Chakravarthi Rajagopalachari (Rajaji), in the words of his biographer Vasanthi Srinivasan, is today a forgotten man. None of the recent anthologies on modern Indian political thought, she observed, carry an introduction to Rajaji or excerpts from his corpus of writing. “With few exceptions,” she wrote in her book Gandhi’s Conscience Keeper, “they confine themselves to mentioning him as a founder of the Swatantra Party when they do not dismiss him as a reactionary or a conservative. The sound of fury of identity politics is such that he is more often than not reduced to seeming a Brahmin communalist.”
The lack of scholarship on Rajaji and the uselessness of his legacy for political groups in India allow historians and commentators to villainise him to forge a narrative of their preference. The latest such example could be found in French political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot’s piece Defenders of Varna that appeared in The Indian Express on August 4, 2017.
In it, Jaffrelot argues that Hindu political leaders including Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Deen Dayal Upadhyay, KM Munshi and Rajaji directly and indirectly glorified the caste system as a glue that held the social order together. Jaffrelot suggests that their view of caste, which ranged from benign to ambivalent, continues to shape the political engagement of leaders such as Yogi Adityanath with Dalits. While it may appear to some that Jaffrelot is trying to play provocateur, his premise cannot be dismissed. The purpose of this piece is certainly not to challenge Jaffrelot’s conclusion based upon several decades of his research on Hindu nationalism. But to arrive at his destination, Jaffrelot mangles Rajaji’s contributions to the Dalit cause by employing half-truths and “facts” taken somewhat out of context. Perhaps he was constrained by the word count of a newspaper oped. I seek merely to place his critique of Rajaji in a context more reasonably factual. Unlike Rajaji, the others leaders of the past that Jaffrelot cites such as Patel and Malaviya in today’s political climate may find vocal and well-orchestrated defence.
There are two references to Rajaji in the piece. One, “…C. Rajagopalachari claimed that jati (not varna) was “the most important element in the organisation of our society” and argued that professional mobility would destabilise the complementarity of social functions at the village-level, making economic development more difficult. Two, “Similarly, when Dalit members of the Madras Legislative Council introduced a Temple Entry Bill in 1938, Rajagopalachari, the Congress chief minister, asked them to withdraw it.” Taken together, Rajaji appears a quintessentially antediluvian Brahmin communalist.
On the first point about jati, it is useful to look at the actual essay that has been condensed by Jaffrelot. In the slim book Our Culture published in 1963, Rajaji writes: “Now we come to the most important element in the organisation of our society. It is not a single jump in India from the family to the nation. We have in between the community or the jati. The community is a larger circle than the joint family and it greatly partakes of that same character. The jati is a larger family circle. The principle is that one’s duties does not end with one’s wife and children; it does not end with son and father, grandfather and cousins. It extends to the members of the jati, to all those who ‘belong’ to one, as being in his group of potential relatives, though there may be no traced or traceable blood connections. …Nepotism it may be under modern notions of administrative purity; but all the same Indian culture demands that man should share his prosperity with members of his jati. …This element of our culture, if disentangled from the need for purity in public administration and restricted to personal assistance and private sacrifice, can be looked upon as a loose form of trusteeship, governing conduct in one’s group. Out of this, Gandhiji’s conception of the trusteeship form of socialism was evolved.” Rajaji clearly was using jati as an expanding eddy of kinship, and enlist existing community loyalties to incite generosity as against state welfarism, rather than the narrow view of it that prevails today.
On the second issue of the withdrawal of the Temple Entry Bill of 1938, Jaffrelot is grossly unfair on Rajaji. Rajaji, in fact, was one of the architects of the Temple Entry Bill. In 1932, at the urging of Rajaji, P Subbaroyan, the Justice Party premier of Madras, prepared a Bill for the Madras council enabling a majority of temple devotees to regulate entry into it. But without the Viceroy’s sanction, it could not even be discussed in the council. Rajaji travelled to Yervada seeking to be exempted from the civil disobedience movement so that he could jump headlong into the temple entry issue. Gandhi responded in the affirmative saying: “…If you feel you have a clear call, and it seems that you do, you must do Harijan work.” In readiness for the task ahead, he relinquished his role as the acting president of Congress, handing the reins over to Rajendra Prasad.
Afraid of losing the co-operation of orthodox upper caste Hindus who opposed the entry of Dalits into temples, the Viceroy held that provinces could not deal with religious issues. Rajaji took the fight to Delhi where Ranga Iyer, a member of the Delhi Assembly, at Rajaji’s prodding readied two Bills. Rajmohan Gandhi, in his biography of Rajaji, writes: “One sought to prohibit disparities or discrimination against ‘untouchables’, the other to bring to the whole of India, the benefits of the abortive Madras Bill. At the end of January 1933, the second Bill obtained the Viceroy’s sanction for discussion. Rajaji went to Delhi to enlist the support of legislators. His task was difficult. Orthodoxy was opposed. [Madan Mohan] Malaviya was against the Bill, and Muslims in the Assembly were unclear whether to support the reform or merely watch the Hindus quarrel. The end, to come later in 1934, was pathetic. Faltering in the face of orthodox pressure, Ranga Iyer withdrew the Bill.” Several Congressmen disapproved of Rajaji’s overdrive on the Bill because it was diverting men away from the larger cause of Independence. According to Rajmohan Gandhi, Nehru, who at the time was imprisoned, viewed Rajaji’s Assembly effort as strange and blameworthy.
Rajaji’s campaign against untouchability wasn’t motivated by political expediency, and it predated his friendship with Gandhi. In 1917, when Rajaji, as the chairman of the Salem municipality, took part in a feast organised by another Brahmin friend for Swami Sahajananda, a low caste monk, he was deemed to have committed a social crime. The Brahmins of Salem virtually ex-communicated Rajaji and his friend. They were excluded at weddings and funerals. No priests were allowed to perform rituals at their homes.
As premier of Madras in 1938, Rajaji once again encouraged the Dalit leader MC Rajah to introduce the temple entry Bill. In a week, as Jaffrelot points out, he did a U-turn, in possession of a ‘flash of mind’ and asked Rajah to withdraw the bill. He argued somewhat unconvincingly and amidst accusations of betrayal that he was taking the path of least resistance, which thought would be a quicker one. The last-minute change of mind could be seen as a tactical retreat that is often necessary in the process of getting laws passed that divide public opinion so bitterly. After all, it took nearly two decades, from consultation to execution, to legislate the recent Goods and Services Tax.
In less than a year of retracting, on July 17, 1939, Rajaji in his capacity as premier turned the Temple Entry Bill into law via an ordinance. It not only ensured the entry of Harijans into temples but also protected temple officials against any liability arising out of their transgression of other Acts associated with temple entry. The ordinance route was criticised by orthodox opponents as unconstitutional. But Rajaji claimed, “No reform in the world was achieved except by some persons who acted as law-breakers.”
It appears that in the history debates that occur in India today, agreeing with Ambedkar must be accompanied by a blackballing of Gandhi and Rajaji who differed with him, as repugnant casteists; or the admiration of Rajaji’s gadfly spirit could only be justified by a visceral repudiation of everything Nehru represented. This is a veritable tragedy of our times.