Bal Gangadhar Tilak (23 July 1856 –1 August 1920), was an Indian nationalist, teacher, social reformer and independence fighter who was the first popular leader of the Indian Independence Movement. The British colonial authorities derogatorily called the great leader as “Father of the Indian unrest”. He was also conferred with the honorary title of Lokmanya, which literally means “Accepted by the people (as their leader)”. Tilak was one of the first and strongest advocates of “Swaraj” (self-rule) in Indian consciousness. His famous quote, “Swaraj is my birthright, and I shall have it!” is well-remembered in India even today.
Tilak was born in balaji Lane (Madhlee Aalee) in Chikhalgaon, Ratnagiri, Maharashtra to a Chitpavan Brahmin family. His father was a famous schoolteacher and a Sanskrit scholar. He died when Tilak was sixteen. His brilliance rubbed off on young Tilak, who graduated from Deccan College, Pune in 1877. Tilak was among one of the first generation of Indians to receive a college education.
Tilak was expected, as was the tradition then, to actively participate in public affairs. He believed that “Religion and practical life are not different. To take to Sanyasa (renunciation) is not to abandon life. The real spirit is to make the country your family instead of working only for your own. The step beyond is to serve humanity and the next step is to serve God.” This dedication to humanity would be a fundamental element in the Indian Nationalist movement.
After graduating, Tilak began teaching mathematics in a private school in Pune. Later due to some ideological differences with the colleagues in the New School, he decided to withdraw from that activity. About that time he became a journalist. He was a strong critic of the Western education system, feeling it demeaned the Indian students and disrespected India’s heritage. He organized the Deccan Education Society with a few of his college friends, including Gopal Ganesh Agarkar, Mahadev Ballal Namjoshi and Vishnu Krishna Chiplunkar whose goal was to improve the quality of education for India’s youth. The Deccan Education Society was set up to create a new system that taught young Indians nationalist ideas through an emphasis on Indian culture. Tilak began a mass movement towards independence that was camouflaged by an emphasis on a religious and cultural revival. He taught Mathematics at Fergusson College.
- Tilak co-founded two newspapers with Gopal Ganesh Agarkar, Vishnushastri Chiplunkar and other colleagues: Kesari, which means “Lion” in Sanskrit and was a Marathi newspaper, and ‘The Maratha’, an English newspaper in 1881. In just two years ‘Kesari’ attracted more readers than any other language newspaper in India. The editorials were generally about the people’s sufferings under the British. These newspapers called upon every Indian to fight for his or her rights. Tilak used to say to his colleagues: “You are not writing for the university students. Imagine you are talking to a villager. Be sure of your facts. Let your words be clear as daylight.”
- Tilak strongly criticized the government for its brutality in suppressing free expression, especially in the face of protests against the division of Bengal in 1905, and for denigrating India’s culture, its people and heritage. He demanded that the British immediately give Indians the right to self-government.
- Indian National Congress
- Tilak joined the Indian National Congress in 1890. He opposed its moderate attitude, especially towards the fight for self government.
- In 1891 Tilak opposed the Age of Consent bill. The act raised the age at which a girl could get married from 10 to 12. The Congress and other liberals supported it, but Tilak was set against it, terming it an interference with Hinduism. However, he personally opposed child marriage, and his own daughters married at 16.
