Stamp # 6 and 7: Tagore and Malaviya’s Educational Legacies

Around five years ago, when I dove more deeply into the education space in India, I found myself uncomfortable with just how much we were borrowing ideas from the west and how we were trying to force-fit them in an Indian context. It was a habit that we had fallen into for generations, like as if we had lost the confidence in our own ways of thinking about learning and education. But the more I looked into it, I realized most people weren’t even aware of Indian thinkers on education or they felt that Indian education thinkers were frequently mixing religion with education. So in this piece, I want to look at two men who tried to make a difference in the field of higher education. They recognized that creating an education system created for an Indian context is important to create Indian thinkers and Indian problem solvers, but their approaches to education was very different. But before we begin, let us look at the educational environment the two men were responding to.

An Oversimplified Story of Indian Schools till the Early 20th Century

Gurukul System. Source: Gurukul Blog

ANCIENT HISTORY: The story of the history of education in India complicated. This is true because the history of India is extremely long. But the prevalent image of ancient Indian schooling at the Gurukuls. People used to deposit their children at the homes of a guru at around the age of 7 or 8. For the next 10 to 15 years, the children were part of the Guru’s household, where they helped in household chores and served their Guru and also learned the scriptures. Over this period, the child learnt self discipline, life lessons as well as academics (in the form of the scriptures). Access to this form of intense education was not universal. It was only available to a small group of boys who were born to a certain caste. The vast majority of the population was excluded from the Gurukuls. Other boys were taught the trade they were born into by their fathers, uncles or any old surviving male relative (because in those days, remember, people died young so the joint family raised its young children together).

MEDIEVAL HISTORY: In the medieval times, gurukuls, madrasas and informal education through apprenticeships continued. There might have been village pathashalas in villages where they had someone who could teach reading and writing, and children would attend during the seasons when they were not required to help in the farms. These schools taught in the vernacular medium, but it always helped to learn the official language of the emperor who ruled over your area if you wanted to rise above your station.

THOMAS MACAULAY’S LEGACY OF BRITISH EDUCATION: The East India Trading Company came quietly in the late 17th century and were settled cozily in India by the mid 19th century. But the British were finding the vast cultural gap tiresome when it came to doing business. They were either going to have to learn the local ways (which many of the early British settlers had done) or get the locals to learn their language and “elevate” the native a little.

Thomas Babington Macaulay, First Baron of Macaulay (April 1856) Source: Wikimedia Commons

The school textbooks today credit Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay with the modern Indian education system. During his recommendations to the Committee of Public Instruction he pointed out that English should be the medium of instruction instead of Arabic or Sanskrit. If the British were going to be spending money on education, they should be looking for some gains or returns. This was 1835 and the British were in India to make a profit, after all. Macaulay summarized the goal of education in India as follows: “We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern- a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.  To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population.”

I think, the education system laid out by the British were actually successful in accomplishing that goal. It did create a class of Indians who were English in opinions, morals and intellect. And many of them did enrich the vernacular dialects with terms of science borrowed from the West, however, many also used the “English opinions, morals and intellects” to examine the English themselves. These English minded thinkers led our freedom struggle and brought extraordinary good to our country.

Unfortunately, what Macaulay’s education also did was make it seem like Indian culture – its music, dance, food, poetry, literature, religion and philosophy and aesthetic were somehow inferior. We see elements of this even today when you look at the CBSE English curriculum for the 10th grade – where they are still reading Robert Frost rhyming about the way a crow shook a dust of snow upon him. Indians know crows but most of us haven’t seen snow or how it dusts on things. Indians have long adopted English as our own and used it to create masterful works of fiction and poetry. Yet it hasn’t seeped into our textbooks so very well.

Macaulay’s education and a subsequent American culture wave has taken a strong hold on our imagination even. In every creative writing session I have ever had, most of kids have written about Bobs, Jacks, Marias and Lucys doing fun or awful things.

The goal of Macaulay’s education policy was to create a class of Indians servile to the West and who were raised to believe in the superiority of Western culture. In the late 19th and early 20th century many people like Rabindranath Tagore and Malaviya felt it was time to provide an education that met the needs of a new Indian nation state. Education was now needed to create a unified national consciousness and create a class of citizens who understood the nation that they were now masters of.

Madan Mohan Malaviya and Rabindranath Tagore

Name: Madan Mohan Malaviya (1861-1946)
Date of Issue: 1961
Issued by: India Post
Name: Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941)
Date of Issue: 1952
Issued by: India Post

Both Malaviya and Tagore were born in 1861 and both were founders of two of most India’s well-reputed universities (Benaras Hindu University and Vishwa-Bharati), yet the two men were very different from each other. Just look at them – Malaviya in his turban, neatly trimmed moustache, round tilak and simple tidy appearance versus Tagore’s flowing mane and beard, in his loose robe.

Malaviya, also known as Mahamanas for his wide and generous interests, lived simply. Here is a picture of him in his room, from the archives of BHU. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Madan Mohan Malaviya was a Kayastha Brahmin from an area near Allahabad, UP. His father and grandfather, well known and respected for their mastery of Sanskrit scriptures, were invited to various places to recite the Srimad Bhagavatham. Malaviya attended a local village school and went to college to get a degree in English. Later, he studied law. Over his lifetime, Malaviya donned many hats – he was President of the Indian National Congress, he revived The Hindustan Times in 1924, got 156 of the 177 Chauri-chaura rioters acquitted in his capacity as their lawyer, got British-Indian courts to use the Devanagri script for their record keeping, established the Hindu Samaj as well as a Boy Scouts organisation in India, and of course set up Benaras Hindu University.

Tagore’s accomplishments are more well known. Like Malaviya, Tagore was also Brahmin. His father, Debendranath Tagore, had founded the Brahmo Samaj and was a deeply spiritual man. Tagore grew up in a joint family where music, dance, art, drama, spirituality, poetry, and everything beautiful was within easy reach. He had hated classroom learning and his ideas of education and how it should be delivered came from his inherent discomfort with classroom education.

What I find interesting about Malaviya and Tagore is that they had much in common and yet both have such different vibes. Both men’s vision of education was born from their own personal but very different exposure to Indian religious and artistic culture in their childhood. Their pedagogical approaches reflected these two very different approaches to religion and culture.

Today, Benaras Hindu University is considered one of the top universities in the country – in the same league as IISc , IIT Delhi, Kharagpur and Mumbai. Vishwa-Bharathi University might have stumbled in rankings in recent years, but it has survived in modern India. I do not know how close they are to the vision of their founders, but my interest is in the initial days of these places and the approach each founder applied.

I feel like each university was created in the image of its founder.

Benaras Hindu University (please check out this article to see pictures of it in its early years), like its founder, appeared to be planned in a neat, constrained, orderly fashion. Colleges to teach the Vedas and Vedanta, Ayurveda and medicine, Gandhari Vedas or Fine and Performing Arts were formed. There was also a College of Artha Shastra teaching subjects we would call Economics, Physics, Chemistry, etc. There were buildings and residential quarters funded by various princely states. Initially, Malaviya had intended for all teaching to happen in Sanskrit or the vernacular but then realised that there were no textbooks in those languages.

Shantiniketan and Vishwabharati was founded with a different perspective. Shantiniketan was all about allowing students to commune with nature and learn in an organic fashion. Classrooms were under trees. Religion was to be taught by a mindful observation of nature and the self, rather than through instruction. Culture was again to be experienced through participation in music, art, dance and theatre. Like its founder, Vishwabharati was untamed in form. When someone told Tagore that there were no textbooks for subjects in the vernacular, Tagore simply pointed out that once there is demand for it, supply would follow, and so classes in Shantiniketan were taught in Bengali.

The Place of Religious Education in Secular India

As I was writing this story out, I was half listening to my son reading a news article about communal violence in the background. Communalism and secularism are hot topics in India today where our opinions of the government’s relationship with religion is causing friction. I was torn about what one would make of Malaviya’s vision of Hindu education in these times. Tagore’s interpretation of religion is more palatable in this modern time because it is non-denominational in its expression. In contrast, Malaviya never shied away from scripture. Despite his conservative religiosity, in history, Malaviya was not a dividing force. He was a practicing Brahmin and yet was making peace with Ambedkar during the signing of the Poona Pact in 1932. From all I could find, he was a consistent voice in favour of communal harmony.

Yet, is Malaviya’s brand of religious education good for peace and harmony in secular India? I looked into Malaviya’s own writing for the answers. Believe it or not, he seemed to familiar with my worry. You will find the direct quote below, but here is the summary. He felt that

  1. The absence of compulsory religious education had not prevented the growth of sectarianism, but perhaps a truly religious education might liberate the mind and create a spirit of brotherly feeling between men.
  2. He believed that “instruction in the truths of religion whether imparted” at “Benaras Hindu University or Aligarh Moslem University” will produce men who are true to their religion,… God,… and country. In other words he appeared to believe in the universal message of love, harmony and brotherhood at the core of all religions.
  3. And therefore, he felt that a true religious education is a more likely to lead to peace and harmony than not.

