And, it all ended

This photo was taken on November 11, 1918, shows people in front of Buckingham Palace in London, celebrating the signing of the Armistice. Photo: AP  

As mortal men continued to fail India, Subramania Bharati increasingly took recourse to the divine. Reflecting on ‘India and the War’ in Besant’s weekly Commonweal (July 2, 1915), a year after its outbreak, he tried to vindicate the deeds of god to men. ‘We want to understand the real objects for which the Gods have sent this grim and terrible tragedy into the fair and prosperous land of Europe.’ Despite Europe’s ‘blunders and faults’ (colonial and imperial), Indian hearts were deeply moved by the ‘immense amount of suffering and anguish’ caused to Europe. Why? ‘For she has done some very good things to mankind.’ Europe had fought battles against superstition and injustice. Had unravelled the mysteries of God’s physical world (but not, of course, the spiritual world; that was the East’s prerogative!). In short, Europe had been ‘bold in her aspirations, courageous in her convictions, and high-souled in her aspirations’. Holding that humanity was one, he dismissed obliquely writers such as Rudyard Kipling as ‘some silly theorists and sillier rhymesters’ who divided mankind into hearts ‘that shall never meet’. Bharati was very clear what the War was all about. While the allies fought for international equity, and for the rights of nations and individuals, Germany was fighting for its own advancement. In conceding this, the sceptic in Bharati was ever alert. He noted that, on the side of the Allies, there were certain people — Russia, for instance — whose love for liberty and equity was of quite recent origin. But the realist in Bharati was quite willing to forget and forgive the past. He had no doubt that in the present war, the Allies were in the right. Why else would India sacrifice her men and resources for the Allied cause? But Bharati was ever aware of her agents who clung to old imperial follies, and expressed the hope that the civilised world would not be disappointed when the War was over.

While Bharati was forthright in expressing his views on the War when writing in English, he was more reticent in Tamil. Perhaps bound by some restrictions placed by Swadesamitran, his only vehicle for Tamil expression at this time, he contented himself with allusions rather than straightforward comments. However, discussing Prime Minister Asquith’s war budget in the British parliament, he was all praise for the British tenacity to fight the war at all costs in contrast to Indians who could never follow anything to its logical conclusion ( Swadesamitran, December 15, 1915).

As the War progressed and showed no signs of ending, Bharati proposed a massive petition, on the lines of Ireland and Poland, with millions of signatures collected from all over India demanding self-rule ( Swadesamitran, May 25, 1916).

In an innovative column titled ‘Tharasu’ (weighing balance), where a weighing balance took centre stage holding forth on every topic under the sun Bharati speculated on the outcome of the War at what was its exact mid-point. His mood was no more upbeat, and tiredness can be noted. To the question when the War would end, he replied in Tamil, “I don’t know.” To what would be the fallout of the war, he presciently observed “Workers and women will be empowered. Traders may suffer a bit. And the religious ideas of the East may find some favour in the West.” This was as far as he would speculate. Will not national enmities end? “One cannot be sure. They may come down. Perhaps even be aggravated.” On whether international mediation would emerge as a way to arbitrate differences between nations, Bharati’s weighing balance observed prophetically: “In the immediate aftermath, some procedures based on arbitration may be formulated. But very soon they will be violated.”

Evidently the poet’s romantic idealism was underpinned by strong realpolitik ( Swadesamitran, October 7, 1916). In October 1917, Bharati observed that the War would exact its fiscal cost and the state could not be expected to fund primary education to the required extent (Swadesamitran, October 25, 1917).

Even as he was commenting on the course of the War, Bharati was keenly following the internal democratic workings in Britain. Summarising a long report about the rights of the freeborn Englishman in the context of the War, in the New Statesman in early 1917, Bharati concluded: How far can the authorities go in curtailing people’s customary rights under the pretext of war? It was the duty of European scholars to define the limits, he asserted ( Swadesamitran, February 2, 1917).

As the War progressed, Bharati saw little signs of British generosity. When Lord Pentland delivered what was expected to be his farewell address to the Madras Legislative Council, he disabused Indians of any hope for home rule, and called for the suspension of all agitations. This was a well-calculated slap on the face of Indian nationalists. Bharati could only swallow this insult calling for Socratic patience and expressing the vain hope that Lord Pentland, on his return home, would see the world as a place of self-determination ( Swadesamitran, June 1, 1917). By June 1918, Bharati had lost all hope. The last straw was Lord Montagu’s reprimand to Sir S. Subramania Iyer’s for his missive to the US president Woodrow Wilson on the question of Indian self-determination. Despite the immense sacrifices that India had made for the Allied cause, it could show little in return. In this context, Bharati weakly appealed to national leaders to call for a no-tax campaign.

Meanwhile Bharati’s existential conditions worsened. Being holed up in a small town with constant surveillance and little means of material or intellectual sustenance could not have made for a pleasant life. In one of his ‘Tharasu’ columns, Bharati reported how spies were sent to gauge his political views. Despite the constant diplomatic pressure of the Madras Government, the French authorities in Pondicherry preferred to give Indian patriots, including Bharati, safe refuge, for both ideological and practical reasons. Perhaps they saw the British police presence as a check on their activities. This was as far as the French would go.

Bharati was a demoralised man. After repeated entreaties to the Governor of Madras that he had renounced politics, the Deputy Inspector General of Police was sent to interview Bharati in Pondicherry in mid-1918. If Bharati wished to return to British India, the Police would intern him in any two districts ‘purely as a war measure’ — a restriction Bharati thought was unfair and refused to accept.

In the event, a week after the signing of the Armistice on November 11, 1918, Bharati stepped out of Pondicherry and was promptly arrested. He would be released, on making a formal declaration to renounce politics, after three weeks in Cuddalore jail. Bharati was not yet 39 when he died on September 12, 1921, less than three years after the War ended.

A.R. Venkatachalapathy is a historian and Tamil writer. chalapathy@mids.ac.in

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