(My column in Mint Lounge, December 9 2017)


On 6 December 1992, when a mob tore down the 16th century Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, an entire nation watched in horror as governments of the day stood by, pleading helplessness. Twenty-five years have elapsed since that event, and many more may pass before anything close to a real—and sensible—resolution is reached to what is essentially a festering wound. But if in living memory Ayodhya has gone down as a symbol of the worst manifestation of communal politics in India, there is an episode in its past that could be construed as the inaugural chapter of this ugly narrative, pitting Hindu against Muslim, man against man. And unlike recent times, when a mosque became the scene of violent confrontations, many years ago it was a temple that attracted the attentions of a fanatic crowd, whose actions became linked in several ways to the larger discussion around the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation.

The story goes back to the mid-19th century. The nawabs of Awadh, who seized sovereignty in the region, never actually enjoyed absolute power in their princely domains. As was the case with Muslim rulers across the subcontinent, authority was, in fact, exercised in cooperation with Hindu elites. In pre-Mughal Deccan, for instance, its sultans utilized Brahmins and Marathas as their intermediaries with the masses, while in Awadh the nawabswere served by Kayasthas in the running of their administration, and by legions of Hindu warrior ascetics (or nagas) in waging war against their enemies. As the splendour of the nawabs grew, so too did the wealth and influence of these classes—the frenetic building of temples in Ayodhya in the 18th century, for example, had a great deal to do with the wave of prosperity enjoyed by the Hindu aristocracy under a thriving nawabi court, which also patronized pilgrim activity that, in turn, revitalized the cult of Ram.

It was the second nawab, Safdarjung, who, in return for their military services, gave the Ramanandi nagas money for the construction of a shrine to Hanuman at a spot about 700 metres from the Babri Masjid. In due course, a Hindu nobleman enabled the expansion of this structure into what is today the Hanumangarhi, described as a temple-fortress, and which in the 19th century possessed gifts from the crown that brought it Rs50,000 in revenue. Scholars like Hans Bakker and Peter van der Veer note that Babri itself is believed to stand on the site of an 11th century Hindu shrine that was demolished and converted into a mosque by a Mughal general. Van der Veer notes, furthermore, that some pillars from an old temple were said to have survived, unwittingly also becoming pillars for the cause of “restoring” the premises to its original use. In any case, the irony was that far from splitting communities into irreconcilable foes, till the mid-19th century, Hindus as well as Muslims worshipped at Babri in peace and harmony, albeit in different parts of the compound.

The first communal conflict that Ayodhya witnessed occurred in the mid-1850s. On the face of it, this was a Hindu-Muslim feud. As we learn from The Anatomy Of A Confrontation, a collection of scholarly essays edited by Sarvepalli Gopal, and other sources, Shah Ghulam Husain, a Muslim firebrand, claimed that Hanumangarhi stood, in fact, on the ashes of a mosque that dated back to emperor Aurangzeb’s reign. His call to “reclaim” the temple was answered by enough men to result in a violent clash soon afterwards. The Muslims were not just repulsed, however; we read how the Hindus took the skirmish into Babri next door, which Husain’s fighters had used as a base. In the course of events, 70 men were killed on the Muslim side. An attack on Muslim civilians, and plunder of their property, followed, with reprisals after some Hindus decided to make a grand display of slaughtering pigs on the day the 70 fallen Muslims were buried. It was, simply put, provocations galore and blood and violence everywhere.

While this was superficially a Hindu-Muslim conflict, in reality matters were somewhat complicated. Muslims in Awadh comprised 12% of the population; the vast majority was Sunni. The nawab, however, was of Shia persuasion, and the cream of courtly patronage was distilled in favour of the Shia minority. That the reigning nawab, the colourful Wajid Ali Shah, was also an admirer of Hindu traditions, in addition to the court’s general collaboration with Hindu elites, provoked Ghulam Husain, described as an “arch villain”, and his “vile”, “disreputable” followers to plot their attack on Hanumangarhi. This was, in other words, not only a move against the Hindus but also a Sunni rebellion against the unorthodox Shia nawab. In any case, while Husain’s plot was a failure, his place was soon taken by another zealot, the maulvi Amir Ali. And this man went as far as declaring a jihad to occupy Hanumangarhi and re-establish the mosque that was supposed to have existed within.

Interestingly, the claim that there was a Muslim place of worship in Hanumangarhi may not have been incorrect, even if it was inaccurate in the vocabulary of its expression. While a committee constituted by the nawabfound that there was never a mosque within the fort, it is likely that the Muslims were building on an earlier tradition when they enjoyed access to the shrine. Before the Ramanandi nagas turned it into their military seat, the deity in the temple was worshipped by Hindus as Hanuman and by Muslims as Hathile, one of the five saints (panch pir) of Sufism. It was not a full-blown masjid as such, but by closing access to the shrine to Muslims, those in charge of Hanumangarhi allowed grievances to mount. This, in turn, culminated in the imagined memory of a “mosque” that required reclaiming, even if this meant shedding blood and sacrificing lives—an example of how extreme piety can quickly transform a shadow from the past into incontrovertible “fact”.

In any case, when Amir Ali refused to accept the decision of the committee, the stage was set for battle. Armed with fatwas from Shia as well as Sunni clerics that declared Ali’s jihad illegal, the nawab’s forces under British command intercepted him on his way to Ayodhya. A few hundred rebels lost their lives, and their obstinate leader too fell on the battlefield. Hanumangarhi was retained by the Hindus, while in Babri the British erected fences to separate the mosque from the platform where Hindus offered worship. What is curious, however, as detailed in Sarvepalli Gopal’s collection, is that some date the first claim that the masjid sat on the spot of Ram’s birth to the mid-1850s—when the Muslims claimed Hanumangarhi as “originally” a mosque, the Hindus, as a counter-claim, reminded them of the temple upon which Babri was supposed to have been built.

The matter may never be satisfactorily resolved. So perhaps the best lesson we can learn from the last time a mob went to destroy a place of worship in Ayodhya, before the tragedy of 1992, is that at least on that occasion, those in power did not stand by idly; that, instead, they did their duty and protected the temple from destruction, something that cannot be said of those who watched quietly as a mosque was razed more than a hundred years later.