Here is his complete quote, that I summarised above:

“It  will  not  promote  narrow  sectarianism  but  a  broad liberation  of  mind  and  a  religious  spirit  which  will  promote brotherly  feeling  between  man  and  man.  Unfortunately  we are  all  aware  that  the  absence  of  sectarian  religious  Universities, the  absence  of  any  compulsory  religious  education  in our  State  Universities,  has  not  prevented  the  growth  of  sectarian feeling  in  the  country.  I  believe,  my  Lord,  instruction in  the  truths  of  religion,  whether  it  be  Hindus  or Mussalmans,  whether  it  be  imparted  to  the  students  of  the Benares  Hindu  University  or  of  the  Aligarh  Moslem  University, will  tend  to  produce  men  who,  if  they  are  true  to  their religion,  will  be  true  to  their  God,  their  King  and  their  country. And  I  look  forward  to  the  time  when  the  students  who will  pass  out  of  such  Universities,  will  meet  each  other  in  a closer  embrace  as  sons  of  the  same  Motherland  than  they  do at  present.” (page 29, Speeches and Writings of Madan Mohan Malaviya)

Like Malaviya and Tagore, many others including Gandhi tried to provide an alternative to the British system. Today, I see several schools around India that make a real effort to take the homegrown Indian route and I deeply appreciate the effort. It is challenging when the entire structure is borrowed but it is nice to see that we are making efforts to fix that every now and then even at government levels like with the NEP. But what I understand from Malaviya and Tagore isn’t a surface level exposure to Indian culture through cursory chanting of prayers or grandiose celebration of festivals but through a deeper examination of the self and the world we inhabit through the lens provided by Indian philosophy, as well as an exposure to the contribution of various philosophers, writers and poets in more modern times as well.

“How did he find the time?” I asked my husband, ruefully. “He didn’t have Netflix or Insta-reels” he said jokingly. And I wonder if that might be true. I wonder at all the lost potential.

Ambedkar’s Rags to Riches Tale and the Use of Archetypical Plotlines in Retelling History

When Helen Keller, the famous blind, deaf and dumb author and disabilities activist, was 11, she wrote a short story called ‘The Frost King‘ that was published in a couple of newsletters. It quickly got a lot of attention because many found it very similar to a story written by Margaret T. Canby called “Birdie and his Fairy Friends”. The scandal quickly became a national issue with Helen Keller being accused of plagiarism. At the time, many famous people including Mark Twain came out in Keller’s defense. It was in this context that Twain wrote these famous words: “There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations.”

When you read enough books and watch enough film you come to realise that this is very true. Indeed, all stories are based on one of these seven plot lines.

  1. Overcoming the Monster – where the hero has an arch nemesis (usually an evil being or force)that he/she must defeat to protect one’s family, home or country, like in Star Wars or Sholay.
  2. The Quest – where the hero and his/her companions go in search of an object, and overcome various obstacles and challenges, like in Lord of the Rings or the story of Hanuman’s journey to find Sita.
  3. Voyage and Return – where the hero travels to a strange land and, after some adventure, they learn important lessons that they could not have learnt anywhere else. They eventually return as better or wiser people, like in the Odyssey or Jab We Met.
  4. Comedy – where there are a bunch of absurd twists and turns where expectations are subverted but the outcome is always happy. Most rom-coms.
  5. Rebirth – where an event forces the hero to reconsider his/her beliefs and attitudes and forces them to change for the better. Secret Garden (one of my all time favourite book), the story of Valmiki or Gautama Buddha.
  6. Tragedy – The hero, a somewhat symathetic character, has a major character flaw or great mistake which is ultimately leads to their undoing, like the story of Karna in the Mahabharata.
  7. Rags to Riches – where the hero starts at the bottom, gains success, then suffers set backs to emerge triumphant eventually, like the Will Smith movie Pursuit of Happyness.

These plotlines and the ideas that Twain was talking about might be true about fiction, but this blog is about history. What does this have to do with telling of history?

Good history writers and teachers have long employed these plotlines to tell us about what happened in the past. Some lives of important figures in history often feels like they were just made for film or novel.

Take Ambedkar for example. His life reads like a classic rags to riches tale. I do not mean that Ambedkar became a rich man or that he spent his life in the pursuit of wealth. He is no Tata or Birla. But look at where Ambedkar began and look at where we find him now – on stamps, in statues all over the city, on the sides of cobbler shops and banners in your neighbourhood. He went beyond temporal and mortal riches. The chronology of Ambedkar’s life fits almost perfectly into a typical template of a rags-to riches story.

Ambedkar: From village to Columbia to Baroda to New Delhi

Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar went from a little boy who was made to sit on a gunny sack in the corner of the classroom to an esteemed scholar, Chairman of the Drafting Committee and first Law Minister. Image Source: Columbia University

A typical Rags to Riches story has 5 typical elements – a raggedy beginning, a promising series of initial victories, a giant set back, a valiant struggle, and eventual victory. Now, this is easily managed when you are writing fiction, but often, if we take a few steps back, the fully-lived life of a historical figure can also be squeezed to fit the template, as you can see in Ambedkar’s case:

A Raggedy Beginning: Ambedkar was born in a small town in Madhya Pradesh in 1891, into the Mahar caste. Mahars are untouchables and Ambedkar was never allowed to forget his low status. In school, he was forced to sit separately on gunny sacks and not given equal access to drinking water. When he would come up to the board to answer a question, children would rush to move their lunch bags out of his way so that he didn’t accidentally pollute their food. Yet, Ambedkar shone so brightly that nothing, not even caste, could hold him back.

A Promising Series of Initial Victories: After school, Ambedkar entered Bombay University and got a Bachelor’s Degree in Economics and Political Science. He was the first of his community to rise so high, but he was to meant to rise higher still. He was awarded a scholarship by the Diwan of Baroda that sent him to Columbia University, where he received a Masters and PhD in Economics. Then, he went to London where he became a lawyer and received a D.Sc in Economics. If you haven’t caught the drift yet, Ambedkar was a rising star.

The Giant Setback: After London, Ambedkar somewhat reluctantly returned to India because part of the deal with his scholarship was that after receiving a world class education, he needed to come back and serve the Princely State of Baroda. Up until this point, Ambedkar had enjoyed several years just being Bhimrao Ambedkar – lawyer, economist, a complete human. But when he came back, no one could see beyond his caste. In Baroda, no one was willing to rent him a decent home and his colleagues refused to let him drink water from the same pot, share food with them or sit with him. It was deeply humiliating. He was being treated exactly as he had been as a child. Except now, he had a taste of a life with dignity, respect and visibility and he knew that no human deserved this sort of treatment.

A Valiant Struggle: At Baroda, Ambedkar realised that academic achievement and wealth were of no value in the face of prejudice. So, he left Baroda without fulfilling his commitment with a clear mission now. He returned to Mumbai and became a lawyer who specialised in issues relating to the rights of lower caste people. One of his early cases was a libel suit. A group of three non-Brahmins had written an article blaming all the problems facing contemporary India on the upper castes. An outraged group of Brahmins filed a libel suit on these men. Ambedkar came to their defense and won. With this victory, Ambedkar made a name for himself. But he was going to become more known when he locked horns with Gandhi himself, demanding that the Depressed Classes receive their own separate electorate, just like how the Muslims and the Hindus had their own. Gandhi was anxious not to create more division. Division based on religion was grievous enough, but dividing the Hindu electorate based on caste was unacceptable. Gandhi was going to fast unto death to oppose Ambedkar’s proposition for separate electorates. Fortunately, the two men found a way to compromise. The Poona Pact was signed in 1932, where the untouchables did receive a reservation of electoral seats in the British Legislature. Ambedkar never forgave Gandhi. But during this time many noticed Ambedkar as more than just a Dalit leader. He was a political thinker.

Eventual Victory – When India was on track to get Poorna Swaraj, Ambedkar (who never joined the Indian National Congress) was asked to become Chairman of the Constitution Drafting Committee. As Chairman, he led the Committee with his clear vision of what India should be – a fair, free democracy that valued liberty, equality and fraternity. Nehru also invited Ambedkar to become India’s first Law Minister.

Ambedkar who was once treated as sub-human was sought after for his sharp mind and wisdom. No one cared for his caste (or if they did, they dared not let their prejudice be known). They only cared about his ideas, and whether they liked them or not, they were all listening keenly till the end.

If this was a movie, then it would end with the hero winning – a standing ovation, or a shower of petals or a walk into the sunset.

Ambedkar’s narrative arc is that of a man who rose from nothing to something, and carried us all together with him, taking the role of India’s moral voice in its early years.

The Problem with Using Archetypical Plots in History

History writers and teachers have always employed one of the 7 standard plotlines from the very beginning of time. Think of any famous historical figure and you will find that they conveniently fit into one of these standard plots.

