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Remembering Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak on his death anniversary, the greatest freedom fighter

Tilak proposed that the causes of the riots would not be known unless we realised that there were not only two parties in this conflict, but that the government was a third party.

Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak, a prominent Indian political leader, a modern commentator on the Bhagvad Gita, an expert in ancient Indian scriptures, and a great Indian freedom fighter.

Tilak was born in Ratnagiri on 23rd July 1856, and his original name was Keshav, but he later became known as Bal. His ancestral village was Chikhali, now in the Ratnagiri district. His father, Gangadharpant, and mother, Parvatibai, faced financial difficulties, which led Tilak’s father to leave their native place to work as a schoolteacher. Bal Gangadhar Tilak completed his traditional Sanskrit studies at home. In 1866, due to a transfer of his father’s job, the family moved to Pune, where Tilak’s mother passed away shortly after their arrival. While living in Pune, Tilak matriculated in 1872.

Humble Beginnings of Tilak

Gangadhar Pant passed away in 1872. To support his children’s education, Gangadhar Pant Tilak managed to save some money and therefore Bal Gangadhar Tilak enrolled at Deccan College, in Pune. In his first year of college, he focused on maintaining and earning good health by exercising regularly. This was of great use to him later in his political life and especially during his imprisonment years. In 1876 he passed his B.A. in the first class. However, he could not become an MA. He eventually earned the degree of LLB.

In Deccan College, Tilak and Gopal Ganesh Agarkar developed a strong friendship and made a resolution to contribute to the country’s welfare. Around this time, Vishnushastri Chiplunkar, a renowned essayist, decided to quit his government job to start a school, and both Tilak and Agarkar joined him. On 1st January 1880, they established the New English School, with Tilak voluntarily becoming an unpaid teacher.

Starting Public Life and Activism with Journalism

Later, in 1881, Chiplunkar, Tilak, and Agarkar founded two newspapers, Kesari in Marathi and Maratha in English. Initially, Agarkar was the editor of Kesari, while Tilak held that position for Maratha. Through these newspapers, they began their historic work of promoting public education, raising political awareness, and fighting against governmental injustices imposed by British Rule.

Some of their articles, especially criticising the policies of the British government and the administration of Diwan Madhavarao Barve of Kolhapur State, gained widespread recognition. They strongly criticised his mismanagement and the attitude of the British government towards Chhatrapati Shivaji. Tilak and Agarkar were sentenced to four months in jail and lodged in Dongri jail. They were released on October 26, 1882.

More Work in the Field of Education

In 1882, Vishnushastri Chiplunkar passed away, but in 1884, with the help of friends like Wadarburn, Wordsworth, Mandlik, Telang, Dandekar, YM Kelkar, RG Bhandarkar, and others, Tilak and Agarkar established the Deccan Education Society. In 1885, they founded Ferguson College as part of this society. Tilak taught subjects like Mathematics and Sanskrit there. However, later on, differences arose between Tilak and Agarkar regarding the management principles of the institution.

Tilak believed that the institution’s financial management should be based on “salary based on needs” or “salary as per financial capacity,” and it should run as a self-sufficient organization, whereas Agarkar advocated for relying on government aid for running the institution.

The Great Debate Tilak and Agarkar

Another debate between this duo was centred around the question of whether the focus should be on social reforms or political reforms. Agarkar considered social reforms important and preferred social reforms to improve the country or freedom. Tilak’s position was that as long as the pride of freedom or nationality is bright and awake, no matter what the social structure is, its faults do not come in the way of the progress or prosperity of the nation.

Tilak acknowledged the importance of social progress, but he argued that without political progress and a sense of nationalism, society’s issues couldn’t be effectively resolved. He believed that the true spirit or soul of the nation lies in its sense of pride, enthusiasm, and commitment to nationalism. He saw this spirit as the driving force behind social reforms as well.

However, Agarkar’s stand was the exact opposite. He argued that the country would not be eligible for freedom without social reform, so first, it should be freed from the shackles of society’s customs, ignorance, superstitions, ideas of sin, and caste discrimination and these evils should be eliminated. Agarkar believed that foreign governments should make appropriate laws for reform, regardless of public opinion.

