Annie Besant

Annie Besant

Annie Besant was a British socialist, theosophist, freemason, women’s rights and Home Rule activist, educationist, and campaigner for Indian nationalism. Regarded as a champion of human freedom, she was an ardent supporter of both Irish and Indian self-rule.

“Western born but in spirit Eastern, cradled in England but Indian by choice and adoption, let me stand as the symbol of the union between Great Britain and India a Union of hearts and free choice, not of compulsion and therefore of a tie which cannot be broken, a tie of love and of mutual helpfulness, beneficial to both nations and blessed by God.

Annie Besant British

Annie Besant

  • And so I turn your gift into service to the Motherland. I consecrate myself anew to her in worship by action. All that I have and am, I lay on the Altar of the Mother, and together we shall cry, more by service than by words, “Vande Mataram”!
  • To see India free, to see her hold up her head among the nations, to see her sons and daughters respected everywhere, to see her worthy of her mighty post, engaged in building a yet mightier future is this not working for, worth suffering for, worth living and worth dying for?

Is there any other land, which evokes such love for her spirituality, such admiration for her literature, such homage for her valour, as this glorious mother of nations from whose womb went forth the races that now, in Europe and in America are leading the world?

  • And has any land suffered as our India has suffered, since her sword was broken on Kurukshetra and the peoples of Europe and of Asia swept across her borders, laid waste her cities, and discrowned her kings?
  • They came to conquer but they remained to be absorbed. At last out of those mingled peoples the Divine Artificer has welded a Nation, compact not only of her own virtues but also of those of her foes had brought to her, and gradually eliminating the vices which they had also brought.
Annie Besant Letter

India has been verily crucified Nations. The immortal, the glorious, the Ever-young, and India shall soon be seen proud and self reliant, strong and free the radiant splendour of Asia, the light and the Blessings of the world.”

  • These were the words of Annie Besant the President of Indian National Congress held in Calcutta in 1917 so simple but so full of emotions and patriotism for the Motherland.
  • She rather quipped “I was rather humiliated by the British in India but the Indian people have crowned me with high honour.
  • It was for the first time that a woman became the President of the Indian National Congress. It was for the first time that a British born person secured such an honour in this country.
  • It was for the first time that the tricolour flag smuggled by Bhikaji Cama to India was unfurled as the National Flag in India. Bhikaji had unfurled it in August 1907 at the International Socialist Congress in Stuttgart.
  • This very Flag remained the official flag till 1930 when the red colour replaced by saffron and a charkha was inscribed on the white band in the middle of the flag.

From the 1917 session a new tradition was also started by Annie Besant. By now the Congress Activities were limited to having an annual session. She introduced the tradition of the president remaining active for the whole year till the next tradition of the president remaining active for the whole year till the next session making programmes for achieving the goal of Independence.

  • In 1917 was both climax and anti climax of the political life of Annie Besant in the Indian scene. The very sentence of the first paragraph of the part of her speech quoted above shows her disinclination to give a fight to the foreign rulers in the strong way.
  • She rather wanted to be ‘the symbol of the Union between Great Britain and India’ Being Britisher she had a soft corner for that country while in India a wave of a strong discontent that was already started by Tilak and had taken another form of passive non cooperation movement by Gandhi was taking deep roots. Mrs. Besant was swayed away by this storm and lost her ground.
  • Her later efforts of going to England with a draft of the “Common wealth of India” to be approved by the British Parliament did not bring any fruits and she ultimately faded from the Indian Political scene totally in 1925.
  • Annie was born on October 1, 1847 far away from India. She was a crying and laughing child like any other.
  • People around her hardly knew that one day she would be a character a personality of world fame.
  • No one could guess that the frail girl would one day come out as one of the builders of modern India. Mrs. Sarojini Naidu, the first Indian Governor of Uttar Pradesh wrote about her genius saying, “Though foreign by birth, Annie Besant was more Indian truly than all of us.
  • She taught us that freedom was our birthright, and that no sacrifice was too great to attain that freedom.”
  • Annie’s father was an Englishman while her mother was Irish. She had a brother too. She was a crying and laughing child like any other.
  • People around her hardly knew that one day she would be a character a personality of world fame.
  • No one could guess that the frail girl would one day come out as one of the builders of modern India. Mrs. Sarojini Naidu, the first Indian Governor of Uttar Pradesh wrote about her genius saying.
  • “Though foreign by birth, Annie Besant was more Indian truly than all of us. She taught us that freedom was our birthright, and that no sacrifice was too great to attain that freedom.”

Annie’s father was an Englishman while her mother was Irish. She had a brother too. She was hardly five when her father passed away. Her mother worked hard to educated her. Not much is known about her childhood days except a few references in her autobiography here and there.

