The Field Marshal of Social Reform: Kandukuri Veeresalingam

The Field Marshal of Social Reform: Kandukuri Veeresalingam

On his 170th birth anniversary, April 16, the man born in 1848, one hundred and seventy years ago, came from a humble background, and it took...

On his 170th birth anniversary, April 16, the man born in 1848, one hundred and seventy years ago, came from a humble background, and it took twenty-two years of age, for him to be a Matriculate.

Before that, he was already a married man, and after considering Government service, legal profession, he refused to join either, citing the reason that to be less corrupt, one should be away from these professions, and chosen the career of a school teacher. This teacher had not only taught in schools, but he taught the society, what is modernity, progress, and scientific thinking.

In advancement of women emancipation from early marriage, he delivered his first speech at the Rajahmundry Provincial club on August 3, 1879. Responding to the clarion call of social reform ringing across the sub-continental expanse, Kandukuri Veeresalingam, followed closely the national reform movement, as a result of which, almost on the sidelines of the 1857 sepoy mutiny, the first widow marriage was conducted in Bengal, in 1856.

After twenty-three years, in entire south India, in the Madras composite state, the first widow marriage was performed at Rajahmundry, on December 11, 1881. Before that Kandukuri advocated the necessity of bringing these hapless women into the mainstream, and his arguments relied heavily on scriptures, and he not only delivered lectures but also published many books espousing the cause. In these postulations, Kandukuri quoted Manu, Yagnavalkya, Parasara Smrithi (social codes), and cited numerous examples how the women of epic times had better freedom, and life ennobling opportunities.
Veeresalingam, a social reformer of national status interacted with greats like Justice Mahadev Govind Ranade, Iswar Chandra Vidya Sagar (who commended his widow marriage activities), and he emulated the ways of Raja Rama Mohan Roy.

The Indian Social Reform annual meetings were held in important centres all over India. It was attended by progressive-minded eminent stalwarts from across the length and breadth of India, KT Telang, Babu Narendra Nath Sen, Dr Mahendra Lal Sircar, GS Kharpade, Rai Bahadur Ram Kali Chaudhury, Dewan Narendra Nath, Justice Sir Subramanya Iyer, Dr RG Bhandarkar, Rao Bahadur Wamanrao M Kolhatkar, Rai Bahadur Lala Baij Nath, Man Mohan Ghose, Justice NG Chandavarkar, etc. One such national meet was held at Madras, the social reform movement honoured Kandukuri, making him the president of the session.

Here, Kandukuri Veeresalingam, in 1889, delivered a presidential address in English. This rare speech is rather available for the first time, and this gives us a glimpse of his English proficiency and social reform capabilities. By then, Kandukuri had conducted more than 10 widow marriages, and was famous in entire south India, along with his wife, as the couple who safeguarded the beleaguered young widows. In furthering the cause of modernity, logic and rational understanding, he authored many essays, plays, and other works which amount to more than one hundred and thirty works.

This crusader, who fought with failing health throughout his life, breathed his last at Madras on May 27, 1919, at Veda Vilas, his friend Komarraju Lakshmana Rao’s house at Egmore. The government of India has honoured his memory by releasing a commemorative postal stamp on July 15, 1974. Paying tributes to Kandukuri, we reproduce here his address in English to the National Conference of Social Reform, at Madras, 1889. On April 16, at Visakhapatnam Beach, “Kandukuri Veeresalingam Jaya Mala” is being organised by Mosaic, wherein representatives of State Government, public personalities, and students’ community will participate in honouring the savant.

Here is Rao Bahadur K Veeresalingam’s Presidential address at the Twelfth Social Conference of Indian Social Reform, at Madras, 1889.

Ladies and gentlemen, I consciously feel that I am a humble and incompetent individual, am not worthy of the position, which has been thrust on me and which has been filled with credit at the previous conference by eminent and worthy gentlemen, with whom I hardly bear any comparison. I wish your selection had fallen on an abler person. As it is your pleasure, that I should occupy the chair, I heartily thank you for the honour you have conferred on me.

We met here to consider questions of the gravest importance to our society and hence to the commonwealth; for, I believe the political development of a country must largely depend upon the social condition of the community which supplies the physical, intellectual and moral resources of the people. The real work of improving our social environment undoubtedly lies outside conferences of this kind, but meetings, discussions and resolutions are also necessary to prepare the ground and to fill the moral atmosphere of the community with ideas, which when they enrich the blood of the people, will stimulate them to action.

I have myself always endeavoured in my own humble way to work on the plan which makes an action, follow as closely as upon the heels of conviction. I may, therefore, be pardoned for the observation, that discussions and resolutions do not by any means exhaust the real work of social or any kind of reform, although they have their own part to play in the grand drama of the evolution of the humanity.

I understand that the methods of physical science have influenced all departments of modern thought in the west. My acquaintances with physical sciences is not as wide as I should have liked it to be, but so far as I am able to judge, men of science work upon the principle that true knowledge must be based on experiment and observation.

I fancy that that wonderful engine, which has brought many of you hundreds of miles from the various parts of this vast continent was not devised by a single effort of imagination, but its evolution was a slow process, in which hundreds of trials had to be made with patience, and perseverance by as many brains and hands.

