The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, January 23, 2000


Bal Gangadhar Tilak

Aurobindo Ghose

Dr Annie Besant

Dr Homi Jehangir Bhabha

Dababhai Naoroji

Lala Lajpat Rai

Bhagat Singh


Bal Gangadhar Tilak
(July 23, 1856 — August 1, 1920)

IN June 1897, two British officials, Rand and Ayerst, were murdered in Poona by Damodar Chapekar. Although Lokmanya Balgangadhar Tilak had nothing to do with the affair, the British implicated him, and tried him for sedition. He was sentenced to eighteen months.

Bal Gangadhar TilakAfter his release he became a hero and leader of the extremist group in the Congress. ‘Freedom is my birthright and I shall have it,’ he thundered. ‘There is a great difference between asking and petitioning. If you are prepared to fight in the event of your demand being turned down, be sure you will not be refused .... Mere protest notes, backed by self-reliance will not help the people.’

This firebrand revolutionary graduated in 1877, and completed his law degree two years later. Afterwards he worked as professor of mathematics in the New English School, which he had founded. He was also the founder and proprietor of two journals Maratha and Kesari, national schools that were independent of government control. He joined Congress in 1889, but soon differences emerged between him and the moderates.

It is interesting to note that long before Gandhi talked about non-cooperation and boycott, Tilak was already advocating it in 1906. He made no secret about the extreme methods of the Swadeshi and boycott movement. The Lal-Bal-Pal trio came out openly against the government by telling the masses that ‘militancy-not mendicancy’ was the need of the hour. ‘If you have not the power of active resistance, have you not the power of self-denial and self-abstinence so as not to assist the foreign government to rule over you? This is boycott, and this is what is meant when we say boycott is a political weapon.’

Tilak was not just a revolutionary, he was a great reformer and scholar as well. He realised that Indians did not seem to appreciate their rich cultural heritage, so in 1895 he started organising the Ganapati festival and the Shivaji festival. The success of the New English School at Ratnagiri started by him and Agarkar led to the foundation of the Fergusson College. He wanted women to be educated as well, and did his best to ban child marriage. Widow remarriage and a improvement of backward classes were his other concerns.

Even in the grim prison atmosphere, he came up with his own theory about the original home of the Aryans in his book The Arctic Home in the Vedas. He also wrote the highly acclaimed Gita Rahasya, It is interesting to see how Tilak and Gandhi interpreted Gita in exactly two different ways for the same cause-freedom. According to Tilak, violence is at time unavoidable, and even desirable; Gandhi’s interpretation on the other hand was coloured by Jainism and Tolstoy.

Sri Aurobindo Ghosh summed up Tilak’s contribution to the Freedom Struggle quite well: ‘The Congress movement was for a long time purely occidental in its mind, character, and methods.... Tilak was the first political leader to break through the routine of its somewhat academical method, to bridge the gulf between the present and the past and to restore continuity to the political life of the nation.’Top


Aurobindo Ghose
(August 15, 1872 — December 5, 1950)

HAD Sri Aurobindo boarded the ill-fated steamer that sank on its way to India from England in 1893, Dr. Krishna Dhan Ghose would have lost his dear son, and India a great revolutionary, poet, philosopher, yogi and saint. It is rather ironical that the opposite happened. Dr Krishna Dhan Ghose could not take the news of the supposed death of his son, and before he could be told that Sri Aurobindo was not on the steamer, he died of a heart attack. He was denied the pleasure of seeing his son flower into one of the great thinkers of modern India.

Aurobindo GhoseMost of us remember Sri Aurobindo from his latter photographs that portary him as a fragile, harmless, saintly figure. Many will be surprised to learn that the man who devoted most of his life of Vedanta in his Pondicherry ashram, was once a firebrand revolutionary intent on winning freedom for his motherland.

When the Moderates were trying to negotiate some sort of autonomy from the British, Sri Aurobindo advocated Purna Swaraj — total freedom and nothing less than that, because to ‘be content with the relations of master and dependant or superior and subordinate, would be a mean and pitiful aspiration unworthy of manhood; to strive for anything less than a strong and glorious freedom would be to insult the greatness of our past and the magnificent possibilities of our future’. And Sri Aurobindo did not disapprove of armed struggle if the situation demanded it. Aggression, in his view, is unjust only when unprovoked, and violence is unrighteous when used without thought or for unrighteous ends. It is foolish to apply the philosophy of Ahimsa to all situations. Besides violence has its place in society, the ‘sword of the warrior is as necessary to the fulfilment of justice and righteousness as the holiness of the saint. Ramdas is not complete without Shivaji’.