Gandhi’s tale is told to us as a Voyage and Return plot, where Gandhi grows up as an average boy in India, sails to South Africa where his adventures in this strange and deeply racist land leads him to the discovery of non-violence as a potent political weapon against injustice; a weapon he returns to India with in order to push the British out and free India forever.

Nelson Mandela’s story can be told as one of Rebirth, where prior to his imprisonment Mandela was leader of a violent guerilla group, but over his 27 year long imprisonment, he emerged as a voice for non-violence, forgiveness and peace.

Telling their stories in this manner can leave students or readers inspired, if that is the intention of the story. In addition to inspiring, one of the chief concerns of any good educator is to get students to think for themselves. Often stories like these glorify historical figures and encourage blind hero-worship. Is that the purpose of history teaching? To simply make us feel proud or feel in awe of these men and occasional women who changed the world?

There is a risk of over-simplification and glossifying history for the sake of good story-telling, but I argue that employing archetypical narrative arcs or plot lines have their place in the classroom, especially where critical thinking and reflection are valued

Employing Archetypical Narrative Arcs to Support Critical Reflection

Story-telling has been a powerful teaching method from the very beginning of time. From time to time, it has been used to rewrite history to conveniently persuade the listener to share the values of the story-teller.

But as teachers of any subject, one of our goals is to create independent critical thinkers. If we keep this goal always in sight, we will be less likely to stray.

Powerful narratives are a great way to hold a class’s interest and keep them hooked till the very end of the lesson. But, more importantly, it is a great way of showing, not telling, history. Ambedkar’s story isn’t just the story of a determined man who wanted to rise out of his miserable conditions. It is very much about the perniciousness of the caste system, about the ideas of social equality and justice that he tried to ensure had a place in the Constitution, as well as the revival of Buddhism in India.

For stories to work, it is important for a teacher or writer of history to be always aware that the story is a tool. They should not fall into the trap of actually believing that a fully-lived life can cosily fit into these constructed arcs. Life does not just abruptly cut off at the high point because it would be convenient for the audience. Life ends whenever it chooses to; in Ambedkar’s case the story did not just end when he occupied a seat in Nehru’s Cabinet.

The interesting parts of the story are those that do not fit in the narrative arc. It’s when you draw your students’ attention to the unruly bits that stick out of the template. Like in Ambedkar’s case, it is about how he was always restless and dissatisfied with his own work. He resigned from his position in Nehru’s cabinet after Parliament failed to pass the Hindu Code Bill that sought to protect gender equality in marriage and inheritance in one go. After resigning, Ambedkar stood for elections as an independent candidate on two separate occasions. He lost both times and then, he died in 1956.

I asked my class what they thought was on his mind the most in those last months, when he apparently worked just as had as he always had even though he was very sick. Did they think he was reflecting on his role in writing the Constitution, the moral conscience of India, or the fact that he lost the recent elections and wasn’t directly in government any more?

Life is more complicated than fiction. This inconvenient little ending to the otherwise perfect story had my class a little unsettled. One child found it hard to believe that even after all he had done, he was still unable to win an election. Was it because of caste? Was it because he wasn’t a good politician? He asked questions that got other people thinking. The class fell silent for a while. Then, he said that sometimes even when we do our best, people don’t notice. It happens to all of us – we try very hard and the others don’t really care that we did. There were murmurs of agreement, as am sure many thought back to times when their efforts were unappreciated.

The conscious inclusion of narrative arcs in our lessons makes a difference, but only as long as we use it carefully, remaining truthful to the actual story and focussing on the showing, rather than the telling of the lesson.

Stamp #5: State Emblem of India

Name: Ashoka Lion Capital
Date of Issue: 15 Dec 1947
Denomination: 1.5 Annas
Source: India Postage Stamps

In December 1947, Independent India’s Postal Service issued three stamps. One was the flag, another was an aircraft, and the third was India’s National Emblem – the Ashoka Lion Capital of Sarnath. This is the story of the Lion Capital and how it found its way onto a stamp.

Rediscovering the Lion Capital

Sarnath, if you don’t already know, is a short drive outside Varanasi (Uttar Pradesh). It gets cold in the winter but it’s blazing hot in the summer. If you were an archaeologist planning a dig in this famed Buddhist holy site, you are going to prefer working in the relatively dry winter and spring, instead of the hot summer and wet monsoon. Accordingly, Friedrich Oscar Oertel, a civil engineer from the Public Works Department, arrived in Sarnath in December 1904. He was an amateur archaeologist and had been looking forward to the dig that he had planned with the Archaeology Survey of India. He had four months before the summer heat made it impossible to work and there was no way he could know what was waiting for him under the mud.

F.O Oertel looking snazzy in his archaeologist get up, casually smoking his pipe (1892, Burma). Source: Wikipedia.

Archaeology had become a trending subject since the end of the 19th century all across the British empire – from Egypt to India. In Egypt, his colonial counterparts were discovering Mummies and temples in the sands, while in India, the British were unearthing Buddhist stupas across Bihar, UP, Haryana, ancient temples, caves and other unimaginable treasures. And Oertel wanted in on the action.

Oertel was in Sarnath for just one season, from December 1904 to April 1905, but it was a magical dig. Here is a picture of the dig during that time.

From the ASI archives, this image shows a fragment of the pillar in the foreground and the immaculate lion capital behind it. It is surrounded by other treasures rediscovered over the course of the dig. You can also see workers working the site in the background.

Oertel had reason to believe that there were things to find at Sarnath. His predecessors had been finding several relics and fragments of life from ancient India. But what he stumbled upon was beyond his imagining. During the dig he came upon broken bits of what was recognisably one of Ashoka’s pillars. The great king Ashoka was known by this point because many of his other pillars had been rediscovered by various British archaeologists across Bihar, UP and Haryana. James Prinsep, the famed British scholar and orientalist, had already managed to translate the inscriptions on these pillars that told us the story of the legendary peace loving king.

Over the course of his dig, Oertel came across one of the best preserved Ashoka capital. It was nearly 7 feet tall with four lions sitting with their backs to each other and their mouths open. They sat on a base that had a frieze of sculptures of a lion, elephant, bull and horse, each separated by wheels or chakras. This abacus, in turn, was atop an inverted lotus. It was all made of polished sandstone. The discovery sent waves through the small but passionate little community of archaeologists around the world.

A year later, Oertel applied to return to Sarnath, but the United Provinces (UP region) was in the throes of an awful famine and his request was denied. He continued his expeditions elsewhere, finding other things that he often shipped back to England to add to the growing collections of art from the colonies in British museums. The Lion Capital of Sarnath, however, remained in Sarnath.

From a Museum in Sarnath to India’s State Emblem

A little over four decades later, India was getting ready for her independence. Among the weighty responsibility of putting together a Constitution, the Constituent Assembly also decided that India’s State Emblem should be the Ashoka’s Lion Capital. All countries need emblems. Emblems or symbols are visual representations of a nation’s values, history and goals. Ashoka’s Lion Capital was meant to remind the Indian citizen of our ancient and illustrious history. We are the descendants of the great Ashoka, who after his bloody war with Kalinga, reflected on his actions and gave up violence and territorial ambition for peace and leading his people righteously. During Ashoka’s time, the four lions with their open mouths were spreading Buddha’s message in the four cardinal directions, but a secular India detached the Lion Capital from its religious symbolism. Instead, the four lions came to mean a young nation’s pride, courage, power and confidence.

But, the image you see in the stamp is not a photograph of the Lion Capital. The Constituent Assembly needed an illustration that captured the essence of the capital but that could be easily reproduced as rubber stamps and be printed as stamps and letter heads. Enter Dinanath Bhargava.

This is a picture of Dinanath Bhargava at the time of his retirement. He was commissioned by his mentor Nandalal Bose to design the State Emblem for the Constitution. The emblem includes the words Satyamev Jayate (Truth is always victorious) from the Mandukya Upanishad. Source: Times of India

Dinanath Bhargava was a 21 year old art student in Shantiniketan. His teacher, Nandalal Bose, had been asked to design and illustrate the official Constitution, and Dinanath had been selected to work on a particularly important project. He was to design the National Emblem. So, the 21 year old would wake up early, get on a bus and head to the Kolkata zoo to look at the lions. He practiced drawing lions for a month before he got down to designing the emblem. His design made it to the cover of the original illuminated Constitution of India. That’s quite an achievement for a man in his early twenties. Bhargava grew into a well known artist. He revived folk art by bringing Madhubani paintings to cloth, brought and supported the carpet making industry in Gwalior, introduced double-decker looms in textile manufacturing and designed Chanderi sarees. He was the director of All India Handloom Board when he retired in 1986.

When I was reading about Dinanath Bhargava, I wondered if his parents were worried when he said he wanted to be an artist. Probably.

Indian history is littered with anonymous artists who have had enormous impacts on our culture. But I am glad we know of Dinanath Bhargava and others like Nandalal Bose, his teacher, so that we know whom to be grateful to.