Tilak would, on the other hand, contend, “We will do our reforms, foreign power or governments should not interfere in our social or religious affairs. However, if public opinion is favourable and there is a compromise on the scriptures, then we have no objection to making such a law.”

Both Tilak and Agarkar played crucial roles in society, but their approaches differed. While Agarkar focused on social reforms as a necessary step towards independence, Tilak emphasised the importance of nationalism and political progress to fuel social reforms.

Lokmanya Tilak and Hindu Nationalism

Tilak was as proud of Hinduism as the nation. Dharma was his subject of interest. He studied the Vedas, Upanishads, philosophy, the scriptures, and the Geeta and Shankaracharya’s commentaries. He believed that Hindutva is the essence of one’s selfhood. He used to say that anyone who is not proud of Hindutva or Hinduism or his Hindu identity has no right to tell the Hindu people what social reforms they should undertake.

In a society where the caste system and religious beliefs from the Vedas and other scriptures were prevalent, debates and discussions on such topics were common. Tilak also played a significant role in these religious matters, driven by his deep faith in Hinduism and nationalism.

In simpler terms, Tilak emphasised the importance of Hinduism and Hindu pride in bringing about social reforms. He believed that without a strong sense of Hindu identity and pride, people wouldn’t be motivated to work towards the betterment of Hindu society.

Tilak’s brief stint in social work became the foundation of political endeavours in future

Tilak’s work in the early years of 1890-97, after leaving the Deccan Education Society, was diverse. During this period, the following cases arose: (1) the Law of the Consent Age, (2) the Gramanya case, (3) Pandita Ramabai’s Sharda Sadan, (4) the Hindu-Muslim riots, (5) public social work, etc.

In all these cases, his role was that of a political man and a desire to act for the objective of Swaraj was his primary notion underlying all his activities. Tilak started by critically analysing and commenting on the flaws and injustices of the British government through his newspapers and publications. He became the first person to handle legal matters in this regard with utmost integrity. He actively participated in the Provincial Council and Congress activities, gradually transforming himself into a nationalist leader who inspired people with a strong sense of patriotism and love for freedom. He constantly engaged in a relentless struggle against the narrow-minded policies of the British government and made efforts to instil the spirit of nationalism and freedom in the hearts of the people.

He had to constantly fight against the moderate group within the Congress party that was doing politics through mere applications and requests rather than an assertion of rights. Moderates would often contend that ‘British power being active in India is a part of our destiny and the best policy is to rely on the goodwill of the liberal British who will gradually accept India’s political rights’. On the other hand, Bal Gangadhar Tilak would assert that leaving this submissive stance and taking people to the position that ‘Swarajya is my birthright and I will get it’ is his resolve. He effectively worked to awaken the people with brilliant articles in Kesari and Maratha as well as on occasion intense speeches. Let us now see the contribution and roles played by Tilak in various issues during this period one by one.

Law of the Consent Age

Tilak led the anti-law party in the uproar that prevailed across India over the law of consent age for marital relationships. Tilak espoused the idea that reform should be done, but it should not be done by government law, rather it should first come from within the community through a proper understanding of the issue. The controversy involved the complexity of theology, so Dr Bhandarkar wrote an article supporting the law. At that time, Tilak strongly countered it.

Even though Tilak started a movement against the law, he was thinking of setting up an institution to implement some reforms. Some fundamental reforms were also discussed by the organisation. These discussions took place about issues like Girls should not be married before sixteen years and boys should not be married under twenty years, no one should give dowry to anyone, heads of the widows should not be shaved, etc.

This confirms that Bal Gangadhar Tilak was not against social reforms. He was willing to see a Hindu society where no evil practices prevail. But he essentially wanted those things to come from community education and discussions rather than by imposing a law through a colonial establishment.

The Sharda Sadan Controversy

Pandita Ramabai had set up Sharda Sadan for women’s education. Pandita Ramabai was originally a Hindu but later became a Christian. Tilak believed that the institution was not actually aimed at the intellectual, educational, and practical advancement of adult girls or widows, but was primarily aimed at spreading Christianity.

