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.

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.

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

My Re-Introduction to Bhagat Singh: The Bombing of Central Legislative Assembly

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The picture above was taken by the police during Bhagat Singh’s first stint in jail in 1927. At the time of the picture he was only 19. His hands were bound in chains and he was in conversation with Gopal Singh Pannu, DSP, CID who was interrogating him on his role in the Lahore Dasehra Bombing Case. One year later, Rajguru and Bhagat Singh would kill Saunders, an Assistant Police Commissioner in Lahore. They had meant to kill Scott, the policeman who had beaten Lala Lajpat Rai brutally and that led to the legendary leader’s death. But when this picture was taken, Bhagat Singh had no idea that he was going to commit a political assassination. He did not know that two years later he would lob bombs into the Central Legislative Assembly Chamber and then wait patiently for the police to arrest him. Nor did he know that he and his comrades, Sukhdev and Rajguru, would be remembered in Indian history as martyrs and heroes.

My own introduction to Bhagat Singh had been through a paragraph, like the one below, in my history textbook. As a student, I could not understand Bhagat Singh’s place in the story of Indian Independence. In a struggle made famous for its non-violent approach, here was a man who seemed unafraid of violence. He killed a man, bombed the Legislative Assembly when it was in session, and was executed for his actions. How were his actions any different from that of a modern terrorist? Why do we include him in a textbook? Why do we still remember him?

Credit: Our Pasts III, NCERT Grade 8 Textbook

My husband did not like that I compared Bhagat Singh to a common terrorist. “Absolutely not,” he had said fiercely. “Bhagat Singh was an intellectual, not just a revolutionary.” His defense of Bhagat Singh spurred me to do my own reading on the subject. I started with Kuldip Nayar’s book Without Fear: The Life and Trial of Bhagat Singh, followed by Bhagat Singh’s own writings. In the process my own attitude towards Bhagat Singh changed. While I agree with my husband that Bhagat Singh was absolutely not a terrorist, I think what makes Bhagat Singh extraordinary is that his life was his message or, as Sukhdev called it, ‘propoganda by action’.

In the following blog posts, I will focus on two events that made me change my mind about Bhagat Singh. The first (and the focus of this blog) was his role in the Central Legislative Assembly Bombing. The second was his protest against the treatment of Indian political prisoners compared to Europeans (which I will cover in the next blog). I wish I had heard these stories when I was in school because it would have highlighted the various paths Indians took to achieve the same desired outcome of Independence and might have allowed us to reflect on how grey a lot of these approaches really were.

Bhagat Singh’s Role in the Central Legislative Assembly Bombing

Credit: India Today

Bhagat Singh belonged to a communist group called the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA). Although Bhagat Singh was not a founding member, he joined the party when he was still in his teens and became an active member. After Saunder’s assassination, the HSRA had been disappointed with the response. The mainstream leaders of the freedom struggle had clearly disavowed the actions of the young revolutionaries and the British seemed unfazed. The public had also seemed unimpressed. If they wanted to make any serious impact on the British and the public, this clearly had not been the way. HSRA also realised that “mobilising public opinion and making people believe in their ideology was the real necessity, not random bombs and killings.” (Nayar, Without Fear).

So, how do you create a splash? The HSRA decided to toss a few low intensity bombs into a crowded Legislative Assembly Chamber when it had assembled to discuss two bills that they were against – the Public Safety Bill and the Trade Disputes Bill. After throwing the bombs and propaganda fliers in an emptier part of the hall, to avoid killing anyone, the two chosen HSRA members were supposed to wait for the police to come and find them. The idea was to use their time in court to explain their philosophy, bring attention to the faults of the British and to inspire the Indian youth to join the freedom movement.

There had been some debate over who the two sacrificial lambs should be. Bhagat Singh desperately wanted to be one of them. He would have been a good option because they needed someone articulate and confident to highlight the problems with the British, defend the revolutionaries’ ideals and inspire the public. But, they did not originally select him because they all knew that if the British had Bhagat Singh they would not let him go alive. They would have to hang him for the killing of Saunders. He would have to be made an example of.