The cover of the hand illustrated and calligraphied Constitution of India. Source: Wikisource.org

Resources:

  1. India’s State Emblem: A 2,300 Year Old Story by Carol Lobo for Live History India
  2. Dinanath Bhargava is the man who sketched and illuminated India’s national emblem by Rajan K for Speaking Tree
  3. Stupa-hopping in Sarnath by Rana Safvi for The Hindu
  4. Friedrich Oertel: The Man Who “Found” India’s State Emblem by Janhavi Patgaonkar for Live History India 
  5. The camera and the spade: Photography in the making archaeological knowledge by Sudeshna Guha from Researchgate
  6. Copy of the Original Constitution of India on the Library of Congress website.

Stamp #4: Stalin, Mao, Lenin and E.M.S. Namboodiripad on the Streets of Kochi

As we drove into Kochi, red flags with the hammer and sickle greeted us almost as soon as we entered the city. My son, whose energy and patience were flagging, suddenly perked up. “Wait!” he said. “Where are we?”

It was like we had entered another alternate universe. My son who had been studying about Indian democracy and who has been exposed to ample anti-communist, anti-China rhetoric through the media was surprised to see Mao smile benignly at him from behind parked vehicles.

Nearly every other lamp post and pillar had him exclaiming in delighted horror. “Isn’t that Hugo Chavez!” he cried, before he spotted Stalin standing guard outside the entrance of a Pay and Park lot. Karl Marx was expected, but Maradona’s smiling face confused all of us and demanded some quick googling to find the connection between Maradona and Communism. Turns out Maradona was an anti-American Leftist.

By the time we reached our hotel room, Kerala’s Communist party propoganda had been so successful that I myself was wondering if I had remembered history correctly. I mean, maybe Stalin wasn’t so bad… and I never knew Mao could look so gentle and kind. I may have misjudged the man.

Over our weekend in Kochi, we could not escape the hammer and sickle at all. And I began to wonder how Communism took hold in Kerala? And why has it survived? Afterall, history has not been kind to Communism. There are 5 nations that call themselves communist today: Cuba, North Korea, China, Laos and Vietnam and I wonder if any of them had Stalin staring sternly at cars entering a pay and park lot.

Communist leaders abroad have always concerned themselves with class struggle and the inequities of industrial economies. Yet despite typical Indian hero worship (parents even name their children after Lenin, Stalin and Khrushchev – listen to this interesting podcast about why they do), political thinkers in Kerala were original thinkers. The founding fathers of Kerala’s Communist party, like EMS Namboodiripad, P. Krishna Pillai and A.K. Gopalan, saw socialism and communism as a possible solution to the social inequalities caused by caste, gender and religious discrimination.

EMS Namboodiripad (EMS) came from the highest landowning caste in Kerala. The Namboodiris are the Brahmins and at the time, they were a feudal elite who intermarried with the Nairs (the caste of the monarchs) to dominate society, art, culture, politics and even the economy. While EMS could have led a comfortable life, he was influenced by a rising political awakening across the nation in the 1920s. Like AK Gopalan, his comrade who came from the Nair class, and P. Krishna Pillai, he was inspired by Gandhi’s satyagrahas and joined the Indian National Congress.

But over time, like many other regional political thinkers and actors, EMS and others were increasingly disillusioned by Gandhi’s particular blend of politics and spirituality. While Gandhi might be what was needed to get national independence, Gandhi’s method did not feel practical to the issue of caste discrimination, gender inequality nor did it address the issues of landless peasants. EMS came to see Gandhi as a “Hindu fundamentalist” and yet he also recognised Gandhi as a complex person and had embraced his ideas of simple living.

In 1939, after leaning more and more to the left, first within the Congress party, and then out of it, EMS, Krishna Pillai and AK Gopalan formed the Communist Party in Kerala. In 1956, when Kerala became a state, EMS became its first Chief Minister – the first and only non-Congress chief minister in India at the time.

How had the Communist party become so successful? I think this is because of the grassroots efforts of the Communist party in Kerala. Krishna Pillai, still fondly remembered as a founding father of Communism, died at the age of 42 while hiding from authorities in a little hut. He was bitten by a snake. Although a leader of great repute, his premature death isn’t very surprising because he lived an action packed life. Coming from a poor family and having left home early to make his way in the world, Pillai was uniquely qualified to understand the suffering and the needs of the masses. Everywhere he went his emotional attachment to the cause and his personal interest in the people was evident, and so Pillai became an effective missionary of sorts. He brought Communism to all corners of his state and made an intellectual philosophy a meaningful cause. Of course, the British and the Indian government had concerns about Communists and all their talk of armed revolution, but it is important to note that apart from the Punappra Vayalar uprising against the Diwan of Travancore in 1946, Kerala’s Communists functioned within the India’s democratic multi-party framework and grew increasingly popular because were addressing specific social problems.

So when Kerala became a state in 1956, EMS became the chief minister, because the people in Kerala were familiar with the Communist Party. Those in power in Kerala society trembled because with his arrival came also terrible signs that things were about to change. EMS quickly set about making aggressive agrarian land reforms by capping the amount of land anyone could own and passing ownership of land to tenants who had been working that soil for generations. Although he could not immediately bring these land reform laws into action, eventually it went a long way in redistributing land and opportunity across Kerala.

Unfortunately, he perhaps tried to do too much too soon. His controversial attempts to reform private education to make it more accessible to all, led to vast, mostly peaceful protests led by the Syrian Catholic Church, Nairs and the Congress. In 1959, EMS was forced to resign and Kerala was under President’s rule for a while. He came back to power in the 1960s where he was able to pass more reform laws and today is credited for the state’s high literacy rates.

A curious thing I learnt as I read about EMS and other Communist thinkers in India was how international the Communist movement was. Indian Communist thinkers like M.N. Roy travelled outside India, even meeting Lenin, and helped other countries with their own movements. During the Sino-Indian war in 1962, Communists like EMS remained neutral – choosing to side with neither Mao-led China nor their own nation, India. Isn’t that curious? In the minds of the early Communists what came first – the political ideology or their nation? And what about Indian Communists today?

At any rate, today, nearly 75 years later, from the looks of things Communism is still going strong in Kerala. It bypasses religious differences by being vocally atheistic. Their gods were the faces we saw on the sides of Kochi’s street – Lenin, Maradona, Hugo Chavez, Engels, Marx, EMS, Krishna Pillai and others. Like the hundreds of Hindu gods who smile down at us from prints on the wall, in calendars, wedding invitations and car stickers, they are more or less forgotten in our daily busy-ness, and only remembered in times of crisis or when in need of inspiration.

Stamp Series #3 – Paradesi Synagogue, Kochi

Name: Cochin Synagogue (1568-1968)
Date of Issue: 15 Dec 1968
Denomination: 20 nP
Source: India Postage Stamps

Kochi is one of my favourite cities in India. It is just all kinds of beautiful. My son had wanted a city holiday after several holidays in national forests. He wanted people and traffic and shopping. We wanted greenery and water, history and culture. Kochi delivers on all those.

I was particularly interested in Kochi, because in my classes we had been talking about secularism and as I was reading about the subject for class, I learnt about the diverse religious and ethnic communities that formed along the Konkan and Kerala coastline thanks to trade from ancient times.

When I was in school, I always thought of the Muslims arriving in India on horseback, from Central Asia – raiders who became conquerors and eventually settlers. Similarly, I associated Christianity in India with the missionary zeal of 18th-century colonists. But Muslims, Christians and Jews were in India much before that. They had come on ships from the Middle East as merchants and traders interested in spices like pepper and cardamom and luxury goods like ivory, peacocks and teak. Then they stayed on, retaining their individual religious identities for centuries before the invading Central Asians and Europeans. While they were here, they adopted the local language, adopted elements of local cuisine and clothing and surprisingly, elements of social customs like casteism. But more on that later.

On this visit to Kochi, I was keen on visiting at least one of the several synagogues in the area. The Paradesi/Cochin Synagogue was closest to us and so that is where we went.

At the entrance of the synagogue was a little room with paintings that showed the history of the Cochin Jews. I thought the Jews arrived in India with the Europeans but I did a double take on the very first painting. According to the caption, the Jews first arrived in Kochi in 72 AD. 72 AD! (You can see the paintings here). That’s just 72 years after Christ! That is over 100 years before the great Guptas in Pataliputra! The Jews had arrived on trading ships after the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in Palestine. When they left India in the 1950s and 60s, they would have left this sanctuary of nearly 2000 years.

This is the entrance to the Paradesi Synagogue. The clock tower behind us was added to the synagogue in the 18th century.
In this picture, we see these beautiful white and blue hand painted porcelain tiles that were imported from China in the 18th century. The ceiling is crowded with elegant glass chandeliers imported from Belgium in the 19th century. Everything in the Paradesi Synagogue reminds you that this serviced a trader community that was part of a global marketplace. Source: Wikimedia Commons (photography isn’t allowed inside the temple, so we couldn’t take our own).

