Tilak's sacrifice

How one of the tallest figures of the Indian freedom movement, a champion of the oppressed and a great mobilizer of the masses, is denigrated by scholars for what seem to be petty ideological reasons.

Tilak's sacrifice

Looking back at India’s independence struggle, the phenomenal contributions of Bal Gangadhar Tilak are hard to miss, yet they’re obscured by the partisan narratives spun around him by certain sections of the Indian polity and academia. Nationalistic leader, mathematics professor, social reformer and lawyer, Tilak was one of the earliest and strongest advocates of Swarajya or self-rule. He wrote incendiary articles in his Marathi newspaper, Kesari, urging people to overthrow the oppressive British rule using lessons from the Gita, encouraged Swadeshi and the boycott of British goods after the partition of Bengal. His support for Prafulla Chaki and Khudiram Bose earned him a prison sentence for 6 years in Mandalay Burma. Doubtlessly, Tilak stands as one of the tallest names among Indian nationalists. Though a fitting analysis of his contributions to the freedom struggle is missing from the public consciousness of today, the Government of India, as a token gesture, released a coin in 2007 commemorating the 150th birth anniversary of the firebrand revolutionary.

In keeping with the times, when history has merely become a tool of political manipulation, a recent book, “On Nationalism” by Romila Thapar, A.G. Noorani, Sadanand Menon, reduces the phenomenon that was Tilak to nothing more than a proto-Hindutva activist. Understandably so, as the need to distort the narrative about events and personalities that have anything to do with cultural Hinduism has come to be the defining feature of the dominant Marxist school of History in India. Here is a relevant excerpt, representative of the ideological undercurrent permeating the whole book:

Tilak worked on constructing the idea of a glorious and ancient Indian past, heavily inflected with Hindu symbology, as a strategy to fight the imperialist. This was one of the ways in which the national movement hoped to forge a common Indian identity based on a glorious past (composed in equal parts of myth, legend and select incorporation of historical facts). The idea of the past that the national struggle sought to create in its early days was one of a pre-historic India of mythic origins that was divine, pure, monolithic and untainted by any polluting ‘external’ influence. This itself was a myth, for the subcontinent has been host to an unending procession of cultures and claimants who have tromped through it over at least three millennia. Yet the attempt was to make culture the sole base for the formation of the independent nation. Inevitably, because of the majoritarian Hindu population and the national leadership that represented them, this notion of the past that was more or less upper caste and Hindu became conflated and interchangeable with the idea of the new emerging nation.

Did Tilak recreate a mythic past?

Menon, in his critique of Tilak, claims that Tilak’s idea of a “glorious past” is a mythical construct, created from a selective incorporation of historical facts. Not surprisingly, he doesn’t care to bring forth a shred of evidence or analysis to establish his point. The fact is that the idea of an ancient and emancipated civilization, one that is arrogantly discarded by Menon as fiction, was and continues to be part of the collective imagination of Hindus and Tilak, for better or worse, did not conjure up this story out of thin air. As a Hindu, it was very much part of his worldview, which he shared with a vast majority of his countrymen. As the Harvard Indologist, Diana Eck (not a Hindutva ideologue by any stretch of imagination) puts it,

[India’s] unity as a nation, however, has been firmly constituted by the sacred geography it has held in common and revered: its mountains, forests, rivers, hilltop shrines.” [1]

Likewise, Sankrant Sanu eloquently describes the cultural and civilizational unity of India not derived from the concept of a modern nation-state:

Whether these stories are actual or symbolic, represent real events or myths, it is clear from them that the idea of India existed in the minds of those that told these stories and those that listened. Together, all these stories wove and bound us together, along with migration, marriages and exchange of ideas into a culture unique in the story of mankind. A nation that was uniquely bound together in myriads of ways, yet not cast into a mono-conceptual homogeneity of language, worship, belief or practice by the diktat of a centralized church, intolerant of diversity. [2]

Tilak in his writings investigated the idea of the original homeland of the Aryans. Using an analysis of ancient Vedic hymns, references to Nakshatras, passages from the Avesta, Tilak concluded that the original homeland of the Aryans was in the North Pole, from where they migrated outwards in the post-glacial period after the last ice age. Though this theory is now officially debunked, the quest for the origin of Indo-European people is still a much-contested topic among modern day historians. That there was an ancient past linked to the genesis of the dharma-centric religions and culture in India is an undeniable fact, and as shown in the previous paragraph, was in vogue much before Tilak. However, what Tilak proposed was not vastly different from the present line of investigation in these matters by Indologists, archaeologists, linguists et al, and though the idea of an Artic homeland has fallen out of favor, the search for the original homeland still continues unabated. Thus, Tilak can be called one of the earliest Indologists who held an opinion that there were no indigenous Aryans. It is strange that Menon, in his eagerness to depict Tilak in a preconceived manner, ignores the fact that he and Tilak are on the same side of the Aryan debate!

