On December 27, 1904, The Hindu published a letter, “Mr. Sankaran Nair’s Pronouncement,” by C. Subramania Bharati in the ‘Letters to the Editor’ section. At the age of 22, he wrote his very first piece in English to appear in print. Research into the microfilms of The Hindu by A.R. Venkatachalapathy, Professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai, has brought to light Bharati’s Letters to the Editor. (See the report ‘Early views of nationalist-poet Subramania Bharati’ in The Hindu of March 30, 2008.) These 16 letters, two ‘open letters,’ and two articles are unknown even to Bharati scholars.
The letters and articles were written between 1904 and 1916. The writings have a remarkable range and a distinctive voice. They present the poet’s views on social reform; his admiration for Tilak; his criticism of Annie Besant and the Theosophical Society; his defence of Aurobindo; being hounded by spies and informers when he was in exile in French-ruled Pondicherry; his admiration for Serbian patriotism; and the wretched condition of indentured Indian labourers in South Africa.
Interestingly, these letters are not among the papers passed on to his step-brother C. Viswanathan, who brought Bharati’s writing in English to light. Considering this adds up to a little less than 150 pages, the recently discovered letters are a small treasure. With their intellectual intensity and breadth, they enrich and widen the understanding of the poet’s life and work.
“It is by no means surprising,” notes Dr. Venkatachalapathy, “that Bharati should write to The Hindu. The only career he pursued was that of a journalist and he obviously followed the pre-eminent English daily of the day closely.” In his Tamil prose, he frequently made references to this newspaper and often responded to the issues raised in it. Importantly, most of these letters were published at a time when many journals he was associated with were proscribed by the British and he had little access to other forums.
The piece goes on to reproduce some of those letters, and one can identify the same tone that he used in his Tamil writing in these letters too (I remember one in which he took Gandhi to task for opposing the remarriage of widows, for example):
The intelligent and well-intentioned critic, Mr Plainspeaker, who discussed in Saturday’s Hindu, the memorable pronouncement of Mr Sankaran Nair’s on the necessity of Social Reform for bringing about political regeneration, has been a little misguided by those treacherous things, viz., words. Mr Plainspeaker waxed indignant at hearing of ’those great principles of equality and brotherhood upon which the British Government is based’. I understand, and respect the feelings of Mr Plainspeaker, aye, even as I respect the indignant feelings of the down-trodden [Dalit] when he hears that Hinduism proclaims (I quote Mr Plainspeaker) the ‘one-ness of life’ and the ‘brother-hood of man’. ‘Talk of the one-ness of life, the brother-hood of man’ exclaims the [Dalit], ‘when yonder Brahman, who would bow low to an Englishman as if to a god, believes that my very shadow would pollute him.’ I entirely agree with Mr Plainspeaker in his righteous protest against British-Indian regulations. But all this does not in the least affect Mr Sankaran Nair’s position. What the eminent social reformer means to say is simply this: There can be no political emancipation without the feeling of nationality. There can be no feeling of nationality where the caste system is prevalent or, rather, say (as some hyper-critical men want us to believe that the caste system is present in all human communities) where the jati system is prevalent, the wonderful system which makes a [Dalit] philanthropist inferior to a Brahmin go-between. Is it doubted in any quarter that, in England, a cobbler-boy with necessary merit finds his path clear to the Premiership? And is it not treason in India to believe that a Sudra (not to speak of Panchama) with an unparalleled knowledge of Sanskrit scripture and with exceptional goodness and piety can ever aspire to the seat of Sringeri? Why will people be so wilfully blind? Why do they refuse to find any difference between a mountain and a molehill? Where is Great Britain and alas! where is India?The National Congress, I readily concede, has some of India’s best sons in its ranks and its aspirations are of the worthiest. But does anybody seriously believe that a man who, in his stony heart, condemns a babe widow to perpetual misery might be worthy to be placed at the helm of a rising people? Impossible.’I do not think India will ever be called-and she ought not to be called-into the Councils of the Empire until we show we have fully and frankly accepted those great principles of equality and brother-hood upon which the British Government is based. The principles are utterly repugnant to the caste-system as understood and practised among us.’ So said Mr Sankaran Nair, and his words are worthy to be written in golden letters. Without social reform our political reform is a dream, a myth, for social slaves can never really understand political liberty. And unless and until our Social Conferences prove a success our National Congress is nothing but glare and dust.
Nor is his humour missing:
And now our leader has spoken for us all in language unmistakable and clear, unmistakable may I hope, even to those who hailed his release from six years’ imprisonment with two special police stations placed on each side of his house in Poona!
Of course, there is also the politics of the period, like this one involving Besant and Aurobindo:
Mr Arabinda Ghose authorises me to contradict on his behalf certain statements about him made by Mrs Besant in her recent letter to the Christian Commonwealth which I have brought to his notice. These allegations are, without exception, inaccurate, misleading or entirely erroneous.
It is misleading to say in connection with an attempt to brand as ‘seditious’ and ‘extremist’, the opposition of social orthodoxy to Mrs Besant’s more recent developments - that orthodoxy gave Mr Arabinda Ghose as a leader of the advanced nationalist movement. A convinced Hindu in all matters of religious life and faith, Mr Ghose accepts in questions of social conduct the liberalism of Swami Vivekananda.
A must, must read piece!