Bal Gangadhar Tilak (1856–1920), the ‘Lokmanya’, the Extremist and the Home Rule Leaguer has been interpreted differently by his contemporaries and successors at different stages of history. Engaged in the anti-colonial movement and in social reforms, he was the only mass leader in the pre-Gandhi era of Indian politics who effectively mobilised the masses. His technique of mass mobilisation was so effective that later Gandhi adopted it with partial modification.
Among the many great figures of the British Period of Indian History, there is none more impressive of distinctive than Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s the only Lokmanya of India. In the course of his career of 64 years, this versatile man achieved not only India wide but also worldwide fame as a patriot, a politician, an educationist, a scholar and a philosopher which no other personality equalled or excelled. Lokmanya Tilak’s life was full of dynamic activities. He was a man of indomitable courage and optimism. He was the first national leader from Maharashtra and was regarded as “Lion of Maharashtra.” Bal Gangadhar Tilak represented the forces of extreme nationalism during the freedom struggle of India. Through his dynamism, dedication and versatile genius, he could be the pathfinder of India’s freedom. Sir Valentine Chirol called him the “Father of Indian Unrest”. These assessments highlight only one aspect of Tilak’s personality and mission. Tilak was a philosopher of Indian nationalism and a prophet of the resurrection of India as a nation. His was a multi-faceted personality and multi-dimensional career. Tilak’s thought and leadership need to be evaluated with a historical perspective.
Tilak represents a typical personality in a transitional context that saw the Indian middle class articulating popular pressures—through what can be called political ‘substitutism’. Some inherent conflicts and contradictions in Tilak’s functioning is the political sphere that reflects this. He was associated with ‘moderate’ politics but crossed over to become India’s first ‘extremist’ leader.
His work began with two primary engagements: one, with the nationalist agenda, against the colonial regime, and secondly, with the issues of labouring masses, peasantry and labour. His very early writings in the Mahratta (English Weekly) and in Kesari (Marathi Weekly) whose motto was ‘I would prefer death to dishonour’ reflect this fact. For him, the primary contradiction was between the British and the Indians. The contradictions between the Indian labour and the Indian capital, between the Indian landlord and Indian peasantry and between the Indian male dominance and Indian women subjugation were secondary. To mobilise and unite the Indians across these divisions was his primary objective. Therefore, all the reformative and legislative measures initiated from the colonial state were anathema to him as these measures were premised on their interest and were designed to shift the focus from the primary contradictions to secondary contradictions, to dilute the struggle and anger of the Indians against the British.
Tilak was also anathematic to Moderate’s method of mendicancy appealing to the British to grant political and social reforms to Indians or requesting them to govern the Indians in a truly British principle of liberalism. He, on the contrary, focused on regenerating, reawakening the Indians to compel the British to leave India or to transfer power within the dominion. Anything that came in the way of the stated objective of transfer of political power or for its national mobilisation was brushed aside. He knew that the requirements of social reforms are important, but these were not a very urgent political prerequisite for transfer of power. Therefore, a section of contemporary historians argued against him as a reactionary social siding with the conservative sections of the society. His praxis, however, was premised on the priority of nationalism which was intended to get the political-constitutional power for Indians from the British.
Nationalism at the Helm
Nationalism refers to a feeling of unity, a sense of belonging and solidarity within a group of people. Of course, Tilak also accepted the significance of certain objective factors like a common language, habitation on the common territory, in promoting and strengthening the subjective feeling of unity and solidarity. According to Tilak, a sense of oneness and solidarity among a people arising mainly from their common heritage was the vital force of nationalism. Knowledge of a common heritage and pride in it fosters psychological unity.
