“Swaraj humaara janmsiddh adhikar hai” (Self-rule is our birth right) roared Tilak, the Lion of India, which inspired millions of Indians. His book Geeta-Rahasya, a classic treatise on Geeta in Marathi was written by him in prison at Mandalay in Burma. Bal Gangadhar Tilak, born as Keshav Gangadhar Tilak, on 23rd of July 1856 was an Indian nationalist, journalist, teacher, social reformer, lawyer and an independence activist.
Childhood & Youth: Intelligent and Mischievous yet Focused
“If five sheep eat up all the grass in a meadow in 28 days, how many sheep will eat up all the grass in 20 days?” “Seven sheep, sir,” flashed the answer even before the teacher finished his question. The teacher went near Bal and looked into his notebook and asked “Where have you worked the sum?” Bal, with his mischievous smile, pointed the index finger to his head.
While Bal’s classmates found it difficult to understand certain problems, to Bal mathematics was like drinking water, and Sanskrit, of course, was like a peeled banana. Bal’s father Gangadhar Ramachandra Tilak was a Sanskrit scholar and a famous teacher. Bal learned all the lessons at home, and there was nothing left to learn at school. Though Bat was very intelligent, he was not his teachers’ favorite because of his mischievousness and his independent views. Those were the days of his schooling in the primary school at Ratnagiri.
Like any other kid, Tilak was also fascinated with stories. As soon as he was done with studies, he would run to his grandfather, to hear new stories. During the first war of independence (1857), his grandfather had lived in Kashi. Tilak would listen to the stories about the revolutionaries like Nana Saheb, Tatia Tope, and Jhansi Rani, Bal and be thrilled. “Oh! What great men were they who sacrificed their lives for the country!” he thought in his mind. Slowly the desire to free Mother India from slavery cropped in his mind and he promised to himself, “when he grew up he, too, should serve his country like the great revolutionaries.”
Bal was ten years old when Gangadhar Pant got transferred to Pune. Coming from Ratnagiri to Pune was a milestone in the life of Bal Tilak. A new place and new people. Bal’s mother passed away only a few months after coming to Pune. Bal lost his father also six years after his mother’s death. Then he was 16 years old. He was studying in the Matriculation Class. He had been married to a ten-year-old girl called Sathyabhama.
Naturally one’s responsibility increases after marriage. Now Bal Tilak became ‘Bal Gangadhar Tilak’. After passing the Matriculation Examination, he joined the Deccan College. His health was delicate as his mothers. How could he sacrifice his life for the country if his body were weak? So, Tilak decided to improve his physique even at the cost of his studies during the first year of college. He used to do physical exercises every day. And his food was regulated but nutritious. In the course of one year, Tilak was first in all games and sports. He became an expert swimmer and wrestler. He developed his body so well that all wondered at such radiant health. In 1877, Tilak got his B.A. degree. It was no wonder that he got first class marks in mathematics. He continued his studies and got the LL.B. degree also.
Tilak, being a double graduate, could easily have got a well-paid job like others, under the British. But, as he had decided when he was young, he dedicated himself to the service of his country. The concept of Swaraj had yet to blossom in the minds of the people. They had to be made to feel that thirst for independence. Patriotism had to be nurtured, to lay the strong foundation for a new way of life, an educational institution reflecting Indian culture had to be established. Every Indian had to be taught about Indian culture and national ideals. Good citizens can be molded only through good education. Such were the views of Bal Gangadhar Tilak. His classmate Agarkar gave him full support. As Tilak and Agarkar were working out the plans for a system of education which would make students truly useful to the country, another great person, Vishnu Shastri Chiplunkar joined them.
The New School and the world of Journalism:
Chiplunkar, himself a teacher, wished that at least the younger generations should receive the fighting type of education. The people’s blind faith that British rule was God’s gift to India had to be wiped out. Tilak, Agarkar, and Chiplunkar were three people impelled by the same ideal. They joined hands to create an educational institution to develop moral strength in the pupils.
The educational institution planned and founded by Tilak is like a banyan tree. The little seedling planted by him has grown into a gigantic tree with many branches, and every branch has meant renewed. Life and a new educational institution. The New English School has now developed into the ‘Deccan Education Society’. This society now runs the Fergusson College and the Greater Maharashtra Commerce and Economics College in Pune, the Willingdon College in Sangli and the Bombay College in Bombay as well as some high schools.
As the New English School started in 1880, progressed, attracted large numbers of pupils. It was a school that reflected our culture and the ideals of our life and was thus our very own. It was also securing the best results in the examinations. Teachers Were so preparing their pupils for the examinations as to secure all the scholarships for their school. Tilak and his colleagues toiled not a little for the school. During the first year, neither Tilak nor Chiplunkar drew even a rupee as salary.
Now, Tilak thought of expanding the field of national education. The school imparted knowledge only to the students. It was necessary to bring home to the mind of every Indian the nature of the slavery of Indians. People had to be organized, and the people had to be roused to their condition and duty. Tilak thought that the newspapers were the most effective media. The very next year after the school was started, Tilak started two weeklies. ‘Kesari’ was the Marathi Weekly and ‘Mahratta’ was the English Weekly.
The newspapers attracted the people. In just two years ‘Kesari’ had more readers than any Indian language paper. The editorials gave a vivid picture of the people’s sufferings and of actual happenings. They called upon every Indian to fight for his right. The language was so sharp as to create in the most cowardly reader the thirst for freedom. Tilak used to say to his colleagues: “You are not writing for the university students. Imagine you are talking to a villager….. Be sure of your facts. Let your words be clear as day light.”
After the death of Rajaram, Maharaja of Kolhapur State, his adopted son Shivaji Rao became the Maharaja. ‘Kesari’ published articles condemning the cruel way in which the British treated him. When the people came to know of the tyranny of the British, unrest gripped Pune and Kolhapur. The Government filed a case against ‘Kesari’ (for publishing the facts). The young editors Agarkar and Tilak were sentenced to 4 months’ rigorous imprisonment.
As the New English School was progressing well, Fergusson College and Deccan Education Society were established. Tilak made a rule that no one should expect more than seventy five rupees a month as his salary. But other members of the management opposed this. When differences of opinion on this issue became endless, Tilak made over to others the institution he himself had founded.
Tilak was filled with immense grief, when he had to resign from the institution which he had started and for which he had toiled day and night for ten years. The weeklies ‘Kesari’ and `Mahratta’ also brought no profit. Tilak had to find part time work to maintain his family. Never would he work under the British. He started classes to coach students for the Pleaders, Examination.
The Significant Years
The period seven years between 1890 and 1897 was very significant in the life of Tilak. During this period, Tilak the Teacher/director of an institution became a national leader. The exceptional energy, so far hidden in him, now raced forth in many directions. In addition to the two weeklies, he was running classes for students of Law. He actually waged a war against the Government for the sake of social reforms. He issued a call for the banning of child marriage and welcomed widow marriage. Through the celebrations of Ganapathi Festival and the birthday of the Shivaji he organized people. He was a member of the Municipal Council of Pune, a member of the Bombay Legislature, and an elected ‘Fellow’ of the Bombay University, He was also taking a leading part in the Congress sessions. Added to these, he wrote and published his maiden work ‘Orion’.
That Tilak managed to transform the local festivities of Ganesha and Shivaji into national festivals, is proof of his organizing ability and shrewdness. If people are to feel in their very blood and bones that they are all one, they should meet often; they should have common ideals and there should be occasions, when they can forget all other differences and mingle together joyously. Tilak’s plan made these festivities spread to every nook and corner of Maharashtra in a few years.
In 1896, famine broke out in India. Tilak pressed the government to relieve the distress of the people at once. He helped the farmers affected by the famine. He collected information about the conditions in every district and published it in the ‘Mahratta’ and the ‘Kesari’. Plague broke out while the people were still in the grip of famine. Tilak opened some hospitals and, with the help of volunteers, looked after the patients. Though the people were in the grip of famine and plague, the government was indifferent. The Viceroy himself said that there was no cause for anxiety and no need to start a ‘Famine Relief Fund’! Revenue collection went on as usual. The government’s indifference was severely criticized in the articles published in Tilak’s papers. They published fearlessly reports about the havoc caused by famine and plague and government’s utter irresponsibility and indifference. In the editorials, Tilak made appeals to the people and gave them advice. He explained to them the ‘Famine Relief Act’. He exhorted them to demand relief from the government as their right. “Are you cowards even while you are dying? Can’t you gather courage?” So he questioned the people. He gave constructive suggestions to the government to arrest the plague.
