‘My innermost being wants your approbation,' Gandhi wrote to him to the Ashram address in Salem. Thirty-nine years after his death, the shining veracity and severe austerity of the man seem as incredible as his ethical intelligence and his self-denying dedication.

At a little-noticed event in Chennai last month commemorating Kalki R. Krishnamurti, Tamilaruvi Maniam spoke eloquently and insightfully about Kalki's political lodestar, C. Rajagopalachari.

Maniam made the significant observation that even those who disagreed with CR — and there always were many such — never failed to acknowledge the shining veracity of Gandhi's ‘Southern warrior' and the stark simplicity of his lifestyle. Maniam said no one who visits the Gandhi Ashram at Tiruchengodu, Pudupalayam which CR founded and where he was based in the 1920s, can fail to be moved by the severe austerity of the place, its almost desolate character, and the extreme adversities under which the once-prosperous Salem lawyer opted to live.

Anniversary on December 25

On this anniversary of CR's death, I thought I would share with readers of The Hindu some vignettes from CR's time in Tiruchengodu, drawing from some of his unpublished letters to Gandhi and his circle, which I am compiling and which should be out in book form early next year.

Ever loyal to his ‘master,' but ever frank and never hesitating to crucify himself on the Cross of his contrarian standpoints, CR found himself at a crossroads as early into the struggle as 1924. That was the time when the Congress had divided into the Swaraj party led, at the national level, by Pandit Motilal Nehru and Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das, and powered within Madras State, by the redoubtable S. Satyamurti and led by C. Vijiaraghavachari and S. Srinivasa Iyengar.

The Swarajists wanting to depart from the Congress' programme of boycotting the Raj's institutions and to ‘change' Congress' strategy for Swaraj by entering Raj-controlled Councils was not a problem with CR. That Gandhi should want to cooperate with the ‘pro-changer' Swarajists ‘in the larger interest of the struggle' was a huge problem for him. He could not accept it. CR could not cooperate with leaders of the Swaraj Party for whom boycott was anathema, khadi a matter of secondary importance, prohibition of little interest and the Harijan cause a desirability but not a priority. When Gandhi wrote to CR on September 6, 1924 “We must continue to surrender (to the pro-changers) up to the very margin of principle,” CR had had enough. He decided to withdraw from active politics and to found an Ashram on the lines of Gandhi's Sabarmati.

The Gandhi ashram

He set it up on a four acre plot in a challenging part of the rocky and rain-parched Salem district, which was made available to him by the munificence of the public-spirited zamindar Ratnasabhapati Gounder. Pudupalayam village in Tiruchengodu had no more than 150 dwellings, belonging to the village's many weavers, farming Gounders and “untouchable” groups. Christening the new settlement ‘Gandhi Ashram,' he gave himself as his goal the promotion of khadi, countering “untouchability” in the region, and weaning men away from drunkenness — tasks that were rather more difficult than making speeches against the Raj.

CR's ashram became a magnetic field, drawing the nation's great leaders — Gandhi himself, Rajendra Prasad, Acharya P.C. Ray, Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel.

Kasturba Gandhi came and was delighted to see Tiruchengodu's women spinning good quality khadi. When CR was showing her round the dyeing unit, she asked him in her ‘working' English: ‘Rajaji, this colour go?” CR replied: “No Ba, this no-go colour.”

CR was himself Gandhi's ‘no go colour' follower, except that he chose to weave that deep-dyed yarn in a ‘count' set by his own highly ethical intelligence. The cotton was Gandhi's, the yarn dyed in Congress' ideology, but the weave his very own.

CR's withdrawal gave Gandhi both pride and dismay. He wrote to him on July 16, 1925:

My dear C.R.,

Somehow or other I need your letter to feel that all is well with you. My position is this. My body and mind are living in a world by which I remain unaffected, but in which I am being tried. My soul is living in a world physically away from me and yet a world by which I am and want to be affected. You are a part of that world and perhaps the nearest to me. My innermost being wants your approbation of what I am doing and thinking. I may not always succeed in getting it, but it craves for your verdict.

…Your sadhana is the development of the place where you are…

C.R.

The year 1929 saw drought descend over the Tiruchengodu region. Young India published a telegraphic appeal from CR for help. Help came, but more was needed.

CR wired Gandhi:

. . . We have restricted our relief work to Adi-Dravidas of five villages within a mile of the Ashram. . . clamouring for relief. . . . Large numbers are emigrating. But very poor and old persons, especially women and children, have not even this escape out of an intolerable situation. . . .

The year 1929 also brought a pang of personal pain. Gandhi received a communication from someone saying CR was using khadi funds collected during Gandhi's southern tour ‘to maintain idle Brahmins.' In an epiphanic moment in July 1929, when CR, sitting outside his hut at the Ashram, was drafting a reply to this slur, a woman in rags came crying. Hearing the account, CR tore up the draft he was writing and sent, instead, an article for Young India in an altogether different key. It was carried in the issue of 11.7.1929.

Almost every one of these people is in debt. A couple of rupees borrowed carries so much interest per rupee per month and the people earn so little that the debt can never be discharged but grows and grows. It practically sells the man into slavery. There is no legal process but assault and intimidation and coercion do the work of the courts. The creditor is his own bailiff. If no one lent money to these people they would be in a worse position. A debtor and slave feel more respectable than a mere starving beggar.

I tore off the worthless article I was writing in self-defence. What if I was calumniated? It was nothing to the miseries of these defenceless people. Our mutual quarrels and hates are God's retribution for our wicked indifferent indifference to the miseries of these children of His.

‘Is your daughter to be married?' I asked.

‘Yes, swami, this Wednesday,' she smiled.

What fuss we make over a wedding in our homes! Think of a brute who lent a couple of rupees to your dead father, and he comes and stops the proceedings and pulls the carpet and paraphernalia out and assaults the assembled folk, for his debt is still due.

‘Go on with it,' I said. ‘Don't be afraid. If the kantukaran comes and interferes in any way come and tell me at once and don't be afraid.'

‘My Swa-a-mi! My protector,' she cried in joy as she walked away.

I sent a message of stern disapproval to the tyrant's friends. Either he feared police proceedings or he relented, or what is more probable, he resolved to bide his time. I heard nothing more of the trouble.

In times when politics has become brazenly self-serving and even ‘public service' unashamedly motivated, the life-work of such a one as Rajagopalachari seems almost incredible, a distant light beyond the miasma of politics. We do not see self-justification ‘torn off' from political intentions, nor human voices heard and heeded betimes.

Of the unpopular and the true, it has been said, both speakers and listeners are scarce.

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