Shortly after Gopal Krishna Gokhale died in February 1915, Mohandas K. Gandhi declared, “He is dead, but his work is not dead, for his spirit lives.” History had other plans. Just a handful of years after his demise, Gokhale’s trademark brand of careful political moderation lay discredited and abandoned, his work and spirit all but extinguished. Except, perhaps, as an opposite number to Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Gokhale was steadily erased from public memory. Today, he might command a throwaway line or two in any schoolbook narrative of Indian nationalism. Even in his native Maharashtra, the man whom Gandhi declared as his guru is remarkably forgotten.
A decade of scholarship on Indian liberalism—developed against the backdrop of modern India’s dramatic descent into political illiberalism—has revived some interest in Gokhale and his fellow moderates. In Indian Liberalism between Nation and Empire, Elena Valdameri offers a deeply nuanced and detailed account of Gokhale’s ideas and politics. This is not a narrative biography. Rather, Valdameri focuses on four dimensions of Gokhale’s thought—liberalism, nationalism, cosmopolitanism, and citizenship—picking apart certain ideological constructs and contradictions.
She pulls no punches. At times, Valdameri can be highly critical of her subject’s conservatism, his patronizing attitudes, and his Brahminical world view. What emerges, therefore, is a cautionary tale about Indian liberalism. In Gokhale’s hands, Indian liberal politics could be both remarkably myopic and remarkably ambitious.
Why does Gokhale matter? Although he died at the age of 48—overworked and overweight—Gokhale became one of the Congress’ senior-most statesmen, a man who tied together the world of its founding leaders with the generation of Gandhi. There were important imperial and global dimensions to his political career. Gokhale clearly understood that meaningful political reform was impossible without intense lobbying in Whitehall and Westminster. He recognized, earlier than others, that the sufferings of Indians in South Africa were of national and imperial consequence. And he took part in a worldwide circulation of ideas ranging from temperance to education. Gokhale scoured several global intellectual traditions to buttress his own political positions, mixing the ideas of Mazzini, Burke, List, Mill, and Vivekananda.
Valdameri presents Gokhale as a dynamic thinker who made several lasting contributions to Indian political modernity. First, he fashioned ideas of citizenship which, although hierarchical, envisioned the socioeconomic mobility of the poorest and most disadvantaged of Indians. Second, he thought deeply about the social and economic purposes of mass education. Last, he articulated the idea that the Indian government had a significant responsibility for public welfare—that the state needed to be an instrument for upliftment and improvement. In these ways, Valdameri inserts a few more nails into the coffin of the Cambridge school, with its cynical conception of early nationalism being motivated by elite self-interest.
Valdameri demonstrates how Gokhale’s political thought spanned everything from the local to the global. Gokhale placed great faith in local government, believing that local boards and municipalities were spaces “where citizens could be trained to work together and share the same political culture” (p. 38). During his career, he held positions of importance at the municipal, provincial, and national levels. Government, he argued, needed to be balanced with a robust civil society: an organizational fabric which would speed along India’s socioeconomic advancement while also knitting together citizens into a common nationhood. By strengthening the nation—by developing nationalism “as a form of civic religion”—Indians could, in turn, achieve something greater and more universal, the advancement of humanity (p. 76). Liberalism was the cornerstone of this capacious political vision, providing a strong sense of moral legitimacy to political activity. As Valdameri notes, for Gokhale, “liberalism was higher than nationalism” (p. 81).
Education is a theme that pervades Valdameri’s book. This is no surprise: like so many of his liberal nationalist peers, Gokhale began his adult life as a teacher. One of his most notable endeavors (albeit a failed one) was his attempt to institute free, compulsory primary school education across the country. Due to his lifelong attachment to the classroom, Gokhale thought deeply about the forms and social purposes of education. Historians might take special interest in how Gokhale understood the political utility of their discipline—his belief that history inculcated a “love of free institutions.” British history demonstrated the power of constitutional liberty while Irish history could provide Indians with a model of “steady work and disinterested sacrifice” (p. 36). Unlike Tilak or even Mahadev Govind Ranade, Gokhale was far less starry eyed about Indian history. Any political vision for India, he therefore believed, could not be “rooted in the past;” it had to be “built in the future” (p. 77).