Yet, even with full knowledge of this inevitable end, Bhagat Singh pushed for his inclusion in the plan and finally won out. On the day of the bombing, as the smoke cleared, the police finally mustered up enough courage to confront the two men in the balcony above the Assembly who were shouting Inquilab Zindabad. Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt stood there waiting. Bhagat Singh handed the policeman the gun he had used to kill Saunders. And later, as the two had hoped, they used the court as a platform to get the common man in India to pay attention to the revolutionary agenda.

In court, their lawyer Asaf Ali read out a statement that Bhagat Singh and BK Dutt wrote together. They explained the intention behind their most recent act as follows:

It was necessary to awaken England from her dreams… We dropped the bomb on the floor of the Assembly Chamber to register our protests on behalf of those who had no other means left to give expression to their heartrending agony. Our sole purpose was to make the deaf hear and give the headless a timely warning.

“We are neither perpetrators nor lunatics: Full text of Bhagat Singh and BK Dutta’s argument in 1929 Assembly Bomb case”, DNA India

They also addressed their disagreement with the nonviolent approach to freedom head on. They said:

The elimination of force at all costs is Utopian, and the new movement which has arisen in the country, and of that dawn we have given a warning, is inspired by the ideals which guided Guru Govind Singh, Shivaji, Kamal Pasha, Riza Khan, Washington, Garibaldi, Lafayette and Lenin.

“We are neither perpetrators nor lunatics: Full text of Bhagat Singh and BK Dutta’s argument in 1929 Assembly Bomb case”, DNA India

By tracing their movement’s lineage to such famous predecessors as Guru Govind Singh, Shivaji, etc, the revolutionaries were trying to point out that their ideas were neither new nor too radical since great heroes in history also resorted to the same methods. If you have a chance and sufficient interest, it is worth reading in its entirety. As I read it after having read Bhagat Singh’s other writing, I could see his hand in this as well. He is an emotive writer; it is hard to walk away from his work without some response. I did not always agree with him, and yet I did not walk away feeling that this was a rash and unthinking trigger-happy young man. He was, in fact, a person who was thinking and feeling deeply for his country and doing what he felt was right for her. He and his comrades felt so strongly about it that they were willing to suffer the torments of imprisonment (it was certainly torturous because they were frequently beaten brutally and suffered several humiliations and discomforts) and death for their ideals. Every time I read his words, I think back to the picture at the top of this article.

We are lucky that the photo of Bhagat Singh sitting on the charpoy in conversation with an investigator (that you can see at the top of this article) exists because that picture highlights two things – one is just how young Bhagat Singh was. At the time of his death he was only 23. The other is how confident Bhagat Singh appears. He looks comfortable in his shackles and relaxed in his conversation with the policeman. I could not find any sign of fear or apprehension in the collection of his personal correspondence and articles that I could find online. He seemed to overflow with conviction and dedication to his cause. Before, he died, he was visited by his grieving family. He was particularly affected by his younger brother who could not stop crying. He wrote him a particularly tender letter and included some couplets to console him. It ended as follows:

Meri hawa mein rahegi khayal ki khushboo,
Yeh musht-e-khak hai, fani rahe rahe na rahe.

(Our faith and ideas will fill the air.
What harm if this handful of dust is destroyed?)

Without Fear, Kuldip Nayar

Those who are willing to sacrifice themselves for a cause must have to view themselves with tremendous humility in the face of their faith and ideals. Through many of Bhagat Singh’s letters to his friends and family, Bhagat Singh seems to repeatedly come back to this point of how he as an individual does not matter as much as the cause.

Bhagat Singh expresses this sentiment through word and action over and over again in his short life. This is why we remember him. Not for having killed Saunders or for having bombed the Legislative Assembly as the textbooks imply. We remember him as being one of many men and women who viewed themselves as a handful of dust in the wind. They dedicated themselves to their principles and ideals regardless of the cost. Whether they chose revolution or non-violence, the love, dedication and sacrifice for their nation was the same.

India’s Spy-Explorers

When I think of explorers, I think of tall blonde men in khaki shorts and Shikari Shambu style hats, coming out tents with a notebook and a pair of binoculars around their necks. It turns out that Google also imagined explorers in a similar manner because when I searched for “British explorers in the 19th century” I found this fascinating advertisement for explorer hats for men and women. I suppose, you cannot go out exploring without just the right hat or helmet for the occasion!

