The Joseph Family Website
Barrister George Joseph: A Giant Without Footprints (Part 2)
While the whole of Europe was put in a state of un-rest, turmoil, confusion and unprecedented destruction with the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, the whole of Madras Presidency was put in a state of nationalistic ferment by a remarkable figure in the history of awakening of our national consciousness, Annie Besant (1847-1933).

In May, 1914, Annie Besant was touring in England, giving talks on the political situation in India. In a letter to The Times of 29 May, 1914, she made an ardent plea to the British government and the English people on behalf of the educated Indian. She asked, 'Is he never to be free among freemen? Is he never to be estimated by his character, his brain and his heart but always by the colour of his skin? Free India will be the buttress of the British Empire; as a subject, she will be a perpetual menace to its stability.'

On her return to Madras, Annie Besant started the Home Rule Movement by first acquiring an English language daily and renaming it New India in June 1914. In the first issue of this journal she declared that the main objective of this paper was 'to press forward the preparation for the coming changes in India and to claim steadily India's place in the Empire'.

She made it clear that this was to be achieved by spreading the doctrine of Home Rule not only in Madras Presidency but throughout India. She was a powerful orator who had the political courage to articulate the political demands of India and Indians even during war time when emergency powers were being used freely by the government to silence if not to put down the opposition.

George Joseph met Annie Besant in Madurai on 20 March, 1916 and came under her magnetic spell. On her advice, Madurai Theosophical Lodge was converted into a Home Rule Cell with Joseph playing the leading role. During the same period, he also became a close associate of Varadarajulu Naidu, another great name in the history of trade unionism and freedom struggle in South India.

Joseph was made a member of the first batch of Home Rule Deputation to England by Annie Besant for preaching the Home Rule Gospel in March 1918.

The two other members were V V Narasimha Iyer and Manjeri Ramaiar. They sailed in a ship chartered by Annie Besant and they were turned back by the British authorities in Gibraltar. This known and established fact is completely ignored in all the Congress-sponsored Nehru family-centric accounts of the history of our struggle for freedom.

When the draconian Rowlett Act was notified in 1919, Mahatma Gandhi gave a call for hartal against the Rowlett Act. Under the leadership of Joseph, many prominent nationalists took the 'Satyagraha Pledge' in Madurai on 9 March, 1919.

Joseph was destined to meet Mahatma Gandhi two weeks later on 23 March, 1919 in Madras. Gandhi came to Madras in the third week of March in 1919 shortly after the Rowlett Act was officially notified. Kasturi Ranga Iyengar, Rajaji and Joseph had some time earlier signed a manifesto rejecting the Montague Chelmsford Reforms.

Gandhi met Kasturi Ranga Iyengar and C Rajagopalachari in Madras on 23 March, 1919. Joseph was introduced to Gandhi for the first time on the Madras Beach by Rajaji on 22 March, 1919. It has been reported by Joseph's family members that he was mesmerised by the presence and words of the Mahatma. His wife Susannah shared her husband's enthusiasm for the 'old man', though she seems to have said that it would be very difficult to live with him! Gandhi wrote in his My Experiments with Truth: 'The idea came last night in a dream that we should call upon the country to observe a general hartal'.

Gandhiji issued a press statement from Madras exhorting the people to observe 6 April, 1919 - the notified date for the coming into effect of the Rowlett Act - as a day of national humiliation and trial. On 23 March, 1919, itself Gandhiji left Madras on an extensive tour of Tamilnadu. Reaching Madurai on 26 March, 1919, Gandhi stayed at the residence of Joseph till 30 March, 1919.

Joseph played a leading role in organising the public meeting for Gandhi in Madurai on 29 March, 1919. Nearly 20,000 people attended the meeting and Gandhi told them that he had come to Madurai to ask them to sign the 'Satyagraha pledge' as an act of resistance to the Rowlett Act. He stressed the importance of self-suffering and sacrifice for the national cause and said that no nation could ever become great without undergoing trials and tribulations. A resolution was passed at this meeting to the effect that the people of Madurai were fully prepared and resolved to observe the hartal on 6 April, 1919.