The electricians who have harnessed lightning to drag the tram car, though by no means at lightning speed in our city, did not, I conceive, rely merely on a prior speculations as to how the development of electrical science ought to proceed, but they had to make innumerable trials patiently and perseveringly.

And if patient and plodding work is necessary in the domain of physical science, where the laws which the elements obey, are more easily ascertainable, patient and plodding and often painful work is still more necessary for social reform, in as much as the laws of the human mind and human society are more difficult to understand and more difficult to be made the basis of any dogmatic theory.

I have sometimes been bewildered by the discussions in newspapers about what are called methods of social reform. That bewilderment is no doubt largely explained by the fact that I am not competent to grasp the latest sociological discoveries of Western savants, but I must confess that I have generally missed in these discussions any reference to the efforts made by the disputants to check their theories by this experience.

Patient, honest and intelligent work is not only the one indispensable condition of the success of the social reform movement, but it is also the only safeguard against errors of judgments and the results of preconceived theories. The work cannot, of course, be done in annual meetings like the Conference, but as I said before, meetings of this kind have also an important function to perform in the social economy of the movement.

It should not be necessary in the twelfth conference, and it would be presumptuous in an unsophisticated individual like me to attempt to set forth the objects which may be served by a Conference like this. But as I laid some stress on the work that has to be done outside the Conference, I wish to be permitted to be point out that these annual meetings contribute in an eminent degree to keep the ideas of reforms, as it were, in the air. That in itself is insufficient and forms no part of the work of social reform, but it forms a material part of the means of reform.

You often hear it stated that the Conference is all talk, and nothing will come of it, but a mere waste of breath. I hope nobody will accuse me of fondness of hearing my own voice, for I seldom speak in public, but it seems to me that those that regard these conferences as mere tamasha take altogether a narrow view of the imperceptible influence of such gatherings.

The annual Conference should certainly be supplemented by the activity of smaller bodies working throughout the year. Without such activity, the conference will sooner or later begin to suffer from the effects of inanition. But while I think that the Conference must have a large number of feeders, the annual gathering itself will rest on those feeders and serve to combine them into one harmonious system of organisation.

The Conference may thus be reckoned among the educative agencies which make for reform. You often hear it stated that education is the best remedy for the evils from which our society is suffering. If by education you mean that which imparted in schools and colleges, this statement does not express the whole truth, and our educated men themselves will bear out the truth of my remark, for, we know the majority of the educated men are as backward in espousing the cause of social reform in practice as their uneducated countrymen.

Then again observation will reveal to you communities in which education has made such great progress that there is hardly a man in them unable to read and write, and yet which would not give into society to an England-returned man and much less to a remarried widow.

A friend was telling me the other day that a well-known local Hindu gentleman of great age and experience was once bitterly remarking to him that education, while it makes good men better, makes bad men worse. This epigram, like others of its kind, must no doubt be accepted with a good deal of reservation; but observation will show you that literary education is often a double-edged weapon.

For your purpose, this education, which makes men think and undoubtedly prepares the ground, must be supplemented first, by a familiarity with the ideas of reform, and secondly be the influence of personal example. But a personal example cannot, of course, be set in annual meetings. These can only contribute to render the right kind of ideas, more familiar to the people. These Conferences, therefore have an important function to perform.

The subjects which you have to consider, though generally called social, relate to the individual and the family, as well as to society at large. The questions of temperance, purity and perhaps female education, may be said to primarily relate to the individual. The question of infant marriage, widow marriage and others of that kind may be said to relate to the family.

The elevation of the depressed classes, inter-marriage between sub-sects, foreign travel, religious endowments, and such other subjects may be said to affect the society at large. But all these questions are intimately connected with one another. For, what affects the individual, affects the family, and what affects the family must affect society.

It is not for me now to speak on any of the particular subjects you may discuss. I have no doubt that the various speakers will do ample justice to the several subjects, which are entrusted to them and discuss them with a maturity of judgment, the fairness of reasoning, but coupled with courage and enthusiasm for the cause they uphold.

There is one matter to which I should like to refer before I conclude. The President of the last year’s Conference expressed an opinion that your Madras friends’ promise ere long to my mind to be exemplars and models of earnest workers for the rest of India’. I am afraid, however, that the notions which seem to be entertained in other parts of India about our activity and earnestness are very much exaggerated.

My friends may not thank me, If I dispel that illusion about Madras, and it may even be quoted as yet another iconoclastic tendencies of social reforms. But, the truth must be told, we in Madras are as earnest or as apathetic as our brethren elsewhere. There is as much vacillation and temporising here as in other places.

We are fond of inventing false theories and lame excuses to justify our conduct, as people are elsewhere. We undertake difficult schemes as hastily, and fail in them as woefully, as perhaps in other parts of our country. In these circumstances, to accept all kind of encomiums, which are now and then showered on us for our earnestness, will go to prove that we are neither earnest nor honest. We may have to learn more from you than you say you have to learn from us. At any rate, let all learn from one another, and help and encourage one another.

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