The 1968 stamp of Cochin Synagogue was issued to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Jewish temple. It had been built by the Jews who had sought a safe haven after escaping persecution during the Spanish Inquisition in Europe. They had come on Portuguese ships who followed Vasco Da Gama’s route to trade with India. The compound of the synagogue shares a wall with the Kochi royal family’s palace temple and a painting in the museum showed the Hindu Cochin king gifting a crown to the elders of the synagogue, indicating a friendly relationship between ruler and the Paradesi Jewish community. Unlike the Western world, in India, Jews – both Malabari and Paradesi Jews – did not suffer any sort of persecution from other religious groups. Yet, with the arrival of the Paradesi Jews came the pernicious practice of caste and the Paradesi synagogue became the centre stage of a struggle for equality within this tiny community.

I have always associated caste with religion – I thought caste was part of Hinduism, and so the resulting caste-ism was a Hindu problem. Perhaps it is. Perhaps Hinduism institutionalised it and the other religious communities in South Asia found it convenient to adopt it into their own cultures. Over time all religions in the subcontinent practiced a form of casteism within their own communities.

Lower caste converts to Islam, Sikhism and Christianity faced discrimination for centuries even though all three religions preach equality, and even though often people converted to these religions to escape caste discrimination in their Hindu society. The Jews have a long history of trying to escape discrimination. In fact that is why they first arrived in India – seeking refuge from discrimination overseas. But, no community seemed safe from caste and the Jews needed their own Jewish Gandhi to fix endemic discrimination in their community.

Abraham Barak Salem
Source: Jews of Malabar

Abraham Barak Salem was actually known as the Jewish Gandhi – that isn’t a name I made up for him. Born in 1882 in Kochi, Salem was the first Jew to be trained as a lawyer. Inspired by Gandhi’s non-violent methods, Salem joined the Indian nationalist movement. But today Salem is most remembered for his non violent efforts to reform the division within the Jewish community.

For centuries the Cochin Jewish community were split into three groups. The brown skinned Malabari Jews (called the Black Jews) who had come in 72 AD and who were no virtually indistinguishable from the local, the Paradesi Jews (White Jews) who were of European descent and who had come in the mid-15th century, and finally the freed slaves of the Paradesi Jews called the meshuchrarim. Meshuchrarim were slaves of mixed racial descent who had supposedly adopted the religion of their masters. While the Malabari and Paradesi Jews each claimed to be more Jewish than the other, both agreed that the meshuchrarim were not Jewish enough.

Each group was endogamous – which means they only married within their own communities. A Malabari Jew could not marry a Paradesi Jew. Worse, a Paradesi Jew could never marry a meshuchrarim Jew. That would be unthinkable.

Black Jewish Family in Kerala, around the early 20th century. Source: Academic
White Jewish Women around the same time period. Source: Wikimedia Commons

It was a strict unbending social hierarchy. The Paradesi/Cochin Synagogue was for the White Jews. The Malabari Jews had built other synagogues in other parts around Kochi . At the Paradesi Synagogue, the White Jews had rules that enforced the social hierarchy. Meshuchrarim were not allowed to sit on the chairs. They had to sit on the floor at the back, during prayer, and were not to interact with the White Jews. When they died, at first they were not allowed to be buried in the White Jewish Cemetery, but later they made concessions to allow meshuchrarim to be buried against the walls of the cemetery. Caste is simply a hereditary based social hierarchy. Although they arrived with the Paradesi Jews in the 16th century, the meshuchrarim were forever at the bottom of the social hierarchy because they were descendants of slaves. It was a fate they could not escape no matter how hard they tried.

Abraham Barak Salem objected to the discrimination he and his fellow meshuchrarim faced by protesting non-violently outside the temple much like lower caste Indians were doing all over India during the same time. Eventually, the elders in the Paradesi synagogue agreed to make concessions. Meshuchrarim were allowed into the synagogue and could sit on the chairs. Although they received these privileges, it turned out that they did not have very much time to enjoy it.

In 1933, Salem made a trip to Jerusalem. Here he was impressed with the idea of creating a nation state for the Jews. When Israel was created, they opened their doors to Jews from all parts of the world. Aliyah means immigration to Israel and it was the dream of most displaced Jewish communities. When he came back, Salem actively encouraged the local Jewish community to think of moving to Israel.

After Independence, during Partition driven mass migration of Hindus and Muslims, the Jews from across India were also getting ready to leave India. Salem played a key role in Jewish migration. During this time, the divisions between the Jews of Cochin blurred further because, once outside India, the Jews of Indian origin came together in Israel and live in the same neighbourhoods. Differences that seemed so important in Cochin, dissolved when it came to adapting to a new life. In India however, it seems those who stayed back held onto their age-old prejudices.

The Jewish migration from India was not fraught with violence and tragedy. Jewish communities from the Konkan coast, Kerala, and Bengal were excited to return to the homeland, Israel. But upon arrival, many were faced with racial discrimination. Darker-skinned and so long isolated from other Jewish communities in Europe and the Middle East, they often had to prove their Jewishness. Some communities like the Bene Israelis were even sent back to India because Israel didn’t recognise them as being actual Jews. They were only allowed to stay if they re-converted to Judaism – an offensive suggestion to many who strongly identified as originally Jewish.

Whenever I dig deep into history I am always confronted by examples of one group of humans tries to clamber to the top at the expense of another group. The winning group tries to secure their position by making up reasons to justify their position and it is almost always linked to birth. “I was born better than you”. The observation depresses me.

Recently, in my classroom discussions on the Preamble and equality, we looked at caste and religious discrimination. We looked at news stories of sectarian violence or legal cases where the fundamental right to practice religion freely was challenged. Several 11-year-olds asked questions to understand both sides of the argument and then seemed confused about why this was even an issue. Children are a constant reminder to me that prejudice is learnt and not natural. Their constant bemusement when they hear stories of violence, prejudice, war and loss always fills me with happiness because their confusion tells me that we are fundamentally compassionate beings.

Some people grew up holding tightly onto childlike compassion. People like Salem are not in our textbook but they found other like-minded people to stand with and challenge the status quo. And while the intensity of activism always intimidates me, what would we do without the activist who points at something that is off and makes a big racket about it?

It is impossible to expect a textbook to be filled with stories of men and women like Abraham Barak Salem but it should pay some attention to the story of the Jews in India. It is a story instructive of how Indian society’s diversity was not just a result of invasion, violence and exploitation. People came to India for safety and found it here. They came to make money, not by looting, but by doing business. They have contributed to our culture, architecture, food and music in ways that we cannot keep track of.

Resources:

(I have hyperlinked most of my sources in the blog above. However, below are some links to videos and websites that I didn’t really use in the blog but I found gave me a rounder picture of the community and culture)

  1. Discover the world of Indian Jewish cuisine
  2. The Jews of Malabar blog
  3. On Aliyah and Life in Israel
  4. Museum of the Jewish People
  5. Biography of Abraham Barak Salem

The Stamp Series# 2 – Dr Rajendra Prasad Tests the Extent of Presidential Authority

Name: Dr. Rajendra Prasad – President of India 1950-1962
Date of Issue: 13 May 1962
Denomination: 15 nP
Source: India Postage Stamps

The other week, I was introducing my Civics class to the Indian Parliamentary system. Everyone understood the idea of a bicameral legislature. They understood the role of the Prime Minister and his/her cabinet. But when we came to the President, there was general bemusement. One young boy said, “So, basically, the President is powerless, right?” He said disparagingly and I felt the spirits of all previous Presidents of India – dead and alive – flinch in unison. Dr Rajendra Prasad, our very first President of India, himself, struggled with coming to terms with the limited role of the President in the Indian polity.

Dr Rajendra Prasad was a well-respected lawyer, journalist, scholar, freedom fighter and member of the Constituent Assembly. Born in 1884 to a modest Kayastha family in Bihar, he had trained as a lawyer. In his thirties, he was recruited by Gandhi to work in the campaign to support indigo peasants in Bihar. Over time, he rose through the ranks of the party to become President of the Indian National Congress.

Photo Source: Anandabazar

Upon Independence, Rajendra Prasad and Nehru became an odd couple at the top of the new Indian government. Rajendra Prasad was a traditional Hindu and had spent much of his career campaigning for Hindi to be the official national language. He also suggested that all other Indian languages shift to the Devanagari script as nearly all Indian languages found their root in Sanskrit. He had grown up in a middle-class Indian family and had his early schooling in a traditional elementary school before moving to Patna and Calcutta to pursue higher education. In other words, Rajendra Prasad was more son of the soil than Eton and Cambridge educated Nehru. His upbringing and life experience coloured his perspective and philosophy on the role of the government just as much as Nehru’s Western education, privileged upbringing and life experience had influenced Nehru’s world view on the same subjects.

