Annie Besant was a British socialist, educationist and women’s rights activist known for her role in fostering the Home Rule Movement in India.
As an educationist, her contributions include being one of the founders of the Banaras Hindu University. Annie Besant promoted studies of ancient Indian religions, philosophies and doctrines. She also established the Central Hindu School to encourage education.
This article will give further details about Annie Besant within the context of the Civil Services Examination.
This article is part of the Modern History segment of the UPSC Syllabus.
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Background of Annie Besant
- Annie Besant was born Annie Wood to William Burton Persse Wood and Emily Roche Morris on 1 October 1847.
- After completing her education, Annie married clergyman, Frank Besant at the age of 20, but her increasingly unconventional religious views led to their separation in 1873. She later became a prominent speaker for the National Secular Society. Her time in the organisation led to their interest in the home rule of Ireland, partly due to her mother being from Ireland.
- Annie Besant became a member of the Theosophical Society and a prominent lecturer on the subject. As part of her theosophy-related work, she travelled to India. In 1898, she helped establish the Central Hindu School, later to be renamed as the Banaras Hindu University.
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Role in the Indian Independence Movement
- Annie Besant had written that “India was not ruled for its benefit, but rather for the benefit of its conquerors” in 1902. She encouraged a national awakening while fighting against social evils such as caste discrimination and child marriage. For the latter, she devoted much time and effort in improving education in India.
- Annie Besant ventured into the political arena when she joined the Indian National Congress (Founded on December 28, 1885). Upon her initial joining, the Congress was merely a debating body whose members considered which resolutions to pass. These resolutions were mild in nature, which demanded a greater say for middle-class Indians in the British government. It was yet to develop into a mass movement that would demand completed independence.
- Upon the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Britain enlisted the support of its colonies against its enemies. The manner in which the support was enlisted was an entirely different debate. But as far as Annie Besant was concerned, this was where India’s opportunities lay.
- In 1916, Annie Besant launched the All India Home Rule League. This was the first faction in India that demanded complete independence. The league worked all year round building a structure of local branches and organising agitations. The colonial authorities on their part put her under house arrest for her activities. Other political parties threatened further agitations if she was not freed.
- As a result, the government had to grant small concessions. One of them was that a possibility of self-rule would be considered once the war would end. Annie Besant was freed in September 1917. In December of the same year, she became the president of the Indian National Congress for one year.
- It was at this time the new leadership of the Congress would pass into the hands of Mahatma Gandhi. He was one of the key petitioners of her release from house arrest.
- Annie Besant would continue to fight for India’s independence until the last years of life. She would go on speaking tours in India and abroad, raising awareness about the independence movement.
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Later Life and Legacy
- Annie Besant continued to be a part of the Theosophical Society until she became ill In 1931. She died on 20 September 1933, at age 85, in Adyar, Madras Presidency.
- After her death, the Happy Valley School in California was built. In her memory, it was later renamed the Besant Hill School of Happy Valley.
- In India, she is widely remembered for her role in the advancement of Indian education and for being a champion of Indian self-rule.
Frequently Asked Questions on Annie Besant
Which newspaper was published by Annie Besant?
Annie Besant started a newspaper called “New India” to highlight issues related to the freedom struggle in India
Who were the founders of the Theosophical Society?
Madame Blavatsky and Colonel Olcott founded the Theosophical Society in New York, 1875.
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