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Issue No.: 572 | February 2015
 

His Achievements

Sunil Gokhale
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Gopal Krishna Gokhale became a life member of the legendary Deccan Education Society in Pune; at 30 he represented India before the Welby Commission; at 39, he was elected President at the Banaras session of the Indian National Congress in 1905; and at 49 he died. His achievements in a short working life of 31 years were staggering.

In the last one year, taking advantage of his 100 death anniversary year, I have tried to bring to the notice of the people of India his phenomenal achievements. To bring home to our people Gokhale’s endeavours, his efforts to bring about the ethos of Indianness, as a unique personality to be viewed and understood in his own right, and not through the eyes of Ranade, or Tilak, or Gandhi. The spirit of Gokhale lies in his acts and achievements and spread of his activities ranging from mathematics to politics. For instance, at the age of 30, Gokhale wrote a 450 page book of arithmetic for high schools in Marathi - Gokhaleyancha Ank Ganit. This fact is hardly known, perhaps because of the changeover from the British system of measures to the metric system. However if we update the book in terms of the metric system the book would meet current needs. Be that as it may, the book was published in English in 1896 by Macmillan for international use as a textbook in arithmetic and it fetched Gokhale royalty in Pounds Sterling. 

So a completely apolitical work brought him international acclaim. This is what we have to understand about Gokhale, that wherever and whichever job he did, he did it thoroughly which would be considered as excellent and Gokhale acquired a reputation as an icon of excellence. Gokhale was not in the context of today’s education system, an SSC Board winner. He was not a 90 % student. But he had this tremendous urge to learn, a tremendous urge to excel in whatever he did. And mathematics happened to be among his areas of excellence; another was economics. 

From 1901 to 1914, till he breathed his last, Gokhale was the Indian spokesperson during the budget debates in the Imperial Legislative Council. His budget speeches were carefully listened to and his critiques or criticism taken seriously. This in itself was considered a big achievement then. After 1896, with the appointment of the Welby Commission,  Gokhale made full use of the opportunity provided by the Commission to focus on the impact of British rule on the economy and paid great deal of attention to educate Indians, for instance, on how to interpret financial statements particularly those that revealed surplus money. 

Gandhiji’s demand for the abolition of the Salt Tax and his Dandi March in 1930 are well known and a turning point in our freedom struggle. But what is not so well known is the fact that it was Gokhale who first proposed at a Congress Session as early as 1891, that there was need to demand reduction in the Salt Tax.

Gokhale was an outstanding parliamentarian. I would point out two important bills that Gokhale proposed which are still relevant. One was the elementary education bill he moved in 1910. He proposed that free and compulsory education be available to the people of India. Strangely the Bill was opposed by many Indians! In fact, the greatness of Gokhale lay in the fact that not only did he propose the Bill, but how it could be funded by recommending how economics could be linked to fund free education. Today, almost a century later, the Right to Education Act is now on the statute book and a major issue is its funding involving the whole Central-state relationship on how the finances could be arranged so that free and compulsory education becomes a reality by opening up the education system to the masses.

The other important bill Gokhale proposed was the Indentured Labour Bill. Today, we see another kind of indentured labour. Gokhale pointed out that Indians who worked as labourers in the British colonies were called ‘coolies’. Today, again a century later the coolie system still exists, though those Indians who work abroad may not be called "coolies”. With the opening up of the economy, a large number of Indians were absorbed by the software industry. They could well be described as software coolies. So we have to understand that this indentured labour is still a part and parcel of this system. 

We have to understand that Gokhale’s fight was within the then prevailing constitutional framework. If Gokhale had not proposed this 1910 bill on indentured labour in Natal in South Africa, Gandhiji’s struggle in South Africa would have reduced to mere passive resistance. Gokhale provided the constitutional framework before engaging in resistance and boycott. A new caste system came into play because of such an indenture which was a very exploitative. 

I have received many letters from Indian migrants in the various erstwhile British Colonies like Guiana, Mauritius or Fiji describing the kind of exploitation that they had to undergo. To them Gokhale became a kind of saviour by his campaign to get the British rulers to lend dignity to indentured labour. Mauritius today, has a Gokhale Hall. Fiji has a Gokhale School. I started this talk with the statement that maybe India has forgotten Gokhale, but this is not so in the former British colonies where he is not only not forgotten, but revered. I have come across several doctoral dissertations on Gokhale’s work by scholars in Australia, Canada and the West Indies on indentured labour. 

When Gokhale went to South Africa, after the passage of the Bill against indentured labour in Natal, he received a huge welcome both from the whites and the blacks. It is interesting to note that the fight against indenture led to the two races coming together. Gokhale had this charismatic ability, to get people together. Perhaps it was his moral character, maybe the spiritualisation in public life that he talked about, brought people together. 

In 1911, in a speech to the United Race Congress in London, Gokhale said that the fabric of India is unity in diversity. Even today we assert this, but to be diverse and yet be united, seems to be a distant dream. Gokhale in his speeches on unity in diversity underlined his belief that the Western world would never understand the interesting fabric that is India. Yes, we are people with different religions, yes, we are people with different races, yes, we are people with different castes and creed, and with languages, but that does not mean that we are not Indian. We have our identities, but when it comes to India, and when it comes to nationhood, we are united. We should retain that fabric. 

