Home / Opinion / Gopal Krishna Gokhale: a forgotten nationalist

2015 marks the 150th birth year and the death centenary of one of India’s great, but less remembered, sons. In the recent public din surrounding the adoption of other great Indians, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and B.R. Ambedkar, the name of Gopal Krishna Gokhale is but faint.

Gokhale’s life was short and he died without bearing witness to India’s independence, but there is little denying that his influence on the people involved in the freedom struggle was immense. For starters, Gokhale and Mahatma Gandhi shared a guru-shishya relationship. In an anthology of his writings on Gokhale entitled Gokhale – My Political Guru, published by Navajivan Publishing House, Gandhi makes reference to this multi-faceted relationship beginning with the first time he met Gokhale in Poona in 1896. In poetic language, Gandhi describes Gokhale, contrasting him to others in the Congress party, thus: “but Gokhale was as the Ganges. One could have a refreshing bath in the holy river. The Himalaya was unscalable, and one could not easily launch forth on the sea, but the Ganges invited one to its bosom. It was a joy to be on it with a boat and an oar." In what would now appear to be a strange turn of phrase, Gandhi often referred to Gokhale as “mahatma". It was during a month spent together at the Calcutta Congress of 1901 that Gokhale first proposed that Gandhi return to India. This was not to happen for another 15 years but their interaction resulted in Gokhale designing a legal framework—the Natal Indentured Labour Bill 1910—for Gandhi’s struggle in South Africa. Gokhale also financed many of Gandhi’s initiatives, including the setting up of the Sabarmati Ashram upon Gandhi’s return to India. Mohammed Ali Jinnah was also a fan, saying “it is my ambition to become a Muslim Gokhale". Bal Gangadhar Tilak, considered to be a political rival of Gokhale during his lifetime, said this about Gokhale at his funeral, “this diamond of India, this jewel of Maharashtra, this prince of workers is taking eternal rest on funeral ground. Look at him and try to emulate him."

Gopal Krishna Gokhale was born in Ratnagiri, Maharashtra, into a poor Chitpavan Brahmin family. After receiving a degree from Elphinstone College, Bombay, he began a career as a teacher in the Deccan Education Society, Poona. It was during his tenure there that he met justice Mahadev Govind Ranade, who became his mentor. Ranade and Gokhale were moderate constitutionalists who preferred to reform the system from within. Gokhale became a member of the Bombay Legislative Council and then the Imperial Legislative Council. He was elected the president of the Congress Party in 1905. Gokhale’s speeches, on the budget and on social reform, are masterpieces filled with data and evidence and a clear and simple flow of logic. Gokhale was opposed to the idea of passive resistance, first championed by Tilak, and later adopted as a strategic weapon by Gandhi. Gokhale argued persistently for greater Indian representation in elected assemblies, the judiciary and in academia. Gokhale was the first to demand universal and free primary public education.

So, why is Gokhale largely forgotten?

One simple explanation is that he himself was reticent about gathering personal attention. On his deathbed, he told his colleagues at the Servants of India Society, “Don’t waste your time in writing a biography or setting up a statue, but pour your whole soul into the service of India. Then only shall you be counted among her true and faithful servants." Another reason is that he was a moderate, appealing to logic, attempting to persuade the British with morality and reason. Even though it was Gokhale who advised Gandhi to undertake a tour of India, it was Gandhi who broad-based the fight for freedom. Gandhi’s political approach of using both (mass) emotion and reason ultimately proved a better political strategy than using reason alone. As a consequence, Gokhale’s ideas do not seem to have a place in any specific current political formation in India—neither the politics of the populist Gandhi/Nehru Congress nor of the religious-right Bharatiya Janata Party, nor indeed of any regional party.

Should Gokhale be remembered? For what?

Times have changed. India has attained its freedom and its constitutional democracy has withstood many tests over the last seven decades. India’s social and economic progress requires continual reform. For an independent nation with the constitution as its guiding light, Gokhale’s ideas take on special meaning. Dedication to duty, a deep moral foundation from which to operate, distinction between spirituality and religiosity, a strong belief in education as national salvation and an openness to being persuaded by argument are ideas that will serve us well. At a time when illiberalism frequently invades our political discourse, it will be wise for us to remember Gokhale’s visceral tolerance and his commitment to free speech, constructive criticism and a free press.

P.S. “As pure as crystal, as gentle as a lamb, as brave as a lion, and the most perfect man in the political field," said Mahatma Gandhi of Gokhale.

Narayan Ramachandran is chairman, InKlude Labs.

Comments are welcome at narayan@livemint.com. To read Narayan Ramachandran’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/avisiblehand--

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