Gokhale's role in Indian freedom struggle

By the end of the 19th Century, a new crop of leaders developed under the mentorship of the initial leaders. It is now time for us to explore the second wave which took place in our freedom struggle. The leaders of this time were fierce, unnerving with a strong sense of bringing changes to the existing society. For that, we will look at two dynamic leaders of the time who took different approaches to achieve this and whose contribution to the freedom struggle has been significant in their own right. These leaders played a major role leading up to one of the first mass struggle movements in the history of our Independence – the Swadeshi Movement. The sons of Maharashtra – G K Gokhale’s and BG Tilak’s role has been immense in the politicization and the formation of nationalist ideology, both active around the same time. In this section, we will discuss the contribution of Gopalkrishna Gokhale understanding him in detail. Here is everything you need to know about Gokhale’s role in Indian freedom struggle

Entry into the Legislature – 

Indians were not given any legislative power until 1920. Yet, one will wonder how the early nationalists raised their points in the Legislative Council propelling the growth of the national movement. Earlier, very few Indians i.e. only those who supported the British mostly were given the entry. As the Congress became a group of high political activity in the late 1890’s through fearless criticism and debates coupled with the deep knowledge about the government policies kept up a constant campaign against the Council. As the tirade against the Government increased, the Government led by Lord Dufferin prepared the outline of the Indian Councils Act of 1892 which increased the number of members from six to ten to ten to sixteen – a very small increase you would say considering the Indian population at that time. It is true, yes, we were just represented by 16 people maximum for the whole country. Add to that the constraint of discussing the annual budget but not voting for it, asking questions but now allowed to ask supplementary questions and not allowed to discuss answers. But, the political leaders who entered the legislature knew what they had to do. Through their courage, perseverance and excellent debating skills they could put across their points in front of all with conviction. Among the leaders who entered, Pherozshah Mehta was one member who put the Council to good use arguing and discussing policies which would surprise the majority dominated English sitting in the House.  He raised everyday issues like questioning the real motive to check the spread of higher education by the government or for that matter on an amendment of the Police Act of 1861 which enhanced the power of local authorities. This kind of a behavior may have been expected from the Press, but this was not how the ‘dignified’ Legislature ought to behave according to the English. He retired in 1901 giving way to Gopal Krishna Gokhale with a strong base in economics. He was the other man in the Legislature who changed the ways of the Legislature.

Let us understand the political situation at that time through Gokhale and how he put good use of the Council.

Gokhale’s Role in the Indian Struggle – 

On 26 March, 1902, when there were celebrations in the Parliament on account of surplus 7 crore rupees, G K Gokhale rose up to give his first Budget Speech.  He said he did not wish to join in the celebrations as this showed the “utter absence of a due correspondence between the condition of the country and the condition of the finances” and further went on to examine all aspects of the problem. His first speech established him as the Greatest Parliamentarian India had ever produced on account of his knowledge and the way he presented his point. He was quiet, gentle and reasonable as a speaker giving a thorough analysis of the situation he presented.  This speech won him instant praise from all and gradually his arguments and debates spread around the country through various newspapers slowly absorbing all the people within the nationalist ideology through careful reasoning and knowledge about the harsh policies of the Government.

Gokhale's role in Indian freedom struggle

His constant attacks and sharp criticism on the Government policies in the Legislatures terrified the Britishers also to a great extent which continued for the next ten years. He was viewed as a well-meaning man, moderate in his views who believed that the right course for self-government was through reforms, petitions and cooperation with the British Government unlike that of his contemporary Tilak who was radical in approach through agitations and boycotts not failing to use violence if needed also. The aim of both of them was however self-government and overthrowing British rule. Though both were bitter political rivals, Gokhale protected Tilak during the Congress Split in Surat from the people and Tilak too praised Gokhale for his sharp work in the legislature throughout Gokhale’s life and after he passed away Tilak urged the leaders to look up to him and emulate him.    

As a man of high integrity and respect for everyone’s work, Gokhale led by example. Some of his noteworthy achievements in his life are – He was elected the President of the INC in 1905 and supported the call for Swadeshi Movement and Boycott in Bengal and at this point, he began the Servants of India Society – to work with the cause close to his heart i.e. expansion of Indian education.  This aspect of most of the freedom fighters to integrate political, social and economic causes is something which was started by the first set of nationalists. This gained momentum and inspired these political leaders to fight hard for gaining independence from British Rule. In fact, the Mahatma called Gokhale his political guru for inspiring him to take up the cause of the freedom struggle. One of the most significant events during his time was the Swadeshi Movement.

