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Issue No.: 572 | February 2015

His Relevance Today

Aroon Tikekar
n 19th February, 1915, a hundred years ago, a life full of achievement and a great promise was cut short unexpectedly at an early age of 49 years. Gopal Krishna Gokhale, the greatest of Indian Parliamentarians that confronted the British Government at the time, a true and devoted disciple of Justice Mahadeo Govind Ranade and a worthy ‘political guru’ of Mahatma Gandhi left this world. Gokhale, often called during his lifetime as ‘the Gladstone of India’ for his uncanny knack of marshalling facts and figures at hand to shatter the opponent’s claims completely. Even Lord Curzon, arch imperialist, who presided over the Imperial Legislative Council at the time when Gokhale was its member, paid him tributes by admitting that he was ‘the leader of the Opposition’ and that ‘he himself had often to suffer from the weight of Gokhale’s blows’.

The life and times of Gopal Krishna Gokhale show to what heights an astute politician with assiduous and ripened intellectual efforts and long apprenticeship can rise. Justice M. C. Chagla referred to Justice Mahadeo Govind Ranade, herald of liberalism and the Renaissance in this part of the country, as the creator of great men. Chagla also thought that the greatest of Ranade’s creations was Gopal Krishna Gokhale. By education, Gokhale too, like his master, was a product of the British liberal tradition. If Justice Ranade’s liberalism, however, was a curious mixture of British Liberalism and Indian religiosity, Gokhale’s liberalism was of a pure European variety.

It has always been difficult to define the concept of liberalism. Some of its aspects can however be mentioned: individualism, constitutionalism, Nationalism, freedom of conscience, of expression and of economic pursuit. Gokhale’s liberalism stood for the principle of laissez faire which Ranade did not totally approve. According to the European liberalism, the function of the State was to protect and to restrain, but not to foster or promote the interest of the individual. The European Liberals believed in the dictum that that government is best which governs the least.

In religious matters Gokhale was not as uncompromising a rationalist as G. G. Agarkar was, yet the fact was that he was greatly influenced by Agarkar. Gokhale’s education perhaps had influenced him differently than Ranade’s. Gokhale looked upon the English language as our co-mother-tongue and a careful study of Western political thought had made him an admirer of theorists such as John Stuart Mill and Edmund Burke. Although he would come to criticize unhesitatingly many aspects of the English colonial regime, the respect for English political theory and institutions that he acquired in his college years remained with him for the rest of his life.

Sir Jadunath Sarkar, the doyen of Indian historians, had once written: "The Maratha people stand unique among the races of India in having produced in the historical past close to our days, whole classes who have been masters of the pen and the sword alike.” A combination of military and literary ability in the same man or same family was, Sir Jadunath thought, responsible for producing a galaxy of leaders in war and learning. He also admired the Marathas as "builders of institutions”. (What Maharashtra teaches us in his book The House of Shivaji). Gokhale was amongst one such in the galaxy of leaders in the early decades of the 20th century. He had impeccable command over the English language, extraordinary argumentative power, persuasive oratory and, to top it all, a spotless public career. He needed no other weapon when he dealt blow after blow in the direction of his opponents and discomfited them.

It was Justice Ranade who gave Gokhale his ideals in life and shaped him. Gokhale came into contact with him as early as in 1887 at an impressionable age of 21 and remained in almost day to day contact with him till 1893 the year when Ranade was transferred to Bombay as a Judge of the High Court of Judicature. Ranade had inspired Gokhale and had supervised his work at the Sarvajanik Sabha. This period was very important for young Gokhale as it was a period of training for him under the great master from whom he acquired the habit of studying public questions in-depth. He learnt through Ranade that in public life mere rhetoric is not of much avail unless it is based on the solid foundation of facts and figures.
Political elevation, social emancipation, religious or spiritual enlightenment - all these, entreated Ranade, must go on side by side. This was the lesson Gokhale learnt from Ranade and followed all his life.

After Ranade left Poona, the state of affairs in Poona deteriorated. Liberals saw a slide down in their influence. Conflicts between Moderates and Extremists started taking ugly turns. Irritated Gokhale wrote to G. V. Joshi:

"I have grown absolutely sick of the public life of Poona…. Of course a great deal depends yet on Mr. Ranade’s wishes, for I don’t wish to do anything that would in any way displease him. But personally I wish now to wash my hands of all political work in Poona. There is so much that is selfish and ignoble here that I would fly from it to the farthest extremities of the world if I could.”