The government made preparations to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria’s reign. On one side, people were busy cremating the victims of the plague; on the other side, the governments was busy making arrangements for the Diamond Jubilee Celebrations! At last, the government appointed a Special Plague Officer to arrest the havoc of the plague. His name was Rand and he was more terrible than the plague itself. He sent armed soldiers to make the people vacate the houses which plague had entered.
The soldiers forcibly entered the houses and terrified the people with their guns. They admitted to the hospitals someone they could catch no matter whether he was suffering from plague or not. They took the remaining members of the family to distant camps; they burnt all their belongings on the assumption that they carded the infection. Rand Sahib became a worse plague than the plague itself. But, in his own hospitals, Tilak was toiling day and night to save the lives of plague affected people.
A youth, enraged by the senselessness of the government’s anti-plague measures, shot the Special Plague Officer Rand dead. The police reacted violently and acts of injustice and cruelty multiplied. Tilak’s blood boiled. Under the title “Has the Government gone mad?” Tilak condemned in the ‘Kesari’ the immoral acts of the government. Tilak’s pungent writings made the government tremble. The government came to the conclusion that if Tilak was free it could not survive. By some means or the other Tilak must be locked up behind the bars. The government suspected that Tilak might have had a hand in Rand’s murder! It took objection to a poem and an article on Shivaji published in the ‘Kesari’, and imprisoned Tilak in 1897. Tilak was charged with writing articles instigating die people to rise against the government and to break the laws and disturb the peace. He was sentenced to a year and a half’s rigorous imprisonment.
A Lion Even In The Cage
The cells in the jails in those days were actual, hell. The dark cell measured just 13 square feet, and the prisoner could not even turn from one side to another. The blanket was full of worms. Mosquitoes were innumerable. The bread was mixed with sand. The clothes were coarse. Officers whipped the prisoners and mercilessly set them to work. Tilak had to make rope and mats from coir and his fingers got blisters. The fingers that wrote ‘Orion’, which won praise from great scholars like Max Muller, were made to do dreadful tasks which made them bleed. Tilak lost 30 pounds in weight in just four months.
In the little leisure he had, he read and wrote. His book ‘The Arctic Home in the Vedas’ written in the jail, is a priceless work. Scholars and statesmen from all over the world appealed to the government to release Tilak. The government insisted on two conditions to release him: he should not attend any reception arranged in his honour and he should not criticize the government. Tilak was ready to accept the first condition as he did not desire anything for himself. But he would rather live as an outlaw in the Andamans than live as a coward in Maharashtra, admitting that he had done something wrong when he had not done so. So he rejected the second condition. Finally the government reduced his sentence from one and a half years to a year.
It was Deepawali in 1898; Tilak was released from jail. The joy of the people was beyond words. There were illuminations and fireworks everywhere. There was a heavy rush of people to have ‘darshan’ of Tilak. He was taken in a procession through the main streets of Pune. People shed tears of joy. Every Indian’s heart was filled with reverence for Tilak. Tilak, who was a regional leader, now became the National Leader..
The Sacred Word: ‘Swadeshi’
At this time, the ‘Swadeshi’ movement grew intense. Gokhale, Ranade, Paranjape and others had shown the importance of the swadeshi principle. Through newspapers and lectures, Tilak spread the message to each and every village in Maharashtra. A big ‘Swadeshi Market’ was opened in front of Tilak’s house. Swadeshi goods were sold in the fifty odd stalls of the market. The slogan of swadeshi was heard everywhere. Foreign clothes were reduced to ashes. Foreign sugar was thrown away and local jaggery was used. Swadeshi cotton mills, paper mills and factories to manufacture matches were started.
