Following the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny, there arose a brand of liberal political leaders in India who sought a greater role for Indians in running the country’s affairs while pledging allegiance to British rule. In the Bombay Presidency, the prominent leaders who adopted constitutional methods as a means of achieving political reform included Sir Pherozeshah Mehta, Dadabhai Naoroji, and Justice MG Ranade.
It was in this very line of thought that Bombay gave the nation another notable leader at the turn of the century – the liberal giant Gopal Krishna Gokhale (1866-1915). A protégé of Ranade and influenced by the British philosopher-parliamentarian Edmund Burke, Gokhale worked towards realising constitutional ideals in India for three decades and abjured the use of reactionary or revolutionary ways.
Gokhale hailed from the Ratnagiri district in present-day Maharashtra and studied at the Elphinstone College in Mumbai before joining as a professor at the Fergusson College in Pune, where he taught political economy and history.
Gokhale first arrived on the national scene after cross-examining British colonial expenditure at the Welby Commission of 1897 in England. Gokhale’s work earned him praise in India as he laid bare British military financing policies that heavily burdened Indian taxpayers much to the chagrin of then Viceroy Lord Curzon — regarded among the most vituperative of racists to occupy that post.
In 1899, Gokhale joined the Indian National Congress, emerging as one of the main leaders of its ‘moderate’ wing, and gave up teaching three years later to work as a lawmaker for the remainder of his life.
Positions in colonial legislatures
Gokhale is best remembered for his extensive work in colonial legislatures. Between 1899 and 1902, he was a member of the Bombay Legislative Council followed by a stint at the Imperial Legislative Council from 1902 till his death.
At Bombay, Gokhale opposed the British government’s onerous land revenue policies, advocated free and compulsory primary education, and asked for the creation of equal opportunities to fight against untouchability.
At the Imperial legislature, Gokhale played a key role in framing the Morley-Minto reforms of 1909 and advocated for the expansion of legislative councils at both the Centre and the provinces. A critic of British imperial bureaucracy, Gokhale favoured decentralisation and the promotion of panchayat and taluka bodies.
He also spoke for the Indian diaspora living in other parts of the British Empire and opposed tooth and nail the indentured labour system, raising their problems in the Imperial legislature as well as at Congress sessions.
Work in the Congress
Gokhale became Congress president at its Banaras session in 1905, where he said, “The minds of the people have been familiarised with the idea of a united India working for her salvation; a national public opinion has been created; close bonds of sympathy now knit together the different Provinces; caste and creed separations hamper less and less the pursuit of common aim; the dignity of a consciousness of national existence has spread over the whole land.”
This was also the time when bitter differences had arisen between his group of ‘Moderates’ and the ‘Extremists’ led by Lala Lajpat Rai and Bal Gangadhar Tilak among others. Matters came to a head when the two factions split at the Surat session of 1907.
Historians note that despite ideological differences, Gokhale maintained cordial relations with his opponents. In 1907, he fervently campaigned for the release of Lala Lajpat Rai, who was imprisoned that year by the British at Mandalay in present-day Myanmar.
After Mahatma Gandhi’s return to India, he joined Gokhale’s group before going on to lead the independence movement. Gandhi regarded Gokhale as his political mentor, and wrote a book in Gujarati dedicated to the leader titled ‘Dharmatma Gokhale’.
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