Was Tilak a Casteist?

Menon’s further insinuation that Tilak wanted to re-create an “upper-caste” Hindu revivalism is a reductionist superficies at best. Was Tilak a casteist as some have suggested? Far from it, Tilak had firmly rejected the current birth-based caste rigidity, considering it irrational and advocated a realignment based on individual skill as the idealistic Chaturvarna system originally was meant to be. Given that the caste-system was so deep rooted in the Indian psyche, it was unlikely that the call for its total irradiation would have been met with any response, or rather would have generated friction at a time when the public energy needed to be diverted into forming a strong, vigorous resistance to the British colonialism. In such a climate, a re-examination of the flawed system and a call for the original aptitude-based division was the best bet. And Tilak did exactly that. While there were many who believed that a radical reconstruction of Hindu society, even with British support, was kosher, Tilak refused to take any help from the foreign rulers in these matters. He was of the opinion that such a change can come in only when India gained its complete political independence, and this was where he diverged from other Hindu reformists and political activists.

As a scholar and a rationalist, Tilak questioned many beliefs and practices of the then Hindu society and openly rejected what he considered to be regressive and superstitious. Further, in various strongly worded articles in Kesari, Tilak brought to light the miserable economic conditions of Indian peasants, their debt-ridden existence and how India being an agrarian country, suffered at large because its farming community was oppressed by the British rule. But economic emancipation, Tilak argued, could not be achieved without absolute political freedom. Taking the Gita as a philosophical and practical guide, he urged his countrymen to remove the chains of British hegemony and fight for swaraj, rejecting Gandhi’s metaphysical, and arguably impractical, ideal of “ahimsa”.

The honorific title ‘Lokmanya’ was given to him by the workers at the Bombay Mill and goes to show the popularity and respect that he commanded among the proletariat. Other than popularizing the Ganesh Utsav, Tilak also gave a call to celebrate the birth anniversary of Chhatrapati Shivaji, who was neither a religious figure nor an ‘upper caste’ hero in the proper sense of the word. In short, it is delusional to claim that Tilak was a casteist leader, working covertly for some kind of a grand ‘Brahminical’ conspiracy.

Ganeshotsav – a device of political resistance

In the medieval era, when various Islamic rulers reigned in India, there is ample evidence that shows that the ideas and symbolism of Hindu culture were being used by powerful leaders to help build a resistance movement or forge a sense of kinship and bonding among subject. Guru Gobind Singh used the text of the martial goddess Chandi from the Markandeya Purana to compose a new epic poem “Chandi di Vaar” in order to inspire his followers into a fight against Mughal tyranny. Earlier, Emperor Akbar was known to have worn a sacred thread, used water from the Ganges as a purification ritual, and translated the Ramayana, Mahabharata, Vishnu Purana and the Kathasaritsagara into Persian for greater dissemination. In art, some of the earliest Mughal era paintings depict Hindu themes as well. For example there are paintings in typical Mughal style of Krshna lifting the Goverdhana mountain, or depictions of Krshna and Radha giving “darshan” to Raja Balwant Singh by the legendary Pahari painter Naisukh. Religious and cultural motifs from the past, which have a pre-established magnetism among the masses, have been used time and again as props to help establish one’s position and authority, as well as rally people for specific socio-political causes. Given the reverential status of these themes, it is but natural that such invocation will cause a vital connect with the people at large. How exactly, therefore, is Tilak’s using of Hindu religious themes to inspire rebellion against the British Raj any different from what leaders had done in past?

There is also criticism leveled at Tilak that his organization of the mass scale celebrations of Ganeshotsav is a further indication of his revivalist attempt. This is wrong on many counts, both factual and analytical. Ganesha Chaturthi celebrations were publicly observed in Pune right from the time of Shivaji. [3] The Peshwa too encouraged the festival in Pune since Vinayaka was their kuladevata. With the fall of the Peshwas, the public festival lost patronage yet Ganesha Chaturthi continued to be celebrated privately by many individuals.