(My column in Mint Lounge, December 02 2017)


One of Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s chief habits, upon hearing something he did not like, was to shake his head in disapproval, point a bony finger at whoever had made the grave mistake of disagreeing with him and, having fixed his gaze through a monocle, serve the binding comment: “My dear fellow, you do not understand.” In a tragic reflection on the country he founded 70 years ago, events unfolding now in Pakistan are such that perhaps this time, it would be poor Jinnah who might not understand. Religious extremists took to the streets in Islamabad after a minister blasphemed by not demonstrating sufficient commitment to the finality of the Prophet as the messenger of god—people have died and the government has, predictably, capitulated. Blending religion with politics was always, of course, an invitation to disaster, but one does wonder how these protesters might have treated the exalted father of their Islamic republic himself, given his views on certain touchy matters—after all, it was Jinnah who, in contravention of everything the Prophet said, once declared his fondness for “the best Scotch I can find, a vintage wine, (and) my cigarettes.”

While there is never a dull moment where India and Pakistan are concerned, given the unrest of our times, reading former high commissioner T.C.A. Raghavan’s The People Next Door makes for a tremendously rewarding exercise. With anecdotes richly woven through the “hard facts” of the case, one discovers much to think about in the book, not only in terms of Pakistan’s tribulations, but also certain slippery slopes that we in India seem bent on unnecessarily negotiating these days. After their defeat on the battlefield in 1965, for example, our neighbours decided to nurse wounded pride by unleashing hyper-nationalism of a kind that saw the banning of Bollywood films and the raising of hysterical rhetoric. As the poet Fahmida Riaz regretted, Urdu literature, for instance, “suffered a patriotism so imbecile, so sloppy and so infantile” that intellectual merit drowned in a pool of nationalistic mediocrity. Whether it was able to recover and rise beyond the expediencies of politics is not known, but what is known is that even without a bruising military misadventure, there are plenty in our parts today who prefer for all pursuits to first and foremost pledge themselves to the cause of Mother India. It does not matter that we might be copying a blunder our neighbours made decades before and have regretted ever since—so long as it is done in the spirit of national pride, we can err with self-righteous confidence.

One of the particularly interesting sections in Raghavan’s book reveals how, from the earliest phase of India-Pakistan relations, both countries had to deliberately steer clear of rabble-rousers in the press. Those across the border, for instance, objected when the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s Organiser described their government as “murderous”, while New Delhi was most upset when prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru was styled the “Greatest Primitive” by Pakistan’s iconic newspaper, Dawn. Efforts were made to persuade editors to temper their vengeful pronouncements so that serious bilateral business might not be handicapped by hyperbole in print. One “communalist” rag, Raghavan records, refused to brook advisories from the government, and asked the authorities “to mind your own business”. In another case, India asked Pakistan to be less thin-skinned. The Organiser, it chuckled, was after all only “a minor weekly of a political party having hardly any influence in the country”, and need scarcely be taken seriously. Little, perhaps, did Nehru expect that a few decades later, the party in question would ride an unprecedented wave to power in the Capital. Or that in place of assorted newspapers spewing venom, we would confront an epidemic on television, featuring men and women in dignified costumes making singularly undignified remarks.

Raghavan’s book, between instructive pages on the diplomacy behind the Indus Waters Treaty of 1960 or the context of the wars India and Pakistan have fought, also recounts fascinating stories that may have receded from public memory. We meet, for instance, the famous Choudhry Rahmat Ali, who coined the word “Pakistan” but went on to become such a thorn in the new state’s side that he was expelled from that country—he died years later, sneering bitterly that the Quaid-i-Azam was actually the Quisling-i-Azam. Then there is Z.A. Bhutto, who in 1964 was convinced that Nehru’s death meant the end of India. “How long,” he asked, “will the memory of a dead Nehru inspire his country and keep alive a…vast land of mysterious and mighty contradictions, darned together with the finest threads?” The “key to Indian unity and greatness,” he argued, “has been burned away with Nehru’s dead body.” In the flopped military effort that followed, a pilot was shot down by the Pakistanis. Field Marshal Ayub Khan wrote to the man’s father, the legendary General K.M. Cariappa, that the captive would be treated well, only to receive a curt reply that all prisoners of war were the general’s sons and that no “special treatment” need be arranged for the pilot—a touching story that this columnist was able to confirm with the prisoner in question, the future Air Marshal Nanda Cariappa.

Raghavan’s is a book that is enjoyable in its style, reliable in its facts, and informed in its tone and substance. But beyond offering a terrific account of the evolution of India-Pakistan relations, the book, almost subconsciously, serves as a reminder of some of the elements that have made India different from Pakistan. The history of the relationship between our two countries is also, after all, a sequence of warning signs—a reminder that if we were to confront our worst nightmare, we need only look at the chaos next door. By now, it should be easy to recognize where Pakistan went wrong and draw lessons in wisdom. But the irony is that some Indians are tempted to go out of their way to land us in the very same traps, with stirring slogans and a sense of conviction to boot. As the late lamented Jinnah might perhaps have asked, do they really not understand?

(My column in Mint Lounge, November 25 2017)


At the Tata Literature Live! festival in Mumbai last weekend, on the occasion of Indira Gandhi’s birth centenary, I asked former Union minister P. Chidambaram what her 1980 electoral victory revealed about democracy in India. What, after all, did it say of us that less than three years after the catastrophe that was the Emergency, voters were more than happy to bring back a prime minister who had subverted the Constitution in the interests of naked political survival? Some of the answers are well known: that the Janata Party coalition, which ruled between 1977 and 1980, proved to be the very embodiment of shambolic government, carrying on an Emergency in all but name, thereby inviting public anger. Or that Mrs Gandhi, through her tireless energy (including that historic elephant ride to Belchi village in Bihar after a horrific massacre of Dalits) and by asking forgiveness for her regime’s excesses, reclaimed public respect.

My discussant, however, pointed to a simple fact—the poor beheld in Mrs Gandhi someone who recognized their plight and not only spoke directly to them but also served as their voice. And so, after having punished her for the gravest error of her career, they were prepared to trust her again with their future.

Democracy itself and the brutal smashing of national ideals were not an electoral issue even in the immediate aftermath of the Emergency. To begin with, while the north voted Mrs Gandhi out of power, she won overwhelmingly in the south. As Shoaib Daniyal noted in Scroll.in some time ago, in percentage terms “more people voted for Indira Gandhi in 1977 than (Narendra) Modi in 2014”. The Hindi belt too was less concerned with the battering of the Constitution than with more directly suffered campaigns (nasbandi, or male sterilization, being particularly notorious), for which retribution through the ballot box was Mrs Gandhi’s reward. Indeed, as Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) politician Subramanian Swamy recalled 17 years ago in The Hindu, in the 1977 elections, some opponents even feared she might actually come back to power since it was assumed that “the illiterate masses would not be moved by the issue of democracy, and thus the polls (if she were so returned) would legitimize the Emergency”.

