Was Mysore loyal to another idea of India?

Pasts without Prejudice

Was this the Ramarajya under a philosopher-king, as Gandhi termed it in 1927?

In a famous speech given by Dewan Mirza Ismail in 1938, he urged the people of Mysore to bathe using Mysore sandal soap, dry themselves with Mysore towels, drink Mysore coffee, wear Mysore silk, ride Mysore horses, build homes using Mysore steel and timber, light them with Mysore lamps and write on Mysore paper. He had a lifelong commitment to economic rather than political democracy. Of all the princely states he served – Mysore, Jaipur and Hyderabad – he succeeded most in Mysore, as Dewan for 17 years. Did Mysore also develop a distinct idea of nationhood?

Was this the Ramarajya under a philosopher-king, as Gandhi termed it in 1927? Or did Mysore conform to a more contentious version of a ‘Hindu’ state? The Hindu Mahasabha, for instance, yearned to connect princely states under Hindu princes with a purer ‘Hinduness’. BS Moonje, in his presidential address to the Baroda Hindu Sabha in April 1944, was quite explicit: "[T]he prince who is ruling the states is a representative of the Hindu Raj of the past and as such incorporates in himself all traditions of dignity, and is suffering and fighting for maintaining the Hindu Raj against foreign opponents who were opposing them during the past 500 years or so... ". They were not above tweaking the truth to fit their goal.

Nothing in Mysore would fit this characterization. The state was well on its way to crafting another kind of nationhood out of its own past, of which I give one or two examples here. In 1922, Krishnaraja Wodeyar IV inaugurated a mosque for the Muslims in His Highness’ Body Guard Troops with a speech in Urdu, explaining what he saw as Rajadharma:

“It will give me great pleasure if the Mussalman community makes full use of the mosque and if they constantly resort to it for prayer and meditation. This mosque is situated on one side of the lines; the Hindu temple is on the other side. Each ministers to the spiritual needs of its followers. Each is symbolic of that unity in diversity, which will, I hope, become in an increasing measure a pleasing characteristic of the motherland, with all its diverse castes and creeds…if by providing them [i.e. Muslims] with a mosque and by coming and taking part in the function, a Hindu like myself encourages them to become truer Muslims practicing the high principles and following the noble traditions of their religion, I feel happy and amply rewarded…I hope that you will bear in mind that you are Mysoreans first and all the rest next…”

Ismail similarly recalled, in his autobiography My Public Life: “I felt that it pleases the Almighty even more by serving other faiths than one’s own...for to serve other faiths calls for something more vital than passive tolerance.” (emphasis added)

What made this alternative vision possible just when communal riots were ravaging the Indo-Gangetic heartland? Mysore had a long and distinguished career in fostering what Kengal Hanumanthaiah hailed as ‘a composite state.’ For example, on four occasions – 1884, 1885, 1889, 1890 – Mysore’s Dewan Sheshadri Iyer refused those members of the Legislative Assembly demanding prohibition of cow slaughter, saying that the custom had been in existence for so long that it was impossible to ban it without the explicit consent of all classes of people.

Curiously, this was precisely Gandhi’s stand, too, in 1927 when the Mysore Cow Protection Committee, an all-Hindu body constituted by the Maharaja to explore the prospect of a legislative ban, asked for his opinion. Legislative bans were meaningless: a positive programme was necessary in which Mysore had already led the way.

“It (Mysore) has, from all accounts received by me, a popular prince, an enlightened public opinion, no Hindu-Mussalman question, and a sympathetic Dewan. Mysore has also the Imperial Institute of Dairying and Animal Husbandry, and Mr William Smith, the Imperial Dairy Expert, is himself stationed at Bangalore. The state has, therefore, all the materials necessary for evolving a constructive policy.” (emphasis added)

No wonder, as Ismail recounts, “the committee expressed itself unanimously against any restriction in the matter of cow slaughter” unlike other states. “Their opinion,” he says, “was based mainly on economic grounds.” How remarkable that men separated by time and space – Sheshadri Iyer, Gandhi, Mirza Ismail, and Krishnaraja Wodeyar IV – shared a possible idea of India, economically independent, and culturally inclusive. Cow slaughter was banned only in 1964, when the memory of that possible India had been wiped clean. 

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