At the age of 20 she was married to a priest Reverend Frank Besant. That is how she became Annie Besant. She was much disgusted by just living as a housewife. It was rather a challenge in her life that resulted in a separation from Frank Besant. As the custom prevailed the husband had the first choice.

  • He took away the son while Annie had to look after her shining daughter about whom she later wrote, “the presence of the child was good for me, keeping alive my aching heart”. Otherwise the life of Annie was full of depression.
  • To do away with depression she started writing articles. It was only then that she realised that she was quite good at writing. It helped her to earn enough to lead an independent life.
  • It was at this stage that Annie Besant came into contact with Charles Bradlaugh. He was a radical politician and leader of the FreeThinker movement in England.
  • The members of this organisation did not believe in religious dogmas. They formed opinions on the basis of reason had rather a scientific approach. Annie was much impressed by the FreeThinker movement and started spreading its philosophy through her speeches. Again she realized that she was quite a good speaker too.

Being a woman she had natural seeds of compassion an urge to improve the condition of the oppressed added rather a glamour to her speeches. She gradually grew into the realm of silent leadership. She would say, “The people are silence. I will be the advocate of this silence. I will speak for the dumb. I will speak of the small to the great and of the feeble to the strong. I will speak for all the despairing silent ones”. She would receive the applause of the people.

  • Gradually Annie’s views left the geographical boundaries. She entered the world panorama. She started thinking of the betterment of the people in general.
  • She tried hard to “sound in the ears of the thoughtless and the careless to cry of the sufferings of the poor”.
  • She further said rather felt, Passing out of the slums into the streets of the town, only a few steps separating the horror and the beauty with the vividness more intense than ever, the fearful contrasts between the lots of men.
  • Must there always be rich and poor? Some say that the palace and slum will forever exist as the light and the shadow. Not so do I believe. I believe that the poverty is the result of ignorance and of bad social arrangements, and that therefore it may be eradicated by knowledge and by social change.”

In India changes were taking place fast. After the first war of independence in 1857 the educated youth was turning wild in thought. The British thought they might revolt. They wanted to gain them on their side, at least to have a remote control on them. Thus A.O. Hume strated Indian National Congress in 1885 and made consolidated efforts to win the confidence of the middle class educated gentry.

  • The same year Mrs. Annie Besant came in contact with the anti romantic writer having socialist leanings George Bernard Shaw. Fabian Society had already been started by him in cooperation with Sidney and Beatrice Webb.
  • The Fabians had the aim of creating public opinion to urge-rather compel the state to better the lot of the poor in Britain and in the British colonies. Annie Besant was much attracted towards these noble efforts.
  • She became an active member of the Fabian Society. She organised the first British trade union for women and led a strike of young girls working in a big match factory in England. It was a great success.
  • She also became a member of the London School Board and worked for free education for all in England.
  • All organisation when started have good aims. But the people who organise them work in one direction. They take one or two issues and work for them generally a lifelong effort.
  • The difficulty with Annie Besant was that she had a weak impressionist mind and would shift from one cause to the other if she had a better impression about the latter one. In 1889 she was at the height of her fame as a Fabian Socialist leader.
  • As soon as she came into contact with Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, the founder of Theosophical Society she was so much influenced by her that she stunned the people by leaving the Fabian Society and becoming an active member of the Theosophical Society.
  • George Bernard Shaw who was rather his mentor said, “Mr. Besant is a woman of swift decision. She sampled many movements and societies before she finally found herself and the transitions were not gradual she always came into a movement with a bound, and was preaching the new faith before the astonished spectators had the least suspicion that the old one was shaken”.

In this new ‘avatar’ Mrs. Besant became an exponent of universal brotherhood. She started studying Eastern and Aryan literature and philosophy that invoked in her a firm faith in humanity that bounds all the peoples of the world. Being a good orator and a sincere worker Annie Besant took over the leadership of the Society in 1891 after the demise of Madame Blavatsky. She developed the organisation with branches all over Europe, America, New Zealand, Australia and Canada. It was theosophy that brought her to India in 1893.

