The Joseph Family Website
Barrister George Joseph: A Giant Without Footprints (Part 3)
On 27 September, 1923, George Joseph assumed the editorship of Gandhiji's "Young India" from C Rajagopalachari. His tenure as an editor lasted for about six months.

During this period, the columns of "Young India" were dominated by the struggle which was taking place between the Swarajists ('pro-changers') and the 'no-changers' on the basic question of council-entry following the Government of India Act of 1919. Along with Vallabhai Patel and Rajaji, Joseph chose to remain as a 'no- changer'. Returning to the South as a political agitator, Joseph led the Vaikom Satyagraha for temple entry in March 1924. On 11 April, 1924, Joseph was arrested and sentenced to six months imprisonment. When Gandhiji wrote to him saying that a non-Hindu should not take upon himself the leadership of that kind of movement, Joseph strongly disagreed with him stating that the Vaikom Temple entry agitation was not so much a religious issue as a civic issue to highlight the demand of a civic right for a citizen to walk along the public roads maintained by public funds.

In this matter, Mahatma Gandhi was indeed guilty of double standards. One can legitimately ask as to in what way he as a proclaimed Hindu was morally right in acting as the President of the Khilafat Movement, started by Ali Brothers after the dismemberment of Turkey in 1919.

In January 1925, Joseph returned to Madurai under difficult economic circumstances and confronted with the task of setting up a new home and rebuilding the legal practice that he had given up in 1920 to follow the Mahatma.

Many people may not be aware of the fact that it was at the residence of Joseph in Madurai in 1925 that Mahatma Gandhi took the historic decision to switch over to the loin cloth to properly represent the poor rural masses of India. After a public meeting at Thiagaraja College (now Meenakshi College) in Madurai, many members of the public approached Gandhi for a darshan. Most of them were not only barefoot but also bare bodied except for a dhothi wrapped around their waists.

Gandhi turned to Rajaji and George Joseph and asked them for an explanation. They told Gandhi that the main reason for their scanty dress was their poverty. That night in Joseph's house, Gandhiji spent a restless night thinking about the helpless plight of the poor who could not afford even a covering. The next morning, to the amusement of those present, Gandhiji turned up in a loin cloth without any upper garment. The rest belongs to history.

From 1925 to 1938, Joseph kept himself in touch with all the political activities and guided the Congressmen in Tamilnadu with great political skill and wisdom. Rajaji and he became very close friends. In many ways he shaped the political career of Kamaraj acting as his political guru and Kamaraj considered Joseph as his adopted father and Susannah Joseph as his adopted mother.

When Kamaraj was implicated in the Virudhunagar bomb case in 1933, Dr Varadarajulu Naidu and Joseph argued on Kamaraj's behalf and proved the charges to be baseless and thus obtained his honourable release from prison. Joseph was a tower of strength to the nationalists in his home State of erstwhile Travancore in Kerala. His close political associates in Travancore were Varkey, TM Varghese, Kesavan and others. He was elected to the Central Legislative Assembly as MLA. in July 1937.

Joseph died on 5 March, 1938 at the American Mission Hospital in Madurai. He was just over 50 years old at that time. Mahatma Gandhi wrote to Susannah Joseph as follows on that sad occasion:

My dear Susan,

"I have before me your most pathetic and humane letter. I have seen your longer and fuller letter to Mahadev Desai. You must not grieve. That will show lack of faith in God. He gives and takes away. And surely it is well with Joseph. You will come to me whenever you can and want to. You shall remain a dear daughter and more so, if possible, now that Joseph is no more in our midst in the flesh. Love to you and children, Bapu".

As advised by Gandhiji, Susannah went to Gandhiji's ashram and spent some time there coming to terms with her loss with Gandhiji's help.

Joseph and his wife knew Mahakavi Subramania Bharathi quite intimately. Jaiboy Joseph, son of Pothen Joseph the great journalist, has given this interesting account of Mahakavi Bharathi in this context:

"It was in the house of Joseph in Madurai that Bharathi first conceived his famous patriotic song 'Viduthalai'. In the words of Susannah, 'one day, while at home, he suddenly jumped up clapping his hand enthusiastically saying: Kottada Kai Kottada.'