Pith helmet style options in the late 19th century/early 20th century. (Source: Pinterest)

Nain Singh Rawat did not fit this rather specific image we all seem to have of explorers. He was a thin brown man, with narrow eyes. During his explorations through the forbidden lands of Tibet, he was dressed as a Buddhist pilgrim. In spite of not being dressed for the part, in 1877, when he was being considered for a gold medal from the Royal Geographical Society for his expeditions through Tibet, Col. Henry Yule (a well known Scottish geographer of the time) wrote that Nain Singh Rawat accomplished something that “no European but the first rank of travelers like Livingstone or Grant [could] have done.” Yule was writing to the Society to persuade them that Nain Singh was truly deserving of the medal instead of his British supervisor, Capt. Trotter who had planned the expedition, interpreted the results and published them. Yule argued that Nain Singh’s “great journeys in Tibet would have brought this reward to any European explorer”. In the end, this school teacher from Kumaon Valley in Uttarakhand won the prestigious Gold Medal in 1877 for having “added a larger amount of important knowledge to the map of Asia than those of any other living man.”‘

Nain Singh Rawat, one of the first Indian spies to explore Tibet (Source: Wikipedia)
Source: PBS

Nain Singh was just one of several Indian spies recruited by the British as agents in the Great Game that was being played between the British and Russian Empires. In the second half of the 19th century, the two European empires were eyeing each other’s growing power in Asia with suspicion and some envy. The Russians raced through Central Europe, trying to consolidate their influence in the region, while the British felt particularly protective of their South Asian colonies. When Russia showed interest in Afghanistan, the British got worried. That was far too close for comfort. What if, after Afghanistan, the great Russian bear turned their attention on the precious Indian subcontinent?

So, poor Afghanistan fell victim to its own geography. The British and Russians had diplomatic and actual battles over the country. Afghanistan became the centre of two wars and it is in this time I see the roots of the Afghani resentment of foreign powers in their domestic affairs that drives the Taliban. It is true that for a large part of their modern history, Afghanistan has been manipulated and toyed with by foreign powers for their own selfish reasons. With these same selfish motivations, both also started to wonder about the mysterious state of Tibet. Tibetans had a long standing suspicion of foreigners and unhesitatingly killed any foreigners found within their borders.

The Russian bear and the English lion, each claiming to be friends of the Emir of Afghanistan, also began to be menacing forces in the state. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Worried about an impending Russian invasion, the British wanted to know what exactly lay on the other side of the Himalayas. Could the British Raj be extended to include this land? Was it a natural barrier between India and the Russians in Central Asia?

The British employed a bunch of Indian spies to do this exploring for them. Nain Singh and his cousin, Kishen SIngh are the most famous but there were at least 20 others. They were recruited by British surveyors who then sent them to a type of spy school where they learnt not just how to be surveyors, but also how to measure distance using Buddhist malas (prayer beads) with 100 instead of 108 beads in them. Every 2000 paces was equal to 1 mile. They dropped a bead every 100 paces. Therefore, when they had finished counting 1 full string of beads they had covered half a mile. I would have failed miserably at this mission because I would have constantly lost track of my paces! The Tibetans would have been suspicious of a pilgrim shaking her head and constantly muttering about having to start over.

In their surveyor/spy school Nain Singh and the other pundits (that was the code name given to these Indian explorer-spies), learnt the art of disguise, how to write observations in code and hide them in their prayer wheels instead of buddhist mantras, or make up little poems of their observations that they would recite regularly so that they did not forget what they were noting down. Were these explorer-spies (code named pundits) aware of their role in this game? Did they know why they were disguising themselves as pilgrims and risking their lives to wander the Tibetan plateau taking careful measurements and recording their observations in code?

Some of these explorers were truly committed to their missions. Kinthup, a Lepcha man from Sikkim. He had been hired as an assistant to a Chinese explorer lama. Their mission was to investigate whether the river Tsangpo in Tibet was the same as the river Brahmaputra in India. Kinthup’s mission was to send around 500 specially marked logs down the river Tsangpo. If his British supervisor spotted them floating down the Brahmaputra then they would know that Tsangpo and Brahmaputra were the same.