Source: Wikipedia (Gandhi (C Left) and Gokhale (C Right) in Durban)  

Role of Gokhle in The Swadeshi Movement – 

Bengal had become the hotbed for Indian Nationalism. The British Government then under Lord Curzon, hence wanted to weaken the focal point of Nationalism by dividing it. Once it was divided, they believed they could easily contain the rising movement. The proposals became publicly known by 1903 although the final proclamation came in 1905 claiming that the divide was for administrative purposes. The Indian Nationalists, however, saw through this and knew the reason – by dividing Bengal in such a way, the British were dividing the people based on religion. The Hindus were in majority in West while the Muslims dominated in the East. The official Swadeshi movement had begun.

Gokhale's role in Indian freedom struggle

The initial phase began in 1903 when the Moderates began petitioning, through speeches, campaigns and public meetings with the objective to turn the government against the Partition.  Despite the movement, the Partition took place and 16th October 1905 – was declared a day of mourning throughout Bengal. The Swadeshi Movement spread in Bengal where shops were picketed, foreign cloth was burnt, boycott of foreign goods was the most successful type of protest. None of the people were happy with the partition in Bengal except for elite Muslims. The first mass movement which united all strands of the society emerged successful even though it was restricted only to Bengal where public meetings, protests, demonstrations, processions and other forms were popularized used in the later part of the struggle as well.

Rise and Fall of Moderates – 

The early form of Nationalism which believed to bring in change within the system by petitioning and bringing in constitutional reforms met with success on the whole but it could not contain much owing to a sense of nationalism which had begun gripping the country. Leaders like Gokhale, Surendranath Banerjee, Pherozshah Mehta etc. despite being from the dominant caste and class groups fought in the voices of the underprivileged being trained under stalwarts like Naoroji, M G Ranade, G V Joshi and the others in the economics. They could thus find through their deep analysis the pathetic condition of the Indian society.

Read more – What Was Dadabhai Naoroji’s Role In The Indian Freedom Struggle?

The Moderates, as they become known created terror among the Britishers who were present in the Legislature with their understanding of the contrast in the British society and the Indian society. The recurring theme through their speeches was about their colonial mindset which kept the natives as subordinate highlighting the devastating effects they have had in the Indian society. These leaders also took to invoking the past glory of the nation, worked on several social reforms and were the initiators of mass mobilization bringing in many sections of the society into the struggle for Indian Independence. They were a little more advanced from the previous generation in the sense that they identified the need to unite the entire nation by spreading the nationalist ideology through their speeches, public discussions, newspaper and other methods.

By this time the people too had begun realizing of the need to unite in order to oust the Britishers, but they could not understand how to go about it. This is where the nationalists failed. Despite their continuous work in the legislatures, they could not tap the potential of the country. Though they were fully responsible for the spread of news to different parts of the country, they did not, however, include them in their struggle. Like their predecessors, even they believed that the only the ‘educated middle class’ could bring in a revolution although they worked deeply for the cause of education, poverty and women’s status in the society at that time.

On one hand they were right in bringing petitions to the government regarding various ills which the society suffered from like the age of consent bill from ten years to twelve years or drinking, etc. for they had the vision to note that Indian nationalism had only blossomed and for it continues in the right direction, British forces were to be used by bringing rightful and modern changes to strengthen the national movement. With British authorities passing these laws, no one will question them. Nevertheless, it was a start. If only they had also realized in the power of unity. By 1907, in the Surat Session, it was clear that the Extremists and the Moderates would not work together for the same cause. By not tapping into the revolutionary intent among the people, they had actually faltered. Despite catering to the people by raising their awareness, they no longer appealed to the people whose focus had now shifted to action. They too wanted to become a part of the larger movement angry with the way things had begun to shape under the British Empire. The moderates underestimated the power of the people in thinking that the Indian nationalism hadn’t spread. They did not give the people a clear-cut goal they wanted to achieve and a strong leadership to guide them. They made a grave mistake in not extending the movement throughout the country. By restricting it to Bengal, they become too stubborn in sticking to their ideas. If they had united with the Extremists and spread the movement to the other parts of the country, that would have challenged the authority of the Britishers and would have given them more bargaining power to initiate overall changes in the system. The split in the Congress caused irrevocable damages which took a long time to repair causing the freedom struggle to stretch more. But, it did give out a lesson to the later freedom fighters to stay united despite their differing views if they wanted to fight for the greater cause.

Another reason which can be seen for the failure of the Moderates to hold on was that despite the firm economic and social base the leaders had, they had no plan as to how to overthrow the British rule. By merely petitioning the government, they should have realized that this was not possible. They did not know what system of governance they will adopt after the British. This was a major obstacle for the road ahead which is why their recognition of the fact that the Indian society needed the help of Western Institutes by leaders like Gokhale for progress was an excellent observation.

The Moderates developed on the ideas of the early leaders and for that, they built a stronger nationalist base across the country for which they require full credit. Step by step the Indian freedom struggle was growing and different approaches were being innovated keeping continuous momentum until Independence.

The next series will look at the contribution of other approaches during this time in the Indian struggle for freedom engaging with the people and propelling the movement further. Stay with us!

How did you find the approach of the moderates? Let us know in the comment section.

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