The British jailed Sri Aurobindo for revolutionary activities. They imprisoned his body, but unwittingly set his soul free, for it was during his year-long jail sentence that he is supposed to have had Visvarupa Darshan or the experience of the Cosmic Consciousness, and from then on he was a totally different man.

Aurobindo’s commentaries on the Vedas, Upanishads, and the Bhagavad Gita are insightful and original. But though he was seriously into Indian philosophy and tradition, he believed that in order to catch up with the rest of the world, we must not shy away from Western ideas because it is a ‘psychologically necessity of the situation. Not only when a lesser meets a greater culture, but when a culture which has fallen into a state of comparative inactivity, sleep, contraction, is faced with still more when it receives the direct shock of a waking... it is impelled by the very instinct of life to take over these ideas and forms, to annex, to enrich itself, even to imitate and reproduce, and in one way or in another take large account and advantage of these new forces and opportunities.’ But if this imitation is slavish and mechanical, then its amounts to subordination and servitude.Top


Dr Annie Besant
(October 1, 1847 — September 20, 1933)

ANNIE BESANT, nee Wood, the rationalist’s rationalist, the ‘militant Annie’ was born in England, but her destiny was linked to India. She did more for India than many Indians of her time. When she first came to India in 1893, she was disappointed by the lack of awareness Indian had about their own culture. She met leading Indian thinkers and with their help was involved in the establishment of the Central Hindu College, Banaras, which later became the Banaras Hindu University. She wrote a number of books on Bhagvad Gita and the Upanishads.

Dr Annie BesantNot many appreciate the fact that this firebrand woman asserted her identity and fought for the emancipation of women long before the reminist movement gained ground. She vehemently condemned the evil practice of keeping women in Purdah, and advocated widow remarriage.

Annie Besant was appalled the way her own countrymen were treating Indians. In England, India and Afghanistan, published in 1879, published long before she came to India, she had observed: ‘We exploit Hindustan not for her benefit, but for the benefit of our younger sons, our restless adventurers, our quarrelsome and never-do-well surplus population. At least for the sake of common honesty, let us drop our hypocritical mask and acknowledge that we seized India from lust of conquest, from greed of gain from the lowest and paltriest of desires.’ The rising of 1857 according to her was ‘the natural nemesis’

Dr Besant wanted full freedom for India as a member of the Commonwealth. She even had a national flag designed. In July 1914 she started a daily newspaper in Madras, New India to advocate Home Rule for India. Her Home Rule movement attracted leaders such as Tilak, Jinnah, Sapru, Motilal and C.P. Ramaswamy lyer. She presided over the Indian National Congress in 1917 at Calcutta, and in 1916 she started the Home Rule League. A year later she was interned along with B.P Walia and G.S. Arundale at Ootacamund. S. Subramanya Ajyer, former judge of the Madras High Court, renounced his Knighthood in protest. Her internment only led to a national agitation for home rule.

In 1919 she openly disagreed with non-cooperation movement launched by Gandhi. She opposed the boycott of law courts and of schools and colleges.

Apart from political, theosophical movement was her main interest. She was called the rationalist’s rationalist, and most of her admirers were shocked by her sudden conversion to spiritualism and the occult. She also groomed Jiddu Krishnamurti to become a world teacher.

Commenting on Dr. Besant’s immense contribution to Indian culture Pandit Gangadhara Sastry descibed her as Sarva Sukla Saraswati.Top


Dr Homi Jehangir Bhabha
(October 30, 1909 — January 24, 1966)

IF India today refuses to be bullied by the powers that be to sign the CTBT, if she can defend her freedom effectively, and if she is a force to reckon with, one of the reasons for it is India’s advanced nuclear programme. The credit should go to Dr Homi Jehagir Bhabha, the father of India’s atomic programme who was devoted to the transformation of energy into matter and matter into energy.

Dr Homi Jehangir BhabhaDr. Bhabha was one of the first to realise the immense potential of atomic power for military as well as development purposes. He roped in some of the brightest scientists to develop India’s nuclear programme. He believed "when nuclear energy has been successfully applied for power production in, say a couple of decades from now. India will not have to look abroad for its experts but will find them ready at hand."

Educated at the Cathedral and John Cannon High School, Elphinstone College, and the Institute of Science, Bombay, he later went to Gonville and Cerius College at Cambridge and graduated in 1930. In 1934 he earned a Ph.D in Theoretical physics. He was awarded an Isaac Newton Studentship in 1934, and a senior Studentship in 1936. In his short career, he was selected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1941; won the Hopkins prize of the Cambridge Philosophical Society in 1948; was elected Foreign Associate of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and Honorary Life Member of the New York Academy of Sciences. And to top it he was decorated with a Padma Bhushan in 1954.

