Giant without footprints
IT is a sad fact that George Joseph is little known among the freedom fighters of South India, despite his being in the forefront of the struggle along with national leaders. He was very close to Mahatma Gandhi, Motilal Nehru, Kamaraj, Rajagopalachari, Vallabhai Patel, Satyamurthy, Jawaharlal Nehru, Mahadev Desai and many others who lead the freedom struggle. George Joseph participated in the struggle sacrificing his lucrative professional career and personal comforts. He was jailed and his health deteriorated. But it is a sad commentary on those who chronicled the freedom struggle for posterity that his name does not figure where it should, despite his playing a defining role in shaping the policies of the various organisations which were involved in the freedom struggle.
It was to fill this void that his grandson took up writing the biography of his grandfather. Biography under such circumstances might tend to lose objectivity and sing paeans to the subject instead. Fortunately, most parts of the book are fair and objective and the author has taken a detached view of the involvement of George Joseph in the freedom struggle. He has researched extensively and referred to the available documents and placed the life history in perspective. George Joseph was also the brother of Pothen Joseph, one of the most distinguished journalists of the recent past. It is also noteworthy that George Joseph converted himself into a Roman Catholic though he was born a Syrian Christian, though all through his life he preached and practised Catholicism of the highest order.
Born in Changanasseri in Kerala, and educated in England, George Joseph set up legal practice in Madurai in Tamil Nadu. The clarion call of the freedom struggle resulted in his giving up the practice and jumping into the movement. Gandhiji stayed in his house at Madurai in 1919 and their closeness is evident from this fact. Even when he had ideological differences with Gandhiji, he continued close personal relations and Gandhiji poignantly wrote to him, "Oh, George Joseph, why have you forsaken me?"
He had moved to Madurai from his native Chengannur in Travancore, for better professional prospects. But he was deeply concerned with civil and human rights and took up cases of the downtrodden. He fought fiercely in all fora against communalism, religion, caste and gender. He had a commendable knowledge of Constitutional law. He organised the first mill workers' union. He had great mass appeal and could sway the emotions of the masses as he could persuade a crowd of 20,000 to sign the Satyagraha pledge at one go.
George Joseph was the first Christian to get involved in the freedom movement from the Southern states of India and he was one of the pioneers who tried to bridge the North-South divide. As the editor of Independence, which was a task assigned to him, he proved his mettle as he was possessed of intellectual daring, a virile pen and sound political judgement. His standard for national newspapers was emulated by others.
The distancing and disillusionment of George Joseph with Gandhiji started with the Vaikom Satyagraha, the temple entry movement in the then Travancore. The movement heralded the emancipation of the dalits. George Joseph was arrested for participating in the movement and put in Trivandrum jail. He had pleaded for the continuous support of the leadership with Gandhiji. But his pleas went unheeded. He felt that, "the fact that he had been born a Christian precluded him from undertaking certain nationalist activities. It would seem that Gandhi's religious susceptibilities resulted in George Joseph's isolation from some facets of mainstream politics" (p.179). But his association with the abstention movement and Travancore State Congress continued till his death. In 1937 George Joseph was elected unopposed to the Central Legislative Assembly in Simla, where he influenced and stimulated his contemporaries. He fell sick there and died on March 5, 1938. He had, in his last days, supported the interests of Christians in India and a form of secularism that encouraged uniform treatment and legal status for all religious groups in matters of marriage, divorce and inheritance.
This is not a conventional biography containing only eulogies. The chapters on the background and history and the Syrian Christians of Kerala provide exhaustive and authentic information. One only wishes that the book was edited better.
George Joseph: The Life and Times of a Christian Nationalist, George Gheverghese Joseph, Orient Longman, Rs. 325.
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