She began seeking help from Christian missionary organisations and enlisted the help of Christians. During this, two girls from Sharda Sadan converted to Christianity. At that time, Tilak heavily criticised this evangelist activity running in the guise of education. As a result, Pandita Ramabai left Pune and continued her work on women’s education in Kedgaon. It is notable that Daund Taluka shares a border with the Ahilyanagar (formerly Ahmednagar) district of Maharashtra. Today this district leads the chart of the Christian population in the state.

The Hindu-Muslim Riots

Hindu-Muslim riots occurred in many places in 1893. Tilak proposed that the causes of the riots would not be known unless we realised that there were not only two parties in this conflict, but that the government was a third party. He criticised the government’s biased policy as contributing to the riots.

It was only after these riots that the idea of making Ganpati Utsav and Shiv Jayanti public festivals appeared. These festivals were made public gatherings as a means of public awareness. In two issues of Kesari on September 18, 1894, and April 15, 1896, respectively, Tilak explained the purpose of these festivals: to create national awareness, to increase the aspirations of freedom, to remember great men and to make the common people aware of religion and culture.

Tilak guided farmers to ask for their rights

Pune Sarvajanik Sabha was a club of elite social activists in Pune. It was dominated by people inclined towards moderate thoughts. In 1895, Bal Gangadhar Tilak decisively defeated that clout and took control of the society in his hands. Through this society, he initiated the works for drought relief.

During the drought of 1896, he told the farmers that if the crop was low, then the waiver was their right, so they should ask for it. According to the government’s policy, people should ask for help as the government is responsible to take care of the people, he asserted.

Tilak laid ideological grounds for armed revolution

The famine was followed by the plague. At that time, when the British officers under Commissioner Rand, appointed for the prevention of plague, made a ruckus and bullied Indians, Tilak strongly criticised it. He set up cheap ration shops and opened public hospitals for the epidemic victims.

Rand was murdered by the Chaphekar brothers on June 22, 1897. Lokmanya Tilak’s fierce criticism of the British Rule was an inspiration for them. At that time, the British government unleashed endless atrocities in Pune. Tilak wrote sharp and pointed articles against it one after another. His editorials were characterised by fierce headlines. ‘To rule is not revenge’, and ‘Is the head of the government in place?’ are must to mention here.

As a result, Tilak was charged with sedition and sentenced to eighteen months in prison. “He’s a great scholar, so it’s not good to punish him,” Max Mueller told the government. As a result, the government reduced his sentence by six months and he was released from prison on September 6, 1898. It should also be noted that it was Lokmanya Tilak who recommended Veer Savarkar’s name to Shyamji Krishna Varma to get a scholarship for him to get higher studies in the UK.

Bal Gangadhar Tilak corrected the course of the Congress

Tilak’s real political career and his prime leadership in freedom struggle for the rest of his life gained momentum only after 1899. At that time Tilak had returned from the punishment of sedition and his popularity had increased. Despite jail sentence, his goals were not changed in the slightest, as is evident from his editorial article in Kesari titled ‘पुनश्च हरिः ॐ !’ written on July 4, 1899.

He criticised Lord Curzon’s tenure, especially the restrictions on the educational institutions he imposed. Moreover, he strongly attacked the policy of colonialism, and in his editorial, he said that England was undergoing moral and intellectual decline. It was at this time that he offered new ideas about the functioning of the National Congress. He believed that the strength of the whole nation should be put behind the demands of the Congress by building a massive movement among the people.

The partition of Bengal

Lord Curzon declared the partition of Bengal on 20 July 1905. There was outrage all over the country and violent protests broke out. Tilak supported the movement in Bengal. He championed the four pillars of the movement namely Swadeshi, Boycott, Nationalist Education and Self-government. The first three were activities taken up by people while the fourth was the demand put before the British government with a fearless approach. Use Made in India things, Boycott foreign manufactured things, impart a Nationalistic Education through dedicated schools started by patriots, and keep pursuing the demands of Self-government through parliamentary affairs was the agenda.

