The Tribune - Spectrum

, March 3, 2002

Annie Besant: a sensitive reappraisal
V.N. Datta

AT the Indian History Congress session held recently in Bhopal on December 28-30 last, knowing that I do a bit of reviewing books for The Tribune quite a number of young teachers offered to present to me their research publications understandably with a desire to extract some compliment for their contribution to historical knowledge. Two books attracted my attention, one was on "Mysticism", and the other now under review is entitled "Annie Besant: From Theosophy to Nationalism" (K.K. publications, Delhi, 2001, pages +2 5F). The author of this work is Jyoti Chandra, teaching history at Arya College, Ambala.

My first acquaintance with Annie Besant began when I had entered the college at Amritsar. A close friend presented me a copy of the Bhagavadgita translated and edited by Annie Besant, which still holds a prominent place in my bookshelves. As my interest in history grew, I began to realise Annie Besantís pivotal role in Indiaís struggle for freedom. Krishna Menon told me that it was due to her moral and material support that he was able to complete his studies under the guidance of Harold Laski at the London School of Economics. Later on, I put a pupil of mine on a study of Annie Besant, which has been published.


History is an interminable exercise of asking questions in order to understand the past in its complexity. Jyoti Chandra has asked some pertinent questions to elucidate the life and work of Annie Besant whose multifaceted personality had a profound impact on the course of our national movement. The significance of Annie Besantís political activities lay in building up step a heightened sense of public resentment against the iniquitous and oppressive British rule in India, which other political leaders were to seize on to launch a full-scale anti-imperial agitation in the country in 1919. Thus it was from Annie Besantís intellectual and moral capital that Mahatma Gandhi was to derive immense resources to sharpen his weapons of satyagraha to fight the British and to free the country from the fetters of foreign rule.

The author identifies some of the influences that had worked on Annie Besant as an intellectual and moral tonic on her life, which laid firmly a foundation of her subsequent social and political work in England and India. Of particular value in this regard was her close association with Charles Bradhaugh who had aroused her interest in journalism to which she came like a duck to water. Henceforth, journalism became her abiding passion, which flowered in the publication of several of books and pamphlets dealing with themes of social and political impart.

Certain events tend to alter the course of life, and one such episode, which had a decisive impact on Annie Besantís life war her marriage to Frank Besant that ended in a disaster in 1873. Jyoti Chandra rightly makes this catastrophic event a turning point in Annie Besantís life. Suffering is one long moment, and has varied dimensions. Where there is suffering, there is holy ground. This tragic experience of the thwarted married life opened a new vista for Annie Besant, widened her horizon, steeled her will power and impelled her to jump into the whirlwind of social and political activity. The author highlights the significance of Annie Besantís multifaceted personality. By meditating over her experiences, Annie Besant realised that life was not worth living unless it was dedicated to the wellbeing humankind. She had a tearing spirit, and would never, never flinch from her devotedly cherished principles; however the odds weighted against her.

From this study Annie Besant emerges as a highly educated person; in fact, a self-educated person. It is a terrible thing to find out things for oneself and Annie Besant worked zealously for it. What induced her to repair to India and settle down here was her quest for seeking spiritual bliss, and for this purpose she read voraciously classical Hindi literature, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Upanishads. But her first love was the Bhagavdagita, which gave her the perennial message of a harmonious blend of devotion, knowledge and power as powerful weapons to be used in the battle of life. This vast reading gave her much strength to undertake her social and political work. Her uniqueness, as Jyoti Chandra says, lay in making her work not only a spiritual pilgrimage but a means of social progress in which she regarded education as the key to all improvements.

Jyoti Chandra goes over Annie Besantís contribution in the field of education. Annie Besant was convinced that the western type of education imparted in the country was inimical to the interest of India as this was devoid of moral values and was geared only to material benefits by way of giving employment to Indians in inferior government posts. She emphasised the value of scientific and technological education which she thought was absolutely necessary for the regeneration of Indian society. Like Abbe Dubois she travelled over the country, wore Indian dress, and learnt Indian languages to converse with the people of India.

Realising the harmful effects of Macaulayís system of western education which had tended to denationalise the Indian people, Annie Besant set up, as a counterpoise, the Central Hindu College in Benaras which was to concentrate on the hitherto neglected study of Indian culture and languages. In her scheme of education Annie Besant integrated the study of Indian religious thought and general education in order to make the whole integrated system of instruction truly Indian in spirit. But this was not to deny the students the benefits of western learning and sciences. In this venture she received immense help from Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya. This remarkable institution became a nucleus of Benaras Hindu University.

Annie Besant witnessed the terrible plight of Indian women. The memory of own suffering at the hands of her domineering husband continued to rankle in her heart. She remained undefeated in her defeat. She took up with fervour the setting up of various educational institutions for the advancement of women, which the author has identified. Of special importance is the Womenís Indian Association in Madras, which concentrated on the women uplift in the social and political spheres of activity. She gave the fullest support to women for their active participation in politics. In fact, she questioned the very existence oft he suffocating male-dominated society. The Women Indian Association gained tremendous popularity. It had 51 branches and 18 centres, with a membership of 27,000. Two of its members were to become the first to be admitted to the Indian bar. This was indeed a highly promising and satisfying beginning to emancipate women from the thraldom of male domination.

Endowed with extraordinary oratorical skills, Annie Besant enthralled her audience by her speeches. She could not establish her rapport with the people because she spoke in English which only the English-educated elite could understand. That is why she could not become a leader of the masses. Of course, there are exceptions that like Jinnah captured the imagination of the people without knowing the vernacular. Nearly two-thirds of her social and political work was done in India.

Imbued with nationalist fervour since her Irish days, she felt distressed at the oppressive British regime. She had joined the Indian National Congress in 1914. We need not elaborate on her role in the Home Rule movement in India because it is a familiar terrain to students of Indian history. Gandhi said that Annie Besantís House Rule became a mantra in every village. I think Gandhi was generous in her appraisal of Annie Besantís role, though it cannot be ignored that she was elected president of the Indian National Congress in December 1917.

The most interesting, and I would emphasise the most illuminating part of this work is Chapter 8 entitled "Besant and Gandhi", a comparative evaluation of the two remarkable personalities, their similarities and contracts; the one who stood as an individualist on her own and was soon to vanish in the mists of political wilderness, and the other, the rising star on the firmament of Indian politics, who took the country by storm. This methodology of evaluating personalities by a comparative methodology was used by the ancient Roman historian Plutarch which in our time has been refined by Allan Bullock in his book "Hitler and Stalin". It is heartening indeed that Jyoti Chandra has adopted this methodology with commendable skill in evaluating Besant and Gandhi in a historical perspective and thereby sharpened the focus in understanding them and their predicament, which exasperated them.

Regrettably this work has no index and bibliography, though footnote citations are copious. Jyoti Chandraís illuminating biography of Annie Besant is indeed a sensitive and vivid portrait of a truly remarkable personality and her times drawn with technical virtuosity, using primary source material of primary importance. This augurs well for further research work, which I hope, Jyoti Chandra will continue.