The newspaper that Lokmanya Tilak edited is still brought out by his great-grandson. The struggle goes on
Lhendup G Bhutia | 09 Aug, 2019
Deepak Tilak, editor of Kesari (Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
IN THE late 1990s Kesari faced what was arguably its greatest challenge. The Marathi publication established by Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak in 1881 and edited by him for much of his life, which had fought the Empire, survived gag orders and incarceration of its editors, most notably Tilak’s, waded into the biggest issues of the day and arguably even gave shape to the idea of India, was now, more than a century later, faced with a different beast: market forces.
Rival Marathi newspapers, backed either by corporate entities or political parties, had begun to expand themselves aggressively. They were slashing prices, introducing incredibly low subscription rates and coming out with new editions. This intense competitiveness was most visible in the Kesari office itself. Every few days, the current editor of the newspaper and Tilak’s great-grandson Deepak Tilak recounts, a journalist would leave the organisation with a fat raise for a rival publication. Kesari couldn’t match those salaries or come up with equally aggressive strategies because the newspaper, as Deepak informs, isn’t a commercial product and is run by a trust, Kesari Mahratta Trust. To compound matters, his father Jayantrao Tilak, a former editor of the newspaper who had also served as a Congress parliamentarian and the Chairman of the Maharashtra Legislative Council, died in 2001.
“In those days, every time I would go somewhere, people would ask me if the paper had shut down,” Deepak says.
So how did it survive?
“By this,” Deepak says and raises his arms in his office to indicate the building where it is located. His great-grandfather Tilak had lived and worked out of a two-storied structure at this spot, known locally as Narayan Peth, for much of his lifetime. One half comprised the living quarters for him and his family. The rest was used for Kesari’s publication. Even after his death, apart from a few small construction jobs carried out by later descendants, the area stood much as it had during Tilak’s life. Deepak now began to tear the structure down and build a larger construction in its premises. It took him around 17 years in all, he says, from 1986 to 2003, to establish as it stands today, a rim of three buildings, each about five floors high, with an open space between them. He would scrounge around for money, build a bit and then wait for more money to be raised. “We would finish one part, give it for rent and move [the Kesari] office to another floor,” he says.
The money to run the newspaper, Deepak says, now comes almost entirely from the rent collected from various offices that have taken up space here. They are still not entirely out of the woods. The newspaper has a dedicated but, compared to other newspapers, fairly small readership. He claims Kesari has a daily circulation of around 70,000 copies. In comparison, the largest Marathi publications claim to have in excess of 250,000. But for now, he says, there are no monetary constraints threatening the newspaper. “It was good I did [the construction]. The competition is even more intense now. Otherwise…” he says without completing the thought.
The Kesari was established by Tilak and his friend and later rival Gopal Ganesh Agarkar, along with a handful of others, as part of a grand vision in 1881. This was an exciting moment. The war of 1857 was behind them, the British Queen had promised more freedom in her Proclamation of 1858, and a new generation of urbane, English-educated and politically alert youths were breaking out on to the scene.
Tilak and his companions, most of them in their early 20s and fresh out of college, inspired by the missionary zeal with which they saw Jesuits going about establishing educational centres, wanted to involve themselves in education too. They saw themselves as teachers. So the group established a school offering Western education first (the New English School in 1880), followed the next year by two weeklies, the Kesari and the Mahratta, through which they could educate public opinion. Later, they formed the Deccan Education Society, which established many higher education institutes, such as Pune’s Fergusson College. The group began with a youthful zeal, three families (of Tilak, Agarkar and colleague Mahadev Ballal Namjoshi) living out of a three-roomed house (one for the men, another for the women and the third, a kitchen-cum-dining space) while running a school and two newspapers.
The Mahratta, edited by Tilak, was an English publication intended to engage the ‘enlightened’ section of Marathi society. Its brief was to convey the ideas of its editors to the Raj and other members of the Indian intelligentsia. The Kesari in comparison was meant to be a paper for the masses. Edited by Agarkar for the first six years (before he quit after several run-ins with Tilak to establish another newspaper, Sudharak) and by Tilak thereafter, the Kesari was a Marathi publication meant to educate the masses in the region.
According to a biography of Lokmanya Tilak, written by historians AK Bhagwat and GP Pradhan in 1956, there were only three or four newspapers around at that time in what is Maharashtra today. All of them were purely commercial products with neither an editorial policy nor a stated mission like those of the Kesari and the Mahratta. In a very short time, both became the most prominent publications in the region. In their early years, it is said that Tilak wasn’t particularly interested in writing. He would have much rather devoted his life to academics and mathematics. But as he went about ‘educating’ people through the newspaper, the newspaper too educated him. It took him out of his interests in academia to thrust him again and again into the burning issues of the day. NC Kelkar, Tilak’s confidant who later served as the Kesari’s editor, is quoted as having said, “It is impossible to consider the Kesari exclusive of Lokmanya Tilak and Tilak apart from the Kesari.” For all purposes, the paper became him, and he, the paper.
