Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Chandrasekhar Azad for millennials: A tale of two types of 'extremism'

Today is the birth anniversary of two individuals who are an integral part of the freedom struggle. Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Chandra Shekhar Azad. One of them opposed the British rule through editorials, and organising religious processions despite a ban on Indians gathering in public places, and the other, who had dreams of liberating his nation after witnessing the atrocities of the Jallianwala Baug massacre of 1919.

Bal Gangadhar Tilak was born a year after India’s first war of independence in 1857. Those close to him say that he was staunchly against British rule and believed that Indians had the right to celebrate their festivals, prompting the popularity of the 10-day Ganesh festival in Maharashtra. While he was staunchly against violence, he said that the British Empire’s behaviour towards Indians was a ‘test of patience for humanity.’

His career as a journalist, particularly in self-published papers like Kesari (Marathi) and Mahratta (English), was even more interesting as he constantly opposed British rule becoming the first Indian journalist to be tried for sedition. Two articles – one titled ‘The Country’s Misfortune’ and the other ‘These Remedies Are Not Lasting’ – resulted in his arrest and subsequent trial.

In the article, he had defended two youths, Prafulla Chaki and Khudiram Bose, who threw a bomb on a coach of a train travelling to Muzaffarpur. The aim was to kill Chief Presidency Magistrate Douglas Kingsford of Calcutta fame, but the bomb erroneously killed two women traveling in it. While Chaki committed suicide, Bose was hanged.

The British did not take kindly to Tilak’s editorials and as part of his sedition trial, had his home searched. During the search, the police found two postcards, allegedly with the names of two books on explosives written on it.

While Tilak was earlier defended by Mohammad Ali Jinnah during the first part of his trial, he chose to defend himself at the end. Saying that his articles did not speak out against the tyranny of the Empire, but rather on the tyrannous bureaucracy. In his final statement, he said, “"All I wish to say is that, in spite of the verdict of the jury, I maintain that I am innocent. Here are higher powers that rule the destiny of things and it may be the will of Providence that the cause which I represent may prosper more by my suffering than by my remaining free.”

Tilak’s case was heard across the world, and even leaders such as Russian Revolution leader Vladimir Lenin defended him. Lenin is to reportedly have said, "infamous sentence pronounced by the British jackals on the Indian democrat Tilak."

Tilak was imprisoned in Burma for six years before returning home a much ‘mellowed man’, and formed the Home Rule League along with Dr Annie Besant.

Azad wanted azadi

In 1928, when Tilak’s close friend Lala Lajpatrai was killed in a stampeded as part of his protesting the Rowlat Act – remembered in most history textbooks as the black act – a handful freedom fighters decided to take action. These included Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev, Rajguru, Bhatukeshwar Dutt, and Chandra Shekhar Azad.

Azad’s dream of an India free of British rule began with the Jallianwala Baug massacre in 1919. While his mother had dreams of him becoming a Sanskrit scholar, Azad dreamt of bigger things.

While Azad had begun his freedom struggle following Mahatma Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement, the 1922 Chauri Chaura incident in Gorakhpur district where protestors burnt a police station, killing several police officers, changed things. Gandhi withdrew the movement, prompting Azad to change the direction of his struggle.

Aza founded the Hindustan Republican Army, and unlike Tilak’s words, thought action was the best way to be heard by the British. The train raid at Kakori made him a wanted man, even as his comrades were arrested and hanged.

Then came the bomb explosion in the central legislative assembly that involved Bhagat Singh and Bhatukeshwar Dutt. While the British knew of Azad’s involvement, they were unable to catch him, despite several attempts. And when they finally did, he shot himself rather than getting caught.

When you look back at history, both Tilak and Azad were extremists with one opting for the pen and the other for the sword. While they never saw the light of freedom, their contribution will be remembered forever. And while they may be termed as extremist, we must remember that it was this extremism that beautifully balanced what Gandhi and Nehru believed in. And this balance is what gave India its freedom.

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