Rajagopalachari, Chakravarti

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RAJAGOPALACHARI, CHAKRAVARTI (1878–1972), writer and statesman, prominent in India's independence movement; last governor-general of India (1948–1950). Chakravarti Rajagopalachari (often called C. R. or Rajaji) was born on 10 December 1878 to a family of poor Iyengar Brahmans in Thorapalli, near Hosur, in the Tamil country. The first Indian to serve as free India's head of state, he was ninety-four when he died in Chennai (formerly Madras) on 25 December 1972.

Early Life

As the headman first of Thorapalli and later of the larger settlement of Hosur, Rajagopalachari's father, Chakravarti Iyengar, earned a monthly salary of around five rupees (about one U.S. dollar at the time). The youngest of three brothers, Rajagopalachari saw the blackboard as a blur in Hosur's government school, but at the age of thirteen, when he obtained spectacles, he understood, as he put it, "what green was" and that stars were not "just a vague mist of light" but "had points, and corners, and colours" (Gandhi, p. 5).

By this time he was studying in the British-run Central College in Bangalore, the city closest to Hosur. Graduation from Central College was followed by a course and degree in law in Madras and the start of a practice as a criminal lawyer in Salem, headquarters of the district to which Thorapalli and Hosur belonged and the seat of the district's British Collector.

Politics—Salem's civic affairs as well as the cause of Indian self-government—pulled Rajagopalachari, the more so following the illness and early death (at the age of twenty-six) of his wife Alarmelu Mangammal, or Manga, who bore him five children. He entered the municipal council, chaired it to much acclaim, took some steps, despite sharp opposition from orthodox Hindus, that reduced discrimination against "untouchables," followed events in the Indian National Congress, which had been founded in 1885, preferred the Congress's extremists to its moderates, and briefly day-dreamed about bombs and assassinations ending British rule.


The possibility of another route to independence was suggested by press accounts of the nonviolent disobedience that Mohandas Gandhi and numerous Indians were practicing in South Africa from 1906, accounts confirmed to Rajagopalachari by relatives (in India) of Tamils indentured in South Africa. Sending Gandhi money for the South African effort, Rajagopalachari argued in a 1916 article that Gandhi's technique of satyagraha ("clinging to the truth"), pitting "soul force" against "the force of arms," was "a great question" for those wanting independence in India (Gandhi, p. 26).

Though by this time Gandhi was back in India, most Congress politicians considered him impractical; Rajagopalachari was probably the first to suggest that satyagraha might succeed in India. When, early in 1919, Gandhi proposed nonviolent resistance to the newly announced Rowlatt Bills that sought to curb free speech, Rajagopalachari, moving at this juncture from Salem to the city of Madras, at once offered his support. Gandhi's stay as Rajagopalachari's houseguest in Madras in March 1919 marked the end of his legal practice. Henceforth he would be a full-time, unpaid worker for independence, Gandhi's close colleague, and the commander of nonviolent battles in the south.

The British jailed him five times, for several months at a time, between 1921 and 1941. After independence, an entry in a diary that Rajagopalachari kept in Vellore—where, tormented by solitary confinement, filthy food, and sickness, he spent the first of these terms—would be recalled for its foresight:

Swaraj (independence) will not at once or, I think, even for a long time to come, be better government or greater happiness for the people. Elections and their corruptions, injustice, and the power and tyranny of wealth and inefficiency of administration will make a hell of life as soon as freedom is given to us. . . . The only thing gained will be that as a race we will be saved from dishonour and subordination. (Gandhi, pp. 72–73)

Leader of the Congress

From 1919 to 1942, Rajagopalachari was on anyone's list of five or six leading figures of the Indian National Congress. Referring to a Congress plenary held, while Gandhi was in prison, in Gaya in Bihar in 1922, where Rajagopalachari's debating skills turned the tables on numerous opponents of satyagraha,Prafulla Chandra Ghosh, later a chief minister of West Bengal, would say, "Mr. Rajagopalachari became the leader of the Congress at Gaya" (Gandhi, p. 80).

Responding in 1927 to a question asked in Karaikudi in Madras province, Gandhi observed that Rajagopalachari was his "only possible successor" (Gandhi, p. 103). In 1930 Rajagopalachari led a defiant and strictly nonviolent "salt march" to Vedaranyam on South India's east coast that wiped out, as the Raj privately acknowledged, any "sense of devotion to the Government" in the Tamil country (Gandhi, p. 123). This was followed by a fresh satyagraha campaign in 1932 and another in 1933, the year in which Rajagopalachari's link with Gandhi was buttressed by the marriage of his youngest daughter, Lakshmi, to Gandhi's youngest son, Devadas.

