Lokmanya Tilak & the Ganesh festival
Freedom Movement



Trials of freedom


Ganesh Festival

The public celebration of the Ganapati festival -- Sarvajanik Ganeshotsav -- was started by Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak in 1893. This website attempts to understand the historical background of the festival. Send in your comments to mmb@vsnl.com


As the unquestioned leader of the orthodox Hindus, Balwantrao Gangadhar Tilak had, by the last decade of the 19th century, accurately judged the need to give a more forceful interpretation to Indian nationalism. By reviving an old institution like the Ganapati festival and transforming it into a public celebration, Tilak sought to, and succeeded, in challenging the decade plus monopoly of the moderate-liberal leaders who had set the agenda for social and political reforms in the country. He recognised the need to form a national political movement circumventing the artificial barriers created by the moderate-liberal school of political thought.

The Ganapati festival catapulted Tilak to the height of his political career. From being on the defensive vis-à-vis the moderates during most of the 1880s, Tilak utilised the festival to send a clear message to the colonial rulers as well as his political rivals about his strength and hold over the masses. This was competitive politics of the market place. While he publicly maintained that the festival was meant to achieve unity amongst the Hindus who remained perennially divided on the basis of their castes, and fight for political swaraj, the not-so-hidden intention was to occupy political centerstage.

What were Tilak's motives in launching the Ganeshotsav? Gopal Ganesh Agarkar, a friend who later turned into a bitter critic, alleged that Tilak's conservatism was "the result of calculation, rather than conviction; that he (Tilak) trimmed his sails to catch the winds of popularity," (Gokhale: The Indian Moderates and the British Raj, B.R.Nanda, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1977).
Tilak was no bigot

Nanda remains convinced that Tilak wasn't the bigot that he has been made out to be. He argues, "Tilak suffered from the malignant hostility of the British while he lived. After his death he has probably suffered no less at the hands of uncritical admirers, who have tended to present him not as a flesh-and-blood politician, but as a mythical hero. The image of Tilak as an uncompromising champion of swaraj, a reckless patriot hurling defiance at the mighty British raj, while the craven moderates lay low, does less justice to the subtlety, stamina and flexibility of a consumate politician who managed to survive the bitter hostility of the government for nearly forty years."

As N.R.Inamdar, a political scientist and historian, writing on the political ideas of Tilak in the book Political Thought in Modern India (Edited by Thomas Pantham and Kenneth L Deutsch, Sage Publications, 1986), explains: "To Tilak, a feeling of oneness among the people and pride in their country's heritage were the vital forces of nationalism. He believed that fostering among the people the feeling that they have common interests to be pursued and realised through united political action could develop nationalism. This idealistic and romantic conception of nationalism did inspire and united the de-spirited and divided people of India. Tilak referred to Akbar and Shivaji as illustrious rulers who forged national unity across regional, religious and caste barriers."

'Freedom first'

Unlike the moderate stream of the then leadership, Tilak has absolutely no illusions about the benevolence of India's colonial masters. He looked askance at the liberal intellectuals' efforts to bring about social reforms in the Hindu society with the help of the British. He simply termed this as "political mendicancy".

Instead, as historian J.V.Naik, writing in Sarvajanik Ganeshotsav -- Shatkachi Vatchal (a Marathi book published in 1992 on the centenary of the celebrations of the festival by the Keshavji Naik Chawl, Girgaum, Mumbai, which was the first place in Mumbai to organise the public celebrations of the festival in 1893), comments, "Tilak made the attainment of swaraj, by mobilising and channelising all the extant forces into one patriotic current, the sole mission of his life. It was this fixity of purpose that made him subordinate everything else, including social reforms, to an all-powerful urge for 'Freedom First'. Tilak wanted to galvanise the national movement by involving masses into it. And one way to take the movement to the grassroots level was to appeal to the people's religious instincts."
Surprising success

While acknowledging the positive role the British rule had played in arousing political consciousness among Indians, Tilak felt that the logical denouement of this awakening was political swaraj. And for the realisation of swaraj it was necessary to reawaken the long-dormant spirit of nationalism. Tilak tried to achieve this by promoting and strengthening the bond amongst the people. It was this endeavour which fuelled Tilak's revival of the Ganapati festival and his use of it as a means to unite the different castes. To him, the main reason for India's cultural and geopolitical unity was the Hindu religion. And, by introducing public participation in celebration of a religious festivity, he succeeded in giving the Hindu religion a congregational character quite unknown to it previously.

With the success of the Ganapati festival -- and the extent of which even took the Lokmanya by surprise -- Tilak and his fellow conservatives managed to almost completely sideline the moderates. For the moderates, social reforms were a prerequisite to political freedom. To Tilak and his ilk, social reforms were no doubt necessary, but political freedom was more important. In fact, Tilak feared that the well meaning though misguided liberals, by emphasising on social reforms, were succeeding in further dividing the already fragmented community. And though he championed the cause of religious orthodoxy, Tilak was not at all opposed to social reforms. But he was firmly against the interference of the colonial rulers with Hindu social practices.

