As Independence Day is being celebrated on Monday, one is inclined to recall the profound contribution of Sister Nivedita. We are looking forward to her 150th birth anniversary. The story of her transformation from a loyal British citizen to an Indian in heart and soul is as legendary as it is historical. Her Master had once told her, “What the world wants is character.” Nivedita proved by her character that India&’s teaching is unique and hard to come by. The Indian intellectual and spiritual elements afforded to her an elevated purpose of life. Her gratitude to India, therefore, was tremendous.. Before coming to India she openly asked her Master: “Tell me frankly and candidly whether I should be of use to India. I want to go. I want India to teach me how to fulfill myself.” From the very outset, she held India in very high esteem.

Nivedita&’s keen interest to come and serve India for Independence was embedded in an urge that was infused by her Master, Swami Vivekananda. Once convinced of her sincerity, he called her wholeheartedly. He inspired her, saying: “The earth&’s bravest and best will have to sacrifice themselves for the good of many, for the welfare of all. Buddhas by the hundreds are necessary, with eternal love and pity.”

She was quick to grasp the import of the message and translate the same into action. She braced herself for the arduous task of regenerating India. She understood its meaning when her Master told her again, “Bold words and bolder deeds are what India wants.” Which is why, she worked with such intrepidity.

Sister Nivedita came to India in early 1898. While on a trip to the Himalayas, she learnt that her Master was being spied upon by the police for his patriotism. She heard he might be even incarcerated. She flared up and wrote to her friend: “The government must be mad, or at least will prove so if Swamiji is interfered with. That would be the torch to carry fire through the country. And I, the most loyal Englishwoman that ever breathed in this country (I could not have suspected the depth of my own loyalty till I got here) will be the first to set it alight! You could not imagine, living in England, what race hatred means.” 

After arriving in India, she noticed the abysmal suffering of the people. She realised that the British Government had thwarted India on all fronts. The administration had tactically curbed all rights and privileges of the natives. It was sickening to notice that India had been reduced to a dwarf of a giant and was being exploited to the hilt. India must regain her lost individuality and stand on the strength of her own national pride. She carried forward its task which was initiated by her Master, making a dent on society by his achievements on the world stage.

In 1903, she perceived that people “come themselves” for a movement, responding to the call her Master gave to the nation. “He is the magnet, and that draws steel dust of itself,” she wrote.

Sister Nivedita was unequivocally set to retrieving: 1) “The right of India to be India;” 2) “The right of India to think for herself;” 3) “The right of India to knowledge.

On each of these three fundamental scores, the British Government was tricky and oppressive. Curzon was one of its accomplished architects. Nivedita had heard about him from Sir William Wedderburn. She remarked: “So able and so self-satisfied. And so ambitious!” She considered him to be “a dreadful Viceroy”. She contemptuously remarked about “a strict sense of justice in administering the law that is created on the basis of injustice”.

In her reckoning, the most irksome factor was that Curzon was blocking India&’s right to education. She wrote: “We have had a University Commission lately, which has done its very best to kill Education, and especially all science Education.” Her agony for India&’s pains was excruciating — “When will the Motherland rise again…!” England was no more her Motherland, although she was born there. She felt ashamed of England for its atrocious rule in India, with a view to robbing the country of the liberty to be a nation.

She overtly accused the British Government of throttling India&’s freedom. But, to awaken a torpid people to a nation without any idea of nationality was an impractical proposition. She said: “The whole task is now to give the word ‘Nationality’ to India — in all its breadth and meaning. The rest will do itself. India must be observed by this great conception. Hindu and Musalman must become one in it, with a passionate admiration of each other.”

It is amazing that none but Sister Nivedita realised India&’s real need so early as in 1903. She knew the way religions were being preached among simple and ignorant masses; it could turn out to be an insurmountable obstacle towards national integration. Her Master had once hinted at such a predicament — “Religions of the world have become lifeless mockeries.” Communalism could be stifling and lead to difficulties. Therefore, to begin with, no other consideration should take precedence. She said: “It means that a final understanding of the fact that the political process and economic disasters are only side-issues, that the essential fact is realisation of its own Nationality by the Nation.” Evidently, her plan was to start an Independence movement on a firm footing, specifically an unbreachable national unity.

Nivedita had developed a rapport with both the moderates and the extremists. She offered them counsel and assistance regularly. GK Gokhale, the moderate, was a member of the Viceroy&’s Council. She wanted him to expose the dubious nature of Curzon. She wrote to him: “How I trust that you will have the power to fight many a battle yet, never letting the colours fall, while they are in your keeping!”

Curzon ensured that Bengal was partitioned in 1905. There was a widespread agitation against it. Nivedita fought tooth and nail to stall it. Gokhale was then in England for a conference. She urged him “to write asserting that the will of the people should be supreme with regard to their own interest in the matter (partition of Bengal).”

To her, British insolence was insufferable. In a letter to Gokhale she wrote: “I hope you will not be shut up while you are in England, amongst a few saintly and exquisite persons, but that you will have the chance of judging my people as they really are — often blood-thirsty, always money-thirsty, degraded by injust wars and losing hold of the things that were of old the glory of the English name.”

Sri Aurobindo, an extremist, came in contact with Sister Nivedita while conducting his political activity from behind the scenes. He made her a member of the secret organization Anushilan Samiti.  Nivedita first met Sri Aurobindo at Baroda in 1902. She is believed to have given him a copy of Vivekananda”s Raja-Yoga when he left British India for Chandannagore and finally for Pondicherry. He entrusted his Karmayogin, a part political and part spiritual journal, to Nivedita&’s charge.

Sister Nivedita&’s crusade against the British in India was phenomenal. For 14 years, she served India through penance, privation and perseverance. She passed away in Darjeeling on 13 October 1911. Her supreme sacrifice is unparalleled in the history of mankind. India became free 36 years after her passing; her contribution, alas, is still unknown to most Indians.

The writer is associated with Ramakrishna Mission Ashram, Narendrapur in West Bengal.