In the mid-1930s, Rajagopalachari played a major role in a switch in Congress strategy from satyagraha to measured cooperation with the Raj's political reforms. After elections held in the first half of 1937, Congress ministries took office in eight provinces, and Rajagopalachari found himself prime minister of the extensive Madras presidency, stretching from the Bay of Bengal to the Arabian Sea.

British civilian and police officers who had earlier monitored, curbed, or jailed Rajagopalachari were now his subordinates, though the British governor of Madras, Lord Erskine, held reserve powers and could block or even remove his premier. Rajagopalachari charmed the officers and also the governor, who, however, thought that his premier, radical in some areas but conservative in others, was "an odd mixture" whose "main object in life" seemed to be to "get India back to what it was in the days of King Asoka" (Gandhi, p. 179).

Rajagopalachari's Madras ministry was doing very well and had entered its third year in office when Adolf Hitler attacked Poland in September 1939 and the viceroy, Lord Linlithgow, declared that India too was at war with Germany. When Congress's plea for a commitment of Indian independence at the end of the war was turned down, all its ministries, including Rajagopalachari's, resigned.

The Postwar Years: Nationalism and Independence

The war had strengthened nationalist urges among the British and in the Congress, and also in the Muslim League, which, in March 1940, demanded the separation, as Pakistan, of the subcontinent's Muslim-majority areas. After Japan's sweep in 1941 and 1942 in the Pacific and Southeast Asia, Rajagopalachari concluded that the Congress could not fight the British, the League, and the Japanese at the same time.

He did not join the Gandhi-led Quit India stir of 1942. Inviting the League to stand alongside the Congress in its bid for independence, he asked the Congress, on its part, to concede that contiguous Muslim-majority districts in India's Northwest and East could separate after independence, if opting out was desired by their populations.

In the nationalistic heat of 1942, when Rajagopalachari's Pakistan "formula" was first aired, it was dismissed as traitorous by many in the Congress and rejected as "moth-eaten" by Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the League president. Yet that formula formed the basis of the partition to which, five years later, the Congress, the League, and the British would agree.

Well before Rajagopalachari took his stand over Quit India, popular opinion and Gandhi himself had determined the question of "succession" in favor of Jawaharlal Nehru. Yet the Congress needed his talents. In the summer of 1946, the party summoned him for negotiations with the Cabinet Mission that had arrived from London; in September of that year he became a Congress minister in the interim government formed as a prelude to a transfer of power to Indian hands.


When, on 15 August 1947, independence arrived, preceded the previous day by the creation of Pakistan, Rajagopalachari became the governor of Bengal's western half; East Bengal had gone to Pakistan. The following summer, he succeeded Lord Mountbatten as free India's governor-general; his is the last—and the only Indian—name in a line of governors-general starting in the eighteenth century with Warren Hastings. It was only in protocol, and not in political power, that Rajagopalachari ranked above Prime Minister Nehru and Deputy Prime Minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. Yet he wielded significant influence as a head of state who was also a founding figure of the Gandhi-led independence movement.

Closer, on questions involving India's Muslims, to Nehru than to Patel, who was also the home or interior minister, yet closer to Patel on economic issues, Rajagopalachari seemed to be the preference of both Nehru and Patel for selection as India's first president when, in January 1950, India became a republic. But rivalry in the Nehru-Patel relationship as well as lingering grievance inside the Congress over Rajagopalachari's 1942 stand came in the way, and it was Rajendra Prasad, a lawyer and veteran congressman from Bihar, who became India's first president. Rajagopalachari returned to Madras. In less than six months, however, invited by both Nehru and Patel—each of whom saw Rajagopalachari as a counterweight against the other—he was in the Indian capital again, as minister without portfolio. After Patel's death in December 1950, Nehru asked Rajagopalachari to take over the key department of Home.

Dealing with a Communist insurgency in some of South India's Telugu districts was one of Rajagopalachari's major tasks as home minister, but Patel's death had reduced Nehru's need for Rajagopalachari, who retired to Madras in November 1951. However, a political crisis in the southern province following elections held in early 1952 brought Rajagopalachari back as the chief minister of Madras. Refusing to contest an election, he ran the state government from a nominated seat in the upper house of the Madras legislature.

