Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Impressions from Lokmanya Tilak

To read a book on Lokmanya Tilak's life had been on my to-do list for a long time. There were three reasons for this :

1. His work ethic : I had read somewhere that he was almost a workaholic, he worked long hours relentlessly for the society and country, more than people do at their jobs. He was a very versatile learner and worker and in his life, he did all kinds of things. He was a journalist, edited two magazines, taught law
classes, was a maths teacher in school and college, a lover of trigonometry, started a school, a college (Fergusson College, Pune), did social work during the plague, researched Vedic History, wrote a commentary on the Gita, he even ran a sugar factory for a while. How could one person be and do all these things ?

2. I had heard that, among the freedom fighters, Swami mentioned Lal-Bal-Pal particularly in praise.

3. Having read and written on Gandhi at my blog, it would be great to acquire a perspective totally different from Gandhi. Tilak and Gandhi mutually respected each other, but during their time, it was clear that their paths were different and they knew it too. Tilak debated this with Gandhi and tried to persuade him to give up non-violence and didn't succeed at it.

I wanted to understand Tilak the man, his personality, his early years and what made him to be what he was. So I stepped into the university library after 10 years and picked up Tilak's biography. by Dhananjay Kheer. After the first few chapters, the book turned out to be more on his political chronography, he did this at that Congress meeting, then Congress met next year, then he did that, again Congress met and so on. Nevertheless, I could observe many events in his life and his views and some of them I never had an inkling about. Here are some points and anecdotes that I found interesting and inspiring.

Tilak the social worker :

He was a man who worked amidst the masses. We all know that he used Shivaji's Birth anniversary and Ganesh Chathurthi as platforms to raise the patriotic awareness of the people. He believed in ground action, to be with the people.

During the Poona plague, the British appointed committees to segregate patients. This was to be implemented by British soldiers. There were reports that they were acting too harshly and there were excesses. The British Government said, it was just doing its medical job. Tilak joined the search teams himself, visiting house to house, to ensure the British soldiers didn't commit excesses. He also created awareness in the public about hygiene in slums and urged the Hindus not to stick to old superstitions and stay away from hospital treatment. He started a Hindu hospital where Hindus were treated at their expense. He started a free kitchen in the segregation camp to help the poor.

Tilak believed that it was the duty of the people to see that the government implements laws effectively. He said it was the responsibility of the local leaders, and if they are prosecuted for it, they shouldn't mind suffering imprisonment for the good of the people.

He criticized the Indian National Congress often, from within, of the same set of elite people, meeting from time to time, the same set of resolutions about working "along with" the British Government, what was the use ? Get peasants! Help them solve problems of land revenue, salt, forest and excise under which they they are crushed. He told the farmers to pay the govt dues if they had money, but not to do so by contracting debts! He travelled from village to village to gather farmers support for the struggle.

His was possibly the first agrarian movement in support of independence. The freedom struggle probably was the last truly national movement in India, that involved all sections of society. I couldn't miss out on the comparison with anti-corruption movement in India in 2011. Where were the masses ? The office-going urbanites and the mouse-clicking social media were there, but where were the people who are often at the last receiving end of corruption ? Who travelled from village to village to communicate to them and collect them ? 

Tilak the Leader :

Over time, Tilak reached a point of belief that the leader should do what the people want, but are unable to express or unable to do. He maintained a very strong regional identity, he was highly respected among the Maharashtrian freedom leaders. A Congress session at Pune or Bombay would be unthinkable without Tilak's participation. But he also established a great rapport with like-minded leaders in other far-flung areas, such as V.O.Chidambaram Pillai, Aurobindo etc. It must have been quite difficult to stay within the Congress and fight its lethargy and engage in dialogue with critics in the same conference venue. Yet, he would reach a common ground, if the overall unity of the Indian National Congress or the overall interest of the Nation was paramount. One could have easily expected a strong, independent and fiery mind like Tilak to have broken away into a separate party, out of frustration and impatience, or to be removed for his insistent approach, but neither happened. Other leaders sought him out for his views, even as they knew he may not agree with them.