The moderate-orthodox controversy

The confrontation between the moderates and orthodox Hindus in Pune reached its flashpoint in 1891 over the Age of Consent Bill. But before this controversy, the differences had begun a long time ago in the day-to-day workings of Pune's Deccan Education Society. Tilak, Vishnu Krishna Chiplunkar and Mahadev Ballal Namjoshi started the society, earlier called the New English School, in 1880. Later, Gopal Ganesh Agarkar and Gopal Krishna Gokhale, both moderates, had managed to wrest control of the society and Tilak had to resign because of his differing views with the young moderates. This had bruised him. As Nanda notes, "Pherozeshah Mehta, Dinshaw Wacha, and indeed the entire Bombay group of moderates had a lively distrust of Tilak. This distrust dated back to the controversies which raged in Poona in the 1890s; its origins lay partly in ideological and partly in temperamental differences. For at least fifteen years there had been a sort of cold war, which hindered not only mutual understanding, but even mutual comprehension between the Congress establishment in India -- of which Pherozeshah Mehta was the virtual chief -- and Tilak."

When Sir Andrew Scoble moved the Age of Consent Bill to raise the marriageable age of consent for girls from 10 to 12 years, the differences between Tilak and moderates, hiterto confined to newspaper writings, came out in the open. This controversy has been exhaustively discussed by Richard P. Tucker in Ranade and the Roots of Indian Nationalism (unpublished thesis) and Stanley A. Wolpert in Tilak and Gokhale: Revolution and Reforms in the Making of Modern India (Oxford University Press, 1989). M.G.Ranade had -- long before the Bill was moved -- called upon the people of Pune to voluntarily pledge them to raise the minimum age at which they would get their children married. Tilak approved of Ranade's voluntary prescription but was vehemently against any state intervention. "We would not like that the government should have anything to do with regulating our social customs or ways of living, even supposing that the act of government will be a very beneficial and suitable measure," Tilak vigorously protested.
Organising the Hindus

Scoble, the initiator of the Bill, after having pondered over the merits of the arguments of both the sides, was convinced "that the balance of argument and authority is in favour of the Bill…even if it were not so, were I a Hindu, I would prefer to be wrong with Professor Bhandarkar, Mr. Justice Telang and Dewan Bahadur Raghunath Rao, than to be right with Pundit Sadadhur Turachuramani and Mr. Tilak." Despite countrywide protests, the Bill was enacted.

The defeat of orthodox Hindus over the legislation was the last straw. In his book Wolpert observes: "The battle over Age of Consent roused orthodox leaders throughout British India to consciousness of the actual weakness and potential power of their position. The alliance of foreign rulers with Hindu reformers had proved impervious to the protests of those who valued religious rituals more highly than political independence or social equality. Yet the cry for religion in danger had awakened a responsive chord in millions who otherwise took no note of public affairs." The revivalist tendencies among Hindus had risen to a fever pitch and it needed just a slight nudge in the right direction for these tendencies to be transformed into a mass movement. After the Age of Consent debacle, the Lokmanya concentrated his energies on mobilising the Hindus into a political force, based on religious identity.

The first festival

The opportunity that Tilak was waiting for came unexpectedly a couple of years later when Hindus and Muslims clashed in Mumbai. For four days from August 11, 1893, members of the two communities went on a rampage, leaving some 80 people dead, 530 injured and 1505 arrested. Until then, Hindu-Muslim friction had not erupted into large-scale violence. But with the rise of new industries, mainly textiles, thousands of Muslim Pathans and Hindu Marathas moved into the city, working and living in close proximity. The ignition in the communally surcharged atmosphere, according to the then Governor of Bombay, was provided by the resurgent propaganda by the cow protection societies (Tilak, incidentally, was a leading functionary of the Gow-Rakshak Mandali in Pune).

The moderates, led by Ranade and Gokhale, urged communal peace, but Tilak and his followers sponsored by a mass meeting in Pune on September 10, 1893, to discuss the riots. One week after the meeting, he launched the first modern Ganapati festival. Prior to that year, many Hindus in Pune routinely joined the Muslims in their annual celebration of Mohurram (when the grandsons of Prophet Muhammad were honoured by constructing the replicas of their tombs and carrying them in a parade to the river). Tilak declared that Hindus would no longer participate in Mohurram. He advocated for a separate festival of Ganapati that would have similar processions and passions.

In the first year, the Sarvajanik Ganeshotsav was held at three centres in Pune and at the Keshavji Naik chawl, Girgaum, Mumbai. The next year was to witness a manifold increase in the number of places organising the event. That was also the year the first communal clash over the festival occurred when a group led by Sardar Tatyasaheb Natu clashed with members of the Muslim community when they protested on music being played by the Ganapati procession in front of a mosque.
Tilak's rise

With the Ganapati festival, Tilak had struck a responsive chord among the Hindus. His increasing clout in the affairs of Pune ensured his group gaining control of the venerated Poona Sarvajanik Sabha. It was an ironic twist of fate -- and the pressure of market politics -- that an association, which had spearheaded the social reform movement in the Deccan, came under the sway of the orthodoxy. This new phase of emotional revivalism in Hindu religion, inspired and guided by Tilak, had to reach its logical culmination in political extremism.

