The flame of democracy and its wings of fire thrive only if the feathers of democratic institutions function effectively. These institutions, like the power of the people, are entrusted in the execution apparatus of the rule of law and governance under the Constitutional provisions. 

Democracy functions to catalyse the achievement of public freedom, liberty and protection of property through the participation of people.  However, the hardwired question is- “do our political parties established under Constitutional democracy work for enlarging the freedom of people?” Do the political parties effectively implement Constitutional schemes after being elected to power and thereby empower decentralized decision making, reaching the grassroots levels of the country? 

One prime example is the grand old political party of India, the Indian National Congress; which, in the past, fought for freedom struggles through great freedom fighters and thinkers which included statesmen like Salem Chakravarti Vijayaraghavachariar. He was President of the Indian National Congress Party in 1920. It becomes important to go into some detail to understand the life and times of the great statesman Vijayaraghavachariar. 

He was a successful lawyer from the town of Salem in the Madras Presidency (now Tamil Nadu) since 1881. He became a Member of the Legislature in the Madras Presidency in 1895 and served the people until 1901. It was there that he came into close contact with the great liberal thinkers V.S.Srinivasa Sastri, C.Sankaran Nair, V.Bhashyam Iyengar;  and many other eminent freedom fighters. He was a Member of the Imperial Legislature from 1913-1916 and played a historic role in that capacity. 

Chakravarti Vijayaraghavachariar was famously called ‘The Roaring Lion of the South.’ He was born on June 18, 1852, at Madurantakam in Chingleput district in Madras Presidency. His father was a priest cum scholar who was adept in Sanskrit and traditional scriptures. Sadagopachariar wanted his son to take up after him. The young Vijayaraghavachariar learned the scriptures but was keen to learn English too. Later, he joined Pachaiyappas High School and stood second in the Matriculation Exams (1871). 

He received his B.A degree in 1875 from Madras Presidency College. He was appointed as a Lecturer in the Madras Presidency College in the same year . Later, he was transferred to the Government College, Mangalore, where, after three years of service, he resigned. Those were times when Indians were ill-treated by the Europeans and Vijayaraghavachariar met the same fate with his Principal. He quit the job but was requested to stay back by the Director of Public Instruction. However, the bold youngster resolved to take a stand for himself. He moved to Salem town and taught English and Mathematics at the Salem Municipal College. He left his job and became an advocate in Salem after clearing the law examination. He was married to Lakshmi and had a daughter named Seetha. 

Vijayaraghavachariar was involved with the Indian National Congress from day one. He had known A.O.Hume before the founding of the party, and he helped him to go ahead with the same. The first meeting took place in Mumbai (28.12.1895) under W.C.Banerjee (1844 – 1906), and Vijayaraghavachariar also participated along with Dadabhai Naoroji (1825 -1917), Pheroze Shah Mehta (1845 – 1915), Dinshaw Wacha (1844 -1936), S.Subramania Iyer (1842 -1924), G.Subramania Iyer (1855-1916) –  the founder of The Hindu newspaper, etc.

At the age of 36, in 1888, Vijayaraghavachariar drafted the Constitution of the Congress Party. He was responsible for making the Congress popular in South India. He persuaded the founders to make the economic and social needs of the people a central concern of the party. It was during this formative period that Vijayaraghavachariar and his friends played a key role in making the Indian National Congress an effective political organization with a focus on national consciousness, unity, and development. In 1899, he was appointed as a member of the Congress Propaganda Committee. 

At the Calcutta Session in 1906, Vijayaraghavachariar moved a resolution relating to the Permanent Land Settlement of Land Tenures. He argued that the people owned the land in India since time immemorial, and the ruler was only paid a share of the produce. The ruler never owned everything, and a shift in thought and action was the result of colonial tendencies and reeked of European feudalism. Later this was to become the basis for various Acts connected with land reforms in India. 

