The legacy of Gopal Krishna Gokhale

Gokhale addressed the four corners of liberal values – social reforms, economic system, political rights and religious ideals, along with its natural interdependence.

GKGokhaleGopal Krishna Gokhale (9 May 1866 – 19 February 1915) in his active public life for the freedom movement of India spanning for thirty years laid the foundation for modern India. His effort to create a liberal, democratic, secular polity for India remains unmatched.

Gokhale in his several roles as the life member of the Deccan Education Society, member of the Indian National Congress, President of the Pune Municipality, Elected member of the Bombay Legislative Assembly and Imperial Legislative Council, Founder of the Servants of India Society, Guru to Mahatma Gandhi and Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Gokhale tried to imbibe these principles that still guide the working of the country.

Termed as the Gladstone of India, Gokhale advocated liberal values learnt through the teachings of his Guru Mahadev Govind Ranade. But Gokhale’s liberalism was not a mere copy of the Western thoughts. He made them suit the Indian psyche, which comprised illiterate and poor masses.

Liberalism for Gokhale meant – You cannot have a good social system when you find yourself low in the scale of political rights and can you be fit to exercise political rights and privileges unless your social system is based on reason. You cannot have a good economical system when your social arrangements are imperfect. If your religious ideals are low and groveling, you cannot succeed in social, economic and political spheres. This interdependence is not an accident but in the law of Nature.

So when Gokhale took to the several roles either in India or the British shore he addressed the four corners of liberal values – social reforms, economic system, political rights and religious ideals, along with its natural interdependence.

The religion that Gokhale stood for was nationalism and did not mean the divisive religions like Hindu-Muslim-Christian and others. Gokhale felt that you may practice some faith privately but when in public all discriminatory faiths must dissolve and the only religion that could take priority was the national interest.

Gokhale had a hands-on experience while working as a school teacher in New English School, as a college teacher in Fergusson College and as a member of the Deccan Education Society that ran these institutions. Drawing inspiration from the likes of Mahatma Phule, Ranade and others Gokhale drew motivation from education.

Gokhale’s interest in education was a part of his larger endeavour to modernise India and to lay the foundation for a lasting democratic system by making more and more people to understand the burning issues of the day. The exercise of democratic values and the passion for the ideas of liberty and social justice are slow to take root, particularly in the society whose tradition is not conducive to their growth. Gokhale felt that education would lead to realisation of the self, which can lead to a liberal society.

Gokhale proposed the idea of free and compulsory education through his Elementary Education Bill in 1910, which came to light after a century as Right to Education. Through this Bill Gokhale hoped that every child in India (be it a boy or a girl) gets primary education. While introducing this Bill in the British Parliament Gokhale stated that education is a basic necessity of human kind and it must be cherished as a value. Gokhale felt that there is power in ‘getting educated’, which can help shape the future of this country. Gokhale also remarked that the degeneration of intellect was a matter of concern and this is an opportune time to take a positive step in its elevation.

Today the focus seems to have shifted into getting people literate than educated, stalling the process of instilling values that can take this nation forward.

Gokhale interpreted the meaning of ‘for the people, by the people’ feeling a need to make more people and institutions benefit the advantages of the democratic process. Gokhale actively was involved in the Parliamentary process and devised his own method to keep it alive.

When Gokhale became the President of the Pune Municipality (1902-05) he advocated for a pyramid of elective local bodies – with panchayats in the villages, municipalities in towns and advisory councils in districts. Further in 1909 when Gokhale was appointed as a member of the Decentralisation Committee, he vociferously spoke about this system.

In 1899 Gokhale entered the Bombay Legislative Council, when two successive famines and the ravages of plague had produced depression that was unprecedented. Gokhale visited the famine-striken areas and saw the administration of the famine relief and then launched his fearless criticism. Gokhale felt that “famine must be regarded and dealt with as a human problem rather than a matter merely of administrative machinery.”

Gokhale took his seat in the Council of Governor General as an ‘Additional Member’ in 1901, called as the Imperial Legislative Council, since Pherozeshah Mehta resigned from his seat due to his ill health. Gokhale was re-elected as a member in 1909.

Gokhale’s speeches in the Council generally began with a historical introduction of the subject, followed by an analytical study on the subject under discussion and concluded with constructive remedial suggestions.

On his deathbed Gokhale in 1915 made a Political Will, which mentions the administrative part of the parliamentary democracy, especially the Council of Ministers, the Centre-State relationship and other details, which largely reflect the system that we have currently adopted.

In his obituary Lord Curzon writes, “Gokhale was gifted with Parliamentary capacities. Mr. Gokhale would have obtained a position of distinction in any Parliament of the world.” Gokhale, through his well thought out role as a Parliamentarian can set a guiding path for the Parliamentarians of today.

We thus find in the political thought of Gokhale two apparently conflicting emphases on the role of government in an underdeveloped society and on the need for building up the initiative of the people and helping them to release their energies for national development.

