Sunday, March 11, 2018

Rajaji's Child Marriage and Further Thoughts on Rajaji and His Biographer . Thank You Kamaraj Nadar.

Thanks to a recent Facebook exchange on Rajaji's biography "Rajaji: A Life" by Rajmohan Gandhi I flipped through the book I've. The very first chapter relating to Rajaji's childhood and marriage both stunned and appalled me and set of a train of thoughts relating to Rajaji and Rajmohan Gandhi. This is a rambling post. Be forewarned.

Rajaji was married to one Alarmelu Managammal, known as Manga in 1897 (note, the biographer does not give the year I got it from wikipedia). Manga, Rajmohan writes, was a 'child-wife'. Manga was 10 years old, Rajaji was 18-19 years old. As was the custom Manga lived with her parents till she attained puberty. Meanwhile Rajaji passes his law exam in 1900. Then, aged 12 and apparently having reached puberty Manga comes to Rajaji. Manga, gave birth to their first child a "day after her 13th birthday".

At that precise passage I was stunned and appalled. My daughter is 12 today and we cuddle and pet her calling her 'baby'. She's still a child. Another reason that this appalled me was because I recently listened to a lecture by one N.L. Rajah, a Brahmin lawyer, waxing very appreciatively of how ancient Indian law was 'Dharmic' in nature and that modern law was 'civil'. Being a Brahmin lawyer who is in love with, what else, tradition and heritage he presented 'Dharmic' law as some benign elastic legal framework that was idyllic. Societies and cultures have always had such structures and India was no exception but the progress towards Civil law is the true progress. One can talk about history as a set of facts but one cannot twist history and speak of it like a lover pining for a heyday. I'm making a specific point of the caste of the speaker because, in my opinion, that is central to his worldview.

Having been appalled at that passage of Rajaji's marriage I did a further quick research on Gandhi, Nehru, Patel etc. Of course, none of this is new news but let's string the facts together and contrast it with another society to emphasize the differences.

Chakravarthy Rajagopalachari (Image courtesy wikipedia)

Gandhi and Kasturba were married in 1883 when Gandhi was 13 and Kasturba 14. First son Harilal was born in 1888 when Kasturba was 19. Jawaharlal and Kamala were married in 1916 when Jawaharlal was 27 and Kamala was 16. Indira Gandhi was born 1917 when Kamala was 17.

About Patel, here is Rajmohan Gandhi himself, "Vallabh must have been 17 or so at his own wedding. Jhaverba, the bride Ballabh's parents, uncles and aunts had chosen for him, was 12 or 13". Patel "seldom talked" about his wife says Rajmohan Gandhi. Jhaverba, like Kamala, died young.

Lal Bahadur Shastri and Lalita were married in 1928 when Shashtri was 24 and Lalita was 17. Rajendra Prasad was married when he was 12 years old. Rabindranath Tagore married Mrinalini Devi in 1883 when he was 22 and she was 10. Tagore not only had a child-wife but gave one of his daughters in a similar marriage. Bharathiar too had a child-wife. Tilak, we learn, was married when he was 16. I'm sure his wife was not 17, to say the least. Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan married Sivakamu in 1903, he was 16 and she was 10.

On a personal note, my maternal grandmother was married to my grandfather when she was a child. Her elder sister who had earlier married my grandfather had died leaving behind two children. So my grandmother was taken around during a festival and before she knew what was happening she was married off. Sadly, she became a widow in her early 20s and by the time she herself had had 5 children, 4 daughters and a boy. The youngest child was barely 6 months old. Two blessings she had. One was that my grandfather left behind considerable property and two was that she was not Brahmin but a Mudaliar. Her brother had in the meantime married a Christian under the DK self-respect marriage movement in the late 1930s. This brother ensured that the sister did not endure traditional horrors of widowhood that, while not as horrendous as Brahminical customs, were still horrible. Rajah happily talked of how widows were treated in Dharmic law without a word about the horrible state of widows until very recent times. My maternal grandmother, named Janaki, would in later years allude to her name and say "well anyone named Janaki has to suffer".