That did not happen, but it can be safely stated that undermining the Constitution was not what brought Indira Gandhi down. Nor, in fact, was contrite, belated affection for democratic values the force behind her restoration—if she regretted her authoritarianism, in 1980 she would not have, in a single day, dismissed nine opposition state governments in a flourish of vindictiveness, weeks after returning to office.

The Shah Commission’s report—which Mrs Gandhi suppressed—in addition to serving as a catalogue of the worst of the Emergency, also warned that the ease with which these were carried out exposed the weaknesses of our institutions and officialdom’s uncertain commitment to democratic ethics. “Commandments of good conduct, good behaviour and morality got muted,” it notes, “when self-preservation was at stake.” When unlawful orders were issued, they were executed “mechanically” by the state’s machinery, even when blatantly against every constitutional principle or legal provision.

The reality, then, was that for all our rapturous public professions about democracy in India, it was not a commodity that held assured endurance—to quote Daniyal again, “the actual suspension of democracy might have made no difference at all with voters” in 1977 were it not for terribly designed and disastrously implemented campaigns that accompanied the Emergency. The very fact that 70 years after independence, India still upholds draconian colonial-era laws that belong in the dustbin of history is proof that while we are a democracy, democracy here is an endeavour that is defined by degree more than by uncompromising exactness.

It was B.R. Ambedkar who declared that “it is perfectly possible to pervert the Constitution, without changing its form, by merely changing the form of administration and to make it inconsistent and opposed to the spirit of the Constitution. Constitutional morality,” he added, “is not a natural sentiment. It has to be cultivated. We must realize that our people have yet to learn it.” Democracy, he concluded, was “a top-dressing on an Indian soil which is essentially undemocratic”.

Poverty, the endurance of caste, gaps in mass education, alongside a whole inventory of other problems, not least of which is political avarice and sections of the press prone to crawling, all dilute democracy as was theoretically envisioned. Without commitment to the values that underpin it, democratic exercises become a matter of going through elaborate forms without achieving the actual substance. And when less and less people in power care about that substance, the whole enterprise becomes a sophisticated fiction which we all blindly trumpet, against growing evidence to the contrary. The press, for instance, is thriving, but when much of it functions as cheerleaders for those in power, it serves something quite different than the cause of democracy.

Parliamentary records quote a Lok Sabha legislator from Assam in 1996 declaring: “Prime Minister (A.B. Vajpayee) and many leaders of the BJP have been trying to explain the growth of the BJP from two members, to become the major opposition party and now to become the largest single party and the formation of the government. They have explained it as growth. But very humbly I want to say to the hon. Prime Minister that all growths are not healthy, some growth are called cancer.” While this is not to target the BJP, the point is that shoring up numbers democratically without also shoring up the basic virtues that sustain the ideal intent of democracy is a nation-defeating exercise.

Democracy, in India, is still, after all, a journey more than a destination, and while as a people we will be able to absorb pauses and, indeed, even reverses in that journey such as the Emergency, we must always be alert to the inhospitable combination of forces, across party lines and social conditions, that is ever looming. As someone once said of liberty, eternal vigilance alone is the guarantee of democracy. And where many people cannot afford such vigilance or even demonstrate wilful disinterest in doing so, those who possess even a fragment of hope for the future of this country have a duty to step in, asking the questions that must be asked, and doing all that must be done. In that alone lies a way out, and the promise of finally reaching the destination that our founding fathers envisioned and in which lies India’s salvation.

(My column in Mint Lounge, November 18 2017)


Alauddin Khilji, the 14th century Muslim king of Delhi, had a fearsome mother-in-law. The conqueror—soon arriving at your nearest cinema as the very picture of unwashed ferocity, complete with sinister, surma-lined eyes, an insatiable appetite for gore and gold, and much lust for virtuous Hindu princesses—does not seem to have enjoyed any domestic tranquillity during his very eventful life. His first wife and her mother, described variously as “fool of fools” and “silliest of the silly”, were supremely dominating, so much so that some of his early campaigns were also partly an excuse to place as much distance as possible between himself and them. Things got a little more complicated after he seized the wife of a Gujarati king—the lady missed her young daughter, so another round of battles had to be fought to seize that object of her motherly affections. Then he had in his harem a slave girl who was sent out to do battle and died in the process. Finally, he also fell in love with Malik Kafur, the eunuch general, who cheerfully exploited this sentiment till he found his way abruptly to a forgotten grave.

Alauddin was the nephew and son-in-law of the first of the Khilji sultans, a man who killed his predecessor and then belatedly found himself consumed by guilt. This uncle wouldn’t sit on the throne, for instance, because he was convinced he was unworthy. While older nobles at court were sufficiently moved, those of a more aggressive temperament thought this all sentimental nonsense. They began to plot to replace the mild-mannered monarch with a more manly substitute. When news of one of these intrigues reached the ruler, he summoned its participants to his august presence. And there, instead of relieving them of their seditious heads, he proceeded to lecture them on alcohol and the importance of not getting carried away into making strange plans while under its influence. The young men nodded and begged forgiveness, but among those who realized that the sultan was a little bit of a softie was Alauddin. In 1296, after he raided Devagiri without permission and returned with phenomenal quantities of plunder, he sought his royal uncle’s pardon and invited him to come in person to collect the treasure. Trusting and naïve, the old sultan went where he was told, and very quickly found himself in more than one piece.

“While the head of the murdered sovereign was yet dripping with blood,” writes the chronicler Ziauddin Barani, “the ferocious conspirators brought the royal canopy and elevated it over the head of Alauddin. Casting aside all shame, the perfidious and graceless wretches caused him to be proclaimed king by men who rode about on elephants.” The new king was touched. After he put his uncle’s sons to flight and eventually imprisoned his infuriating mother-in-law, the men who helped raise him to the throne were also rewarded with death—that is, leaving aside two who were already destroyed by leprosy or madness. The loot from Devagiri was put to good use, for, after all, gold could erase all traces of a less than conventional succession to the throne, buying loyalties that could not be immediately inspired. In subsequent policy, Alauddin was firm. “I issue such orders as I conceive to be for the good of the State, and the benefit of the people,” he declared. “Men are heedless, disrespectful, and disobey my commands: I am then compelled to be severe to bring them into obedience.” An elaborate network of spies was also formed, so that if anything stern was said against the sultan, His Majesty was perhaps also among the first to hear it.

