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Overview

Bal Gangadhar Tilak (23 July 1856 – 1 August 1920), born as Keshav Gangadhar Tilak, was an Indian nationalist, teacher, social reformer, lawyer and an independence activist. He was the first leader of the Indian Independence Movement. The British colonial authorities called him “The father of the Indian unrest.” He was also conferred with the title of “Lokmanya”, which means “accepted by the people (as their leader)”.

Tilak was one of the first and strongest advocates of Swaraj (“self-rule”) and a strong radical in Indian consciousness. He is known for his quote in Marathi: “Swarajya is my birthright and I shall have it!”. He formed a close alliance with many Indian National Congress leaders including Bipin Chandra Pal, Lala Lajpat Rai, Aurobindo Ghose, V. O. Chidambaram Pillai and Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

Early life

Tilak was born in a Marathi Chitpavan Brahmin family in Ratnagiri as Keshav Gangadhar Tilak. In headquarters of the eponymous district of present-day Maharashtra (then British India) on 23 July 1856. His ancestral village was Chikhali. His father, Gangadhar Tilak was a school teacher and a Sanskrit scholar who died when Tilak was sixteen. Tilak graduated from Deccan College, Pune in 1877. Tilak was amongst one of the first generation of Indians to receive a college education. 

In 1871 Tilak was married to Tapibai ( Ne Bal) when he was sixteen,
a few months before his father’s death. After marriage, her name was changed to Satyabhamabai. He obtained his Bachelor of Arts in first class in Mathematics from Deccan College of Pune in 1877. He left his M.A. course of study midway to join the L.L.B course instead, and in 1879 he obtained his L.L.B degree from Government Law College . After graduating, Tilak started teaching mathematics at a private school in Pune. Later, due to ideological differences with the colleagues in the new school, he withdrew and became a journalist. Tilak actively participated in public affairs. He stated: “Religion and practical life are not different. To take Sanyas (renunciation) is not to abandon life.  The real spirit is to make the country your family work together instead of working only for your own. The step beyond is to serve
humanity and the next step is to serve God.”

He organised the Deccan Education Society in 1884 with a few of his college friends, including Gopal Ganesh Agarkar, Mahadev Ballal Namjoshi and Vishnushastri Chiplunkar. Their 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. The Society established the New English School for secondary education and Fergusson College in 1885 for post-secondary studies. Tilak taught mathematics at Fergusson College. He began a mass movement towards independence by an emphasis on a religious and cultural revival. In 1890, Tilak left the society for more openly political work.

Political career

Tilak had a long political career agitating for Indian autonomy from the British rule.  Gokhale, Tilak was considered a radical Nationalist but a Social conservative. He was imprisoned on a number of occasions that included a long stint at Mandalay. At one stage in his political life he was called “the father of Indian unrest” by the British authorities.

Indian National Congress

Tilak joined the Indian National Congress in 1890.He opposed its moderate attitude, especially towards the fight for
self-government. He was one of the most-eminent radicals at the time.
In fact, it was the Swadeshi movement of 1905-1907 that resulted in
the split within the Indian National Congress into the Moderates and
the Extremists.
Despite being personally opposed to early marriage, Tilak was against the 1891 Age of Consent bill, seeing it as interference with Hinduism and a dangerous precedent.The act raised the age at which a girl could marry from 10 to 12 years.

During late 1896, a bubonic plague spread from Bombay to Pune, and by January 1897, it reached epidemic proportions. British troops were brought in to deal with the emergency and harsh measures were employed including forced entry into private houses, examination of occupants, evacuation to hospitals and segregation camps, removing and destroying personal possessions, and preventing patients from entering or leaving the city. By the end of May, the epidemic was under control. Though the British authorities’ measures were well-meant, they were widely regarded as acts of tyranny and oppression. Tilak took up this issue by publishing inflammatory articles in his paper Kesari (Kesari was written in Marathi, and “Maratha” was written in English), 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 1897, Commissioner Rand and another British officer, Lt. Ayerst were shot and killed by the Chapekar brothers and their other associates. According to Barbara and Thomas R. Metcalf, Tilak “almost surely concealed the identities of the perpetrators”.:154 Tilak was charged with incitement to murder and sentenced to 18 months imprisonment. When he emerged from prison in present-day Mumbai, he was revered as a martyr and a national hero. He adopted a new slogan coined by his associate Kaka Baptista: “Swaraj (self-rule) is my birthright and I shall have it.”