On and on and on the story goes. Many of these leaders, almost all, were upper caste, mostly Brahmins. To be fair to them most, except Tagore and Bal Gangadhar Tilak, decisively turned against child marriage in later years. The passage of reform bills relating to marriageable age for girls roiled the Hindu community much like how gay marriage bills are roiling the Christian societies of the west today. This is a comment not meant to say one religion or the other was blemish free and egalitarian. No. Not at all. No society is egalitarian to begin with. It is a journey. What I've distaste for is the jingoism that is coloring intellectual discourse in India today where anything past is presented as idyllic and everything in the present is traced back to extremely tenuous precedents of the past. I'll write a detailed critique of Rajah's address later.

Now, I contrasted the marriages of America's founding fathers.

Here's another fact to muse. We know more, much more, about Martha Washington than we do of Rajendra Prasad's wife. George Washington was married to Martha Dandridge in 1759, he was 27 and she was 28. Even more surprisingly, Martha was a widow and her husband had died only 2 years earlier. George Washington married a widow.

Thomas Jefferson and Martha Wayles were married in 1772. He was 29, she was 24 and a widow. Martha Wayles's was first married when she was 18 and widowed at 20.

The marriage of John and Abigail Adams is the stuff of legend. Their marital relationship has been studied a lot and Abigail holds a special position in the history of America's first ladies. He was 29 and she was 20 when they married in 1764.

Alexander Hamilton married Elizabeth Schuyler in 1780, he was nearly 25 and she was 23. Benjamin Franklin and Deborah Read married in 1730, he was 24 and she was 22 and a divorcee. Deborah had first married when she was 12 and separated from her husband at 17 in 1722.

It is interesting to note that these ladies all have pretty detailed wikipedia pages which only tells us that we know a good lot about them. While the Indian independence movement created a tectonic shift in how women were treated and charted a progressive course this short perspective gives us an idea of the place of women and the institution of marriage in that era in India. Barring Jawaharlal Nehru most Indian male leaders lacked a good relationship with women. Nehru loved women and women loved him back. Nehru loved women as mother, sister, daughter, friends and love interests too. Nehru, a westernized mind, was at ease with a woman who can share a swimming with him or a cigarette. To the prurient mind that is evidence of him womanizing and to the normal mind it is evidence of a man who related to fellow human beings.

Now, back to Rajmohan Gandhi as biographer and other observations.

Referring to the Brahmins, the caste to which Rajaji belonged, Rajmohan writes, "the quick minded Brahmins of South India". Ramachandra Guha writing about Gandhi going to England has this curious observation about the Brahmins and others. "Some brave Brahmins and Kshatriyas had also ventured overseas. The first valued textual learning (a sphere in which the West was clearly in the lead); the second were keen to acquire British manners and this ingratiate themselves with the overlord". What is it with these upper caste biographers of India that they, despite their education and the modern liberalism that surrounds them, could not help betraying their own caste prejudices? Ironically today Tamil Brahmins uniquely blame Nehru for being a westerner. Gandhi very eagerly aped the Englishman. Brahmins formed the bulwark of British administrative machinery thus earning the scorn of Brahmin and nationalist poet Bharathi. Bharathi mocked his fellow Brahmins for toadying up to the Englishman as lord.

So, how intelligent was this "quick-minded Brahmin" Rajaji. He failed in Tamil test. Interestingly that did not prevent him from graduating. Not too later Brahmin dominated Madras university syndicate would relegate study of Tamil to vernacular status. Rajaji passed in the 'second division' with 218/400 marks. Some quick mind that was. Later he passed the law exams in, lo behold, 'third division'. Put simply the quick-minded South Indian Brahmin was a below average student. I'm literally rubbing it in so it grates the minds of those who glibly pass through such passages and when pointed out cry 'nit picking'. Both Gandhi and Nehru too were very average students. Patel, was a better graduate and won a prize. Contrast this with the most academically accomplished leader of that era, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. Gandhi, Nehru and Rajaji, their academic performances not withstanding were intellectual giants in later life.

