People are selling their cattle for the price of grass and grass is being sold almost at the price of gold. Thousands are leaving their villages to go to towns and those who have remained behind will also have to leave soon.” This was Bal Gangadhar Tilak, years away from being conferred the title of ‘Lokmanya’, writing about the terrible drought and famine in 1896 in parts of the Bombay Presidency, now rural Maharashtra.
His newspapers, Kesari in Marathi and Mahratta in English, drew the attention of the apathetic British administration to the famine and subsequent plague. It was the beginning of Tilak’s political graduation to a leader of the masses. Two headlines in Kesari, “Has the government lost its head?” and “To rule is not to wreak vengeance”, earned him the charge of sedition and 18 months of imprisonment.
It was also when he started the 10-day public celebration of the Ganesh festival, fusing the political with the religious. In June 1908, Tilak was convicted of sedition once again and sentenced to six years of rigorous imprisonment. A prominent member of the extremist group in the Congress, he mocked the moderates for their approach to the freedom struggle. Popular in his life, his funeral procession in August 1920 brought Bombay to a halt. Chowpatty, where he was cremated, has had a statue raised to him. Now, the Devendra Fadnavis government has approved the proposal to rechristen Mumbai’s most iconic stretch of street, sand and sea after Tilak. The Lokmanya Tilak Gaurav Samiti had demanded this. It helped that Fadnavis too identified with the cause. The Government Resolution issued last week apparently stated that the renaming will help develop patriotic values among the young.
The decision was met with the usual whining about renaming local geography. Beyond this are two other aspects of Mumbai’s history of that era. The first is that Chowpatty has a significant relationship with India’s freedom struggle that goes beyond Tilak’s cremation site. It was the place of some fierce protests against the infamous Rowlatt Act in April 1919 when Mahatma Gandhi and thousands of others took a symbolic sea bath. In 1930, as Gandhi set out on his Dandi March, Chowpatty was the location for thousands to congregate for their own version of the protest, when Congress’ women leaders such as the indomitable Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay led them to make salt there. Meetings and rallies of great political worth happened at the Chowpatty in the early years of independent India. Chowpatty, then, is more than its association with Tilak.
Secondly, the renaming smacks of populism. Do the simplistic, push back the significant. Mumbai’s politically significant heritage sites are in dire need of attention, even a bit of allure. Locations in south and central Mumbai lend themselves to a freedom struggle trail that could stoke patriotism. From the Gateway where the last British troops left to Chowpatty, August Kranti Maidan which saw the Quit India clarion call in 1942 to Mani Bhavan where Gandhi lived from 1917 to 1934, the erstwhile Elphinstone Mills which saw the largest-ever protest burning of foreign cloth in 1921, the Damodar Hall and BIT chawls in Parel where Dr BR Ambedkar worked. Raj Grih, Ambedkar’s home, has fallen on rather sad and lonely times while political capital is made around his proposed memorial at Indu Mills.
Similarly, Sardar Gruha near Crawford Market where Tilak lived and worked ought to be developed as a historic site. Tilak’s words on drought-famine are a grim reminder of the real tasks that lie ahead. But it is easier to rename Chowpatty.