Remembering Freedom Fighter Gopal Krishna Gokhale

via V.N. Gopalakrishnan published on February 17, 2011

Gopal Krishna Gokhale was one of the pioneers of the Indian independence movement, a rationalist thinker and a social reformer. He gave voice to the aspirations of millions of Indians who were looking for freedom from the British rule. He was reputed for working for trust and friendship between Hindu and Muslim communities. While deprecating the caste-system and untouchability, he pleaded for the emancipation of women and championed the cause of female education. It was he who brought Gandhiji from South Africa and urged him to dedicate his life and efforts for the cause of Indian independence.

Gokhale was born in Kothluk village in the Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra on May 9, 1866 to Krishna Rao and Satyabhama. With support from his elder brother, Gokhale could study at Rajaram High School in Kothapur. At times, he went without meals and studied under street lamps. He took his B.A. degree in 1884 from Elphinstone College, Bombay at the age of 18, earning a scholarship of Rs. 20 per month in his final year. He joined the Law College in Bombay, but could not complete the course.

Gokhale was one of the first Indians who completed graduation and soon after he moved on to teaching in the New English School in Pune. At the age of 20, he delivered a public address concerning “India under the British Rule” and was commended for the command of the English language. A book of arithmetic compiled in collaboration with N.J. Bapat became a widely used text which was translated across the country. His knowledge of history instilled in him a respect for liberty, democracy, and the parliamentary system. In his opinion, the introduction of Western education in India, with its liberalising influence, was a great blessing to the people. He believed that mass education was a prerequisite to national political consciousness. Hence he advocated that primary education should be free in all schools throughout India.

After being given charge of the Bombay Provincial Conference in 1893, he was elected to the Senate of the Bombay University. When the Indian National Congress held its session in Pune in 1895, Gokhale was the Secretary of the Reception Committee. With colleagues of the Deccan Education Society, Gokhale became a founding member of the Fergusson College in Pune. He pledged twenty years of his life to this college, as a teacher, board member and later its principal. His proficiency in teaching earned him the nickname “Professor to Order.”

Gokhale’s meeting with Mahadev Govind Ranade in 1885 was a turning point in his life. Ranade was a judge, scholar and a social reformer. He regarded Ranade as his ‘guru’. Ranade trained him for 15 years in all spheres of public life, and taught him sincerity, devotion to public service and tolerance. It was Ranade who helped Gokhale in establishing the ‘Servants of India Society’ in 1905 with the object of training men to devote themselves to the service of India as national missionaries and to promote by all constitutional means the national interests of the people. The organization helped victims of floods and famines, and took efforts to educate women in society. Gokhale worked with Ranade in Pune Sarvajanik Sabha of which Gokhale became its secretary. He also worked with him in a quarterly Journal called Sarvajanik. In 1908 Gokhale founded the Ranade Institute of Economics.

In 1902, Gokhale left Fergusson College and became a Member of the Imperial Legislative Council in Delhi. Along with Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Dadabhai Naoroji, Bipin Chandra Pal, Lala Lajpat Rai and Annie Besant, he fought for getting greater political representation and power for the common people. Gokhale was instrumental in the formation of the Minto-Morley Reforms of 1909, which eventually became law and gave Indians right to access higher posts in the government. He was twice elected as President of the Pune Municipality and he strived to solve the problems of the poor. For a while he was also a member of the Bombay Legislative Council where he spoke strongly against the British Government.

In 1905, Gokhale was sent by the Congress on a special mission to England to spread India’s constitutional demands among the British leaders. He voiced his concerns relating to the unfair treatment of the Indian people by the British government. In a span of 49 days, he spoke in front of 47 different audiences and became the most effective pleader for India’s cause.

Gokhale pleaded for gradual reform to ultimate attainment of Swaraj or self-government in India while some of his contemporaries, comprising a radical element, wished to use force as a means of persuasion. He was moderate in his views and attitudes, and sought to petition the British authorities, cultivate a process of dialogue and discussion which would yield greater British respect for Indian rights. Gokhale condemned the partition of Bengal, the imposition of the Salt Tax, and the militarisation of the government. Even while speaking against the British, he was ready to assist them in bringing about changes and reforms. Described as the Gladstone of India, he was feared by the British but at the same time, he was also held in high esteem by them. In 1906, Gokhale and Bal Gangadhar Tilak were the respective leaders of the moderates and extremists in the Congress. Tilak advocated civil agitation and direct revolution to overthrow the British Empire and the Congress Party split into two wings.

During his visit to South Africa in 1912, he met Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and made him aware of the issues confronting the common people in India. In his autobiography, Gandhiji calls Gokhale his ‘mentor and guide’ and considered him as his political guru. Gokhale contributed articles in Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s English weekly Mahratta aimed at awakening patriotism among the people. He also published a daily newspaper entitled Jnanaprakash, which allowed him to voice his reformist views on politics and society.

In Gokhale’s opinion, the economic results of the British rule in India were absolutely terrible, resulting in appalling poverty. According to him, the greatest need of the hour in India was industrial education. In agriculture, he pleaded that old methods should be changed as much as possible. There was a crying need to introduce agricultural science and improved agricultural implements.

Gokhale’s dream of a unified Hindu-Muslim India did not materialise. He was like a bridge between the British rulers and the Indian masses. The years of hard work and devotion did much for the country but sadly took their toll on Gokhale’s health and he passed away on February 19, 1915.

(Author is a freelance journalist and social activist and can be contacted on [email protected]).

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