Gangadhar Tilak at work, editing his newspaper Kesari
According to Tilak, a sense of oneness and solidarity among a people arising mainly from their common heritage was the vital force of nationalism. Knowledge of a common heritage and pride in it fosters psychological unity. Tilak’s idea of nationalism was a social transformative in content and in orientation. He wanted to bring to the forefront the message of the Vedas and of Gita for providing spiritual energy and moral enthusiasm to the nation
Tilak’s idea of nationalism was a social transformative in content and in orientation. He wanted to bring to the forefront the message of the Vedas and of Gita for providing spiritual energy and moral enthusiasm to the nation. According to him, a recovery of the healthy and vital traditions of the old culture of India was essential. A true nationalist desires to build on the old foundation. Reforms based on an utter disrespect for the old norms did not appeal to him as constructive work. He said that we do not want to anglicise our institutions and to denationalise them in the name of social and political reforms. MN Roy pointed out that Shivaji and Ganpati festivals were encouraged by Tilak to link contemporary events and movements with historical traditions.
He was the first leader of India to be incarnated for his political writings and articles in Kesari and Mahratta. Valentine Chirol, the British journalist, aptly expressed the reactions of the rulers when he called Tilak, “the father of Indian unrest”. During the trial of Tilak in 1908, the prosecution counsel argued that Tilak’s articles contained a “covert threat of mutiny” and that his real message was “Swaraj or Bomb”
Tilak was a protagonist of Indian nationalism, a prophet of the resurrection of India as a nation. To VP Varma, Tilak’s political philosophy has its roots both in Indian tradition as well as in some of the currents of contemporary western political and legal thought. His main concern was the political emancipation of India and hence there is an element of great realism in his political ideas and outlook. He was a political pragmatist. His political thought represents a synthesis of some of the dominant conception of Indian thought and the nationalistic and democratic ideas of the modern west. He was a Vedantist, which taught him the supremacy of the concept of freedom. To him, “freedom was the soul of the home rule movement”. The divine instinct of freedom never aged…Freedom is the very life of the individual soul, which Vedanta declares is to be not separate from God but identical with him. This freedom was a principle that could never perish. For him, freedom was a divine attribute. Freedom was equalled with the autonomous power of creativism, and without freedom, no moral and spiritual life was possible. Tilak’s nationalism had to some extent a revivalistic orientation. Tilak wanted to bring to the front the message of Vedas and the Gita for providing spiritual energy and moral enthusiasm to the national. Recovery of the healthy and vital traditions, of the old culture of India, was essential. Like Aurobindo Ghosh, Bankim Chandra, Bipin Chandra Pal, Tilak advocated religious nationalism concern for the motherland was his primary political objective.
Nationalism has different foundations such as geographical area, language, religion, common felling etc. Tilak’s nationalism highlighted the psychological aspect. Nationalism according to Tilak, “is not a visible and concrete entity but is a kind of sentiment an idea and in generating this idea, the historical memories of the great figures of country play a significant part.” As a leader, Tilak wanted to create a solid nationalistic following in Maharashtra, and for purpose, Tilak wanted to symbolise the permanent religious and historical five traditions of the people. The Sarvajanik Ganeshutsav and the Shivajayanti festivals were the symbols of the rising nationalism in Maharashtra and late on to some extent in other parts of India also. Tilak was of the view that the roots of Indian nationalism must lie in the sentiments and devotations of the Indian people. In fact, Tilak tried to bring nationalism to the masses by inaugurating these festivals. Tilak was not only a patriot and a nationalist but also an internationalist.
Tilak recognised the tremendous symbolic significance of historical and religious festivals, flags and slogans in arousing a spirit of nationalism. Tilak made very effective use of such symbols. He believed that these factors were more effective than economic factors when it came to mobilising people. Thus, Tilak propagated the use of symbols in the form of the Ganpati and Shivaji festivals, which subsequently acquired tremendous emotional appeal.