The Surat session of the Congress in 1908 caused a split between the extremists and moderates. Tilak inspired all the extremists, and Vijayaraghavachariar was with him. The Amritsar Congress (1919) was important for Vijayaraghavachariar who spoke about the Fundamental Rights of the Citizens. The meeting went on for long hours, and he received approval from the members instantly. The Constitution of India was based on this resolution. Vijayaraghavachariar had, thus, always been a foresighted man.   

He moved closely with leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Madan Mohan Malaviya, Surendranath Banerjee, Gopala Krishna Gokhale, etc., The government brought in the Criminal Act Law Amendment Bill in 1913 and Vijayaraghavachariar opposed it vehemently along with Banerjee. They had to face threats but stood by their decision. He actively participated in debates and discussions on several subjects and always argued in favour of human rights. He was astutely well-read and was an expert in parliamentary proceedings. The government was forced to acknowledge his intelligence grudgingly.

The Nagpur Session took place in 1920, and Vijayaraghavachariar was made the President of the party. Gandhi also proposed the Non-Cooperation Movement during this session. It was announced in the backdrop of the Rowlatt Act and Jallianwala Bagh tragedy. Vijayaraghavachariar insisted that Gandhi keep Non-Swarajya as the goal of the movement; which he accepted. These details can be found in the autobiography of Gandhi. 

Vijayaraghavachariar supported the non-violent approach publicly. Lord Birkenhead, the Secretary of State of India had once stated that Indians were incapable of drafting their own constitution. Vijayaraghavachariar took up the challenge and prepared the Swaraj Constitution of India (1930). He wanted a strong central government and therefore had proposed a Unitary Constitution.

The year 1932 saw the 80-year-old Vijayaraghavachariar heading the Unity Conference in Prayagraj and it was at this moment that he turned emotional while emphasizing the need for national unity. 1935 saw the people of our country celebrating Vijayaraghavachariar’s 50-year tenure in the Congress. The Congress formed a Government in the Madras Presidency under the wise C.Rajagopalachari or Rajaji in 1937. Vijayaraghavachariar supported prohibition then. He opposed the Defence of India Rules in 1940 for it could imprison patriots. Rajaji was inspired by Vijayaraghavachariar who guided him in a political career. 

Vijayaraghavachariar opposed the Sir Stafford Cripps Mission in 1942 and Rajaji stated that there was nothing on Earth that could stand against the courage of Vijayaraghachariar. He clearly understood that the old Congress was a national movement that had been a meeting point for people coming from diverse backgrounds. He used to tell people often that it was the freedom movement which had enriched the party. Therefore, it was incumbent on the leaders of the time to serve the country on an equitable basis. 

Vijayaraghavachariar had come from a low-income family who could not afford to give him milk every day. He had earned well but had spent most of it on the well being of the people. He was kind-hearted and selfless. He fought and stood against untouchability. He believed in gender equality and campaigned for women to be married only after they were adults and strongly advocated the right of a daughter to have a share in her father’s property.

He believed in a decentralized form of governance. He was a classical liberal in the constitutional sense and believed in pragmatism. His wisdom and knowledge were the two oars that took forward the vessel of freedom based on his liberal approach. His endearing nature brought out the liberal in him. His many good habits led him to live for 92 years. He passed away in 1944. 

He commanded much respect through his fabulous arguments that were made in the interest of the people. Let us salute him now by celebrating the centenary year of his Presidentship of the old Indian National Congress. The people of the country will forever remember the “Roaring Lion of South India”. 

This article is co-authored with Mr.Rajesh Govindarajulu, a historian based in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. He has written copiously on the history of Coimbatore city. 

IndianLiberals.in is an online library of all Indian liberal writings, lectures and other materials in English and other Indian regional languages. The material that has been collected so far contains liberal commentary dating from the early 19th century till the present. The portal helps preserve an often unknown but very rich Indian liberal tradition and explain the relevance of the writings in today’s context.

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