Tilak refused to plead guilty, although if he had done so, it would have reduced his prison sentence in the sedition case. I was curious to know, did he regret it later ? In contrast, a few weeks back, Gokhale had given an unconditional apology for his speaking up while he was in Britain. Savarkar too was forced to tender an apology and undertaking to refrain from millitant activity.  Tilak was no such man. It looked like his diabetes in the prison and weak health changed him a bit. That, and his age, did it change his extremist views, did it soften them? Who can have a peek into how the great minds transition ?

At many points in Tilak's life, he must have faced the conflict of improving the Indian society versus fighting the British, and the conflict of having to support other methods which were different from him. He must have handled the conflict of what is good and bad for the country at that time, or what was a lesser evil in the longer interest. The ethical dilemmas that a leader faces in a real life working for the society are so different from the ones taught in the story-telling classrooms. How does a leader act when all you see around is misery and conflict and there is no one to raise the people's awareness ?

There was once a strange case when Tilak fought a case for the corrupt, while condemning them in Kesari. An English official collected bribes from 17 mamlatdars for favouring them promotions. The corruption came to light. The British lured the Mamlatdars saying if they confessed who the official was, no action would be taken against them. After the English official was named, the British backtracked. They didn't want to put out a ugly picture that an English official was corrupt, so they changed his offence into some minor stuff and let him free. They then went after the Mamlatdars and dismissed them for paying bribes. Tilak said,  the British went back on their word, fought the case for the Mamlatdars, won it and had them re-instated. He then condemned bribery and the Mamlatdars who offered bribes. I guess, he must have reasoned, between corruption and the British, fight the bigger evil first!

There was a case where Tilak might have actually concealed the wrong-doer. One Damodar Chapekar, acting on his own, had shot dead a British official who had acted tyrannically during the plague. At dawn next day, he sent a message to Tilak that said, 'The previous night the Ganesha at Ganeshkhind had been propitiated'. Tilak probably knew about some rough plans, he immediately understood the message and exclaimed, 'Is it so? Then be cautious now!'. He later wrote in his paper about both the police raj and also that the culprit should be nabbed and due course of law should be followed. He later said, when asked by the officer : 'I can't help you. Even if I have information, I will never pass it on to you. I believe offender should be punished adequately, but I will never agree to be anybody's spy and never will I betray anyone in the world. But I won't put obstacles in your path. The murder is a blot upon Poona, when found, the offender should be punished as per law.' Later, when Damodar was apprehended, he requested Tilak, who was in jail, to draft his appeal. Tilak did so. Damodar carried Tilak's copy of Gita to the gallows.

Tilak the Man :

He was a man of amazing personal integrity, the kind it's probably impossible to find nowadays in public life. His idealistic approach often put him in conflict with others, but he was a man of strong convictions.

Once, Tilak agreed to be the executor of the will of a dying friend Shri Baba Maharaj. After his death, his relatives falsely accused Tilak and disputed the will. Tilak had to go through the court case for 19 years without compromise and won the case, because he had given a word to his friend!

Once, when a revolutionary sent a diamond as a gift to Tilak from abroad, he ordered it to be sold and the proceeds to be used for the independence struggle.

He wanted members of his institution (Deccan Education Society) to follow a simple spartan lifestyle. He was against regular automatic pay-rises, a fact some of his married colleagues had problem accepting, because they felt, according to market conditions, pay has to raise. Also, Tilak said, if members did work outside the job, the remuneration from outside work will belong to the society's common fund. These were very ideal beliefs, and he himself practised them but it was impractical for others to follow.  He had to, unfortunately, resign out of the very college he started, because of extreme views, which he considered as matters of principle and his colleagues considered highhandedness.

Tilak encouraged his friends and colleagues to have a rest vacation, once a year, in seclusion. Tilak's book 'The Arctic Home of the Vedas' was written during one such, in Singhad after his release from Yeravada Jail. In jail, he had received a flash insight from the Vedic sentence :'The Sun rose after many days', which was an inspiration for the book.

