Sunday, April 6, 2008

Subramania Bharati’s Letters: a treasure trove

Subramania Bharati’s Letters: a treasure trove

T.S. Subramanian

The Letters to the Editor the great Tamil poet contributed to The Hindu between 1904 and 1916 have a remarkable range

Social slaves can never really understand political liberty

Mr Tilak … has given all our thoughts, ideas and aspirations in a nutshell

Portrait of the poet taken at Bharatiyar Illam in Chennai

C. Subramania Bharati (1882 - 1921) is indisputably the greatest of modern Tamil poets. He was a precocious child, and his prodigious talent at verse earned him the title of Bharati even as a boy. He briefly taught Tamil at Madurai before joining the Swadesamitran. The nationalist Tamil daily was founded by G. Subramania Iyer, one of the founders of The Hindu.

The Swadeshi movement, which gathered momentum following the Partition of Bengal, drew Bharati deeper into nationalist politics. He attended the Calcutta Congress in 1906, where he met Sister Nivedita to whom he dedicated two early works in Tamil. Bharati edited the nationalist Tamil weekly, India, which articulated the militant Indian nationalism of Bal Gangadhar Tilak. He shared with The Hindu’s second founder, S. Kasturiranga Iyengar, who took over the newspaper in 1905, a deep admiration for the politics, sacrifices, and heroism of Tilak. The revolutionary poet had a flair for languages. He was proficient in Sanskrit, Telugu, English, and French. He wrote with felicity in English.

On December 27, 1904, The Hindu published a letter, “Mr. Sankaran Nair’s Pronouncement,” by C. Subramania Bharati in the ‘Letters to the Editor’ section. At the age of 22, he wrote his very first piece in English to appear in print. Research into the microfilms of The Hindu by A.R. Venkatachalapathy, Professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai, has brought to light Bharati’s Letters to the Editor. (See the report ‘Early views of nationalist-poet Subramania Bharati’ in The Hindu of March 30, 2008.) These 16 letters, two ‘open letters,’ and two articles are unknown even to Bharati scholars.

The letters and articles were written between 1904 and 1916. The writings have a remarkable range and a distinctive voice. They present the poet’s views on social reform; his admiration for Tilak; his criticism of Annie Besant and the Theosophical Society; his defence of Aurobindo; being hounded by spies and informers when he was in exile in French-ruled Pondicherry; his admiration for Serbian patriotism; and the wretched condition of indentured Indian labourers in South Africa.

Interestingly, these letters are not among the papers passed on to his step-brother C. Viswanathan, who brought much of Bharati’s writing in English to light. Considering this adds up to a little less than 150 pages, the recently discovered letters are a small treasure. With their intellectual intensity and breadth, they enrich and widen the understanding of the poet’s life and work.

“It is by no means surprising,” notes Dr. Venkatachalapathy, “that Bharati should write to The Hindu. The only career he pursued was that of a journalist and he obviously followed the pre-eminent English daily of the day closely.” In his Tamil prose, he frequently made references to this newspaper and often responded to the issues raised in it. Importantly, most of these letters were published at a time when many journals he was associated with were proscribed by the British and he had little access to other forums.

The poet was closely associated with many Swadeshi leaders in the south, including V.O. Chidambaram Pillai. When the British Raj clamped down on the Swadeshis, he took refuge in Pondicherry in 1908; Aurobindo and V.V.S. Iyer also sought shelter there later. In 1920, Bharati returned to Madras to rejoin Swadesamitran. He met Mahatma Gandhi and wrote an oft-quoted poem in praise of non-violence. But his last years were tragic and he died in semi-obscurity in September 1921.

The Hindu is proud to reproduce some of Bharati’s published letters:


[This is C. Subramania Bharati’s first letter to The Hindu; it was published on December 27, 1904. The poet defends C. Sankaran Nair’s views on social reform and political freedom. ]

To the Editor of The Hindu

Sir, - The intelligent and well-intentioned critic, Mr Plainspeaker, who discussed in Saturday’s Hindu, the memorable pronouncement of Mr Sankaran Nair’s on the necessity of Social Reform for bringing about political regeneration, has been a little misguided by those treacherous things, viz., words. Mr Plainspeaker waxed indignant at hearing of ‘those great principles of equality and brotherhood upon which the British Government is based.’