Unfortunately Kinthup was in for a really rough ride. First, the Chinese lama/spy sold him as a slave to a Tibetan lama who confiscated all his surveyor equipment. After four years as a slave, Kinthup managed to escape. You would think that he would have just turned around and come back to Sikkim, but no. Kinthup found a way to send those logs down the Tsangpo. Of course, by this time his British supervisor had returned to England and there was no one on the Indian end looking out for these logs. Kinthup ended up spending 2 and a half years trekking the length of the Tsangpo, recording his observations while pretending to be a Buddhist pilgrim. Eventually he proved their hypothesis that Tsangpo and Brahmaputra were the same river.

Kinthup, Sarat Chandra Das, Abdul Hamid, Kishen Singh, Nain Singh and the other pundits were as much adventurers as their khaki clad European counterparts. Yet, I imagine them as being different in their attitude. As I browse through images of the explorers of yesteryear, like this one of an European explorer posing with a pygmy couple, I wonder if these pundits would have struck such similar confident, condescending poses on similar explorations. Were they more aware that they were just a small part of a greater and somewhat more sinister game of imperialistic ambitions?

A European Explorer posing with a pygmy couple and their baby circa 1921. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

At any rate, the Indian pundit explorers seem always to escape the notice of the average school child. While they know of Vasco Da Gama, Magellan and Columbus, Nain Singh and his cousins, the brave Kinthup and other pundits remain unknown to the average Indian.

Resources:

Land of the Seven Rivers: A Brief History of India’s Geography by Sanjeev Sanyal
The Great Game and Afghanistan, The Library of Congress website (this is such an excellent resource, so please check it out if you have the time)
Nain Singh’s Last Exploration, PBS Frontline
The Pundits: Spies, Explorers and Scholars during the Great Game by Parag Sayta

Aurangzeb vs. the East India Company

According to my middle school textbook, the British first arrived in India in 1605 and then 6 pages later were declaring Victoria Empress of India. It gave me the impression that the British rose to power overnight, and that Indians had simply given way to them – accepting them as militarily and culturally superior from the get-go. This is, of course, so far from the truth that it made me wonder what I had been doing during history class all those years ago.

For nearly 2 decades I had thought that Indians had just handed our country over to the English. It isn’t true, of course. (Photo credit: Royal Collections Trust)

It was only recently, as I prepared a lesson plan for my history class, did I realize that those six pages covered nearly two hundred and fifty years worth of history. During those two and a half centuries, I found it hard to believe that the British always had the upper hand. But apart from the Rebellion of 1857, the narrative of the East India Company never really includes stories of serious threats posed to its rise and continued success in the subcontinent.

One evening, as I was doing the dishes and listening to William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy audiobook, I heard of an incident when Aurangzeb nearly changed history when he came close to kicking the British out of India. Why? Because he didn’t care to do business with pirates.

So, I did a little extra reading that night, and here is the story:

In 1695, the Mughal’s largest ship, the Ganj-I Sawa’I, was carrying things that would make a pirate’s mouth water. The ship was carrying Rs 52 lakhs worth of gold, 80 cannons, 400 muskets and pilgrims returning to Indian from Mecca. Also on board were relatives of the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb.

During this time, pirates were not uncommon. Unfortunately the Ganj-i-Sawa’i came across a particularly nasty one – the dreaded Henry Avery. Avery and his crew captured and boarded the Ganj-I Sawa’I, looted the ship, and killed most of the men on board. Many women flung themselves into the sea to save their honour.

Woodcut of Avery loading his ship with treasure (Image credit: History.com)

When the few survivors made their way back to Surat and reported their tale of horror to the locals, the news spread quickly. A mob gathered around the East India Company’s trading factory, seeking revenge. Around the same time, courtiers informed Aurangzeb of the ship’s fate. When he heard the news, Aurangzeb was understandably outraged. Under his orders, officials of the British East India Company were rounded up and thrown into dark Mughal dungeons.

