A great poet, a great war

Tamil nationalist poet Subramania Bharati lived much of his short public life in the shadow of World War I. In this two-part essay, a historian reconstructs those days.

July 12, 2014 06:02 pm | Updated November 17, 2021 12:08 pm IST

Indian troops arrive in France during World War One.

Indian troops arrive in France during World War One.

Born in 1882, Subramania Bharati’s political career began in the end of 1904. Less than four years later he would be forced into exile, an ordeal that would extend to well over a decade. The years spent in exile in the French enclave of Pondicherry, between mid-1908 and late 1918, subsume the years of the Great War, and it is not entirely coincidental that Bharati should choose to end his exile within a week of the signing of the Armistice. How did the great poet respond to the Great War?

Unlike World War II, this War had little direct impact on southern India, barring the bombing by the German light cruiser Emden . But in an imperial world where India was fully integrated as Britain’s colony, the War did not leave India untouched, and the politics of the time was deeply coloured by its course and Britain’s fortunes in it.

The War broke out in July 1914 at a particularly inopportune moment in Bharati’s life. What Bharati called the ‘new spirit in India’, the Swadeshi movement, the earliest phase of the Indian nationalist movement with mass participation, was effectively extinguished by 1908 in the wake of severe state repression. Apart from the movement’s prime leader Tilak, who was transported to Burma, many of Bharati’s own comrades — V.O. Chidambaram Pillai, Subramania Siva, Ethiraj Surendranath Arya and Krishnaswamy Sarma — were imprisoned. Fearing arrest, Bharati himself left for Pondicherry in September 1908. French India had for long been the refuge for civil debtors and other malefactors seeking to escape the clutches of the British Indian police. Bharati was the first to choose Pondicherry for political asylum — an example that would soon be followed by Aurobindo Ghosh and V.V.S. Aiyar.

Bharati intended to continue his political activities on French Indian soil and moved his weekly India , and the daily Vijaya, to Pondicherry to continue his nationalist propaganda. As the repression continued taking a heavy toll of the Swadeshi movement, Bharati was at his best. But, by 1910, the government had enacted new legislations such as the Indian Press Act, and the entry of Bharati’s journals into British India was throttled and Bharati’s papers folded up. To add to the misery two of his books were proscribed. Following this crackdown, Bharati had virtually no access to any avenues of expression. The volume for the years leading up to 1914 is the slimmest in the chronological edition of his collected works published by Seeni Viswanathan, and much of it is apolitical.

What political activities Bharati could indulge in were limited, especially with the intimidating presence of an army of spies, informants and policemen pressed into service by the British. After the Collector of Tirunelveli, Robert Ashe, was assassinated in June 1911, and the suspects were found to be in possession of Bharati’s writings, the surveillance increased. At one point, there was one CID inspector, nine sub-inspectors, and 45 constables, not to speak of paid informants, stalking the patriots in Pondicherry. How so many gendarmes found elbowroom to function in the small town of Pondicherry is a mystery, and undoubtedly Bharati felt hedged in, especially with a prize on his head.

It was in this context that the War broke out at the end of July 1914. Ever alert to political happenings — evidently he followed the extensive reports in The Hindu — Bharati was quick to respond. He wrote to the Governor of Madras, Lord Pentland — a letter carried by The Hindu (August 11, 1914) as well. Claiming to be ‘a representative of the constitutional Nationalist Party of South India’, Bharati said that it was his duty at ‘this critical juncture in the fortunes of the British Empire’ to re-affirm his party’s ‘sincere and conscientious devotion to Pan Britannica’. In times of war it was the duty to stand by the British despite differences and the idea of being tied to the ‘mediaeval yoke of Germany’ was intolerable. Bharati ended his epistle with the pious hope that a peace, ‘honourable to Britain and her allies, Eastern as well as Western’, would soon return. Little would he know that the War would take four long years with little to show for the immense sacrifices made by India.