I understand, and respect the feelings of Mr Plainspeaker, aye, even as I respect the indignant feelings of the down-trodden [Dalit] when he hears that Hinduism proclaims (I quote Mr Plainspeaker) the ‘one-ness of life’ and the ‘brother-hood of man.’

‘Talk of the one-ness of life, the brother-hood of man’ exclaims the [Dalit], ‘when yonder Brahman, who would bow low to an Englishman as if to a god, believes that my very shadow would pollute him.’

I entirely agree with Mr Plainspeaker in his righteous protest against British-Indian regulations.

But all this does not in the least affect Mr Sankaran Nair’s position. What the eminent social reformer means to say is simply this: There can be no political emancipation without the feeling of nationality. There can be no feeling of nationality where the caste system is prevalent or, rather, say (as some hyper-critical men want us to believe that the caste system is present in all human communities) where the jati system is prevalent, the wonderful system which makes a [Dalit] philanthropist inferior to a Brahmin go-between.

Is it doubted in any quarter that, in England, a cobbler-boy with necessary merit finds his path clear to the Premiership?

And is it not treason in India to believe that a Sudra (not to speak of Panchama) with an unparalleled knowledge of Sanskrit scripture and with exceptional goodness and piety can ever aspire to the seat of Sringeri?

Why will people be so wilfully blind? Why do they refuse to find any difference between a mountain and a molehill? Where is Great Britain and alas! where is India?

The National Congress, I readily concede, has some of India’s best sons in its ranks and its aspirations are of the worthiest.

But does anybody seriously believe that a man who, in his stony heart, condemns a babe widow to perpetual misery might be worthy to be placed at the helm of a rising people? Impossible.

‘I do not think India will ever be called-and she ought not to be called-into the Councils of the Empire until we show we have fully and frankly accepted those great principles of equality and brother-hood upon which the British Government is based. The principles are utterly repugnant to the caste-system as understood and practised among us.’

So said Mr Sankaran Nair, and his words are worthy to be written in golden letters.

Without social reform our political reform is a dream, a myth, for social slaves can never really understand political liberty.

And unless and until our Social Conferences prove a success our National Congress is nothing but glare and dust.

C. SUBRAMANIA BHARATI of the Madras Social Reform Association


[Two years after this letter was published, the poet told the Mysore correspondent of The Hindu who met him in Pondicherry that he looked upon Bal Gangadhar Tilak as “the first Indian statesman of the age.” The letter shows the tactical position that he adopted vis-À-vis Britain and its allies when World War I broke out.]

To the Editor of The Hindu

Sir, — Mr Tilak’s letter to the Mahratta, reprinted in your issue of the 1st instant, is bound to have created an infinite variety of emotions in the minds of his foes and his friends, his detractors and admirers in the country.

All the same there is nothing new, nothing unexpected, nothing surprising in his words to us, the members of the constitutional Nationalist party of which he is the accredited leader. We have always been saying the same thing whenever there was any necessity to explain our attitude to the British Government in India.

The reason why we were not incessantly proclaiming it from house-tops has been, to put it frankly, our unwillingness to please those whose one aim seemed to be to misrepresent us. And again incessant explanations would hardly have left us any leisure for constructive propaganda. And God knows, too, that our revilers were too many and too noisy for us to attempt any explanations at all.

In the face of the present European crisis, however, the Nationalist party-every member of it- felt that our position should be made once for all clear to England and our enemies, her proconsuls and her agents, her critics and her friends, her flatterers and her mis-leaders.

And now our leader has spoken for us all in language unmistakable and clear, unmistakable may I hope, even to those who hailed his release from six years’ imprisonment with two special police stations placed on each side of his house in Poona!

I trust that England’s chief representatives in India and her Ministers at Home are not ignorant of the tremendous influence which Mr Tilak’s name and his words wield over the hearts of his many thousand followers in India. He has given all our thoughts, ideas and aspirations in a nut-shell. We want Home Rule. We advocate no violence. We shall always adopt peaceful and legal methods to achieve our object. In peace time we shall be uncompromising critics of England’s mistakes. But when trouble comes we shall unhesitatingly stand by her and, if necessary, defend her against her enemies. And to those who may thoughtlessly persecute us in England’s name we shall say: ‘Oh ye of little wisdom. It may be in your power to temporarily injure us in petty ways. But you can never crush us. For we are lovers of humanity and servants of God, the children of Righteousness and the peace that shall endure for ever.’