The students of Rajaram College, Kolhapur, were to take an examination. They tore the blank books given to them, saying they would not use foreign-made paper. These students were given six lashes each as punishment. And they pleaded that they should be beaten only with a local made cane !
‘Swadeshi, Swaraj (self-rule), Boycott and National Education’- these were the sacred words preached by Tilak. And the people made weapons of these words. The tendency grew in Indians to defy slavery. Galvanizing people’s love of their country was itself a revolution brought about by Tilak.
Fourteen years later Gandhiji started the non-cooperation movement against the British. The methods he placed before the people, Tilak had formulated as early as in 1906!
A Shameless Government
During this time, the Government of India and some British newspapers harassed Tilak in many ways. A rich man, Baba Maharaj by name, had died. He had expressed the wish that Tilak should look after his property. So Tilak took charge of it. Baba Maharaj’s wife was misled by some selfish persons. She complained against Tilak to the government. The government was waiting for an opportunity to crush a leader who had been fighting against it. It appointed special officers and held a mock trial; ‘it decided that Tilak had tendered false evidence and was also guilty of forgery. He. was handcuffed like thieves and murderers and sent to prison. Tilak, after coming out of the jail on bail, fought for fourteen years in different courts and finally got justice from the privy Council in England. The Privy Council rebuked severely the courts in India for the way they had tried this case.
The ‘Globe’ of London and ‘The Times of India’ had written that Tilak incited people to commit murders. Tilak did not rest till he made those papers apologize to him.
The Division of Bengal, Faction in Congress and Imprisonment:
After the All India Muslim League was founded by the All India Mohammaden Educational Conference at Dhaka, in 1906 in the context of the circumstances that were generated over the partition of Bengal, Muhammad Ali Jinnah joined the Indian National Congress. The anti-Hindu ways of the Indian National Congress first showed up in August 1906 over the issue of who should be nominated for President-ship of the Calcutta Congress in December. In 1906, the Congress was split into two factions: The radicals, led by Bal Gangadhar Tilak, advocated civil agitation and direct revolution to overthrow the British Empire and the abandonment of all things British. The moderates, led by leaders like Gopal Krishna Gokhale who on the other hand wanted reform within the framework of British rule. Tilak was backed by rising public leaders like Bipin Chandra Pal and Lala Lajpat Rai, who held the same point of view. Under them, India’s three great states – Maharashtra, Bengal and Punjab shaped the demand of the people and India’s nationalism.
When Gokhale’s empire loyalists’ camp realized that Tilak was the Nationalists’ choice for President. Gokhale criticized Tilak for encouraging acts of violence and disorder and had made himself widely unpopular among the people for apologizing to the British government for the Swaraj, Swadeshi and Boycott movement. It had to be someone else and a person with enough stature to challenge Tilak’s nomination, they decided to bring Dadabhai Naoroji from London to contest the post. But the Congress of 1906 did not have public membership, and thus Tilak and his supporters were forced to leave the party. Aurobindo cried foul and mercilessly lampooned The Indian Mirror, the Congress organ in Bengal and an ally of the government.
[The Indian Mirror has chosen naturally enough to fall foul of Mr. Tilak. Mr. Tilak we learn, has seriously offended our contemporary by giving honour to Mr. Bhopatkar on his release from jail: his speeches on the Shivaji festival were displeasing to the thoughtful and enlightened men who congregate in the office of the Indian Mirror; and to sum up the whole matter, “he is a man of extreme views and without tact”. Ergo he is no fit man for the presidential chair of the Congress.
It is interesting to learn on this unimpeachable authority, what are the qualifications which the moderate and loyalist mind demands in a President of the ‘national’ Congress. It is not the great protagonist and champion of Swadeshi in Western India. It is not the one man whom the whole Indian community in Western India delights to honour, from Peshawar to Kolhapur and from Bombay to our own borders; but It is one who will not talk about Shivaji and Bhavani – but only about Mahatmas. His social and religious views may not agree with those of the “enlightened”, but we have yet to learn that the Congress platform is sacred to advanced social reformers, that the profession of the Hindu religion is a bar to leadership in its ranks.
