Annie Besant: The Champion of Women’s Rights

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Women's rights activist, Theosophist, and supporter of Irish and Indian self-rule, Annie Besant's legacy is immortal.

Annie Besant existed at the intersection of socialism, women’s suffrage and Theosophist mysticism. But her name is also inseparable from any history of the Indian independence movement, as it was Annie who started the Indian Home Rule movement along the lines of the one in Ireland.

Annie was perhaps the first powerful woman in Indian politics. Though British, she took up the Indian cause as her own – setting aside earlier causes and spending the last 40 years of her life in India. It was India that represented the best blend of all that she believed in during her 20s. She called the country the “mother of spirituality” and lamented the effect that British rule had left on the Indian people.

As a lifelong activist, many of Annie’s ideas were too big for her times. She married a cleric, the Reverand Robert Besant. But when she was just 26, she separated from her husband after refusing to take communion. Her atheist leanings were considered intolerable in an orthodox environment. As she wrote in her autobiography:

Then I did not guess how cruel men and women could be, how venomous their tongues; now, knowing it, having faced slander and lived it down, I deliberately say that were the choice again before me I would choose as I chose then; I would rather go through it all again than live.

It did not deter her. She fought for birth control in Ireland in 1877 (a struggle that continues today). She was influenced by the Malthusian theory of population growth, where populations could only grow so large before they ran out of food to support them. She also toyed with socialism, being a close associate of prominent Marxists – earning her the nickname ‘Red Annie’.

But from worker’s emancipation, she shifted to a spiritual track. Her journey to India came courtesy the Theosophical Society, who saw India as the birthplace of many of their own esoteric ideas. She sailed to India in 1893 and helped set up the Adyar Theosophical Society in Madras.

Theosophy, and particularly its powerful leader – Madame Blavatsky – had changed Annie’s outlook on life. Her views sometimes came to odds with themselves. She renounced advocating birth control in favour of abstinence. She praised the caste system but she criticised the inferior role ascribed to women, with restricted lives. 

This saw her take up some causes, prominent among women’s rights activists, and drop others. However, before setting up a school for girls, she set up one for boys in Benaras in 1898 (which became the first college under the Benares Hindu University). She critiqued Westernization, and during a talk at the Maharani Girl’s School in Mysore, urged girls to “worship the Gods, obey your parents and your husbands, and be like flowers, whose sweet fragrance perfumes all the houses.”

Her ideal of the ancient Hindu world came to odds with reformist movements against child marriage, widow remarriage and patriarchy. But some viewed her idea of reform as biding time.

In 1901, she published a series of lectures titled “Ancient Ideals in Modern Life” – and argued that abolishing child marriage as well as the caste system would return Hinduism to its purest form. In 1904, she set up the Central Hindu Girls’ School and called for the universal education of Indian girls, and wrote:

Indian greatness will not return until Indian womanhood obtains a large, a freer and a fuller life, for largely in the hands of Indian women must lie the redemption of India.

By 1913, she took her firmest stance – calling for Indians to “wake up” at a lecture in Madras. The many social ills against women could no longer be tolerated, in particular, their social seclusion after widowhood. As she wrote:

This shutting up of women is unworthy of civilization. Indian men do not deserve to be free politically, until they give freedom socially to Indian women.

In 1917, she helped the Indian National Congress pass a resolution on women’s suffrage (though suffrage only achieved in practice in 1950). Throughout all this, she attempted to culturally assimilate in India as best as she could – wearing a Sari, and learning Sanskrit.

What she is most remembered for is the Home Rule Movement, which she launched along with Bal Gangadhar Tilal in April 1916. It called for India to be governed by self-rule – along the lines of the Irish Home Rule movement that was also underway during the first World War.

One hundred years ago on June 15, 1917, she was placed under house arrest at her home in Ooty. Her imprisonment triggered nationwide protests. The pressure built up until the Secretary of State of India, Edwin Montagu, announced: 

…progressive realization of responsible government in India as an integral part of the British Empire.

It was a victory, but the movement soon changed hands. The rise of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and the Non-Cooperation Movement saw Besant’s Home Rule League incorporated into the Indian National Congress. She remained a key figure within the INC for the rest of her life – as much a doyen of the movement as fellow Theosophist A.O. Hume.

Annie’s Indian feminism was a shade different from what she supported in Britain. The suffragette movement in the United Kingdom was far more active and militant than the passive movement she led in India. It had her complete support. Indeed, when she was a young activist in Britain, she often participated in worker’s protests – and was among the first women to write university examinations under London University at Birkbeck college. Her views on secularism, birth control and Fabian socialism made her a controversial student, whom examiners wanted removed.

It was her deep fascination for Indian tradition, a by-product of her Theosophist beliefs, that led her to take a different approach in India. As with the political struggle for independence, the mantle of championing women’s rights was soon taken up by her successors – most notably Sarojini Naidu.

Annie’s legacy is that of a champion of mixed causes. She fought for a universal, underlying religious truth, for the separation of Church and State in Britain, for the emancipation of women as well as that of the Indian idea. The diversity she lent to the early Indian independence movement is now an immortal part of Indian history. But it is clear that Annie Besant was a thinker of the world. It would not be fair to limit her to India alone.

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