The rift between the extremists and the moderates

As the anti-Partition movement became more and more aggressive, the National Congress members differed over the programmes of moderates and extremists. Swadeshi, boycott, etc. were principally accepted by the Calcutta session of the Congress. However, the Congress session held in 1907 in Surat saw violent dispute between the members themselves.

Tilak had objected to the election of the president itself, which caused a ruckus. Tilak was standing firm still amid that ruckus, even though he was attacked sticks and shoes were thrown at him. The police later seized the pandal. Tilak was against reducing the intensity of the anti-partition movement by any means. And he did not let the moementum go in the hands of moderates who were relying more on collaborating with British rule rather than openly opposing and criticising their policies.

Another sedition case landed Tilak into Mandale

Soon after this split in the Congress, on June 24, 1908, Tilak was again arrested in Mumbai on charges of sedition and he was tried in the court. The reason for this was the editorial articles he wrote in the Kesari with headlines – ‘the misfortune of the country’ and ‘these measures are not sustainable’ on May 12, 1908 and June 9, 1908 respectively. There were seven Englishmen and two Indians on the jury panel. The jury found him guilty by a vote of seven versus two, and the court sentenced him to six years of jail at Mandalay in Myanmar and a fine of Rs 1000 was also imposed. Tilak’s bold statement after the sentencing is memorable and

Tilak said, “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.

Tilak was kept in Mandalay jail in Burma for punishment. Two important events took place in Tilak’s life while he was in Mandalay jail. During this captivity, he wrote his famous book, ‘Geeta Rahasya’, while his wife Satyabhamabai died in Pune in 1912. He was released by the government on June 15, 1914, after six years in prison.

The Home rule League

In 1915, Tilak wrote four articles on the subject of Hindi Swarajya Sangh and explained what kind of polity and government would be desirable in India. On May 1, 1916, he founded the Home Rule League or Hindi Swarajya Sangh in Belgaum. It was only in 1915 that Annie Besant founded the Home Rule League in Madras. The movement of Home Rule was jointly run by Tilak and Benzat. In March 1918, he went to England with a delegation from the Home Rule League. Before that, he rejoined the Congress in 1916 during the annual Congress session held in Lucknow.

When Tilak was in England, the Rowlatt Act was promulgated and the Jallianwala Bagh massacre took place when people were protestig against this act as appealed by MK Gandhi. “I am sorry that I was not with you during Gandhi’s Satyagraha, and the terrible events that followed,” Tilak said as soon as he landed in Mumbai.

Lokmanya Tilak became the Father of the Indian Unrest

Tilak had filed a defamation suit in a London court against Sir Valentine Chirol for publishing defamatory content against Tilak in his book ‘Indian Unrest’ in 1915. In February 1919, its verdict went against Tilak. Tilak suffered a great loss in this case, but it was this book that introduced Tilak’s glorious title of ‘the Father of the Indian Unrest’.

On the occasion of Tilak’s 60th birthday a grand ceremony was held in June 1916 in Pune and a sum of one lakh rupees was offered to him. Announcing that all that money will be used for national causes, he said, “Our motherland is appealing to all of us to join this movement. Let us all contribute our lives for the national cause without any discrimination as we hear this call of the motherland.”

Leaving the Congress again

Lokmanya Tilak was among the first few mass leaders who realised that with less inclusion of and importance given to the people with a staunch nationalistic attitude and pride for the Indian civilisation and culture, Congress remains a useless platform for the work of a national cause. Afterall, it was not started by an Indian but a British officer AO Hume.

With the intention of deploying political reforms at the will of the Indians themselves – rather than depending upon the mercy of the British rulers or being a collaborator with them like what Congress did later – Lokmanya Tilak founded the Democratic Swarajya Party. The party’s manifesto was published on April 20, 1920. This declaration is a historical document. It mentions the principles of India’s equal place along with Great Britain in the Empire, the establishment of world peace, freedom from commercial plunder, etc. He had shown it to MK Gandhi before publishing the manifesto and Gandhi had agreed to it.

