Kulapati K.M. Munshi: the Pilgrim who marched towards freedom

Kulapati K.M. Munshi: the Pilgrim who marched towards freedom

“A sea shell thrown up by the mighty flood of Indian renaissance,” is how Dr. Kanhaiyalal Maneklal Munshi, described himself. And sadly that is what the post-Independence Indian History Establishment made of him as well. This great litterateur, administrator, patriot, and most importantly, a champion of Indian culture has been cast aside like a shell on the beach. Many youngsters of the present generation know Dr. Munshi merely as the founder of the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, and even there, only in bits. Hence an attempt has been made here to briefly highlight this great patriot’s life:

Early Life

Kanhaiyalal Maneklal Munshi was born on 30 December 1887 in the town of Bharuch in Gujarat. He had his school education in the Khan Bahadur Dalal High School. His higher studies took place in Baroda College, where he excelled in academics. One of his teachers at Baroda College was Sri Aurobindo Ghosh under whose influence the young Munshi was drawn towards the revolutionary activities that was on the rise in the late 19th Century. He even took an interest in the art of bomb-making. But his interest in the revolutionary tactics however faded after finishing his education as he chose concentrate more on social reform. After topping his BA and LLB examinations Munshi arrived in Bombay around 1907 to practice law.

Early Political Career

Between 1907 and 1913, KM Munshi took part in many reform activities, most notably campaigning for eliminating caste prejudices, promoting women’s education and widow remarriages. His precision as a lawyer impressed the eminent legal luminaries of the era like Chimanlal Setalvad, M.C. Chagla and Bhulabhai Desai. During this time he decided to join the Home Rule League. Upon joining the league his diligence and dedication paved his way of becoming its Secretary but that was short lived as by 1916, he went on to join the Indian National Congress.  In 1917 he was elected as a member of the Subjects Committee of the Indian National Congress and was also given the supplementary duty as the Secretary of the Bombay Presidency Association.

In 1927 he was elected to the Bombay Legislative Council but resigned from this post the following year and joined the Bardoli Satyagraha under Gandhi’s leadership. In his own words:

“When the whole of Gujarat and with it India has started on a glorious march to martyrdom, I, who dreamt of their greatness through my literary efforts, cannot stand by and look on.”

True to his words, for the next few years Munshi acted as a faithful lieutenant of Gandhiji taking part in numerous protests organized by him. In the December of 1933 he started the movement for a parliamentary wing of the Congress and in the following year became the Secretary of the Parliamentary Board.

Politics though did not keep him insulated from activities of social welfare. He was the Chairman of the Sir Harkisandas Narotam Hospital in 1924 which would provide treatment to the needy at an affordable rate. In 1926 he was elected to the Senate of the Bombay University as well as the Baroda University Commission. In addition to that he was the chief trustee of many educational charities like the Bai Kabibai Trust and the Seth Manganlal Goenka Charitable Trust.

However, his single greatest contribution to the field of education was undoubtedly the founding of the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.

Meanwhile, Gandhiji’s incoherent stands on the Hindu-Muslim issue along with his weak response to the Muslim League created a rift between him and Dr. Munshi. Also a point of contention was Gandhi’s fanatic pacifism which Dr. Munshi considered troublesome. Although he rejected the idea of radical violence during his college days, KM Munshi always believed that people should be prepared to defend themselves with arms if necessary.  With that view in mind, coupled with eruption of communal tensions as a result of the demand for  Pakistan, Munshi encouraged the Akhada (Gymnasium) Movement in the Bombay Presidency.

Gandhi warned Munshi that the Congress would not tolerate his actions. Without a second thought, K.M. Munshi left the INC in 1940.

Akhand Hindustan Phase

From 1940 up to 1946, Dr. Munshi was part of many socio-cultural bodies, the most famous being Veer Savarkar’s Akhand Hindustan Front which called for an unified India and opposed partition. During that time both he and Savarkar campaigned nationwide calling for the social and cultural unity of Hindus. His speech on this issue is memorable:

 Akhand Hindustan is a living reality, which no man in his senses dare trifle  with. There cannot be any parley on the question of the integrity of India. There can be no compromise on the basis of its disruption. No coercion, no calamity, no slavery, however oppressive will make us agree to such vivisection. From Amarnath to Rameswar, from Dwarka to  Kalighat, the land is one and indivisible. It is sanctified by the sacrifice of Indians of thirty centuries. It is the shrine at which  our gods have worshipped. It is the hope of India’s sons; it will remain such till the end of time. Its inviolability is the first article of their faith here, their salvation hereafter. Whoever seeks to part what has thus been joined, will have to walk over the dead bodies of millions of Indians. And even then, India will remain one and indivisible.

