India must bow its head to Maharashtra on this day

Three Marathas — Shivaji, Tilak and GK Gokhale — made their mark on history in different ways on February 19
To GK Gokhale, politics meant civility and courage, the civility to acknowledge one’s own limitations and the courage to cross them in humility for the greatness of the country. This was the only honourable path.(HT Photo)
To GK Gokhale, politics meant civility and courage, the civility to acknowledge one’s own limitations and the courage to cross them in humility for the greatness of the country. This was the only honourable path.(HT Photo)
Updated on Feb 19, 2020 12:00 PM IST
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This day is Maharashtra’s day.

Thrice over.

First, it is the birth anniversary, the jayanti, of the peerless Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj (1627/30–1680), our all-time hero and the emblazoned symbol of India’s national pride.

Second, it is a day when we remember the dearly beloved Lokamanya Tilak (1856–1920) who told us in that matchless phrase, brilliantly mixing Sanskrit and Urdu, that “Svaraj”, freedom, was our “janmasiddha haq”, birthright. He brought Shivaji’s jayanti out of the dust of time and the haze of forgetting back to living memory by marking February 19 as a festival, an utsav. As also Jyotirao Phule and Babasaheb Ambedkar who too marked Shivaji’s jayanti as they would, for Shivaji, by his example, showed freedom from both bigotry and casteism.

And the third reason that the nation bows its head reverentially to Maharashtra today is because this day — February 19 — is also the anniversary of the death of the great karmayogi Gopal Krishna Gokhale (1866–1915). We mourn the fact that Gokhale, who burned himself out trying to bring to India democratic rights and republican obligations, lived for so short a time, died so early — at age 49, this day, 105 years ago.

By the standards of life expectancy in his time (23 years), he was already above the average age that anyone expected to reach. By the standards of today (70 years), he had 20 more years, at least, to go. But many crossed the average life expectancy of those times by a wide margin. Gandhi, who was born three years after Gokhale, lived to age 79 and he could have gone on for another 10 years, at the very least, had he not been shot in 1948. Sardar Patel lived to age 75, as did Jawaharlal Nehru.

So, with better luck in health, Gokhale could have lived to when he would have reached 70, in 1936. Had he done that, Gokhale would have realised one of his dreams, which is, he would have seen popularly elected responsible governments getting ready to assume office in the provinces of British India, with a young Nehru as the Congress president.

But, then, who are we to replay lifelines and time cycles ?

We can, nevertheless, do something else, something better. We can see what we can derive from his life, which VS Srinivasa Sastri has set down, that may be valuable to us as a people and as citizens, and serve our polity.

There are, in my thinking, five “lessons” that Gokhale holds out for us to imbibe today:

First, as the teacher of mathematics, English literature, history and economics that he was for 25 years in Pune’s Fergusson College, Gokhale’s career showed this: Political leadership need not be about degrees and PhDs, but it has to come from a pupilship of knowledge such as BR Ambedkar symbolised. The politician who decries the intellect forgets the outstanding chief minister of Madras, K Kamaraj, who never went to college but was a master of the sociology of his people and brought a full head of humble wisdom to his office, not a vacuous self-serving agenda.

Second, as a public figure whom slander did not spare, Gokhale knew the principle he explained to a sympathetic correspondent in 1898 thus: “Thanks to the teaching and example of Mr Justice Ranade, I have long learnt to make my conscience — and not public applause — the spring of my actions.” The politician’s fair-weather friend is popularity; the long-term associate, a clean conscience.

Third, as a politician who had adversaries, including no one less than the eminent Tilak Maharaj himself, Gokhale, who was aware about the issue, said of Tilak: “I have many accounts to settle with him. But…he is a great man….There is no man who has shown grit and patience and courage so rare…” The politician who does not respect his opponent finds compliance, not esteem.

Fourth, as a legislator in the Bombay and Imperial Legislative Councils who saw his place in time, Gokhale disliked being compared to great figures, and said: “We are small people, living small lives on a small contracted stage…Nothing but self-esteem to have our names in juxtaposition with those which have shed lustre on pages of the historical past.”

Fifth, as a statesman, politics meant for him civility and courage, the civility to acknowledge one’s own limitations and the courage to cross them in humility for the greatness of the country. This was the only honourable path.

Not for nothing did Gandhi describe Gokhale to be: “As pure as crystal, as gentle as a lamb, as brave as a lion, and the most perfect man in the political field.”

Fortunate is Maharashtra to have given India these titans, fortunate is India in Maharashtra.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor
The views expressed are personal
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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Gopalkrishna Gandhi read English Literature at St Stephen’s College, Delhi. A civil servant and diplomat, he was Governor of West Bengal, 2004-2009. He is currently Distinguished Professor of History and Politics at Ashoka University

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