It was Bhausaheb Laxman Javale who installed the first public Ganesha idol in 1892, inspired by the public celebrations he saw in the state of Gwalior. Tilak used his newspaper Kesari to encourage the revival of the Sarvajanik Ganeshostav and in 1894 installed a Ganesha idol in the Kesari office. Through the medium of Ganeshotsav, Tilak found a cause for unity among all sections and castes of Maharastrian society and channelized the same to generate nationalistic fervor against the British rule.  Tilak sought to “bridge the gap between Brahmins and ‘non-Brahmins’ and find a context in which to build a new grassroots unity between them“. [4]

He wrote in Kesari on 8th September 1896,

“This work [of political education] will not be as strenuous and expensive as the work of the Congress. The educated people can achieve results through these national festivals which it would be impossible for the Congress to achieve. Why shouldn’t we convert the large religious festivals into mass political rallies? Will it not be possible for political activities to enter the humblest cottages of the villages through such means?”

It must be mentioned in this context that Ganeshotsav celebrations were also a part of Goan Hindu culture as early as 10th century, until the Portuguese Inquisition banned Hindu festivals.

Encouraged by Tilak’s vision, Ganesha Chaturthi soon became widely accepted across the Marathi-speaking parts of the Bombay Presidency, Nasik, Satara, and other cities. It turned into a common meeting ground for large groups of people irrespective of caste and community, especially at a time when the British discouraged political gatherings. The idols of Ganesha also displayed great modifications and artistry to include social and current events, while keeping certain basic lines intact. Even a casual observation of the idols in vogue during Ganeshotsav shows that neither are they drawing from any “pure” pristine past nor is there any specific purification or revivalism in them. Cast in the form of Chandrasekhar Azad, the Sakhlipir Talim Ganapati sported a watch in one hand. There were idols of Ganapati depicted as Maruti (Hanuman) or as slaying Mahisasura, which have no scriptural basis. One of the oldest celebrations starting from Tilak’s era was the Bhau Rangari Ganapati, which has maintained the same model of the Ganapati idol since inception. How this looks like a throwback to some mythical past is a mystery.

Lord Ganesh depicted as Azad and Hanuman

Lord Ganesh depicted as Chandrashekhar Azad and Lord Hanuman

Between 1894 to 1920, the Ganeshotsav increasingly became an avenue of political resistance to the British rule. Every event would be accompanied by performing artists and mythological dramas (Lavanis, Turra-Kalagis, the Parsi theater which had both Hindu and Muslim writers) enacted with a heavy dose of ribaldry, humour and wit to convey hidden messages against the “Gora Sahibs”.

Muharram and Tilak

There have also been claims by the usual suspects that Tilak must be faulted for discouraging the participation of Hindus in the Muharram procession. Unsurprisingly, this is again a grossly superficial and reductionist view of how things progressed during that decade of 1890.

The upper echelons of the Muslim society, having lost their political power to the Britishers, found it hard to accept the new situation. A history of communal discontent was already prevalent between the two communities. In such an atmosphere, the Hindu-Muslim riots in the pilgrim town of Prabhas Pattan or Somnath Pattan on 25th July 1893, close to the northern boundary of the Bombay Presidency, which led to the desecration of Hindu temples and death of 11 Hindus further exacerbated the situation. Clashes between Hindus and Muslims on the issue of cow-protection led to more bitterness. It must be recalled that cow-protection was not an exclusively Hindu issue. For example, ‘The Bombay Gorakshak Mandali’, founded in 1887, was headed by the affluent Parsi mill-owner Dinshaw Petit. In such an already aggravated climate, a group of Muslims rioters attacked a Hanuman temple after their Friday prayers in Juma Masjid and soon spiraled into a major communal conflict. By some reports nearly 25,000 people participated in the riots, 75 were killed and close to 300 temples, mosques and shops were destroyed.

The Commissioner of Bombay Police, R. Vincent, blamed the cow-protection activities which led to ill-feelings between communities and eventual riots. However, the local press considered this to be a very jaundiced view of events. Indeed as per reports the actual violence was started by Muslims coming out of the Juma Masjid. The reaction of the Hindu mill workers, who organized themselves to retaliate against such attacks, showed that the embers of discontent had definitely not vanished. In the wake of these riots, and the Commissioner’s apparent anti-Hindu bias, Tilak organized a meeting of eminent Hindu personalities in Pune Shaniwar Wada where he criticized the Government for blaming cow-protection as the ultimate cause of the riots, while the actual events transpired reflect a different picture. However, this was not to be the last of such riots. Soon serious communal conflicts spread to other towns. In Yeola of Nasik district tensions between the two communities persisted for nearly 5 months, while April 1894 saw the intervention of the Army in Pune to thwart what could have easily become a massive communal riot. Hindu religious processions were ordered not to play music while passing near mosques, which would often lead to infractions and frequent clashes.

