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Remembering Tilak Maharaj

by Jyotsna Kamat
First Online: August 15, 1998
Page Last Updated: May 09, 2017

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 (biography) 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.
-- Jyotsna Kamat
August 15, 1998
India's Independence Day

"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.

Stamp Commemorating Swaraj

Bal Gangadhar Tilak

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"

Portarit of Lokamanya Balgangadhar Tilak
Lokamanya Balgangadhar Tilak

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 control)

At 52, a diabetic and ailing Tilak wrote his famous commentary  "Geeta Rahasya" 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!

K.L. Kamat/Kamat's Potpourri
Tilak`s Release Certificate, 1898
Tilak's Release Certificate, 1898
Document cerifying Lokamanya Tilak's release from prison

There was unprecedented jubilation in India after Tilak was free and was 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 had come up in India. 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 actions 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".

Honoring Tilak at Kamat's Potpourri


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