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Remembering Gopal Krishna Gokhale, the most influential leaders during India’s struggle for independence


– Ameya Kulkarni. 

Commemoration is an appropriate moment to relate the past to the present and to reinterpret history. This write-up is a small attempt by me to remember the long-forgotten Gopal Krishna Gokhale commonly known in marathi as UGR ed in the current Indian political debate where Lokmanya Tilak, Bhagat Singh, Subhash Chandra Bose, Jawaharlal Nehru, V D Savarkar, Sardar Patel. Gandhi and 8. R. Ambedkar are all competing for the status of makers of modern India, perhaps it would be necessary to sit back and look at what Gokhale – whose prominent disciples were Gandhi and Jinnah.

At first sight, it is very tempting to say that Gokhale’s ideas would not have any audience today and that, after all, Gokhale had simply internalised the hegemonic thinking promoted by the British as a justification for their imperialism, that is liberalism. In fact, Gokhale quoted Edmund Burke and John Stuart Mill, he believed that any activity had to be limited to the constitutional realm and that each step on the path of self-government, however small, was significant: he was wary of any ideology that mobilised the masses. So, it is quite easy to be convinced that the soft-spoken moderate leader was detached from the people’s issues and that he was no less elitist than the British colonisers.

Nevertheless, such impression is misleading. If it is true that Gokhale can be qualified a moderate for his commitment to constitutional methods, it should not be forgotten that he supported social and economic reform much more decidedly than other leaders who are even today saluted as national heroes. For this purpose, a glimpse to Gokhale’s idea of the nation can be useful to show that Indian liberalism, as the eminent historian Chris Bayly clearly illustrated, was broader in scope than certain bold nationalism which was louder in attacking the British Raj.

But Indian political thought is forever by his contribution: a complex and nuanced liberalism, marked by inflections of Western thought and yet distinct from the individualist ideas of many Western thinkers

Some of India’s finest recent policy achievements – the Right to Information Act and Right to Education Act, for example – were projects that followed Gokhale’s key principles. A Gokhalian state would be an enthusiastic legislator, pushing for improvements in education policy, working to reduce the pernicious influence of religious fundamentalism in public life and seeking to increase government accountability.

Progressive government was “one of the fundamental conditions” that ought to have steered British policy in India, Gokhale argued, and the state bore a moral and material duty to continually improve the life of its citizens. His record in the Legislative Council proves his commitment to this idea. Through two bills in 1910 and 1911, Gokhale attempted to introduce free and compulsory education. To him, literacy meant “a keener enjoyment of life”, “a more refined standard of living, and greater moral and economic efficiency of the individual”, among other personal and societal benefits.

Ghokale’s idea of a Nation

The idea of the nation articulated by Gokhale was predicated on the concept that, from being a geographical unity well-delimited by the Indian Ocean and the Himalayan mountains, India had become a political unity, thanks to the administrative unification under the British rule. All the inhabitants of this space, all those people that have come to make their home here and have brought their own treasure into the common stock were Indians.

Thus, Gokhale’s imagined nation was political, territorial and cultural, but it was the voluntaristic element- that is the individual consciousness of being part of a given nationality- the most powerful sentiment that made the nation capable of constituting itself and finally becoming independent. In other words, belonging to the same culture was not enough; in order to achieve national unity, what was crucial was the political will to participate to the well-being of the nation. to contribute to its progress and amelioration. So, the nation existed in the future, and not in a golden past.

It is imperative to emphasise that the future common project Gokhale envisioned for India was not only predicated on the fight against British imperialism, but also, and even more importantly, on social equality, without which neither progress – moral and material-nor freedom could be achieved. Then, the deep divisions and disabilities based on gender, caste and religion that characterised Indian social structure had to be overcome, or else conflict and uncertainty would prevail over peace and prosperity.

Therefore, from being the doctrine which justified the British rule in India, liberalism was mutated into an instrument of dissent and resilience against that same rule and, significantly enough, against those ideologies that, in the name of social order and cultural authenticity, did not recognise any liberty to the single individuals, much less to women, the economically unprivileged and untouchables.

