Pune – The Fountainhead of Indian Sociopolitical Evolution And A Greek Tragedy

by Aashish Chandorkar - May 1, 2016 06:00 AM

Pune – The Fountainhead of Indian Sociopolitical Evolution And A Greek Tragedy Shaniwarwada, Pune (Wikimedia Commons)

For a period of over 300 years starting in 620 BCE with the birth of Thales of Miletus to the death of Aristotle in 322 BCE, Greece enjoyed the movement from a mythology driven society to a fact and reasoning based modernity. A host of admired philosophers wrote and debated on issues concerning day to day life, blending abstract with science, religion, and math. Their work formed the basis for evolution of modern city state of Athens and later the first wave of European political dominance across continents.

At a much smaller scale, and more sociopolitical rather than metaphysical in nature, Pune saw a similar aggregation of a galaxy of thinkers who shaped the country’s politics and influenced future leaders. Between 1873 and 1920, Pune was the ancient Greece of India – guiding a political awakening, creating institutions for lasting social change, and swaying great minds who in future would lead India’s battles for independence from the British.

The quartet of Mahadev Govind Ranade, Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak, (Maharishi) Dhondo Keshav Karve, and Gopal Krishna Gokhale did some of their stellar work independently and some in overlapping areas. From 1873, when Ranade moved to Pune as a magistrate, their ideas and impact frequently came together to develop a political and social consciousness, defined various hues of nationalism, guided the freedom movement, and brought about a social renaissance in the country. This continued until 1920 when Tilak died. While Maharashi Karve continued his social reform work long after, the period between 1873 to 1920 was Pune’s real philosophical golden age.

Mahadev Govind Ranade

Mahadev Govind Ranade, born in the Nashik district in 1842, completed his BA and LLB degrees from Bombay University from the very first batch of English system of college education introduced in India.

He was posted as a judge in Pune starting 1873. Ranade continued to work with the government of the day through his death in 1901. But during this time, he focused on using the Western education systems and theories to bring social and political reform. He wrote extensively on economics and the need for economic upliftment as a precursor to the success of an independent country.

MG Ranade
MG Ranade

Ranade formed the Poona Sarvajanik Sabha and the Pratharna Samaj, focusing respectively on social and religious reforms. Vasant Vyakhyan Mala, a platform for professionals and thinkers to talk about matters of public interests, was formed by Ranade in 1875 and still runs proudly in March - May every year.

His institutions had a Congress like structure much before it was formed - a big tent of thinkers, converging and debating options for social change. Not unsurprisingly, he was a founding member of the Congress in 1885, and aimed to use the British education system to change India. He acted as a mentor to Gopal Krishna Gokhale, who joined Congress in 1889.

Bal Gangadhar Tilak

Bal Gangadhar Tilak, born in Ratnagiri in 1856, was rooted in the ideas of nationalism deeply connected with religion and personal upliftment. His thought process was considered radical in the times he lived in. In 1890, he did join the Congress; a body which he thought was not aggressive enough.

Tilak’s famous quotation in Marathi: “स्वराज्य हा माझा जन्मसिद्ध हक्क आहे आणि तो मी मिळवणारच” became a clarion call for the independence movement and before Gandhi returned from South Africa in 1914, Tilak indeed was the foremost leader of the movement. He is credited with translating this famous Marathi quote himself to English later on.


He wrote “Swarajya is my birthright and I shall have it” retaining the Indic reference ‘Swarajya’ – a word which he considered had no English parallel – a nomenclature adopted later by Rajaji and preserved in the title of this publication.

Tilak established the New English School in 1880, which aimed at making Indians conversant with English without forgetting the native roots, languages, and wisdom. In 1884, Tilak along with other Pune stalwarts formed the Deccan Education Society (DES), aimed at making modern educational tools available to a wider population, without the British control of the teaching process. The society established several colleges across Maharashtra – some of them continue to operate even today. Fergusson College in Pune is perhaps the best known DES institution.

Tilak continued institution building as opposed to isolated, individual attempts at spreading ideologies. He established the Marathi newspaper ‘Kesari’ and the English one ‘Mahratta’ in 1881. He used the Ganesh Mandals as a socio-religious force to mobilize people at large against the British starting 1894.