At the same time, he would assist the members of the Arya Dharma Seva Sangha  to carry out  activities related to social reform . However, in 1946, he rejoined the Congress on Gandhi’s request and was elected to the Constituent Assembly.

Role during the Post-Independence years

After the independence of India, KM Munshi was given the post of trade agent (Agent-General) in the princely state of Hyderabad. During this time the Nizam was trying to keep his State independent of the Indian Union, even sending secret signals to the newly created Pakistan for assistance. Knowing the inevitable danger such plotting posed for the Indian Union, Dr. Munshi kept Sardar Patel informed about the doings of the Nizam. His dexterity made the process of Hyderabad joining the Indian Union successful, as acknowledged by Sardar Patel:

On behalf of the Government, I wish to say that we are deeply conscious of the high sense of public duty that induced you to accept this office and the very able manner in which you discharged the duties entrusted to you which contributed in no small measure to the final result.”

Well-known in the legal circles for his political insight and legal acumen, it was not surprising that Munshi was also invited to be part of the committee which drafted the Constitution of India under the chairmanship of B. R. Ambedkar.  There also he left his mark by jointly penning a draft with Dr. Ambedkar which articulated the principle of ‘Fundamental Rights.’

Around the end of 1947, along with Sardar Patel, KM Munshi championed the proposal for reconstructing the Somnath temple, in  Gujarat. Following the death of Sardar Patel, the charge of reconstructing the temple continued solely under K. M. Munshi and in -May 1951, Rajendra Prasad, the first President of the Republic of India, was invited by Dr. Munshi, to perform the installation ceremony for the temple. While Dr. Munshi, saw the movement for reconstruction of the temple as the reversal of past injustice done to Hindus, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, saw the episode as the rise of his pet angst: Hindu revivalism. This point of difference paved way for a subtle clash between Munshi and Nehru.


But it was difficult for Nehru to rout Munshi because he was very popular with the nationalist section of the Indian National Congress. In a shrewd political move, Nehru made him the Governor of Uttar Pradesh in order to keep him away from national politics. Munshi accepted the post and presided over it from 1952 to 1957.

Exit from Congress and final years

Finally in 1959, fed up with the incoherent fiscal policies coupled with intellectual stagnation, Dr. Munshi decided to separate himself from the Nehru-dominated INC. By then, Congress was more or less firmly in the grip of Nehru.

Munshi along with Chakravarti Rajagopalachari, NG Ranga, Piloo Mody and Minoo Masani founded the Swatantra Party, with the aim of creating a strong opposition to the Nehruvian regime. In 1960, he elucidated the principle and intent behind Swatantra as:

The aim of the Swatantra Party, therefore, is clear: it wants to restore free democracy and real parliamentary control to the people ; to meet, as the first charge, the elementary needs of the common people, viz. food, water, housing and clothing at easy prices ; to stimulate private initiative to create employment opportunities; to destroy the weedy growth of corrupt and inefficient bureaucracy ; to place the security of India beyond the grasp of ambitious World Powers, so that we can stand fearless before the world.

 The Swatantra Party has to be made strong and effective to rescue the common man from being regimented, impoverished and enslaved by the totalitarian devices of the Congress.

 To quote the words of our great poet Gurudev Tagore: “A cause as great as India’s should not be “dependent on the will of a single master.”

Sadly the party enjoyed limited success and eventually died out. Later, Dr. Munshi joined the Jan Sangh and was one of the brains behind the formation of the  Vishwa Hindu Parishad. He breathed his last on 8 February 1971.

Personal Life

In 1926 KM Munshi married Lilavati Sheth, a well-known literary critic. This marriage raised some eyebrows as Lilavathi was older to Munshi, and more importantly, she was a widow. But Munshi did not pay heed to these strictures and openly claimed Lilavathi to be one of his intellectual inspirations. Lilavathi was a constant companion of Munshi throughout his whole life.

The Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan


On 7 November 1938, about a decade before independence, KM Munshi gave a fitting reply to the Macaulayist vision of a colonized India by establishing the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan which was intended to impart knowledge and wisdom to the young generation about the pristine heritage of India. In his words:

The Bhavan stands for the reintegration of Indian Culture. In a world falling to pieces under the impact of an amoral technological avalanche, it tries to hold fast to the fundamental values for which our culture stands – Rita, Satya, Yajna and Tapas.

Faith in God who in-forms the Cosmic Order;  Dedication, which offers all movements of life as an offering to God;  Sublimation which purifies the body and mind and transmutes instincts, passions and emotions into things of beauty.

This regardless of forms and doctrines is Dharma, the three-fold aspects of which are Satyam, Shivam, Sundaram – Truth, Love and Beauty.

For these values our forefathers lived and die. So did Ramakrishna Paramhamsa, Swami Vivekananda, Gandhiji, and Sri Aurovindo, among the moderns.They are embedded in our national outlook.

We command the respect of the world because of them. We can look forward to the future with confidence only because they have the vitality which gives the power to vindicate their validity even in this fear – and avarice – ridden age of ours. We, the Bhavan’s family whether it is the smaller one or the larger one, must make even effort in restoring an awareness of this values in personal & collective life.

The Bhavan’s view of connecting Indian education with its magnificent heritage did not mean isolation from the modern world—Munshi wanted the Bhavan to encompass the best of the modern world in the fields of science and management. This makes the Bhavan an exceptional institution where even now classes in Sanskrit and the Vedas are carried out at the same pace as courses in science and management. In the last seven decades, the Bhavan has thrived as a strong national movement with an international outlook, devoted to disseminate as well as modernize the culture of India.

In the words of eminent jurist M. C. Chagla:

A silver thread of continuity ran through all his scintillating comments. And that thread was a passion for India’s greatness, be it in the past, present or future. Munshiji built the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan with the devotion of one engrossed in raising a temple. The Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan is a Somnath of Learning. For sixty-four years, people have sought it out from far and near in what has verily been a pilgrim’s progress….Of this Somnath, Kulapati Munshi was the sthapati (sculptor-architect) no less than the Kulapati. He conceived of the Bhavan, raised it brick by brick, combining as he did so, both breadth of vision and a grasp of detail. Naturally, both the design and its execution turned out to be masterly.

So effective was Munshi’s vision that even his arch-nemesis and the self-proclaimed ‘last English ruler of India’ Jawaharlal Nehru remarked that ‘The Bhavan encompasses all aspects of life from the cradle to the grave and beyond — it fills a growing vacuum in modern life,’ during his first visit to the Bhavan in 1950.

One of the irreplaceable contribution of the Bhavan to India’s education field was the compilation and publication of The History and Culture of the Indian People, a series of eleven volumes on the history of India, from prehistoric times till 1947. The story behind the commissioning and the final execution and delivery of these volumes merits a separate article in itself. The History and Culture of the Indian People is both a unique and an unparalleled feat in modern historical scholarship in India. Historian Ramesh Chandra Majumdar, ‘dean of Indian historians’, was a major contributor and the general editor of the series.

The Bhavan is the living embodiment of everything KM Munshi stood for but as this article suggests the present day Bhavan authorities were silent when the ultra-leftist AG Noorani called Munshi ‘RSS mole in the Congress party’ and someone ‘who brought havoc on Hyderabad during his stint there’. But that is not surprising, considering the times we live in.

What is even more saddening is the fact that the Bhavan is yet to publish a complete, authentic biography of their own Kulapati.

Listed below are some of KM Munshi’s best-known works in English, Gujarati and Hindi :

1.      Gujarat and its Literature (1935)

2.      Akhand Hindustan’ (1942)

3.      Glory that was Gujardesh (1943)

4.      Imperial Gurjars (1944)

5.      ‘The Ruin that Britain Wrought (1946)

6.      The Creative Art of Life  (1946),

7.      Pilgrimage to Freedom (1968).

8.      Verni Vasulat (1914)

9.      Swapna Drashta (1925)

10.  Sneha Sambhram (1932 )

11.  Prithivi Vallabha (1921)

12.  Bhagwan Kautilya (1925)

13.  Jai Somnath (1940)

14.  Sidhan Chandan (1943)