Alauddin’s career was not easy, though. Having murdered his uncle, he could hardly point fingers at his own nephews for seeking to follow in his illustrious footsteps. One tried to shower him with arrows, and for this his head appeared on a spear. Two sons of a sister decided the time was right for rebellion, so they were both blinded. In due course, however, it was clear that the sultan meant business, and the court fell in line. Times were such that to hold power, one also needed periodic violent demonstrations of its use. Alauddin became an empire builder. Land after land in northern India fell to him, while his trusted commander Malik Kafur acquired mountains of gold in the south. When hordes of Mongols invaded India soon after the sultan’s ascent to power, they were defeated. In 1303, however, when Alauddin was away, the Mongols destroyed Delhi. The king returned and locked himself up in a fort, unable to do much on this occasion, though he put to good use the lessons he learnt from the experience. For the rest of his reign, he never once allowed the Mongols a victory.

Interestingly, the sack of Delhi in 1303 occurred because Alauddin was at the time in Chittor, doing battle. Padmavat, an Awadhi poem that has since been embraced as historical fact, offers a most imaginative motive to the sultan here. A parrot told the already married ruler of Chittor about a dark-skinned Ceylonese beauty. After many adventures, this beauty became queen in the desert, from where a wicked sorcerer was expelled by her Rajput husband. This character told Alauddin all about her, and so it was that the Muslim king marched his men and demanded the princess’ enlistment in his harem. To cut a long story short, battles were fought, masses of people died, and the lady jumped into a fire. Alauddin himself never knew this story, for it first appeared two centuries after his death. It would hardly have mattered though, for his was an end that was not very happy, even without women perishing in flames and hideous on-screen make-up. Illness depleted him, and he spent his time fearing his own sons, lapsing more and more into the hands of Malik Kafur, who may even have had something to do with his death. Either way, Alauddin died, and a fresh cycle of intrigues and violence began, ending with the fall of his dynasty and the inevitable advent of a new one.

(My column in Mint Lounge, November 11 2017)


In 1781, finding herself in a tricky spot with the English East India Company, an Indian woman sent a courier to the Ottoman sultan bearing a plea for assistance. Abdul Hamid I was inclined to help and, summoning the English ambassador in Istanbul, expressed hope that “the Beebi Sultan, the Queen of Malabar” would be treated sympathetically by his countrymen. It was a generous gesture, certainly, but like most gestures did not translate into any tangible advantage for his supplicant. In 1783, on the contrary, since she had allied with the wrong side during the Company’s war against Tipu Sultan, her fort in Cannanore (now Kannur) in Kerala was invaded, and her palace plundered. Plunder, that is, in addition to the Rs2.6 lakh she was compelled to pay as indemnity, of which a lakh, she discovered, was off the books to satisfy the personal (and secret) avarice of certain officers. A treaty was signed with both sides promising, somewhat ambitiously, to uphold it “as long as the sun and moon shall last”. Six years later, these exalted celestial bodies were brushed aside abruptly as the two parties went to war once again; and this time, the lady lost her fort forever.

The woman in question, Junumabe II, belonged to the Arakkal family of Cannanore that controlled the Lakshadweep islands from at least the 16th century, though of course no ruler ever actually condescended to visit their little kingdom, parked as they were across the water on the Indian coast. The origins of the house are obscure. One tale connects them with a legendary Malayali monarch who converted to Islam and sailed for Mecca—an eternal flame was maintained in Arakkal Palace in memory of this “uncle”. Another story features a Hindu princess who, the Dutch said, “was made pregnant by a prominent Moor or Arab”, spawning a Muslim royal line that followed Hindu matrilineal succession. The firstborn ruled regardless of sex as the Ali Raja; if it was a girl, she had the additional honorific of “Bibi”. Yet another origin myth shows their ancestress in chaster light—she was drowning when a Muslim youth dived in to her rescue, but having been touched by a stranger in a compromising watery situation, she took him and his faith as her own. A final story erases all royal links and simply points to a noble family that transferred its allegiance to Islam many centuries ago, and over time rose to princely status.

Either way, a local raja from the mainland granted this Muslim line the sovereignty of Lakshadweep in return for tribute. “In its palmy days,” one scholar notes, “the House administered its own laws, maintained its own currency and exercised powers of inflicting capital punishment over its subjects.” These subjects are believed to have gone in boats from Kerala to populate the islands a long time ago, some claiming descent from high-caste Hindu clans. At a certain point, a saint revered locally as Munbe Muliyaka sailed in and persuaded them to embrace Islam, though the religion actually practised was a blend of Quranic principle and Hindu custom. It was the Portuguese who first disturbed the independence of the islands, and in the resultant bloodshed, the islanders sought the protection of a Hindu raja—the very ruler who would transfer the suzerainty he thus gained to the progeny of the drowning woman. This new royal family grew wealthy by cultivating commercial networks as far away as Arabia and Persia, and their approach to the islands now in their possession was also driven by calculations of profit and loss—a policy that led to great discontent in Lakshadweep.

It appears that the islands were viewed, from the comforts of the palace in Kerala, more as a cash cow than as a community to which its rulers also had certain obligations. In the 1760s, for instance, the Ali Raja introduced a coir monopoly under which islanders were prohibited from selling their goods to outsiders. The prices approved by the Arakkal treasury for coir, however, were vastly lower than the market rates. There were other rules too, some of them ridiculous enough to infect the air with a mood of rebellion. “Except jaggery,” we are told, “all the minor products of the islands” (including tortoise shells!) were monopolized. Cowries, for instance, were purchased dirt cheap from Lakshadweep and sold at a 400% profit by its absentee princes in markets elsewhere. With tobacco, the arrangement was “particularly scandalous”, the Bibi reaping profits of up to 1,000%. Agents of her government stationed on the island made things worse—their measly annual salaries meant they too were anxious for cuts. If a bovine were killed, the agent was entitled to a quarter of its meat. If a new boat was to be launched, the Bibi’s men could seize it if they were denied their fee.

In the 1780s, the cluster known as the Amindive islands revolted and pledged itself to Tipu Sultan. And when that ruler was defeated, control of these islands passed to the English as spoils of war. The Bibi, though, retained Minicoy and the Laccadive cluster, paying tribute to the Company now—during negotiations, she claimed her revenue from these was only Rs20,000, while a British investigation revealed that she drew nearly six times that figure in actual income. Her tribute was settled grudgingly at Rs15,000 a year. The islanders, however, continued to clash with their overseas royal government, and, by the middle of the 19th century, several years of tribute was in arrears—in 1869, it was discovered that Arakkal had, in fact, lost control over most of the islands and had no revenue to begin with. A “phantom sovereignty” remained in force, while the British took matters into their own hands. If Arakkal wanted the islands back, the Bibi was informed, she would have to improve her style of government—and, of course, settle the pending payments. Neither of these, everyone knew, was actually feasible.