He had a great ability to revert to calm, in the face of danger. When the police surrounded his house for writing seditious articles in Kesari, he quietly surrendered. By the time the court official went to process his bail, (which was denied) and returned, he found Tilak happily snoring in the cell. Haha, cool as a cucumber.

He used his stay in the prison to write a commentary on the Bhagawad Gita. What an intellectual realm our leaders maintained even in the prison those days! Aurobindo had a vision of Lord Krishna, Vinobhaji learnt 4 languages and gave talks on the Gita to fellow prisoners! Tilak favoured an "activism" version of the understanding of the Gita and saw Karma Yoga in the light of patriotism and service to the country.

When he was in prison, other prisoners had great respect for Tilak. The jail authorities sometimes used Tilak's moral authority to tame the rogue prisoners, Tilak's word had the magical respect with them.

There were a few things I found myself disagreeing while reading the book. His extreme orthodoxy and casteism, his belief that independence should precede social reform and not go hand in hand, his extreme pro-Hindu leanings etc. Strangely, he opposed the increase of minimum age of consent for marriage from 10 to 12 by the British. Publicly, he opposed it saying it was against the tenets of Hinduism. Privately, he agreed that it was okay to raise. But he opposed it on two grounds (a) Who is the British to meddle with Indian tradition ? Let Indians decide for indians. (b) Change in Hinduism has to come from within itself, not forced from outside. But some of these were probably just a function of his times while we view it in the modern context of progressiveness.

We know that Tilak met Swami Vivekananda and Shirdi Sai Baba. Let me close with a few more sweet #TIL snippets :

1. Guess who fought the defence of Tilak's Kesari sedition case in 1909 ? Mohammed Ali Jinnah.

2. Max Muller petitioned the British Government for release of Tilak.

3. Much before he appeared on the Indian freedom scene, Gandhi met Tilak, Gokhale and other leaders seeking their support for his South African movement.

4. When Tilak visited Cambridge, he gave a brilliant talk on why Indian students studying there should go back to India after their studies and dedicate themselves to the cause of the nation. Guess who was in that student audience : Subhash Chandra Bose! . Now, that should be the biography I should pick up next.


  1. Thanks for sharing the facts and your opinions on the great man, Nams. Like you said, I cannot imagine how one person was so many things. Pranams ...

  2. Well-written Namaji, looks like the gist of the book is in your blog. Swami was ever effusive in praise of Tilak, and never tired of mentioning their names when He spoke about freedom movement. How he got so much time to do such multifarious and varied activities is amazing to read. On the contrary, there is so much 'scope' to while away our time in the present times, and whenever I get an opportunity I surely indulge in it.
    To sum up, I can only think of the village schoolmaster by Oliver Goldsmith when alluding with Tilak. The innocent villagers thought, how such a small head could contain all that knowledge! Ha ha!

    1. Yeah, that's a good one, the poem by Oliver Goldsmith.

  3. Interesting to read, took me back to old days when we used to spend lot of time reading books/magazines rather than reading online. It is because of people like Tilak who rose above their current situation and thought of common good of society all the time that we enjoy the freedom today. Thanks Namaji.

    1. True. Like they say, plant trees under whose shade you do not expect to sit.

  4. Very well written and a balanced view. The comparison to the social media driven emblematic anti corruption crusade was apt. On a lighter vein....looking forward for a blog on the hassles of a hapless parent contending with the perils of education system in India :-)

    1. Haha yeah, should write sometime, the education system needs forces tougher than the independence struggle, LoL.


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THANK YOU: These reflections draw sometimes from readers and friends who initiate ideas, build up discussions, post comments and mention interesting links, some online and some over a cup of coffee or during a riverside walk. Thank you.

Disclaimer: Views expressed in this blog are the blogger's personal opinions and made in his individual capacity, sometimes have a story-type approach, mixing facts with imagination and should not be construed as arising from a professional position or a counselling intention.