The arrangement was hardly democratic, yet Rajagopalachari seemed again to be doing very well as chief minister when, two years later, his educational policy forced him out of office. To double the number of pupils in the state's schools, and also in the belief that parents would impart skills in rural crafts to their children, he proposed a halving of school hours and an emphasis on learning crafts. Political opponents portrayed the policy as a Brahman's device to perpetuate the caste system, and Congress legislators asked for its abandonment, but Rajagopalachari, who never denied charges of stubbornness, preferred to leave. Within a few weeks, Kumaraswami Kamaraj, the new chief minister, withdrew the policy. By this time, Rajagopalachari was immersed in his writings. (His Mahābhārata, written in the 1940s, had been published in 1951.)

The 1950s and Beyond

In the late 1950s, after a socialist agenda had added to Nehru's continuing popularity, Rajagopalachari declared that bureaucrats would be disastrous in running businesses, and he attacked a proposal for joint ownership of cropland as being "as bad for the farm as polygamy is for the family" (Swarajya, Madras, 14 February 1959). It was "not an idea born of experience or thought" and tried only in countries "where personal liberty is absent and forced labour is commandeered" (Hindu, Madras, 6 January 1959).

In the summer of 1959—supported by, among others, Minoo Masani, a former socialist from Bombay, and N. G. Ranga, a peasants' leader from Andhra—Rajagopalachari, who had turned eighty some months earlier, launched a new political party, Swatantra (Freedom). He also coined, for a state-controlled economy, the pejorative expression, "Licence-Permit Raj." While enthusing many with its platform of an open economy and individual rights, Swatantra faced long odds in a land where the vast majority were poor, and where Nehru (and later his daughter Indira Gandhi, who championed socialism for much of her career as prime minister) enjoyed a large and seemingly unquestioning following. Confident, however, of his understanding of economics and of human nature, Rajagopalachari asserted in 1971, within six weeks of a bitter electoral defeat at the hands of Indira Gandhi, that Swatantra's policies were "bound to become the government's policies and programs, if not now, some years hence" (Swarajya, Madras, 1 May 1971). This prediction was offered twenty years before India's embrace of liberalization.

One of the first Indians to be publicly troubled by China's policies regarding Tibet and by what he saw as China's hopes of dominance in Asia, Rajagopalachari would nonetheless write in 1969, long before China's economy showed signs of booming, that "the industriousness of the Chinese people, their piety and their adherence to the rules of conduct laid down by Confucius have not ceased to be on account of the black shadow of Communism now upon them. These will shine again." (Swarajya, Madras, 24 May 1969).

Opposing nuclear weapons

From the end of 1954, when the New York Times published in full a 1,300-word letter from him on the subject, Rajagopalachari became known as one of the world's leading opponents of the nuclear weaponry, as well as its chief Indian foe. Asking for the initiation of nuclear disarmament, his Times piece said: "Let either America or Russia begin. . . . Indeed, she who has committed the mistake first is duty bound to begin now, not as a penalty but as a noble privilege" (Gandhi, p. 359).

Meeting visiting Soviet leaders Nikita Krushchev and Nikolai Bulganin at the end of 1955, Rajagopalachari asked them to give up nuclear weapons unilaterally. They said they could not, but added that the Soviet Union would accept a joint renunciation. Six years later, when the Soviet Union exploded a 50-megaton bomb, Rajagopalachari asked Premier Nehru to "ostracize" the Soviet Union. When the United States scheduled retaliatory tests in a portion of the Pacific, Rajagopalachari went a step further, endorsing the suggestion of Bertrand Russell that in protest India should send a ship to the designated waters. Rajagopalachari told Nehru that he would go himself on any Indian ship as a "resister." Nehru was unresponsive.

In 1962, when he was eighty-four, Rajagopalachari made his first trip outside South Asia, flying to the United States in a bid to persuade President John F. Kennedy to abandon nuclear testing. The meeting in the White House went beyond the allotted twenty-five minutes to about an hour and was preceded by an eighty-minute meeting with a team led by William Foster, head of the U.S. Disarmament Agency. On his way back to India, Rajagopalachari met with Pope John XXIII in Rome, urging him to make a formal plea against further testing.