Pondicherry, September 2 [1914]

Mr G. Subramania Iyer- A Tribute

[As the Congress approached its annual session in Madras in December 1914, Bharati wrote a balanced assessment of G. Subramania Iyer, patriot, social reformer and one of the founders of The Hindu and later of Swadesamitran. Prior to the session, Mr. Iyer wrote a curtain raiser in New India, a daily run by Annie Besant. Bharati responded to that piece with this letter.]

To the Editor of The Hindu

Sir, — There is hope for Madras. For she has still some veteran leaders of the calibre of Mr G. Subramania Iyer.

Mr Iyer is a patriot of the orthodox type- that prosaic, yet noble type, midway between the fanatic and the funk. For the last three decades and more, this man has been unceasingly thinking and writing about his country, her wrongs and her hopes.

The dazzling brilliancy of genius, Mr Iyer certainly has not. The Gods have certainly not bestowed on him any of those of shining, semi-divine mental gifts.

But they have mercifully withheld from his composition the cheap and deceitful flashes, so painfully common amongst us in these latter days- the spurious, multi-coloured and short-lived flames of the political dilettante and charlatan.

He is not a star, nor a meteor, nor ignis fatuus. He is the unfailing sacrificial fire. A modest beacon-light over the troubled waters of Indian politics.

The Gods have given him plenty of suffering, as they give to every mortal on earth. Perhaps, the Gods decree more suffering to men who wish to help human evolution than to others.

But to G. Subramania Iyer, they have granted the strength to bear all the burden and heat of the day, never complaining, never despairing.

This man can endure; he can therefore build. He can suffer; he can therefore elevate.

Unaided, he has made Tamil Journalism a fact of the world, in spite of his very imperfect early training in Tamil literature.

Learn, says the Tamil aphorist, while you are yet young. In Mr G. Subramania Iyer’s youth he had wholly neglected his mother-tongue like most people in this country who claim to have been educated in English Schools.

But his mature patriotism had to realise, later on, that for the elevation of the Tamil race, the Tamil language would be not only the most rational but the indispensable medium.

‘Il faut de l’audace; encore de l’audace; toujours de l’audace.’ They win, who dare. Mr Iyer dared and he has succeeded in establishing a daily Tamil journal which, with all its faults, is the most useful newspaper in the Tamil country.

His whole political gospel can be summed up in these words: ‘Peaceful, but tireless and unceasing effort.’ Let us sweat ourselves into swaraj, he would seem to say.

Indian, Madrasi and Brahman. Mr Iyer is naturally averse to all troubles and vexing complications.

When strong winds are about, his policy is to bend. He bends, but he is not a reed.

He is the bending oak tree, the Suppliant Bhima. His recent contribution to the New India on the National Congress is vigorous, manly, sage and eminently useful.

His chief suggestions are:

1. That we unite all parties and make the Congress a real council of the people.

2. That the Congress be made less spectacular and more business-like.

3. That we demand a definite pledge from British Statesmen on the question of Indian Autonomy.

He has made other suggestions also but these three are the fundamental ones.

I wish Mr Iyer had dwelt at greater length on his idea of a permanent location for the Congress. Nor am I quite sure that his restriction of the number of delegates to a maximum of 500 will be to our advantage at present.

He might also have written more fully about the methods of election that he would like to see adopted. The election of delegates is one of the most urgent problems demanding the attention of our Congressmen and I am sorry to see that none of us has clear ideas on the subject. We want our best men for Congress work and we want that every Indian should feel that the Congressmen are his true representatives. The ways and means for achieving this double object will, I hope be fully discussed by our patriots at the ensuing sessions of the Congress.

But our greatest and most sacred work of the hour has been indicated by Mr Iyer in the concluding sentence of his remarkable article. The people does not realise its own strength and we must make it do so. This is the clarion call of the veteran patriot. May young India think with an affirmative response.