Following the Partition of Bengal, which was a strategy set out by Lord Curzon to weaken the nationalist movement, Tilak encouraged the Swadeshi movement and the Boycott movement. The movement consisted of the boycott of foreign goods and also the social boycott of any Indian who used foreign goods. The Swadeshi movement consisted of the usage of natively produced goods. Once foreign goods were boycotted, there was a gap which had to be filled by the production of those goods in India itself. Tilak said that the Swadeshi and Boycott movements are two sides of the same coin.

Lala Lajpat Rai, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Bipin Chandra Pal together popularly known as Lal-Bal-Pal triumvirate

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 over the selection of the new president of the Congress between the moderate and the radical sections of the party . The party split into the radicals faction, led by Tilak, Pal and Lajpat Rai, and the moderate faction. Nationalists like Aurobindo Ghose, V. O. Chidambaram Pillai were Tilak supporters.

Sedition Charges

During his lifetime among other political cases, Bal Gangadhar Tilak had been tried for Sedition Charges in three times by British India Governmentin 1897, 1909, and 1916. In 1897, Tilak was sentenced to 18 months in prison for preaching disaffection against the Raj. In 1909, he was again charged with sedition and intensifying racial animosity between Indians and the British. The Bombay lawyer Muhammad Ali Jinnah in Tilak’s defence could not annul the evidence in Tilak’s polemical articles and Tilak was sentenced to six years in prison in Burma.

Imprisonment in Mandalay

On 30 April 1908, two Bengali youths, Prafulla Chaki and Khudiram Bose, threw a bomb on a carriage at Muzzafarpur, to kill the Chief Presidency Magistrate Douglas Kingsford of Calcutta fame, but erroneously killed two women traveling in it. While Chaki committed suicide when caught, Bose was hanged. Tilak, in his paper Kesari, defended the revolutionaries and called for immediate Swaraj or self-rule. The Government swiftly charged him with sedition. At the conclusion of the trial, a special jury convicted him by 7:2 majority. The judge, Dinshaw D. Davar gave him a six years jail sentence to be served in Mandalay, Burma and a fine of Rs 1,000. On being asked by the judge whether he had anything to say, Tilak said:

All that I wish to say is that, in spite of the verdict of the jury, I still maintain that I am innocent. There are higher powers that rule the destinies of men and nations; and I think, it may be the will of Providence that the cause I represent may be benefited more by my suffering than by my pen and tongue.

In passing sentence, the judge indulged in some scathing strictures against Tilak’s conduct. He threw off the judicial restraint which, to some extent, was observable in his charge to the jury. He condemned the articles as “seething with sedition”, as preaching violence, speaking of murders with approval. “You hail the advent of the bomb in India as if something had come to India for its good. I say, such journalism is a curse to the country”. Tilak was sent to Mandalay from 1908 to 1914. While imprisoned, he continued to read and write, further developing his ideas on the Indian nationalist movement. While in the prison he wrote the Gita Rahasya. Many copies of which were sold, and the money was donated for the Indian Independence movement..

Life after Mandalay


Tilak tried to convince Mohandas Gandhi to leave the idea of Total non-violence (“Total Ahimsa”) and try to get self-rule (“Swarajya”) by all means.
Tilak developed diabetes during his sentence in Mandalay prison. This and the general ordeal of prison life had mellowed him at his release on 16 June 1914. When World War I started in August of that year, Tilak cabled the King-Emperor George V of his support and turned his oratory to find new recruits for war efforts. He welcomed The Indian Councils Act, popularly known as Minto-Morley Reforms, which had been passed by British Parliament in May 1909, terming it as “a marked increase of confidence between the Rulers and the Ruled”. It was his conviction that acts of violence actually diminished, rather than hastening, the pace of political reforms. He was eager for reconciliation with Congress and had abandoned his demand for direct action and settled for agitations “strictly by constitutional means” – a line advocated by his rival Gokhale.