Whether or not at Rajagopalachari's urging, the next papal encyclical included just such a plea, and at the end of July 1963, the United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain agreed on a test ban treaty. In a letter that he wrote to Rajagopalachari on 9 August 1963, Chester Bowles, the U.S. ambassador to India, said that the administration would defend the treaty in the Senate, a "persistence," added Bowles, that was "in no small measure due to your eloquent plea for just such a step as this . . . during your visit" (Gandhi, p. 400).

India-Pakistan relations

During the twenty-five years following the gory birth of free India and Pakistan, and the related beginning of the India-Pakistan dispute over Kashmir, no one strove harder than Rajagopalachari to normalize relations between the two South Asian neighbors. In private letters and public statements, he asked successive Indian prime ministers and their Pakistani counterparts to find a rapprochement; he tried ceaselessly to influence Indian public opinion along similar lines; and three weeks before his death, in the last piece he ever wrote, he called for a fresh "summit meeting as soon as possible" to take the accord that Indira Gandhi and Pakistan's leader, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, had earlier reached in Simla "to its true fulfillment" (Swarajya, 9 December 1972).

The Later Years

A politician who both enjoyed and scorned power, Rajagopalachari seemed to embody other contradictions as well. Thus, while dismissing theories of nuclear deterrence, he defended capital punishment; while keeping an austere, almost bare, home for himself and his children, he called for free enterprise to banish Indian poverty. In some ways the inconsistencies added to his appeal.

Whether written or spoken, his words sparkled. Lionel Fielden, an English friend whose cousins had called on Rajagopalachari in 1962, wrote to him that "they—like me—thought you by far the most interesting and lively man in all India," much more so, Fielden added, than Nehru. Rajagopalachari answered that if Fielden's cousins "found me worthy of the time they gave me," it was perhaps because unlike Nehru, "who is big and too conscious and anxious about it, I don't care and let go" (Gandhi, p. 388).

The sparkle (some of it captured in Monica Felton's I Meet Rajaji) was joined to an attractive modesty. When, in 1950, Nehru as well as New Delhi–based diplomats referred to his success, Rajagopalachari, who was about to leave as governor-general, replied: "The Prime Minister says I have done very well and many of you, my friends of the diplomatic corps, have been saying the same thing, before me at any rate—I do not know what you have said in my absence. What is the secret? I am a simple fellow. I do not hate anybody" (Hindustan Times, 26 January 1950).

A lifelong student of religion in general and Hinduism in particular, Rajagopalachari claimed in 1966 that "as long as there is suffering in the world, as long as there is the great curiosity to unravel truth, as long as men and women have some intense desire to be fulfilled, as long as there is wisdom in this world, the future of religion is assured" (Gandhi, p. 429).

His understanding of Hinduism, offered in his studies of the Gītā and the Upanishads and in his comment-laden renderings of the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata, was of an ancient perspective that remained valid for modern times, and he felt that "the children of the rishis (sages) of the Upanishads have a mission for the world" (Swarajya, 2 December 1972). Yet he disavowed any wish "to plead that the Gita is better or fuller than any other scriptures" (Gandhi, p. 429), and his respect for other religions and their followers was striking.


Apart from the prose renderings of the epics, Rajagopalachari's body of work includes, among other texts, commentaries on the Bhagavad Gītā and the Upanishads, a translation in English verse of the Tamil Rāmāyaṇa of Kamban, about three dozen short stories, and articles (in English and Tamil) published during a period of nearly six decades. All his short stories were written first in Tamil; all their characters are from rural South India. Basing his opinion largely on the short stories, the scholar K. R. Srinivasa Iyengar places Rajagopalachari among "the masters and makers of modern Tamil prose" (Gandhi, p. 431). The Sahitya Akademi (India's Academy of Letters) chose his version of the Rāmāyanṇa as "the best work in Tamil in 1955–1957" (Gandhi, p. 386).

A stream of political writing, often pungent and always trenchant, also flowed from his pen, both before and after independence—much of it in Gandhi's journals, which he at times edited (Young India and Harijan), and later in the weeklies that his associates published in Madras, Swarajya (English) and Kalki (Tamil). Often, however, his columns looked at a world beyond politics and at events outside India, offering urbane reflection and acute observation. They also included insightful, concise, and graceful obituaries of political and nonpolitical contemporaries; because of his long life, Rajagopalachari would write many.