The Emperor Aurangzeb Carried on a Palanquin (c. 1705-1720) Picture Credit: The Met

“It wasn’t us!” the company men pleaded, but Aurangzeb and his courtiers had their doubts. The officials in the port of Bombay were inexplicably well to do. The East India Company’s trading business could not possibly explain the wealth that they displayed. There had to be another source of income, and the Mughals suspected that it was piracy.

Eventually, Aurangzeb said he would allow the East India Company to resume trade if they found Avery and his crew. Clearly, the English took his threat very seriously.

A Proclamation for apprehending Henry Avery (Photo credit: Pinterest(

Fortunately for Avery, he managed to escape capture. However, most of his crew were caught and held accountable. This seemed to satisfy Aurangzeb and the English picked up where they left off.

It was only close to 100 years later, that Clive defeated the Nawab of Bengal at the Battle of Plassey and laying the groundwork for what would later become the British Empire. But there was this moment when the East India Company had very nearly lost India.

Three things strike me about this story. One is that Indians weren’t always subservient to the Europeans. We weren’t always afraid, lacking in confidence, or being outwitted by the English.

Second, is that there was this precarious moment when world history might have turned out to be very different. Had Aurangzeb thrown the East India Company out of his empire, what would the world look like today? History is full of moments of decision, moments pregnant with possibility that no one in that time could have foreseen. What does that tell us about our present moment and the significance of our own decisions right now?

Aurangzeb (Photo credit: Pinterest)

Finally, it takes time, patience and good fortune to become history’s super villain (a role that the British Empire played with great finesse – note the legacy of discord in the Middle East, Indian Subcontinent, Ireland). It is an oddly reassuring thought.


Resources:

  1. The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire by William Dalrymple
  2. The highjacking of the Ganj-i Sawaʼi: A major diplomatic incident in 1695 British Library Blogs
  3. The Real Thugs of Inglistan Live History India
  4. How an English pirate nearly sunk the fortunes of the East India Company The Hindu

How India Saved the Lions of Gir

With all the attention that tiger conservation has received in recent years, we tend to forget her shaggier and more sociable cousin, the lion. When I told my class about India’s Asiatic lions, a few younger children were surprised. “Aunty, we have lions?” one asked. We certainly do. India is the only country in the world that is home to both lions and tigers.

A lion cub in Gir. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Once I started thinking about lions, I started seeing them everywhere. They were on currency, on Indian government seals on official documents, on ancient temple walls and pillars, on murals in urban centres and historical monuments, at the family altar (where Durga rides on a lion) and even as people with fierce last names like Singh, Sinha, and Simhan.

Lions show up everywhere in Indian iconography and language because it looks like they actually were almost everywhere. Their range extended from Greece in Europe to the southern tip of the Indian subcontinent.

Today, the poor Asiatic lion is found in the little blue dot in Gujarat – the Gir National Park. What happened to the lion?

We did. First, we took away their homes by converting their grasslands and forests into farmland, towns and villages. Later, our upper classes decided that hunting lions would be a great sport. In the Middle East and India, hunting lions was seen as a rite of passage for young men seeking power. It was a way to show off your prowess and courage. And for good reason; from the numerous Mughal paintings, like the one below, it is clear that hunting lion was not for the faint hearted.

Mughal Miniature of a Prince on a Lion Hunt (Photo Credit: Christie’s)

The ruling classes all around the world have always been obsessed with hunting. The Mughals and Rajputs were no different. But I was unprepared for the sheer volume of kill. According to one record that I read, between March and May 1610, Jehangir and his companions killed seven lions and 203 other birds and animals. By the time he was fifty, Jehangir claimed to have hunted more than 17,000 animals.

During Jehangir’s time, lions were found in forests across modern day Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh and even parts of Bengal. I could not find any information on when they disappeared from the Deccan plateau, but by late 19th century, lions were hunted to extinction in most parts of India.

Tiger hunt by Lord Reading, Viceroy of India (before 1935) (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Enter the Nawab of Junagadh. (Well, actually three generations of Nawabs). In 1879, around the same time when the last lion near Allahabad and the last lion In Rajasthan were hunted down, Mahabat Khan, the sixth Nawab of Junagadh, banned all hunting without special permission in his territory. The Nawab was alarmed by the dwindling numbers of lions and wanted to protect those that remained in his kingdom.

