C. Rajagopalachari was known as the Mahatma’s southern warrior, which he was in his own unusual way

Chakravarti Rajagopalachari was a man of books, both as an attentive reader and a writer of masterpieces. But it was in the writing of letters that he spent the largest part of his affair with pen and ink. He seemed to enjoy both the substance and the form of correspondence, with brief letters drawing the best from the effervescence of his wit and the longer ones, from the ripeness of his wisdom. When those two talents of his — wit and wisdom — combined and drew from the dictionary of trenchant words, we got what may be called ‘vintage CR.’

If Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi had an addiction, it was to the same universe of written communication. Few have written letters as prodigiously as Gandhi, fewer with his thrift, cogency and clarity, his letters remaining, mostly, straight-laced and serious, but sometimes bursting into a laugh. There were days when Gandhi did not eat, when he did not speak. Scarce was the day when he did not write a letter.

CR and Gandhi shared about thirty years of colleagueship, hardship and friendship. Letters or post-cards written on handmade paper and posted from different locations and also from wayside railway stations sustained the association no less than time spent together.

Even when most other limbs of British India, ‘polluted’ by the imperialist ego, were boycotted by Congress, the postal system was not. It was not only not disassociated from but actively patronised by these eminent rebels. Legislatures were to be shunned, law courts abjured, colleges and schools run by the government declared noxious and out of bounds for the patriotic, but not so the post offices of the Raj, and its systems of collection and delivery.

From 1919 until Gandhi’s assassination in 1948, postal correspondence linked CR to his leader. During these three decades CR was based in India’s south — either in Madras or in his ashram at Tiruchengodu, in the parched part of Madras Presidency’s Salem district. And Gandhi was wherever his two feet and a million concerns carried him, restless and composed, agitated and at peace, ever giving and ever demanding of trust. Not for nothing did he get to be known as Gandhi’s southern warrior, his foe-harrier, flag-carrier. And by some, as a barrier between them and the Mahatma, a wall that Gandhi leaned on for support and as a protective guard for his own spiritual sustenance.

The letters to Gandhi are of value as the intellectual and never un-emotional outreach of Gandhi’s ‘conscience-keeper,’ as the Mahatma more than once referred to CR. They are also a cardiograph of the national struggle for freedom and for social reform, as recorded on the sensitive disc of CR’s observations.

‘Come back,’ CR writes to the Mahatma on June 16, 1920, ‘and give us life.’

Is that a prayer or an admonition? Counsel or a subtle warning? Is it an individual’s appeal or a collective pleading? Perhaps the words are a blend of all that and more. I believe they are written by one whose faith in his leader did not indemnify the object of his faith from misjudgements, error or even folly. Can faith be judgmental? The writer addresses Gandhi, as ‘Master.’ Can one admonish one’s Master? Not usually. But then CR is not ‘usual.’

CR was never ‘usual.’

CR’s last letter to Gandhi is what might be called ‘official.’ It is indeed on an official matter, pertaining to his Ministry, sent by 67-year-old CR, as Minister in the interim government of free India in charge of the department of Industries and Supplies, on official letter paper, to the Father of the Nation. Though addressed, like the others, to ‘My dear Bapu,’ it is signed as CR would sign all official letters, in full — ‘C. Rajagopalachari.’ And, as is only to be expected from the unusual in CR, it demurs. CR declines to place 1900 bales of yarn per month at the disposal of a non-government agency for distribution in Noakhali on the ground that only the Bengal government could and should distribute yarn, then a commodity in short supply.

Noakhali, as we know, was the scene of a millennial intervention by the Mahatma on the eve of the partition of India, following brutal communal riots. Life in Noakhali was ravaged beyond recognition. As part of a process of healing and restoration, it would seem that Gandhi wanted to have (non-khadi, ‘mill’) yarn placed at Noakhali’s disposal for providing weaving and wage-earning opportunities to the affected people there. The idea was that a non-governmental agency would distribute the yarn on a monthly basis. But, no, the Minister did not agree with the Mahatma. Procedures were procedures. Officially procured yarn was to be officially, not non-officially, distributed. And then in the quantities that were feasible, according to the government’s calculations, not Gandhi’s. There is nothing to show that the Mahatma pressed the point.

The nearly eighty communications that pass between the first and the last reflect the same unusual nature of their relationship, where respect is given, affection lavished, but nothing taken for granted except the genuineness of the equation, its truth, its faith. They show CR as the faithful dissenter or the dissenting faithful.

That is where a certain grace informs CR’s contrariness. It can sound weary, sad. It does not sound affronted or disoriented by defeat. The strength of CR’s intellection lay in its being exempt from two drawbacks: an eagerness to win an argument and fear of losing it. He seemed to find a careful exposition, a subtle elaboration, a syntactically apposite formulation laced with unexpected turns of humour to be sufficient unto the purpose.

He was unabashedly God-minded and pious, placing his talents and his time very consciously on the altar of reverential belief. He wrote on Scripture as a sacrament, on politics as a duty, on social issues as an obligation. He wrote on Gandhi as Ananda would on the Tathagata or Mark, Mathew, Paul and Luke would on the Prince of Nazareth.

CR was designed to leave a mark on the stage of endeavour, not on the stage of achievement. His achievement was his endeavour, as a freedom fighter, as a public intellectual, as an opinion-maker, and as a statesman in high office and outside it.

Who or what was the ‘essential CR’?

CR was pious, he was not pietist. He was religious, not religiose. He was traditional, not orthodox. He could rebel, but not dally with heterodoxy. He prized intelligence but did not pickle his brains in the vinegar of cleverness. He was accepting of what Time served him, not servile before its buffetings.

CR’s last recorded words in hospital, as life ebbed away from his 94-year-old frame on December 25, 1972, were “I am happy.” These were said by a man who rescued happiness from the debris of disappointments and faith from shattered dreams. Contradictory? Of course, yes. But then what else could be expected from that most unusual man?

(Excerpted by Gopalkrishna Gandhi, former West Bengal Governor, from his foreword to the book My Dear Bapu. Today is the 40th death anniversary of C. Rajagopalachari).

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