A kilometre-long road in the heart of Pune city bears the name of a forgotten revolutionary—the ‘apostle of rationalism in Maharashtra’—who is now only resurrected in conversations about Bal Gangadhar Tilak and his ‘contemporaries’. So much so that Marathi writer and film director Vishram Bedekar has immortalised their ‘rivalry’ in his play ‘Tilak Ani Agarkar’. But to reduce Gopal Ganesh Agarkar to a binary is to erase an important part of modern Marathi society. Without him, the fight for women’s liberation, eradication of superstitions, removal of caste discrimination and scientific temperament would’ve been incomplete.
“How can a country where the homes are schools of slavery and tyranny create a tradition of great men, and how can it attain knowledge, art, wealth and freedom?” he wrote. “If you do not want slavery in life outside, you must eradicate slavery within the home.”
Born on 14 July 1856 in Tembhu in Satara district of Maharashtra, Agarkar’s was a proponent of rationalism, individualism, equality, and humanism, and believed that education and the press could play a critical role in spreading these ideas. To this end, he conceptualised the New English School, the Deccan Education Society, and Fergusson College (along with Tilak).
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Agarkar’s fight for women’s rights
Termed the most radical Maharashtrian social reformer by historian Gordon Johnson, Agarkar was deeply influenced by Europe’s Age of Enlightenment and the writings of philosophers John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer, Auguste Comte, Voltaire and Rousseau.
His ideas, which included and promotion of education for women, came at a time when his contemporaries were headstrong against such ‘colonial interference in Indian society’s culture and tradition’. Agarkar’s concern about women’s rights came from his childhood—he saw the suffering of his two widowed aunts. Mill’s Subjection of Women, which states that the standard of a given society is indicated by the position of women, was central to his advocacy for social reform.
“It is an established belief that men have the duty to acquire knowledge, and women have to nurture the offspring; that men are owners and women their servants; that freedom is for men and slavery for women; that women have no other way of life but marriage, and no world except their home…If such religious and social values prevail in the thinking of men who are considered great, what use is their greatness?” He wrote in The Purpose Behind Sudhrak.
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Ideological differences with Tilak
Agarkar’s advocacy of social reform began as the first editor of Tilak’s weekly Kesari. He soon took charge of the newspaper in 1881 but it ironically paved the way for them to become the two poles of the late 19th-century ideological spectrum in Maharashtra: Tilak, the social conservative and Agarkar, the social reformer.
While Tilak’s “objected to any British interference”, which was based on his “pride in the Hindu Brahmanical tradition”, Agarkar was “influenced by Western intellectual tradition” and he did not have any qualms with British reforms in Indian society. Agarkar was also critical of orthodox practices in Hinduism. Tilak, on the other hand, did not like Agarkar’s sarcasm about Hinduism in Kesari. This ideological difference deepened with Agarkar’s argument for an urgent need to bring about social reform to address the plight of women and perils of caste hierarchy in India under the very aegis of British rule.
Tilak and Agarkar found common ground in their patriotism and faced imprisonment together in British jails in 1882 due to the infamous Kolhapur affair. But German ethnologist Johannes Quack mentioned that after years of friendship and collaboration, the smouldering conflicts between the two erupted when Tilak opposed the Age of Consent Act.
Besides this, the central disagreement was whether India should first fight against the British and later for social reform (Tilak’s position) or whether social reforms should be the priority (Agarkar’s position).
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Place in India’s public discourse
Agarkar did not appreciate Tilak’s aggressive criticism of the British government and some prominent people like Mahadev Govind Ranade who was a fellow Sudharak and worked in British service. Johnson quotes Agarkar’s writings in Kesari as saying, “What greater foolishness is there than to say that by good education and by acquiring learning, women will become immoral, imprudent and irresponsible? To suppose that education and women will have such an effect upon women is to insist that they are not human beings because we find that knowledge does not have such an effect upon us men.”
Their differences eventually led Agarkar to resign from Kesari and start his newspaper Sudharak in 1887. The publication argued that Indians had no right to ask for equality if women were treated as slaves with an oppressive caste hierarchy in place. Tilak, meanwhile, reiterated that such reforms should not be the top priority of the Indian struggle and should come from within and not be superimposed by the alien government.
Such fundamental differences with Tilak’s support for orthodoxy to maintain popular support gradually pushed Agarkar behind. In one instance, people took out a funeral procession of the effigy of Sudharak in front of Agarkar’s residence and burnt it.
Tilak’s better understanding of the pulse of the masses and Agarkar’s 38-year short life might have marginalised Agarkar’s legacy in India’s public discourse, but it was reflected in the conception of post-Independence India and the Indian society in the 20th century.
17. A few years ago, Raj Thackeray, whose grandfather was a great admirer of Agarkar, drew this cartoon. Tilak TLs Agarkar: "Gopalrao, I am increasingly convinced that you were right after all". pic.twitter.com/5AQAE1xj0h
— Niranjan Rajadhyaksha (@CafeEconomics) June 17, 2020
In describing Agarkar, Marathi feminist writer and social activist Vidya Bal wrote in Miloon Saryajani: “There are many crusaders we see in the social and political struggles going around us… There is a rare consistency in Agarkar’s philosophy of life and the way he lived his own life.”
Citing inconsistencies in his caste practices, Johnson pointed out that even extreme social reformers like Agarkar abided by society’s rules. “Agarkar was strongly in favour of Pandita Ramabai’sWidows’ Home in Poona and refused to shave his head and moustaches on the death of his mother. Yet he had no objection to his son assuming the sacred thread. For all his radical ideas and their implementation in his personal life, Agarkar was no root and branch reformer, and he never lost caste,” he wrote.
Agarkar had once said that ‘it was possible to be useful even in a humble position and be patriotic without much noise.’ Though his legacy might not be free of blemishes, he still stands to be one of the most important figures in contemporary Marathi history.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)