The helpless dependence of the people on government for everything and the consequent paralysis of individual initiative, Gokhale felt, could find no real alternative to collective action through government.

At the same time no people could afford to sit back with complacency with the thought that the government would do everything. They must cooperate with the government and supplement its efforts in whatever way they could.

The whole difficult of mass movements, as Gokhale rightly noted in a speech in 1909, is that they often break through the binding restraints of leadership and resort to violence. Even if non-violence is the declared nature of such a movement it does not always retain its non-violent character because ‘the Government which certainly does not want to see his rule overthrown will not long permit them to retain their peaceful character’.

What were the tenets of Gokhale’s political faith that he sought to instill into his people? His first tenet was that all political progress in India must be based on the maintenance of law and order. Secondly though Gokhale was proud of the great historical traditions of India, as a careful student of Indian history he saw that Indian civilisation had ceased to grow from the seventh century. Hence he felt that today’s India must grow with the evolving science and technology.

The third great tenet of Gokhale was that the only proper and feasible means to employ for attainment of this goal was constitutional agitation. To Gokhale constitutional agitation ranged from petitions, representations and pressure of public opinion at one extreme to the non-payment of taxes on the other.

Gokhale’s strength lay in the debater’s skill, the power of marshalling facts and quoting authorities whose veracity the government could not possibly refuse to accept. Gokhale had the remarkable ability to see the point of view of the opponent and present it in the most charitable manner before he demolished it.

Gokhale in his Farewell to Fergusson College speech states that public life in this country has few rewards and many trials and discouragement. The prospect of work to be done is vast, and no one can say what is on the other side. But you need to be equipped to seek the joy, which comes of spending oneself in the service of one’s country.

A recurring idea in Gokhale’s writings is that leaders of a public life must reconcile themselves by serving their country through disinterested activity regardless of results. Since public life is a matter of slow growth, even a failure may be deemed a success, if it contributes in the long run to the political education of the people.

In the speech made in the Imperial Legislative Council on the Elementary Education Bill on 18 March 1912 Gokhale states – Whatever fate awaits our labours, one thing is clear, we shall be entitled to feel that we have done our duty, and where the call of duty is clear, it is better even to labour and fail than not to labour at all.

“Public life must be spiritualised”, Gokhale stated when he founded the Servants of India Society in 1905. This spiritualisation meant that the moral and noble hearts of the people of this country must beat for the nation. Public life is like a stormy sea, which is rumbling on the surface but its inner strength lies in its serenity.

Mahatma Gandhi interpreted Gokhale’s idea of spiritualism thus – whatever one does, or one utters is for the cause of the country. The public and the private all meant to echo the spirit of nationalism. Gokhale’s spiritual call looks like an impossibility on the back drop of the murky politics of today.

Gokhale participated as a devout Congressman from its inception. Due to the excellent and researched oratory Gokhale became a sought after person in all sessions of the Congress. In 1896 a committee was set-up under Gokhale to write the Constitution of the party. Gokhale became the President of the Benarus Congress in 1905, possibly the youngest President at the age of 39 years.

The Benarus Congress was historic since it was the change of old guard to new thoughts emerging from opposition to Partition of Bengal and the Swadeshi boycott. Gokhale’s presidential speech came as a breeze of fresh air.

Gokhale made a scathing attack on the monopoly of power by the British bureaucracy in India. Self-government was the only real and permanent remedy for the evils from which India suffered.

Gokhale attacked the British on the Partition of Bengal stating – A cruel wrong has been inflicted on the Bengalee brethren – it is an utter contempt of the public opinion, its arrogant pretensions to superior wisdom and its reckless disregard for the most cherished feelings of the people. If the opinions of such men are brushed aside in contempt then all I can say is “Good bye to all hope of cooperating in any way with the bureaucracy in the interests of the people!”

Commenting on the burning issue of Swadeshi Gokhale said – The Swadeshi movement is both a patriotic and an economic movement. The idea of Swadeshi or ‘one’s own country’ is one of the noblest conceptions that have ever stirred the heart of humanity. But the economic side must not be ignored. The movement must ensure a ready consumption of the Swadeshi goods and to furnish a perpetual stimulus to production.

Gokhale’s outlook was towards nation building. He was visionary enough to notice the challenges in the society – be it nursing, old age homes, widow marriages, female education, farmer’s plight, and industrial workers – surpassing his contemporaries who thought only of achieving freedom.

In a Budget speech that Gokhale made in 1908, he remarked, “… what the situation really requires is not the policeman’s baton, or the soldiers bayonet, but the statesman’s insight, wisdom and courage.” Gokhale seems to be talking of India today!

Gokhale has left behind a legacy of thoughts and ideals, principles and ideas through his work and through the works of his disciples. During the 150th Birth Anniversary Year (2015-16) it would meaningful to put into action some of his work, which has been half done.

Photo: Wikimedia

This is the first piece in a series on Liberal Nationalism.