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Kanaiyalal Maneklal Munshi: The Unsung Hero of Indian Independence

India’s struggle for freedom was long and arduous and saw the rise and fall of many a hero. We have remembered a few down the line, and many others have been lost in the ravages of time. Kanaiyalal Maneklal Munshi is one of the great unsung heroes of the battle for Indian Independence, one of the countless brave souls who fought the war against a colonial giant.

Kanaiyalal Maneklal Munshi was born on December 30, 1887, in Bharuch, Gujarat. Not much is known about his family, but they were Brahmins. He was enrolled in the R.S. Dalal High School in Bharuch, where he completed his schooling. In 1902, he joined Baroda College for his higher education. Thanks to his academically bent mind, he excelled in college just as he had in school. Before this, toward the end of his schooling, he was married to Atilakshmi Pandit in 1901.

Kanaiyalal Maneklal Munshi’s academic excellence can be summed up by jotting down just a few of his academic achievements. He passed the First LL.B in 1905 with flying colors, securing first class and a prize. The year after, he was awarded the Elliot Memorial Prize for completing his Bachelor of Arts degree. In 1910, K.M. Munshi passed the final LL.B exam, again with flying colors. And it must be noted that in the intervening years, he had already embarked on his political career and actively promoted education and literature among the masses.

During his college years, Kanaiyalal Maneklal Munshi became acutely aware of the country’s political situation. Aurobindo Ghosh, later revered as Sri Aurobindo, was a teacher at Baroda College, and Kanaiyalal Maneklal Munshi developed a close kinship with his teacher. Sri Aurobindo’s philosophies influenced the man greatly, and he began to take an active interest in the social and political reforms India so badly needed just then.

Being a lawyer and a prominent politician took up the lion’s share of Kanaiyalal Maneklal Munshi’s long career. However, that did not deter him from pursuing his other love, literature. As a young man just out of college, Munshi was appointed the secretary of the Gujarati Literary Society, or the Gurjar Sabha. While a member of the society, Munshi won the Students’ Brotherhood Motiwala Prize for his essay: “The Theory and Practice of Social Service”.

Kanaiyalal Maneklal Munshi was truly a multitasking personality. At any given time, he was practicing law, actively participated in the political scenario, bidding for the country’s freedom, and relentlessly continued to gift inspiring, informative and amazingly beautiful prose to the country. A true academic with a wide variety of interests, Munshi’s historical novels are an asset to India’s literary tradition. As skilled in English as he was in his vernacular Gujarati, K.M. Munshi is the author of the famous historical trilogy in Gujarati, Patan-ni-Prabhuta, Gujarat-no-Nath and Rajadhira. He experimented with genres; while the trilogy is strictly historical fiction, he also wrote several fictionalized history novels based on the early Aryan settlements in India and 10th century India, among others.

By volume, Kanaiyalal Maneklal Munshi’s works might not seem impressive to the casual onlooker. However, regarding the sheer literary value and informative potential, Munshi’s contributions to Gujarati literature and Indian writing in English cannot be overestimated. His non-fiction and drama novels stand testament to a brilliant and insightful mind teeming with academic curiosity. His works gained widespread attention during his lifetime, so much so that two movies were released based on his novel Prithvi Vallabh.

However, as a formidable political adversary to the British Raj that Kanaiyalal Maneklal Munshi stood out. His political career started under the tutelage of the philosophies of Aurobindo Ghosh, his teacher at Baroda College. Later on, in the course of his career, he came into close contact with and was influenced by several other eminent personalities of the Freedom Movement, Mahatma Gandhi, Maharaja Sayaji Rao Gaekwad, Bhulabhai Desai and Sardar Patel, to name a few. His prolific career in politics earned him the nickname ‘Kulapati’.

Kanaiyalal Maneklal Munshi launched his political career just at the time when Mahatma Gandhi was coming into prominence in the scene. In 1907, while he was settled in Mumbai, then Bombay, he attended the Surat Congress. This turned out to be a turning point in his life; it was here that he received a firsthand experience of the fiery freedom fighters Lala Lajpat Rai, Bipin Pal and Bal Gangadhar Tilak.

Munshi quickly rose to prominence in his legal career after working as an Advocate in the Bombay High Court, which helped further his political career. A noted barrister and esteemed jurist, Munshi was to be appointed a member of the Experts Committee for drafting the Constitution of India later in his life. He joined the Home Rule League in 1915 and, two years later, became a member of the Indian National Congress’s Subjects Committee.

His passion for what he did and ardent belief in India’s ability to be a sovereign nation propelled him through the ranks. He was elected Secretary of the Bombay Presidency Association and the Bombay Home Rule League early in his political career. This started a long succession of huge responsibilities he was asked to take on constantly on the political front, whether as Secretary of the Congress Parliament Board or as Agent-General of the Government of India in Hyderabad.

Kanaiyalal Maneklal Munshi was a die-hard advocate for India’s freedom, and nothing came in the way of fulfilling his dream. He was well settled in his career when he risked everything and took part in the Salt Satyagraha Movement in 1930, a decision that led to six months of incarceration. In the same year, he participated in the Civil Disobedience Movement, which again led to a three-month imprisonment.

Munshi’s crusade for sovereignty did not stop there. 1932 he started an anti-Congress campaign, which awarded him a two-year rigorous imprisonment sentence. At the same time, he resumed his participation in the Civil Disobedience Movement, which added another year to his sentence. Following Gandhi’s incarceration, he started a rigorous campaign for his release and was arrested for carrying out individual Satyagraha.

K.M. Munshi founded several educational institutions, including the Meghji Mathradas Arts College, Sanskrit Visva Parishad and the Narrondass Manordass Institute for Science. But his contributions do not end in the field of academics only. He worked extensively for children and women as the vice president of the Children’s aid society and as President of the Society for Protection of Children in Western India. He was also a savior for women who wished to pursue higher education but could not because of accommodation issues. In 1938, he established a Girls’ Hostel in Bombay for college students.

Munshi was the man with the Midas touch. Everything he touched turned into gold, and his accomplishments cannot be counted on the fingers of one hand. He contributed extensively to advancing education in India, a cause he wholeheartedly believed in. The lion’s share of his work in the political and academic field was directed toward ensuring that education became accessible to the farthermost reaches of the country.

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