The English translation of the soubriquet ‘Mahatma’, means ‘Great Soul’. In Indian history, this honorific is bestowed upon Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi as ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi. Most historical texts characterize him as an angelic, saintly statesman who could do no wrong. Along with Jawaharlal Nehru, Gandhi is presented as the epitome of Indian nationhood. But this trend has prevailed because the history of the ‘Indian Freedom Struggle’ is principally narrated by the hagiographers of the aforementioned leaders. Any other leader, statesman and freedom fighter was treated as an afterthought in history texts.
One such ‘afterthought’—indeed, his name has all but been erased in Indian history textbooks—was a gallant leader, also hailed as a ‘Mahatma.’ He was ‘Mahatma Munshiram’ more famously known as Swami Shraddhanand. For long, the Swami has been portrayed by historians as just a ‘Hindu’ revivalist. But if one goes through the story of his life one will find him to be a living portrait of bravery and sacrifice.
Born on February 22, 1856 at village Talwan in the Jalandhar district of the then undivided Punjab, Shraddhanand was originally given the name of ‘Brihaspati’, but it was later changed to Munshiram. His father, Shri Nanak Chand, was in the service of the East India Company.
Young Munshiram’s school education began at Varanasi and ended in Lahore after passing the examination to practice law. His early education was interrupted because of his father’s frequent transfer to Mirzapur and Bareilly. This frequent movement prompted Munshiram to lead a wayward life getting involved in certain activities which are frowned upon by society at large. After coming across several instances of injustice as well as signs of depravity in the then Hindu society, an angry Munshiram denounced Hinduism. This denouncement coupled with an unruly lifestyle alienated him from friends and family (he was married by then). But on realizing the harmful affect his disorderly life had on his wife and children, Munshiram decided to mend his ways.
And it was at that favorable moment that Munshiram met the radical social reformer and founder of the Arya Samaj , Swami Dayanand Saraswati. After having an extensive discussion with the Swami on socio-religious matters Munshiram became a man with a mission to reform Hindu society. He became a successful lawyer practicing in Lahore and Jalandhar while simultaneously carrying out social activities for the Arya Samaj.
The Arya Samaj years
As a follower of the Arya Samaj, Munshiram led a crucial campaign for women’s education. In 1889, he penned an important series of articles regarding women’s education in the Arya Samaj-run newspaper Saddharmpracharak. The series was entitled ‘Half Justice’ in which he pleaded for the education of women citing examples of Vedic Rishikas like Gargi and Matraiyi. As a matter of fact, when he saw his own daughter coming under the influence of Christianity while studying in a Missionary-run school, he made up his mind to provide an education rooted in Indian ideals to the children of his compatriots in schools run by the Arya Samaj. His efforts led to the setting up of the first Kanya Mahavidyalay in Jalandhar.
Earlier in 1886, Munshiram and his fellow Arya Samajis with financial backing from their well-wishers inaugurated the Dayanand Anglo-Vedic School at Lahore. All Arya Samajis worked for the new project whole heartedly. But after some time, Munshiram started to feel that the Anglo element in the DAV School was overtaking the Vedic element, and accordingly declared the need for establishing the Gurukul system of education. This declaration followed a split in the Arya Samaj into the ‘DAV’ and ‘Gurukul’ factions.
After a brief financial struggle, the first Gurukul was established on 16 May 1900 at Gujaranwala, now in Pakistan. It was eventually moved to Kangri near Haridwar on 4 March, 1902. The core idea of the Gurukul was to produce disciplined citizens instilled with a national outlook. When this institution was visited by former British Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald, he likened Munshi Ram to ‘The Biblical Prophet walking the shores of Galilee.’
True to its reformist spirit, the Kangri Gurukul admitted students from all walks of life setting aside their caste and creed. Children were made to sit together in desegregated classrooms to eliminate any form of caste distinction. Munshiram personally would attend to the requirements of his students like a caring father.