Tilak wanted to substantiate the national movement in India with a strong cultural and religious regeneration of society. Along with it, he also accepted the economic arguments for nationalism. Dadabhai Naroji made famous the ‘Drain Theory’ in the Indian economy. Both Tilak and Gokhale accepted that the foreign imperialism resulted in the enormous ‘drain’ of India’s resources. In 1897, Tilak wrote three articles in Kesari at the time of Diamond Jubilee Celebration of Queen Victoria on June 22. He stated that India’s art and industries had declined under British rule. The various economic enterprises and investment in India, of the foreign capitalists, only created a delusion of prosperity. He referred to the evidence given by Dadabhai before the Welby Commission. He also emphasised the economic dimension of the Swadeshi Movement, which indicates his awareness of the economic roots of Indian nationalism. The Swadeshi Movement in India assumed a spiritual and political character. It became a movement for the liberation of the nation, for the political emancipation of the land. In a speech in January 1907 at Allahabad, Tilak pleaded for a protective tariff of our own by the boycott of foreign goods. “The salvation of the country could be attained not by waiting on the bureaucracy and sending petitions to them containing appeals to logic and reason but only by the concerted efforts of the people themselves.” He, therefore, exhorted the nation to work for the concrete realisation of the resolutions on Swadeshi, Boycott and National Education which had been passed at the Congress session of 1906 at Calcutta.
Tilak held that attainment interests of Britain and India. He realised that the administrative weaknesses, the political injustice and the political exploitation from which India suffered could be remedied not by an appeal to the good sense of the British people but only by making the Indian administration responsive to Indian public opinion. He placed before his countrymen the objective of Swaraj that is defining Swaraj as the right of the people to conduct the administration of the country, according to what they consider to be their good.
Swaraj might mean government by rulers belonging to the same country, religion or caste as the ruled. It was desirable in itself. This was the least important aspect of Swaraj. If the government is really responsible to the governed foreign king or a few foreign administrators would mean no harm except for a small outflow of income from the country. What is more essential is that the government should be a good government, a government based on peace, order and the rule of law. The word Swaraj essentially means a constitutional government, a government which rules according to the wishes of the people, of their representatives. Essentially, it was the realisation of self; and for it, a self-perpetuating, self-generating social, political conditions where required. To develop it or to institute it, political freedom was the prerequisite.
Gangadhar Tilak (middle) with Lala Lajpat Rai (left), and Bipin Chandra Pal (right)
Lokmanya Tilak was one of the leaders who asserted himself since the beginning of 1881 to argue for India’s right to swaraj or national self-determination. The idea was to foster a strong feeling of patriotism and self-respect among the Indians by moulding the public opinion and by bringing pressure to bear on the British authorities for granting political rights. He focused his efforts throughout his life for the attainment of this single goal. But also, he played a significant role in establishing Pune (Poona) New English School in 1880, apart from the Deccan Education Society and the Fergusson College. During the days of the Swadeshi Movement, he was the prime leader, mover and also patron of the Samartha Vidyalaya. As a fighter against economic injustice, he played an important role in making the people conscious of their rights during the famine of 1896. He was opposed to any kind of economic discriminations. He moved an important resolution pertaining to the economic affairs from the nationalist platforms such as the resolution on the permanent settlement, decentralisation of finances, etc. Swadeshi movement and its cult is closely associated with Tilak.
He was the first leader of India to be incarcerated for his political writings and articles in Kesari and Mahratta. Valentine Chirol, the British journalist, aptly expressed the reactions of the rulers when he called Tilak, “the father of Indian unrest”. During the trial of Tilak in 1908, the prosecution counsel argued that Tilak’s articles contained a “covert threat of mutiny” and that his real message was “Swaraj or Bomb”. The way Tilak nurtured the values and feelings for nationalism in the poor folks of the country went a long way in reinforcing the struggle for independence whose fruits were actually obtained in 1947, much after the death of Tilak. Yet, when the country became independent, in the galaxy of Indian leaders whose mammoth efforts lay at the root of independence of the country, Lokmanya Tilak will remain inked in an indelible mark.
(The writer is a Chartered Acountant & Columnist )