OFf the shelf
A gentle colossus
V .N. Datta

Gopal Krishna Gokhale: His Life and Times.
by Govind Talwalkar. Rupa. Pages 507. Rs 575.

This 507-page book is a full-scale biography of Gopal Krishna Gokhale, one of the most outstanding political leaders and social reformers of the country. This work is published in the centenary year of the Servants of India Society of which Gokhale was the founder. The author has made an extensive use of source-material, especially secondary. The strength of this study lies in the author’s effort in tapping hitherto unused Marathi literature highly relevant to Gokhale’s social and political activities. The author Govind Talwalkar is a versatile journalist, a founder Editor of the Maharashtra Times. Originally published in Marathi, the book has now been translated into English.

Both Gokhale and Tilak were the front-ranking political leaders in the early 20th century. Though radically different in their ideological outlook, they were fired by passion to free India from the fetters of foreign rule. Gokhale was viewed as a well-meaning man of moderate disposition, while Tilak was regarded as an extremist, who would not resist using force for the attainment of freedom. In the Gita, Tilak even justifies the devious means, which Lord Krishna had used to defeat the Kauravas. Gokhale believed that the right course for India to give self-government was to adopt constitutional means and cooperate with the British Government. On the contrary, Tilak’s messages were protest, boycott and agitation. This comparative evaluation of both the leaders is brought out clearly by the author in his narrative.

The fight between the “moderates” and “extremists” came out openly at Surat in 1907, which adversely affected political developments in the country. Both the sides were fighting for capturing the Congress organisation due to ideological differences. Tilak wanted to put Lala Lajpat Rai in the presidential chair, but Gokhale’s candidate was Rash Behari Ghosh. The tussle begun, and there was no hope for compromise. Tilak was not allowed to move an amendment to the resolution in support of the new president-elect. At this the pandal was strewn with broken chairs and shoes were flung. Sticks and umbrellas were thrown on the platform. There was physical scuffle. The session ended, and the Congress split. Talwalkar has used the eyewitness account of the Manchester Guardian’s reporter Nevinson.

In January 1908, Tilak was arrested on charge of sedition and sentenced to six years imprisonment and despatched to Mandalay. This left the whole political field open for the moderates. When Tilak was arrested, Gokhale was in England. Lord Morley, the Secretary of State for India, was opposed to Tilak’s arrest. However, the Viceroy Lord Minto did not listen to him and considered Tilak’s activities as seditious and necessary for the maintenance of law and order.

The author discuses in detail how the electoral device, “the separate electorate” to appease the Muslims, was incorporated in the Reforms Act of 1909 despite Lord Morley’s reservations. Morley, a convinced liberal and a staunch follower of John S. Mill’s Utilitarian ethics wanted an increased Muslim nomination on the Viceroy’s Executive Council but not separate electorate. A strong Muslim pressure, both in India and England, and Minto’s support led to the incorporation of separate electorate in the new Reforms Act. This widened the breach between the Hindus and the Muslims, and produced dangerous consequences for the country. In such circumstances, it is valid to ask why Gokhale did not resist the sinister move, which became impossible to withdraw later. The Nehru Report (1928) recommended its abolition, which provoked strong protests and reactions from Muslim leaders, including the Ali brothers, Fazl-i-Husain, Dr Alam and Jinnah. When Mahatma Gandhi was confronted with the question of separate electorate, he said Gokhale had accepted it.

Talwalkar throws light on the type of relationship that subsisted between Gandhi and Gokhale. The latter supported Gandhi who was fighting for the Indians settled in South African colonies, especially in Natal and Transval. Gokhale went to South Africa in 1916 to espouse Gandhi’s cause of human rights, which were being infringed by the British imperialism. He argued that even if there were no Indians in South Africa, it was totally unjust to pass a law based on racial discrimination. He produced a compromise formula, saying that the Europeans should give human treatment to the Indians in South Africa, and the Indians should accept the ban on future immigration. Later Gokhale held discussions with Viceroy Lord Hordinge and put pressure on him to support the Indian cause in South Africa.

Talwalkar emphasises that Gokhale was deeply concerned with the future of the Congress, which had considerably weakened due to its split in 1907. The Congress was losing its élan, and the number of delegates as well as spectators was on the decline.

At the Bankipur Congress session, there were only 400 to 500 delegates, though the official Congress shows that the number was 207, which was the lowest. Gokhale thought it necessary to unite the rival groups, and in this connection he sought the advice of Annie Besant. On his deathbed he is reportedly expressed his wish to his friend Sethur to see the Congress united.

Alas! That was not to be. He died on February 19, 1915. Thus ended the life of a great liberal, a man of absolute integrity, a selfless servant of the country, incorruptible, and truly a good man who had a steadying influence on the Congress as well as the British Government.

This comprehensive study contains massive information on Gokhale’s contributions in political and social spheres. The narrative is lucid and straightforward.