Here’s Why We Still Need Gopal Krishna Gokhale

On Gopal Krishna Gokhale’s death anniversary, five reasons why India needs him more than ever before. 

4 min read
Rare photo: Grand reception for Gopal Krishna Gokhale in Zanzibar, 1912.

(This article is from The Quint’s archives and was first published on 9 May 2015. It is being republished to mark Gopal Krishna Gokhale’s death anniversary.)

It’s the 153rd birth anniversary of Gopal Krishna Gokhale, one of the leading lights of the freedom movement.

But what sort of a man was Gopal Krishna Gokhale? What was he famous for? Why has he been forgotten? And most importantly, why should we remember him today?

There’s not much to tell from the usual pictures we have of him, mostly encountered in school textbooks or on the postage stamp that used to retail for 15 paise.

Stamp issued in Gokhale’s honour.
Stamp issued in Gokhale’s honour.

The Man Behind the Image

In these images, he comes across in fuzzy detail, someone with a smooth-lined, round face, with half-moon spectacles that would come to be associated with his protege, M K Gandhi. He seems benign and harmless.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Stanley Wolpert writes:

His temperament was in fact more mercurial than [Bal Gangadhar] Tilak’s…He was a rationalist who believed in astrology, a statesman who founded a monastic society [Servants of India Society], a poet who taught mathematics.
From Tilakh and Gokhale: Revolution and Reform in the Making of Modern India

Gokhale, in his short life of 48 years, would in fact juggle many roles.

He became President of the Congress party in 1905. He led the ‘moderates’ faction of the party, while his great rival Bal Gangadhar Tilak led the ‘extremists’ faction.

He was also Gandhi’s mentor, and was in fact instrumental in paving the way for the latter’s return to India after several successful years in South Africa. That happened in 1915, exactly 100 years ago.

Rare photo: In 1912, Gokhale travelled to South Africa to meet Gandhi. Here he is being welcomed by the Mayor of Johannesburg. (Courtesy: NMML)
Rare photo: In 1912, Gokhale travelled to South Africa to meet Gandhi. Here he is being welcomed by the Mayor of Johannesburg. (Courtesy: NMML)

Gokhale the ‘Reflexive Nationalist’

In an interview to The Quint, historian and writer Ramachandra Guha says:

Gokhale was a reflexive nationalist. Take the India’s Daughter controversy for example. Had he been around now, Gokhale would treat the documentary as a challenge. In contrast to those who would point fingers in turn to Britain or USA and say, ‘well you have a rape problem too’, he would have looked inwards to see how India can do more to stop attacks on women.
Ramachandra Guha

According to Guha, “Gokhale had the ability to reflect on the weaknesses in one’s own society and in this sense too he was the precursor of Gandhi.”

Historian and writer Mukul Kesavan too strikes a similar chord. Speaking to The Quint he says:

Gokhale was politically the most important figure in Indian nationalism till 1915. If there is something called ‘pluralist nationalism’ in India, and I think there is, then it’s because of the likes of Gokhale and Dadabhai Naoroji.
Mukul Kesavan

5 Reasons Why Gokhale is Still Relevant Today

Gokhale is still relevant today for five reasons, says Ramachandra Guha.

“Gokhale’s legacy remains important in today’s India in 5 areas: Hindu-Muslim relations, Dalit rights, women’s rights, quality of education needed in our schools and colleges and finally, the idea of public service, public service as a cause that is bigger than oneself.”

Indeed, Gokhale’s views on India’s biggest challenges remain astonishingly relevant and up-to-date even in 21st century India, a no mean feat given that several of his contemporaries come across today as limited by their vision.

Gokhale on Women’s Rights

For instance, Gokhale had many things in common with his great contemporary Bal Gangadhar Tilak. Both were Chitpavan Brahmins, both were mathematics teachers and both were educated at Elphinstone College, Mumbai.

But there the similarities end.

Unlike Tilak, who believed that women did not require to be educated, Gokhale passionately fought for education for all, emancipation of women’s rights and the upliftment of the lower classes.

On Equality of Castes

“The condition of the low castes - it is painful to call them low castes - is not only unsatisfactory as the resolution says - it is so deeply deplorable that it constitutes a grave blot on our social arrangements; and, further, the attitude of our educated men towards this class is profoundly painful and humiliating.”

- Speech at Social Conference, Dharwad, 1903 from Makers of Modern India

Gokhale the Parliamentarian

Perhaps, one last reason why we need Gokhale today is because he is a great a role model for our MPs.

Unlike other leaders of pre-Independence India, whose talents were uniquely suited to the struggle for freedom because they required methods that could be seen as unconstitutional today, Gokhale was a man who believed in change from within the system.

That approach is most effective today given that parliamentary debates in the last few years have been low on quality. Proceedings have been dominated by walkouts, shouting, and enforcement through brute force.

Lord Curzon said Gokhale was in a way a leader of the opposition in the Parliamentary sense. Curzon also said that though he was the target of Gokhale’s criticism, he was the model of parliamentary leadership.

- Gopal Krishna Gokhale, His Life and Times by Govind Talwalkar

Rare photo: Gokhale’s body lying in repose after his death in Pune, 1915, at the young age of 48. (Courtesy: NMML)
Rare photo: Gokhale’s body lying in repose after his death in Pune, 1915, at the young age of 48. (Courtesy: NMML)

Gokhale died in 1915 at the relatively young age of 48 after a long illness.

As Ramachandra Guha puts it,

“He was a mentor to Gandhi, but he was only three years older to him. He died when he was 48. Nehru, Patel, Gandhi all lived to their 70s. Had Gokhale lived for another 15 years, who knows what he would have achieved?”

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