Decades passed in this fashion, till in 1908 the impasse was broken. Imbichi Ali Raja, the then Bibi, agreed to surrender sovereignty over Laccadive and Minicoy in return for an annual malikhana (pension) of Rs23,000—an amount that is still paid to the family, which a few years ago petitioned for a raise. A seven-gun salute appears to have been granted, along with British recognition of the title “sultan” for heads of the dynasty. As for the islanders, these events generated hope of a better, or at least fairer, regime. And to a certain extent, conditions were created, if not of prosperity, of fewer exactions. After all, in shaking off the autocracy of a princess in Kerala, the islands were only placing themselves under the very different variety of tyranny that came with becoming subjects of the British empire. And any real promise of progress would have to wait for some more decades till the colonial government withdrew, and a democratic state handed over the destinies of Lakshadweep, at last, to its own people.

(My column in Mint Lounge, November 4 2017)


Some days ago, members of parliament at Westminster in London organized a special meeting to honour the memory of the first Indian to have been elected to the House of Commons. It was not an open event, yet the queue outside wound around the building long enough for a café owner to step out and enquire what it was that had attracted so much enthusiasm. When I explained, he looked terribly interested himself in the proceedings and asked, “Oh, is the MP upstairs?” Alas, I had to tell him, the man we were celebrating had died 100 years before, which meant he fell in a very different category of “upstairs”. And he had died not in London, where he once represented his voters, but far away in Mumbai, in one of the seven houses that lend the suburb of Saat Bangla in Versova its picturesque name. The café manager looked vaguely sheepish while the rest of us made our way into the building, walking past V.R. Rao’s portrait of the man we were there to commemorate: Dadabhai Naoroji.

Naoroji was one of the founders of the Indian National Congress but he was also convinced that it was “in Parliament (in Britain) that our chief battle has to be fought”. And so, in 1886, he presented himself as a candidate in the general election. Despite endorsements from the likes of Florence Nightingale, he was demolished. Lord Salisbury, the Conservative prime minister, declared that the English were not prepared to have a “black man” as their representative, only to regret those words. For the consequence was that his statement was published in newspapers around the country and Naoroji became an object of massive interest overnight—including in discussions around precisely how “black” this pale-skinned man exactly was. By 1892, he had a real shot at winning, and the people of Finsbury Central did not disappoint—he carried the day with a dazzling majority of three. When his un-black rival demanded a recount, the tally went up; Naoroji had actually won not by three but by a margin of five votes. Delighted either way, he served not only as the voice of Finsbury Central in parliament but also as president of the local football club. And both in the House of Commons and outside, he lent his energies to causes as diverse as the women’s suffrage movement and, of course, Indian self-rule.

A number of people frowned. Some called him Dadabhai Narrow-Majority, which was only marginally better than “Mr Nowraggie”. But the old man didn’t mind. On the contrary, his shattering of the glass ceiling was conclusive enough for two more Indians to also enter the House of Commons in the coming years. He himself lost the next election in 1895, but made up for it by conveying his message in his seminal Poverty And UnBritish Rule In India, lambasting the Raj for its unashamed leeching of Indian wealth for British aggrandizement. The book was a milestone, and remains his most memorable intellectual contribution to the freedom struggle. And it did not surprise too many people that he had earned himself this distinction: When still in his teens at Elphinstone College (then, Institution) in Mumbai, Naoroji was labelled by a professor, a little sentimentally, “The Promise of India”. Personally, though, he didn’t let such things go to his head. “Prosperity has not elated me and I hope adversity will not (depress) me,” he wrote to a friend, “so long as I can feel I am living a life of duty.”

Naoroji was born in British Bombay in 1825 in modest circumstances. He was a bright student, and an 1845 effort to go to university in England was only thwarted because one of his sponsors feared this prodigy might be tempted to become a Christian. So Naoroji began to teach mathematics and natural philosophy at Elphinstone College, till in 1855 he became the first Indian to be appointed a professor at that institution. It was a short-lived career, for by now he had decided to go into commerce—he moved to England and eventually set up a cotton import business. Just to cement one foot firmly in the intellectual space in any case, he also accepted a professorship at University College London. His subject: Gujarati. In the course of time he would set up the still-thriving Zoroastrian Trust Funds of Europe, as well as the East India Association (which later merged with the Congress party), and emerge as one of the most distinguished ambassadors for India in the seat of empire.

Naoroji was also a most sympathetic interlocutor for Indians lost in this alien country. Many were the students who wrote to him for advice, and many too were the parents who frantically sought his assistance in preventing their beloved male offspring from getting ensnared by the fearsome, emancipated women of the West. In 1888, one young man wrote to him asking for guidance on life in England, “which shall be received as from a father to his child”. His name was Mohandas Gandhi, and many years later he would remember Naoroji as “the G.O.M.” (Grand Old Man) who made life easier for so many Indians with his sheer warmth and friendship. Indeed, Naoroji deserves much credit for going out of his way for others: Among the 30,000 documents that comprise his private papers, between notes sent by his plumber and an 1894 eye-glass prescription, are numerous letters in Gujarati, Marathi, even Persian and French, to strangers seeking his esteemed attention. That is, assuming everyone understood what he was saying, for, as a friend wrote with a hint of annoyance, “your handwriting is rather hard to read”.

By the time Naoroji died, aged 93, he had enjoyed a most fascinating career. This included a stint as chief minister to a maharaja of Baroda who was accused of trying to murder the British resident at court with arsenic and crushed diamonds; luckily, Naoroji had already resigned by the time of the scandal. He had run newspapers, participated in great public debates on India’s future, and, significantly, set on its eventful course the Congress party that would serve as the vehicle of Indian nationalism in the years to come. And so it was that when he died, among the richly deserved tributes paid was one reminding everybody that while the man himself had departed, the idea he stood for would be enshrined forever in the destiny of the country he loved.

(My column in Mint Lounge, October 28 2017.)