During the colonial era, enlightened Hindu scholars pointed out the three main issues which had caused decay in the Hindu society—child marriage, forced widowhood and caste-based prejudice. As a response, Swami Dayanand Sarawsati instructed his Arya Samaj followers to ensure the elimination of these decayed traditions to usher in a reformed Hindu community.
As a true Arya Samaji, Munshiram repeatedly defended the rights of the lower-castes and went on to establish ‘Dalit Uddhar Sabha’ which worked ceaselessly for the wellbeing of the much ignored untouchables. Being perturbed by the exploitation of the Hindu widows, he led the Arya Samaj to organize the remarriage of widows. These activities made Munshiram a widely respected figure among the general masses. It was due to his selfless commitment towards society’s well-being which made the masses honour him a ‘Mahatma.’
In the year 1917, Munshi Ram became a ‘Sanyasi’, assuming the name ‘Shradhanand’ and making Delhi his permanent home. But that did not keep him away from the problems plaguing the nation. In the year 1919, he joined Congress’s Non-cooperation movement under the leadership of Gandhiji. When Gandhiji was arrested, Swami Shraddhanand led a protest march in the city of Delhi. As soldiers stationed on the streets threatened to open fire on the protesters, the courageous Swami advanced forward and dared them to shoot. The soldiers had to back down.
That same year, there was tension in the whole of Punjab following the massacre of innocent civilians in Jallianwala Bagh of Amritsar at the orders of General Dyer. Because of this, the Congress committee decided to shift its annual session from Amritsar where it was earlier planned. Swami Shraddhanand attended the Congress Working Committee meeting in Allahabad and strongly argued that the venue of session should remain in Amritsar as a sign of respect to the martyrs. The committee accepted his argumentas well as made him the chairman of the session.
The Swami’s towering image moved the masses belonging to all castes and religions. Even the Muslims considered him their own. On 4 April 1919, a huge congregation of Muslims had gathered to mourn the death of those patriots who were protesting against oppressive policies of the British government. To address the crowd, the Muslim leaders invited Swami Shraddhanand. Reciting the famous Vedic Mantra “OM VISHWANI DEV” from the pulpit of the mosque, the Swami encouraged the congregation to carry out their nationalist activities. It was a perfect scene of amity between Hindus and Muslims.
Clash of the Mahatmas
With the passage of time and changing political scenarios, a conflict broke out between Mahatma Gandhi and Swami Shraddhanand (formerly Mahatma Munshiram).
The first point of disputation between the two was regarding the issue of helping the untouchables. In his address as chairman of the Amritsar Congress session in 1919 he stated:
“Is it not true that so many among you who make the loudest noises about the acquisition of political rights, are not able to overcome their feeling of revulsion for those sixty millions of India who are suffering injustice, your brothers whom you regard as untouchable ? How many are there who take these wretched brothers of theirs to their heart?…give deep thought…and consider how your sixty million brothers-broken fragments of your own hearts which you have cut off and thrown away- how these millions of children of mother India can well become the anchor of the ship of a foreign government. I make this one appeal to all of you, brothers and sisters. Purify your hearts with the water of the love of the motherland in this national temple, and promise that these millions will not remain for you untouchables, but become brothers and sisters. Their sons and daughters will study in our schools, their men and women will participate in our societies, in our fight for independence they will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with us, and all of us will join hands to realize the fulfillment of our national goal”
In the Calcutta Congress session in 1920, Swami Shraddhanand proposed a three-point program with special section on the untouchables, but the party then firmly under Gandhi’s leadership declared the program to be ill-timed.By 1921, the Swami was frustrated with Gandhi’s negligence regarding the welfare of the untouchables. He wrote:
The Delhi and Agra Chamars simply demand that they be allowed to draw water from wells used by the Hindus and Mohammedans and that water be not served to them (from Hindu water booths) through bamboos or leaves. Even that appears impossible for the Congress Committee to accomplish…. At Nagpur you laid down that one of the conditions for obtaining Swarajya within 12 months was to give their rights to the depressed classes and without waiting for the accomplishment of their uplift, you have decreed that if there is a complete boycott of foreign cloth up till the 30th September, Swarajya will be an accomplished fact on the 1st of October…I want to engage my limited energy in the uplift of the depressed classes. I do not understand whether the Swarajya obtained without the so-called Untouchable brethren of ours joining us will prove beneficial for the Indian nation.
