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Rajaji: Our Forgotten Hero

‘I am small. My smallness is my strength. It is the fortress in which I live.’ A visit to C Rajagopalachari’s birthplace in Tamil Nadu reveals that the fortress has been forgotten.

Among the leaders in the front ranks of the freedom movement, and those counted as the makers of modern India, Chakravarthy Rajagopalachari (Rajaji) is perhaps the man most forgotten. Gandhi is the ‘Father of the nation’; the very existence of India as a modern democracy, and lately all its faults—from clogged drains to currency fluctuation—are credited to Jawaharlal Nehru’s side of the ledger; the race to usurp Vallabhbhai Patel’s legacy has given India a Guinness record for the world’s tallest statue; Bhimrao Ambedkar is not only a Moses-like lawgiver who framed the constitution but also the messiah of marginalized; Maulana Azad, now firmly located in Indian-Muslim politics, finds an occasional ode to his prescience about the fallacy of Pakistan and subsequent fate of subcontinental Muslims.

Rajaji is less lucky than Azad.

A reminder of Rajaji’s existence now comes only when leading Tamil politicians are laid in state at the the government banqueting hall named after him in Chennai. Today, on his 140thbirth anniversary, beyond the official garlanding of his portrait in Parliament, you can be sure of no other significant commemoration.

A few days ago, I made a trip to Thorapalli, the birthplace of the man once described as “India’s wisest”, Gandhi’s “conscience keeper”, and his Southern “general”. Finding the little village some 12 kilometres from Hosur on the highway towards Krishnagiri isn’t much of a problem given the prominently visible beige arch that welcomes you to the birthplace of “moodharingar” (Tamil for ‘statesman’). After driving past truck component factories, cauliflower patches and firecracker flower fields you arrive at the narrow lane of the agraharam of the Prasanna Venkateshwara Perumal temple where Rajaji, the son of the village munsiff Chakravarthy Ventakarya was born in 1878. You could easily miss the low mud and brick house in the lane smelling strongly of cow urine and open gutters but for a blue board identifying it. Finding the house locked at 9.30 on a morning, I asked a young nighty-clad woman, who was feeding idli to her young child next door, if it would open anytime soon.

It should have by now, she said, but speculated that the watchman who doubled up as the caretaker might have gone home on a long weekend. By the time I went around the village, and said a hopeful prayer at the temple, the caretaker had arrived.  Even by the slovenly standards of Indian monument-maintenance, the Rajaji house nationalized in 1978, takes the biscuit. In the tiny, lightless, three-room house where lime dust coats the feet at every corner, the standout feature is a bronze painted bust of Rajaji that has little resemblance to the man.

A plaque declares that it was installed at an expense of Rs 200,000 in 2009, and unveiled by the then-DMK information minister Parithi Ilamvazhuthi (an irony given that he was a rabble rouser, known for incendiary speeches, and had his original name, Gandhi, changed by M Karunanidhi in recognition of those skills). The caretaker is puzzled by my enthusiasm for the place. “Do visitors come here often?” I ask. “Off and on, but mostly during the marriage season,” he says.  I wondered if some Tamil spiritual magazine had declared the place a must-visit for better chances of getting married or sustaining those on the rocks. “No, no. Not like that. There’s a large marriage hall nearby. The guests drop in because it’s the only thing to see hereabouts,” he explains. But there’s nothing to see here besides yellowing, black and white pictures of Rajaji with an assortment of politicians, and A4 printouts of a timeline of key events of his life wrapped in cellophane stuck on the walls. As a parting gift, he hands me a government pamphlet about the Rajaji house whose highlight in big, bold font is former chief minister J Jayalalitha’s decision to allocate a one-acre plot to build a monument in the area for him. Does the first awardee of Bharat Ratna in 1955, India’s highest civilian award, independent India’s first and only governor-general, and a man who laid the foundations of meaningful, constructive and democratic dissent in free India, deserve to be treated with such apathy in modern India?