If ever there was a man who was attentive to the tribulations of kings, that man was Kautilya. While there might have been several minds invested, across spans of time, in the composition of his Arthashastra, Kautilya’s manual of statecraft was a model of exactness to guide the hands of power. Thus, for instance, for relatively more ordinary varieties of criminal offence, the punishment suggested is “tearing apart by bullocks”, but for the singular error of romancing the monarch’s wife, things could only end with the seducer “cooking in a big jar”. Torture, in general, was to be perfectly timed, with meals in between for the torturer and the subject of his attention, though exceptions of format could be made if the criminal in question were a Brahmin—so while a regular sinner might discover parts of his body set on fire, one with the sacred thread wasn’t permanently charred, keeping his life, but losing his eyes.

Kautilya’s treatise is one of the many sources from ancient times that Upinder Singh studies in her authoritative new book, Political Violence In Ancient India (Harvard University Press). It is an unembellished title and the language of the book follows this pattern, offering a 1,000-year overview of how violence and its philosophical corollary, non-violence, were treated and reconciled by thinkers many centuries ago. So while some hagiographies might show Ashoka roasting his brother and rival for the Mauryan throne and slaughtering 18,000 Ajivikas before his evolution into a crusader for peace, the fact is that we don’t really have reliable statistics for how (or how many) people died in political settings all those ages ago. The book, therefore, is necessarily “a history of ideas”, which studies intellectual responses to violence, from sources such as the Vedas to the plays of Bhasa and Kalidasa, alluding to Harappan remains as well as to the times of the Guptas.

Singh sets out, in a very balanced fashion, to challenge a basic principle many of us have, over years of schooling and nation-building, systematically absorbed: that India has been an eternal beacon of non-violence and harmony. The truth, as the author demonstrates, is as complex as the other truths of life. For what we see is the emergence of non-violence as an ideal mainly among Buddhists and Jains, subsequently adopted by Hindu sources as well, but always with a parallel understanding that in the practical universe of economics and politics, involving masses of people, non-violence is a principle that cannot always be upheld. So we find even Ashoka struggling to persuade his palace establishment to accept a fully vegetarian kitchen, as much as we encounter Eastern oligarchies, sites evidently of greater political confrontation than the monarchical West, welcoming Buddha’s doctrine of peace and offering patronage without irony.

The basic formula all sources seek to conceptualize is how much violence is justifiable and judicious for the maintenance of order. So while “the Buddha taught a doctrine of detachment, Buddhism was never detached from the political sphere”, and understood this conundrum. The Mahabharata, similarly, “is pervaded by relentless violence”, as is the Vedic world, and they are all aware that non-violence, for all its splendid dignity and significance, cannot meet eye to eye with the realities of the world. So when Yudhishthira, predictably, grapples with morality and what is correct and honourable, Bhishma tells him how “nothing great can be achieved through pure compassion” besides turning oneself into “a compassionate and righteous eunuch”. “While the Mahabharata,” Singh writes, “from time to time lauds non-violence as a didactic principle, the main story…. (leaves) no doubt that the king must not, cannot, practice non-violence.”

One of the most enjoyable sections in the book is Singh’s discussion of violence as it appears in the Panchatantra tales, which seem to contemplate the issue not from the perspective of kings but from several levels below. “In the Panchatantra,” we learn, “the denunciation of kings is much stronger than their praise…. Like that of a prostitute, his behavior takes many forms…. The bottom line is: Kings are violent and dangerous.” So too, it is shown, that violence is “central to most of the Panchatantra stories” which, more than the morals they seemingly convey, also implicitly transfer insights on pragmatism and common sense. Thus, for example, we have the tale of the ass in leopard’s skin who thinks a farmer in a grey blanket is a she-ass. The supposed she-ass runs, fearing it is a leopard, but the moment the ass reveals its true (weak) identity through an apparently seductive bray, the she-ass turns around and shoots an arrow into its heart. The lesson for ordinary souls: Always be on your guard, and don’t ever think like an ass. The most enduring human quality, after all, is our breathtaking stupidity.

At almost 600 pages, Singh’s is a work of scholarship that will take some time to fully digest. We return to Buddhist and Jain works, as much as to Hindu sources and epics with every theme under investigation, and on the whole most of the textual authorities of Indian antiquity have been covered without prejudice. What is missing, however, is a greater share of south Indian material, which is a weakness the author acknowledges. With the addition of authorities from the south, the book might perhaps have been several dozen pages longer, but it would have been richer still. That said, at the end of the day, what Singh offers is a thought-provoking intellectual history of our dealings with violence, demonstrating that 2,000 years ago, Indians were as full of questions as they are today, and that we would only be letting down our best traditions if now we were to suddenly stop asking them.

(My column in Mint Lounge, October 21 2017)


As Dalits in Gujarat stand up for their right to wear the moustache, it is more than a little ironic that Kerala, where moustaches were once methodically taxed by caste, should be admitting Dalits as priests in its temples. Though temple entry in the region was first granted to untouchables in 1936, the sanctum sanctorum is generally off limits for those who cannot, by birth, claim the dignity of the sacred thread. This custom is now broken—the thread belongs not to those who claim divinely exalted bloodlines, but to those who proactively seek the responsibilities attendant upon temple service.

The 14th century Bhakti saint Chokhamela might have rejoiced. Enthralled by the deity in Pandharpur in Maharashtra, his Mahar status, despite the fervour of his faith, had barred him access to his lord. He was resigned to his fate, but appealed poignantly to Brahmin gatekeepers of the shrine: “The cane is crooked, but its juice isn’t crooked…Chokha is ugly, but his feelings aren’t ugly. Why be fooled by outward appearance?”

Chokhamela is the only untouchable among Maharashtra’s (male) Bhakti thinkers, and spent most of his life doing the peculiarly menial work Mahars were mandated to do. His fellow saints in the Bhakti pantheon, in comparison, came from relative privilege, though few could be reckoned as part of the elite—Tukaram was a failed shopkeeper, Namdev a god-fearing tailor. Yet, the fact that while they were low, they were not from the lowest, permitted certain liberties to these men whose verses could, therefore, take the risk of packing a punch. Jnandev, son of an ostracized Brahmin, is said to have mocked the old guard by causing a buffalo to produce sounds that seemed worryingly close to Vedic verses, while Tukaram was relieved that he was “no wretched pandit splitting Vedantic hairs”. They could all, to some degree, get away with their radicalism in a deeply hierarchical social order, but Chokhamela had no such option.