In 1902, when Gokhale delivered one of his most popular speeches, ‘Farewell to Fergusson College’, one of the words that he used there is mired in controversy today. The word he used there was that every institute in India has to teach the students to be secular. It is 1902 that we are talking about, words used by Gokhale in his farewell to Fergusson. Today we talk about ‘secularism’, about ‘secular forces’. Is there something wrong? The talk of Hindu-Muslim unity, or Hindu-Christian unity for instance? Gokhale spoke on this subject at several forums. When Gandhiji returned to India in 1915 he met Gokhale just before he died. Gokhale advised Gandhiji to move around and see India. Gandhiji did just that. His tour of the country took him to Godhra. In his speech there he said that a Gokhale memorial needed to be instituted for Hindu-Muslim unity. 

In one of the anecdotes Gandhi himself has written about Gokhale. A Hindu priest came to meet Gokhale. The priest said that you are such a big man, a Congress leader, etc. Why don’t you declare that the Muslim religion is a petty, small religion that it is lesser religion than Hindu religion? Gokhale answered that if this is what Hindu religion is going to teach me, then it is better that I don’t remain a Hindu.

And what about caste differences? Gokhale was a Konkanasta Brahmin and wore a thread. In an argument with Gokhale, Sarla Ray, the grandmother of Satyajit Ray and a follower of Gokhale told him ‘if you feel you are such a reformist, then why do you wear a thread? And Gokhale, I am sure after spending sleepless nights on how to reply to her, cut the thread, put it in an envelope and sent it to Sarla Ray! In 1918, three years after the passing away of Gokhale, Sarla Ray founded a Gokhale Memorial School. Today it is one of the best known schools in Kolkata.

You have to understand that Poona in the 1900s was a fortress of Brahmin orthodoxy. When Gokhale travelled to Britain over a period of 14 years or more, crossing the ocean each time, according to Hindu rites and the caste system, he was expected to perform suddhikaran (purification) because he was going to the land of the Christians. Gokhale never performed this suddhikaran. Lokamanya Tilak did this suddhikaran, but Gokhale, a reformist, did not and said that human beings are humans irrespective of where they lived or which religion they practiced.  

It is true that Gokhale did not demand the annihilation of the caste system, but he did say that if you have to work together, then the there is need to build up inner strength of the person; as a people we have to remove these divisions and sub-divisions. He deplored the way we have divided and sub-divided ourselves. And if this has to be deplored, then something else has to happen, the building up our strength by promoting a closer union between different people. This could be through work; working for a common cause, for a social cause, for an economic cause, for a religious cause, and this religion according to Gokhale was about nation building. The national missionary – in fact the word missionary is usually associated with religion it is the Christian missionary that we talk about – but here we are talking about the national missionary. Missionaries for the nation, for nation building, and if you can bring people together for the nation, this caste and religion and communalism and communal forces and the Khap Panchayat and the Caste Panchayat, and such divisive forces can be removed.

The second thing he talked about was that we have to bring about a stronger and higher character and a firm purpose in life. Building character and I think that this is one thing we have always been discussing about. A difficulty again which needs to be resolved. 

And lastly, cultivation of an intense feeling of nationalism and I think Gokhale remained that figure of nationalism, of patriotism. In fact, Gandhiji in his obituary on Gokhale has described Gokhale as an embodiment of patriotism. 

Let me end by sharing an interesting thing that has happened in Maharashtra, because we are talking about Maharashtra after Gokhale; it relates to communalism, and it relates to caste. It is well known that Gandhiji accepted Gokhale as his political guru. What did Gokhale do to be so described? It is not as depicted in the film called Gandhi which shows that Gandhi comes from South Africa and Gokhale says go and move around in this country and see India. It refers to a relationship that began on 12 October 1896, the day on which Gokhale and Gandhi met in Poona and it goes on till 1915 till Gokhale died. And yet, there is not a single instance in Gandhiji’s life where he said that he was carrying forward the work of Gokhale. The last time when Gandhiji referred to Gokhale was when he wrote in a preface to a book by the Rt. Hon. V. S. Srinivasa Sastri that ‘Gokhale is my guru. I am carrying his work forward’. The other person who said he was a disciple of Gokhale was Mohammed Ali Jinnah And yet, there is not a single instance in Gandhiji’s life where he said that he was carrying forward the work of Gokhale. The last time when Gandhiji referred to Gokhale was when he wrote in a preface to a book by the Rt. Hon. V. S. Srinivasa Sastri that ‘Gokhale is my guru. I am carrying his work forward’. The other person who said he was a disciple of Gokhale was Mohammed Ali Jinnah.  

In his book Indian Nationalism: A History, Jim Masselos wrote: "Gandhi called Gokhale his mentor and guide. Gandhi also recognised 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, however, Gandhi would reject Gokhale's faith in western institutions as a means of achieving political reform and ultimately chose not to become a member of Gokhale’s Servants of India Society.” Gokhale was also the role model and mentor of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, who in 1912, aspired to become the "Muslim Gokhale". A note in the Wikipedia points out that even the Aga Khan (the Spiritual Head of the Islamic sect of Ismaili Khojas and grandfather of the present Aga Khan) stated in his autobiography that Gokhale's influence on his thinking was probably considerable”

9th May 1915 – 9th May 1916 will be the 150th birth anniversary year of Gokhale. This will be an opportune time to bring to the fore the ideals and thoughts of Gokhale and his relevance to world of today.

SUNIL GOKHALE is the great grand-nephew and an Advocate by profession, based in Pune.
He can be contacted at adv.gokhale@gmail.com

 
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Other Articles in this Issue

Between Ourselves

GOPAL KRISHNA GOKHALE (1866 – 1915)

Editor
 

The Legacy of Gopal Krishna Gokhale

Introduction

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

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Some Contemporaries of Gokhale in Poona

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