The Hindu Mahasabha Years
The following year, Swami Shraddhanand resigned from the Sub-Committee of Congress due to disagreements with Gandhi on helping the untouchables. The disagreement arose due to the Congress’ refusal to meet the fiscal demands of Shraddhanand which was required for the welfare programs. Following his resignation from the Congress, Swamiji decided to join the Hindu Mahasabha. This issue has been covered in the Babasaheb Ambedkar’s ‘What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables?’ As Ambedkar writes:
“Was it because the Congress intended that the scheme should be a modest one not costing more than two to five lakhs of rupees but felt that from that point of view they had made a mistake in including Swami Shradhanand in the Committee and rather than allow the Swami to confront them with a huge scheme which the Congress could neither accept nor reject? The Congress thought it better in the first instance to refuse to make him the convener and subsequently to dissolve the Committee and hand over the work to the Hindu Mahasabha. Circumstances are not quite against such a conclusion. The Swami was the greatest and the most sincere champion of the Untouchables. There is not the slightest doubt that if he had worked on the Committee he would have produced a very big scheme.”
Gandhiji’s incapability to speak in favor of caste eradication was again seen clearly during the 1925 Vaikom Satyagraha. The Satyagraha was centered at the Shiva temple at Vaikom, near Kottayam, Kerala where untouchables were denied entry.When local Congressmen and learned Hindu youngsters opposed these social constraints and asked for Gandhiji’s blessing, he hesitated. On the contrary, Swami Shraddhanand decided swiftly to bless the campaign and himself visited Vaikom to show his support. No wonder Dr. Ambedkar called the Swami ‘the greatest and the most sincere champion of the Untouchables’.
The second issue of clash between Swamiji and Gandhiji was the issue of Hindu-Muslim unity. The Swami was a staunch supporter of Hindu-Muslim unity but that he did not welcome the Islamic fanaticism that was on the rise during the 1920’s. He noticedthe difference in attitudes of Muslim leaders during 1920-1922 on the Khilafat movement and assumed correctly that this movement will change the focus from gaining independence for India to Pan-Islamism.
Dr. Ambedkar called the Swami ‘the greatest and the most sincere champion of the Untouchables’.
In 1921 when Gandhi decided to boycott English products and called for a bonfire of foreign clothes, the Khilafat Muslim activists instead got permission from Gandhi to send the same foreign clothes to Turkey for use of their fellow Turkish Muslims. Swamiji felt uneasy during some of the Khilafat conferences where the Maulanas recited verses of the Quran containing frequent references to jihad and killing of kafirs. But Gandhi opined that “they are alluding to the British bureaucracy.” Yet, Swamji warned that “when the revulsion of feeling came,” the Maulanas would not refrain from using those same verses against the Hindus. And he was right.
Following the failure of the Khilafat movement, horrendous atrocities were committed by the Moplah Muslims in Malabar, Kerala, against the Hindus. The Moplah Muslims saw Hindus as their enemies and unleashed terror upon them. Yet the resolution passed by the Working Committee of the Congress on 16 January 1922 on the Moplah atrocities shows how careful the Congress was to not hurt the feelings of the Muslims.
“The Working Committee places on record its sense of deep regret over the deeds of violence done by Moplahs in certain areas of Malabar, these deeds being evidence of the fact that there are still people in India who have not understood the message of the Congress and the Central Khilafat Committee, and calls upon every Congress and Khilafat worker to spread the said message of non-violence even under the gravest provocation throughout the length and breadth of India…..Whilst, however, condemning violence on the part of the Moplahs, the working Committee desires it to be known that the evidence in its possession shows that provocation beyond endurance was given to the Moplahs and that the reports published by and on behalf of the Government have given a one-sided and highly exaggerated account of the wrongs done by the Moplahs and an understatement of the needless destruction of life resorted to by the Government in the name of peace and order…The Working Committee regrets to find that there have been instances of so-called forcible conversion by some fanatics among Moplahs, but warms the public against believing in the Government and inspired versions. ..”