Instead, he couched his devotion in terms of his social conditioning as a Mahar. Addressing the deity as he might an upper caste, he says: “I am the Mahar of your Mahars, I am so hungry; I have come for your leavings, I am full of hope.” In another verse, he brings a “bowl for your leftover food”—with no access to the shrine and its blessed occupant, perhaps he could satisfy his devotion by serving the deity as a lowborn serves his overlord, eating his scraps and offering complete submission. “O God, my caste is low; how can I serve you? Everyone tells me to go away; how can I see you? When I touch anyone, they take offense…Chokha wants your mercy.” However, while there is anguish, he does not blame those who designed his shackles and marked him from birth as undeserving of anything better. Indeed, he goes as far as to flagellate himself, blaming karma for his terrible plight. In a previous birth, he explains dejectedly, he must have disrespected god; “this (present) impurity is the fruit of our past.”

While there were moments when Chokhamela seems on the verge of standing up to those in power (“The earth and the Ganga are common to all, irrespective of caste and religion”), it was his son from his wife Soyarabai who was more blunt in his criticism of the way things were. Karmamela, as the boy was known, spoke thus to the deity: “Are we happy when we’re with you? … The low place is our lot; the low place is our lot; the low place is our lot, King of Gods! … It’s a shameful life here for us. It’s a festival of bliss for you and misery written on our faces.” Therefore, it isn’t surprising, as the late historian Eleanor Zelliot noted, that Karmamela, with his sharper critique, finds fewer devotees singing his verses during the annual pilgrimages to Pandharpur today. Chokhamela, in contrast, has been elevated as the product of a divine birth: God met his mother once and bit into a mango she offered him. When he left and she looked at the half-eaten fruit, there lay in its place the baby Chokhamela.

Part of this promotion may also have been due to his own efforts—borrowing the sociologist’s expression—to Sanskritize. He spoke out against animal sacrifice not only because “you will be inflicting cruelty on another life and destroying it”, but also because, one suspects, this was more in consonance with ritual “purity”. He railed against alcohol, which in many parts of India was associated with certain “low” forms of worship; this too seems to have helped his posthumous social upgrade. God appeared to him in several forms: One version has Chokhamela struggling to drag away a dead cow, another duty that fell upon the Mahar, and the deity, manifesting as a young man, lent him a hand. But most critically, after he was rejected at the temple’s gates, the lord came to him instead, offering him commiseration as much as he did company, the two of them sitting by the riverside.

At the end of the day, Chokhamela was devoted but did not transgress lines drawn by society and its privileged elders. He died in an accident, it is said, when labouring on a construction site, and even his bones were found to be chanting the name of god. These bones were carried to the temple and buried at a spot that still receives visitors. Even in death, Chokhamela had no access to the sacred premises. Bones are impure, but since he was also impure in life, his memorial stands at the foot of the temple’s steps, outside those very walls where he once beseeched the shrine’s guardians for one glance, for one opportunity to satisfy his desire to behold the deity. Unlike those Dalit priests in Kerala who have now entered the heart of the sanctum six centuries later, old Chokhamela had to settle precisely for the place which, in his own lifetime, he was told was where he really belonged: the door.

(My column in Mint Lounge, October 14 2017)


A number of Diwalis ago, as a boy of 12, I went to Nashik for some inconsequential purpose. And though it could not, at least back then, be argued that the city held much potential to animate the mind of an adolescent, I returned struck by three memorable scenes. The man in charge of entertaining us shepherded us first to a lovely stretch of the Godavari river, and then to the magnificent 18th century Trimbakeshwar temple. Dark and built from richly carved stone, the shrine once held the Nassak diamond, seized by the British in 1818 and, as of 1970, in the custody of an American trucking magnate (whose other claim to fame was that he was once husband to tennis star Gussie Moran). But what was most interesting about Nashik was not the striking temple, or tales about the legendary diamond. It was a far simpler, but very popular, site nearby, which happened, it is said, to be the scene of a pivotal episode that altered the very course of the Ramayan.

Stories about Diwali vary from place to place, but the most popular in our all-important Hindi heartland is that it commemorates Ram’s victory over Ravan, and his triumphant return to Ayodhya. Panchavati in Nashik, however, appears not on Ram’s journey back but during his years in exile. It is said to be the spot where that singular event that would pitch Ravan against Ram unfolded. And indeed, more than the great battle the heroes would fight later, it was what transpired here that highlighted their personal qualities as much as their codes of conduct. To this day, there is a cave in Panchavati where Ram, Sita, and Laxman are supposed to have dwelt. From outside it looks like a nondescript house, with doors and windows. But once one enters, as I did all those years ago, there is a flight of steps that goes underground, so narrow that one must descend squatting, its smallness causing adults of more than a certain size great inconvenience, though all visitors stand united in the inelegance of their posture.

It was from Panchavati that Ravan abducted Sita, and I was quite impressed by the image of a heroine secured in this underground vault. What my mother pointed out, though, was that this is also precisely where Surpanakha was mutilated. It was here that Ravan’s sister lost her nose (and, according to some versions, breasts and ears), and it was to avenge her honour that the Lankan king would seize Sita. The story, of course, is well established—the hero triumphs over the villain, and with his wife, whose virtue has been confirmed by fire, returns to a capital illuminated with lights. The person who seems to vanish from this happy narrative, however, is Surpanakha, whose fate, even in the most orthodox retellings of the Ramayan, seems to signify that Ram’s conduct had its moments of imperfection. After all, when the woman professed love for him at Panchavati, it was he who sought to amuse himself by sending her to his brother instead. Laxman then sent her back—till, finally furious, Surpanakha decided (not particularly rationally) to devour Sita. Sita survived, but Surpanakha lost her body part(s)—and her dignity.

In Valmiki’s Ramayan, Surpanakha is evil incarnate and has no claims to dignity to begin with. Where Ram’s “face was beautiful, hers was ugly. His waist was slender; hers was bloated. His eyes were wide; hers were deformed. His hair was beautifully black; hers was copper-coloured. His voice was pleasant; hers was frightful. He was a tender youth; she was a dreadful old hag. He was well-spoken; she was coarse of speech. His conduct was lawful; hers was evil. His countenance was pleasing; hers was repellent”. Surpanakha was a shameless ogress who openly expressed lust, unlike Sita, who is single-minded in devotion and brimming with wifely sacrifice. Surpanakha, in contrast, “at the sight of a handsome man, be he her own brother, father, or son,” tells the Ramcharitmanas, would grow “excited” and fail to “restrain her passion”. The undertone seems to be that given her unedifying conduct, Surpanakha, “foul-mouthed and cruel as a serpent”, had it coming. Her honour was irrelevant.

