Servant of India, despite Raj

A spate of names of distinguished Indian leaders of another age and clime has been doing the rounds as deserving of the Bharat Ratna, but it does not seem to make much sense. Among them is the name of Gopala Krishna Gokhale. Gokhale may rouse interest amongst GenNext, but so what? Gokhale surely was a great patriot of undisputed repute but to make him a first choice is to stir needless argument among the intellectuals of today. If, it will be argued, Gokhale deserves the Bharat Ratna, would not Dadabhai Naoroji, Pherozeshah Mehta, Jamshed Tata, Mahadev Govind Ranade, Lala Lajpat Rai, Bipin Chandra Pal or Vinayak Damodar Savarkar? Or just to stress a point, why forget Madame Blavatsky, Annie Besant, Swami Vivekananda or Sri Aurobindo Ghosh?

One may appreciate the opinion of policy makers within the Modi Government, but can’t we let the past bury the past, without having to get into wordy arguments? Gokhale was a remarkable person as anybody familiar with the past would testify. Born in May 1866, he passed away at the comparatively young age of 49, in February 1915. We may resuscitate his name from the records to observe his 150th death anniversary which would be apt. Possibly the government may name February 19 as Gokhale Day, which surely would meet the desire to remember him with gratitude. He was one among a few of his generation to receive a university education and to be exposed to western political thought. He was to become a great admirer of theorists such as John Stuart mill and Edmund Burke. Although he could dare to criticise unhesitatingly many aspects of the English colonial regime – Mohandas Gandhi accepted him as his political guru – the respect for English political theory and institutions he acquired in his college days remained with him throughout his life.

 In 1905, Gokhale was elected president of the Indian National Congress when he was at the height of power and popularity. While in his political views he was a moderate, who promoted the cause of Indian Independence, for him the way to freedom was to be strictly through non-violence. Indeed among the two over-arching principles he followed, non-violence was one of them. The other was social reform. Those were the days when child marriage was a norm in Hindu, especially Brahmin society.

He strongly stood by the government when it moved the Age of Consent Bill. The Bill was not extreme. It only sought to raise the age of consent from ten to twelve years, which in those days was considered a revolutionary step! Many leaders were opposed to the Bill, like, for example, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, but it became law in the then Bombay Presidency. It was not that Tilak was opposed to social reform. His opposition was to British interference to Indian lifestyle and in this regard Gokhale and Tilak were at loggerheads.

There was much similarity between Gokhale and Tilak. Both were Chitpavan Brahmins. Both attended the same college in Bombay – Elphinstone’s. Both became professors of Mathematics and again both were members of the Deccan Education Society. Indeed, so attached was Gokhale to the spread of higher education that he established the Servants of India Society and additionally in Vidarbha, a daily as well.

 In his preamble to the Servants of India Society’s constitution, Gokhale wrote that the Society would train men prepared to devote their lives to the cause of the country in a religious spirit and would seek to promote by all constitutional means the national interests of the Indian people. In many ways, Gokhale differed from his Pune contemporary, Tilak. Tilak underwent imprisonment and years of loneliness, suffering a great deal. But Gokhale would work directly with the British throughout his comparatively short political career, in order to further his reformist goals.

For a man so concerned with social reform, he travelled extensively. To Gandhi, Gokhale was a “mentor and guide.” In his autobiography, Gandhi has described Gokhale as “pure as crystal, gentle as a lamb, brave as a lion and chivalrous to a fault and the most perfect man in the political field.” Gokhale was interested in Gandhi’s socio-political activities in South Africa and even visited the country at the Mahatma’s invitation. But, if Gokhale was a role model for Gandhi, he was also the mentor of Mohammad Ali Jinnah who, in 1912, aspired to become the ‘Muslim Gokhale.’

Believing existing educational institutions and the Indian Civil Service did not do enough to provide Indians with opportunities to serve their country, he felt the Society he created would help meet the needful. Such was his reputation among the British, that he was invited to London to meet with Secretary of State Lord John Morley with whom he established a rapport. Gokhale would help during his visit to shape the historical Morley-Minto Reforms introduced in 1909. Earlier he was honoured with a high award, the CIE – Companion of the Order of the Indian Empire.

Whatever nationalists might have felt about him, Gokhale must be credited with forcing India’s colonial masters to recognise the capabilities of a new generation of educated Indians and to include them more than ever before in the governing process. And that by any reckoning, is a major achievement. To remember such a distinguished individual is a credit to us, inasmuch as it is to him. The Indian National Congress can do with more such citizens in the years ahead as it is striving to rediscover itself. Gokhale serves as an excellent example of what one can do, even within a limited set of circumstances.

M V Kamath

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