When Charles Freer Andrews was on his deathbed, he had a message for a dear friend. One of the last things the Englishman said was, “Swaraj is coming, Mohan.” The Mohan he was addressing was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who in turn fondly called him ‘Charlie’. Andrews shared a special bond with Gandhi, worked closely with the Indian National Congress and, most importantly, was a ‘friend of Indians’.
Today marks the 150th birth anniversary of this extraordinary Englishman, who devoted half his life to the cause of India’s freedom. Sadly, the contribution of Charles Freer Andrews (1871-1940) has been all but erased from Indian history.
Andrews was an Anglican priest and missionary. He had originally planned on going to Central Africa but when the son of his Cambridge teacher, Bishop Brooke Foss Westcott of Durham, died in Delhi, Andrews’s mind turned to India. He arrived in Bombay on 20th March 1904, and proceeded to Delhi, to join the Anglican Cambridge Mission there and to teach philosophy at St Stephen’s College.
Already, he was an Indophile, largely as a result of the great influence of Bishop Westcott, who believed that India and Greece were the “two great thinking nations of the world and…had made the history of the world”.
Even though Andrews had grown up hearing ‘heroic’ stories of the British Raj, which his father believed was “the noblest thing on earth”, in his unpublished memoirs, he recollects being fascinated with India from an early age. “I want a bit of rice to eat with my dinner every day – please!” he told his mother as a young boy. “You see, I am going to India when I grow up, and father says everyone eats rice there. I must get used to it before I go.”
Becoming a man of the cloth was not a surprising choice. His father was a bishop. From an early age, Andrews developed a strong sense of social justice and, as an adult, became interested in the struggles for justice throughout the British Empire, especially in India.
When he arrived in India, nationalist passions were running high, a defining event being the partition of Bengal in 1905, the year after he arrived on the subcontinent. Often clad in dhoti and kurta, he gave speeches in Hindi and rebuked his Indian detractors, saying, “Your country is my country.”
His commitment to the nationalist movement was, of course, fraught with irony. As an Anglo-Saxon, a wide ethnic and cultural gulf separated him from the Indians. As a Christian missionary, he was also looked upon by Arya Samajists as a ‘missionary spy’. In short, there was every reason for Indian freedom fighters to doubt his motives.
British colonial administrators too looked upon this dhoti-clad, Hindi-speaking Englishman with suspicion. In 1907, his name was struck off a list of nominees for fellowships at Punjab University by the provincial governor for no reason other than his being regarded as a friend of Indians. Andrews was the proverbial hot potato. He couldn’t be jailed as that would create “a hell of a row”.
Yet, such was his popularity among Indians, that one official complained: “If today the Viceroy were to say ‘do this’ and Andrews were to say ‘no’, ninety-nine per cent of Indians would obey Andrews rather than the Viceroy.” His popularity among Indians even drew the attention of the British House of Commons, where one member demanded that he be deported to England and tried for sedition!
During his initial years in India, there were two incidents that moved Andrews as cruelty was heaped on Indians by the Empire. The first was related to a close friend Sushil Kumar Rudra, vice-principal at St Stephen’s College in Delhi. In 1906, when Andrews was filling in as principal of the Lawrence Military Asylum (now The Lawrence School) in Sanawar near Shimla, he had to withdraw his invitation to Rudra to stay with him during the summer vacation due to the objection of an English teacher there. The incident wounded him deeply.
In 1907, Andrews managed to convince the Cambridge Mission to appoint Rudra as the first Indian principal of St Stephen’s College, Delhi, overcoming objections from influential churchmen who believed that appointing an Indian would “lower” the standards of the college.
The second incident that left a deep impact on Andrews was with regard to a Punjab government circular known as the Risley Circular of 1903, which prohibited the mention of political issues in government colleges. To preserve its academic independence and freedom, St Stephen’s College chose to ignore the circular, attracting the government’s disfavour and surveillance. Andrews was shocked to discover the extent to which Secret Service-type methods were being used against those suspected of being nationalist sympathisers, including himself. He even caught a police spy rifling through his papers in his room!
When Andrews sent a letter to the Deputy Commissioner demanding an apology, the latter replied, “My dear A., its nothing to do with me; its those CID people,” the CID being the Criminal Investigation Department.
Andrews’s sympathies for Indians would get him involved in the work of the Indian National Congress, but it was his close friendship with two extraordinary Indians, Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore, that would shape his work on the subcontinent for the next 30 years.
He had met Tagore in London in 1911 and had struck up a great friendship with him. In 1913, on the advice of nationalist leader Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Andrews went to South Africa to help Indians agitating there for their rights. It was there that he met Gandhi, then a practising lawyer, and developed a friendship with him that would last a lifetime.