Bharati’s claim to be a member of a constitutional nationalist party needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. For no such party existed at that time. Bharati had little doubt that he was a subject of a ‘disarmed and subject nation’ and is likely to have had links with some hot-headed revolutionaries as the Swadeshi movement took a beating. In a memoir written by V.O. Chidambaram Pillai on Tilak, there is a cryptic reference to the possibility of nationalists making contact with Indian revolutionaries abroad during the War. If there were indeed such efforts they were stillborn, and there is little evidence to suggest that Bharati had any role in it despite the fact that one of the revolutionaries abroad was his associate M.P.T. Acharya. In any case, if not out of conviction at least pragmatically, Bharati swore loyalty to the British Empire.

A few weeks after his missive to Lord Pentland, in an apparent bid to enthuse patriotism, Bharati translated an extract from the French diplomat and writer Alphonse de Lamartine’s Voyage en Orient on ‘the heroic ballads of Servia’, and published it in The Hindu (September 2, 1914) with a short prefatory note.

Meanwhile, a debate on the duty of Indian patriots during the War was raging. Tilak, described by Bharati as the ‘accredited leader’ of the constitutional nationalist party, had been released a month before the War. Subsequently Tilak had issued a statement on India’s role in it. Interpreting Tilak’s statement, Bharati stated, “We want Home Rule. We advocate no violence. We shall always adopt peaceful and legal methods… In peace time we shall be uncompromising critics of England’s mistakes. But when trouble comes we shall unhesitatingly stand by her, and if necessary, defend her against her enemies.” ( The Hindu , September 3, 1914).

In the early stages of the War, Bharati was at pains to explain that the nationalists’ position was not inimical to Britain’s war efforts. Writing to Annie Besant’s daily New India (October 3, 1914) under the rubric ‘Home and War’, he referred to the ‘excellent principle’ of not embarrassing the government during war time and claimed that he was the earliest to enunciate this principle. He likened the Empire to a big joint family. Drawing attention to the ‘grand and thrilling’ sacrifices that India had done in the cause of the War, not to mention ‘the further sacrifices’ that she was ready to make, he described India as ‘the eldest and most dutiful, but not the favourite, daughter-in-law’. The pressures of war notwithstanding, Bharati called for certain urgent reforms: free, universal, primary education under Indian control; encouragement to industries; and closer to his own interest perhaps, police reforms. ‘What can the Government mean by constantly increasing the number and prospects of the C.I.D. force in the country?’ he asked. Tongue in cheek, he wondered if higher police officials may not be better pleased with a policeman for detecting a new Swadeshi patriot than for discovering a gold mine!

In a letter to New India two weeks later (October 20, 1914) Bharati reiterated that both rights and duties were of ‘equal sacredness’. Bharati’s words fell on deaf ears. The colonial government cared little for the words of the unacknowledged legislator who had escaped its dragnet.

During the first year of the War, Bharati’s access to the press was limited to the correspondence columns of The Hindu and New India . It was when A. Rangaswami Iyengar took over as editor of Swadesamitran in 1915 that Bharati had wider access to the Tamil press. After a gap of many years, Bharati resumed publishing in Swadesamitran , the daily where he had cut his journalistic teeth. Bharati announced his return with a bang — titled ‘To Belgium’, eight stanzas celebrated the principled stand of Belgium when Germany violated its neutrality to invade France. Presumably the poem was composed at the time of Germany’s invasion in early August 1914 but was published only in February 1915 at the first opportunity of publication.

As the War progressed, Bharati noted the heavy price India paid in blood as the ‘Sikhs and Rajputs’ struggled in the battlefields of Europe. What would India gain? ‘England! Will you give us Self-Government after this War? Will you listen to your own higher voice, to the inspired words of your poets, philosophers, and seers? Will you dare to reject the counsels of a pitiful Machiavellianism?’ Bharati was not very hopeful, and took solace in a metaphysical solution: Whether England would grant self-government or not, ‘we would never grudge our efforts to aid you. For deeds will count before the Gods, even if they sometimes fail to count before men.’ ( New India , March 18, 1915).

To conclude next week.

A.R. Venkatachalapathy is a historian and Tamil writer.


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