When an envelope arrived at my Chennai doorstep a few days ago, I could not but laugh out aloud. The lifafa was addressed to ‘Shri M.K. Gandhi, Former Governor of West Bengal.’ Museums show letters addressed to him with impossible-sounding addresses such as ‘Mahatma Gandhi, Somewhere in India’, and ‘Mahatma Gandhi, Emperor of India’. But this one, with its particular designation was an absolute, if unintended, original. Gandhi had, at different times, been a ‘former’ many things — a former barrister, a former sergeant major from South Africa’s battlefronts, a former editor, a former Congress president. But being at the needle-point of the present moment, he was never really a former anything. He was the present.
But ‘former governor’! Try as I did, I could not picture him seated behind an ornate table under chandeliers, attending with unhurried ease to the transactions of a Raj Bhavan. He, too, would have had a hearty laugh at the mix-up in the honest-to-goodness envelope meant for his grandson whose name has often got abbreviated to ‘G.K’. But on, and with governors, the Mahatma had much to say and do.
Having returned to India from South Africa via England on January 9, 1915 at the age of 46, he met Lord Willingdon, the then Governor of Bombay before a week had elapsed. “The moment I reached Bombay,” he writes in the autobiography, “Gokhale sent word to me that the Governor was desirous of seeing me, and that it might be proper for me to respond...”
A key word here is ‘proper’. A sense of propriety led Gandhi to call on many a British governor during the 33 years that he was to spend fighting for the freedom of his country and the redemption of his people from their own self-inflicted enervations. Gandhi’s discussions with Lord Willingdon who was later to become Viceroy of India (1931-36), were soon followed by a very constructive interaction in June 1917 with the Lt Governor of Bihar, that led to the setting up of a commission of inquiry into the plight of Champaran’s indigo workers.
In Bengal — and later West Bengal — for instance, having sought in vain an appointment with Lord Curzon in 1901 when visiting the city from South Africa, he went on to interact with successive governors. Meeting Sir John Anderson in 1937, Lord Brabourne in 1938, the Churchill-appointee R.G. Casey over seven sessions stretched across December 1945 and January 1946, and Sir Frederick Burrows twice in 1946 and 1947, he corresponded with them to differential effect. His crucial intervention with Governors Casey and Burrows played a timely part in the release of political detenus.
Maie Casey has written in her engaging memoir Tides and Eddies, “I was not the Governor. I was only the Governor's wife, therefore my conversations with Gandhi flowed in unrestricted freedom. His eyes behind the thick lenses were shrewd and kind and comforting. I had the feeling that if I were in trouble I would like to go to him for advice, which though it might not be for me entirely functional would be wise and human...”
Change was in the air when Gandhi called on Bengal’s last British Governor, Burrows. The Clement Attlee-appointee asked Gandhi on October 30, 1946, “What would you like me to do?” The question was remarkable and historians would not fail to note it was coming from a direct successor-tenant in that house, of George Nathaniel Curzon who, 48 years earlier, had refused to see Gandhi. The answer Burrows received was terse. “Nothing, Your Excellency.” Gandhi was indicating that, after the British declaration to quit, the governor’s position was to be that of a constitutional head.
Burrows’ successor and West Bengal’s first Governor C. Rajagopalachari, reversing the earlier pattern and practice, called on Gandhi at his Beliaghata camp-residence five times in August and September, 1947. So, did Gandhi believe that with independence coming to India, governors would have nothing left to do?
Narayan Agarwal, a dedicated Gandhian and later a follower of Vinoba Bhave, gave Gandhi an occasion to express himself clearly on the subject. In November-December 1947, Agarwal cogitated on the office and role of governor as was being debated in the Constituent Assembly. He, of course, did not know then that he himself would, some two decades later, be Governor of Gujarat, when he wrote in an article that winter: “In my opinion there is no necessity for a Governor. The Chief Minister should be able to take his place and people’s money to the tune of Rs 5,500 per month for the sinecure of the Governor will be saved...” Agarwal then went on to make some suggestions regarding the criteria and procedure for the appointment of governors — if indeed that position was to be retained under the new Constitution.
Responding to Agarwal’s comments, the Mahatma wrote in the Harijan of December 21, 1947: “There is much to be said in favour of the argument advanced by Principal Agarwal [sic] about the appointment of provincial Governors. I must confess that I have not been able to follow the proceedings of the Constituent Assembly. I do not know the context in which the proposal under discussion has been made. But, examined in isolation, the criticism appears irresistible; with the exception that much as I would like to spare every pice of the public treasury, it would be bad economy to do away with provincial Governors and regard Chief Ministers as a perfect equivalent. Whilst I would resent much power of interference to be given to Governors, I do not think that they should be mere figure-heads. They should have enough power enabling them to influence ministerial policy for the better. In their detached position they would be able to see things in their proper perspective and thus prevent mistakes by their Cabinets. Theirs must be an all-pervasive moral influence in their provinces.”
On May 8, 1949, Governor General Rajagopalachari convened a meeting of governors which was also addressed by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Deputy Prime Minister Sardar Patel. The word ‘figurehead’ featured in what Rajaji said to the gathering of governors. “You should not imagine that you are just figureheads and can do nothing... Our Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister do not hold that view. They want you to develop your influence for good and they expect you to find means for achieving it without friction and without prejudice to the march of democracy.” The governors attending included industrialist Homi Mody, the veteran non-Congress political leader M.S. Aney, the free-thinking political leader and barrister Asaf Ali, the Congressman and lawyer K.N. Katju, the Maharaja of Bhavnagar, and ICS officer C.M. Trivedi. All of them took the ‘march of democracy’ forward. None of them saw their role as being bigger or less than what the Constitution had envisaged. They saw things, to borrow Gandhi’s phrase, “in the proper perspective”.
It is not always easy to see things in the proper perspective, especially when unearned criticism or undeserved praise surrounds one. I can never forget an unintentional lesson in perspective of a governor’s role that I received from an unknown correspondent in Kolkata. Meaning to give me a sense of gubernatorial grandeur, she managed to do exactly the opposite. In the process, she gave me a laugh as hearty as the envelope addressed to a ‘former governor’ that India never had. She began her letter to me in a beautiful hand with the unforgettable words: “I am honoured, Sir, to be addressing a letter to the Figurehead of the State.”
Gopalkrishna Gandhi was the Governor of West Bengal from 2004 to 2009
The views expressed by the author are personal