Sir Muhammad Rasul Khanji Babi, Nawab of Junagarh (1858-1911) with heir and council 1903 (Photo credit: Royal Collection Trust)

His son, Nawab Rasulkhanji, ascended the throne in 1892, and immediately instituted firmer laws – protecting more animals. The Gir Forest was within Junagadh borders, but Rasulkhanji was frustrated to find that the British and neighbouring Rajas kept pestering him with requests to go hunting for lions in his territory. If he did not allow it, hunters would tie baits just outside Junagadh’s borders to tempt the lions out of Junagadh where they could be hunted without consequence.

Rasulkhanji’s son, Nawab Mahabatkhanji, carried his grandfather and father’s legacy and fought to protect his lions until October 1947, when he acceded his kingdom to the Government of India and moved to Pakistan (with his 200 dogs but without any of his wives!). When he left, he left his lions unprotected.

After Independence, we seemed to have forgotten about the lions in Gir. We had Partition and a whole impoverished country to establish. It is somewhat understandable that we lost track of the lions for a while. In 1964, the Gir forests were home to 285 lions. Five years later, there were only 166 left.

Fortunately, the Indian Forest Service (the unsung hero that has stepped in to rescue so many animals from the brink of extinction in India) took notice. They set up a wildlife conservation programme for Asiatic Lions in 1965 and made the Nawab’s beloved Gir a Wildlife Sanctuary.

The Indian Forest Department has an all female team of guards protecting the lions around the clock. (Photo credit: Times of India)

At the start of the programme, India had around 177 lions. In 2005, we had 359. In 2020, we are up to 674. We talk so much about the saving the Tiger that we often forget to acknowledge our efforts with lions. If earlier, we were worried that we had too few lions, now we worry that we have too many lions squeezed into a rather small park. The Forest Department is looking some place to relocate a part of the lion population. I do not know very much about conservation and animals, but it sounds like this is a far better problem to have than having too few lions.

There is a story buried here somewhere – the story of our Forest Department and its extraordinary efforts to protect our wildlife heritage. I didn’t realise we had so many national parks dedicated to protect animals close to extinction.

At the end of the 20th century, there were around a hundred Nilgiri Tahrs in the wild. The Nilgiri Tahrs can only be found in India. They are like a cross between a goat and a sheep, and used to live in the mountains of the Western Ghats, from Maharashtra, down to Kerala. Today, there are close to 3,000 Nilgiri Tahrs in the wild. Isn’t that remarkable?

On a recent Safari through B.R. Hills, the forest department official explained that the morning safari had been cancelled because their staff will be busy carrying out a census. When I told him that we saw a pack of dhol (wild dogs) on our drive to the camp, his eyes grew wide in child like excitement. “Where?” he asked. He must have seen wild dogs many, many times in his years in the forest, and yet here he was nearly as excited as we were about our sighting.

When you read the story of the lions of India, you can read it as the tragic tale of a big cat that fell prey to human greed and cruelty. But, if you read on, you can also read it as a story of hope, vision and determination. It is a reminder that while we are capable of immense cruelty and destruction, we are also capable of immense compassion and regeneration. Starting from the late 19th century, when the Nawabs identified the threat to the lion till today, when the Forest Department and local communities have united to protect the big cats, the Asiatic lion has gone from being just a symbol to an actual creature we can visit on vacation.

Lion Safari (Photo Credit: Gir National Park Website)

—-

Resources:

1. Land of the Seven Rivers: A Brief History of India’s Geography by Sanjeev Sanyal
2. Mughal Emperors and The Imperial Hunt (Samyukta Ninan) https://www.livehistoryindia.com/story/history-daily/mughal-hunt/
3. The Naturalist with a Hint of Cruelty https://www.livemint.com/Leisure/VP1pnZYhc8q2s6A3U42QzI/The-naturalist-with-a-hint-of-cruelty.html
4. Untold Story of How an Erstwhile Princely State Saved Gir’s Lions from Extinction
https://www.thebetterindia.com/235146/world-lion-day-gujarat-gir-national-park-nawab-junagadh-british-rule-india-nor41/