Literary Review

A reformer’s life

Gopal Krishna Gokhale: Gandhi’s Political Guru by Govind Talwalkar.  

Govind Talwalkar is eminently suitable to write the biography of a national leader of substance from Maharashtra. The former editor of Maharashtra Times, a Goenka and Durga Ratan awardee for excellence in journalism and a scholar both in English and Marathi, Talwalkar has rendered this classic biography of Gokhale. As Ramachandra Guha states, Talwalkar skilfully locates Gokhale’s works in the context of his times. Written in 16 chapters, the story meanders through Gokhale’s life and works and does not indulge in eulogy. More importantly, the book is also an in-depth study of the country’s freedom struggle in the early stages, posited in the lifetime of Gokhale.

In the first three chapters, the author takes the reader through colonial rule in India, describing the period when the Crown took over control from the Company. The book is also a record of history of education in western India, and Talwalkar pays glowing tribute to Mountstuart Elphinstone, Governor of Bombay during the early 19 century. He shows how, in spite of their other intentions, the English did benefit the public with awareness to education.

Encouraged by English education, some Indians came forward to bring in reforms in political, social, economic and religious fields. Calcutta and Madras produced forward-looking leaders. This was augmented by the advent of popular newspapers in 1838. Changing economic equations led to different priorities for the English in India, causing discontent among Indians especially during the rule of Dalhousie. Talwalkar records that — like Mackenzie in Madras — Elphinstone was interested in history of the land and, through his subordinates, collected and preserved all old books and artefacts.

Thus, in the first five chapters, a foundation is laid for the story of Gokhale and his contribution to the nation as a moderate in ideology. Though Gokhale did not attend the first session of the Congress, he emerged as an important figure in the political affairs of the country. A turning point was 1889, as he attended the INC session as a delegate from Pune along with Tilak. In 1895, Gokhale was disturbed by the controversy in the Sarvajanik Sabha, especially about the Age of Consent Bill. With the guidance of his mentor, Ranade, he started the Deccan Sabha in 1896. When the British Parliament appointed the Welby Commission to enquire into the cause of famines, the Deccan Sabha sent Gokhale to England to present Indian viewpoint. This he did admirably in March, 1897.

While in the U.K., Gokhale — in an interview to the Guardian — made some remarks based on reports he had received from India. This made him unpopular in India and he did not get the welcome he deserved when he returned. After finding his remarks were based on unfounded allegations, he tendered a public apology, as advised by Ranade, proving that he was a man of principles. This episode is explained in detail with some facts to clear the misunderstanding. Gokhale reached the best period of his political life in 1905. He was elected to Central Legislative Council and resigned as professor in the Fergusson College. According to the author, Gokhale’s greatest contributions to the Legislative Council were his budget speeches from 1902 to 1914. When Curzon was viceroy, the budgets presented were always surplus. Gokhale challenged this saying that the government took away a lot without doing much for the people.

In 1905, Gokhale formed ‘The Servants of India Society’ and established a library for its members. For the Benares session, Gokhale was proposed as the president in his absence. Later in his address, he criticised Lord Curzon’s division of Bengal. When the Prince of Wales met Gokhale during his tour of India, he asked him pointedly if people would be happier if Indians ran the country. Gokhale’s response was that they might not be happier but they would surely have self-respect. After the split in Calcutta session, Gokhale and Motilal Nehru explained to the nation that the only practical way to attain the status of free India was to follow constitutional means.

However the political climate was changing and, by 1907, extremism was building up. When the Press Act of India, 1908, came into force, the political climate had completely transformed. Tilak was arrested on June 24, 1908, on charges of sedition and was sentenced to six years and deported to Mandalay. Srinivasa Sastry from Servants of India Society was present in court and asked Gokhale to use his good offices with Morley to secure considerate treatment for Tilak. Gokhale was in London and, though he was trying his best for better treatment of Tilak, extremist papers like Bande Matram and Hindu Punch spread a canard that Gokhale was instrumental in having Tilak arrested. This also caused threats to his life. Around this time, the British Government was using the Muslim League as a convenient ploy to restrain the Congress. This difficult phase is well explained.

In the last and most important chapter, Gokhale’s meeting with Gandhi in South Africa is detailed. Gandhi was always in correspondence with Gokhale and called him his political guru. Gokhale’s consistency in nurturing liberal polity is covered well. Gokhale’s death on February 19, 1915, created a vacuum in Indian politics. The authentic narration in the centenary year of Gokhale’s death is timely and helpful for scholars of Indian history.

Gopal Krishna Gokhale: Gandhi’s Political Guru; Govind Talwalkar, Pentagon Press, Rs.1,495.

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Printable version | May 9, 2021 12:38:45 AM |

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