While most poets stuck to this narrative, not all ignored the inconsistency that Ram—who is meant to be proper in all ways—should amuse himself at the expense of a besotted lady, whatever her deportment. She may still have reacted violently if they had simply rejected her, but the insulting provocation of turning her into a joke first reflects poorly on Sita’s protectors. Kampan’s Tamil Ramayan, as the late scholar Kathleen M. Erndl notes, “not only describes Surpanakha’s appearance as beautiful but expresses considerable sympathy for her plight”. When she saw Ram, “the love in her heart swelled higher than a flooding river or even the ocean” and she made him a proposition—that a powerful woman like her could protect Ram was one of the points she advanced in her favour. In this version, Ram chats with her, and it is the next day, when she attempts to abduct Sita to imitate her form, that Laxman disfigures Surpanakha in his sister-in-law’s defence. This, perhaps, offers an explanation for the violence without blemishing Ram’s honour, though here too he does consciously entertain himself at Surpanakha’s expense.

For a boy of 12, it was a revelation to come out of a temple to Sita—that paragon of goodness—and be reminded of the dishonouring of Surpanakha—a gallant “demoness” with power and authority but who failed the test of chastity. Panchavati then went down in my mind, all those Diwalis ago, not merely as the scene where an evil king kidnapped another’s wife, but also as one where great heroes showed heroism to also be fallible, prejudice denting forever tales and songs of their valour.

(My column in Mint Lounge, October 7 2017)


When Annie Besant arrived in India in 1893, she had already accumulated enough notoriety for a lifetime. This was a woman who had separated from her clergyman husband, losing custody of both her children. And given her “wayward” conduct, his Victorian peers justified the raising of his hand against her, including, it appears, for her reluctance to share his bed. Her son was handed over to the father during the divorce, but she lost her daughter only after the man discovered the girl had forgotten her prayers—her mother had confidently told her there was nobody listening at the other end. Distraught though she was on losing her child, Besant remained defiant. “It’s a pity there isn’t a God,” she declared as she exited the courtroom. “It would do one so much good to hate him.”

The irony was that this Irishwoman who eventually found her way to India began her life immersed in religiosity. She was born on 1 October 1847—a day and 22 years before Mahatma Gandhi, whose ascent would mark her eclipse. Her widowed mother enrolled her in an unconventional school where Besant obtained a good education, and where the boys too were made to sew. But it was a deeply Christian setting, and unquestioning service was the cornerstone of her existence. At 18, she met Frank Besant and accepted his proposal, hoping it would bring her closer to God—in reality, she found herself discussing laundry with other pious wives. Her restless mind, fear of domesticity, and a waning belief in Christ resulted in a meeting with a theologian to get closer to the “truth”. “It is not your duty to ascertain the truth,” he said sharply, nearly accusing her of blasphemy.

After her marriage collapsed in 1873, Besant joined the National Secular Society. Alongside Charles Bradlaugh, leader of the Freethought movement, she wrote on science and economics, becoming also a public advocate for women’s rights. While her ex-husband appointed a detective to see if she was sleeping with Bradlaugh, Besant embraced atheism. “Atheist is one of the grandest titles (one) can wear,” she explained in her autobiography. “It was howled over the grave of Copernicus…it was yelled…at Voltaire…(so that) where the cry of ‘Atheist’ is raised…we (may) be sure that another step is being taken towards the redemption of humanity.” And if all this were not adequately scandalous, in 1877 Besant confirmed her status as a rebel by republishing Charles Knowlton’s Fruits Of Philosophy, an innocently titled work that was actually a forbidden handbook on birth control.

Besant and her colleagues were charged with obscenity. “I risk my name, I risk my liberty; and it is not without deep and earnest thought that I have entered this struggle,” she stated, but the book was banned to protect “public morals”. For Besant, what followed was public persecution. She had certificates from London University qualifying her to teach chemistry, botany and mathematics, but when she sought access to the Botanical Gardens, her request was denied—the curator’s daughters went for their walks there, and the last thing he wanted to expose them to was this refractory divorcee. Others called her a deranged female, but Besant remained steely. “The moment a man uses a woman’s sex to discredit her arguments,” she pointed out, we know “that he is unable to answer (her) arguments”.

Bernard Shaw thought her a “born actress” who was “successively a Puseyite Evangelical, an Atheist Bible-smasher, a Darwinian secularist, a Fabian Socialist, a Strike Leader, and finally a Theosophist”. And indeed, Besant changed her political stands every decade—when she became a Theosophist after encountering the controversial Madame Blavatsky, she withdrew support for the Knowlton pamphlet she once defended with such passion. But at the end of the day, it was theosophy that brought her to India. On her very first trip, she gave 121 lectures, visited temples, began Sanskrit lessons, and understood that far from “civilizing” Indians, what the British presided over was an elaborate system of enslavement.

Besant won admiration from Indian thinkers for her appreciation of our culture. “Hindu polity is built up on its religion,” she argued somewhat romantically. “You have not only the Vedas and the Upanishads showing a mighty intellect…. You find the very foundation of modern science laid down as part of the Hindu philosophy.” More problematically, while caste had to go, she felt it had had “a glorious past”. Her strongest message, however, was that while “the jewels of Western learning” must come to India, “the diamonds of the Eastern faith” must also be given their due.

Besant was also, incidentally, one of the founders of the Banaras Hindu University—the scene of a women’s agitation today—her intention being to create an institution “not to enable a man to earn forty or sixty rupees a month, but to raise (his) intellect”. In 1914, she joined the Congress party, and exactly a century ago was elected its president. Her nationalism became a headache for the colonial authorities (who called her a “great nuisance”) and her home rule movement was deemed positively seditious. With World War I raging, and Besant ceaseless in her newspaper activism and speeches, she was arrested and parked in Ooty for some time. The Indian public, however, saw in her a hero, her eventual release received with great jubilation.

In the end, Gandhi’s rise coincided with Besant’s exit from the limelight, for suddenly politics moved from the anglicized Indian’s drawing room into the hands of the masses. Besant spoke no Indian languages, and could no longer lend initiative in the way the Mahatma could. “All these forty years my white body has been an asset,” she wrote. “It is no longer so.” Somewhat disappointed, she spent the rest of her years focused on the Theosophical Society’s future, in Madras (now Chennai). By the time she died in 1933, she was respected as a kind of grand dame but was no longer necessarily relevant to India’s political future.

For all that, however, nobody could deny, as biographer Rosemary Dinnage noted, that this was a lady with a “powerful will” whose “energy and courage were of an extraordinary order”—a woman whose life was a series of battles, and who faced them with fortitude as much as she did with unbending conviction.