Belagavi’s links with the Mahatma

On December 26, 2018, the India Post brought out a special cover commemorating the only time Mahatma Gandhi presided over a convention. It was way back in 1924, a good 95 years ago, that he did so for the 39th conference of the Indian National Congress (INC) which was held in Belgaum on December 26-27. The special envelope brought back a deluge of memories of that special conference. No wonder, the 2019 Republic Day tableau of Karnataka will be showcasing the event.

When Gandhiji was released from jail in February 1924, he had observed that the fierce spirit of fighting for freedom had somehow weakened. Factions within the Congress were also a cause of concern. In the light of these developments, the Belgaum session was proposed by Gangadharrao Deshpande and Srinivas Rao Koujalgi, who had attended the Kakinada session in the previous year. 

Charting history

Those were the times when the fire of the freedom struggle was raging throughout the Indian subcontinent. At that juncture, Belgaum province, with barely seven districts was in no way a match to the bigger cities with better infrastructure. However, in the constitution adopted by the INC at Nagpur, it was decided to linguistically reorganise the provinces and hence, in 1921, Karnataka was accorded a separate province status.

Another aspect in favour of Belgaum was that the 1916 Bombay Provincial Conference was held here. It was at this conference that Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak launched the Home Rule League. It was also a turning point where the two wings of the Congress, that is, the moderates and the nationalists came together for the next Congress session at Lucknow.  Historical documents show a suitable venue that was chosen for the session, which had civic amenities and also touched upon rural life. The venue was aptly named ‘Vijaynagar’, reminiscent of the famed kingdom of Karnataka. A gopura erected by a company called Srinicas and Co on the lines of Virupaksh Temple at Hampi was a major attraction.

A large khudder tent was set up for the session, decorated at the entrance by a white marble fountain. Local freedom fighters who were fortunate to attend the session with elders reminisce about seeing the stalwarts sitting on plain carpets and greeting anyone who came visiting. One such veteran is Vitthalrao Yalagi, who recalls meeting Gandhiji who inquired about his studies in chaste Hindi. 

An interesting aspect of this session was the arrangements for parallel sessions running along with the main session.

A well was dug to quench the thirst of the thousands of delegates who attended the conference. The well was installed with steam pumps that pumped 30,000 gallons of water every day which was then distributed across the venue through pipes. The well came to be known as the ‘Congress Well’.

The other facilities included a large dining hall, subjects committee hall, central offices, spinning hall, medical aid centre, a concert hall where Carnatic ragas were performed, accommodation facilities, water and sanitation facilities. The Hindustani Seva Dal women wing also had recruited 150 women volunteers under the leadership of Umabai Kundapur.

A letter by Gandhiji after the conference speaks his true nature of frugality and his penchant for simplicity. He chides the organisers for allocating a ‘khudder palace’ in place of a ‘khudder hut’ that he had asked for and was not happy for having spent rather lavishly.

In his letter post the event, published in Young India dated January 1, 1925, Gandhiji praises the efforts by Gangadharrao Deshpande, Dr N S Hardikar and their band of volunteers whom he found had done a commendable job. He was also impressed by the work of Kaka Kalelkar and his volunteers.

Reminiscence

Records testify that the main office bearers included M R Kembhavi who put together a detailed report of the session,
B B Potdar, S L Soman and H S Koujalgi. Each of the functions had individual committees entrusted with the work. In fact, it was this session that saw electricity being used on a large scale in Belgaum as also the large scale use of the railway station. 

Pictures of the hosts, led by Gangadharrao Deshpande, the chairman of the reception committee, welcoming the national leaders at the railway station, fill one’s heart with warmth.

Leaders such as Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Dr Rajendra Prasad and Sarojini Naidu attended the session. 

Udayavagali Namma Cheluva Kannada Nadu, a song hoping for a united Karnataka, written by Huilgol Narayanrao, was sung by the young Gangubai Hangal with a chorus. People from all over Karnataka, especially from Belgaum, made a mighty contribution through cash and kind for the success of Belgaum Congress. A detailed statement of accounts of the session can be found even today and leaves one awestruck. 

The success and significance of this event is that it brought a stimulus of nationalistic fervour among the people of Karnataka irrespective of caste and creed. 

Moreover, it remains special and historic as the only session which Gandhiji presided over. 

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Belagavi’s links with the Mahatma

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