The independent journal of opinion
‘I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.’
These lines, attributed to Gandhi, are engraved in school and college buildings across the land. Emblematic of a certain (and now threatened) strand of Indian nationalism, they have recently acquired a fresh lease of life outside this country. Thus, Gandhi’s words have been cited in the debates on curriculum reform in the divided campuses of the elite American universities. They are, indeed, an argument-clinching mantra for our multicultural times.
How many of those who quote these words know how they came to be uttered? In truth, they were squeezed out of a reluctant Mahatma by Rabindranath Tagore. For Gandhi had started this particular argument as a cultural nationalist, as one who insinuated that Raja Rammohun Roy and Lokmanya Tilak were mere ‘pigmies’ for thinking and writing in English. Also as a political authoritarian, who commanded all patriots to take up non-cooperation and a daily round at the charkha.
Where countless others signed up, unthinkingly, Tagore opposed both the project and the ideals behind it. Underlying non-cooperation and its presumed cultural superiority, he said in the first months of 1921, was a self-destroying isolationism, that in setting India above also set it apart from the rest of the world. ‘Today, at this critical moment of the world’s history, cannot India rise above her limitations and offer the great ideal to the world that will work towards harmony in cooperation between the different people of the earth?… The idea of India is against the intense consciousness of the separateness of one’s own people from others, and which inevitably leads to ceaseless conflicts…. Let us be rid of all false pride and rejoice at any lamp being lit at any corner of the world, knowing that it is a part of the common illumination of our house….’
A wounded Gandhi thereupon pointed out that ‘Non-cooperators worship Andrews, honour Stokes, and gave a most respectful hearing to Messrs. Wedgwood, Ben Spoor and Holford Knight at Nagpur, that Maulana Mahomed Ali accepted the invitation to tea of an English official when he invited him as a friend, that Hakim Ajmal Khan, a staunch Non-cooperator, had the portraits of Lord and Lady Hardinge unveiled in his Tibbi College and had invited his many English friends to witness the ceremony.’ Personal friendship with white men and women was one defence offered by Gandhi; a second was an openness to their ideas. ‘I hope I am as great a believer in free air as the great Poet. I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.’
Of these four sentences, the last two are the ones most often cited. Occasionally, the second sentence is included to preface the third and fourth. But I cannot recall, in the dozens of times I have had the words thrown at me, a single occasion on which the critical first sentence has also been included: ‘I hope I am as great a believer in free air as the great Poet.’
Now the Gandhi-Tagore debate has the same kind of resonance and contemporaneity as the Gandhi-Ambedkar, Gandhi-Nehru and Gandhi-Godse debates (that it has attracted less attention is a reflection only of the moral poverty and political short-sightedness of our times). It was to continue through the twenties and thirties, kept alive by the poet’s resolute opposition to the cult of the charkha, and his horror at the Mahatma’s characterisation of the 1934 Bihar earthquake as divine retribution for the practice of untouchability. One telling detail about these exchanges is that while Gandhi’s contributions were published in his own journal, Young India, Tagore’s were generally printed in that sturdily non-party magazine, Modern Review.1
Begun in 1907 by Ramananda Chatterjee, the Modern Review quickly emerged as a vital forum for the nationalist intelligentsia. It carried essays on politics, economics and society, but also, being run by a Bengali, poems, stories, travelogues and sketches. It was in the Modern Review that Radhakamal Mukerjee published his early, pioneering essays on environmental degradation in India; and it was to the Modern Review that Verrier Elwin sent his first reports from the Gond country. A more certain indication of the journal’s stature was the publication, within its pages, of Jawaharlal Nehru’s pseudonymous autocritique (‘Rashtrapati’, by ‘Chanakya’, November 1937).
Modern Review was the stablemate of Prabasi, which was published in Bengali and catered exclusively to one linguistic group. As a vehicle for bilinguals from all parts of the subcontinent Modern Review appeared, naturally, in English. While being broadly nationalistic it did not hold a brief for any particular political party. The first feature meant that it could act as a genuinely all-India forum; the second that it stood apart from party journals concurrently run by the Congress, the Communists, the Muslim League, the Hindu Mahasabha and the Scheduled Castes Federation. In both respects it had only one real competitor, the Indian Social Reformer.
