Who is Samuel Evans Stokes?
It is most likely that you haven't heard of the American who came to teach but stayed on in India to learn. Raj Kanwar reopens a forgotten chapter from India's freedom movement on the 131st birth anniversary of Samuel Evans Stokes
Very few people, perhaps none, from the post-1947 generations will possibly have an answer. Even those from earlier generations are likely to have only a vague notion about Samuel Evans Stokes. Some might remember him as the American settler in the early years of the 20th century, who successfully fought against the evil practice of begaar or impressed labour in the Shimla hills. He eventually succeeded in forcing the British administration to abolish the practice in its territory.
An insidious system, the villagers were made to work as coolies for government functionaries and British travellers on very little or no wage. While some even might remember him as the American who came to India to work in a Leper Home at Sabathu, in the foothills of the Himalayas, others may recall him as the missionary, who eventually converted into a Hindu. A few would perhaps associate him with Mahatma Gandhi, CF Andrews and other leaders of that era.
Samuel Evans, who later changed his name to Satyanand, was all that and more. Not many were aware of Stokes’ many-faceted personality. It is a pity that so little is known about this man. In 1999, his granddaughter Asha Sharma wrote American In Khadi, a biography published by Penguin Books India. An updated version has now been published by the Indiana University Press under the title An American in Gandhi’s India, with a foreword by His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
Born on August 16, 1882 to a distinguished and wealthy family of Quakers of Christian descent in Philadelphia, Stokes ventured out to India to serve in a leper home at the age of 21. Neither his father nor his doting mother had at that time imagined that their young son was embarking on a journey of no return. Even Stokes himself had had no such notion. But destiny had willed otherwise.
At the leprosy centre, Stokes did not show any repugnance for the patients; on the contrary, their plight evoked in him an intense feeling of compassion. His mentor, Dr Carleton, was rather pleased with his youthful American volunteer and soon enough entrusted to him some elementary surgical procedures. Stokes found his inability to speak the local language a great deterrent in reaching out to the patients. Slowly he picked up Hindustani in its Pahari dialect.
That summer, Dr Carleton sent him to Kotgarh, a hamlet 50 miles beyond Shimla on the Hindustan Tibet Road. For Stokes, it was love at first sight. The captivating cluster of villages, immortalised as the ‘Mistress of the Northern Hills’ by Rudyard Kipling, became his life-long abode. A time came when he started toying with the idea of staying permanently in India. And as a follow up, he contemplated a life of poverty and renunciation. He had realised that though the locals extended to him due respect as a white sahib, and behaved deferentially, there was no emotional empathy. “There seems to be an invisible barrier that stands in the way of any natural unaffected relationship,” Stokes had concluded.
Simple life of freedom fighter
Finally, he was convinced that his western clothes and alien customs stood as a big gulf between him and the brotherly relations with the members of the Indian community at large. He decided to forsake all of that. A scion of one of the wealthiest American families of that time and an heir to its fortune, Stokes did what not many people would do. He decided to give up all his worldly belongings to live a life of abnegation. Soon, Stokes began participating in political activities and his reputation spread beyond Punjab attracting countrywide attention. He was the only American, nay foreigner, who attended the Nagpur session of the All India Congress Committee in December 1920 as a delegate from Kotgarh (Shimla Hills) and was a signatory to the 1921 Congress manifesto.
Another big challenge came when Stokes, together with other Punjab Congress leaders, including Lala Lajpat Rai, Gopi Chand and Santanam, boycotted the visit of the Prince of Wales to India in 1921. He was the first to be arrested and his trial for treason was widely reported, which further raised his political stature. He was sentenced to six months of imprisonment. Far away in the United States, the news of Stokes’ arrest was headlined in several newspapers, including Philadelphia Ledger, the New York Times and many others.
Though he formally gave up politics in 1924, he continued correspondence with the national leaders, including Gandhi, whenever he felt impelled to proffer his opinion. He also immersed himself in improving the economy of the hills by introducing the latest varieties of American apples and distributed their saplings for free. That was the beginning of the horticulture revolution that made the later day Himachal Pradesh one of the most prosperous states in the country. Stokes’ life thereafter took many turns; the man who had come to India to teach but stayed on here to learn. One of the most interesting aspects of his life was the ‘gradual evolution of his religious beliefs’ that made him interested in Hindu philosophy. He converted to Hinduism in 1932 so that his family could become one with the majority of the Kotgarh community.
This, in short, is the forgotten story of a forgotten leader and social reformer who died on May 14, 1946 in Shimla -- ironically, when India’s top leaders were there confabulating with the visiting British Cabinet Mission led by Lord Patrick Lawrence discussing India’s future constitutional framework. It was a death, unwept and unsung. Even Himachal Pradesh, which owes its current prosperity to the pioneering work of Stokes, has him. As his biographer-granddaughter Asha Sharma laments, “There is no bust or statue in Shimla, no institution or road named after him and no recognition by the government.”