Home / People / #HappyBirthday: Annie Bessant – The British social reformer who became an Indian icon.

#HappyBirthday: Annie Bessant – The British social reformer who became an Indian icon.

On Thursday Google marked what would have been the 168th birthday of an extraordinary woman.

Today’s Google Doodle depicts Annie Besant sitting in a chair holding a copy of ‘New India’, the Indian newspaper which she bought in 1914 and through which she campaigned for Indian independence.

The daughter of a doctor, it was Annie’s religious interests which first brought her to India in 1893 – a visit that would launch a life-long love for the country and a life devoted to its emancipation.

Annie Besant had a remarkably diverse and varied life.

Brought up in a religious household and she married the Reverend Frank Besant when she was just 19.

She divorced her husband and became involved in radical politics, atheism, socialism, theosophy and birth control amongst other campaigning issues.

In imperial terms, her interest was connected to two causes; that of Ireland and then India. 

Her family had strong connections with Ireland and her parents had both been brought up there.  She was radicalised into supporting Irish Home Rule by the events of Bloody Sunday in 1887 and what she felt was the UK Government’s heavy handedness and coercive stance towards the Irish and their political and economic aspirations.

It became a cause celebre for radicals and socialists in Britain and one that catapulted Annie to the forefront of radical opposition to the authorities.

Despite being a prominent speaker she was not arrested at the event as she was a woman!  She became very active in helping to arrange the legal defence of those who were arrested.

A lifetime of campaigning for unfashionable causes and being connected to radical opinion prepared her well for her transition to India.

She had been drifting away from atheism and towards the more Eastern philosophy of Hinduism although initially in its westernised format of the Theosophical movement.

However, the mysticism and educational aspects drew her to India where she embarked on a remarkable career that would see her become the first female President of the Indian National Congress.

In 1893 Mrs Besant had been welcomed to India by Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, president founder of the Theosophical Society and the man who revived Buddhism in Sri Lanka. 

Annie with Colonel Henry Olcott (Left) and Charles Webster Leadbeater.

Olcott hoped she would help him administer the many branches of the Society established since 1882, when he and Society co-founder Helena Blavatsky moved into the former maharaja’s palace on the banks of the River Adyar at Madras.

Besant’s progress towards Adyar was marked by such enthusiastic crowds that she was encouraged into breaking a taboo – she called on them to throw off the foreign yoke.

The government of India had long since made it clear that theosophists must not engage in politics, a rule that Olcott scrupulously observed.

Besant’s speeches caused the local press to hail her as the long-awaited leader against the Raj.

Rebuked by The Times of London or inflammatory remarks, she was called to order by Colonel Olcott.  The duo also differed in the emphasis they placed on existing forms of belief: he was an enthusiast for Buddhism, she immersed herself in Hindu religion and culture.

As long as he lived Olcott presided at Adyar, while Besant made her home for six months every year at Benares, the sacred Hindu city.  She adopted Indian dress, white sari and white sandals: she was in mourning for the wrong British rule had done to India.

For the next fourteen years Mrs Besant was apparently content to carry on her work of regeneration in the field of education.  In 1897, in Benares, she founded the Central Hindu College – monastery and English public school combined – where boys observed the Hindu way of life while becoming familiar with Western ideas.

She published her own translation from Sanskrit of the sacred text the Bhagavad Gita (1895).  According to her its most important lesson was that ‘union with divine life may be achieved and maintained in the midst of worldly affairs’.

In 1907, when Colonel Olcott died, the masters chose Mrs Besant to succeed him when she moved to Adyar.

As president she reinstated Charles Webster Leadbeater, a former Anglican clergyman, who had resigned from the Theosophical Society in 1906 after charges of perversion – which were never proved – were brought against him.

Leadbeater was an observant traveller on the astral plane and wrote many books describing his experiences.

Annie with Leadbetter.

He and Besant collaborated to produce Occult Chemistry, when they used clairvoyance to examine atoms.  Leadbeater was responsible for the discovery on the seashore at Adyar in 1909 of the fourteen-year-old Brahman boy Jiddu Krishnamurti, whom Mrs Besant brought up as the reincarnation of the World Teacher.

Her failure to follow her own advice and keep this discovery secret caused many defections from the society, and was the reason why the Central Hindu College, where a personality cult focused briefly on the boy, ultimately passed from her control (it became the Hindu University).

Olcott’s death enabled Besant to re-enter Indian politics, where she poured her superabundant energy into campaigning for self-government by means of newspapers she controlled – The Commonweal and New India – and in lectures.

In 1913 she joined the Indian National Congress.

In 1915 she proposed to its executive committee that a network of home rule leagues be set up across the country.  While at the outbreak of the 1914-18 war most Indian politicians, including Gandhi, the rising star, called a truce in their opposition to the raj, Besant did not, proclaiming ‘England’s need is India’s opportunity’.

In 1916 the tragedy of the Dublin Easter rising incited Mrs Besant to new heights of ferocity and contempt.

In May 1917 the viceroy, Lord Chelmsford, bowed to Anglo-Indian demands and interned her at Ootacamund.  The historic announcement made at Westminster on 20 August 1917 promising ‘the progressive realisation of responsible government in India’ secured her release, when all India celebrated.
Shortly afterwards the secretary of state, Edwin Montagu, granted her an interview at Viceregal Lodge at which she told him of her long-standing efforts to counter racial discrimination and advised him on his future course.

‘If only the Government had kept this old woman on our side’, he lamented in his diary; ‘if only she had been well handled from the beginning’.

On 26 December 1917 she became the first woman president of the 32nd Indian National Congress meeting at Calcutta.

In political terms, her immediate influence began to wane.

She did not get on with Gandhi, whose new method of passive resistance she denounced, and in 1919 she was reviled when she miscalculated her response to the massacre by British soldiers of civilians at Amritsar in the Punjab.

However, her organisational legacy and professionalization of the campaigning efficiency of the Indian National Congress left a powerful organisation to bequeath to the subsequent generation of Indian Nationalists.

She was an important transitionary figure in the history of the British in India and did much to give Indians the confidence and ability to take on the task of campaigning for increased rights for their country.

She died in 1933 still active in the theosophy movement and advocating Indian home rule.

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