Valdameri relies upon Gokhale’s educational views to trace the particularities of his liberalism as well as some of its most glaring contradictions. Gokhale was a Chitpavan Brahmin and, not surprisingly, his perspectives on education could carry a strong whiff of Brahminical exclusivity. The educated elite, Gokhale believed, had a stronger claim on the rights of citizenship and also a consequent duty to teach and lead the rest of society, instilling upper-caste notions of morality and sacrifice. Social upliftment was a prerogative, but it was to be done in a markedly top-down fashion (should it be of any surprise that Gokhale was in close contact with Sidney and Beatrice Webb?). At times, however, even this prerogative could be up for negotiation. While campaigning for greater social rights for lower-caste Indians, Gokhale conceded that their elevation did not mean that “you have all at once to mix with them and on terms of perfect equality” (p. 102).
That Gokhale’s liberalism could be blinded by his own caste privilege is nothing new: Sarojini Naidu said much the same thing in her time. But such criticisms merit a word of caution. To be fair to Gokhale, by simply acknowledging the plight of lower-castes and Dalits, and by advocating their socioeconomic advancement, he was already light years ahead of many of his political contemporaries. Any analysis of Indian liberal thought from a century ago will reveal ideas which can seem uncomfortably patriarchal, casteist, and hypocritical to us today. But liberals, it must be remembered, did not believe in setting the world on fire to achieve their goals. They spoke and acted cautiously because they believed that caution—especially in light of the colonial context and India’s deep social conservatism—was the only way to accomplish anything of value without attendant social disorder or a reactionary backlash (cue to Tilak). Caution does not excuse their biases and obfuscations, but it does help us understand that political calculus probably lay behind much of their hedging.
Valdameri does recognize that, despite Gokhale’s casteism, he could be remarkably farsighted in envisioning the liberating potential of mass education. Only mass education, free and compulsory, could produce social change, enabling upward social mobility while eradicating evils such as child labor. Furthermore, it was essential for democratization, promoting “individual autonomy, empowerment and freedom of choice so that criticising the government and protesting against unjust measures would become a duty” (p. 202). He assailed those small-minded Indians who worried that mass education would disturb social hierarchies or—horror of horrors!—deplete their supply of servants. Gokhale’s significance lay in how he conceptualized “school education as the ally of the poor” (p. 203).
One of the strongest elements of this book is how it places Gokhale in a global context. Many of Gokhale’s world views were filtered through the lens of empire, but they were still noteworthy. Valdameri demonstrates that Gokhale was particularly fascinated by Japan. It was not just the outcome of the Russo-Japanese War which elicited his admiration: Gokhale cited Japan’s success in compulsory education and its experience of abolishing untouchability. But Japan could also provide a model of how to match conservatism with development. Here was “a hierarchical and well-functioning society in which the people followed their leaders,” and Gokhale wished that much the same could be true of India (p. 85).
Gokhale’s strongest international associations were, of course, with the imperial mother country. He became a familiar figure in British political circles, undertaking arduous negotiations with John Morley, the secretary of state for India, while parlaying with Liberals and Labourites. Valdameri avoids imperial high politics to focus instead on how Gokhale’s forged his brand of cosmopolitanism through associational links in Britain. Through temperance activities and his work with the Moral Education League, which sought a humanist alternative to religious education, Gokhale took up “reform principles largely seen as universal” (p. 191).
From close engagement with Gokhale’s private papers and published writings, Valdameri has assembled a comprehensive and dispassionate account of the standard-bearer of Indian liberal politics. It would have been useful if she paid more attention to how Gokhale’s political views evolved over time. No political career, after all, remains in stasis. But her work has demonstrated that Gokhale was a far more complex, dynamic, and interesting thinker than is otherwise portrayed in extant literature.
 Stanley Wolpert, Gandhi’s Passion. The Life and Legacy of Mahatma Gandhi, New York 2001, p. 84.