I'm only trying to draw attention to biases of biographers. Rajmohan Gandhi and Ramachandra Guha, to be sure, are NOT bigots or casteist. They also lay out facts. A hagiography, which is what Rajmohan Gandhi's work is, is not propaganda. A hagiography misses opportunities for wider historical narratives that better contextualize the actions of the subject and that is what distinguishes a biography from hagiography. Hagiography will not contain blatant falsification or perversions of facts, if it did so it'd become propaganda or at worst a fiction. Guha and Gandhi are too decent for that.

When we read a book we bring to it a complex set of tools. Our own life experiences, our readings, our biases, our values all play a role in understanding the text. One can argue with my interpretations or even disagree but they've to establish a reasoning for doing that. Likewise I'd have to return such courtesy.

A common taunt I've seen Tamil Brahmin Hindutva employ towards Christians is "rice-converts". This is an interesting taunt. To the Tamil Brahmins who have been effectively marginalized as a political group in Tamil Nadu the advent of BJP provided a platform and a vent for long suppressed anger and habitual casteism. Unable to mock (or sometimes genuinely unwilling) other lower castes in Hinduism, their usual punching bags, they've now turned to mocking other religions, notably Christians, of whom a vast majority are Dalits. It is beyond the pale that they would employ such a loaded term for mocking. But the term has a history.

Manga, Rajmohan Gandhi writes, gave alms on Saturday, "Manga stored cereals for the purpose in tin vessels near the front door: rice for the Brahmins, and harder grain, rage or kambu for the others". Imagine that scene for a moment. She's not giving it personally. She just leave the vessels by the door. It's not only an honor system but a system reflective of, as Rajah would put it,  a 'Dharmic' system. I wonder if any lower caste man or woman would've had the temerity to pinch rice from the rice vessel or if a Brahmin would indeed have touched with his left foot the ragi vessels? What ensures that each pick their own? A centuries old 'Dharmic' system. This imagery was a realization only as I started typing the passage. This is why I always consider writing and debating as occasions that provide greater realizations.

Reading Mary Beard's SPQR and about slave revolts in ancient Rome I was reminded of K.A. Nilakanta Sastry's 'History of South India' where he'd have mused about the Varnashrama system and about the lack of friction while also acknowledging lack of records. Records, in India, were mostly written by Brahmins at the employ of Kshtariyas. Sure, one could make the case that Varnashrama kept the peace but there's a price for that peace and that often is forgotten or is intentionally white-washed.

The opening chapter on Rajaji dealing with early life also gives an idea of how advantageous it was to be a Brahmin. Attending a school in Bangalore Rajaji stand at a hostel for Brahmins. A lower caste boy could not only ill-afford schooling at a town that was not his home town he, I'm omitting 'she' because that was unthinkable, would not at all find places to stay. In college also he used a hostel run by one Biligiri Iyengar for "students from Mysore". The biographer did not give details as to how a Thorapalli born Iyengar stayed there. Possibly as a student coming from a Bangalore school he got in. The point being the network that he was able to tap simply because of an accident of birth and in no way connected whatsoever to any academic distinction which, of course, he showed nothing of. "Being Brahmin, being modern" by Ramesh Bairy goes into the advantages of being Brahmin in the Mysore state in great detail. Educational policies well into the 1950s were tilted to the advantage of Brahmins.

With that backdrop think of how Rajaji happily introduced the educational reform bill that eventually led to not only his downfall but to him being vilified, very unjustifiably, as a casteist Brahmin. Casteist Brahmin Rajaji surely was not. The opening chapter alone cites incidences of Rajaji standing up for Dalits and associating, much to the chagrin of his community, with Muslims. But it is also undeniable that Rajaji, a child of privilege, did not bring to the issue the understanding and compassion that Kamaraj, an illiterate non-Brahmin, did.