Gokhale’s despair and frustration obviously was due to the unreasonable and excessively unfair opposition to reforms of every kind from the Extremists. In every sensitive person’s life there come such moments of frustration, so they did in Gokhale’s life. Yet he had a gigantic figure like Ranade standing beside him. Ranade, as was known to all contemporaries, was an incurable optimist and an indefatigable inspirer of young men. Gokhale sought solace in the pacifying words of the great man who had advised his followers: "In view of this conflict ( between pro and anti-reformists) it becomes the duty of all to consider what should be the attitude of the reformers towards those who are opposed to them. Strength of numbers we cannot command, but we can command earnestness of conviction, singleness of devotion, readiness for self sacrifice in all honest workers in the cause. Even though these workers may be few in number, they will in the end succeed in overcoming opposition. We have above all to learn what it is to bear and forbear – to bear ridicule, insults, even personal injuries at times, and forbear from returning abuse for abuse (emphasis mine). ”

Ranade’s optimism influenced Gokhale so much that four years after Ranade’s demise and after thoughtful deliberations he, along with a handful of kindred souls, formed in 1905, the Servants of India Society with the express objective of training men to devote themselves to the service of India as ‘national missionaries’ and to promote by all constitutional means the national interests of the Indian people. If in tune with Ranade who gave the call "humanise, equalise, spiritualise” to all the countrymen, Gokhale gave a clarion call to all to "spiritualise politics”, the roots are to be found in the three of the seven points of the oath to be taken by every national missionary who intended to join the Servants of India Society: That the country will always be the first in his thoughts and he will give to her service the best that is in him; That he will be content with such provision for himself and his family, if he has any, as the Society may be able to make. He will devote no part of his energies to earning money for himself; and that he will lead a pure personal life.

In 1905 when Gokhale was at the height of his popularity and influence over the Indian National Congress and the State apparatus, he founded the Servants of India Society to specifically further one of the causes dearest to his heart: the expansion of Indian education, yet another conviction of the Liberals. For Gokhale, true political change in India would only be possible when a new generation of Indians became educated as to their civil and patriotic duty to their country and to each other. He was of the opinion that the then existing educational institutions and the Indian Civil Service would not be enough to provide Indians with opportunities to gain this political education. Gokhale hoped the Servants of India Society would fill this need. In the preamble to the SIS’s constitution, Gokhale wrote that "The Servants of India Society will train men prepared to devote their lives to the cause of country in a religious spirit, and will seek to promote, by all constitutional means, the national interests of the Indian people.” The Society took up the cause of promoting Indian education in earnest, and among its many projects organised mobile libraries, founded schools, and provided night classes for factory workers.

According to Gokhale, the introduction of Western education in India was a liberalising influence, a great blessing in disguise. He believed that mass education was a prerequisite to national political consciousness. He wanted primary education to be free in all schools with the medium of instruction in mother-tongue, but with the Sanskrit and the English languages as compulsory subjects. During the high noon of imperialism he demanded greater autonomy for Indians. He always thought that the economic results of the British rule in India were disastrous and resulted in impoverishment of Indians. He was a severe critic of the Free Trade Policy as it destroyed small scale industries. Replace old methods by the modern ones, was his recipe in Agriculture. Establishment of Co-operative Credit Societies in aid of the agriculturists incurring debts was recommended by him. Also lowering of land-revenue and relief to farmers was in the list of his recommendations. These are the issues we are still struggling to grapple with six decades after gaining independence.

Along with other contemporary leaders Gokhale fought with the British Government to obtain greater political representation and share of public affairs for Indians. Although similarities did exist in the early careers of Tilak and Gokhale – both were Chitpavan Brahmins, both were Elphinstonians, both became professors of mathematics, and both were important members of the Deccan Education Society. Both eventually became joint secretaries of the Congress. Somehow, however, the two came to be known as representatives of very divergent views concerning how best to improve the lives of Indians. Gokhale led the wing of the Moderates, while Tilak was the acknowledged leader of the Extremists.