Before Tilak emerged on the scene, the Congress was dominated by what came to be known as the Moderate section. Through the Kesari and his work outside of it, Tilak took political discussions out of the rarefied atmosphere of occasional Congress meetings and sessions to the homes of people. According to Bhagwat and Pradhan’s Lokmanya Tilak, he pointed out that the ‘work of the Congress which had been verbal so far and of a very general propaganda nature should now be made more particular and pointed. Instead of making it annual fare it must be given a day-to-day function.’ Tilak came to represent the Extremist group within the Congress, earning from the British the title ‘the father of the Indian unrest’, eventually splitting the Congress for a few years.
There is an amusing incident recalled by Gandhi in The Story of My Experiments with Truth. When he travelled to Pune in 1896, then a hotbed of political activities, to conduct a meeting with key Congress leaders, he was faced with the thorny issue of how to get members of both camps to attend it. Gandhi had already begun to acquire a name for his work in South Africa and he first called upon Tilak. The confrontations between the Extremists and Moderates were yet to exacerbate to result in a split, but the two camps already hated each other. Tilak told him, “You do not seem to be familiar with Indian politics… if a member of the Sarvajanik Sabha [controlled by Tilak and the Extremists then] is selected to preside over your meeting, no member of the Deccan Sabha [controlled by Gopal K Gokhale and the Moderates] will attend it. Similarly, if a member of the Deccan Sabha were to preside, members of the Sarvajanik Sabha would absent themselves.” So to get both camps under a single roof, upon the suggestion of Tilak, and agreed upon by Gokhale in a later interaction with Gandhi, a neutral personality, a Sanskrit scholar and social reformer called RG Bhandarkar was found to conduct the meeting.
Tilak’s ideas were never mere ideas that retained their life only on the page. He shaped them into concrete programmes which made readers active participants. Tilak may thus be called the original nationalist, as the term is understood today. He infused the Indian freedom struggle with religion. Hinduism for him became a political force to Indianise the freedom struggle. He made Ganapati festivals into what they are today, elaborate public spectacles, and he found in Shivaji a heroic character through which people’s sentiments could be aroused.
Tilak published articles against both government policies and his detractors among the Moderates. Many of his articles were charged as seditious (cases were also made that his articles had instigated people to kill government officials), and Tilak twice went to jail on those charges, both incidents further cementing his position as the foremost leader of the Indian struggle, before Gandhi emerged on the scene.
In the February 4th, 1902 issue of Kesari, according to a translation of an article in the paper in Bhagwat and Pradhan’s Lokmanya Tilak, about 22 years into the newspaper’s existence, Tilak took a review of its growth. The number of pages in the newspaper had now been doubled. It had grown from a subscription ranging from 700 to 1,000, according to the article, to a circulation of about 13,000 and a readership of 75,000 by 1902. The political policy of the newspaper was also more combative. Tilak wrote, ‘The Kesari was born at a time when Lord Lytton had passed his Act of the Freedom of the press (Vernacular Press Act). That was a time when it was thought that writing in the newspaper should be such as would not hurt the feelings of the rulers. That time has now gone. We consider it our duty to work for awakening the people, to teach them sincerity and the sense of unity. We write not for the rulers but in order that the readers might imbibe our spirit and understand our thoughts, our agonies and our indignation.’
Tilak published articles against both government policies and his detractors among the Moderates. Many of his articles were charged as seditious (cases were also made that his articles had instigated people to kill government officials), and Tilak twice went to jail on those charges, both incidents further cementing his position as the foremost leader of the Indian struggle, before Gandhi emerged on the scene
ut for all the political activities going on in the country then, there was an equally powerful social churn in the society. And here, even by the standards of his time, Tilak appeared incredibly orthodox. He was obsessed with the antiquity of Aryans and where they might have originated from. He wrote books where he examined zodiacal positions from Vedic hymns to arrive at the idea that Aryans’ original home was situated near the North Pole. He used the Kesari to attack social reformers. To him, political reform had to have priority over social reform. His once-friend and reformer Agarkar and Tilak battled almost daily in their respective newspapers. He upheld the varna system as a principle of stability and claimed it was less harmful than the class structure of Western society. If one looked at his personal life, his cooks were always Brahmins, even when he was sent to jail in Burma and travelled to London later.