Social Service beyond politics and varied topics of interest of Lokmanya Tilak

In addition to political work, Tilak’s various social activities were going on. After the Surat Congress, he started the movement for prohibition of liquor. He also wrote an article on it and gave many lectures against alcoholism. The movement went so far as to actual deterrence on ground. Tilak raised millions of rupees for social welfare through an activity called ‘Paisa Fund’. Almanac research was ingrained in him at an early age. He later published it in a more scientific way through his independent ‘Panchanga’.

Tilak was always thinking about the industrial progress of his country and he used to discuss on occasion what businesses could be taken up with a little capital. Instilling industrious entrepreneurial attitude among the youths was his motive. The idea of improving the Marathi script alphabets for the printing purpose was there in Tilak’s mind for many years. He also actually experimented with it in 1904. Later, while in England, his efforts were successful and many improvements were made to the Marathi typeset accordingly.

Literary contribution of Lokmanya Tilak

Tilak wrote most of his Marathi articles from Kesari. Apart from Kesari, Tilak wrote some writings in his English newspaper Maratha. Tilak had a deep study of Sanskrit and English literature. His favourite subject was Indian philosophy. He also studied Western philosophy. The best reflection of his broader interest can be seen in the ‘Geeta Rahasya’.

While tilak was working in the political field, sometimes in jail and at other times he got a little rest, during which time he wrote some books. Most of his writings are research-oriented, and in each book he expresses some independent opinions. His major works are Geeta Rahasya, Orion, Arctic Home in the Vedas and Vedang Jyotish.

In the Mandalay jail, Lokmanya Tilak wrote ‘Geeta Rahasya’ in the winter of 1910-11 and published it in 1915. This book is a commentary on the Geeta and is essentially focussed on the ‘Karma Yoga’. In its initial parts, Tilak has explained the understanding of the Geeta he had by observing only the Geeta separately putting all commentaries and criticisms aside. According to him, Geeta promotes Pravrutti – which means proactive nature in a person and provokes the possibilities of great activities hidden within; rather than inspiring Nivrutti – which means a retiree attitude of giving up actions.

‘Orion’ is one of his dissertations. He prepared it for the Oriental Conference in London in 1892. It dealt with the subject of ascertaining the time of the Vedas. Tilak was of the opinion that ‘since Max Müller had decided the time of the Vedas on linguistic research, it was not correct and this method of research was one-sided’. Therefore, he combined all the references to astrology in divine scriptures, linguistics, various samhitas and Brahmanas of Vedas and determined the time of the Vedas as 4500 BC with the mathematical calculations of this astrology. The book has been praised by Western Orientalist scholars Jacobi and Bloomfield.

Arctic Home in the Vedas is also a research thesis of Tilak and he came up with the idea in 1898 when Tilak was in jail in Yerawada. In this book, he has tried to propose that the origin of the Aryans must be somewhere in the region of the North Pole, and this he deduced mainly on the basis of the verses of the Vedas.

The End of the Tilak Era

Lokmanya Tilak’s name was suggested by Pandit Malviya as the president of the historic Congress session which was then to be held in Calcutta, but before that Tilak died in the Sardar Grih in Mumbai following a few days of illness. He had diabetes for 15 years. In the last few days, malaria fever and overwork had led him to an unrecoverable fatigue. At the time of his death, he was survived by his sons, daughters and other relatives, as well as NC Kelkar, Dr Sathe, Dr Deshmukh, KP Khadilkar and other friends were also present there.

The news of Tilak’s death spread in Mumbai and across the country. The whole country was plunged into a sea of sorrow. Tilak gave the freedom movement the supreme and authentic acceptance of people from all walks of life. He was truly a leader accepted by people – not imposed by some colonial legacy or political dynasty. Lokmanya literally means accepted by people. Therefore, the Tilak era is considered to be a very important phase in the history of modern India.

References Used: Old Archieves of Kesari quoted in various biographies of Lokmanya Tilak, Lokmanya Tilak in the Makers of India Series by (Sahitya Akademi), Lokmanya Tilak by Bharatiya Prakashan Nagpur, and articles on Lokmanya Tilak, Gopal Ganesh Agarkar, Pandita Ramabai, Vishnushastri Chiplunkar etc. in the Marathi Encyclopedia published by the Government of Maharashtra.

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