After his successful stint abroad. Instead of finding a lucrative job, he came back to India to serve his motherland. The country reciprocated favourably, by specially creating of post a Readership in Theoretical Physics for him at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. Later in 1945 the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research was founded on his insistence because ‘the lack of proper conditions and intelligent financial support hampers the development of science in India at the pace which the talent in the country would warrant.’

When in 1948 Nehru appointed Bhabha the first Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and Secretary to the Department of Atomic Energy, India was poised to become a nuclear power. He was also appointed the Director of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research and the Atomic Research Establishment, Trombay.

Bhabha believed that ‘electronics is the nervous system of modern technology and has assumed an important role in the monitoring and control of the production process in the engineering, chemical and metallurgical industries. It is vital for atomic energy, communications and defence.

Just when things were moving ahead smoothly, the nation was shocked to learn about the death of Dr Bhabha in an air crash. Had he lived a little longer, no one knows what direction the Indian nuclear programme might have taken.Top


Dadabhai Naoroji
(September 4, 1825 — June 30, 1917)

LONDON 1867: a dignified bearded man reads his paper England’s Debt to India to a receptive audience. He has come all the way from India to make the English aware of the oppressive policies of the British government in India. He tells them that Britain is exploiting India, that ‘out of the revenues raised in India, nearly one-forth goes clean out of the country and is added to the resources of England’. He goes on to add that because of such inhumane policies, India is ‘being continuously bled’.

Dadabhai NaorojiThat was Dadabhai Naoroji, the grand old man of India, and generally accepted as the father of Indian nationalism. What can you say about the man to whom Gandhi once said: ‘Please chide me if I go wrong, please put me right; I am like your son in every respect’.

Naoroji devoted his long life to the welfare of his people, in words as well as in deed. He organised the Student’s Literary and Scientific Society. He was one of the earliest advocates of women’s education. He also took an active part in establishing the Bombay Association, the Framji Institute, the Irani Fund, the Parsi Gymnasium, the Widow Marriage Association, and the Victoria and Albert Museum. In 1851, he started Rast Goftar a Gujarati Weekly. Along with A.O. Hume, Pherozeshah Mehta, and W.C. Bannerjee, he founded the Indian National Congress in 1885.

A very upright gentleman of regualar habits, Naoroji was born on September 4, 1825, in Bombay. As he grew up he went to Elphinstone Institution, and was later appointed Assistant Professor of Mathematics of Natural Philosophy there. He resigned in 1856 and went to England to manage the business of Cama & Co.

In Britain he stared the London Indian Society to bring Indians and Englishmen closer. On his second visit to England he gave evidence before the Parliamentary Committee on Indian finance. He tried to bring home the point that India was being impoverished because of very high and unfair taxation. In Poverty of India he elaborated it further: ‘Owing to this one unnatural policy of the British rule of ignoring India’s interest and making it the drudge for the benefit of England, the whole rule moves in a wrong, unnatural suicidal groove.’

He again went toEngland in 1886 to take part in the General Elections. Contesting as a Liberal candidate from Holborn, but he lost. However he was successful in 1892. His first effort as member of Parliament was to present India’s case to the British. He was instrumental in getting a resolution passed for holding simultaneous examinations in Indian and England for the Indian Civil Service.

Back in India, he presided over the Calcutta Congress in December 1906. ‘I do not know what good fortune may be in store for me during the short period that may be left to me, he said in his address, ‘and if I can leave a word of affection and devotion for my country and countrymen, I say, be united, persevere, and achieve self-government so that the millions now perishing in poverty, famine and plague, and the sores of millions that are starving on scanty subsistence may be saved, and India may once more occupy her proud position of your among the greatest and most civilised nations of the world’.Top


Lala Lajpat Rai
(January 8, 1865 — November 17, 1928)

IF he wished he could have led a comfortable life running his family’s business, but how could Lala Lajpat Rai allow himself the luxuries of life while millions of his countrymen suffered? When the Simon Commission was in India in 1928, he opposed it in the Central Assembly. He took active part in the demonstration, against it and was mercilessly beaten up by the police. As he lay in a pool of blood he uttered the prophetic words: "Every blow that is raised today is a nail in the coffin of the British Raj." He died on November 17, 1928.

Lala Lajpat Rai Paying him a tribute Gandhi said: ‘His patriotism was no narrow creed. He loved the world. His nationalism was internationalism. His activities were multifarious.... Like many of us, he became a politician because his zeal for social reform demanded participation in politics.’