- A plague epidemic spread from Mumbai to Pune in late 1896, and by January 1897, it reached epidemic proportions. In order to suppress the epidemic and prevent its spread, it was decided to take drastic action, accordingly a Special Plague Committee, with jurisdiction over Pune city, its suburbs and Pune cantonment was appointed under the Chairmanship of W. C. Ranade, I. C. S, Assistant Collector of Pune by way of a government order dated 8 March 1897. On 12 March 1897, 893 officers and men both British and native, under command of a Major Paget of the Durham Light Infantry were placed on plague duty. By the end of May the epidemic had ebbed and the military action was gradually ended. In his report on the administration of the Pune plague, Rand wrote, “It is a matter of great satisfaction to the members of the Plague Committee that no credible complaint that the modesty of a woman had been intentionally insulted was made either to themselves or to the officers under whom the troops worked”. He also writes that closest watch was kept on the troops employed on plague duty and utmost consideration was shown for the customs and traditions of the people.An account based on local Indian sources writes that the appointment of military officers introduced an element of severity and coercion in the house searches, the highhandedness of the government provoked the people of Pune and some soldiers were beaten in Rastapeth locality. It quotes Kelkar on the conduct of British soldiers, “Either, through ignorance or impudence, they would mock, indulge in monkey tricks, talk foolishly, intimidate, touch innocent people, shove them, enter any place without justification, pocket valuable items, etc..” Tilak took up the people’s cause by publishing inflammatory articles in his paper Kesari, quoting the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita, to say that no blame could be attached to anyone who killed an oppressor without any thought of reward. Following this, on 22 June, Rand and another British officer Lt. Ayerst were shot and killed by the Chapekar brothers and their other associates. Tilak was charged with incitement to murder and sentenced to 18 months’ imprisonment. When he emerged from prison, he was revered as a martyr and a national hero and adopted a new slogan, “Swaraj (Self-Rule) is my birth right and I shall have it.”
- Following the partition of Bengal in 1905, which was a strategy set out by Lord Curzon to weaken the nationalist movement, Tilak encouraged a boycott, regarded as the Swadeshi movement.
- Tilak opposed the moderate views of Gopal Krishna Gokhale, and was supported by fellow Indian nationalists Bipin Chandra Pal in Bengal and Lala Lajpat Rai in Punjab. They were referred to as the Lal-Bal-Pal triumvirate. In 1907, the annual session of the Congress Party was held at Surat (Gujarat). Trouble broke out between the moderate and the extremist factions of the party over the selection of the new president of the Congress. The party split into the “Jahal matavadi” (“Hot Faction,” or extremists), led by Tilak, Pal and Lajpat Rai, and the “Maval matavadi”(“Soft Faction,” or moderates).
- All India Home Rule League
- Later, Tilak re-united with his fellow nationalists and re-joined the Indian National Congress in 1916. He also helped found the All India Home Rule League in 1916-18 with Joseph Baptista, Annie Besant, G. S. Khaparde and Muhammad Ali Jinnah. After years of trying to reunite the moderate and radical factions, he gave up and focused on the Home Rule League, which sought self-rule. Tilak travelled from village to village trying to conjure up support from farmers and locals to join the movement towards self-rule.Tilak was impressed by the Russian Revolution, and expressed his admiration for Lenin. Tilak, who started his political life as a Maratha protagonist, during his later part of life progressed into a prominent nationalist after his close association with Indian nationalists following the partition of Bengal. When asked in Calcutta whether he envisioned a Maratha type of government for Free India, Tilak replied that the Maratha dominated Governments of 17th and 18th centuries were outmoded in 20th century and he wanted a genuine federal system for Free India where every religion and race were equal partners. He added that only such a form of Government would be able to safeguard India’s freedom. He was the first Congress leader to suggest that Hindi written in the devanagari script, should be accepted as the sole national language of India.
- Social contribution
- In 1894, Tilak transformed household worshipping of Ganesha into Sarvajanik Ganeshotsav and he also made Shiva Jayanti(birth anniversary celebrations of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj) as a social festival. It is touted to be an effective demonstration of festival procession. Gopal Ganesh Agarkar was the first editor of Kesari, a prominent Marathi weekly in his days which was started by Lokmanya Tilak in 1880-81. Gopal Ganesh Agarkar subsequently left Kesari out of ideological differences with Bal Gangadhar Tilak concerning the primacy of political reforms versus social reforms, and Gopal Ganesh Agarkar started his own periodical Sudharak.He often said, “I regard India as my Motherland and my Goddess,the people in India my kith and kin, and loyal and steadfast work for their political and social emancipation my highest religion and duty”