Before this turbulent time of the 1890s, Hindus would frequently participate in the Muharram procession of  Shia Muslims. However, conflicts between the two groups soon resulted in serious discord, coupled with the widespread Hindu perception of British apathy towards their religious traditions. It was then that Tilak supported and helped organize Shivaji festivals and Ganeshotsav which, eventually, led to a sharp decline in the participation of Hindus from Muharram. The final nail in the coffin was the decision of the commissioner of police of Bombay to grant the license for the attendance of the procession only to Muslims, with the result that Hindu attendance in Muharram was officially banned. [5] Not only did this give Hindus a cause for strengthening their internal unity, but also acted as a device to organize their opposition to the British rule. As years went by the Ganeshotsav became an instrument of serious political revolt, such that by 1910 the British had to officially curtail it, while the Muharram remained a politically insulated religious event of one particular community.

In hindsight, it is likely that the British were aware of the lackadaisical participation of the Muslims in independence revolution barring few exceptions, or the fact that many of the Muslim elites were more suspicious of Hindu dominance than British rule, and therefore tacitly supported Muslims when a conflict between the two communities arose. Eventually, the ominous politics of the Muslim league and consequent partition of India gives credence to this idea.

Ironically, while modern Leftists in India abhor Tilak, his lionization into Lokmanya, meaning revered by masses, his terrific contribution to the cause of India’s freedom did not go unnoticed by the communist icon Vladimir Ilyich Ulyano, alias Lenin, who remarked:

The infamous sentence pronounced by the British jackals on the Indian democrat Tilak … evoked street demonstrations and strike in Mumbai. In India, too, the proletariat has already developed to conscious political mass struggle — and, that being the case, the Russian style British regime in India is doomed.


When Menon accuses Lokmanya Tilak of majoritarian exclusivity and Hindu revivalism, inherent in this assertion is a disingenuous and dangerous idea that for any political or cultural event or movement to be acceptable, it is not enough to merely have the sanction of the majority, but must also, at every step seek out the consent of the minorities. This shifts the discourse away from its philosophical and moral moorings to the conflict-prone domain of appeasement politics. Further, if using a cultural artifact, exclusive to the majority community, is deemed Hindu communalism, then so is using something from the minority community, which would be minority communalism. Therefore, the obsession with secularism would ultimately leave us bereft of any cultural sense whatsoever. Secondly, in the events that followed in the first half of the 20th century, it became clear that Muslims were not as keen to demand independence from the British rule as were the Hindus. The fact is that the Muslim leadership saw the British rule as a temporary phase that would end with the ascendancy of Muslim rulers back to the throne. Fighting shoulder to shoulder with the Hindus, who they considered to be their subjects, was not a particularly appealing idea to them. It was this narrative that later crystallized into the two nation theory resulting in the partition of India. Now, if Tilak wanted to mobilize the masses for the purpose of attaining Swarajya, he had to necessarily work outside the duplicitous politics of the Muslim leadership. At any rate, hijacking Muharram for political causes would have caused more problems than Menon would be capable of imagining or willing to acknowledge. Interestingly, this divergence of views between Hindu nationalists and Muslim community leaders was certainly not reflected in the relationship that nationalists shared with leaders of other religious minorities in India. For example, Kaka Batista, who helped Tilak start the Ganeshotsav, was a Christian.

We are thus constrained to conclude on a disconcerted note that our eminent historians have selectively used facts, for reasons beyond our grasp, to create a false persona of Bal Gangadhar Tilak. This would not be possible without distorting the very context in which he is studied and analyzed. The allegation of his irrational belief in a ‘mythical past’ is a necessary invention, without which it would be difficult to distract the attention of the readers from the well documented, hard facts from the pre-independence era. Unfortunately, this callous exercise not only damages the nation’s collective sense of history but also sacrifices at the altar of short-term political expediency, the memory of an extraordinary man, whose contributions to the making of modern India are indeed unparalleled.


[1] Diana Eck: India: A sacred geography

[2] Why India is a nation: An essay by Sankrant Sanu

[3] Kapoor, Subodh. The Indian Encyclopaedia. Cosmo Publications.

[4] Brown, Robert L. (1991): Ganesh: Studies of an Asian God

[5] Reza Masoudi Nejad (2015): Urban Margins, a Refuge for Muharram Processions in Bombay: Towards an Idea of Cultural Resilience

About Author: Sonalee Hardikar

Sonalee Hardikar has a bachelor in chemistry and a masters in mass communication. She is an alumna of the National School of Drama and was the first recipient of the "Jim Henson" fellowship, during which she studied scenic design. She is also a theater practitioner, a documentary film-maker, a student of Shaiva/Buddhist/Tibetan philosophies, a self-taught photographer and a teacher of Indian art and aesthetics at leading National Theater and Filmmaking institutes in India.

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