Joseph was a great champion of women's rights. As a socially emancipated individual, he had definite libertarian views on the controversial question of the relationship between the sexes. He was a strong advocate of mixed marriages. Joseph and Susannah supported Gandhi's son Devadoss Gandhi when he wanted to marry Lakshmi, daughter of Rajaji. Since Devadoss and Lakshmi were not from the same community, the parents thought that they should wait for sometime.

This stand was viewed by Joseph and his wife as unfair, unnecessary and unreasonable. Likewise, a controversy arose when The Hindu in Madras, now Chennai, on 5 March, 1920 wrote critically about the proposed marriage of George Arundale, an English Theosophist and associate of Annie Besant, and a Brahmin girl Rukmani Devi, whom The Hindu claimed was a minor. In a spirited response, Joseph took the editor of the newspaper to task in a letter: 'Why on earth should not Arundale or anybody else have the liberty to offer honourable marriage to a young Brahmin lady?... Is it because Arundale is an Englishman and the young lady a Brahmin? Or is it that Arundale is 40, and the young lady 16? There is a disparity in age no doubt. But South Indian society which tolerates marriages between old widowers of 60 and children of 12, need not venture to throw a stone. But if it is political capital you are trying to make out of it, I respectfully suggest you are hitting below the belt".

The whole controversy ended when the marriage of George Arundale and Rukmani Devi took place in Bombay, now Mumbai, in April, 1920.

Perhaps in more senses than one, most people are likely to view the life of Joseph as a tragedy of high intentions self-defeated. In this context, I am very touched by what his daughter Maya Joseph has to say:

"If, however, Joseph were asked to judge himself, he would vehemently assert that he was no failure. Far from it. He would say he was a Karma Yogi. He did what he thought was his duty - what he thought was right."

All in all Joseph was a remarkable human being. In my view, the secret of his elemental greatness lay in his disdain for most of the prizes, the pleasures and comforts of life. No doubt, the world naturally looks with some awe upon a man who appears indifferent to money, comfort, rank or power and fame. The world feels, not without a certain apprehension, that here is someone outside its jurisdiction; someone before whom its allurements may be spread in vain; someone strangely enfranchised, untamed, untrammelled by convention, moving independently of the ordinary currents of human action; a being readily capable of violent revolt or supreme self-sacrifice. Who can ever doubt that Joseph was all this and more?

The best tribute that we can pay to him is in the words of his own brother Pothen Joseph:

"Champion of the underdog, the man had courted and endured worldly embarrassment without any trace of bitterness. Mental slavery was for him a sin against the Holy Ghost and he had to pay the price for possessing an inelastic conscience. His culture, his geniality of outlook, his great moral charm, his love of dialectics, his chaste diction, his subtle sense of humour, his extreme courtesy to women, his fondness for children, all this went to constitute a rare pattern of personality. His intellectual incorruptibility in argument was amazing."

I always thought (this) was due to his reputation for goodness. He was a great man. Joseph was cast in the mould of crusaders whose instinct of selfless adventure wiped out every vestige of profit-making motive in the human system. He did not live long but he lived much.

We are indeed living in very decadent and jaded times. It is difficult to recall that human progress depends not only on technological wizardry, but on the courageous work of single individuals, motivated by their love of liberty and the creative forces of mind and imagination that it unleashes. Anyone who still wonders what a single individual can do for liberty needs only contemplate the amazing life and times of Joseph.

The struggle for liberty in all its aspects and dimensions will never end. The future will undoubtedly bring more threats to liberty from politicians, terrorists and conquerors. But I am confident that in the new millennium new heroes and heroines will emerge to defend our precious legacy of liberty.

The above represents substantial excerpts from an article and book review by V Sundaram in News Today; we appreciate its use.

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