Tilak: The Hindu element in the politics of the ultimate icon of freedom struggle?
By MV Kamath?
Foundations of Tilak’s Nationalism: Discrimination, Education and Hindutva, Parimala V Rao, Orient BlackSwan, Pp 361, Rs 795?
To the world of patriots, Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak is the ultimate icon. Wasn’t it he who told the Court which tried him for sedition and which sentenced him to a 5-year term that “despite the verdict of the jury”, he was innocent and that swaraj is his birthright, and he shall have it? Such was his greatness as a freedom fighter that literally thousands attended his funeral and later contributed to raise a statue in his honour at Chowpatty, Mumbai, where, to this day, he stands tall.
Now to be told – with hard evidence – that he was a social reactionary, one who intensely believed in the caste system, was opposed to widow re-marriage and “against giving the rudimentary education to women, comes as a surprise. Between the interests of the money-lending sowcars and the borrowing peasant, Tilak’s sympathies reportedly belonged to the “sowcars”. Tilak’s argument was that the sowcar could not be regarded as the solo cause of peasant indebtedness and that it was the rigid revenue system which was at fault. This was in direct contradiction to the stand taken by “reformers” like Ranade, Gokhale and Agarkar.
Indeed, writing for Induprakash and Subodh Patrika, Ranade advocated radical legislation against the Chitpavan money-lenders and landlords whereas Tilak (himself a Chitpavan Brahmin) criticised Ranade for “such a woeful betrayal of caste interests”. So deeply exasperated was Tilak at the reformist attack on the caste privileges of the elite Chitpavans that Ranade and his fellow reformers, he felt, were seeking to divide the community for enhancing their own power. In a sense the Chitpavan Brahmins were deeply divided amongst themselves. Reformers like Ranade and Gokhale campaigned for compulsory education of women. Agarkar and Karve campaigned for raising the marriageable age of girls and opposed the inhuman and enforced widowhood. Ranade was instrumental in the enactment of the Deccan Agricultural Relief Act and struggled to set up agricultural banks throughout Bombay Presidency. If implemented diligently, these banks alone were sufficient to destroy the landed Chitpavans.
Tilak fought shockingly against these measures, through the print media which held sway from around 1870 onwards. If Tilak introduced the worship of Ganesh on a giant scale, the Reformers criticised what they thought was “wasteful expenditure” on the Sankranthi and Ganapathi festivals. True, the Reformers may not have been enthusiastic over observing Ganesh Chaturthi as a festival like Ranade, Gokhale, Chandavarker and Phule, but they were by means dazzled by the West. Gokhale called the British rule “painful and bitter humiliation” but was not willing to “substitute tyranny of foreigners with tyranny of Indians”.
Significantly, the Reformers believed, according to Dr BR Ambedkar, that “the British rule had given India time and opportunity to re-build, renovate and repair its economic and social structure and consolidate itself into a single nation”.
What it all shows is that India at the turn of the century was going through turbulent times. Reform was very much in the air. But so was opposition to it. Society was undergoing profound changes and it was a painful period of adjustment, at various levels. On the one hand there was deep resentment to British rule. On the other the British could depend on support from a certain class of people.
As the author notes, during the early years of expansion of colonial rule, the Indian businessmen and the British were virtually comrades-in-arms. The Indian businessmen were the first to recognise the advantage of British rule. They even had a sophisticated financial transaction network, and helped the British to move funds from Bengal to West India. At the national level, this might have been described as the general rule. At the religious level, though, the fight between the ‘Nationalists’ and the Reformists was bitter and sustained. Caste was a factor so deeply ingrained in the system that it frequently vitiated the atmosphere. It was Tilak who pointed out that “every important leader like Lajpat Rai, Mahatma Gandhi, CR Das, Jinnah and Dinshaw Wacha were non-Brahmins” and that “the need of the hour is ‘swarajya’ and not inter-dining and inter-marrying with Brahmins”.
Non-Brahmins should remember, Tilak was to assert, that “the abolition of caste was once tried by the Buddhists but they failed in it and therefore we cannot hang our problem of self-government on this peg of the abolition of caste”. But Tilak was to lose that battle. It is well to remember that in those days children as young as one-year old were married, though the most favoured age for marriage was between eight to ten years. The author, Parimala V Rao recounts some of the major tragedies that were the sequence to such customs. Even starting a school exclusively for girls invited resistance from the Nationalists. Tilak himself is quoted as saying that “English education has de-womanising impact on women which denied them a happy worldly life”.
Interestingly, the notion of Hindutva as distinct from Hinduism, the author claims, was first used by Tilak in 1884. According to her, “the context for this reference did not emerge from an apparent or perceived conflict of interest between Hindus and Muslims or, for that matter, between the Hindus and the British. “Actually, Tialk would repeatedly declare that the basis of the Hindu nation is caste which was to be protected. To Tialk, the protection and elevation of the caste hierarchy constituted the basis of national identity. For Tilak it was important for Hindus to take it as a duty to defend varanashram dharma.
Rao’s book gives us a peep into the picture of Hindu society, especially in Maharashtra around 1909. At the societal level things have sensationally changed in the last one hundred odd years but caste is still very much alive in rural areas as some recent reports on caste-based killings remind us. Out of the conflict between the Reformists and the Nationalists, a fresh understanding of Hinduism has arisen and that is its strength. It reflects the nature of growth in terms of Thesis, anti-Thesis, Synthesis. Never static, Hinduism comes out of every struggle, vibrant as ever, Parimala Rao’s hesitancy to acknowledge it notwithstanding.
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