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Tilak, Bal Gangadhar

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(23 July 1856 – 1 August 1920), was an Indian nationalist from Poona, journalist, teacher, social reformer, lawyer and independence activist who was the first popular leader of the Indian Independence Movement. The British colonial authorities derogatorily called him “Father of the Indian unrest”. He was also conferred with the honorary title of “Lokmanya”, which literally means “Accepted by the people (as their leader)”.

An honors graduate of Bombay University, Tilak could more than hold his own with the metropolitan elite, but he also could speak to the masses. At a time when the circulation of English newspapers was measured in the hundreds, the Kesari, Tilak’s Marathi daily, was read by tens of thousands. In 1894 he mobilized his base by transforming the yearly Ganapati puja, a domestic ceremony in honor of the Ganesha, into a public festival, or utsav. The next year he launched a second festival, this one commemorating the Maratha general Shivaji. Both utsavs had a covert political purpose. By giving the Hindus of Maharashtra occasions to celebrate their history and traditions, the festivals helped them affirm their cultural and political identity.

Maharashtra was one of the last parts of India to fall to the British, and the people of the region still felt a strong resentment against their foreign rulers. In 1896 two brothers of Poona, Damodar and Balkrishna Chapekar, shot and killed W. C. Rand, the chairman of the Poona plague commission. The Chapekars may have gotten their political ideas and their hatred of the Poona plague commission from the pages of Tilak’s Kesari. So at least thought the government of Bombay, which put Tilak on trial for sedition in 1897. Convicted, he was sentenced to eighteen months of rigorous imprisonment. By the time of his release in September 1898, he was seen as a national hero.

On December 25, 1902 the eighteenth session of the Indian National Congress began. Sri Aurobindo was present at the session. One of his reason for coming was to contact Tilak. When the two were introduced, Tilak took him outside “and talked to him for an hour in the grounds expressing his contempt for the Reformist movement and explaining his own line of action in Maharashtra.” Sri Aurobindo left the conference convinced that Tilak was “the one possible leader for a revolutionary party.” [Sri Aurobindo, On Himself, 25.] Since then, Sri Aurobindo and Tilak were closely associated as leaders of the Indian national movement until 1908, during which year both were arrested. Tilak was released in 1914 and until his death on 1 August 1920 again played a prominent role in India’s freedom struggle.


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