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Issue No.: 572 | February 2015

Laying the Foundation for a Modern India

S. P. Aiyar
The celebration of the Gokhale centenary on 9 May 1966 had more than ordinary significance. The nation was not merely honouring one of the most extraordinary figures of modern India but one who more than anyone else was dedicated to the philosophy which now underlies the Constitution of India. His life and teachings have a message for our time and his writings, particularly the celebrated budget speeches will rank for all time as a great landmark in the ordered constitutional progress in this country.

Gopal Krishna Gokhale’s life - a brief span of forty-nine years - had all the elements of grandeur and tragedy. He offered his life as a living sacrifice to his country. Only one great idea loomed large in his mind - the moral and material progress of the Indian people. It could indeed be said of him, as he said of his Master, Mahadev Govind Ranade, "It was as though the first person singular did not exist in his vocabulary. 

Gokhale’s premature death in 1915 was the direct result of the stress and strain under which he lived and worked. Sleepless anxiety for the country brought in its train diabetes and heart trouble. At the time of the Islington Commission, Gokhale was a physical wreck. The doctors had given him only three years to live. With stoic calmness he told Sarojini Naidu that he was carrying his death warrant in his pocket, and yet he worked on the Commission like one possessed. Sleeping for barely four hours, Gokhale was up at two in the morning to read up all the evidence and be ready for the Commission’s work which commenced at 10.30 a.m. and dragged on till 5.30 in the evening. Almost his last words were:

"My end is nearing. I have deceived my country. It would have been better if I should have been spared for a couple of years more. I would have gone to England and striven hard to bring about a most satisfactory termination of the Royal Commission and thus would have repaid, although in the smallest degree, the debt I owe to my country.”

Gokhale’s patriotism and ideals were incarnated in the Servants of India Society, which he established in 1905 with the object of drawing together young men with a spirit of dedication and training them to serve the country through careful study of its problems. Concerning this aspect of Gokhale’s work, Srinivasa Sastri wrote, "Mr Gokhale loved India and her welfare so intensely and so deeply that he would not willingly see it injured by the labours of unprepared, immature, crude workers whose only equipment consisted in a genuine call of patriotism. Patriotism by itself is not enough. It is a noble, powerful, exalted emotion. It is only an emotion. It has got to be directed into useful, fruitful channels and that can only be if every worker prepared himself by arduous study, patient study of the realities of lndia’s life…

This indeed was the model which Gokhale had set before himself. Not the least of his great qualities was the powerful mind which he brought to bear on the problems of the day. His budget speeches reveal careful study and analysis. But an even more important quality of his speeches is his constant reference to the principles of government and his concern with what government ought to do. It is this conscious application of the principles and philosophy of government which impart to Gokhale’s speeches their abiding interest and their relevance for the future…” 

B. P. (Wrangler) Paranjpye describes the work Gokhale did in the Imperial Legislative Council thus:

"Gokhale was to the last the most brilliant member of the Imperial Legislative Council, and was popularly called the leader of the Indian opposition, though he himself did not consider that his duty was merely to oppose Government, but that it was to put before Government, the Indian point of view on every question. His annual budget speech was a treat to which everybody, both friend and opponent, looked forward, the one with delight, and the other with fear. An answer had to be given to his arguments, and it is not everybody who could do it at a moment’s notice, if at all. On one occasion Lord Kitchener privately asked him the points on which he wished to touch so far as military expenditure was concerned; and out of consideration for the great soldier, who was no debater, Gokhale did not emphasize certain points as much as he would have liked to. His budget speeches always bore their fruit in the succeeding years’ budgets. He was always on the side of retrenchment, and did not want Government to take more from the tax-payers than was absolutely necessary.”

It was a characteristic of this early period of Indian nationalism that those who participated in politics often devoted themselves to the serious study of public problems. It was all the more necessary in a period when the press had not emerged as a guardian of public interests. Moreover, it was the age of an elitist national movement; the age of mass nationalism had not quite emerged. In 1939 Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, delivering the Kale Memorial Lecture, contrasted the India of Ranade with that of Gandhi for which he did not have much sympathy. If allowance is made for Dr. Ambedkar’s own predilections, his observations deserve to be noted: 

"If the India of Ranade was less agitated it was more honest and if it was less expectant, it was more enlightened. The age of Ranade was an age in which men and women did engage themselves seriously in studying and examining the facts of their life, and what is more important is that in the face of the opposition of the orthodox mass they tried to mould their lives and their character in accordance with the light they found as a result of their research. In the age of Ranade there was not the same divorce between politician and student which one sees in the Gandhi age. In the age of Ranade a politician, who was not also a student was treated as an intolerable nuisance, if not a danger. In the age of Gandhi, learning, if not despised, is certainly not deemed to be a necessary qualification of a politician.”

