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The battle for the first Ganeshotsav

Into its 121st year, the Ganeshotsav in the Keshavji Naik chawl in Girgaum displays a tradition that fans of the 10-day festival find awe-inspiring and deeply patriotic. Smruti Koppikar writes.

columns Updated: Sep 11, 2013 23:29 IST
Smruti Koppikar

Into its 121st year, the Ganeshotsav in the Keshavji Naik chawl in Girgaum displays a tradition that fans of the 10-day festival find awe-inspiring and deeply patriotic. Religiosity and nationalism were fused into a rousing anti-British sentiment right here when Bal Gangadhar Tilak prevailed upon the Brahmins to bring their Ganesh puja out of their houses in the chawl and participate in the first public, sarvajanik, version. Tilak’s template became a popular method of standing up to the British and demanding self-rule, and later independence.

The enduring legacy of Ganeshotsav and the exuberance with which it has been sustained all these decades makes it seem as if Tilak’s idea was whole-heartedly embraced then. A closer reading of politics in that era tells us otherwise. Tilak was challenged, and how. The Ganeshotsav was a manifestation of the intense civil war between the radicals and the moderates. At the start of the 1890s, Tilak found himself ranged against men of moderate political persuasion such as Mahadev Govind Ranade and Gopal Ganesh Agarkar among others.

For the moderates, social reform (such as girls’ education, late marriage of women, widow re-marriage) was a pre-requisite for political independence. Tilak argued that freedom from British rule was the most important goal and social reform was a subject that independent India could address. He passionately argued that the reformists were making a mistake in their approach, for they would end up dividing society further by forcefully driving the reform agenda.

The immediate provocation was the Age of Consent Bill, history tells us. The British had moved the Bill in 1891 to raise the age at which girls could be married from 10 to 12 years. Ranade had called for a voluntary declaration on this but Tilak saw it as an interference of foreign rulers in India’s social and cultural life.

Historian Stanley A Wolpert dwelt on this in ‘Tilak and Gokhale: Revolution and Reforms in the Making of Modern India’. Wolpert wrote: “The alliance of foreign rulers with Hindu reformers had proved impervious to the protests of those who valued religious rituals more highly than political independence or social equality… The cry for religion in danger had awakened a responsive chord in millions who otherwise took no note of public affairs.” Agarkar, Tilak’s friend-turned-critic, had alleged that Tilak’s conservatism was “the result of calculation, rather than conviction; that he (Tilak) trimmed his sails to catch the winds of popularity,” according to BR Nanda in ‘Gokhale: The Indian Moderates and the British Raj’.

In those days, Bombay was beset by communal tensions created partly by the propaganda of cow-protection societies, a cause that Tilak championed. The moderates had appealed for peace and restraint. Against this backdrop, Tilak decided at a meeting in Pune that the sarvajanik Ganeshotsav held the promise of uniting Hindus. Ganeshotsav had turned into a clash between religious nationalism and reformist rationalism. In September 1893, sarvajanik Ganeshotsav was held in Keshavji Naik chawl in Mumbai. Its success, historians have stated, took even Tilak by surprise and he seemed to have struck a chord among Hindus; he seemed not too concerned with the wedge it had created between Hindus and Muslims.

“Ranade, in one of his speeches in 1899, had said that religion is a very personal matter and it should not have been brought to the streets… I see the signs of religious conflict in this,” historian and author Dr Aroon Tikekar said to me, explaining the classic moderate-versus-conservative ideological conflict of that era. By the time Ranade had made this observation, instances had been recorded of communal clashes between the two communities over loud music being played during the Ganesh processions.

The year 1893 was remarkable for another reason in the life of Bombay: its first-ever large-scale communal riot that left nearly 100 dead and more than 500 injured.