Dorothy M Figueira, a comparative literature professor, in her book Aryans, Jews, Brahmins: Theorizing Authority through Myths of Identity cites the Sanskrit scholar RS Bhandarkar who is once believed to have accused Tilak and other orthodox anti-reformers of abusing scripture by enlisting authoritative texts to support ideological projects. ‘He twists a passage in an old work so as to harmonise it with that practise, in spite of grammar and propriety. He thus belongs to the school of those who find the steam engine and the electric telegraph in the Vedas,’ Bhandarkar is believed to have said. Bhagwat and Pradhan’s biography recounts an incident in Mumbai in the later mellow years of his lifetime, when he made a speech advocating for the removal of untouchability. Later when the organiser, Vithal Ramji Shinde, approached him in private with a memorandum for the removal of untouchability to be signed, Tilak refused to sign up.
He appears most woefully out of touch when it comes to women’s rights. According to Ramachandra Guha in his book Makers Of Modern India, ‘Tilak had a more conservative view, believing that [women] were homemakers who had to subordinate themselves to the needs of their husbands and children. By the late 1880s Tilak was also involved in the cow-protection movement, which sought to ban the eating of beef by Muslims on the grounds that it offended Hindu sentiments.’ His opinions became most glaring during the age of consent controversy. An 11-year-old girl, Phulmani Bai, died from injuries sustained during sexual intercourse with her considerably older husband in 1890. The Legislative Council decided to act, since the husband was not liable to any criminal charge. But Tilak argued the English as foreigners had no jurisdiction over matters of religion. Figueira writes, ‘Tilak claimed that Phulmani Bai died from having ‘an unusually dangerous organ.’ Her husband had justifiably omitted ‘to speculate upon the comparative dimensions and vigour of the sexual organs of both either before or at the time of his marriage or intercourse.’ Tilak blamed the girl’s death on her being one of those ‘dangerous freaks of Nature.’’
The Kesari today stands on the third floor of a building at Narayan Peth. It has the air not of a newspaper office—there are no telephones ringing off the hook or furious clattering of keyboards—but that of a sleepy government office. There are files here, some of which appear to have been unopened for years, stacked up on desks and hidden over cabinets. People stare listlessly into their computer screens, only to look up occasionally at a clock.
The only excited face belongs to a 66-year-old. Seated behind a large portrait of Tilak inside a wood-panelled cabin, Deepak Tilak asks, with his face lighting up, “Have you seen it yet?” He is referring to the Kesari website, launched on August 1st, the death anniversary of Tilak. He points to the smartphone on the table: “It is the future, you know. Everything will be read there now.”
Dressed in a white shirt and cream trousers, Deepak has a gentle air about him. He possesses a frail figure and a soft voice; when he laughs, his entire body quakes in his chair. The Kesari, according to him, has survived all these years because it has managed to reorient itself according to the times. The other publication, Mahratta, hasn’t been as lucky. It is now an English publication, brought out only once every three months. It functions more as a journal carrying research by students at the Tilak Maharashtra Vidyapeeth in Pune (where Deepak serves as the Vice-Chancellor). The Kesari in comparison went from a weekly, brought out on Tuesdays in Tilak’s time, to a biweekly in 1929, a triweekly in 1951, to a daily finally in 1962. The final change occurred during the editorship of Deepak’s father Jayantrao Tilak. Jayantrao, as Deepak points out, faced circumstances that were quite similar to Tilak. Jayantrao brought out the newspaper, got involved in political activities such as the Goa liberation movement and the Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti which demanded the state of Maharashtra with then Bombay as its capital, and even went to jail for his activities.
But the biggest changes occurred, according to Deepak, during his period. He embraced all the shifts in printing technology, survived the competition, even launching several Kesari editions in different cities of Maharashtra. In the 1990s, even though the Kesari did not host a website with original articles, it became the first Marathi newspaper to launch an e-paper. “I knew from back then there was a dedicated group. People were logging in from the US and UK to see what we were printing,” he says. The new push for a website which will host fresh news, although delayed, is part of this forward-looking outlet, according to him.
Deepak had graduated with an MBA. But he always knew he was meant to fill his father’s shoes. He has now started grooming his children, a daughter and a son, to replace him when the time comes. “The newspaper means a lot to the family,” he says. “I grew up here, looking at my father, listening to stories about Lokmanya. No, I don’t think any one of us will let it shut down.”
It is about 6 pm now and a persistent rain has begun to fall. The non-editorial section of the office is shutting down. “The editorial people are just waking up,” he says. He walks slowly out of the office and into the lift, where a man stands with an umbrella to help him outside the premises.