The Tyabjis

Abbas Tyabji (1853?-1936)

Abbas and Amina Tyabji Abbas Tyabji and Mahatma Gandhi
Abbas and Amina Tyabji Abbas Tyabji with Mahatma Gandhi in 1934

The following picture is drawn from The fall of a sparrow by A.T.'s nephew Salim Ali.
Though a moderate nationalist at heart, he would stand no adverse criticism of the British as a people, or of the Raj, and even a mildly disparaging remark about the King-Emperor or the royal family was anathema to him. . . If he had any strong sentiments about Swadeshi he certainly didn't show it by precept or example. . . This being so, he naturally disagreed vehemently with Gandhiji and his methods of political mass agitation. . . In other respects his moderate but simmering nationalism and his absolute integrity and fairness as a judge were widely recognized and lauded, even by leftist Congressmen and anti-British extremists.

Thus it was that after the Jallianwallabagh massacre in 1919, when the Congress set up an independent fact-finding committee, Abbas Tyabji's name as chairman/convenor gained solid support. After listening to and cross-examining hundreds of eyewitnesses and victims of General Dyer's brutality with nausea and revulsion, mixed at first with some degree of disbelief at the applause the General's action had won from Raj diehards and English conservatives, Abbas was a changed and thoroughly disillusioned man. He made a complete political somersault. . . and soon became one of Gandhiji's most devoted co-workers. . . He discarded his western aristocratic life-style and took ardently to simple homespun khadi. He travelled around the country in unused-to third class railway carriages, halting in unlovely bug-ridden dharamsalas and ashrams, sleeping on hard ground and foot slogging miles in the hot summer sun preaching the gospel of non-violent non-co-operation with the `satanic' colonial British Indian Government. All this hectic activity and hardship he undertook when well past seventy, including several years aggregately in jail as a political prisoner.

A glimpse of A.T.'s own perspective on his life and times can be seen in the following extract from a letter to Gandhi in 1921 (taken from Gandhi's Collected Works, v. 20, p 287-288).
I assure you, you need not have the slightest anxiety about my health. I have not been healthier for many years. In fact, the khaddar adopted at Bezwada has simply made me twenty years younger. What an experience I am having! Everywhere I am received most cordially and affectionately even by the women of the villages. Most of the places visited by me have subscribed twice or thrice their quota. . .

Some of our workers are lacking in `go'. I suppose, they represent the very respectable class to which I have ceased to belong. God! What an experience! I have so much love and affection from the common folk to whom it is now an honour to belong! It is this fakir's dress that has broken down all barriers. And now men and women meet me as I would have them meet. If one had only known years ago, how the fenta, the saya, the angarkha, boots and stockings separated one from one's poorer brethren! How, so dressed, it was impossible to get them to confide in one is what I realize only now. How much I have missed in life is just dawning on me. . .

How much the movement has affected the course of my life is only dimly perceptible to me. Still I do perceive it, which is what counts. To realize what pleasure there is in giving is also a fresh experience.

Some idea of his subsequent activities and role may be gained from the following few quotes. In Gandhi's autobiography (My Experiments With Truth ), we read:
Next, the non-co-operation resolution was moved by me at the Gujarat political conference that was held shortly afterwards [in 1920]. . . The successful passage of the resolution was due not a little to the personality of Sjt. Vallabhbhai and Abbas Tyabji. The latter was the president, and his leanings were all in favour of the non-co-operation resolution.
In The Bardoli Peasants' Struggle - 1928 (in the collection We Fought Together For Freedom, ed. Ravi Dayal), Mridula Mukherjee mentions
Abbas Tyabji, who had resigned as a judge of the Baroda High Court to join Gandhiji's Non-Cooperation Movement, and Imam Saheb Kadar Bavazir,. . . were entrusted with the special responsibility of mobilizing the Muslims who, despite their small numbers, were bound to be a special target of government attention.
And in Badruddin Tyabji - a biography, A.T.'s cousin Husain writes of
. . . little Abbas, afterwards distinguished as the man who, on the arrest of Mahatma Gandhi during the Dandi March in 1930, took up the standard and the lead of that heroic band.
Letters and references to A.T. are scattered through Gandhi's Collected Works. On A.T.'s death in 1936, Gandhi wrote a tribute in Harijan.

A.T.'s daughter Sharifa married Hamid Ali (Salim Ali's brother), a District Magistrate in the Bombay Presidency from about 1915 till his retirement "with a sigh of relief" in 1935. Salim Ali writes:

[Hamid Ali's] nationalist leanings and his popularity with political leaders as well as the general public had made him covertly suspect with the rulers, and a marked man from almost his apprenticeship to power. . .

His wife, Sharifa, the daughter of Abbas, was more volubly nationalistic, sometimes rather indiscreetly so, which added to the awkwardness of Hamidbhai's position. She was a strong-willed, dedicated social worker, particularly interested in the education of girls and the social uplift of village women. She was a staunch champion of the Swadeshi Movement, which at the time carried strong political overtones, and she made no secret about it.

In Gandhi's letters, there is also frequent and affectionate reference to A.T.'s daughter Rehana. When he was jailed and not allowed contact with political figures, the young Rehana was a frequent correspondent and undertook the task of teaching him urdu.

Amber Habib / [email protected]
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