Gokhale’s first major confrontation with Tilak centered around one of his pet issues, the Age of Consent Bill, which was introduced by the British Imperial Government in 1891-92 at the instance of Indian leaders. Gokhale and his fellow liberal reformers, wishing to purge what they saw as superstitions and abuses in Hinduism, supported the Consent Bill to curb child marriage ill-uses. Though the Bill was only to increase the age of consent from ten to twelve and this was not an extreme step. Tilak too was not averse to the idea per se of moving towards the elimination of child marriage. However, Tilak was still opposed to the idea of British interference with Hindu tradition as he subordinated everything else including social reform for a powerful urge for ‘freedom first’. For Tilak, such reform movements were not to be sought under imperial rule when they would be enforced by the British, but rather after independence was achieved when Indians would enforce it on themselves. The bill however became law in the Bombay Presidency.

In 1905, Gokhale became president of the Indian National Congress. Gokhale used his considerable influence to refuse support to Tilak as candidate for president of the Congress the next year, 1906. Gokhale and Tilak were already known as the respective leaders of the moderates and the "extremists” or "radical nationalists” in the Congress. Tilak was an advocate of civil agitation and direct revolution to overthrow the British Empire, whereas Gokhale was a moderate reformist. As a result, the Congress Party split into two wings and was largely robbed of its effectiveness for a decade. The two sides could later patch up in 1916, only after Gokhale’s untimely demise.

Gokhale, like many of his times, was not primarily concerned with independence but rather with social reform; he believed such reform would be best achieved by working within existing British government institutions, a position which earned him the hostility of radical nationalists such as Tilak. Undeterred by such opposition, Gokhale would work directly with the British throughout his political career in order to further his reform goals. The Tilak-Gokhale debate on ‘first Independence or social reforms’ remains the much discussed debate in the history of modern Maharashtra. It is over 65 years now that the demand of independence has been met. But the need for social, economical and political reforms still remains. The growing frustration amongst the people against politically independent system also has nurtured a separatist thought. Each section of the society – be they leaders or volunteers, industrialists or workers, teachers or students, husbands or wives, policemen or citizens, doctors, lawyers, scientists, technologists …all are seeking material prosperity, relegating their country’s welfare a secondary position. The entire society is as if experiencing a kind of paralysis of thought. Partial or no fulfillment of selfish intent is breeding intolerance. Increased intolerance generates a tendency to hoodwink law or gives way to the use of physical force. In such an environment the liberal thoughts, the talk of leading a clean public life or spiritualizing politics as proposed by Gokhale make him conspicuously relevant.

Gokhale was famously the mentor to Mahatma Gandhi in his formative years. In 1912, he visited South Africa at Gandhi’s invitation. When Gandhi returned to India in 1915 from his struggles against the Empire in South Africa, he sought personal guidance from Gokhale on the Indian situation including the issues confronting common Indians. By 1920, after Tilak’s demise, Gandhi emerged as the leader of the Indian Independence Movement. In his autobiography, Gandhi calls Gokhale his mentor and guide. Gandhi also recognized Gokhale as an admirable leader and master politician, describing him as "pure as crystal, gentle as a lamb, brave as a lion and chivalrous to a fault and the most perfect man in the political field”. Despite his deep respect for Gokhale, Gandhi would not accept Gokhale’s faith in western institutions as a means of achieving political reform. He did not choose to become a member of Gokhale’s Servants of India Society either. Gokhale’s faith in western political institutions was reaffirmed, however, by an independent India in 1950 in the nation’s Constitution. It goes to the credit of Gokhale and his vision of independent India. Gokhale was also the role model and mentor of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the future founder of Pakistan, who in 1912, aspired to become the "Muslim Gokhale”.

Gokhale’s impact on the course of the Indian nationalist movement was considerable. Through his close relationship with the highest levels of British imperial government, he forced India’s colonial masters to recognize the capabilities of a new generation of educated Indians and to include them more than ever before in the governing process. Gokhale led an extremely busy political and social life through the last years of his life. This included extensive travelling in India and abroad. He continued to be involved in the activities of the Servants of India Society, the Congress, and the Legislative Council while constantly advocating the advancement of Indian education. All these stresses took their toll. He died on 19th February. 1915 at the early age of forty-nine. Tilak, his lifelong political opponent, is reported to have said at his funeral: "This diamond of India, this jewel of Maharashtra, this prince of workers is taking eternal rest on funeral ground. Look at him and try to emulate him”.

DR. AROON TIKEKAR is a well-known journalist and author. 
This article is based on his speech in the Amphi Theatre of Fergusson College, Pune, on 19th Februay 2014.






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

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Loose Cannons

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National Security Vs Politics

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

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What Kind of Religiosity is this?

Suresh Shirodkar.

One of India’s greatest ironies


Book Review

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The journal of the Indian Committee for Cultural Freedom
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