All India Home Rule League

Social contributions and legacy

Tilak started two weeklies, Kesari (“The Lion”) in Marathi and Mahratta in English (sometimes referred as ‘Maratha’ in Academic Study Books) in 1880-81 with Gopal Ganesh Agarkar as the first editor. By this he was recognized as ‘awakener of India’. As Kesari later became a daily and continues publication to this day.

In 1894, Tilak transformed the household worshipping of Ganesha into a grand public event (Sarvajanik Ganeshotsav). The celebrations consisted of several days of processions, music and food. They were organized by the means of subscriptions by neighbourhood, caste, or occupation. Students often would celebrate Hindu and national glory and address political issues; including patronage of Swadeshi goods.

In 1895, Tilak founded the Shri Shivaji Fund Committee for celebration of “Shiv Jayanti”, the birth anniversary of Chhatrapati Shivaji, the founder of the Maratha Empire. The project also had the objective of funding the reconstruction of the tomb (Samadhi) of Shivaji at Raigad Fort. For this second objective, Tilak established the Shri Shivaji Raigad Smarak Mandal along with Senapati Khanderao Dabhade II of Talegaon Dabhade, who became the founder President of the Mandal.

The events like the Ganapati festival and Shiv Jayanti were used by Tilak to build a national spirit beyond the circle of educated elite in opposition to colonial rule. But it also exacerbated Hindu-Muslim differences. The festival organizers would urge Hindus to protect cows and boycott the Muharram celebrations organized by Shi’a Muslims, in which Hindus had formerly often participated. Thus, although the celebrations were meant to be a way to oppose colonial rule, they also contributed to religious tensions.:152 Contemporary Marathi Hindu nationalist parties like the Shivsena took up his reverence for Shivaji.

The Deccan Education Society that Tilak founded with others in the 1880s still runs Institutions in Pune like the Fergusson College.

The Swadeshi movement started by Tilak at the beginning of the 20th century became part of the Independence movement until that goal was achieved in 1947. One can even say Swadeshi remained part of Indian Government policy until the 1990s when the Congress Government liberalised the economy.

Tilak Smarak Ranga Mandir, a theatre auditorium in Pune is dedicated to him. In 2007, the Government of India released a coin to commemorate the 150th birth anniversary of Tilak.

Tilak said, “I regard India as my Motherland and my Goddess, the people in India are my kith and kin, and loyal and steadfast work for their political and social emancipation is my highest religion and duty”.

Lokmanya: Ek Yug Purush is a film released on January 2, 2015 based on his life. Directed by Om Raut, Tilak is played by actor Subodh Bhave.

Books

  • In 1903, he wrote the book The Arctic Home in the Vedas. In it, he argued that the Vedas could only have been composed in the Arctics, and the Aryan bards brought them south after the onset of the last ice age. He proposed a new way to determine the exact time of the Vedas.
  • In “The Orion” He tried to calculate the time of Vedas by using the position of different Nakshatras. Positions of Nakshtras were described in different Vedas.
  • Tilak authored “Shrimadh Bhagvad Gita Rahasya” in prison at Mandalay – the analysis of ‘Karma Yoga’ in the Bhagavad Gita, which is known to be gift of the Vedas and the Upanishads.

Descendants

Tilak’s son, Shridhar was a campaigner for social reforms in India. Shridhar’s son, Jayantrao Tilak (1921 – 2001) was editor of the Kesari newspaper for many years. Jayantrao was also a politician from the Congress party. He was a member of the Parliament of India representing Maharashtra in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of the Indian Parliament. He was also a member of the Maharashtra Legislative Council.

Mukta Tilak, the wife of Tilak’s great-grandson Shailesh Tilak was elected Pune’s mayor in 2017. Mukta Tilak is a Bhartiya Janata Party member.

Rohit Tilak, a descendant of Bal Gangadhar Tilak is a Pune based Congress party politician. In 2017, a woman with whom he had an extra-marital affair accused him of rape and other crimes. He is currently out on bail in connection with these charges.