Among the most extraordinary people I have met, and interviewed as a journalist, was Gandhian scholar Pandit Sunderlal (1886-1981).
Pandit Sunderlal had become a legend in his lifetime. He was better known as the author of Bharat Mein Angrezi Raj, a 1,000-page tome in Hindi, whose publication in 1929 shook the British Empire.
The Raj banned the book within four days of its publication. However, by that time its 1,700 copies had already reached the readers.
The Government launched a massive drive to confiscate the printed copies of the book, raiding almost 1,000 houses of citizens across the country who were suspected to possess its copies.
However, revolutionaries resorted to clandestine circulation of the banned book that exposed, with facts and figures, the colonial policy of ‘divide and rule’ to subjugate India.
To possess and read the ‘subversive’ book became a matter of pride among freedom fighters. It was even smuggled inside prisons, page by page.
Mahatma Gandhi raised his voice against the ban, describing it as “daylight robbery” and advised the citizens to refuse to hand over copies of the book to the police.
In an article in Young India, Bapu said that the book was a “praiseworthy attempt to inculcate non-violence”.
Soon it became a cause celebre. Freedom fighters would recite from the book on open stage at nationalist meetings and then go to jail for breaking the law.
Motilal Nehru filed a case in Allahabad High Court to revoke the ban. Top nationalist lawyer of that period, Tej Bahadur Sapru, appeared in the court to plead the case.
The ban was finally lifted in 1937 after the Congress came to power in several provinces.
Such was the craze for the four-volume tome that when it was reprinted, the publisher received pre-publication booking for 14,000 copies. Onkar Press of Allahabad made it available to readers at the cost price of Rs seven.
Historian BN Pande
One little-known fact about the book: He collaborated with his friend, historian Bishambhar Nath Pande, to write it.
Sunderlal used to dictate it, consulting the volumes of research material he had gathered for the purpose, even as Pande would write it in longhand.
Pande was a champion of Hindu-Muslim unity in his own right and would later become the Governor of Orissa.
Facing ban on his writings was nothing new for Sunderlal, who had spent several years in British prisons as a freedom fighter.
In 1909 he had started publishing two magazines, Karmyogi and Hindi Pradeep in Hindi and helped the launch of Swaraj in Urdu.
Karmyogi became very popular and soon enrolled 18,000 subscribers. In fact, it was at Karmyogi that the renowned Hindi journalist, Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi, cut his teeth in the profession.
However, the British Government banned all three magazines after one year. It also confiscated the press that printed the magazines.
In 1918, Sunderlal came out with another Hindi weekly, Bhavishaya, which became a daily newspaper later. Offended by its anti-imperialist tone, the Government demanded a surety of ₹ 10,000 – a big amount those days.
The newspaper managed to furnish the surety. But subsequently, the Government demanded a second surety of ₹ 14,000. The newspaper folded up.
Born a Kayastha
Interestingly, Pandit Sunderlal was not a Brahmin.
He was born in a Kayastha family of Khatauli, Muzaffarnagar, (UP) on 26 September 1886.
Impressed by his knowledge after his book was published in 1929, Madan Mohan Malaviya, the founder of Banaras Hindu University, started calling him Pandit. The name stuck.
At one point of time, around 1912, he came into contact with the revolutionaries of the Gadar Party. Young Sunderlal moved to Solan in Himachal Pradesh and started living like a monk, assuming the name of Swami Someshwaranand.
His house in Solan became a centre of revolutionary activity for three years. In 1913 the police raided it in connection with assassination attempt on Lord Charles Hardinge, then Governor General of India.
Close to Bapu
Sunderlal’s life changed after he met Gandhi in 1915. The revolutionary became an apostle of non-violence and secular soldier of Gandhi.
He became so close to Gandhi that when post-partition riots engulfed Pakistan and India, Bapu sent him to Pakistan as his emissary to meet the rulers of Pakistan and work out a formula for restoring peace. Through out his life, Sunderlal kept working for the cause of Hindu-Muslim unity.
Sunderlal was present at that fateful prayer meeting at Birla House on 30th January 1948 when Bapu was assassinated. In his own words: “I was among the two persons who supported Bapu when he started falling down after he was shot at. We took his body to a room. Fifteen minutes later Vallabhbhai came. Jawaharlal reached after some time and started crying.”
I met Sunderlal in 1970. The occasion was a conference of Sampradayikta Virodhi Andolan at Allahabad. I had travelled from Patna with some class-fellows from BN College to attend the conference.
By that time Sunderlal was 84 – a stooping, frail, old man, with overflowing beard and thick glasses.
Gandhi & Mao
He stunned the audience when he took to the stage. Recalling his meeting with Chinese leader Mao Zedong, he overcame with emotion and said in a choked voice, “I felt as if I was in the presence of Gandhiji.”
Mao and Gandhi? What was the similarity? “He was such a simple, unassuming man. We were waiting for him in a room and when he walked in, dressed in a coarse uniform like everyone else, that I thought he was one of the staff members.” The frail old man was visibly moved, tears rolling down his cheeks.
According to his memoir, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru even used him as a backroom mediator in Sino-Indian border dispute.
Seven years after the Chinese Aggression, I interviewed him on the subject. Here is that interview, Between the Lines, published in Frontier of 4 July 1970. It is written in the words of Sunderlal.
Pl click on the link below to access PDF of the interview: