Karthi Sivaraman
Book Review: Lokamanya Tilak – a biography
This article originally appeared in centreright.in. CRI content has now been subsumed in swarajyamag.com. The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors of swarajyamag.com

Late Prof. A. K. Bhagwat and Prof. G. P. Pradhan have compiled the biography of Shri Bal Gangadhar Tilak, commemorating his birth centenary in 1956, with a foreword by Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. Jaico Publishing House has published it in 2011. I got this copy from Crosswords Mumbai (R city, Ghatkopar). The book costs INR 395, and at that price is a veritable source of information, and more importantly inspiration.

Firstly, a word of praise for the publisher – A book is a not just the collection of ideas that it represents and the clarity with which these ideas are put forth; it includes the effort the publisher has taken to make such ideas and thoughts presentable. In that sense, while one should not judge a book by its cover, a well-presented book is a case half-won. The publishers (Jaico, Mumbai) get almost full marks for their efforts to make this book presentable. The pages are well laid out, and the font size is just right. The reading pleasure of this book, for me, was just right. The artwork on the covers is unobtrusive, and the front cover provides a nice portrait art of their subject, highlighting a typical day in their subject’s life.

Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan gives a terse, yet multifaceted introduction to Shri Tilak’s life and work. In what is definitely not light praise from a person of Shri Radhakrishnan’s standing, he says “He (Tilak) illuminated every subject he took up” – that about sums up in as few words as possible, the impact of Tilak on everything that he did in his life. The authors have treated Shri Tilak’s life with the respect that it commanded, while not sparing the barbs, which they felt were deserved.

The book traverses his life in chronological order, from his childhood, through his education and youth, and to the magnum opus of his life – the establishment of free press in India. The early chapters paint a picture of a man obsessed with imparting modern education to a society that is clearly stagnating – while according due importance to the culture that played in his own development. His long-standing relationship with his partner-at-arms, Agarkar, speaks volumes about his ability to hold his own views in the presence of other equally powerful diverse opinions.

Throughout the biography, we are treated to the life of a person who is willing to learn and allow his learning to override his own opinions. From being a person who stood by ‘completely constitutional’ methods for achieving self-governance (not independence), to a person who proclaimed home rule as his birthright at all costs, we see the maturation of leader. Interestingly, we also learn that Shri Tilak is the first one to have demanded not just “Swarajya” but also “Surajya” (the now famous position of Narendra Modi).

The book also at various places emphasizes how Shri Tilak viewed all kinds of resistance (both lawful and unlawful) as being important to the end goal. In this aspect, we find repeatedly that Shri Tilak was not only a statesman, but also a pragmatist who understood the value of diversity of action.

One incident narrated in the biography describes this attitude best: One Damodar Chhapekar of Poona had confessed to killing two British officers (Ayers and Rand) for their excesses during the Pune plague of 1897-98.He was arrested, and faced the gallows with the kind of dignified defiance that marked men and women who had made peace between the immorality of their action and the morality of their cause against the Empire. While Tilak was widely rumored to have been the director of the episode, the authors say there was no evidence to prove such collusion.

However, the stance of Tilak, as explained by the authors is illuminating: “Unlike Gandhiji, he (Tilak) would never condemn a political murder on ethical grounds alone. … Tilak believed that the most moral motive […], owing to an immoral situation, led to violent action“. In other places in the book, the authors liken Tilak’s political philosophy to a bow with many strings – not all of them to be used at once. In spite of his philosophy of broad political activism, Tilak had more than his fair share of common sense.

While he agreed that civil action would take us to the gates of self-governance, he thought it would need the final thrust from the revolutionaries. Throughout the biography, we find Tilak musing, “if there was a 50% chance of an armed revolution succeeding, I would take the chance and leave the rest to God”. Still, the pragmatist in him saw the ground realitythat such time was not ripe, not until the sun set in his life.