Naturally, Prasad and Nehru did not see eye to eye on things. Rajendra Prasad wanted Republic Day (26 January 1950) to be rescheduled because it was not an auspicious day. The rational and scientifically inclined Nehru was mortified at the suggestion. Their biggest differences were centred around each man’s understanding of secularism. To Prasad, the traditional Hindu, a secular government’s role was to allow each individual to enjoy the freedom to practice his/her religion without state interference. To Nehru, the secular government’s role was like a benevolent father figure who protected all communities, especially minorities, and who tried to repair inequities within communities.

These differences led to a small constitutional crisis when they faced off over the Hindu Code Bill. While everyone agreed Indian society had issues concerning women’s rights and caste discrimination, they all had different opinions on how these inequities should be addressed. Nehru, Prasad and other members of the Constituent Assembly had wanted to create a Uniform Civil Code, but practical issues of how to address minority concerns and preserve cultural identities of various religious groups crippled the process. In the end, Nehru narrowed his focus on the Hindu personal laws.

RK Laxman on Nehru and the Hindu Code Bill

At the time of Independence, nearly 80% of India considered themselves Hindu and yet it was hard to pinpoint what being Hindu really meant. Nehru intended for the Hindu Code Bill to unite this diverse religious community. With Ambedkar, he saw an urgent need for reform and standardisation of personal laws concerning marriage, divorce, adoption, and inheritance. Being a Hindu himself, he thought himself more entitled to reform Hindu personal laws than address the similar issues concerning the Muslim and Christian communities in India.

Rajendra Prasad, ever the traditional Hindu, was vocally opposed to government interference in Hindu personal laws. He wrote his objections in various long and detailed notes to Nehru. While both Prasad and Nehru were secular, Prasad felt that the government should support all religions equally but should not interfere with any single communities’ laws and practices. If Nehru did want to reform Hindu society, then why not extend that reform to all communities within India through a Unified Civil Code? Why single out Hindu society?

His other objection was that the Constituent Assembly that would have passed the Hindu Code Bill into law, had been elected to write the Constitution. They were not there to reform a religious community’s social problems. If Nehru and Ambedkar wanted to do this the right way, senior members of traditional Hindu communities should be included in the process. (Of course, Nehru and Ambedkar could not do that because it would have led nowhere. Traditional Hindus were against several proposed laws including a Hindu woman’s right to inherit her father’s property, or preventing Hindu men from having more than one wife) Nehru had no qualms about being utterly undemocratic about the process because he felt the ends justified the means in this case. And so, they engaged in a wonderfully polite but serious struggle for power. Rajendra Prasad felt that as President he was duty-bound to do something. And as first President, he was going to have to figure out just what a President could do when he disagreed with the Government.

When he realised Nehru was not going to change his mind, Rajendra Prasad threatened to send the bill back to Parliament and take actions “with the dictates of [his] own conscience” as he wrote to Nehru. Nehru was alarmed. He wrote back telling Rajendra Prasad that his actions would raise uncomfortable questions about the “President’s authority and powers to challenge the decisions of the Government and the Parliament” – uncomfortable questions whose answers might disappoint the President.

As they went back and forth, debating whether a President had the right to interfere in the work of the legislature, Prasad and Nehru asked the Attorney General to share his opinion. India’s first Attorney General, M.C. Setalvad referred to Article 74 in the Constitution that stated that “there shall be a Council of Ministers with the Prime Minister at the head to aid and advise the President in the exercise of his functions”. Based on his optimistic interpretation of the Article, Rajendra Prasad felt that he had the right to stop legislation even without referring to the Council of Ministers. But Setalvad pointed out that the role of the President was equivalent to the role of the King or Queen in Britain. They were just figureheads and “the President was bound to act in accordance with the aid and advice tendered to him by the Council of Ministers.” In short, Rajendra Prasad could not act independently and block the Hindu Code Bill because he lacked the support of the Council of Ministers. The President soon realised he only had the power to express his objections but not actually do anything about them.

And so, after his futile attempts to exercise some power, Rajendra Prasad receded into the background, signing the dotted line when needed, and playing the role of dignified state elder, figurehead and rubber stamp. In 1977 and ‘ 79, Amendments 42 and 44 clarified that the President could only act on the aid and advice of the Council of Ministers and that the President can send the advice back for reconsideration only once. If the Council of Ministers sends the same advice back again, then the President was obliged to accept it.

Photo Source: The Print

It turned out that my student was right. Presidents in India do not have very much power when it comes to legislation. Of course, throughout our short history post Independence, Presidents have tried to push and expand their power and ability to affect change when they felt they needed to with varying degrees of success.

Two years before leaving office, Rajendra Prasad gave a speech at the inauguration of the Indian Law College where he said “It is generally believed (that) like the Sovereign of Great Britain, the President of India is also a constitutional head… I should like, to be studied and investigated, the extent to which the powers and functions of the President differ from those of the Sovereign of Great Britain…” This exhortation to the students came before Indira Gandhi pushed for Amendments 42 and 44 that strictly defined the powers and functions of the President. Rajendra Prasad, who died in 1964, was spared seeing the final nail in the coffin of Presidential power and independence. But, Rajendra Prasad set an example for future Presidents to act according to their conscience, push back against the Government and honour their oath “to protect, preserve and defend the Constitution” and for that, in addition to all his contributions as a founding father of the nation, he is remembered and honoured by history.

Resources:

About Rajendra Prasad:

  1. Rajendra Prasad on Wikipedia
  2. Eminent Parliamentarian Series: Rajendra Prasad (A Collection of essays on Rajendra Prasad)

About Nehru vs Rajendra Prasad and Hindu Code Bill and Article 74:

  1. Kaun Banayega Rashtrapati, by Ramchandra Guha in the Indian Express Archives
  2. Clash between President Dr Prasad and PM Nehru over Hindu Code Bill most serious, by Prabhu Chawla in India Today (1987)
  3. Disagreement between Rajendra Prasad and Nehru over Hindu code bills, India Today
  4. Letters to the Editor: Difference between Nehru and Rajendra Prasad, Anandabazaar (Translate to English)
  5. Jawaharlal Nehru and the Hindu Code: A Victory of Symbol over Substance? by Reba Som, Modern Asian Studies (on Jstor)
  6. Why We Need An Executive President, Rajinder Puri in The Outlook
  7. Whether the aid and advice theory has any relevance in the Constitution of India? by Mahitha Reddy in Judicere
  8. Mr Badal’s Blunder in Uday India

The Stamp Series #1: The National Flag

Name: Jai Hind 15 Aug 1947, National Flag
Date of Issue: 21 Nov 1947
Denomination: 3.5 Annas
Source: India Postage Stamps

The first stamp issued by Independent India, quite unsurprisingly, commemorated the Indian National Flag or Tiranga. The flag had been formally adopted on July 22, 1947 – just weeks before India’s Independence Day.

It comprised of three colours: saffron for strength and courage, white with a blue Dharma Chakra for peace and truth, and green for fertility, growth and auspiciousness, I know this from my primary school days. But what I did not know was that the flag that we see now has its own story of evolution.

Name: Pingali Venkaiah
Date of Issue: 12 Aug 2009
Denomination: Rs 5
Source: India Postage Stamps

The story of the flag begins with Pingala Venkaiah, the designer of the Indian flag and freedom fighter. In the early decades of the 20th century, Pingala had realised that the Indian freedom struggle needed to unite around a flag for a united and free India. Jhanda Pingala, as he was called, collated 30 potential designs for the Indian flag and published these in a book. In 1921, Gandhi accepted one of Pingala’s designs, and with a some minor alterations, India had a national flag.

Originally Pingala’s flag had only two colours – saffron to represent the Hindus, and green to represent the Muslim community. It also included Gandhi’s charkha (or spinning wheel) that served as a symbol for self-reliance, determination and perseverance. Later a third stripe – white – was added for both aesthetic and symbolic reasons.

Pingala’s design with some alterations (c.1921)
Source: Wikipedia

Once adopted by the Congress, the flag began to be used everywhere. It became so popular, apparently, C. Rajagopalachari, close friend and colleague of Gandhi, wrote to Gandhi complaining that Congress workers were forcing temples and mosques to replace their traditional flags and decorations with the new tricolour flag. Gandhi promptly addressed the issue in his magazine. He wrote that “as the author of the idea of a national flag and its makeup… I have felt grieved how the flag has been often abused.”. He made it clear that the flag had “no place [in] religious processions, or temples or religious gatherings”.

Gandhi and thoughtful leaders like Rajaji understood the need for balance and the dangers of being overly nationalistic, but in his response, Gandhi also claimed authorship over the very idea of a national flag and its makeup.

Given his personal interest in the flag, I was surprised to read that Gandhi had been unhappy with the National flag post Independence. He had two complaints – one, the new design replaced the heavily symbolic charkha with Ashoka’s Dharma Chakra. and second, the new flag did not include the Union Jack.

Gandhi’s vision for
the Indian flag for Independent India. Source: Wikipedia

Nehru and other members of the Constituent Assembly could not agree with Gandhi’s point of view. The charkha had been on the Indian National Congress flag. India was going to become a multi-party democracy. Shouldn’t the national flag be independent of political affiliation?