Rajmohan Gandhi

See alsoGandhi, Mahatma M. K. ; Nehru, Jawaharlal ; Patel, Sardar Vallabhbhai


Chatterjee, Bimanesh. Thousand Days with Rajaji. New Delhi: Affiliated East-West, 1973.

Felton, Monica. I Meet Rajaji. London: Macmillan, 1962.

Gandhi, Rajmohan. Rajaji: A Life. New Delhi: Penguin, 1997.

Iyengar, Masti V. Rajaji. Mumbai: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1975.

Rajagopalachari, Chakravarti. Upanishads. New Delhi: Hindustan Times, 1937. An overview of early Hindu doctrines.

——. A Jail Diary. Chennai: Rochouse, 1941. A 1921–1922 diary written in Vellore Jail.

——. Ambedkar Refuted. Mumbai: Hind Kitabs, 1946. A defense of the Congress's stand on the "untouchables."

——. Mankind Protests. New Delhi: All India Peace Council, 1957. On nuclear disarmament.

——. Rajaji's Speeches. Mumbai: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1958.

Sitaramayya, Pattabhi. History of the Indian National Congress. Mumbai: Padma, 1947.

Chakravarti Rajagopalachari

views updated Jun 27 2018

Chakravarti Rajagopalachari

Chakravarti Rajagopalachari (1879-1972) was a prominent Indian nationalist leader, first Indian governor general of his country, and founder of the Swatantra party. He also wrote a popular version of the "Mahabharata."

Chakravarti Rajagopalachari was born in a village in Madras and graduated from the Central Hindu College of Bangalore. He then took a law degree from the Madras Law College. In 1921 Rajagopalachari was chosen general secretary of the Indian National Congress under Mohandas Gandhi's leadership. Soon thereafter his daughter married into Gandhi's family. In subsequent years he was intermittently a member of the all-powerful Congress Working Committee, the top executive arm of the National Congress, and worked very closely with Gandhi.

Government Loyalist

In 1937, when the Congress won the provincial elections in several Indian provinces, Rajagopalachari became chief minister of Madras. He held this position until the outbreak of World War II caused all of the Congress provincial ministries to resign.

In 1942, at the time of the Cripps mission from the British Parliament to India, Rajagopalachari was among the minority of top Congress leaders who favored acceptance of the offer made by Cripps in an effort to end the political deadlock. In 1946 Rajagopalachari maintained his posture as a moderator when he advised acceptance of the Pakistan demand as the price which had to be paid for independence. Also in 1946, he became minister in the interim government which guided India in the final months up to partition and independence.

Parting Ways

Rajagopalachari was the first Indian governor of West Bengal after independence in 1947. In 1948 he was named the first Indian governor general of India, succeeding Lord Mountbatten, the last English governor general. In 1950 Rajagopalachari was named home minister in the Jawaharlal Nehru Cabinet, and in 1952 he returned to Madras as chief minister. He, however, disagreed with the Nehru government's socialist leanings. Soon thereafter Rajagopalachari parted company with the Nehru Congress, and in 1959 he was instrumental in the creation of the anti-Congress Swatantra party, which became the chief proponent of the free-enterprise philosophy in the Republic of India. In 1971, Rajagopalachari organized a right-wing coalition against Indira Gandhi, but it was soundly defeated.

Rajagopalachari played a prominent role in the international Ban-the-Bomb movement. Among other causes not popular with the Congress government was his campaign for religious instruction in the public schools. He also published a highly regarded, abridged edition of the Hindu epic Mahabharata. Rajagopalachari repeatedly denounced the government of India for alleged corruption, bureaucracy, inefficiency, and lack of impartiality. He died on December 26, 1972 in Madras. The Indian government proclaimed seven days of mourning for his death.

Further Reading

An interesting but not comprehensive biography of Rajagopalachari is Monica Felton, I Meet Rajaji (1962). See also Nikan Perumal, Rajaji, edited by Duncan Greenless (1953). Interesting material on Rajagopalachari is in the official history by B. Pattabhi Sitaramayya, History of the Indian National Congress, vol. 2 (1947; repr. 1969).

Additional Sources

(Ahluwalia, B. K.) Rajiji and Gandhi Allora, 1978.

(Copley, Antony) C. Rajagopalachari: Gandhi's Southern Commander Indo-British Historical Society, 1986.

New York Times (December 26, 1972). □