Bal Gangadhar Tilak - A Brief Biography
Bal Gangadhar Tilak's contribution to modern India stands
on par with that of Mahatma Gandhi's. Tilak was a great
Sanskrit scholar and astronomer. He fixed the origin and
date of Rigvedic Aryans, which was highly acclaimed and
universally accepted by orientalists of his time. His role
in Congress and advocating Home Rule for India were enormous.
His newspaper (Kesari) founded in 1881 is going strong even
today. Hundreds of schools in India were result of his vision.
We owe the mass celebration of the Ganesh festival (see:
Ganesh Chaturthi) only to Tilak. He was Guru to Savarkar
and hundreds of nationalists and thousands of Indians. Actually
he set up the platform for Gandhiji's leadership. Although
Gandhi accepted Gokhale as his mentor, in practice, he adopted
all of Tilak's ideas of Swadeshi and of social reform. In
1920, when Tilak passed away, 200,000 mourners assembled
on Chowpati beach of Bombay, without a single untoward incident.
It is very hard to condense the great man's contribution
to our country, but I have made an attempt below.
"Swaraj is my birthright and I shall have it!"
were the fiery words of Tilak which roused a sleeping nation
to action, making Indian people aware of their political
plight under a foreign rule. Tilak did not question the
British Sovereignty nor his demands rebellious or revolutionary.
All he was asking was favorable conditions in India, to
enable people to learn to govern themselves. May be all
over the world, the separatist forces should follow his
vision and define freedom as ability to govern one's land.
But the handful rulers who ruled India's millions thought
otherwise. They thought that Tilak was whipping a rebellion
and he was imprisoned twice; two years for the first and
six during the second. They said, he had committed treason.
Born in Ratnagiri, a small coastal town in 1856 in a middle
class family, Tilak had to fend himself for college education.
At an early age he was convinced that the educational system
the British provided for the Indians was not at all adequate.
After graduation and a law degree, he helped found a school
which laid emphasis on nationalism. He started a news paper
'Kesari' which tried to teach Indians of their glorious
past and reminded them to be self reliant (Swadeshi).
The British used all the native raw materials to run their
factories in England and sold the finished products to India,
keeping the India an ever dependant country. In the process,
all the self-employing industries of India like spinning,
weaving, glass making, sugar ,dyeing, paper making were
destroyed. People became destitute for no fault of theirs
to help an empire become richer and stronger.
Tilak tried to breathe life into the moribund nation through
four mantras. (1). Boycott of foreign goods (2) National
Education (3) Self Government (4) Swadeshi or self reliance.
He realized that mere protest against British rule was not
going to help and insisted on native production and reliance.
"We have no arms, but there is no necessity. But our
strong political weapon is boycott (of foreign goods) Organize
your powers and then go to work so that they cannot refuse
you what you demand" - he told the masses.
It is strange that the British read treason in these words.
He founded Deccan Education Society to give better education
as per the country's needs. He wrote scathing articles over
inhuman punishment meted out to the nationalist youth who
protested the division of Bengal (VangaBhanga). Indian newspapers
were not to criticize the British policy in those days and
two articles titled "Has the Government lost its head
?" and "To Rule is not to wreak vengeance"
appearing in Kesari landed him in jail, after a namesake
trial. For the first time in British history, intellectuals
in England (including the great orientalist, Max Muller)
were able to convince the Government that the trial was
unfair. But the second time (1908) was no different. Tilak
advocated his own case and when the judgment of six years
of black-waters (kalapani) imprisonment was pronounced,
he gave the famous statement :
" All I wish to say is that in spite of the verdict
of the jury, I maintain my innocence. There are higher powers
that rule the destiny of men and nations. It may be the
will of Providence that the cause I represent may prosper
by suffering than by remaining free"
Tilak was immensely popular through writing and through
social work. His idea of national festivals took shape in
Shivaji Utsav and Ganesh Utsav which were instrumental in
bringing people together culturally - irrespective of their
caste and creed. His trial and punishment led to national
upheaval. But the British were careful enough to arrange
everything in secret and the judgment was delivered at midnight
and Tilak was taken under military vigil to be deported
to Burma (present Myanmar, which was also under British
At 52, a diabetic and ailing Tilak wrote his famous commentary
on Bhagavad-Gita, the sacred book of Hindus. He stressed
that Gita taught action (karma), nothing but action. Religion
or spiritual message were secondary and the need of the
hour was to arise and fight. This was Lord Krishna's message
to Arjuna. Tilak's wife, his companion of 45 years died
at Pune and the news reached him in Madalay prison Burma
only after a week. He had sacrificed his personal life,
his profession, name and fame for the sake of the country.
By the time Tilak completed his six year prison term, he
was the unquestioned leader of the Indians - the uncrowned
king. He was known as the Tilak Maharaj.
It is strange co-incidence that the last Burmese king Theba
had to spend his last days in solitary confinement in Ratnagiri
and this 'uncrowned king' from Ratnagiri had to spend prison
days in Burma!
There was unprecedented jubilation after Tilak was free
and back in India. Civil resistance, the concept of Swaraj,
and nationalism had taken deep roots. Tilak's suffering
did not go in vain. A band of leaders, full of zeal for
nationalism and self-sacrifice was coming up. National schools
were coming up in all corners of India. He paved the way
for Khadi (hand woven cloth), picketing against foreign
goods and alcoholism. His death in 1920 brought Mahatma
Gandhi on the scene and Gandhiji gave a concrete shape to
Tilak's ideas of Swadeshi.
The court which convicted Tilak bears a plaque that says,
" The action of Tilak has been justified as the right
of every individual to fight for his country. Those two
convictions have gone into oblivion- oblivion reserved by
history for all unworthy deeds".