The authors’ differences of opinion with Tilak’s (the authors are avowedly Gandhian in their outlook, as implied by the use of their words related to ‘revolution’) often show up in places where they don’t agree with him. This is a healthy sign of biographer(s) where they clearly, yet in a dignified manner, differ from their subject. However, with hindsight (>60 years of independence), the reader can easily see that Tilak has been right. Be it on the issue of ‘vedokta’ (rights for reciting vedas for lower classes) or the precedence of political empowerment over social reforms, we can see that Tilak has been painfully prophetic.

In the Vedokta affair (1902), social reformers held the stance that right to recite vedas would alleviate the problems faced by the lower castes. Tilak however, differed strongly in these views and didn’t mince words while expressing his own: “To say that caste distinctions would vanish by conferring vedokta rights … is also a mistake”. While the reasons that Tilak had for such a stance were grounded in his religious upbringing, his words do ring true even today. In short, all acts of symbolism towards removing caste distinction have yielded no results even more than a century later.

The authors express their displeasure that Tilak did not support the caste reforms (in 1902) as well as much later during an AICC resolution, and the reader finds such displeasure well measured, reasoned and rightly founded. However, due credit should be given to Tilak for his emphasis on persuasive gradual means towards social reforms, and his far sighted stance that political empowerment should precede social reforms.

Several instances in Tilak’s life are quite interesting to a politically savvy reader today. Foremost is the manner in which the Anglo-Indian press interfered in a democratic process [1895 Poona Municipal Elections], and then in spreading calumny against a popular leader [lá affaire Chhapekar, 1898], and much later, in England [1910]. The editorials written by him in the Kesari (in general), and the Chhapekar case, made Tilak a knife in the torso of the British government – a knife that they sought to blunt with the help of an unscrupulous media (Times of India, then). The parallels of the 1900’s Anglo-Indian press to today’s Indian mainstream media are as uncanny as are scary.

Second point that strikes the reader is the tenacity with which he pursued the larger goal. The vision with which he converted personal difficulties into political strongholds from which to attack the English is commendable. Be it the muzzling of Kesari in late 1890’s, or his conviction in the aftermath of Ayers and Rand murders on cases of disaffection (124A) and attempts at sedition, or his long incarceration in Mandalay, Tilak used each of these difficult periods to arouse the nation. One notices in each of his tribulations, the wish to accept personal setbacks, if it would save the course of the struggle against Brits.

Third, throughout the book, the reader notices a statesman who is willing to put the nation before himself, his welfare and his views. There are many instances where he had urged the ‘radical’ nationalists to bury the hatchet with the ‘moderates’ just so the ultimate cause (home rule) may be achieved. In many cases, we also find that like today, the radicals were attuned to reason than moderates and liberals.

Fourth and finally, the actions of the British government and the legal constitution bear striking similarity to the attitudes of our current governments. This fact, while widely and anecdotally known, hits the reader hard, when we find that the section 124A of Indian CrPC has been shamelessly inherited from the British law, and the only discernible changes have been the removal of terms such as ‘crown’, ‘the queen’, or ‘the empire’. It is a stark reminder that while the nation has moved on to the 21st century, our laws (and our legislature) are stuck about 150 years in history.

This review has omitted, quite consciously, many illuminating parts of the book. However, the purpose of this review was not to completely summarize for readers, the life and times of Shri Tilak, but to kindle an interest in them to explore it further. Some things that I have omitted include his proficiency in Hindu Philosophy and his personal tribulations during the struggle for the motherland. The former, due to my ignorance on such things, and the latter because they still weigh heavily on my mind.

While the editors, authors and publishers have taken utmost care to depict truly and thoroughly the life of a great statesman, small editorial and typographical errors have crept up in several places. These errors by themselves are innocuous but do make an excellent book less than perfect – and should be taken seriously. I look forward to these being corrected in the next prints.

Summarily, this is a book that would enrich the reader in ways probably previously unimagined. It is sure to expand ones horizon in thoughts and actions. More importantly, for the Indian educated class that is overdosed on historical contributions by M.K. Gandhi and Nehru (and family); the contributions of Shri Tilak would no doubt come as a breath of fresh air.