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The indomitable Lokmanya Tilak: His political activism, activities in Mumbai, camaraderie with Swami Vivekananda and legacy

It is unfortunate that most of the dwellers of Mumbai hardly know about Tilak’s association with the city – be it Ganeshotsav celebrations, Tilak’s Mumbai address - Sardar Gruha or Tilak’s Samadhi at Chowpatty.

Chronicling Mumbai’s Tryst with Lokmanya Tilak

2020 was the year of Lokmanya Tilak’s centennial death anniversary. The prefix “Lokmanya” meaning “accepted by masses” comes from the fact that Lokmanya Tilak was modern India’s first mass leader who was looked up to by the masses. His following was unparalleled at that point of time. He was one of the first leaders to give a call for “sampoorna swaraj”, a paradigm shift from “partial rule” which was being demanded by the leaders then.

A good amount of Tilak’s lifetime was spent in Mumbai but unfortunately, the city appears to have forgotten this great son of Mother India. It is unfortunate that Mumbaikars don’t take pride in owning up Lokmanya Tilak as much as people from Ratnagiri (Tilak’s birthplace) or Pune do. There is a reason why Mumbai has a railway station in Lokmanya Tilak’s name and that is because Mumbai has a lot of memories of Lokmanya Tilak.

Lokmanya Tilak and Swami Vivekananda

In 1892, (before the World Congress of Religions), Lokmanya Tilak was returning from Bombay to Poona from Victoria Terminus (CST) when he first saw Swami Vivekananda. Swami Vivekananda also came and sat in the same compartment. A few Gujaratis who had come to see off Swami ji introduced Swami ji and Tilak. They hit it off very well and after reaching Poona, Tilak invited Swami Vivekananda to come to stay at his house, an invitation which Swami ji obliged and went to stay for 8-10 days.

Mumbai’s Sarvajanik Ganeshotsav

In those days, the British had decided to refrain from interfering in religious affairs of Indians after the 1857 war of independence. At a time when political meetings and gatherings to promote the idea of India’s independence were under scrutiny of the British, Lokmanya Tilak saw festivals as an opportunity for the people to come together (indirectly) for the cause of independence.

Till this point, the only recorded religious processions in Bombay were Moharram processions (Tilak had participated in one or more such processions). Tilak saw Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations which then were confined to Brahmin households as not just an opportunity to get people to come together for the cause of India’s independence but also an opportunity to grow a sense of pride among the Hindus and break the shackles of casteism which plagued Hindu society at that time leading to Hindu revivalism.

After Lokmanya Tilak made an appeal to people to have public celebrations of Ganeshotsav, in 1893, his followers, Raobahadur Limaye and Naraharishashtri Godse, started the festival at their chawl – Keshav ji Naik Chawl which was perhaps the city’s first sarvajanik Ganeshotav Celebrations. Lokmanya Tilak visited the Ganeshotsav in 1901 and also made a speech.

Shantaram Chawl

Till 1939 Shantaram chawl’s massive compound hosted public meetings and rallies of freedom fighters right from Lokmanya Tilak to Mohammed Ali Jinnah. These meeting drew crowds of 10,000-12,000 people. The chawl was the central-point of the Home Rule Movement started by Lokmanya Tilak with Annie Besant and others. On 16 June 1918, Tilak addressed a huge gathering alongside Jinnah which was presided by Mahatma Gandhi against the British Governor Lord Wellington to protest against his provocative statements against the Home Rule League.

101 days in Dongri Prison

Lokmanya Tilak was the first editor of Mahratta while his friend Gopal Ganesh Agarkar was the first editor of Kesari. After writing scathing pieces criticising the British for conspiracy to declare the young prince of Kolhapur, Shivaji IV as mentally unstable; both Tilak and Agarkar saw their first brush with prison when they were sentenced for four months and sent to Dongri Prison.  It was here during this stay that Agarkar wrong his book “101 days in Dongri Jail”

Sedition Trials

During his lifetime, Lokmanya Tilak was tried three times on sedition charges – 1897, 1908-09 and 1916. All these trials were fought in the Bombay High Court. In 1897, after his first trial, Tilak was sentenced 18 months’ imprisonment for inciting speech (Tilak had written on Shivaji killing Afzal Khan a week earlier) leading to assassination of Rand by Chapekar brothers in the backdrop of plague which was cut short after the British realised that Lokmanya Tilak’s arrest had made him a hero and gained momentum amongst the freedom fighters.

After his bail please getting rejected twice, Tilak’s lawyer Dinshaw Dawar secured bail for him (with Dwarkadas Dharamsey who arranged a sum of Rs 50,000 for bail bond, a big amount in those days in just 4 hours) a year later with appeals were made by several Indian and Europeans leaders including Rabindranath Tagore and Max Mueller to reduce his sentence.

This trial was significant as it was the first ever case of sedition and Tilak was the first ever freedom fighter to be convicted for sedition. During this time Tilak was sent to Dongri prison and to Byculla prison before eventually being moved to Yerwada jail.

In 1908, Tilak saw his second trial for sedition for defending Khudiram Bose and Prafulla Chaki who attempted to bomb and kill the British Judge, Magistrate Kingsford. This time Lokmanya Tilak was initially defended by the young barrister Mohamad Ali Jinnah but after the bail claim was rejected decided to contest his own case. Tilak lost the case and was sentenced to six years’ rigorous imprisonment by Justice Davar same man who has secured bail for Tilak 10 years ago sentenced Tilak to six year’s prison term in Mandalay (Burma).

After the sentence, Tilak responded, “I maintain that I am innocent. There are higher powers that rule the destiny of things and it may be the will of Providence that the cause which I represent is to prosper more by my suffering than by my remaining free.” A marble plaque still exists outside room no 46 of Bombay High Court with Tilak’s words etched on it. Court room no 46 has been kept preserved and is not used for regular hearings but used only on special occasions and events.

