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A Time for Justice?

lacuna in the book. One raises this point A Time for Justice?
Life and Times of Agarkar Gopal Ganesh Agarkar: The Secular Rationalist Reformer by Arvind Ganachari; Popular Prakashan, Mumbai, 2005; pp xvii+371, Rs 395.

contemporaries. This is perhaps a small lacuna in the book. One raises this point

A Time for Justice?

largely because the Satyashodhak Samaj founded by Phule, was responsible for theLife and Times of Agarkar first public felicitation of Agarkar and Phule. Such a discussion would have been

Gopal Ganesh Agarkar: The Secular Rationalist Reformer

by Arvind Ganachari; Popular Prakashan, Mumbai, 2005; pp xvii+371, Rs 395.


ineteenth century Maharashtra has been one big ignored chapter in the intellectual history of modern India. Most scholars know of the early nationalists. In terms of ideas and movements, even the otherwise knowledgeable do not go beyond Savarkar and the hindutva movements. Phule’s writing has remained largely unexamined. Pandita Ramabai finds a mention or two. But in her case too there has not been a systematic study that examines her papers in their entirety as far as I know. Tilak and Gokhale have been written about. That is the end of the story. We are left with Savarkar and hindutva. It is a bit like putting together a history of modern Germany on the basis of Mein Kampf alone! It is time that some justice is done to the forgotten comrades of the enlightenment project in modern Maharashtra and therefore in modern India.

Agarkar and Tilak

G G Agarkar, Tilak’s contemporary, was born in 1856 and died in 1895. In a brief life of 39 years, he fought quite a battle against brahmanical superstition and the arrogance of ruling class as it were. His was a lone battle for a rationalist modernity. The man struggled against as many vestiges of feudal brahmanism as he possibly could. Arvind Ganachari has rendered a useful service to the intellectual history of India with this book. Strange as it might sound, this is the first book on Agarkar in English – no credit to the profession of modern history in India. It is fortunate that the year of his death centenary finally saw a book on him that is both comprehensive and erudite. Ganachari has meticulously plodded through all his writings and produced a work that throws new and useful light on the endless and at times tiring battles of the 19th century.

The battle royal between Agarkar and Tilak has been variously written about, but almost inevitably in Tilak’s favour. There was a play a decade or so ago that purported to be sympathetic to Agarkar. But that also ended up giving a lion’s share of sympathy and appreciation to Tilak by simply making Tilak say a rhetorical passage in admiration of Agarkar at the most dramatic moment, the moment of his death. Tilak’s rhetorical appreciation of Agarkar comes at the very end of the play as a crowning glory. The playwright must have been certain, and rightly so, that you cannot sell a negative picture of Tilak to upper middle class and upper caste Marathi audiences. One had almost lost hope that Agarkar would ever get justice. Popular history was not interested in him. Academic history was silent about him. Ganachari deserves a word of thanks from everyone interested in the intellectual history of modern India.

Ganachari places him in the “rationalist” tradition. The most useful chapter in the book is on the making of Agarkar. The influences of Mill and Bentham are present everywhere in his writing. Ganachari is good in textual criticism. He presents a parallel analysis of Mill’s “representative government” and Agarkar’s work on the same subject of 1884. The book tries to get as many influences on Agarkar and generally his intellectual development into this account as is possible. (The only thing that he does not comment on is Agarkar’s love for Bhavabhuti and his play Uttararamacharit. This probably deserved some comment because his rival, as it were, Tilak, quotes a lot of Sanskrit but rarely, if at all, quotes from belle lettres. This after all tells quite a story as far as the different temperaments of the two pundits are concerned.)

The Ekadeshiya View

Ganachari has placed him well, indeed accurately, as far as his relationship with English liberalism is concerned. He has however not dealt with him in relation with the other thinkers like Phule who were his also useful because the people whom I call “caste radicals” for want of a better term, seem to be determined to reject all heritage that may have anything to do with brahmins. The argument seems to be that “these” reformers mattered only to the brahmins and as such are not relevant to their enterprise whatever that might be. The interesting thing is that Agarkar was aware of the sociology of his thought. He says at one place that what he had to say was certainly ‘ekadeshiya’. Now in 19th century Marathi this term meant something that is limited to one section of society and as such manifestly limited in scope. Ganachari has not talked about this ‘ekadeshiyata’ and what it meant for the debates of the time. He has also not distinguished between the radicalism of a divided and colonised society (Agarkar) and the liberalism of Empire (Mill and others). It seems to me that we cannot appreciate what the struggles of an Agarkar meant unless we place all struggles within the colonial context, whether ekadeshiya (like Agarkar’s) or sarvadeshiya (like Phule’s). To see a dichotomous relationship between the two, as many caste radicals tend to see, is a historical error. This is the reason why Ganachari could have usefully tackled the question of the ekadeshiya to which Agarkar makes a specific reference.

These comments are intended to start a discussion as it were. There are some places in the book where it seems that the copy editor did not quite do his/her job. The numbering of footnotes according to the sections of the chapter is not right. There should not be two footnotes numbered one in the same chapter. It is simply confusing and so on. But the book is nevertheless a milestone. If it generates some academic interest in Agarkar it would be a great thing; for the time for justice has been overdue. EPW

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Economic and Political Weekly August 5, 2006

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