In our country where politicians systematically use religion as a tool to divide the nation, many would hardly believe that the closest companion in Mahatma Gandhi’s struggles against the British Empire was an English priest called Charles Freer Andrews also known as Charlie Andrews. The two were born in different countries, grew up in different cultures, and were taught two different religions by their parents. Yet, in the eternal battle between good and evil, Charlie Andrews was destined to occupy a place besides Mahatma Gandhi similar to the one which Lakshmana has besides Rama in the sacred Ramayana.
Born in Newcastle, England, on February, 12, 1871 ; Andrews graduated from Cambridge University in 1896 and was ordained priest in 1897. He became Vice Principal of Westcott College, Cambridge in 1899 ; a position which he left in 1904 to take up a teaching appointment at St Stephens College in Delhi. Andrews was dismayed by the racist behavior and treatment of Indians by British officials and civilians, and therefore, quite naturally, supported Indian political aspirations. He also became a great admirer of the philosophy of Gandhi who was then in South Africa fighting for the rights of Indian immigrants.
Challenging the Indian Indentured Labour System in South Africa and Fiji
Andrews left India for South Africa in 1913 to assist Gandhi get rid of the degrading system of Indian indentured labour, whereby the labourers who had passed through five years of indenture on the sugar plantations were obliged to go back once more under indenture, or else to pay a poll tax of three pounds for every man, woman and child over 13 years of age, an almost impossible feat for these poverty stricken labourers. When Andrews met Gandhi for the first time, he bent down and touched Gandhi’s feet, an Indian custom whereby a younger brother greets his elder brother. Andrews described the peaceful method used by Gandhi to fight the poll tax as being “profoundly Christian in its bearing for those who had eyes to see and ears to hear and understand”. The poll tax was abolished on 30 June 1914. Another result of Andrews’ visit to South Africa was that he managed to convince Gandhi to return to India to take up a leading role in the opposition to British rule. The two were back in India on January 9, 1915.
Eight months later, in September 1915, Andrews was sent to Fiji to enquire about the mistreatment of Indian indentured labourers. He visited numerous plantations and interviewed indentured labourers, overseers and Government officials and on his return to India also interviewed returned labourers. In his report, Andrews highlighted the ills of the indenture system which led to a stop of further transportation of Indian labour to the British colonies. Andrews made a second visit to Fiji in 1917 and although reported on some improvements, was still appalled at the moral degradation of the indentured labourers. He called for an immediate end to indenture and the system of Indian indentured labour was formally abolished in 1920.
Helping the Fight for Indian Independence
Around the same time in India, Gandhi launched non-violent protests against the newly enacted Rowland Act, a legislation which severely limited individual and press freedom. On April 13, 1919 in Amritsar in the Province of Punjab ; soldiers fired 1650 bullets that hit 1516 persons in a crowd participating in Gandhi’s movement cold bloodedly killing over 400 of them. Defying a ban on him to enter Punjab and after several attempts, Andrews reached Amritsar six months later to gather the exact details of the massacre, which were hard to come by because of tight censorship. Andrews wrote about the massacre and ensured that the World, especially all Britons, read about it prompting Gandhi to say that Andrews had done more for India than many Indians.
Thereafter, Andrews assisted Gandhi in the struggle for Indian independence through various means. He prepared the visit of Gandhi to London in 1931 for the Round Table Conference on independence, which unfortunately ended in failure. He regularly wrote in the press and in magazines in Britain and other Western countries to promote an understanding of Gandhi and the Indian national movement. He also visited these countries to meet prominent public leaders, and deliver numerous sermons and lectures. His broad international outlook, compassion for the oppressed in all lands and devotion to Christianity unsoiled by bigotry appealed to audiences of liberal minded people.
Two Brothers, Gandhi and Andrews
Andrews died in Calcutta on April 5, 1940. In summary, Andrews’ Christian educational mission to India transformed him into one of the main architects behind the abolition of the Indian indentured labour system and a non-violent soldier in the fight for Indian independence. During the years that they spent together, Gandhi considered Andrews as “more than a blood brother” to him and the person to whom he was most deeply attached. Indeed, by his actions, Charlie Andrews demonstrated that he and Mahatma Gandhi are respectively the Lakshmana and the Rama of the twentieth century.