled at me with great vigour, stood on forms, shook fists at me, and otherwise showed feelings more warm than friendly. Taking advantage of a lull in the noise, I began to speak, and the tumult sank into quietness; but as I was leaving the hall it broke out afresh, and I walked slowly through a crowd that yelled and swore and struck at me, but somehow those nearest always shrank back and let me pass. In the dark, outside the hall, they took to kicking, but only one kick reached me, and the attempts to overturn the cab were foiled by the driver who put his horse at a gallop….”

Of such stuff are children of destiny made! It is hardly a wonder that with the kind of training Annie Besant received at the hands of her opponents in the English countryside and sometimes even in the big towns and cities, she was able to achieve what she did years later on the Indian subcontinent.

Vidyarthy Chatterjee is a freelance writer based in Kolkata.

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