No account of Gokhale can be complete without taking into account the profound influence of Ranade on his mind and outlook. From Ranade he acquired not merely the passion to study public problems on the basis of carefully accumulated data but also a philosophy of life and a theory of progress. Ranade believed that progress to be meaningful and effective must be progress in several directions at the same time. Political change, for instance, required changes in the social structure and in social relationships. Moreover, the past could not be written off. Even if one could do so, it would not be desirable. The old and the new must be combined as far as possible into a functioning synthesis…  

Like Ranade and Ram Mohan Roy, Gokhale saw the weaknesses of the Indian tradition, its conservatism and its medieval scholasticism and, above all, its lack of any sustained emphasis on the rights of the individual. He found that rationalism was not an effective principle in the social relations of the Hindus. Further, public life was weak in India because of a lack of discipline and the inability to subject oneself to the demands of leadership. The explosive self-assertiveness of individuals and their tendency to pull in different directions at the same time made concerted action difficult. Finally, in the perspective of history, the individual had no opportunity to strengthen his initiative and drive and influence the decisions of the rulers in any rational way. 

The whole task of building up the Indian nation and consolidating the new renaissance of India, which had arisen in India by one of the fortunate accidents of human history, as Gokhale saw it, was to liberate the individual from the social inhibitions of the past and make him a self-confident political being, conscious of his rights and political responsibilities. Gokhale’s concept of public life was a curious amalgam of ideas derived from the Western political experience and certain values like a self-effacing idealism from the Hindu tradition. This concept was not without its idealistic undertones and it was formulated at a time when some of the more visible and articulate features of a modern (or modernizing) society were not yet visible. For instance, Indian working class consciousness had not arisen and it was not therefore possible for Gokhale to think in terms of competing interests in society; But his philosophy of public life, partly derived from his master but largely shaped by the insights of his own study and experience, underlies his whole life and work and illuminates it…

A major characteristic of his social and political thinking was his confidence in the power of reason and in the possibility of influencing men and government by argument and persuasion. In nursing this belief - the groundwork of his whole philosophy - Gokhale was no mere romantic dreamer. No one knew the difficulties of public life and the obstinacy with which men can oppose all reasonable arguments than Gokhale himself. He knew, as well as anyone else, the play of the irrational and the dangerous potentialities of the demagogue in rousing the passions and appetites of men. He was aware, too, of the undemocratic trends in his own little social world of Poona in which his life was cast, and which provided the stage for his political activities. Gokhale was deeply wounded by the callous behaviour of the politicians with whom he had to deal. 

Gokhale’s interest in education was a part of his larger endeavour to modernize India and to lay the foundation for a lasting democratic system by making more and more people understand the burning issues of the day…

For eighteen years, he served the Fergusson College with undivided loyalty and retired in 1902 at the early age of 36 only because the insistent call of public life proved irresistible. In the course of his farewell address, one of the most endearing passages in his writings, Gokhale said:

"Years ago I remember to have read the story of a man, who lived by the side of the sea, who had a nice cottage and fields that yielded him their abundance, and who was surrounded by a loving family. The world thought that he was very happy. But to him the sea had a strange fascination. When it lay gently, heaving like an infant asleep, it appealed to him; when it raged like an angry and roaring lion, it still appealed to him; till at last he could withstand the fatal fascination no longer. And so having disposed of everything and put his all into a boat, he launched it on the bosom of the sea. Twice was he was beaten back by the waves - a warning he would not heed. He made a third attempt when the pitiless sea overwhelmed him. To a certain extent this seems to me to be my position to-day. Here I am with a settled position in this College, and having for my colleagues, men with whom it is a pleasure and a privilege to work, and whose generosity in overlooking my many faults and magnifying any little services I may have rendered, has often touched me deeply. And yet, I am giving up all this to embark on the stormy and uncertain sea of public life. But I hear within me a voice which urges me to take this course, and I can only ask you to believe me when I say that it is purely from a sense of duty to the best interests of our country, that I am seeking this position of greater freedom, but not necessarily of less responsibility. Public life in this country has few rewards and many trials and discouragements…”

Cast in a heroic mould, Gokhale was not a mass leader like those who were soon to follow him. He never thought of himself as the maker of history or one who had been chosen to play a special role in the events of his time. The great difference between Gokhale and Gandhi - who in an enigmatic phrase described him as his political guru—lay in the estimate each had made of Western civilization.

