Pre-Gandhi Freedom movement and Caste

It has now become fashionable among some writers to brush the leaders of our Freedom movement, especially the ones who were active before the Gandhian era, with the casteist tar and portray them as ones who upheld caste privilege. Nothing can be more false than such a lazy portrayal. Let us analyze the pre-Gandhi freedom movement dispassionately, by examining the ideologies of the greatest stalwarts of the era – Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Lala Lajpat Rai and Bipin Chandra Pal. The trio were affectionately called ‘Lal, Bal Pal.’

Lala Lajpat Rai (1865-1928) had always been of the view that social reform would help the people become more vigorous and justice-loving. He said that there was a natural correlation between social and political work and he pointed that “political freedom is, after all, a consequence of national efficiency” and national efficiency cannot be achieved without such social and economic conditions as will make the nation ‘as a whole self-confident, self-reliant, physically fit, morally reliable and intellectually alert.”

As a leader of the Arya Samaj, to the principles of which he remained committed throughout his life, he was always impatient with the evils of the Hindu society. He favoured equality of sexes, eradication of untouchability, remarriage of widows, female education and reformation of religious practices on a rational basis. He considered the rigidity of the caste system as the bane of Hindu society and a Himalayan barrier on the path to social and national progress. Yes, he was totally against conversions to Christianity and he never denied the fact that he was for the revival of Hinduism. But the revival he envisaged was a caste-less revival. Yes, he believed in varna dharma but not in one’s inheritance of it by birth.

He was a hugely respected leader, and it was to avenge his death that Bhagat Singh shot and killed Saunders.

Bipin Chandra Pal (1858-1932) was one the giant trees that crashed in the Gandhi storm. He started off as a believer of the British rule, became its fiery opponent and later made his compromises with it. After his first wife passed away, he married a widow and joined the Brahmo Samaj, which, stoutly denounced the caste system. Pal was also an ardent proponent of gender equality. It was to celebrate his release that VOC and Siva made speeches in March 1908 which caused their arrests and imprisonment, which in turn culminated in the murder of Ashe.

In his view, the Hindu revival was highjacked by Brahmins whose idea of revival was the resurrection of medieval Hinduism and the social supremacy of the Brahmins. He however felt that the Brahmin brand of revivalism was considerably weakened “under the influence of modern ideas and the conditions of modern life.”

Bal Gangadhar Tilak (1856-1920) was the prime mover our freedom movement before Gandhi arrived on scene. He was an orthodox Chitpavan Brahmin and conservative in his outlook. But what is forgotten is that he said clearly that Vedas were no longer the monopoly of the Brahmins and anyone who wanted to study them could do so. He also said that there was nothing sublime about the Vedic rites and women did not become inferior just because they were denied a major role in these rites.

What were his political views?

In 1891, the very first year his magazine Kesari appeared Tilak wrote: ” A country may be rich or poor, free or in Bondage, but its majority population consists of those who live by their bodily labour and unless and until they are happy and contented, their country cannot be regarded as prosperous or progressive.”

In 1907, he said: “It is not enough only to have a Swadeshi ruler. We have got them in our Native States now. The more important question is how much power the people possess in the Swaraj and not whether the ruler is indigenous or alien. When we ask our people to make efforts for Swaraj we mean that the people must get political power. From this point of view, the rule in Russia, even if native, is not Swaraj. The same holds good in the case of Germany. … The more the poeple get enlightened anywhere the more will they demand democratic Swaraj.

It is thus clear that Tilak’s idea of Swaraj embraced the whole people, without distinction of caste and creed.

He elaborates on this point in his famous speech in Lucknow session of the Congress in the year 1916.

“It has been said by some that we have yielded too much to the Muslims. I am sure I represent the sense of the Hindu community all over India and I say that we could not have yielded too much. I would not care if the right of self-government are granted to the Muslim community only. I would not care if they are granted to Rajputs. I would not care if they are granted to the lowest classes of the Hindu population, if the British Government considers them more fit than the educated classes of India for exercising those rights…Then the fight will be between them and other sections of the Indian community and not, as at present, a triangular fight… We have to fight a third party and therefore it is very important that we should stand untied on this platform, united in race, united in religion and united as regards all shades of different political opinion. We have forged this weapon of unity and that is the most important event of the day.”

Tilak was very clear that the people should first get political power. When he is writing on Gandhi he says this: Some people appear to believe that if the condition of the country is to improve, they must be reform of society and when that is done, political reform will come. Gandhi’s life teaches us how erroneous this belief its. For all kinds of reforms and improvements, the leaderss of the nation must have at least some power to enforce reforms. All wisdom and intelligence are futile in the absence of power. Therefore efforts must chiefly be directed towards establishing this fundamental basis.”

Now the question to be asked is, which of these voices is casteist? The answer, if you are honest, will be none of them is.

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