The establishment of the Servants of India Society in 1905 was the embodiment of Gokhale’s ideals and principles for the nation in the making: it was an effort to shift from the high political level to the grassroots level with his national project.

It goes without saying that Gokhale’s political idea of the nation did not consider the Indian nation as timeless given, a cultural fact. Antithetical to this vision was the cultural nationalist ideology which gave priority to the cultural commonality and did not attribute any relevance to the individual will to be part of the nation, since the latter existed a priori and could not be disputed. According to this romantic cultural nationalism, promoted by Lokmanya Tilak, and later on systematised by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, the only authentic Indian culture of the subcontinent was the Hindu one.

Gokhale’s liberal ideology supporting all-round liberties for the individual and advocating a juster society free from religious and caste prejudices, was attacked time and again by the extremists, because it jeopardised the national identity in name of an alien modernity (even though both the monolithic Hindu identity and the romantic concept of cultural nationhood were equally by products of the same modernity). Yet, unluckily, taking up the cudgels against Gokhale and his reformist ideas implied, more or less directly, the persistence of dehumanising master-servant relationships continued and then the rejection of the chance of building a society fit for all Indians.

Gokhale’s liberalism did not view the state as a threat to individual freedom. Indeed, he believed that government action was crucial to maximising it, through the creation of what he called a progressive form of government: one that encouraged political representation for Indians and emphasised public spending on societal well-being-things such as education, sanitation, and agriculture.

The debate on the Education Bill, drafted by Gokhale and presented in front of the Imperial Legislative Council in 1911, is very telling of the contrasting social visions that characterised the national movement. In Gokhale’s view, universal, secular, free, and compulsory education was the question of the questions, because upon it depended the well-being of thousands of children, the increased efficiency of the individual, the higher general level of intelligence, the stiffening of the moral backbone of large sections of the community.

Though Gokhale eventually moderated the contents of his proposal for fear that it could be a source of division among the anti-colonial movement, the Education Bill met a great deal of opposition by many Indian leaders. Some criticised the bill because the kind of education it promoted was not based on religious identity and so it was not national’; others fretted about the shortage of child labour, some others commented that children of poor classes and lower castes could become gentlemen. All these demanded a national education different from the one proposed by Gokhale, because the nation they envisioned was different: something which shows very clearly that anyone who was fighting against injustice by foreigners was not necessary fighting against injustice by Indians towards Indians.

Gokhale’s grasp of economics was evident in his famous budget speeches as a member of the Imperial Legislative Council, when he took the colonial government to task because its policies were damaging India; no less a person than John Maynard Keynes praised his mastery of economic logic. He was also a great lover of mathematics; a textbook on arithmetic that he wrote was a standard prescription for school children for many years. The precision of his thinking could perhaps be explained by his love of mathematics, the most precise of intellectual pursuits.

To conclude, then, I can say that even though there is no idea of the nation intrinsically more legitimate or authentic than another, it is still true that these ideas can and must be judged by considering their social consequences in terms of peace, democracy and inclusion. The fact that leaders of the weakest sections of the Indian society such as Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Ambedkar, valued Gokhale’s socio-political vision explains that this vision accommodated the needs of the different Indian communities and included them on a level of equality into the nation.

But then, why is Gokhale not one of the revered deities of the national movement pantheon?

I can tentatively try to answer by arguing that the nation envisioned by Gokhale was predicated on an idea, rather than on external symbols. And exactly this was its weakness: being too rational and far-sighted, it did not arouse those deep, compelling, and divisive passions which are essential to mobilise people and to keep narrow versions of nationalism alive.

For this very reason, ideas similar to the ones embraced by Gokhale are at a low ebb in today’s India: obviously they are neither instrumental in promoting the nationalist doctrine nor useful for captivating any vote-bank.

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.

Courtesy : ORGANISER