“Swaraj is my birthright and I shall have it!” –– Bal Gangadhar (or Lokmanya, the man accepted by the people) Tilak, the first mass leader of the Indian Independence Movement, will forever be associated with that stirring slogan.
In his 64 years of life (1856 –1920), Bal Gangadhar Tilak towered over the independence movement, as a teacher, journalist, political leader and activist. A fiery nationalist who led the extremist faction within the Indian National Congress (as distinct from the moderate constitutionalists like Gokhale and Jinnah), Tilak was tried numerous times for sedition, jailed on three occasion, and transported for a six-year term to Mandalay in Burma for ‘incitement to violence’. When he died, Mahatma Gandhi called him ‘The Maker of Modern India’. The British colonial authorities had a less complimentary label for him: they called him ‘the father of Indian unrest’.
On 1 August 2020, we commemorate the centenary of the passing of this giant.
Inevitably, in an era in which history has become a bone of political contention, various groups will seek to appropriate Tilak’s legacy for themselves. The Indian National Congress will of course hail him as one of their great leaders, who stirred nationalist passions among the masses. The Bharatiya Janata Party, heirs to a political strain that is singularly devoid of participants in the independence struggle, will also seek to lay claim to him. They have already adopted Congress leaders Madan Mohan Malaviya and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel as their icons. Tilak, in their eyes, qualifies for their embrace not just as an early and fierce advocate of Swaraj (‘self-rule’) but for his evocation of a distinctly Hindu consciousness to appeal to the people.
What Explains Tilak’s Lasting Appeal To Our Ruling Establishment?
In 1896, he famously initiated the ‘sarvajanik Ganesh visarjan utsav’ in Bombay, in which the masses of people came out to worship and then immerse idols of Ganesha in the sea. But though this was an overtly religious event, it was also a political response to the British policy banning public gatherings except for community religious reasons.
Tilak realised that while Muslims, Christians and Parsis had public religious events that qualified for the British exception, Hindus, with their tradition of individual worship, did not.
So a religious drive served the political purpose of mass mobilisation.
Tilak’s major appeal to our present ruling establishment will undoubtedly lie, however, in his explicit evocation of Hindu religious and philosophical concepts.
But like Swami Vivekananda, whom he greatly admired, Tilak’s was an inclusive Hinduism.
Indeed, Tilak’s closest aide in Bombay was not a fellow Marathi Brahmin, but a Christian, Joseph ‘Kaka’ Baptista,
Tilak realised that while Muslims, Christians and Parsis had public religious events that qualified for the British exception, Hindus, with their tradition of individual worship, did not. So a religious drive served the political purpose of mass mobilisation. The same impulse lay behind the mass protests he orchestrated against some of the draconian measures imposed by the British to fight the bubonic plague that ravaged parts of western India in the 1890s. Though these were caricatured as Hindu obscurantism in defence of the rat as Ganesh’s vahana, Tilak’s intent was to rally public opposition to intrusive British diktats.
His major appeal to our present ruling establishment will undoubtedly lie, however, in his explicit evocation of Hindu religious and philosophical concepts, particularly in the last decade of his life when he wrote ‘Shrimadh Bhagvad Gita Rahasya’ in prison at Mandalay. This work of reflection has wrongly been used by some to adopt Tilak within the Hindutva pantheon. But in fact, it was again a brilliant use of religious justification for political action.
How Tilak Interpreted The Bhagavad Gita As A Call To Activism
Tilak interpreted the Bhagavad Gita –– and particularly of Krishna’s exhortation to Arjuna to fight and kill his enemies, including many members of his family, because it is his duty to perform his dharma –– as a call to activism.
For him, the Bhagavad Gita is a work that extols ‘karma-yoga’ or the yoga of action. Its central teaching is ‘nishkama-karma’ or ‘disinterested action’ –– but Tilak saw this not just as a moral teaching but as consistent with social service, social sacrifice, and social solidarity as well. Using Jnanadeva’s commentary on the Gita, Ramanuja's critical exegesis and his own translation of the Bhagavad Gita, Tilak argued that the ‘karma-yoga’ of the Gita supported the ideal of selfless activity dedicated to liberation, not just of the individual, but the nation.
Similarly, Tilak understood ‘yoga’ to mean control of mental impulses by breath control or meditation –– ‘yogah karmasu kausalam’ –– and linked this to the exercise of self-control focused on Swaraj. In his book, Tilak wrote of a compound of ‘nishkama-karma’ and ‘samkhya-yoga’ (as a means) and ‘karma yoga’ (as the end); the Gita is a ‘karma-yoga-sastra’. The message that, in the Gita, enabled Arjuna to fight, should also, Tilak argued, lead Indians to action to attain Swaraj.
The attainment of freedom, in Tilak’s view, was the best fulfilment of dharma at a time when the country was under the domination of a foreign power.
Tilak used Hindu philosophy to infuse a new spirit into his countrymen that would lead them to perform their dharma through action to free the motherland. This was all the more necessary because much of Hindu religious thinking had focused on renunciation and individual self-realisation. Tilak deliberately reinterpreted the concepts of karma, dharma, and yoga to serve his political cause –– the nationalist struggle for freedom. The Gita, he said, called for a ‘yoga of action’. Mahatma Gandhi was inspired by this interpretation, and used the Gita in much the same way.
Tilak’s Inclusive Hinduism: Nationalist Cause Over Religious Identity
Indeed, the early anti-colonial nationalists had seen a revival of interest in Hinduism as entirely compatible with, indeed necessary for, their cause. This was especially true of Madan Mohan Malaviya and the ‘Lal–Bal–Pal’ trio of Lala Lajpat Rai, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Bipin Chandra Pal, who saw in the mobilisation of Hindus an opportunity for forging a new Indian nationalist consciousness against the British.
But like Swami Vivekananda, whom he greatly admired, Tilak’s was an inclusive Hinduism. Religious identity did not matter to him as much the nationalist cause did: “(A non-Hindu) may not perhaps go with me to the same temple to pray to God, perhaps there may be no intermarriage and inter-dining between him and me. All these are minor questions. But, if a man is exerting himself for the good of India, and takes measures in that direction, I do not consider him an alien.”
Indeed, Tilak’s closest aide in Bombay was not a fellow Marathi Brahmin, but a Christian, Joseph ‘Kaka’ Baptista, who is credited with coining the “Swaraj is my birthright” slogan. Baptista went on to be elected Mayor of Bombay in 1925, with much of his support coming from Tilak’s followers.
This is not the stuff that Hindutva heroes are made of. I hope the BJP keeps its hands off Lokmanya Tilak –– and leaves him to the masses of India, whose cause he so passionately served.
(Former UN under-secretary-general, Shashi Tharoor is a Congress MP and an author. He can be reached @ShashiTharoor. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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