Mahatma Gandhi in his long years of public service shared a special bond with many. However, his bond with Rajaji, as Chakravarthy Rajagopalachari is more popularly known, was one of the most intimate, a relationship that lasted from 1919 till the Mahatma’s martyrdom separated them.
A rare bond which eludes description into a single framework – master and pupil, leader and follower, friends on equal footing, relatives at the personal level through marriage or souls separated at birth. The mutual respect is best captured in Gandhi’s remark, ‘Rajaji is at least six months ahead of me’.
Separated by time and distance at birth – Gandhi was born in 1869 at Porbandar, Gujarat while Rajaji was born in 1878 at Thorapally near Hosur in Tamil Nadu – their paths merged with Gandhi’s entry into Indian politics. Both Gandhi and Rajaji shared a similar childhood experience. Born in a relatively humble family (Rajaji’s father was a village Munsiff) with modest means, a poor physique, a schooling with no hint of future greatness, and both ending up studying law.
As Gandhi had his small rebellious experiments in childhood so did Rajaji, when he burnt a cloth just to see how it looked like. Rajaji too had his escapade with a Muslim childhood friend who was fascinated by the Hindu deity Hanuman and tried in vain to teach the former the art of wrestling to improve his physical strength.
Rajaji had a very successful career as a lawyer from the very beginning, which brought him fame and fortune. Rajaji was initiated into political struggle through the strand of Indian nationalism led by Bal Gangadhar Tilak. His work as Chairman of the Salem Municipality anticipated many aspects of Gandhi’s constructive programme such as taking up the cause against untouchability when he admitted two students into the government school despite heavy opposition: ensured that the water supply in agraharam which was entrusted to a person from depressed class remained with him despite stiff opposition and the taking up of a strong anti-liquor stance.
Rajaji first heard about Gandhi as a barrister fighting for the rights of the Indians in South Africa. His first introduction to Gandhi was through the latter’s book Hind Swaraj or ‘Indian Home Rule’. He was possibly the first to review the book in India. He collected a handsome sum and dispatched it to Gandhi in South Africa through Gopala Krishna Gokhale. During an address Rajaji placed Gandhi on par as a leader with Tilak. Gandhiji had won Rajaji’s heart even before they met.
Rajaji was instrumental in inviting Gandhi to visit Madras. Rajaji played a humble host to Gandhi who thought that Rajaji too was a fellow guest until it was brought to his notice by his secretary Desai, who also advised to form a lasting tie with him. Both Gandhi and Rajaji discussed at length about satyagraha and it was while it was in Rajaji’s house Gandhi evolved the idea of non-cooperation. When many a leader hesitated to lead the Madras branch of the Satyagraha Sabha, Rajaji volunteered exhibiting his faith in Gandhi and his methods. Thus a life-long association began with mutual respect and admiration.
Rajaji emulated Gandhi in many ways. A trusted lieutenant he carried out Gandhian work in South India. Rajaji started an Ashram named after Gandhi in the remote corner of Tamil Nadu at a place called Pudupalayam near Thiruchengode. He concentrated on the promotion of spinning wheel and khadi, campaign against untouchability and anti-liquor programme. To begin with it admitted five untouchable boys signaling the anti-untouchability position of the ashram despite the boycott by the people in the vicinity. A khadi unit was established in the ashram which was also used effectively to wean people away from liquor and to combat poverty. Seeking advice from Gandhi he won over and transformed the lives of the people in the surrounding regions. In his efforts to promote khadi he wrote a series of articles in Young India.
When the main leaders were arrested in the Vaikom Satyagraha in Kerala Gandhi directed Rajaji to regulate the movement. Despite his ill health Rajaji involved himself with zeal. He frequently sought Gandhi’s advice on how to regulate the movement. When Gandhi started the Salt Satyagraha and embarked on Dandi march, Rajaji wrote to Gandhi, “It is not salt but disobedience that you are manufacturing.” Rajaji met Gandhi in one of villages en-route to Dandi. They discussed about a nationwide extension of the salt satyagraha. Rajaji’s response was to mobilise the Vedaranyam March in the Eastern coast of India in Tanjore district modeled on the Dandi March which electrified the region.
Rajaji accompanied Gandhi on his tour of South India. During the course of the tour they discussed issues close to Gandhi’s heart, such as Hindu-Muslim unity and eradication of untouchability. On more than one occasion Gandhi, when he was arrested, he handed over the helms of editing Young India to Rajaji who did so from Thiruchengode. Once when Rajaji was slandered by anti-Brahmin activists Gandhi retorted, “You are telling me utter falsehoods. You do not know the man. If Rajagopalachari is capable of telling lies, you must say that I am also capable of telling lies. I do say that he is the only possible successor, and I repeat it today.”
Gandhiji wrote movingly about Rajaji during this period, “My soul is living in a world physically away from me and yet a world by which I am and want to be affected. You are a part of that world and perhaps the nearest to me. My innermost being wants your approbation of what I am doing and thinking. I cannot always succeed in getting it, but it craves for your verdict.” A clear case of blurring of the difference between master and pupil, where the master was yearning for the pupil’s approval and an acknowledgment of the nearness of their hearts.
An interesting event showing that their common thinking stretched to the personal family level is worth recalling. Both Gandhiji and Rajaji were not convinced when Devadas, Gandhiji’s son and Lakshmi Rajaji’s daughter expressed their desire to marry each other. They imposed a condition that they would not communicate with each other for five years to test that it was not infatuation. They were married after the successful fulfilment of the condition.
Gandhiji and Rajaji had on occasion differed with each other, most famously on the issue of Quit India in 1942. This however did not affect their deep bond. Gandhiji with his legendary capacity to appreciate difference remarked Rajaji was his “conscious keeper. He is a great social reformer, never afraid to act according to his belief. His political wisdom and integrity are beyond question. Rajaji is one of my old friends and was known to be the best exponent in word and deed of all I stand for. That in 1942, he differed from me, I know. All honour to him for the boldness with which he publicly avowed the difference”.
It is a stellar example of our national movement dealt with difference among their stalwarts a difference those who were opposed to the national movement have till today tried to exploit by pitting one against the other.