  • Although the activities of Theosophical Society had already shifted from England to India in 1879 they took an active turn after the arrival of Mrs. Annie Besant.
  • She had an instinctive feeling for this country and had a belief that the present one was her incarnation in England while she had many formerly in India.
  • Thus she immediately Indianised herself wearing saree eating by sitting on ground leaving spoon and fork. The Indian way of living was her natural way.
  • She had published her autobiography before coming to India in which she wrote, “I have had several Indian incarnations and the last one before her birth in 1847 in London was in India and the close of that Indian life and the beginning of the present one there was only a gap of three years.”
  • Even as a girl she would put many questions to her mother about India, her motherland. Her first tale published in England for children was Ganga and the River Maid. On her arrival in India she declared it “as a pilgrim to seek the ways of wisdom from the Indian People.”
  • Annie Besant was rather disappointed when she found that the educated young men here had left the ancient heritage because of the cruel British rule that glorified the English way of life and considering everything Indian as humiliating.
  • She decided to teach the people with her writings. To start with she herself started studying Sanskrit and became so proficient in a short time that she translated the Bhagavad Gita into simple English for the common man in the South who did not know Sanskrit.
  • This was followed by a compilation of tales on Indian heritage to allow the growth of patriotism  among those who were in their teens. It was followed by a Universal Textbook of Religion and Morals that contained the basic truths of all the great religions in the world.
  • Mrs.Besant believed that education on the right lines was necessary to bring about a new self-respect, a pride in the past and a firm belief in the future. She considered it a ‘regeneration of India’.
  • Thus to achieve her aim she launched the education crusade on the banks of the holy Ganga at Varanasi. Mrs. Besant believed that “Indians should shoulder the responsibilities of evolving educational institutions, and the carrying on of schools and colleges must be under the control of Indians, instead of under the control of government or of foreign missionaries, as had been the case since the advent of British rule in India”
  • Dr. Bhagwan Das and Shri Govind Das associated themselves with the efforts of Annie Besant. During this period Bharat Dharma Mahamandal of Banaras had established Sanatan Dharma University while with the efforts of Pt.
  • Madan Mohan Malviya and Annie Besant Hindu University came into existence. Annie Besant had already opened Central Hindu College. In 1911 the three institutions were merged into one.
  • The Hindu University Society was formally registered that very year. The Banaras Hindu University Act was passed on October 1, 1915 and the foundation stone of the University was laid on 4th of February 1916.
  • Soon the University came into existence with Pandit Sunder Lal a leading advocate of the Allahabad High Court as the first Vice Chancellor.
  • Malviya took up the post in 1919 and remained its Vice Chancellor till 1938; Encouraged by the success of her and Malviya’s efforts Annie Besant shifted her attention to women’s education.
  • She started on exclusively girls school at Banaras. Later on many such schools were started at many places in the country.
  • Annie Besant was already elected president of the Theosophical Society in 1907 for a term of seven years. She started Theosophical Educational Trust to start schools and colleges in all major cities of the South.
  • Later on the aim of the Society grew vaster as it took up the work of starting institutions throughout the country on patriotic lines. To counteract the work of Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) she started Young Men’s Indian Association (YMIA) to provide systematic training to Indian Youth to have pride in Indian heritage and culture.
  • Then came up Women’s Indian Association with Besant as the first President. The association spread its wings throughout the country as it started in the fields of education, cottage industry, politics and social aspects for the upliftment of women.
  • Mrs. Annie Besant was impressed by the Scout movement of Lord Baden Powell. But he was not inclined to start an Indian chapter as he didn’t have British officers enough to spare for India.
  • Besant considered it rather a humiliation and with the help of Sanjiva Kamath and Tarini Prasad Sinha founded the Indian Boys Scout Association. She insisted upon imbibing Indian culture and character by making Indian Turban mandatory in place of the western style hat.
  • The Indian scouts would sing Indian songs. In all other respects they would follow the scout rules. When Baden Powell visited India later on he was surprised to see the success of Bharat Scouts.
  • He personally requested Mrs. Besant for the amalgamation of Bharat Scouts and the British Scouts movement. She accepted it and was declared the Honorary Scout Commissioner for India.

From 1907 onwards Mrs. Besant stayed permanently in Madras. She came in contact with prominent leaders and intellectuals of the region. Being closely associated with the Fabian Society she was attracted towards the efforts of Indians to gain freedom. She herself entered the Indian political scene in 1913 when she started a weekly journal the Commonweal followed by the launch of a daily New India. In both of these she spearheaded the self-rule movement. She prepared a training ground for the Indian Journalists. But her approach was to everything within the letter of the law. The liberals appreciated while the radicals had their reservations about it. Still Annie Besant’s call for intensified agitation gained momentum especially when the First World War started in 1914. Britain needed the help of India while Besant believed in striking the iron it is hot.

Indian National Congress was passing through a crucial stage it was divided into two clear cut groups the liberals led by Gopal Krishna Gokhale and the radicals headed by Bal Gangadhar Tilak. Besant brought the two groups together to work on a common platform. In association with Moti Lal Nehru. She started a new organisation the All India Home Rule League. In 1915 shu just put a question.

‘What does India want’

She classified India’s demand in four points.

  1. To be free in India, as the Englishman is free in England.
  2. To be governed by her own men, freely elected by herself.
  3. To be a sovereign nation within her own borders.
  4. Britain and India hand in hand, but an India free as is her right.