Rajaji's bill nonchalantly advised students coming from "occupational communities" to go home, when school is over for the day, to learn crafts from their father. The girl children were advised to learn from their mothers. The language reeks of arrogant Brahminism. Even in the face of mounting political opposition Rajaji, who became Chief Minister without facing an election and never understood the principles or spirit of democracy, dug in his heels and became even more obdurate. On this most pivotal event Rajmohan Gandhi completely fails as biographer because he's not one. Where Rajaji was more intent on balancing the budget and cheerfully sacrificing educational progress for the citizenry Kamaraj, shaped by his life, was more revolutionary. Notably, the panel set up by Kamaraj was headed by N.D. Sundaravadivelu, a non-Brahmin.

I had earlier written on Facebook about this.

According to the orders passed (see…/ww…/cd50years/g/12/28/12280V01.htm and…/ww…/cd50years/g/12/28/12281301.htm) school hours were to be shortened and the orders said that children could learn crafts from their fathers and girl children could help their mothers at home. The language in the orders is patriarchal, patronizing and rests on a very romantic notion of learning crafts. 
Rajmohan who had a privileged upbringing like his subject could not fathom why that order, passed by a devout Brahmin in a country like India, which even then, like today, was deeply mired into casteism, could be seen as casteist order. Failing to appreciate the opposition and to present the opposition as mere blind opposition is a failure of Rajmohan as biographer but then he's no biographer or historian. Let me make this clear, giving sources, adopting academic looking references, supplying quotes etc alone are not sufficient to make anyone a historian or a biographer. By that token this incognito blogger too could claim that status. I know my limits. 
What is worse Rajmohan Gandhi inserts language that the even the order did not intend. He writes, "school children would spend the two hours gifted to them in learning creative skills from parents, relations and neighbors". One, village craftsmen were anything but creative artists. This is chicanery that only an upper caste biographer talking about a upper caste subject, his own grandfather, could happily say. Referring to girls learning from mothers this biographer wannabe doesn't even realize that most of those mothers (and even in Brahmin households) were illiterate and could impart nothing of educational value to a girl child. Now contrast this with how Nehru treats his sisters. Nehru writes to his sisters letter after letter about books to read and he discusses with them as equals. That is the difference between a well intentioned man who nevertheless remained a Brahmin patriarch at heart and a truly progressive Brahmin who could break free of his mould.

As Tamil Nadu reeled under food rationing Rajaji advised people in a broadcast to 'pray for rains'. When Nehru visited a famine ravaged part of India the people, as usual, were cheering his name and he cried "I've failed you and I don't deserve this". Nehru sent letters to US and Russia pleading for help. Finally it was Indira Gandhi who, facing humiliating conditions that US stipulated for famine relief, launched Green Revolution and ended the sad cycle of famines in India. But then Nehru, unlike Rajaji, was a Brahmin only in name and to Nehru his caste and religion were accidents of birth that he did not put much stock in. This is not to say Nehru, as it is alleged today, was divorced from his heritage or the heritage of the country he was born in. Nehru's ashes, after his cremation, were sprinkled, per his instructions, upon the Himalayas and immersed in Ganges.

Oh and one final note. Let us not learn about Rajaji in order to pelt stones at Nehru or learn about Ambedkar to vilify Gandhi or read Gandhi to act sanctimonious about Ambedkar. Let us learn about these great men because they all deserve to be studied and learned about. Let us discover something of ourselves in that process, good and bad. Let there be passionate intellectual discourses with passion for just knowledge and facts, not bigotry.

Let us set the record straight on Rajaji against the decades old hate filled propaganda but let's do it honestly without white-washing his history or using him as foil to besmirch others, especially Jawaharlal Nehru.


  1. Rajaji: A life - Rajmohan Gandhi
  2. Gandhi: Before India - Ramachandra Guha
  3. Patel: A life - Rajmohan Gandhi
  4. Radhakrishnan: A Biography - Sarvepalli Gopal
  5. Being Brahmin, Being Modern: Exploring the lives of Caste today - Ramesh Bairy

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