Lokmanya Tilak: Father of the Indian renaissance
A philosopher-politician, he pioneered the ideas of swaraj and swadeshi, and used culture, education and the media
Identity was once considered a primordial subject by the social science fraternity. But, then, there was a significant change. Many social scientists recognised the importance of identity as a factor that motivates human enterprise. Many stopped using the term melting pot while describing mega cities like Mumbai or New York and, instead, started using the term salad bowl. Melting pot suggests a complete obliteration of smaller identities to have them merged into a larger one; whereas a salad bowl represents the protection of these smaller identities or recognition that smaller identities can coexist.
Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak was perhaps the first political leader in modern India to appreciate the importance of identity issues. He realised that these could be a tool to make inroads in the minds of an otherwise docile society. Once that was done, people could be motivated to join the struggle for independence, which explains Tilak’s clarion call for swaraj and swadeshi.
In both concepts, swa or self is common. Striving for self-dependence, in Tilak’s strategy, was the stepping-stone for Independence. Tilak wanted to inculcate both collective thinking as well as action. For the cultivation of an enlightened mind, he used the media in the form of two newspapers, Kesari and Maratha, and national education through Deccan Education Society, an institute he established. His formula for preparing the ground for political activism through culture, education and media was so powerful that later on Mahatma Gandhi, Babasaheb Ambedkar and others adopted this path.
Tilak belonged to the rare category of philosopher-politician. His ideas of swaraj and swadeshi were anchored in making every Indian conscious of the insults and injustice meted out by the British. He prepared a fertile ground for swaraj through his home-rule movement. He was clear on the aim of the home rule movement. The tone and tenor of his demand were strategically conciliatory. He wrote: “India was like a son who had grown up and attained maturity. It was right now that the trustee or the father should give him what was his due. The people of India must get this effected. They have a right to do so.”
Notably, Tilak almost had a blueprint of a post-Independence India in mind. For him, swa-raj was also liked to swa-bhasha and swa-bhusha, i.e. mother tongue and indigenous attire. Perhaps, he was the first national leader who envisioned the formation of linguistic states. He spoke of how we should “form one separate state each for Marathi, Telugu and Kanarese provinces...” The principle that education should be given through the vernaculars is self-evident and clear..”
A master strategist, Tilak adroitly used the two things — constitutionalism and democracy — that the British rulers used to boast about, to his maximum advantage. To that end, he used both, his passion and professional acumen as editor and pleader dexterously. His editorials were not only hard hitting, but well-argued and still carefully-worded in order to avoid legal implications. Tilak was also known for not mincing his words. However, a scholar at heart, Tilak used both activism in the field as well as opinion to hasten slowly and attain the goal of swaraj, something his fellow Congressmen were wary of publicly speaking about at that time.
Of course, his idea of Swaraj was not confined to political freedom. He was conscious of the need for cultural and economic independence too. Tilak could be rightly described as the Father of the Indian Renaissance. Two other initiatives of his, the public celebration of the Ganesh festival and Shivaji Jayanti, were clearly aimed at cultural assimilation of all caste and community groups. Once, in an editorial of Kesari he wrote, “This (Ganesh) festival is both age old and universal; but this time the new thing about it was that all castes — and not just Brahmins — came together and made it a festival of all Hindus, a thing we must take pride in.”
Swadeshi was the other important cause espoused by Tilak. Both Lala Lajpat Rai and Bipin Chandra Pal joined him in popularising the call of swadeshi nationally, which saw the emergence of the famous triumvirate of those days, popularly known as Lal, Bal and Pal. However, his swadeshi was not just about boycotting British goods. Although he used the tools of boycott and bonfire of British goods to provide a window for popular participation, his larger objective was promoting indigenous entrepreneurship. Tilak wanted to promote manufacturing in India. To that end, Tilak started collecting funds for a corpus, known as Paisa Fund. Through this, Tilak supported Ishwar Das Varshney, an entrepreneur who was greatly inspired by Tilak’s speech in the Surat Congress. Varshney later started Paisa Fund Glass Works at Talegaon near Pune.
It was the same zeal for promoting swadeshi manufacturing that led to Tilak and Ratanji Jamshedji Tata coming together to open the Bombay Swadeshi Co-operative Stores Co. in order to promote products that were made in India. In Tuticorin, Chidambaram Pillai led a fairly successful swadeshi campaign. His initiative of starting the Indian-owned shipping company, the Swadeshi Shipping Company in October 1906, posed a challenge before the mighty British India Steam Navigation Company. Later, when his seminal work Geetarahasya , which he wrote while under imprisonment at Mandalay was to be published, he ensured that the paper to be used was indigenously manufactured by D Padamji and Sons, a swadeshi paper mill.
Today, when we talk about Atmanirbhar Bharat, the legacy of Tilak is carried forward. Reviving the spirit of economic nationalism for indigenously manufactured goods and striving for social integration through culture are the features of Tilak’s strategy and they continue to be relevant even today as we observe his 100th death anniversary on August 1.
Vinay Sahasrabuddhe is president, ICCR and member, Rajya Sabha
The views expressed are personal