V.S. Srinivasa Shastri

V.S. Srinivasa Shastri



V.S. Srinivasa Shastri
V.S. Srinivasa Shastri
Srinivasa Shastri was born on 22 September 1869 in a village near Kumbakonam in the Madras state. His parents, V. Sankaranarayana and Valambal Ammal, were poor.
His father was a village priest and a Sanskrit scholar; scholarship which was inherited by his son. Shastri was the third of six children of his parents.
Shastri started his education in the Native High School, Kumbakonam, from where he passed the matriculation examination in 1883. He was a brilliant student, and got a scholarship which enabled him to pursue higher education. He graduated in 1888, standing second in the Madras Presidency. He joined the Teachers Training College, Madras in 1891 after serving a couple of years as a teacher in Municipal High School, Mayavaram. Trained as a teacher, he joined Salem College as assistant teacher (1893-95) and then joined the Pachaiyappa’s High School, Madras. In 1902, he became headmaster of the Hindu High School at Triplicane, Madras and earned laurels from both the students and administration. During this period he edited the Education Review, and also founded Indian Review with G. Natesan as editor.
He was married off by his parents when he was hardly fourteen years old, against his wishes, to Parvati Ammal who bore him a son, V.S. Sankaran. Parvati died in 1896 and Shastri was married a second time to Lakshmi Amma] in 1898. They had two daughters from this marriage and had a very happy married life for thirty-six years. Parvati died in 1934, when Sastri was sixty-Eve years old.
While he was working as headmaster in the Hindu High School, he came into Contact with Gopal Krishna Gokhale. He was immediately drawn towards him; liked his views and demeanour and decided to follow him as a disciple. This proved to be a turning point in his life. He resigned as headmaster and `joined as a full-time Worker of the Servants of India Society, Poona, which was established by Gokhale in 1905. After the death of Gokhale in 1915, Sastri took over as the president of the society. In 1918, he started a Weekly journal, Servant of India, the official organ of the Servants of India Society. It also served as a source of propaganda for the All-India Liberal Federation floated by the Moderates in 1918 after leaving the Congress party. The Moderates believed in India’s emancipation through constitutional means and opposed agitation of any kind against the British government. The two leading Moderates who controlled the Congress party, Gokhale and Pherozeshah Mehta, died in 1915, passing on the leadership of the group to Surendranath Banerjee and Srinivasa Sastri.
Even before that, Sastri was the secretary of the Madras session (1908) of the Indian National Congress, being an active member of the party. He also played an important role, along with Motilal Nehru, Tilak and Jinnah in formulating the Lucknow Pact (1916) between the Congress and the Muslim League. He published The Congress-League SchemeAn Exposition (1917) to explain the details and implications of the Pact. He was very vocal in maintaining the British connection and Wrote Self-Government for India under the British Flag in 1916, in which he argued that India could attain het highest political goal Within the British Empire.
He had been nominated to the Madras Legislative Council in 1913 and was elected by it to the Imperial Legislative Council in 1915. The pro-government policy and statements issued by the Moderates helped them to become the favoured party. Their decision to try the implementation of the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms in 1918, which had been rejected by the Congress, further endeared them to the government policy makers. Sastri, being the most eminent among the Moderates, was lionized. Responsibilities and honours came in quick succession.
He was elected to the Council of State (the upper chamber of the Legislature) in 1920. He was made member of the Imperial Council the following year (1921). The same year he was selected as a delegate of the Government of India to the Imperial Conference, London, where he succeeded in securing the passage of his resolution that British subjects of Indian origin, lawfully settled in the British Dominions, should not be denied political franchise. In 1922, Sastri attended the Limitation of Naval Armaments Conference held in Washington, D.C., U.S.A. as head of the Indian delegation, thus enhancing India’s prestige in international circles, though India was still a subject nation.
Sastri did commendable work for the Indian Diaspora settled in British colonies like South Africa, East Africa (Kenya, Uganda, and Tanganyika), Malaya and the dominions more than any Indian had done before or since. He undertook a tour of the dominions (Canada, Australia and New Zealand) in 1922 as a representative of India, to plead with their respective governments for equality of citizenship for Indians settled in those countries. In 1926, he went to South Africa as a member of a delegation headed by Habibullah and in 1927 he took active part as a delegate to the First Round Table Conference between India and South Africa, resulting in Cape Town Agreement which compelled the South African government to withdraw the Areas Reservation and Immigration Bill to segregate Indians. It was Sastri again whom the Government of India sent to South Africa as agent-general to implement the Cape Town Agreement. In that role he strove hard in removing the hostility of the whites towards he Indians settled there and creating better relations between the two races, though the policy of apartheid continued when Sastri left South Africa and after one-and-a-half years. During his stay, Sastri managed to obtain to permission to build a school for Indians in Natal, to the jubilation of Indians residing there.
In 1929, Sastri was sent on deputation to East Africa for implementation of the proposals for closer union between Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika, Go but there he was received with hostility and minimum courtesy was shown to him by the local Indians in Mombasa, and was called a ‘Kings Man’. He was even condemned in a meeting of Indians in Nairobi on 7 April 1929. In 1931, he gave evidence before the Joint Select Committee of British Parliament on Closer Union of the East African colonies. In 1936, he was deputed by the Government of India to Malaya to enquire into the condition of Indian labour there. He submitted a detailed report about his findings. He was a member of the Second Round Table Conference between India and South Africa in 1932, when the Cape Town Agreement was renewed with some changes.