Tilak also started celebrating the birth anniversary of Chhatrapati Shivaji opening another social mobilization front in 1895. Finally, he introduced the concept of Swadeshi to the Indian political lexicon which was wholeheartedly adopted by Gandhi as the cornerstone of his non cooperation movement later in the 20th century. All these institutions and ideas of Tilak continue to influence and guide Indian politics 130 years later.

Tilak was the first nationalist movement leader to endorse the need for industrialization. His papers Kesari and Maharatta had talked about it earlier. Tilak supported Antaji Kale, probably India’s first crowdsourced fund-raiser who had raised a Paisa Fund of ₹7,000 from 200 villages for a glass factory.

Tilak was imprisoned by the British in Mandalay from 1908 to 1914. While in prison, he learnt French and German to understand the perspective of global writers on Shrimad Bhagavad-Geeta. He then completed a 400 page handwritten manuscript of Geeta Rahasya imploring people to learn action from the revered text rather than contemplation. This interpretation was published in 1915 after his release from the prison.

In the political arena however, this was also the time when the moderate factions in Congress became more dominant. Gandhi was emerging on the Indian political scene as a protégé of Gokhale, which more or less coincided with Tilak’s release from the prison. After his release, Tilak never recovered his standing within the Congress and died in 1920.

Gopal Krishna Gokhale

Gopal Krishna Gokhale, born in Ratnagiri district in 1866, also studied in the British system and came to admire the British political institutions, seeking their use against dethroning the colonialists from India. Gokhale was mentored by Ranade and joined Congress in 1889. Gokhale sought to pursue social reforms as a prerequisite for a strong independence movement and was not shy of active government intervention in forcing changes to old customs and practices within the society.


Gokhale worked in Pune, being one of the important members of the DES himself. He continued to cooperate with the British government via participation in legislative institutions and councils with a view to use that influence to drive the British towards conceding self-rule in India.

He created the Servants of India Society (SIS) in 1905, which aimed at creating an empowered body of Indian citizenry, which would parallel the Indian Civil Service without being controlled by the British. He envisaged the SIS as a means to run the country once the self-rule was achieved. The SIS provided an endowment to start the Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics in 1930, a foremost educational institute which continues to operate today. The institute is located at the site of Gokhale’s house in Pune – also the venue where he guided Gandhi (and Jinnah) on political matters towards the fag end of his life.

Gokhale became the Congress President in 1905. During his term, he guided Congress towards a more moderate and reformist agenda. He visited South Africa in 1912 to meet Gandhi, and upon Gandhi’s return to India, Gokhale spent time in making him conversant with the prevailing conditions in India and the realities of Indian politics. Gandhi has acknowledged Gokhale as his mentor in his writings. In this sense, the well known Gandhi-Nehru school of thought that shaped modern India was rooted in the Ranade-Gokhale school of politics. After Gokhale died in 1915, this moderate, liberal reformist movement left Pune to be owned by Gandhi as his emergence of the leader of Indian independence movement in 1920 and by Nehru a few years later.

The Tilak-Gokhale Duality

The Ranade-Gokhale school of political thought was frequently at divergence with the Tilak approach despite the fact that Gokhale and Tilak worked together for a long time. Tilak advocated a conservative view of adopting social modernism without government intervention and embracing newer ideas voluntarily with a gradual change from within the society.

This caused a run-in with Gokahle over the Age of Consent Bill in 1891 which aimed at increasing the age of consent from 10 to 12 via legislation. While both Gokhale and Tilak were all for the change, the former saw legislation as an acceptable, even required means of the change because the pace the society was setting was inadequate.

They both became Congress secretaries in 1895 and continued to lead Congress in their own ways for the next decade. In 1905 Gokhale became the Congress President which is when his feud with Tilak peaked.

He opposed Tilak taking over as the Congress President in 1906, and at this point, the Congress was virtually bifurcated into a moderate faction and an extremist faction both being run effectively from Pune. With Tilak getting imprisoned and Gokhale dying soon after his release, their feud only lasted for a year, but it threw Congress in disarray for a decade and half until Gandhi shot to prominence.

It was the greatness of these men that they coexisted and flourished in the same milieu and context over two decades. When Gokhale died, Tilak paid him a glowing tribute:

“The mainspring of Gokhale’s life was his selfless dedication to the cause of his country. ….a person who shows the marvelous self-restraint of dedication himself to the cause of the country, while the physical powers are still intact, while the body is still able to work for selfish ends, while old age is still far off and when the pleasures of family life are still alluring and naturally attract the mind, such a person is indeed blessed and such a man was Gokhale”.