Gandhi could not get over it. “I must say that, if the Flag of the Indian Union will not embody the emblem of the Charkha, I will refuse to salute that flag. ” he said in 1947.

Gandhi’s second complaint had been that the Constituent Assembly had not granted Mountbatten’s request to include the Union Jack in the National Flag. Gandhi felt that not giving into Mountbatten’s request was ungenerous and unfriendly to the British. After all, he argued, we had achieved our independence, and including the Union Jack in the corner of the flag “would be no betrayal of India”.

This episode reminded me of how ordinarily human Gandhi could be. We all have experienced this sort of crankiness – when you have worked hard on something and are pleased with the outcome but then someone comes in with an uninvited piece of “constructive” feedback, or worse, hijacks your entire project!

Nehru and the Constituent Assembly were firm. The Union Jack on the national flag seemed too deferential a tone for a fully independent nation. And so, despite Gandhi’s voluble objections, we ended up with our current national flag.

Flag hoisting on Indian Independence Day, Aug 15 1947.
Source: News Nation

The symbolism of the flag is significant. It has the power to unite an immensely diverse people. Somehow, knowing the story of the flag has led me to hold it in higher regard because it was the product of sincere and thoughtful deliberation and debate. There was an element of sacred idealism in its creation. May that idealism represented by our flag keep our nation on the right path through the years.

Resources:

  1. Pingali Venkayya: Visit Bhatlapenumarru to know about the Flag Designer of India. Pendown – Art, Travel and Culture Blog
  2. The National Flag as Symbol and Substance, as Gandhi Saw it. The Hindustan Times
  3. Mahatma Gandhi wanted the Union Jack on India’s national flag, said he will not salute it if Charkha is replaced by Ashoka Chakra. OpIndia

New Project: Indian History Through Stamps

Recently, while on holiday, we saw a small little post office operating out of a garage in a village near B.R. Hills. My son wanted to see if they sold post cards, like they used to during my childhood but the postal worker was amused. No one came by asking for postcards any more. He pulled out an envelope from his drawer and laid out strips of colourful stamps. You can choose a stamp, he said. No one I know uses the postal system to communicate personal messages anymore. Most of these stamps that the postman in B.R. Hills showed us will probably go unused. It is a real pity.

Lal Pratap Singh was a leader in the Indian
Rebellion in 1857.He is forgotten by most
people, but not by the Indian Postal Service.
P.C – India Post

Independent India’s postal service began issuing stamps from 1947. Since then, India has produced stamps covering a marvellous range of themes. We have stamps celebrating institutions, art, architecture and music, flora and fauna as well as accomplished individuals throughout our country’s history. This year, I would like to go through the catalogue of stamps and write stories inspired by these stamps.

I will write stories inspired by stamps released every year by the India Post, starting from 1947. But since I cannot cover every single stamp released, I will focus on the ones that catch my eye or that have a story that I hadn’t known earlier. I am excited to see where it will lead us.

The first set of pieces will be on the very first stamp released by Independent India – The National Flag.

Orchha – The Hidden Kingdom

Orchha lies tucked away in the Vindyas, often overlooked by the average tourist. The shikhara of the Chaturbhuja Temple dominates the skyline in this tiny town that is packed with places to see and admire. (PC – District Administration of Niwari’s official website)

Driving through Orchha is like driving through the set of an Indiana Jones movie. Overgrown forests, ancient buildings, and then suddenly you are in a typical Indian small town, where a man on a motorcycle and a comically large bundle of mats behind him tries to squeeze past you at top speed while also confidently driving head-on into a large delivery van. The van and our SUV both came to a respectful halt, to let this brave Orchha warrior through.

This small inconspicuous sign on a largely deserted single-lane highway assured us that we were not lost.

We had not heard of Orchha till a few hours before we actually got there. It had come on our way from Nagpur to Jhansi and we stopped after quickly googling for places worth seeing en route. While overlooked now, Orchha used to be an important Bundela kingdom. While Orchha itself had been established in the mid 16th century by Raja Rudra Pratap, the most famous Orchha king was Raja Bir Singh Deo.

Since we hadn’t really planned the visit, we didn’t have the time the town truly deserves. In the hour or two that we spent there, we took a guided tour around Jahangir Mahal and the Raja Mahal, within the fort. Jahangir Mahal is a beautiful haveli style palace; a fusion of Rajput and Islamic architecture. The guide told us that Bir Singh Deo had built it as a gesture of friendship and loyalty towards the emperor. When it was complete, he invited him for a sleepover. Jahangir spent one night and never returned. And since then, the palace had remained vacant in honor of Jahangir (and perhaps subsequent Mughal rulers).

Lest you think that Raja Bir Singh was simply a vacant sycophant trying to curry favour with his Mughal overlord, our guide pointed out the subtle symbols of Rajput pride and resistance that lay hidden in the design of the palace. “Look”, he said, as we entered the palace through a narrow door. “Our backs are to the West. Jahangir and his men had to turn their backs on Mecca in order to come in. That was a great insult” At another point, he showed us a Ganesha carved into the tall doorway. “Jahangir and his men had to walk under Ganeshji to come into the palace.” According to the guide, Jahangir noted these insults and refused to stay more than a night. “This was the most expensive and elaborately planned insult in the world,” my son said wryly on our way out. According to the guide, the whole palace with its lapiz lazuli stone work, beautiful murals, trellises, hanging balconies and fountains cost a whopping 700 crore rupees in those days.

While we didn’t have a chance to visit her palace, Parveen Rai’s palace has murals of the famed courtesan and her dasis entertaining their patron and shows how much respect and power a courtesan wielded in court, given the proximity of her palace to the king’s own abode as well as the size and splendour of the place. (PC – Heritage India Magazine)

Outside Jahangir palace, our guide pointed out a large mahal in the valley below. It was the home of the famous courtesan Praveen Rai. She lived during Akbar’s time and was famous for her beauty and wit. When Akbar heard about her, he ordered the then chief of Orchha Raja Indrajit Singh to send his favourite courtesan over to him. Our guide said that Indrajit loved Praveen Rai and did not intend to obey the order, but Praveen insisted on going. When Akbar asked her to perform, Praveen Rai said very prettily, “Vinit Rai Praveen ki, suniye sah sujan. Juthi patar bhakat hain, bari, bayas, swan” or ‘Oh you great and wise! Hear this plea of Rai Praveen. Only someone from a low caste, barber or scavengers would eat from another person’s used plate.’ Ouch! Poor Akbar sent her back to dear Indrajit.

While we were there, the guide and my family were the only people in Jahangir Palace, till a short while later a small group of college boys tumbled in and spent much of their time posing for selfies. The guide told me that prior to Covid, Orchha was very popular and was mostly visited by foreign tourists. Covid had changed all that. Most domestic travellers don’t know very much about Orchha, which is overshadowed by her neighbours Gwalior and Jhansi.

Today, the settlements just outside of Orchha are empty and look worn out. The fields looked uncared for and the sides of the roads still seemed to be used as open toilets for young children. Time has not been kind to the region. We realised that kings and queens of little kingdoms such as this had played a major role to sustain local economies. While my son might view the extravagance of such kings as wasteful, such kings had created thousands and thousands of jobs. Orchha is scattered with temples, chhattris, mansions and palaces. Each had employed thousands of artisans during their construction. Think of the entire supply chain involved in the building and maintenance of such places! Aristocrats and royalty must have provided business and employment to thousands of farmers, florists, weavers, tailors, blacksmiths, jewellers, cooks, maids and manservants, caretakers of horses and camels, etc. I remember reading that in yesteryears kings would start massive public works projects during famines to provide employment and serve meals to labourers who might have starved otherwise, a practice that the British did not take up and which led to disastrous famines in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.

This visit also helped me understand Mughal’s governance system better. Akbar had centralised Mughal government and had created a coherent and solid framework for governance that allowed Mughals to stay in power for 150 years. Apart from Afghan, Persian and Indo-Islamic members of his court, Akbar had wanted to include Hindu Rajput kings into Mughal nobility. He allowed Rajput chiefs and their families to receive a high rank, pay and the promise that they could continue their customs, rituals and beliefs. They continued to have control over their ancestral lands and were rewarded with more land if they pleased the emperor with their services. In exchange, Rajput chiefs had to publicly pledge their allegiance to the emperor. They had to offer active military service when called upon and willingly give their daughters in marriage to the emperor or his princes when asked to. The Mughal emperor was paramount, and he rewarded loyalty. It completely explains Bir Singh Deo’s desire to curry favour with Jahangir.

