Remembering Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi, an Editor Who Lived – and Died – for Communal Harmony

Although it is his role as a freedom fighter which is often discussed, Vidyarthi’s concern for communal harmony, an issue he repeatedly took up in his newspaper, must also be remembered.


Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

If an attempt is ever made to select the most courageous editor of India of all times, it is most likely that the choice will be Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi, an editor who fought British colonial rule for 18 years at a stretch with one foot in prison and one in his small office. Working on shoestring budgets, he managed right through this period (roughly from 1913 till his death in 1931) to be highly relevant and influential, his newspaper Pratap becoming a leading forum for the wider freedom movement as well as various struggles against various big feudal and royal forces. Although he was killed at the young age of 41, this legendary editor cum freedom fighter cum friend of all exploited people, had achieved enough to last several lifetimes.

Although in keeping with the main focus of those times, it is his role as a freedom fighter which has been most discussed, this should not lead to a neglect of his other important concerns and efforts. Among these, perhaps the most important concern for him was of communal harmony. He repeatedly took up this issue in his newspaper and also helped several citizen efforts in this direction, particularly in Kanpur, the main area of his work. He played a leading role in forming an organisation called Hindustani Biradari, which organised programmes on communal harmony and joint celebrations of various festivals.

Vidyarthi repeatedly warned people against falling prey to communal propaganda. He could foresee that to divert the rising tide of freedom movement, the forces of imperialism will try to help and incite the narrow communal forces on both sides. So he wrote against this several times. But even he could not have foreseen that his own life would be lost in trying to control this violence.

In the early days of 1931, the popularity of Bhagat Singh and other revolutionaries who had been imprisoned by the British was soaring high. In a different case, Vidyarthi was also in jail but he was released just a few days before the hanging of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev on March 23.

These revolutionaries were very close to Vidyarthi and had very high regard for him. In fact, it can be said that among all Congress leaders, Vidyarthi was probably closest to them. Given his high organisation capability and his mass base, it was very likely that Vidyarthi would have mobilised perhaps the biggest opposition against the hanging of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev. Keeping this in mind, the colonial regime instigated one of the worst communal violence in Kanpur around the same time that the three revolutionaries were executed.

As Vidyarthi had himself just come out of jail, he did not get enough time to mobilise people against this possibility. However, once the flames of violence started burning, he made very determined efforts to even single-handedly rescue as many people as he could. Due to the great respect he commanded among Hindus and Muslims, he was one person who could venture into the muhallas or colonies of both communities to rescue people. People saw him rescuing people including women of both communities from difficult situations.

It was in the course of these repeated efforts that at some stage he was stabbed and killed. His dead body was recovered much later after about two days so the exact time and circumstances of his death remain uncertain, but there are indications that following the death sentence given to Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru, instructions had been given by colonial rulers to also eliminate Vidyarthi as he was seen as a bridge between the revolutionaries and the Congress, a man who was capable of radicalising Congress along a more uncompromising path and equally capable of organising a strong resistance against the hanging of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev.

This view is supported in an interview with his daughter Vimla Vidyarthi who has recorded what she and her mother had heard at that time from others. This interview was conducted by Suresh Salil who has edited and compiled the collected works of Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi. Vimla has stated that her father had successfully rescued some Muslim women but then immediately got involved in rescuing some trapped Hindus, and at this stage he got attacked and killed. Vimla has stated that she sees the killers not as rioters but as persons guided by colonial rulers. She has recalled a well-informed aunt stating that weapons are being distributed in several localities and it is being said that the ‘Lion of Kanpur’ will be killed today (Kahat hai ki Kanpur ka sheru mara jai).Of course the ‘Lion of Kanpur’ reference is to Vidyarthi. The concluding observation of Vimla is that the killing of Vidyarthi was a part of the same conspiracy which led to the hurried execution of Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru.

Bharat Dogra is a freelance journalist who has been involved with various social movements and initiatives.