Today, his legacy carries no political currency whatsoever. There is no electorally significant group that can be mobilized in the name of someone born a Tamil Brahmin such as Rajaji. While it is understandable that the current-day Congress Party cannot include in its pantheon anyone outside of the Nehru-Gandhi family (even Rajaji, who often described himself as a “willing slave of Gandhi”), its opponents too are unwilling to embrace him. Rajaji becomes useful for the Indian “right” only when it comes to making a case for economic freedoms and championing the benefits of the private sector’s profit motives, as opposed to the stifling grip of the government on matters business. Popular narratives have rendered him a political liability. Historians such as Christophe Jaffrelotte routinely bracket him alongside majoritarian Hindu and caste bigots.

While such distortions and misrepresentations might hurt his tiny band of his admirers, Rajaji himself would have been nonplussed. “I am small. My smallness is my strength. It is the fortress in which I live,” he said leaning on one of his favourite texts, The Bible.  The quest for Upanishadic equanimity, and a golden mean free of ideological dogmas explain both Rajaji’s greatness, and his status as a longtime political pariah.

“Rajaji refused to write an autobiography on the grounds that ‘one cannot help tying to show oneself in a good light’. Comparing himself to a matchstick, he described his smallness as his strength and argued that one must realise the insignificance of one’s own life in the vastness of space.’ But his humility was tempered by the idea that man with his mind and spirit may be the universe’s link to God, and that ‘human species can and ought to function as if they were the ultimate blossom of the tree of universe.’ This is perhaps why he was drawn to both contemplation and action, taking religion and politics equally seriously,”

This is a quote from Vasanthi Srinivasan’s brilliant biography Gandhi’s Conscience Keeper: C Rajagopalachari and Indian Politics. The matchstick was one of Rajaji’s preferred metaphors. Even in a rare moment of anger. In a 1951 correspondence, recorded by Rajmohan Gandhi, Rajaji’s grandson and biographer, Louis Mountbatten proposed that Rajaji should serve as India’s High Commissioner to Britain in order to help Nehru.  “You and Edwina are so intensely interested in Jawaharlal Nehru that, may I say, you have no eyes to see or mind to think about others. Rajaji is just a matchstick to light the cigarette… You throw the matchstick in the ash-tray without a thought after it has served its purpose…” responded Rajaji, adding that after serving as Cabinet Minister, Governor without power, Governor-General when the Constitution was to be wound up, Minister without Portfolio, Home Minister and now as the acting High Commissioner, he should perhaps cheerfully accept a senior clerk’s place somewhere, and raise that job to its proper and honoured importance. When another biographer, Monica Felton, a British Socialist told Rajaji that many of his admirers compared him to Socrates, Rajaji responded, “Socrates asked questions, I always seem to be answering them. Besides, such a notion is like comparing a comet to a safety match.”

Advocates of free markets and those decry socialist utopia often invoke Rajaji’s pioneering crusade against the “License-Permit-Quota Raj”, a popular phrase he coined to describe the Nehruvian socialist control of industry, agriculture, and trade policy. He described this economic course as the grand Indian rope-tick in which the performer throws up a rope, then gets on it and disappears. He argued that production and growth must precede distributive goals, and that governments and its bureaucracy were ill-equipped to drive such economic activity because they had no experience of managing businesses. Srinivasan writes:

He was not an ideologue of private property and free trade, but one whose thrust was on prudence in economic policy. He often recalled Burke’s celebrated observation that it was a delicate problem in legislation as to what the state ought to take upon itself to direct by its wisdom and what it ought to leave with as little interference as possible to individual exertion.

In the ideologically-polarized times of today, where centrism, let alone the pursuit golden Rajaji-esque golden mean is not just unfashionable, but considered a “cop-out”, it is not surprising to find the Gandhi Ashram at Pudupalayam 12-kliometres off Tiruchegode, setup by him in a state of glorious neglect, if only somewhat better-kept than his birthplace at Thorapalli.

Tiruechengode, in present-day Namakkal district of Tamil Nadu is the borewell rig capital of India. So rocky and dry is the region that borewell operators have specialized in digging upto 1800 feet below the earth’s surface to prise out ground water. The prowess of the mobile, truck-back Tiruncengode rigs is such that they are called upon not just to drill for water but also to rescue children in different parts of India who fall into deep borewells. Long before such technology came into profusion, Rajaji set up a Gandhian Khadi ashram in the bone-dry hamlet of Pudupalayam that employed “untouchable” women weavers and spinners from the region in 1925. He built the experimental ashram on a four-acre piece of parched land donated by Ratnasabhapathy Gounder, a local landlord whose father had been a friend and client during his days as a hugely successful lawyer in the Salem courts.

