Do you know that the very first one to oppose British rule was a Christian Priest? Charles Freer Andrews was a Church of England priest. A Christian missionary, educator and social reformer in India, he became a close friend of Mahatma Gandhi and identified with the cause of India’s independence. He was instrumental in convincing Gandhi to return to India from South Africa, where Gandhi had been a leading light in the Indian civil rights struggle.
In 1906, voicing these sentiments, Andrews soon became involved in the activities of the Indian National Congress, and he helped to resolve the 1913 cotton workers’ strike in Madras. Accamma Cherian was a freedom fighter from the erstwhile Travancore (Kerala), India. She was popularly known as the Jhansi Rani of Travancore. In February 1938, the Travancore State Congress was formed and Accamma gave up her teaching career to join the struggle for liberty. Under the State Congress, the people of Travancore started an agitation for a responsible government. C. P. Ramaswami Iyar, the Dewan of Travancore, decided to suppress the agitation.
On August 26, 1938, he banned the State Congress which then organised a civil disobedience movement. The prominent State Congress leaders including its President Pattom A. Thanu Pillai were arrested and were put behind the bars. The State Congress then decided to change its method of agitation. Its working committee was dissolved and the president was given dictatorial powers and the right to nominate his successor. Eleven ‘dictators’ (Presidents) of the State Congress were arrested one by one. Kuttanad Ramakrishna Pillai, the eleventh dictator, before his arrest nominated Accamma Cherian as the 12th dictator.
Accamma Cherian led a mass rally from Thampanoor to the Kowdiar Palace of the Maharaja Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma to revoke the ban on State Congress. The agitating mob also demanded the dismissal of the Dewan, C. P. Ramaswami Aiyar, against whom the State Congress leaders had levelled several charges. The British police chief ordered his men to fire on the rally of over 20,000 people. Accamma Cherian cried, “I am the leader; shoot me first before you kill others”. Her courageous words forced the police authorities to withdraw their orders. On hearing the news M. K. Gandhi hailed her as ‘The Jhansi Rani of Travancore’. She was arrested and convicted for violating prohibitory orders in 1939.
Barrister George Joseph was born in a Christian family in Kerala. He was a strong participant in the Home Rule Movement. He later became a disciple of Gandhi. He died in 1938. Have you heard of Titusji? He was also a Gandhian. He participated in the Salt Satyagraha. He was one of the Satyagrahi who followed Gandhi on his March to Dandi. He is depicted as a Christian priest following Gandhiji in the Salt Satyagraha sculpture. The Christian missionaries who gave full support to the nationalist cause were embarrassed and indignant of the British colonial government. Among these missionaries, the most well-known names are Stanley Jones, C.F.Andrews, J.C.Winslow, Varrier Elwin, Ralph Richard Keithahn and Ernest Forrester-Paton. Some missionaries were even deported from India for their support to the nationalist cause. Given this situation, missionary sources do not speak about the political and nationalist involvement of missionaries for fear of having to come under the censure of the government. In spite of this, there were numerous Christians who involved themselves in the freedom struggle. George Thomas, a well-known Church historian maintains that the Indian Christian Community played an influential role, especially in the early phase of the Indian National Congress – founded in 1885 – which was the premier instrument of political nationalism. The influence of Christians was impressive in the various sessions of the Indian National Congress. In the third annual session of the Congress in 1887, out of 607 participants in the session, 15 were Indian Christians, and among those who addressed the assembly was Madhu Sudhan Das (1848-1934, popularly known as ‘Utkal Gourab’), a well-known leader from the Christian community in Odisha. The number and influence of the Indian Christians continued to be impressive in the subsequent sessions of the Congress. Kali Charan Banerjee (1847-1907), a Bengali Christian and a fine orator, regularly addressed the annual sessions of the Congress in moulding the policy of the National Movement.
In the Congress session of 1889, among the 10 women delegates, three were Christians, Pandita Ramabai Saraswati (1858-1922), Mrs Triumbuck, Mrs Nikambe. There are records of active Christian participation in the Swaraj Movement (1905), the Non-Co-operation Movement (1920), the Civil Disobedience Movement (1930) and the ‘Quit India’ Movement (1942). Since the 1920s, many Christian institutions and organisations like the All India Conference of Indian Christians, the National Christian Council of India, Christian leaders and student groups related to United Theological College (Bangalore), Serampore College (Bengal), St. Paul’s College, Calcutta (Bengal), Malabar Christian College, Calicut (Kerala), the Youth Christian Council of Action (Kerala), the Student Christian Movement of India, the Indian Christian Association of Bengal, a conference of Christians in Bombay, a meeting of Christians in Palayamcotta and Tinnavelly, and passed the resolutions expressing complete solidarity with the freedom movement. Some of them even took part in massive manifestations against the British colonial government. J.C.Kumarappa (original name John Jesudason Cornelius, 1892-1960) was a veteran Congress leader. He was a professor of Philosophy for some time at Lucknow University.
On May 9, 1929, he met Mahatma Gandhi at Sabarmati Ashram and that resulted in their becoming close associates. He was a strong supporter of Satyagraha and encouraged Christian participation in the national movement. Before Mahatma Gandhi started off the Dandi March in 1931, he encouraged Kumarappa to write regularly for his weekly Young India and informed him that he would be its editor after his imprisonment. Thus, Kumarappa became the Editor of Young India and his fiery writings gave him one and a half years of rigorous imprisonment in 1931. But fortunately, he was released after a couple of days, because of the Gandhi-Irwin Pact. He took up the editorship of Young India from Mahatma Gandhi in 1932, which again sent him to jail and was detained in Nashik prison for two and a half years. In 1942, he was under detention and trial for a year and a half in both Mumbai and Nagpur.
During the ‘Quit India Movement’, he had a hand in the underground activities in Bombay along with his Congress colleagues. These secret sabotage activities led to his arrest. He was sentenced to two and a half years of rigorous imprisonment for three charges and sent to the Jabalpur Central Jail until 1945. He was also a prominent figure in Congress affairs; he was given a chance to be a member of the All India Congress Working Committee in the place of Jay Prakash Narayan in 1947. The list of Christian freedom fighters is long, we must respect all those who fought for freedom irrespective of their religion. But these days, BJP leaders have forgotten oneness and nationalism.