Bal Gangadhar Tilak was an Indian nationalist, teacher, lawyer, social reformer, journalist and one of the foremost freedom fighters that India has ever produced. The British colonial rulers called him ‘Father of the Indian Unrest’. Tilak was bestowed with the honorary title of ‘Lokmanya’ which means ‘accepted as their leader by the people’.
Tilak inspired millions of people of India who were bearing the brunt of the ruthless British regime. He was one of the first advocates and the most ardent supporter of Self-rule. His slogan in Marathi
“स्वराज्य हा माझा जन्मसिद्ध हक्क आहे आणि तो मी मिळवणारच”
“Swarajya is my birthright, and I shall have it!”
Tilak was born on 23rd July 1856 in a Chitpavan Brahmin family in Ratnagiri in British India (now in Maharashtra). After his schooling in 1872, he graduated, securing a first class from Deccan College, Poona (now Pune) in 1877, with a B. A. in Mathematics. Tilak was one of the first Indians to receive college education. He secured his L.L.B. degree from Government Law College, University of Bombay in 1879.
Tilak initiated a mass movement towards Indian independence by stressing on religious and cultural revival. He said, “Religion and practical life are not different. To take Sanyasa (renunciation) is not to abandon life. The real spirit is to make the country your family, and work together instead of working only for your own. The step beyond is to serve humanity and the next step is to serve God”.
In 1881, Tilak founded Kesari (Marathi: केसरी Sanskrit for Lion) – a Marathi newspaper. The newspaper was used as a platform to express the views of nationalist leaders of the Indian national freedom movement. Kesari in Marathi and Mahratta in English were originally started as a co-operative by Chiplunkar, Agarkar and Tilak. Kesari continues to be published by the Kesari Mahratta Trust and Tilak’s descendants, from Kesari Wada, Narayan Peth, Pune. The newspapers The Wada (Marathi for courtyard / building) still has the offices of Kesari, and mementos of Tilak, including his writing desk, original letters and documents, and the first India national flag unfurled by Madame Cama.
In 1890, Tilak joined the Indian National Congress. He was against the moderate attitude of the party, especially on the issue of the fight for self-government. He was one of the most prominent radicals of the time.
In 1896, famine broke out in India. The Bubonic plague in late 1896 in Bombay and Poona added to the people’s miseries and reached epidemic proportions in January 1897. After several constructive suggestions by Tilak and others, the British appointed Rand as Special Plague Officer to mitigate the havoc of the plague. However, Rand’s actions were worse than the plague. Troops were brought in to deal with the emergency and ruthless methods were employed including forcible entry into houses, examination of occupants at gun point, evacuation to hospitals and segregation camps, destroying personal possessions, and preventing patients from entering or leaving Poona.
Though the British may have had good intentions, their actions were widely perceived to be acts of tyranny and high-handedness. Tilak, stung by this oppression of the British, published inflammatory articles in Kesari. He referred to the sacred Bhagvad Gita and wrote that no blame could be attached to anyone who killed an oppressor without any thought of reward. Subsequently, on 22nd June 1897, Commissioner Rand and another British officer Lt Ayerst were shot and killed by the Chapekar brothers and their other associates. Tilak was arrested for having allegedly instigated the people (through his writings in Kesari), to rise against the government and break the laws and disturb peace. He was sentenced to 18 months’ imprisonment. Scholars and statesmen from all over the world appealed to the government to release Tilak. His sentence was reduced to one year. Tilak was released during Deepavali in 1898. The people were overjoyed beyond words. There were fireworks and illuminations and fireworks all over. People came in large numbers to have a glimpse (‘darshan’) of their hero – Tilak. A procession through the main streets of Pune was organized in which Tilak was taken. Children and mothers worshipped his photo in their homes. A regional leader was transformed into a National Icon and Leader.
The next task was to promote the concept of Swadeshi (Boycott of goods made in foreign countries). Tilak disseminated the meaning, purpose and method of following Swadeshi, through his newspapers and also his talk and lectures to villagers all over Maharashtra. A large ‘Swadeshi Market’ was opened in front of Tilak’s house. Swadeshi goods were sold in more than fifty stalls in the market. Swadeshi became a buzzword and the word which united all Indians against British oppression. Foreign clothes were burnt. Foreign sugar was thrown away and local jaggery was used. Swadeshi factories to make matches, paper mills and cotton mills were set up. The students of Rajaram College, Kolhapur tore their blank answer sheets at their exam halls, refusing to use foreign-made paper. They were punished by giving them six lashes each. They protested again, saying that they should be beaten with a local-manufactured cane!
The British divided Bengal. People united and protested against the division by the weapon of Boycott. A revolutionary, Khudiram Bose threw a bomb on the cruel, unjust District Magistrate. The government retaliated harshly by arresting and handcuffing Aurobindo.
Tilak wrote an article in the ‘Kesari’ under the title ‘The Country’s Misfortune’ and took the government to task: “It is unfortunate that bombs are being made in the country. But the responsibility for creating a situation, in which it has become necessary to throw bombs, rests solely on the government. This is due to the government’s unjust rule”. It was now the Britishers who were stung.
Tilak was charged with treason against the government and was arrested on 24th June 1908 in Bombay. He was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment outside India. He was put in prison in Mandalay, Burma. He was lodged in a small room made of wooden planks; with a table, a chair, a cot and a bookshelf. He was exposed to cold and wind, without any protection. He was also isolated from other people.
Tilak’s RI was later reduced to SI. He was permitted to read and write. This is where Tilak wrote the famous book ‘Gita Rahasya’. During his six year jail term, Tilak collected around 400 books. Through self-learning books, he learnt German and French. He would pray to God daily, reciting the all-powerful Gayatri Mantra.
Tilak was released in June 1914 and was accorded a hero’s welcome. He continued his mission of Swaraj and Swadeshi, travelling constantly in order to organize the people. He spoke from hundreds of platforms about ‘Home Rule’. Wherever he went he received a hero’s welcome.
At Kanpur, he said, “We want equality. We cannot remain slaves under foreign rule. We will not carry for an instant longer, the yoke of slavery that we have carried all these years. Swaraj is our birth right. We must have it at any cost. When the Japanese, who are Asians like us, are free, why should we be slaves? Why should our Mother’s hands be hand-cuffed?”
Tilak visited England to explain to the rulers the condition of the Indian people. In the meantime, in India, when the Rowlatt Act was opposed, the Jallianwala Bagh massacre took place. Hundreds of unarmed civilians were killed in cold blood by the ruthless British government. Tilak rushed back to India. He exhorted his countrymen not to stop their agitation and movement, till their demands were met. Lokmanya Tilak, although physically very weak by now, travelled far and wide in India, in places such as Karachi, Solapur, Kashi, etc, meeting people and motivating them to fight against the unjust, cruel rulers.
Tilak’s condition worsened in July 1920. He passed away in the early hours of 1st August. Even as this sad news was spreading, an absolute ocean of people rushed to his house to have the last glimpse of their beloved leader. Two lakh people were present on his last journey. Mahatma Gandhi, Lala Lajpat Rai, Shaukat Ali and others shouldered the bier by turns.
Tilak led a simple but magnificent life. He offered his everything to the service of his motherland. He wore only a dhoti, a shirt, a shawl on his shoulder and a red ‘Pagadi’ on his head. His life is an example for the millions of our children and the student community, who can look up to the Lokmanya as their role model and achieve excellence in their field of life.
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