For Gandhi, the progress of India was to be determined by drawing inspiration from India’s own history rather than from the West which in his estimate was materialistic. His heart was set on the building up of an India based on self-suffcient village life and he was temperamentally opposed to ambitious schemes of large-scale industrialization.

Although Gandhi often said that he was not opposed to machines as such but only to the enslavement of man by technology – an assertion derived largely from Ruskin – the whole thrust of his philosophy was to turn Indian nationalism against the West. Further, a philosophical anarchist by temperament, he had no sympathy for parliamentary institutions. Gokhale, on the other hand, was convinced that modern science and technology had the power to change and transform India. In holding this view, Gokhale was not unmindful of the poverty of the masses and of village life in general. But India could not afford to shut out the knowledge and the light coming from the outside world. In this, Gokhale adopted a point of view India was to accept as part of her philosophy of development since Independence. In the field of political progress again, Gokhale regarded the gradual introduction of self-governing institutions in the country as an essential part of the political education through which a subject nation like India had to pass. In Hind Swaraj Gandhi wrote, "I bear no enmity towards the English but I do towards their civilization… 

Gandhi saw the power of passive resistance in undermining the foundations of the British Raj. With Tilak, he believed that it would crumble the moment the people withdrew their allegiance. Government exists because people accept it and it was part of his technique to use every kind of symbol in the revolution through which government will be compelled to wither away through non-cooperation. In the process, the political movement would also acquire a mass character. Gokhale was not opposed to passive resistance per se so long as every step in the programme contributed to the education of the masses in their own responsibilities. But the idea of non-cooperation deeply disturbed him.

Government may be attacked but it must never be ignored or by-passed. For government is an essential part of social change, even if it is a foreign government.

Gokhale feared - and it we may judge from the vantage point of contemporary Indian history - rightly so, that passive resistance would ultimately educate the masses into habits of disobedience. This fear was heightened by his belief that Hindu society had no tradition of discipline. Undermining loyalty to the established order, or to use Gokhale’s expressive phrase, ‘the foundations of public life’, is to make constitutional government impossible. This was one of the lasting lessons Gokhale had derived from his study of Burke. At this point, Gokhale and Gandhi seemed to live in different worlds and there was no possible point of contact. For this reason, Gandhi’s statement, ‘I installed him in my heart of hearts as my teacher in politics’ must for ever remain an enigma.

One of the most striking features of modern India since Independence has been the systematic departure from the teachings of Gandhi in almost every important respect. The age of Gandhi had cast a veil over the lasting contributions of the Gokhale period of Indian politics but that veil has now been torn asunder. Every age has the right to read its history in the light of its own contemporary experience and such an exercise may provide the key to the understanding not only of the present but also of the past. The life and work of Gopal Krishna Gokhale belongs to the present, not only to the past, for we have already left behind us Gandhi and all that was characteristic of him.

PROFESSOR S. P. AIYAR was Head of the Department of Civics and Politics, Bombay University.
Excerpted from his Introduction to Gokhale and Modern India





Other Articles in this Issue

Between Ourselves



The Legacy of Gopal Krishna Gokhale


A. B. Shah

Laying the Foundation for a Modern India

S. P. Aiyar

His Relevance Today

Aroon Tikekar

His Achievements

Sunil Gokhale

Gokhale And Gandhi – Their Second Meeting

Prabha Ravi Shankar

Sir Pherozeshah Mehta’s Tribute

Godrej N. Dotivala

Some Contemporaries of Gokhale in Poona

R. Srinivasan

The Symposium held on 15th November 2014 – Report

Chauhan, Devanshu, Khan, Jarupati and Sunilkumar

Great Indian Liberals: Rt.Hon.– Srinivasa Sastri


Prime Minister Modi and Governance

Will the Real BJP Please Stand Up?

Firoze Hirjikaka

Budget 2015 – Will it Ensure Make in India?

M. R. Venkatesh

Right-Wing Zealots Are Derailing Modi's Push for a Development Agenda

Bapu Satyanarayana

Foreign Relations in the 21st Century

Global Power Structure in Transition: A New Bipolar World Underway?

B. Ramesh Babu

Point - Counter Point : Every issue has at least two sides

The Jihadi Mind

Ashok Karnik

Unspeakable Cruelty

Ashok Karnik

Loose Cannons

Ashok Karnik

National Security Vs Politics

Ashok Karnik


The Peshawar Attack on School Kids: Implications for NATO’s Strategy in South Asia

Ashish Punthambekar

Why No Department of History of Science?


What Kind of Religiosity is this?

Suresh Shirodkar.

One of India’s greatest ironies


Book Review

Being Muslim and Working for Peace

Raphael Susewind
The journal of the Indian Committee for Cultural Freedom
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