The Indian Social Reformer was founded in Madras in 1890 by Kamakashi Natarajan, an associate of that great campaigning journalist and founder of The Hindu, G. Subramaniam Iyer. Natarajan quickly realized that his home town was too provincial for a paper of this kind. In 1897 he moved the journal to Bombay, a culturally Catholic city and also an epicentre of social reform and political action. Unlike the Modern Review, the Indian Social Reformer was a weekly. But it shared with its eastern counterpart a willingness to create and catalyse controversy. On the burning social issues of the day (such as the Age of Consent Bill) it pressed the wavering nationalist to take a progressive stance. One of its early campaigns, oddly enough, was inspired by developments on the cricket field.
In February 1906, a representative side of the Hindus challenged the Europeans of the Bombay Presidency to a three-day match and, against all odds, defeated them. The Hindu victory owed itself in the main to the all-round performances of two brothers of the chamaar caste, Palwankar Baloo and Palwankar Shivram.
Born in Poona, the Palwankar brothers fought a long battle with Hindu orthodoxy. Alerted to their prodigious playing skills, the Poona Hindus included them in their team to play the annual grudge match against the all-white Poona Gymkhana. At first the Brahmins played with them but would not dine with them. Slowly inter-dining was also allowed, a practice which continued when the brothers moved to Bombay to play for the representative Hindu side. They were the undoubted stars of that epic victory over the Europeans. In a low scoring match (Hindus 242 and 160 beat Europeans 194 and 102 by 106 runs), Shivram scored 34 and 16 not out and his brother 25 and 11. Baloo, bowling left-arm spin, also took eight wickets, the most important of these being the second innings dismissal of the great European batsman, Major J.G. Greig.2
While Ambedkar was still in school and Gandhi still in South Africa, the Indian Social Reformer had fought the good fight for the abolition of untouchability. Now it opportunistically used the cricketing triumph to push forward its agenda of caste reform. ‘The history of the admission of these chamaar brothers in the Hindu Gymkhana,’ it remarked, ‘is a credit to all and has done far more to liberalize the minds of thousands of young Hindus than all other attempts in other spheres.’ The Hindu cricketers’ admittance of the Palwankar brothers, it claimed, was:
‘a landmark in the nation’s emancipation from the old disuniting and denationalizing customs. This is a conscious voluntary change, a manly moral regulated liberty, not, as in [the] railways [where members of different castes had willy-nilly to sit with each other], a compulsory change…. Hindu sportsmen of Poona and Bombay have shown in different degrees that, where national interest required, equal opportunity must be given to all of any caste, even though the offer of such opportunity involved the trampling of some old prejudices…. Let the lesson learnt in sport be repeated in political, social and educational walks of life. Let all disuniting and denationalizing customs in all high, low or lowest Hindus disappear and let India cease to be the laughing-stock of the whole world.’3
My choice of illustrations was purely contingent, for I came to these journals through a personal interest in those two vast if mutually incompatible subjects, Gandhi and cricket. But, of course, both the Modern Review and the Indian Social Reformer took up and publicized a wide array of issues – widow remarriage, adivasi rights, conservation of nature and natural resources, land reform. They played a stupendous part in the process of national self-awakening – more’s the pity that they have not (yet) attracted their chroniclers.
Significantly, the coming of political independence dealt a body blow to the two journals. For their perspective was forward-looking, the nurturing of reforming sensibilities among the men and women who would one day come to rule India. When the former freedom fighters slipped comfortably into the chairs in the secretariat, both magazines seem to have lost their bearings. It didn’t help either that their founder-editors, Ramananda Chatterjee and K. Natarajan, had died before 1947. The Indian Social Reformer finally ran aground in 1953; the Modern Review carried on twelve years longer, unread.4
Into the breach stepped, first, the Economic Weekly (now the Economic and Political Weekly) in 1949 and, ten years later, Seminar. The parallels are noteworthy. One is a weekly published, like the old Indian Social Reformer, out of Bombay. The other is a monthly, like the Modern Review, but published in the city that, after 1911, took over from Calcutta as the political capital of India. Both appear in English, both are completely independent of party politics. And each plays a critical role in the life of the nation.