After achieving social mobilisation through the Ganapati festival, Tilak went about consolidating his political hold. His first significant move was to relegate the issue of social reforms to the background in favour of political swaraj. He was keen to delink these two issues and he succeeded in 1895. Prior to that year, both the National Social Conference (established by Ranade in 1887) and the Indian National Congress held their annual meetings together at the same venue and both had several common delegates. But in 1895, Tilak insisted the two be delinked. The moderates led by Ranade were totally relegated to the background. In a fit of pique, they walked out of the Poona Sarvajanik Sabha and formed the Deccan Sabha. The ideological split was complete.

Vicious propaganda

Considering the mass adulation that he had begun to enjoy, it was natural that Tilak was subjected to a vicious propaganda. The festival he started was branded as decidedly anti-Muslim and essentially meant to perpetuate upper caste dominance with the Hindu fold. Tilak ridiculed his critics, asserting that it was quite absurd to dismissively term the Ganapati festival as an all-Brahmin affair. The fact was that within a few years, the festival began to witness whole-hearted participation from all sections of the Hindu society. But to the Lokmanya, such a biased assessment of the festival's impact was not unexpected. It was his view that the Anglo-Indian bureaucracy was totally prejudiced in the matter and "jealousy, fear and anger" paralysed the Muslim minds. He maintained that the festival was never meant to whip frenzy against Muslim community.

While there is no doubt that it was the Hindu-Muslim conflagration of 1893 that inspired the revival of the Ganapati festival, and the communalism it spawned, the popularity and spread of the ten-day festival became a focal point for the nationalist cause. In October 1894, the acting commissioner of the central division of Mumbai, commenting on the festival wrote to his seniors: "I must confess that my convictions lead to me to support the view widely entertained in Poona by the more respectable natives that the agitation fomented by the Deccan Brahmins is directed in reality not against the Muslims but against the government."

The festival's goals

The festival was used to spread the message of swaraj, swadesh, bahiskar and rashtriya shikshan -- issues that had by then become the political doctrine of the Congress. The moderates in the party could not question Tilak's motives, though they continued to disagree with his methods. From the last decade of the 19th century to 1908, Tilak was at the peak of his political career and continued to set the political agenda until the time he was charged with sedition and convicted for six years in 1908.

It has been said that by emphasising the political aspect of Indian nationalism, Tilak (because of his near-total domination of national politics) managed to unwittingly undermine the more important issue of social reforms. But as Inamdar explains, Tilak convinced about the cultural superiority of the Hindu religion and civilisation and was averse to the idea of incorporating western concepts while shaping Indian nationhood. "Tilak believed that Hindu philosophy was superior to other philosophies and religions. According to Vedenta philosophy, reality is ultimately non-dualistic and man's final goal is to become one with Parmatman. The Bhagwad Gita teaches that man can and must achieve this self-fulfillment through Karmayog -- through a life dedicated to the performance of one's duties in this world of loksamgraha. This karmayoga ethic, Tilak asserted, is superior to materialistic or hedonistic ethics. The latter justified a model of politics centered on the pursuit of self-interest. The former entails a conception of spiritualised politics."

Inamdar further explains that after tracing the term Swarajya to the Vedas, Tilak stressed that since the people have the essence of God in them, they have the right to remove oppressive rulers. Similarly, Wolpert, too, observes: "From the orthodox viewpoint, social conditions which to the western eyes were shocking debilities, did not demand public attention, certainly not legislative remedy. The utilitarian ethic had no exalted status in the traditional Hindu system of values…the universe was no laboratory for the experiments of social scientists, but rather a divinely ordered and totally integrated reflection of Brahma, sustained according to dharma. Indian history had not commenced with the advent of the British, and Hindu society, regulated by its shastras, was eternal, and needed no Christian or atheistic dogma to teach it how to function."

The Lokmanya gave new dimension to the 19th century Indian renaissance by bringing a dogmatic note to Hindu religion and discarding the west-inspired liberalism of the age (exemplified by the socio-religious reform movements like the Brahmo Samaj). These movements, in Tilak's view, were not at all suited to Indian traditions and had only succeeded in dividing the Hindus amongst rationalists and traditionalists.

Tilak, as Naik observes, "was the best representative of the second phase of the renaissance. He accurately judged the changing mood of the country. He knew that the complete rejection of the West was neither advisable nor possible. He appreciated the Western spirit of inquiry, and himself applied Western methodology to his interpretation of Hinduism in Gitarahasya. But at the practical and emotional level he wanted to use the newly found religious fervour of the Hindus for ethical as well as political and partiotic purposes. For this, he could not have devised a more astute move than reviving a public festival in honour of Ganapati, the most popular of the Hindu deities, especially in Maharashtra, and enlarging its scope for political moblisation."