The Curious Case of Annie Besant

In 1917, when the Indian National Congress met in Calcutta, they did something ostensibly curious. They elected a European woman president. This was Annie Besant. Yet to explain this remarkable journey of this remarkable person, one only need go back to the moment she arrived in India in 1893.

Already a free thinker, a Theosophist, a New Woman, and a socialist, she entered India after a long-held interest in the country. She had reviewed the writings of Benjamin Disraeli and judged them imperialistic. She had further come into contact with Madam Blavatsky and been elected the President of the Theosophical Society, the headquarters of which were located in then Madras.

While her initial stance was that of spiritual idealism, and was more involved in educational, cultural and social reform, her later writings acquired a more political nature. This has been attributed to both the Bengal unrest of 1906 as well as to the Irish demand for Home Rule (she was three-fourth Irish).

Her role was fundamental in the Indian struggle for Independence during the First World War. During this period she redoubled her efforts to critique British imperialist policy and helped found the Home Rule League which worked towards acquiring the right to self independence of the Indian nation.

Thus, when the Indian National Congress did elect her, it was through taking into account all of these reasons and several others. Regarding this Theosophist New Woman to work towards the betterment of those it considered oppressed. Her life-story provides a fascinating record for historians of this period and her writings a source of inspiration to those struggling for social, cultural and political reform.