Pondicherry, December 2


[The poet’s criticism of Annie Besant and the Theosophical Society was fierce. He parodied them in an English pamphlet titled ‘The Fox with the Golden Tail.’ “Mr. Arabinda Ghose authorises me,” he notes, “to contradict on his behalf certain statements about him made by Mrs. Besant.” ]

To the Editor of The Hindu

Sir, — Mr Arabinda Ghose authorises me to contradict on his behalf certain statements about him made by Mrs Besant in her recent letter to the Christian Commonwealth which I have brought to his notice. These allegations are, without exception, inaccurate, misleading or entirely erroneous.

It is misleading to say in connection with an attempt to brand as ‘seditious’ and ‘extremist’, the opposition of social orthodoxy to Mrs Besant’s more recent developments - that orthodoxy gave Mr Arabinda Ghose as a leader of the advanced nationalist movement. A convinced Hindu in all matters of religious life and faith, Mr Ghose accepts in questions of social conduct the liberalism of Swami Vivekananda.

The assertion of his bitter hostility to the Central Hindu College, for any cause whatsoever, [is] entirely erroneous. He had always, on the contrary, a sincere sympathy and admiration for Mrs Besant’s works and for the college as an educational institution which he expressed clearly enough to Mrs Besant herself when he had an interview with her in Calcutta. His opposition at that time was directed against Mrs Besant’s now abandoned scheme of an officially recognised and, therefore, officially controlled University of India and especially for any attempt to include in it the Bengal National College as one of its feeders or centres.

The reason for his ‘hostility’, even as regards the University, is inaccurately stated. Mr Ghose never opposed the cooperation of Europeans and Indians from any feeling of racial fanaticism and hostility, but as a temporary necessity in order to deliver the Indian mind from long subservience and habituate it again to self-reliance and capacity for working out great objects, free from outside control, supervision or tutorship.

I may add that Mrs Besant’s idea that her present troubles are a martyrdom for her loyalty to the Sarkar and the extremists, as a party, are persecuting her out of political animosity is either a fiction or a self-delusion. She has forgotten apparently that some, at least, of the most prominent leaders of the movement and a well known Bengali scholar and politician often conspicuous on its platforms, were and still are, I believe earnest and convinced Theosophists.

The attitude of these leaders in the present controversy is not known to me but they have certainly not figured among her assailants nor has any ’great leaders’ of the advanced party interfered on either side in the Theosophical controversy. This legend will not hold and Mrs Besant must find some other bludgeon for prostrating her opponents and critics.



[Bharati wrote this Letter to the Editor before the annual session of the Congress in Madras in December 1914.]

To the Editor of The Hindu

Sir, — Party differences are inevitable in all politics.

Divergent interests as well as differences in character, intellectual perception and in temperament have made it impossible, in old countries and in all ages for any large Representative Assembly to be without parties holding opposite views on almost all vital questions.

But when men bring into political life the bitterness of religious sectarianism or the spirit which ordained the untouchable and unapproachable castes, well, they commit a political suicide; that is all.

Again, a deep-rooted respect for the laws of the realm will be incumbent on all the members of a Representative Assembly if at all, there is to be any stability and continuity in its activities.

But no Congress or Parliament can hope to live if its members-or any part of them- should be actuated by the constant fear of some extraneous agency and should make it their chief concern to be thinking as to how every single item of their proceedings might be received by that agency.

All servility, whether of an inherited or acquired character, must be definitely abandoned by men who aspire to guide the affairs of the nation.

Of course, it is essential that a Representative Assembly should live at peace with the powers that be. But it must be ‘peace with honour’.

And the authorities must equally be made to see that it is in their interest to live at peace with the Assembly.

Every citizen must be presumed to respect the laws of the state till the contrary is proved.

Otherwise, the assembly will be something like a harem full of mutual jealousies and recriminations.

It must also be borne in mind that the chief duty of a National Congress must be to uphold the nation-idea and try to realise it in every detail of the national life.

May our Congress be guided by these principles.


Pondicherry, November 28

(With research assistance from K. Rajendrababu, Chief Librarian, The Hindu.)

© Copyright 2000 - 2008 The Hindu


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