This is a role that cannot be played by newspapers. Even before Rupert Murdoch came to cast his baleful shadow over Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg, the ‘premier’ newspapers of India were seriously constrained by the bottom line. That is to say, they could not afford to print essays that are too long or too contentious. They would never carry 10,000 word accounts of the genesis of agrarian class conflict, or 5,000 word analyses of what is wrong with Indian foreign policy. Which is why we are exceptionally fortunate in having the epw, which generously gives space to the first kind of article, and to Seminar, which specializes in the second kind.
The epw and Seminar are not superficial, like the typical newspaper or glossy newsmagazine; or dogmatic, like the party organs of the Right and Left. Moreover, in style and orientation these two journals beautifully complement each other. One takes up a single topic per issue; the other is more inclusively eclectic. One is a monthly, the other a weekly. Place of publication and editorial idiosyncracies have also helped demarcate the journals. They also look different. All told, these two products are sufficiently ‘differentiated’ for thousands of readers to be devoted to both.
Between them, the epw and Seminar have acted as a moral conscience to independent India. They have consistently exposed wrongdoing, whether by the state or political parties or landlords or industrial houses; explored, in refreshing detail, the patterns and processes of social change in city and countryside; and highlighted critical issues (environmentalism, for instance) ignored by the formal political system as well as by the Establishment press. They constitute a vast and continually enriched archive of the history of independent India, an archive shamelessly raided by generations of students and scholars. There will, I trust, be histories one day of the epw and Seminar, as indeed of their distinguished if insufficiently acknowledged predecessors, the Modern Review and the Indian Social Reformer.
Journals of ‘opinion’, yes, but independent journals of opinion. For both Seminar and the Economic and Political Weekly have stoutly resisted being ‘captured’ by parties or ideologies. The founding editor of one was once intimate with leading Congress politicians; the current editor of the other with Communist leaders. These ties were (and are) skilfully used without ever compromising editorial independence. That is, the politician concerned is invited to write for the journal, but only as one voice among many. Verily could Romesh Thapar and Krishna Raj claim to have followed the Tagore-Gandhi mantra, thus modified: ‘I want the ideas and ideologies of all kinds of Indians to be blown about in my journal as freely as possible. But I refuse to let it be blown off its feet by any.’5
1. Two useful introductions to the debate are R.K. Prabhu and Ravindra Kelekar, editors, Truth Called them Differently (Tagore-Gandhi Controversy), Navjivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad, 1961 (still available in various Gandhi bookshops and pavement stalls), and Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, editor, The Mahatma and the Poet: Letters and Debates Between Gandhi and Tagore, 1915-1941, National Book Trust, New Delhi, 1997.
2. A not irrelevant detail – Greig was stumped, beaten in the flight by the slow left-armer. The wicket-keeper was K. Seshachar, an Iyengar Brahmin from Tamil Nadu. This Iyengar-Chamaar combination was a highly productive one, especially on the 1911 tour of England by the Maharaja of Patiala’s All India Team, when Baloo took 114 wickets, a good many of these caught behind or stumped by Seshachar.
3. Anon., ‘Hindu Cricket’, Indian Social Reformer, 18 February 1906. The story of Baloo and his brothers is told in greater detail in Ramachandra Guha, ‘Cricket and Politics in Colonial India’, Past and Present, number 161, November 1998.
4. A honourable mention is also owed to the Indian Review, published by G. Natesan from Madras, and the Hindustan Review, which appeared from Patna. These journals also carried interesting essays and commentaries on political debates in the inter-war period, without, however, commanding the authority or influence of the Modern Review and the Indian Social Reformer.
5. This essay has greatly benefited from a conversation with the historian of Indian journalism, N.S. Jagannathan.