For the rest of his life, Andrews became the link between Gandhi and Tagore – Tagore’s brother Dwijendranath aptly coined the phrase “hyphen between Tagore and Gandhi” – two great Indians who agreed on most things but had passionate disagreements on a few issues.
Andrews exerted a deep, behind-the-scenes influence on interpreting Indian leaders to the British authorities. Whether it was Viceroy Lord Hardinge in the early years or Lord Irwin, British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, the Governor of British-Guiana Lord Gordon Guggisberg, or General Jan Smuts of South Africa, many doors were open to Andrews.
Even his rather careless dress sense did not come in the way. He might turn up for a meeting at an exclusive London club wearing canvas shoes, unpressed flannel trousers and a shirt frayed at the collar. One Secretary of State, Edwin Montagu, paid him a back-handed compliment, describing him as “God’s own fool”.
Andrews also had a role in pushing the same Montagu to end the system of indentured labour in the Pacific island of Fiji in 1920. His work among the indentured labourers in Fiji would earn him the title of ‘Deenabandhu’ or ‘Friend of the Downtrodden’. And MacDonald would later write a letter to Andrews acknowledging his great contribution.
In 1931, a political pact was signed between Gandhi and Lord Irwin, the Viceroy of India, in which the Congress agreed to attend the Second Round Table Conference in London to discuss India’s political future. Andrews, who had been visiting the United States and South Africa, at once rushed to London to prepare the ground for Gandhi, who was to take part in the talks on behalf of the Congress.
He wrote letters and gave interviews to the press about Gandhi and sent a message to the British government, saying that across the 20 years that he had known Gandhi, he had found him to be an essentially truthful man and that the situation could come to a right settlement only if leaders had confidence in his honesty and sincerity.
Andrews was at hand to receive Gandhi when he arrived and hired an office for him close to the conference venue. Although Andrews’s efforts did raise Gandhi’s image, the Round Table talks failed to produce a responsible government for India. Gandhi returned to India, only to find that the British government had hardened its policy towards the Indian movement, jailing him and thousands of freedom fighters.
Andrews did not give up and opened informal channels to British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, but this did not work either. Instead, the new British government in the UK announced the ‘communal award’ in August 1932, which reserved separate electorates based on religion. Gandhi began a fast-unto-death to press for an agreement between the Hindus and the Dalits so that the communal award with respect to the depressed classes could be scrapped.
Andrews again became active and got in touch with MacDonald, the India Office and a number of his influential friends including Lord Sankey (who later became Lord Chancellor), Lord Irwin and Liberal leader Lord Lothian. Andrews held regular consultations in London and sent out briefings on the evolving situation to daily and weekly newspapers in England. American and Canadian news agencies reached out to Andrews for help in interpreting the situation too.
Meanwhile, worried by the deterioration in Gandhi’s health amid his still-ongoing fast, Andrews obtained an assurance from the British prime minister that the government would quickly accept an agreement reached between the caste Hindus and the depressed classes and scrap the communal scheme in this respect. This agreement was reached on September 24 under what is known popularly as the Poona Pact. This was a weekend and the prime minister and his cabinet colleagues were out of town. So Andrews borrowed a car and went out to meet MacDonald on Sunday at Chequers and spent the entire evening going from interview to interview.
He realised that the prime minister’s message must go out immediately or it could be fatal for Gandhi. The message went out and Gandhi broke his fast. In a letter to The Manchester Guardian, Andrews paid tribute to the courage and statesmanship of MacDonald. The prime minister acknowledged the “very fine-spirited and generous letter… It is just the man whom I have respected so much for a good many years now, and I would like to let you know how it impressed me.” In this way, Andrews helped temper the general British attitude towards India and towards Gandhi.
Andrews also worked in close association with Indian leaders to bring about social reform and improve the predicament of the downtrodden, whether it was plantation workers in Fiji, East Africa or Assam in India, or unpaid workers in the Shimla hills. He was indifferent to material comforts and was known to give away his shawl or his overcoat to impoverished people he met along the way. He also gave away money, and this often left him penniless. His biographer Benarsidas Chaturvedi has said no one still knows how he supported himself during those years in India. Many Indians and Englishmen were known to have helped him financially.
Sadly, C F Andrews did not live to see Swaraj come to India. He died in Calcutta on 5th April 1940, aged 69.
Kalyan Chatterjee is a Delhi NCR-based freelance journalist. He worked as a full-time journalist in the UNI and the Deccan Herald and taught mass communication for 18 years. He is the author of the book Media and Nation Building in Twentieth Century India: Life and Times of Ramananda Chatterjee.
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