It follows therefore that the Presidentship was unconstitutionally offered to Mr. Naroji by one or two individuals behind the back of the Reception Committee. It is now explained that Mr. Naoroji simply wired his willingness to accept the Presidentship offered to him. The plea that it had long been known Mr. Naroji was coming to India and it was therefore thought fit to ask him to preside at the Congress, is one which will command no credit. Not until Mr. Tilak’s name was before the country and they saw that none of their mediocrities they had suggested could weigh in the scale with the great Maratha leader.]
(A Disingenuous Defense, September 14, 1906, Bande Mataram)
The British divided Bengal. A powerful movement flared up to protest against the division of Bengal. There was a District Magistrate Kingsford, who was the embodiment of injustice. A revolutionary by name Khudiram Bose threw a bomb on him. The government used very harsh methods to break the will of the people. Aurobindo was arrested and taken to the police office in iron handcuffs, with a rope tied to his waist. Anyone suspected of trying to use explosives could be sent to prison for 14 years!
Tilak’s blood boiled. He wrote an article in the ‘Kesari’ under the title ‘The Country’s Misfortune’ and took the government to task: ‘It is unfortunate that bombs are being made in the country. But the responsibility for creating a situation in which it has become necessary to throw bombs, rests solely on the government. This is due to the government’s unjust rule.’ The British were like a pricked balloon. They concluded that their government would be in danger if Tilak remained free.
The government made this article ‘The Country’s Misfortune’, a pretext to charge Tilak with treason against the government. Tilak was arrested on 24th June 1908 in Bombay. He was sentenced to six years imprisonment outside India. The country was plunged in grief. Even foreign thinkers condemned this severe punishment to Tilak, who was a scholar, highly respected and honored throughout the world.
The prison in Mandalay, Burma; a small room made of wooden planks; inside, a cot, a table, a chair and a bookshelf this was Tilak’s room. There was no protection from wind and cold. And he was cut off from other men. By the time Tilak completed one year in this jail, he got a note through one of his friends. The note said that if he accepted certain conditions, then he would be released. Tilak wrote back saying, ‘I am now 53 years old. If I live for another ten Years, that means I shall live for five years after I come out of the prison. I can at least spend those five years in the service of the people. if I accept government’s conditions, I am as good dead’.
The rigorous imprisonment was reduced to simple imprisonment. So he was allowed to read and write. It was here that he wrote the book ‘Gita-Rahasya’. It is a mighty work. Tilak wished to forget his loneliness and so was always immersed in reading and writing. By the time his term of six years in the jail was over, he had collected about 400 books. He returned to his old daily routine, which he had given up for want of time. In the mean time, Tilak’s, wife passed away in India when he was still rotting in the jail in Mandalay.
Tilak was released on 8th June 1914. He was brought to pune on the 16th and was let off. Many organizations in Pune arranged public meetings in honor of Tilak. Tilak said : “Six years of separation from you has not lessened my affection for you. I have not forgotten the concept of Swaraj. There will be no change in the programs I had already accepted. They will all continue as before.”
Tilak Vs Gandhi:
If I have to conclude it in one sentence, the fact of the matter is, Tilak and Aurbindo were becoming serious threat for the colonial rulers and the Gandhi was groomed to be ‘Mahatma’ and brought to India to replace Tilak as mass leader and Aurbindo as the philosophical leader.
Tilak believed in democratic realism while Gandhi believed in ethical realism. Tilak derived his inspiration from Mahabharata, Geeta and Upanishads for politics and actions. Gandhi was influenced by Tolstoy, Ruskin, Thoreau, Narsi Mehta, etc.
Tilak thought of Ahinsa for political expediency while Gandhi had absolute faith in Ahinsa (this also has been challenged, with evidence to the contrary). Tilak would not use force and diplomacy for dealing with opponent till the opponent is not mischievous. Tilak never believed in the ethical aspect of non-violence. To protect good and destroy the evil is a divine quality. A policy of forgiveness and meekness cannot be practiced in this world full of sins. Tilak was a realist and not an idealist. He once wrote to Gandhi that politics is not for Sadhus and Sanyasis. It was a game of worldly people. He would like Gandhi to follow Krishna than Buddha. Krishna gave priority to the practicality of the situation and would destroy evil and restore Dharma. Buddha would return evil with goodness. Gandhi believed the later and regarded any violence for good or evil as unethical.
