Right from his childhood days, Sitarama Shastri was interested in writing. Observing this, Krishna Shastri sent him to M Venkatakrishnayya in Mysore. Sitarama Shastri started by writing articles to his newspaper and then contributed articles to other newspapers too. During those days he also got acquainted with ‘Tāyināḍu’ P R Ramayya, ‘Sādhvi’ Agaram Rangayya, and others who were trained under M Venkatakrishnayya. In a way it can be said that journalism was in his blood. Combined with that was his erudition.
He also had a good command over spoken Sanskrit and Kannada, which attracted the attention of many eminent people.
Impressed by his abundant scholarship, vocal prowess, and multifaceted learning, Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya took him along; he arranged discourses of Sitarama Shastri in places of learning all over Northern India.
Those days the Puri Śankarācārya pīṭha was vacant, Malaviya recommended that Sitarama Shastri was the appropriate person for that post. Due to technical reasons Shastri didn’t get that post.
After working as an assistant for sometime in the publications Sādhvī and Sampadabhyudaya, Sitarama Shastri shifted to Bangalore. He took over the administration of the Śaṅkara-maṭha. Other than the temple, the Gīrvāṇa-bhāratī of Śaṅkara-maṭha was famous as a place of learning. During those days, Hanagal Virupaksha Shastri (who later renounced the world and became a saṃnyāsin as Vālukeśvara-bhāratī Swamiji of Kūḍali-maṭha), a renowned scholar in Vedānta; Vaidyanatha Shastri, a renowned scholar in Pūrva-mīmāṃsā; and other great scholars used to teach in Gīrvāṇa-bhāratī. When Rabindranath Tagore visited Bangalore, Sitarama Shastri brought him to Gīrvāṇa-bhāratī and Tagore exclaimed, “I’ve toured the whole country, but the ideal gurukula which I imagined is here!”
In 1927 Sitarama Shastri became the editor of the publication Grāma-jīvana.
He started his publication Vīrakesari in 1928. The name wasn’t an accident. Right from his childhood he was deeply influenced by Lokmanya Tilak, especially after he met him when he had visited Śṛṅgeri. He named his publication Vīrakesari to awaken the people of Karnataka just like what Tilak did in Marathi by naming his publication as Kesari.
The freedom struggle was heating up and Shastri naturally got involved. He was close to Gandhiji and other freedom fighters. Gandhiji used to address him respectfully as ‘Sanātani Shastriji’.
‘Treason’: Ganapati Riots
Sitarama Shastri’s speech and his pen – both were razor-sharp. So it was natural that his writings criticizing the callous attitude of the government under Mirza Ismail angered the Mysore state. In 1929 he was sentenced to jail for two years. The case filed on Sitarama Shastri by the Mysore Government was probably our State’s first case accusing someone of ‘treason.’ Vīrakesari Sitarama Shastri and the editor of the publication Navajīvana, C Ashwatthanarayana Rao were the prime accused. The root cause of this case was the Ganapati Riots that took place in Sultanpet, Bangalore in 1928. This case became one of the important milestones in the history of Bangalore.
Here are the details. There was a mūrti of Gaṇeśa in the Government School (S R Nanjudayya’s School) on Arcot Srinivasachar street. It had been in the premises of the school for a long time. In 1928, during the renovation of the school, the contractor also built a small maṇṭapa for the mūrti. This suddenly attracted the government’s attention. The education department officers objected to the placement of the mūrti in the maṇṭapa. The reason for such an objection was that there was the house of Abbas Khan, the then president of the city assembly and also a masjid opposite to the school.
There was a huge agitation from the students, citizens asking that the mūrti should be placed in the maṇṭapa. Vīrakesari, Navajīvana, Viśva Karṇāṭaka published by T T Sharman, and many other publications supported this agitation.
People like H C Dasappa, Nilagiri Sanjivayya, K H Ramayya, and others supported the government. On the side of people’s agitation were Vīrakesari Sitarama Shastri, Sampige Venkatapatayya, Nittur Srinivasa Rao, M P Somashekhara Rao, Pamadi Subbarama Shetty, and others.
Already known for his acerbic tongue, Shastri’s writings during those days reached the pinnacle of satirical writings. He wrote the thoughts of Gaṇeśa, who was ‘banished,’ in the form of soliloquies: “Alas! How can my situation become so miserable! Even being the deity of knowledge I’m bereft of pūjā (worship) and naivedya (offering), made to sit in some dark corner cursing my fate!” and so on.
Things turned worse, like the proverbial monkey’s itch. The government jailed the students who were at the forefront of this agitation. This resulted in a far more fierce agitation that spread wildly. Thousands gathered in front of the Dewan’s house and also in front of the central jail and requested for the release of imprisoned students. The government had to bring in the army to control the situation.
To mitigate the situation, the government released the student leaders on bail. They were Ramlal Tiwari, Subrahmanyam, and Bhima Rao – the crowd brought them in a procession to the school and performed maṅgaḷāratī to the Gaṇeśa mūrti.
As soon as this happened stones and slippers flew from the opposite direction. Gunshots were heard. Hordes of Muslims armed with sticks and weapons attacked people. Countless were injured.
This unprecedented situation not only made news in other states of India but also attracted the attention of the press in London.
Even after such an incident, the reluctance of the government to launch an investigation aroused people’s ire. This led to even more caustic criticism.
Finally the government had to relent. A committee under the retired Dewan M Visvesvaraya was formed to investigate this incident. After examining the documents and the testimonies of various eminent witnesses, the committee submitted its report. The committee had concluded that the government’s reluctance to act in a swift and decisive manner under such grave circumstances was the reason for the situation to go out of control.
The government, desperate to save its face and hide it's incompetence, turned its ire towards the newspapers and banned them. It also threatened that the editors would be banished. The initial part of this article discusses the agitation which happened with these incidents being the cause.