In preparing for the 'Day of Humiliation' on 6 April, 1919, the local 'Satyagraha Sabha' resolved to hold meetings daily for one week in different locations in the town for creating a new political awakening among the people. On 5 April, 1919, Joseph organised a huge procession in Madurai carrying the photographs of Gandhi, Dadabhai Nauroji and Varadarajulu Naidu, marching through the centre of the town. At that meeting, Joseph made a strong appeal to the people to stop all work and observe fasts and prayers next day. This was cheerfully accepted and translated into rebellious action by a large section of the people and all the shops in Madurai remained closed on 6 April, 1919. Joseph became the unquestioned Lieutenant of Gandhi in Madurai from that moment.

At a special session of the Congress in Calcutta in April 1920, Gandhiji's programme of non-cooperation was proposed and it was given the final seal of approval at the annual session of the Congress in Nagpur in December 1920. As a direct consequence of the clarion call of Gandhi, thousands of students left schools and colleges and hundreds of lawyers gave up their legal practice.

Vallabhai Patel, Rajendra Prasad and Rajaji stepped out of their legal profession. Joseph did not lag behind. In the first week of January 1920, George and his family left Madurai, taking with them their youngest daughter Maya who was then five years old. They left their other children, Moncy and Molly, in boarding schools near Madurai.

Before leaving, they consigned their foreign clothes to the fire. They gave up all their household objects. They switched over to simple khadi dress. Joseph and Susannah stood transformed as austere satyagrahis. They went to the Sabarmathi Ashram of Gandhiji in Ahmedabad. Susannah, in the evening of her life, always recalled with great nostalgia and affection her early morning prayers in the ashram, with Gandhiji leading them in the front.

In February 1920, Motilal Nehru wrote to his son Jawaharlal about making Joseph the editor of his newspaper in Allahabad - The Independent.

It has to be presumed that soon after reaching Sabarmathi Ashram in January 1920, Motilal Nehru and his son had the opportunity of meeting Joseph and getting to know about his multi-dimensional abilities.

Soon thereafter Joseph went to Allahabad and took up the position of editor of The Independent. He developed a great respect and regard for Motilal Nehru, who asked him to take a strong nationalist line as its editor.

On 10 May, 1921, Joseph, under a column 'Editorial Discourses', included the following excerpt entitled 'Terrorism Run Mad: Lord Reading' denouncing violence and quite rightly too.

We do not want any favour of Lord Reading as Viceroy, but he happens to be a Bencher of the Middle Temple and we know he is a gentleman interested in fair dealing. We believe he will recoil from the crude violence of an ill-mannered policeman. May we, therefore, present him with the incident reported from Sultanpur. It is a piece of sheer bullying and torture.

On 6 December, 1921, Joseph was arrested in Allahabad with members of the Nehru family. He was first taken to Agra and six months later transferred to the Lucknow district jail. During his internment, he had the opportunity of interacting with Jawaharlal Nehru, Govind Vallab Pant, Purushotham Das Tandon and Mahadev Desai. He was released from prison in January 1923.

In the meantime in March 1922, Gandhi had been sentenced to six years imprisonment following a trial in Ahmedabad. On May 6, 1922, Joseph wrote to his wife: 'Of course, it does seem wicked and impossible that Bapu should be in jail for six years. But his restraint or freedom does not depend on him or the government. It depends on the country. If the nation deserves him and wants him out, it can get him out tomorrow'.

Such was Joseph's unshakable faith in the soaring spirit of the rising tide of Indian nationalism during that time.

In years to come, George Joseph parted company with Gandhi and Nehru over philosophical and strategic approaches relating to the freedom struggle and became a fierce critic of some of the polices being pursued. Gandhi's respect for Joseph was unwavering through these disagreements and on one occasion penned a postcard to him stating: "Joseph, Joseph, why has thou forsaken me" - a paraphrasing of Jesus Christ's plea to God near the end of his life.

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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