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Monday, September 05, 2016

Divisive roots of a popular festival

Bombay loves celebrating two festivals – Ganapati and Govinda. The city and its people celebrate these festivals with an uncharacteristic abandonment of their normally taciturn demeanour. Public display of joy is not a Bombay trait; it is the reserve of the rumbustious northerners who celebrate every festival with unreserved frenzy.  Bombay and its people avoid any break from their business-as-usual routine. But for Ganapati and Govinda, they let themselves go.

Both the festivals have their roots in the congested, narrow lanes (gully) of the old city. They became popular when Bombay was not an unmanageable mega sprawl with a humongous population. With the shift of the population to the suburbs, these festivals have changed dramatically. I may be wrong, but I think that the move to the suburbs over the last four decades has reduced the significance of Govinda. The Ganeshotsav, on the other hand, has continued to grow. It is a multimillion-dollar festival.  The ten-day festival brings out the best in a city that otherwise is fairly blasé about such matters.

Lokmanya Balwantrao Gangadhar Tilak (1856-1920) launched the festival in 1893. The Keshavji Naik Chawl inaugurated the festival in Bombay. Tilak’s stated aim was to unite the people and to eventually mobilize them against the British rule. It advocated Swaraja (freedom) and Swawalamban (self-reliance).

Indian historians have generally emphasized the nationalistic character of the festival and have tried to underplay its divisive roots. Although characterized as a political extremist, Tilak’s political career and his contribution to the nationalistic thought is so vast and complex, that it would do little justice to glibly parenthesize him into a narrow ideological category; especially so because of his exemplary effort in working with MA Jinnah to bring about Hindu-Muslim unity from 1915 up until his death in 1920. Had it been allowed to succeed, the 1916 Lucknow Pact would have transformed India’s Struggle for Independence. 

It is one of the most tantalizing ‘What ifs’ of Indian history.

Historian Stanley Wolpert has studied both Jinnah and Tilak, and in Jinnah of Pakistan, Wolpert says of the Lucknow Pact, “Jinnah understood perfectly that India’s only hope of emerging as a national entity, independent and strong from under the heel of British imperial rule was through prior abatement of communal fears, suspicions, and residual anxieties. His standing within the Congress was such that he managed to persuade colleagues there of the overriding national value of conceding a large enough quota of elected legislative council seats to Muslims, to be able to convince the League that joining forces with Congress in articulating a single national set of demands was, in fact, in their own best “communal” interest.”

In 1916, the Congress session in Lucknow saw the return of the aging ‘extremist’ wing into the party fold, the section that had split in 1905 in Surat. Tilak, who was finally free after his prolonged imprisonment in Burma, was returning to national politics. The Tilak of 1916 was a different leader who was now advocating compromise and comradeship with the Muslims. Supported by Anne Besant, Tilak was eager to join hands with Jinnah. Wolpert says, “Tilak, ever the political realist, remarked, “We are ready to make a common cause with any set of men. I shall not hold back my hand even from the bureaucracy of they came forward with the scheme that will promote the welfare of our nation.”

Wolpert further says, “Tilak and Anne Besant marched shoulder to shoulder with Jinnah. Bombay’s Governor, Lord Willingdon, denounced the three of them in a letter to Montagu for having “no feeling of what is their duty to the Empire at this crisis. A few months later, Chelmsford would further poison his secretary of state’s mind about Jinnah and several others of his nationalist colleagues in the legislative council, labeling them “irreconcilables” with whom “it is no use thinking that we can do anything…There is a root of bitterness that cannot be eradicated.”

It is a different story that the collapse of the Lucknow Pact led to an ever-widening chasm between the Congress and the Muslim League. And, of course, in 1920, Tilak died, leading to the emergence of Mahatma Gandhi as the unquestioned leader of the Indian National Congress, a man Jinnah disliked intensely.

The Tilak of 1916-1920 was not the Tilak of 1890s. In Tilak and Gokhale: Revolution and Reform in the Making of Modern India, Wolpert narrates the scalding conflict between the militant and the moderate components of the national movement. Emerging together from the Deccan Education Society, the nationalists were divided into two groups over the British intervention in raising the age of consent for marriage for Indian women. While not opposed to the reform, Tilak was opposed to government intervention in Hindu practices. But with the support of the moderates, the Bill was passed.

After the Age of Consent Bill was passed (read more about it here: Age of Consent), Tilak said, “Our government rules over us, therefore, they have the right to suppress the Hindus by the strength of their fists.”  An editorial in his newspaper Kesri, observes, “This we have to admit if we look at the Age of Consent Bill. The Muhamadans forced the Hindus to grow beards after cutting off Hindus’ locks of hair by taking a sword in one hand and a Koran in the other. So also our subjugation to others gives evidence that our brave English people have the power to send us to “Our Father in Heaven” after making us drink red water (wine) instead of the sacred water of the Ganges.”

He vowed to unite the Hindus to resist any further government interferences in their way of life. An opportunity presented itself in 1893 when the Hindus and the Muslims clashed. Wolpert says, “The cause of the communal explosion was indeterminable….interview investigations led Governor Harris to infer that “the agitation springs originally from the annoyance caused by the excessive and inconsiderate preaching of the apostle of the Cow-Protection Societies. They have not been in existence for much more that eight years, and have become obtrusively active only very recently; and undoubtedly the Mahomedans have been annoyed;  and alarm amongst the lowest and least educated of that excitable race was undoubtedly engendered.” The governor went further still in his dispatch to Whitehall, stating that, “these Cow-Protection Societies are assuming a political aspect…The young Congress Wallahs are joining the movement and I fear that they may use it not merely as a level against Mahomedans but also against the British Raj.”

Tilak and his followers sponsored a mass meeting in Poona to discuss the riots and memorialize government. Wolpert says, “Attended by seven thousand, the meeting was, according to Kesri, the largest municipal gathering since the Age of Consent agitation. Before this meeting, Poona’s Hindu population had been urged by its orthodox leaders to boycott the Muslim Muhurram festival, which until 1893 had been celebrated jointly by adherents of both religions. In 1893, a separate Hindu festival was begun, designed to wean the Hindu lower classes away from the ritual in honour of a foreign deity, by providing them with an equally attractive alternative. Strengthening communal consciousness in this way served to bolster Hindu nationalist aspirations.”

The first of the modern public Ganapati festival began in Poona a week after the September meeting called to protest the Bombay riots. His gala ten-day celebration commemorating the birth of the Deccan’s most popular deity, the elephant-headed Ganesh, or Ganapati (“leader of the ganas,” that is, attendant upon Shiva) had originally been held as a family festival of the Peshwas and since their collapse, had fallen into the comparative oblivion of individual worship by less exalted households. Now, the public character of the festival was revived.

Wolpert says that through the Ganapati festival, Tilak imparted to “Hinduism a congregational character hitherto unknown to it.”

I have an immense fascination for the Ganapati festival and for BG Tilak. I have written about both on several occasions on my blog. If you’re interested in reading more about the festival and its most famous proponent, read these posts:





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