In 1916, Tilak had another run-in with the law when he was charged with sedition for a series of lectures he has addressed. It was Barrister Mohammmad Ali Jinnah who now wasn’t a rookie and a known leader of Home Rule League’s Bombay chapter yet again appeared for Tilak and this time won the case for Tilak.

The Bombay (Swadeshi) Store

Lokmanya Tilak wasn’t just a strong advocate of swadeshi but tried his bit to promote Indian entrepreneurs, businesses and industries (‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’?). In 1905 with Ratanji Jamsetji Tata and Dwarkadas Dharamsey as Directors alongside him Lokmanya Tilak founded “The Bombay Swadeshi Co-operative Stores Co Ltd” – a company to promote Indian products.

The first store was opened in what is today the times of India building and was inaugurated by Dadabhai Naoroji. This store is said to have been visited by the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawharlal Nehru.

Ironically after the Dalal family brought majority stake in the company, this up-market store dropped “Swadeshi” from its name in 1995. The outlet where “The Bombay Store” stands today is operational since 1938.

First Political Strike of Bombay

After Tilak was sentenced rigorous imprisonment to Burma in 1908, Bombay witnessed the first ever political strike by the working class; the textile workers of Bombay which included Hindus of all castes as well as Muslims. All markets in Bombay lay shut on July 22. The textile factories and railway workshops remained closed for six days, one day for every year of the sentence. The army was called in which saw the death of 16 workers and over 50 injured.

Sardar Gruha

Sardar Gruha is an old building (built in 1898) located on Lokmanya Tilak Marg, just opposite the famous Mahatma Jyotiba Phule Market (Crawford). It started off as a guest house and was well known to prominent Indians like Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Patel who preferred staying here as several British hotels in the area did not allow Indian guests.

Sardar Gruha was Lokmanya Tilak’s place to stay whenever he travelled to Mumbai. Because of his stature and his frequent visits, he was given a permanent room in the guesthouse. It was on the 4th floor of this building, flat no 198 that Lokmanya Tilak stayed for nearly three weeks before his death and also the place where he took his last breath.

Since then this room is used by Kesari as its regional office. Tilak’s pagadi, his chair and writing table have been preserved with a bust of Tilak installed in front of the building and the road being renamed to Lokmanya Tilak Marg.

Girgaum Chowpatty

Lokmanya Tilak was the first person (and last) to have been allowed (forced to by his followers) a public funeral in Bombay. After Tilak’s sudden demise, as the news spread across, people from Bombay as well outside thronged outside Sardar Gruha to get a last glimpse of their favorite leader.

Initially it was planned that Tilak’s body would be cremated at the nearby small Chandanwadi Crematorium but looking at the large crowd of people who were full of anger, disappoint and grief due to the untimely death of their revered leader, and lobbying by influential persons of Mumbai, the administration caved in, and granted special permission to have the cremation at Girgaum Chowpatty but with a caveat that this will be the first and last such permission to have a funeral in a public place and there would not be any memorial built on the site.

But eventually after Vithalbhai Patel (Sardar Patel’s brother) and Barrister KF Nariman (after whom Nariman Point is named) were able to convince the Bombay Municipal Corporation to grant permission to build a memorial. In 1925 a committee was setup with Sarojini Naidu has its head to raise money for the Tilak memorial. 13 years after his death, on 1 August 1933 the statue of Lokmanya Tilak was unveiled at Girgaum Chowpatty.

The final journey was said to have attended by a million people including prominent names like Mahatma Gandhi (who walked barefoot throughout the antim yatra), Jawaharlal Nehru and Maulana Shaukat Ali, a prominent leader of the Khilafat Movement.

It is unfortunate that most of the dwellers of Mumbai hardly know about Tilak’s association with the city – be it Ganeshotsav celebrations, Tilak’s Mumbai address – Sardar Gruha or Tilak’s Samadhi at Chowpatty. This write-up is my tribute as a Mumbaikar to one of the greatest leaders of India, Lokmanya Tilak, the first mass leader of modern India and his tryst with Mumbai.

So next time when someone wonders why was the Kurla Terminus renamed as Lokmanya Tilak Terminus in 1996 by the then Union Home Minister Lal Krishna Advani at the request of the then Minister of State of Railway Ram Naik, we hope this article helps people understand why.

Ayodhra Ram Mandir special coverage by OpIndia

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Devendra Pai
Devendra Pai
Devendra Pai started his career as an intern with the Asian Age before moving on to Yuva. This was followed by a stint with independent MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar as a Political Analyst. Devendra assisted Chandrasekhar in legislative research, political communication and also worked on the BJP Vision document which was later merged into the party manifesto for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Later, Devendra donned the role of a social entrepreneur by starting a company called ASMI Career Connect. In it, he evolved a business model based on career guidance; which saw him interact with nearly 1 lakh students across Maharashtra in two years. Devendra has travelled to 8 countries and nearly 18 states in India along with being associated with several politicians, non-political organisations and social movements including the 2011-12's anti-corruption movement. Devendra has co-authored a book on politics and governance in Tripura. For three years, Devendra taught social sciences to Mass Media students in colleges like Prahladrai Lion's Dalmia College, Siddhartha College and Deviprasad Goenka College of Media Studies. He is on the academic advisory board of two courses affiliated to NL University and Mithibai University respectively. He is also the co-founder of VESIM Lit Fest organised by Vivekanand Education Society's Institute of Management, Mumbai. At present Devendra is heading a “post-graduate programme in leadership, politics and governance” as its Course Director at RMP’s Indian Institute of Democratic Leadership, Mumbai.

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