President: 1852-1944 (Nagpur, 1920)
Salem C. Vijayaraghavachariar, as he was popularly known, was born on June 18, 1852 in an orthodox Vaishnavite Brahmin family at Pon Vilaindha Kalathur, in Chingleput district, Tamil Nadu.
His father being a purohit and steeped in religious lore, was eager to bring up his son according to orthodox traditions. At a very early age, Vijayaraghavachariar was sent to the Veda Pathshala in his village and was brought up in a tradition of memorising the Vedas. This stood him in good stead in later years.
His English education began in his twelfth year when he joined the Madras Pachaiyappa High School. He matriculated in 1870. He graduated from the Madras Presidency College in 1875. Appearing privately for the Law examination he began to practice in 1881. He was an able Advocate and a leader of the Bar at Salem.
In 1882, a short time after he set up practice at Salem there was a Hindu-Muslim riot. Vijayaraghavachariar was implicated in the riot and charges were framed against him. He relentlessly fought the charges in the Court of Law and finally came out unscathed. Fighting the case for those implicated in the Salem riots of 1882 made Vijayaraghavachariar famous overnight. He was called ‘The Hero of Salem’ and ‘Lion of South India’.
When the Indian National Congress was started in 1885 he was one of the special invitees. He was a close associate of A. O. Hume, the founder of the Indian National Congress. He attended the Bombay session of the Congress and in 1887 he was one of the members of the committee which drafted the constitution of the Indian National Congress. From then on Vijayaraghavachariar became an ardent freedom fighter. His counsels and leadership were much sought after by the Congressmen of the early days.
In 1895, he was elected to the Madras legislative Council which he served for 6 years, till 1901. In 1913, he was elected to the Imperial Legislative Council with which he was associated till 1916. When Lord Birkenhead the Secretary of State for India threw out a challenge whether Indians could draw up a Constitution for India Vijayaraghavachariar took up the challenge and drew up the Swaraj Constitution for India.
With the advent of Mahatma Gandhi, there was a rift in the Congress ranks between the old moderates and the new radicals. Even earlier, the ideas of the moderates did not appeal to him. He kept aloof from active party work for a period after the Surat split of the Congress and later joined with redoubled vigour to carry the message of the Mahatma. The climax of his political career came when in 1920 he was elected to preside over the Indian National Congress Session at Nagpur, where Gandhi ji's advocacy of 'Poorna Swaraj' through non - violent non - cooperation was debated and accepted.
He was also in the vanguard of the opposition to the Simon Commission that toured the country in 1929. He took an active part in the Committee that met under Motilal Nehru to frame the Constitution for India.
In many aspects, Vijayaraghavachariar was much ahead of his time. He advocated post -puberty marriage for women and also the right of a daughter to have a share in her father's property. He advocated the much needed change in the Hindu law at a time when any talk about it was a taboo.
He was a champion of the Depressed Classes. He was one of the two Vice Presidents of the Madras Branch of the Passive Resistance Movement. Mahatma Gandhi was its President; the other Vice-President was G. Kasturi Ranga Iyengar, Editor of the Hindi.
He lived to the ripe old age of ninety-two. Though the diadem of leadership in South India, passed on from his hands to C. Rajagopalachari, he contented himself with giving periodic advice on matters of public importance through his regular contributions to the Madras journals.
His long life had been a period of relentless struggle against Imperialism and economic and social distress. Though an anti - imperialist, he shared a lifelong friendship with some of its representatives in India, viz., Governors and Viceroys, Lord Ripon, Lord Curzon, Lord and Lady Hardinge.
The voice of the Lion of South India was stilled when he passed away on 19 April 1944. After his death, his valuable collections were treasured in the Memorial Library and Lecture Halls specially constructed and named after him.
“It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of a written constitution. Almost all modern countries possessed of a constitutional government have written constitutions. England seems to be the only exception but only a partial exception, for her constitution is made up as well of charters and statutes as of traditions and usages preserved as common law by the line of great judges who contributed to the national freedom of England no less than her great statesmen and soldiers. I venture to submit that it is too late to think of an unwritten constitution.”
From the Presidential Address - C. Vijayaraghavachariar I.N.C. Session, 1920, Nagpur