Lala Lajpat Rai started his practice in 1895 at the district court of Hisar, and proved to be very successful. He devoted his time and financial resources to social service, to the Arya Samaj in order to reform Hinduism, and to setting up schools and colleges. He was instrumental in founding the DAV College, Punjab National Bank, and Laxmi Insurance Company. He also built orphanages and Homes for widows. When India was hit with a severe famine in 1897, he organised relief work.

In 1904 he, along with Lala Jaswant Rai, launched a newspaper called Punjabee.In the Banaras session of the Congress, 1905, it was decided to send a delegation of two persons to England in view of the impending elect ions in Britain, to present to British electorate and political leaders the problems the Indians; Lala Lajpat Rai and Gokhale were the delegates chosen. Once in England, they addressed as many as forty meetings in a single month. From there they went to the US where they studied the working of educational institutions. After his return in 1907, Lalaji was arrested for his outspoken views against the government, and was sent to Mandalay Fort in Burma. This made him even more popular.

Gandhi’s methods had no appeal for Lalaji. In the elections to the Central Assembly, he drifted away from the Congress and joined hands with Malaviya, Dr Moonje Kelkar, and Jayakar, and formed the Nationalist Party.

Since the British Government was spreading false stories about the Nationalist movement abroad, he went to England in 1914 to counter the propaganda. After two or three months the First World War broke out, so he went to the US, and stayed there for the next five years because he was not allowed to return to India. There he wrote Young India, and after the war he returned to Lahore. ‘Not only struggle, but vigorous struggle is the law of progress,’ he used to say. And struggle he did all his life to achieve his goal of freedom.Top


Bhagat Singh
(September 27, 1907 — March, 23 1931)

THE deathof Lala Lajpat Raj at the hands of the police came as a rude shock to the people of India. There were many young men whose blood curdled and yearned for revenge. They held J.A. Scott, the Superintdent of police, Lahore, responsible for the death of their beloved leader. The task avenging the death was entrusted to Bhagat Singh, Rajguru, Sukhdev, Azad and Jai Gopal. December 17,1928 was the chosen day. As they waited with loaded firearms, an Englishman came out of the Secretariat. Rajguru fired at him, and as he Bhagat Singhwent down, Bhagat Singh fired four or five more bullets into his head. Mission complete, the Revolutionaries escaped through the back door of DAV College. From there Bhagat Singh, Rajguru, and Durga Bhabhi escaped to Calcutta. On their way the young revolutionaries congratulated themselves, unaware of the fact that they had actually killed the Deputy Superintendent, J.P. Saunders. The target they got was wrong; the effect on the masses electrifying.

Bhagat Singh’s life was full of such dare-devilry. Born in Banga, Layallpur, into a family of revolutionaries, patriotism was second nature to him. At the time of his birth two of his uncles were in prison for revolutionary activities. One of his uncles, Ajit Singh, had started the Bharat Mata Society, and also founded a newspaper called Peshwa which was later banned by the Punjab Government.

Bhagat Singh left school in 1921 in response to Gandhi’s call to boycott all educational institutions. After the call was withdrawn Bhagat Singh went to National College where he met among others Professor Jayachand Vidyalankar, Professor Tirath Ram, Sukh Dev, Bhagvati Charan, and Yashpal. Bhagat Singh found a mentor in Professor Vidyalankar. He met Kartar Singh Sarabha and Rash Behari Bose, and was greatly inspired by them.

Two events greatly changed Bhagat Singh’s life: the Ghaddar Movement and the Jallianwalah Bagh massacre. Now he was a full-fledged revolutionary. He left Lahore for Kanpur where he adopted the name of Balwant Singh. There he came under the influence of other great thinkers. He learnt Bengali, and read Karl Marx. He joined Hindustan Republican Association, and came in contact with Batukeshwar Dutt, Chandrashekhar Azad, and Bejoy Kumar Sinha. In 1926 he started the Naujawan Bharat Sabha which boycotted foreign goods, advocated physical fitness and development of Indian languages and culture. The secret activities of the Sabha soon came to the notice of the Government and it was banned on in 1930 under the Seditious Meetings Act.

Bhagat Singh and his friends were not content with mere meetings, boycotts, and speeches. They wanted to do something to shake the very foundations of the British Empire. After careful thought, they decided to throw bombs in the Central Assembly in Delhi ‘to make the deaf hear’. They could have escaped but they surrendered immediately after the incident. The trial that followed united the entire nation. Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Shivram Rajguru were hanged on 23 March, 1931.

(To be concluded)
Text and illustrations by Kuldip Dhiman

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