Tilak believed in representative democracy while Gandhi believed in moral sovereignty. Gandhi gave moral supremacy of a single man superiority over a big parliament.
The realism of Tilak and ethical idealism of Gandhi were clear as to their Reforms Act of 1919. Gandhi was against contesting election while Tilak condemned the reforms but advocated contesting the elections of Assemblies and participate. He wanted more and more of rights for which he aimed to work both inside and outside. About entering the Legislative Council, Tilak said to Gandhiji “I personally believe that it will be better to go to the councils and obstruct when it was necessary and to co-operate also if needed.”
By the time Tilak returned from Mandalay, there was a serious rift between the two Congress groups. His efforts to unite them were in vain. Gandhijee was wary of him. The freedom fighters were divided into two sections. “Garam Dal” or Aggressive Group of Tilak followers and “Naram Dal” or Diffident Group of Gandhi followers. Then Tilak decided to build a separate powerful organization called the ‘Home Rule League.’ Its goal was Swaraj.
‘Swaraj’ means that we should manage our homes, ourselves. Should our neighbor become the master of our house? An Indian should have as much freedom in India as an Englishman has in England. This is the meaning of ‘Home Rule’ – so Tilak explained. He regularly traveled, to organize the people. He spoke of hundreds of platforms about ‘Swaraj’. And wherever he went he received a hero’s welcome.
“Swaraj — Our Birth-Right” !!
“Swaraj — Our Birth-Right. “We want equality. We cannot remain slaves under foreign rule. We will not carry for an instant longer, the yoke of slavery that we have carded all these years. Swaraj is our birthright. We must have it at any cost. When the Japanese, who are Asians like us, are free, why should we be slaves? Why should our Mother’s hands be handcuffed?” Swaraj’s altered blazed. The government was again alarmed and troubled. As days passed, Tilak began to stamp the slogan ‘Swaraj is our birthright’ on the minds of every Indian. Lokamanya Tilak’s popularity grew rapidly.
In 1916, Tilak completed sixty years of a fruitful life. Scholars, leaders, and friends thronged his house on the occasion of the sixtieth birthday celebrations. Tilak was honored with the presentation of an Address of Felicitations and a purse of one lakh rupees. The celebrations were on a grand scale. The Lokamanya gave away the money to be used in the service of the country. The government also gave him a present on the occasion of his sixtieth birthday! On the day before his birthday, the government served him with a notice; it ordered him to give a surety of Rs. 20000, for his good behavior for one year!
When a journalist of England by name Chirol, visited India, he studied the movement directed by Tilak and made false allegations against Tilak. He charged that ‘Tilak was the leader of a violent revolution in India!’ Tilak claimed that this was an insult to him and went to court for damages. He had to go to England for the ‘Chirol episode’ and had to remain there for 13 months. On account of this, he had to spend his precious time and money.
It was not solely for this case that Tilak visited England. His purpose also was to explain to the British government conditions in enslaved India. He addressed hundreds of meetings and intensified the ‘Home Rule’ (Swaraj) movement. He won the friendship of leaders of the Labour Party.
The Lion Of India Is No More
In the World War, the British sought the help of Indians. Victory in the war intoxicated the British and tyranny was let loose in India. When the Rowlatt Act was opposed, the ‘Jailianwala Bagh Massacre’ took place. The heartless government murdered in cold blood hundreds of unarmed civilians in a brutal way.
On hearing this, Tilak rushed back to India at once. He issued a call to the Indians not to stop their movement no matter what happened, till their demands were met. The Lokamanya had become feeble by this time. The body was tired and yet; he undertook tours to awaken the people. In July 1920, his condition worsened. In the early hours of 1st August, the light went out.
Even as this sad news was spreading, a veritable ocean of people surged towards his house, to have the last glimpse of their beloved leader. Two lakhs of people witnessed his last journey.
Tilak’s was a magnificent life, and he was every way worthy of the people’s homage. He led a simple life and offered himself, body and soul, to the service of his country.