The Pudupalayam ashram was a result of a “penance” that Gandhi wanted his closest acolytes to perform when the Congress was seemingly losing the battle on several fronts. The freedom struggle was at the risk of fizzling out after the Khilafat Movement, the long imprisonment of Gandhi and other nationalists, and the Swarajist enthusiasm to join provincial councils and fight the Raj constitutionally as opposed to Gandhi’s call for non-cooperation. “The health of Congress concerned both the Mahatma and Rajaji. In 1920 Congress had been converted from a talking shop into a fighting body. Now it seemed to be reverting to speechmaking. To restore rigour to Congress Rajaji and Gandhi came up with a novel idea of replacing the four-anna fee for membership with a levy of spun yarn… Assailed as queer and undemocratic, the ‘spinning franchise’ was made optional in September 1925… Gandhi would stoop to conquer the Swarajists and let them control Congress,” wrote Rajmohan Gandhi.

Rajaji, Patel and others had to resign from Congress posts making way for Swarajists in what Gandhi termed as useful test for the “no-changers” to see if they could serve their duty “silently, self-effacingly, without grumbling and without expectation of reward.”

In the rocky outpost of Pudupalayam Rajaji formed a kibbutz of ‘untouchables’ that was denied essentials such as milk by local vendors and threatened to be torched at night by those of upper and intermediary castes who disapproved of him. An unexpected outcome besides that of providing Khadi cloth-making livelihood for 1500 ‘untouchable’ women was training the inmates in emergency firefighting.

Between 1925 and 1929, Rajaji had become a nationwide travelling salesman for the Khadi cloth produced at the ashram. At a meeting in Patna, when he was asked why he had hidden himself amidst spinners and weavers in a remote village, Rajaji said, “The truth is that we had lost a round of battle against the Raj because the capacity to suffer, which has been our canon had been exhausted. We are making more canon for future.” At another occasion, he quipped “The spindle is the pistol of the Indian masses.” During an address to students at a Nagpur college, Rajaji was confronted as to whether he had turned into a hawker of Khadi that was more expensive than mill cloth. “What are your wages, sir,” asked a student. “No wages my friend, but the satisfaction that I have persuaded some of you to wear Khadi.”

“It is a retrograde step, sir,” said another a young student. “Yes, as retrograde as asking a dishonest man to go back to honesty,” Rajaji quipped while mopping up large orders.

The Pudupalayam ashram fares better than other Rajaji monuments for two reasons perhaps. One, because it is named after Gandhi and not Rajaji. Two, it produces Rs 11 crore in sales of handmade mattresses, steel furniture, agarbathis, honey and assorted cottage items that have a ready market among modern virtue-signaling consumers, employing 85 fulltime staffers.

The ashram, now a central government-owned khadi and village industries unit is spread across 20-odd acres in addition to the original four. The thatched huts once occupied by Rajaji and his accomplices now have red-tiled roofs. The place has a charming fragrance from the agarbathi factory. The administrators are thrilled that they have in me an unusually-curious tourist, and a generous buyer of some of their wares. They lovingly hand over the visitor’s book that is a collection of a few plastic files containing crumbing handwritten accounts of those who’ve visited the place (Gandhi, Kasturba, Rajendra Prasad, other Presidents, Governors, and foreign dignitaries). The library that Rajaji once kept and the volumes of the pro-prohibition journal he founded from here, Vimochanam, lie in tatters.

“Are you wanting a cross-caste marriage, sir,” asks one of the employees showing me around in Tamil.

“Why do you ask?”

“Very lucky place, sir. You should pray here. See, Rajaji and Gandhi children cross-caste marriage engagement happened here. One Harijan manager fell in love with rich TVS family daughter. All families doing very well. It will work out for you also.”

Almost every Tamil Nadu temple from the ancient to the recently-built-on-the roadside have a ‘sthala puranam’ or foundational legend. Won’t we be a better people even if we rediscovered this factory founded by Rajaji to manufacture, without license, permit or quota, the moral ammunition to fight injustice, if only to attain marital success?

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About the author

TR Vivek

TR Vivek is a Bangalore-based journalist.