So desperate was the Congress Party to uphold the legacy of the Khilafat that they went ahead subtly defending the barbaric Moplah atrocities. There was another issue which greatly concerned Swamiji. In his own writing:
“As regards the removal of untouchability it has been authoritatively ruled several times that it is the duty of Hindus to expiate for their past sins and non-Hindus should have nothing to do with it. But the Mahomedan and the Christian Congressmen have openly revolted against the dictum of Mr.Gandhi at Vaikorn and other places. Even such an unbiased leader as Mr. Yakub Hassan, presiding over a meeting called to present an address to me at Madras, openly enjoined upon Musalmans theduty of converting all the untouchables in India to Islam. “
To stop the Islamicization of the country coupled with the shock he received following the Moplah atrocities, Swamijiestablished the Bharatiya Hindu Shuddhi Sabha along with Pandit Madan Mohan Malavia in 1923 with the following declaration:
The great Arya nation is said at the present moment to be a dying race, not only because its numbers are dwindling but because it is completely disorganized. Individually man to man second to no nation on the earth in intellect and physique, possessing a code of morality unapproachable by any other race of humanity, it is still helpless on account of its divisions and selfishness. Lakhs upon lakhs of the best in the race have been obliged to profess Mohammedanism and thousands have been enticed away to accept Christianity without the least effort on the neo-Muslim Brahmans, Vaishyas, Rajputs and Jats have for more than two centuries and more been casting yearning glances and kept their Hindu faith and prejudices intact in the hope of being taken back in the bosom of their brotherhood. A mere chance opened Hindu eyes, The Rajputs Mahasabha announced with a flourish of trumpets that four and a half lakhs Muslim Rajputs were ready for becoming Hindus. After having made this misleading announcement the Rajputs Sabha went to sleep. I call the announcement misleading because an overwhelming majority of them had never become Muslims in faith and practice. The Hindus went to sleep, but the Muslims being a living force were roused to action and scores of their preachers are at work for whose maintenance and propaganda work money is flowing like water. This after all roused the Hindu community also and there is now a cry from all sides for absorbing out strayed brethren in the bosom of the Vedic church, a new Sabha has been organized under the name of the Bhartiya Hindu Suddhi Sabha with the object of reclaiming those who are willing to come back to its fold.
This process was opposed by many Muslim and Christian groups (which is hypocritical as both these faiths promote conversions). The massive success of the Shuddhi movement was witnessed on the occasion of the reconversion of the Malkana Rajputs back to Hinduism. Centuries ago, the Malkana Rajputs in the Mathura-Agra area were forced to convert to Islam by the Moghuls but still retained the cultural traits of the Hindu Rajput clans. They asked Swami Shraddhanand if it was possible for them to return to the religious fold of their forefathers. The Swamiji readily acceded to this request and welcomed them back to the Vedic fold, infuriating many Muslim leaders. Most historians in their works blame Arya Samaj and Shuddhi as a cause of communal tensions in early part of 20th century. But as the Moplah violence showed, this is both a false claim and a distorted way of viewing the event.
As a response to the Shuddhi Movement, many Muslim leaders made a series of provocative speeches against the Arya Samaj and the Swami. Some of those speeches amounted to death threats but the brave Swami did not yield and continued his Shuddhi activities. Then on 23 December 1926 when he was lying sick in his bed, a fanatic named Abdul Rashid came to his residence stating his wish to discuss Islam with Swamiji. He had hidden a gun inside his shawl and on confronting Swami Shraddhanand, fired three shots at him, killing him.
As mentioned in the beginning of this article, Swami Shraddhanand has been portrayed by contemporary historians as just a ‘Hindu’ revivalist. His role in promoting women’s education, eradication of untouchability , social welfare and patriotism have all been swept under the rug. He is revered only by the Arya Samajis. To the millions of Indians for whose welfare he vigorously labored throughout his life, and ultimately died for them, he is not even a memory.