Maharishi Karve

Dhondo Keshav Karve, born in the Ratnagiri district in 1858, and a recipient of Bharat Ratna in 1958, was a social reformer dedicated to the cause of women education and their position in the society. He himself married a widow and faced social resistance for it. He had to move to the village of Hingane from Pune to set up a school and an ashram for widows in 1896. He funded this place through his own means and worked in Fergusson College Pune teaching mathematics. Karve would walk up to 20 kms a day to teach so that he could fund his ashram.

Maharishi Karve
Maharishi Karve

In 1916, he founded the first university in India for women teaching five students. After receiving a grant in 1920, he named it Shreemati Nathibai Damodar Thackersey University (SNDT) as wished by the donors. SNDT started a college later in Mumbai and shifted to Mumbai permanently in 1936. Karve also founded other institutions as Samata Sangh and Maharashtra Village Primary Education Society with a view to extend education outside cities and to a wider set of demographics.

Karve died in 1962 at a ripe age of 104.

Other Pune Luminaries

The above four stalwarts were ably supported and supplemented in their efforts by a host of other reformers in Pune.

Mahatma Jyotiba Phule (1827-1890) was a social reformer, who looked the western ideals and the society as the model to rid Indian society of casteism and untouchability. He was the founder of Satyashodhak Mandal, which empowered people from lower castes and promoted women education. He was bestowed the title of Mahatma in 1888. Mahatma Phule is also credited with the word Dalit, which is now an integral part of Indian political lexicon.

Savitribai Phule (1831-1897) was a social reformer working on women welfare issues, caste and gender discrimination challenges. Along with her husband, Mahatma Phule, she founded the first girls’ school in India in Pune as early as 1848. She died during the bubonic plague outbreak of 1896. The Pune University today carries her name.

Gopal Ganesh Agarkar (1856-1895) edited the Kesari and Maharatta newspapers when they were launched and was part of the team which founded the educational institutions in 1880s. Agarkar later started his own publication Sudharak after a fall out with Tilak. Through Sudharak, Agarkar continued to focus on the social ills of untouchability and the plight of widows.

Vishnushastri Chiplunkar (1850-1882) was famous for writing critical appraisals of various Sanskrit works. He translated many Sanskrit works in Marathi and sold books to bring Marathi literature into the mainstream. With Tilak, he was the founding member of the New English School, the DES, and the Kesari and Maharatta newspapers.

Ramakrishna Gopal Bhandarkar (1837-1925) was a well known Indologist and social reformer. Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, the leading place for Indic research, was founded by him in 1917 along with Bharat Ratna Pandurang Vaman Kane, another Indologist of great repute. Bhandarkar also rallied against child marriages and caste system and encouraged widow remarriage. His works on Vaishnav sect and Satavahana history is considered definitive.

Chapekar Brothers (Damodar 1870-1898, Balkrishna 1873-1899, Vasudeo 1879-1899) were the first revolutionaries of the freedom struggle. Influenced by the writings of Tilak, and disturbed by the highhandedness of WC Rand, an ICS officer posted in Pune at the time of the bubonic plague outbreak in 1896, the brothers killed Rand and one of his deputies. They were all sentenced to death. Their actions inspired many nationalist leaders including Veer Savarkar, who was barely 16 when Chapekar brothers went to the gallows.

Pune, which once was the de facto capital of India, and was formally considered a potential capital by the British when they started contemplating a move out of Kolkata, had a late second burst at driving the destiny of modern India. Pune’s venerable galaxy of reformers and thinkers left behind a vast body of theories, ideas, and institutions, all reflected in today’s discourse. They left an indelible impression on the independence movement as well as contemporary and future politics.

Untimely deaths of several of these stalwarts led to their legacies moving out of Pune, still thriving and growing. Most national political ideologies – including the simplified, often unrepresentative binaries of Left and Right – and many Delhi careers owe their legitimacy to the Pune of 1873 – 1920. Very few Indians however know it, let alone acknowledge the contribution of the city.

And that is the supreme Greek tragedy of Pune.

The author thanks Amit Paranjape (@aparanjape on Twitter) for his valuable inputs for this article.

Aashish Chandorkar writes on issues of public policy. The views expressed are personal.
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