He was a nominated member of the Round Table Conferences between India and England in 1930 and 1931 to evolve a new constitution for India. He was critical of the role played by Gandhi in the Second Round Table Conference in 1931.
In 1935, Sastri came back to his first love – education – when he accepted the vice-chancellorship of the Annamalai University, the post he held for two terms (1935-40). In the University his name remains adored, his oratory remembered. A rich library and a magnificent auditorium remain as homage to V.S. Srinivasa Sastri.
In his Autobiography Nehru devotes several pages to Sastri and is highly critical of his role as a ‘Moderate’, showing the importance of Sastri as a Liberal or ‘Moderate’ leader. Before passing the 1935 Act finally, the British government had issued a White Paper to gauge the Indian opinion. Nehru writes, At the Liberal Federation meeting held in Calcutta in April, 1933, Mr. Srinivasa Sastri, the most eminent of the Liberal leaders, pleaded that however unsatisfactory the constitutional changes might be they should work them. This is no time to stand by and let things pass, he said. The only action that apparently was conceivable to him was to accept what was given and to try to work it. Mr. Sastri is always eloquent, and has orators love of fine words and their musical use. But he is apt to be carried away by his enthusiasm and the word magic that he creates, blurs his meaning to others and perhaps to himself. Nehru concludes that Shastri’s advice to the Indians is, “Whatever happens, however we might be insulted, crushed, humiliated and exploited by the British Government, we must submit to it. A worm may turn, but not the Indian people if they followed Mr. Shastri’s advice. It struck me how extraordinarily similar was Mr. Shastri’s outlook in regard to Britain and India to that of the diehard British Conservative when he (Sastri) in one of his speeches in 1933 pointed the danger in India if British influence were suddenly withdrawn.’ Mr. Winston Churchill could have expressed himself in identical language without doing any violence to his convictions.
Shastri’s relations with Gandhi were on a different footing which could easily be termed as ‘love and hate’ relationship. Sastri was only ten days older than Gandhi but the latter considered him as an elder brother. Gandhi also addressed him as ‘Gurubandhu’ in his letters as both of them had declared Gokhale as their guru. They were poles apart in their political thinking but that did not affect their personal regard for each other. It was under the advice of Sastri that Gandhi’s application for membership of the Servants of India Society was rejected in 1915. Sastri was critical of Gandhi’s fad for Khadi, village work and Hindu-Muslim unity. Regarding Khadi, Sastri had said, “It is an illegitimate imposition in an organization purporting to comprehend all progressive politicians”. Sastri was against the Non-Cooperation movement which Gandhi launched in 1920 promising the country freedom in one year. In speech after speech Sastri criticized Gandhi and his Non-Cooperation movement. And in almost every city where he spoke, the followers of Gandhi hooted him and did not let him finish his speech. This happened in Pune, Bombay and even in Kumbakonam, Shastri’s native place. However, Sastri was not the only leader who met this treatment at the hands of the ‘Gandhi Brigade’. B.C. Pal, Annie Besant and Jinnah were some of the respected leaders who were hooted out by the intolerant Gandhites.
Regarding Hindu-Muslim unity, Sastri was highly critical of Gandhi for his appeasement of the Muslims. At the time of Kohat (Punjab) riots when Gandhi did not openly condemn the Muslims for the atrocities against the Hindus and Lala Lajpat Rai did, Sastri defended Lala Lajpat Rai and criticized Gandhi for his Utopian outlook. In one of his letters to his friend Sivaswami Ayer, Sastri wrote that: the Constitution of the Congress (which was framed by Gandhi) has given a practical veto to Muslims, which cannot lead but to the enthronement of the Mohammedan community in a position of indisputable advantage.
Gandhi knew his power and his hold on the masses and was not perturbed by such criticism. They continued to be friends in spite of serious political differences. Sastri knew in 1946 that it was only Gandhi who could avoid the partition of India. From his deathbed in the General Hospital, Madras, Sastri dictated a letter to Gandhi: “Rajaji is not sound in this matter. Do not let him lead you again (referring to Rajaji Formula). The Punjab and Bengal would be ruined and blast your memory, if you give them up. Do not let any part of India go out and become independent. It is bound to be a lasting enemy and a blistering sore of India”. Prophetic words these!
Like a true friend, Gandhi visited General Hospital, Madras, where Sastri was awaiting death, on 22 January and again on 30 January 1946. Sastri passed away on 17 April 1946. Gandhi did not write an obituary in the Harijan, as was customary with him. He wrote only a brief note: “Death has removed not only from us but from the world one of India’s best sons. That he loved India passionately, everyone who knew him could see. His Sanskrit learning was as great, if not greater, than his English. l must not permit myself to say more, save this that though we differed in politics, our hearts were one and I could never think that his patriotism was less than that of the tallest patriot".
Sastri wore the conventional dhoti, closed coat, turban and slippers. The most conspicuous part of his dress, of course, was his white turban ‘which gracefully poised above his serene head’. Like Nehru, he switched to a suit and a pair of shoes while in foreign lands, but he felt comfortable only in his native outfit.
Sastri wrote several books and tracts: Self Government for India Under the British Flag (1916); Congress-League Scheme an Exposition (1917); Life and Times of Sir Pherozeshah Mehta; Life of Gopal Krishna Gokhale; My Master Gokhale; Lecture on the Ramayana; Future Indian States; Rights and Status of Women in India. T.N. Jagadisan has compiled a few books containing the speeches and writings of Sastri.
In the preface to his biography of Sastri, T.N. Jagadisan writes: “He was one of the first of our great men to raise India’s esteem in the world by his unsurpassed eloquence, his noble bearing, his serene wisdom and generous understanding of the other man’s point of view. He was looked upon as a scholar-statesman. Like Gokhale and Gandhi, he did the service of spiritualizing politics by bringing into practice the highest moral values. Sastri had the temper that gives him the strength to renounce approbation and reject the fear of being called weak. He belonged to the galaxy of the founders of India’s freedom”.

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