Remembering Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi, freedom fighter and crusader for justice, on his death anniversary
Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi, who played a significant role as a bridge between Congress and revolutionaries during freedom struggle, was killed on March 25, 1931 while rescuing people in a riot
March 25 is observed as the death anniversary of Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi, a renowned editor, dedicated freedom fighter and lifelong crusader for justice and freedom who sacrificed his life at a young age of 41 in 1931 while trying to stop communal violence and rescue trapped people.
His death in Kanpur, the central place of his work, although he was active as a Congress leader throughout United Provinces, just two days after the hanging of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev, was regarded as a setback to the freedom struggle at a critical stage.
Many people believe that colonial rulers set up Vidyarthi into a situation so that he could be done away with without the government getting blamed for it.
This view gains credibility when we remember that Vidyarthi had a very special position as a bridge between the Congress and the revolutionaries. Jawaharlal Nehru had a very high regard for him. His high position in Congress is apparent from the rich tributes paid to him by both Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, as well as the position he occupied as a respected leader of the United Provinces at a very young age.
Yet he also enjoyed the confidence of such leading revolutionaries as Bhagat Singh and Chandra Shekhar Azad, the former having been trained by him as an assistant editor of sorts while still in his teens.
What is not so well-known is that Vidyarthi had a role in channelizing the high energy levels of young revolutionaries along lines of greater constructive achievements. As they respected his understanding and wisdom, revolutionaries quietly consulted Vidyarthi regarding some ‘actions’, and Vidyarthi would often exercise restraint to prevent what would have been avoidable violence.
As revolutionaries moved towards making a more durable impact on people by satyagraha type actions and fasts in jail during 1929-31, the influence of mentors like Vidyarthi became evident.
At the same time, his role as an editor was nothing short of being glorious. For 18 years at a stretch, from 1913 to 31, he fought colonial rule with one foot in the office and the other in prison. In addition, he was constantly fighting court cases filed by powerful persons as well.
His newspaper ‘Pratap’ became a leading forum for the wider freedom movement as well as the struggle against various feudal interests and the royalty.
In addition, he repeatedly took up the issue of communal harmony in his newspaper and also guided citizens’ efforts in this direction, particularly in Kanpur. He played a leading role in forming an organization called ‘Hindustani Biradari’ which organized programs on communal harmony and joint celebrations of various festivals.
Vidyarthi repeatedly warned people against falling prey to communal propaganda. He could foresee that to divert the rising tide of freedom movement, the forces of imperialism will try to help and incite the narrow communal forces on both sides. He wrote against this several times. But he could not have foreseen that his own life will be lost in trying to control this violence.
In the early days of 1931, the popularity of Bhagat Singh and other revolutionaries who had been imprisoned by the British was at its peak. In a different case, Vidyarthi was also in jail, but he was released just a few days before the hanging of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev on March 23.
These revolutionaries were very close and dear to Vidyarthi. Given his organizational capability and his mass base, it was very likely that Vidyarthi would have mobilized a big opposition against the hanging of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev.
Keeping this in mind, the colonial regime evidently instigated communal violence in Kanpur around the same time that the three revolutionaries were executed.
As Vidyarthi had just come out of jail, he did not get enough time to mobilize people against such an eventuality. However, once the flames of communal violence started burning, he tried to rescue as many people as he could. People saw him rescuing trapped people from both communities.
It was in the course of these efforts that at some stage, he was stabbed and killed.
There are indications that following the death sentence given to Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru, instructions had been given by colonial rulers to eliminate Vidyarthi too as he was seen as a bridge between the revolutionaries and the Congress.
This view was supported by his daughter Vimla Vidyarthi in an interview conducted by Suresh Salil who had compiled the collected works of Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi.
Vimla stated that she sees the killers not as rioters but as persons guided by colonial rulers. She recalled a well-informed person stating on the day of her father’s killing that weapons were being distributed in several localities and it was being said that the ‘Lion of Kanpur’ will be killed that day (“Kahat hai ki Kanpur ka sheru mara jai”). Of course, the ‘Lion of Kanpur’ reference is to Vidyarthi.
The concluding observation of Vimla was that the killing of Vidyarthi was a part of the same conspiracy which led to the hurried execution of Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru.
This is all the more reason why the nationwide observance of martyrdom day of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev should be followed up by observing the martyrdom day of Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi. He is an enduring symbol that when we fight for justice, equality, freedom and harmony, a broader unity should be established, ignoring smaller differences.
Vidyarthi lived this reality by bringing about a unity of such forces in the region around Kanpur for nearly two decades, which had a much wider impact.
(The author has written widely on the Indian freedom movement. His recent books on the subject include ‘When the Two Streams Met’ and ‘Azadi ke Deewanon Ki Daastaan’. Views are personal)