The last clause showed her preference to be a bit with her place of birth.

Still Mrs. Besant continued her struggle for Dominion Status. Looking to Britain’s open discrimination in the treatment of while Dominions and India, Asian and African countries she decided to pursue the demand for Home Rule for India vigorously. She made best of her efforts to bring together the diverse political groups. The communal, sectarian and minor groups were also taken into confidence. She started writing hard hitting articles in her daily New India. She rather thundered “The condition of India’s usefulness to the Empire is India’s freedom. The condition of India’s support to the British war effort is India’s freedom”. She would, during her campaign for the grant of Home Rule immediately after the war roar, “England’s difficulty is India’s opportunity.”

Her vigorous campaign resulted in a case against Besant. She personally defended her case. An internment order was served on her. It led to the intensification of Home Rule Movement. Immediately a large number to branches sprang up throughout the country. Mr. Montagu wrote in his diary, “I particularly recalled the Indian mythology that Lord Shiva cut his wife into 51 pieces only to discover that he had 51 wives! That is really what happened to the Government of India when it interned Mrs. Besant.” Moti Lal Nehru, Mohammad Ali Jinnah and C.P. Ramaswamy Aiyar associated themselves with the movements. S. Subramania Aiyar, a retired judge of the Madras High Court renounced his knighthood. This all was responsible for a change in the attitude of the British Government. Mr. Montagu was made the Secretary of State for India. He decided to make a major change in the future political status of India. Mrs. Besant was released on September 16, 1917. She became the living symbol of Mother India. Naturally she became the favorite choice to be the President of the Indian National Congress session to be held in Calcutta in December the same year. Overwhelmed by this unique appreciation she said, “I was humiliated by the British in India, but the Indian people have owned me with high honor, when I was silenced and unable to defend myself, the Indian people defended me and won for me release from internment”. How the Calcutta session marked the climax and anti climax in her political career has been described earlier.

Against the cult of Tilak’s radicalism and even Mahatma Gandhi’s insistence on civil disobedience Mrs. Besant refused to agree to the breaking of any general law to bring pressure on the authorities. She believed that any movement for mass action would release forces degenerating into violence. She was partly correct in her assertion as was visualised during the 1921-22 movement when the people became violent in ChauraChauri. But the patience of the people was at a dead end and they followed the Mahatma to get rid of the rule of the Britishers as early as possible. Thus disappointed Mrs. Besant faded from the Indian political scene specially after the failure of the Round Table Conference of Indian and British representatives held in 1931 and 1932 in which besides her Madan Mohan Malviya and Mahatma Gandhi had participated. She, at the mature age of eighty-six had grown physically weak too and passed away peacefully at her Adayar home in Madras on September 20, 1933. Her last words were, “My work is done, but others will fulfil it.” It was fulfilled after 14 years when freedom was doled out to India in 1947. It was rather a cumulative effect of the efforts of politicians like Gokhale and revolutionaries like Savarkar, Subhash and the whole group of Bhagat Singh led by Ram Prasad Bismil and the Lal-Bal-Gopal trio.

With all the difference with Mrs. Besant’s way of thinking leaders mourned her death. Nehru, who had first met her when he was only 12 declared, “There can be no doubt that in India’s struggle for freedom her past was a considerable one. She was the one person who drew out attention to our own heritage and made us proud of it. India owes a very deep debt of gratitude for all she did to enable her to find her own soul.” C. Rajagopalachari, the last Governor General of India who had closely worked with her during the Home Rule movement said, “Among those who have materially contributed to the shaping of India Mrs. Besant is one of the highest personalities. She helped young India to feel sure of the greatness of Indian culture and religion. She always encouraged youth in India, never dampened its enthusiasm because some of its plans were not the wisest.”

There is no doubt that Annie Besant was the only leader, though a foreigner by birth, who reminded the people with the glorious past of India. In this respect her real character has been specified by Sri Prakash, the great patriot of Varanasi. He said, “The first thing that must have impressed her was that though she herself came full of admiration for our country’s ancient codes of life and thought, and though she herself was very well  versed in the legends of our gods and goddesses, and stories of our heroes and heroines, the educated persons she met were not only ignorant about these matters but actually looked asked askance at them. They regarded everything old and sacred of their own traditions as sheer superstition and insensate folly. They felt that nothing could save them and their country except imitating western ways. Mrs. Besant would certainly have thought in her mind that this wave of scepticism and so called modernism needed to be immediately stemmed, and men’s minds restored to an appreciation of their traditions and a love for the great achievements of their ancestors so that they might imbibe in themselves that pride and that self respect which alone can make a people great”.

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