Here is a portrait of Raja Bir Singh, armed with shield and dagger, painted in the early 17th century. (P.C. Christie’s)

Bir Singh Deo occupied a prestigious position in Jahangir’s court because of the services he had provided the emperor. Before Jahangir became emperor, he once decided to flex his muscles and got into a conflict with his father. According the Jahangir’s memoirs, he hired a man to kill Abu Fazl. The man he hired was Orchha’s Bir Singh Deo. Bir Singh cut off Abu Fazl’s head and brought it to the young prince. When he came to the throne, Jahangir gave Bir Singh the title Maharaja and must have bestowed many other gifts of land and wealth. In the political world at that time, Bir Singh Deo and other ambitious Rajputs could only safeguard their positions by betting on the right guy in a conflict and then expressing loyalty through grand gestures like enormous palaces or gifts of women or personally chopping off someone’s head for their boss. What a tough, complicated world that was!

Orchha is beautiful. The murals are fading and many bits of lapis lazuli are missing from the walls. Lovers and friends have etched their names into door frames and walls and some floors are covered with a mosaic of bat droppings, and yet it remains beautiful despite the neglect. I have not given it justice and would highly recommend checking out some of these blogs if you plan on visiting.

Resources:

Rediscovering Bhagat Singh (Part 2): The Hunger Strike

Jatindra Nath Das (1904-1929) Source: Wikimedia Commons

On September 13, 1929, 25 year old Jatindra Nath Das died after an epic 61 day fast. He had joined Bhagat Singh’s hunger strike against the unequal treatment of Indian political prisoners compared to European prisoners. Jatin Das had built bombs for the HSRA and had been arrested with the rest of his revolutionary comrades in the Lahore Conspiracy Case (regarding the assassination of Saunders). When he had first heard of Bhagat Singh’s idea of a hunger strike, he had been doubtful about the strategy. He had warned other enthusiastic strikers that “inching toward death in a hunger strike is far more difficult than death in a gun fight or on the gallows,” It wasn’t that Jatin Das lacked commitment. He was practical. “It is better not to join the strike than suffer a premature withdrawal,” he had warned. But when his comrades assured him of their determination to see this through, Jatin Das joined the hunger strike demanding that Indian political prisoners receive the same dignity and rights that are afforded to a petty European criminal in Indian jails. As his health declined and the public grew increasingly concerned about his well being, the British panicked. They tried all kinds of tricks to force the hunger strikers to break their fast. They filled the drinking water pots with milk, hoping to trick thirsty strikers into drinking milk. They placed tasty foods outside their cells and tried to tempt the strikers to give in. And eventually they tried to force feed these men, phyiscally holding them down and pushing food into them. Jatin Das struggled all of these torments. He fell sick when food that they had tried to force into him got lodged in his lungs. When he died, 61 days after he first started his fast, an entire nation stirred and the British quaked.

The archival video below shows a river of men in white flowing through the streets of Lahore as part of Jatin Das’s funeral procession. Subhash Chandra Bose had sent train fare to transport Jatin’s body from Lahore, where he had died, to his home in Bengal. The revolutionaries who had hoped to make the British tremble through planned violence, had achieved greater success through their adoption of Gandhi’s weapon of choice – fasting.

The video shows “fanatical hordes” (as the video calls them) peacefully and respectfully accompany Jatindranath Das’s body to the railway station for his final journey home. Source: British Pathe

This hunger strike that captured the attention of a nation had been Bhagat Singh’s idea. During his brief stint in prison in 1927, Bhagat Singh had noticed petty European criminals received better food and treatment in jails compared to Indian political prisoners. Surely there was a difference in quality between a European thief or murderer and an Indian political prisoner who was in prison for upholding their ideals and values.

But how do you protest effectively in prison? Bhagat Singh took a page out of Gandhi’s handbook. He decided on going on a hunger strike until changes were made. He found a way to sneak the message across to his comrade B.K. Dutt before he was sent to another jails. Bhagat Singh and B.K. Dutt spread the word in their respective jails. Word spread rapidly and political prisoners across the nation began to join the strike. Some like Jatin Das lost their lives. Some, like Baba Sohan Singh who was close to being released after serving a sentence of 15 years, joined the strike and were punished by having their sentences extended.

Bhagat Singh, as usual, put pen to paper. He wrote to the home member of the Government of India explaining why the strikers were protesting and what their demands were.

We, as political prisoners, should be given better diet and the standard of our diet should at least be the same as that of European prisoners… We shall not be forced to do any hard and undignified labour at all… books… along with writing materials should be allowed to us without restriction. Toilet necessities… better clothing… at least one standard daily paper should be supplied to every political prisoner.

from Without Fear by Kuldip Nayar

Bhagat Singh’s demands had been simple and clear. He was asking for dignity, respect and fairness. According to Nayar, Bhagat Singh had been concerned that the message of revolution was being misunderstood by the youth of India. He did not want revolution to be linked to the romance of guns, bombs and dramatic acts of violence. It was about sacrifice for a greater purpose. Bhagat Singh showed through his choices that if violence did not do the trick, then revolutionaries should change their ways and choose whatever path would lead them most expediently to their goal. Like Jatin Das, Bhagat Singh seemed aware that hunger strikes were far more difficult than dashing around with guns and bombs. But his body and voice were the only tools available to him in jail. He and all his fellow hunger strikers reminded India that even though Indians were trapped in circumstance – either in an actual jail or in a society ruled by outsiders – every individual was not only capable of bringing change but had a duty to try.

This message was not lost on Indians across the subcontinent. The efforts of Bhagat Singh, Jatin Das and so many other men and women in jails across India captured the interest of Indian media. Regional language newspapers like Sandhya, Bande Matram, Karma Yogin, Sanjibani, etc and English language papers like The Tribune reported the story and got the revolutionaries message to the common man. The strikers had gained so much sympathy from the public that the whole nation celebrated 21 June, 1929 as Bhagat Singh Day. He had achieved celebrity status during his own life time using methods that had made Gandhi, a man whom he felt was constantly chasing a Utopia at the cost of the present realities of the land, a household name.

Credit: The Tribune

It wasn’t just public sympathy and admiration that Bhagat Singh received. Mainstream names like Nehru, Gandhi and Jinnah were openly ackowledging their support for the revolutionaries while carefully adding a disclaimer that while they did not support their violent methods, they admired the dedication, devotion and courage that these young men were displaying.

In his autobiography, Nehru who had visited the strikers in Lahore Central Jail described Bhagat Singh as having an “attractive, intellectual face, remarkably calm and peaceful.” He noticed that his faced did not seem to have “any anger in it” and that he spoke very gently. However, Nehru admits that anyone who had been fasting for over a month “will look spiritual and gentle”.

Despite frequent criticisms of Gandhi’s apparently weak efforts to save Bhagat Singh and his comrades, Gandhi would state his disagreement with the revolutionaries’ methods while also openly acknowledging their sincerity and courage. He did try to convince Viceroy Irwing to commute the sentence but obviously failed. Later, he published Sukhdev’s open letter to Gandhi that he had sent before his execution and wrote a gentle and reasonable response giving Sukhdev’s words the due respect they deserved. This attitude of mutual respect that all these various freedom fighters had for each other makes me marvel at the quality of people who were leading our country at that time. Something we can all learn from – how to respectfully disagree.

When we look at the details of Bhagat Singh’s short life, I realised that school textbooks have done Bhagat Singh and his fellow revolutionaries a great disservice. While it is certainly true that the revolutionaries took to political assassinations and violence, there was more to their story than that. Perhaps they were misguided in their methods. Yet, they were not attached to violence. They were attached to their cause – a free India. When violence did not help, they turned to non-violence. It is true that they did not turn to it for the idealistic reasons that led Gandhi. They turned to it for more practical reasons. Yet, in that change in tactic, what I realised was that they were devoid of ego and blind and violent hatred for the enemy.

In his statement during the Legislative Assembly Bombing case, Bhagat Singh and B.K. Dutt had said the following:

We hold human life sacred beyond words, and would sooner lay down our own lives in the service of humanity than injure anyone else.

They had meant it when they spoke of their willingness to lay down their lives in the service of humanity. Leaders say it all the time; very few actually mean it. These young men in their early twenties lived by their words. There is good reason why Bhagat Singh features in our textbooks. But he is not there because he was willing to pick up a gun for his country. He is part of the narrative because he and his revolutionary brothers sincerely loved their country and are an example of how even when all freedoms were stripped from them, so many Indians showed the rest of us that we always have a choice.

Resources:

  1. Without Fear: The Life and Trial of Bhagat Singh by Kuldip Nayar
  2. The Tribune photo on Jatin Das shook British empire by Vishav Bharti for The Tribune, September 12, 2019.
  3. ‘Bhagat Singh respected Gandhi for his impact on masses, but thought his ideas couldn’t bring a social change for equality’ Interview of historian Chaman Lal for the Times of India, September 27, 2019
  4. ‘Modi Says No Congress Leader Visited Bhagat Singh in Jail, but That’s Not True’ by Arjun Siddharth for The Wire, May 10, 2018
  5. ‘The Hunger Strike of Revolutionary Jatin Das’ from Prashant’s Blogworld posted on January 2, 2017
  6. What Mahatma Gandhi did to Save Bhagat Singh by Chander Pal Singh for MKGandhi.org