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British view of the Ganapati Festival   (contd...)

However the critics may have reacted to the festival, it was a stroke of genius in  the given socio-political situation.  The public festival at once brought the masses and classes on a common platform and helped to arouse national sentiments among large sections of people who were hitherto oblivious to the doings of the Congress and other political conferences limited to a few English-educated elites distrustful of the masses.

From the British point of view, this was an alarming situation. The festival, as the rulers saw it, was a clever device to conduct political activities under religious grab. They were committed to a policy of religious neutrality. The Queen’s Proclamation, which followed the Revolt of 1857, had reiterated the guarantee of freedom of faith. To ban a popular religious festival was to invite a political disaster, to allow it to grow, the way it did, was equally dangerous. The only way to control and weaken the movement, at least in its political aspects was to enforce rigid restriction on the conduct of the festivities, and to malign its prime leader, Tilak, and, if possible, to incarcerate him at the first available pretext. That was precisely what they finally did.

By expressing doubts about the wisdom of starting public Ganapati festival, some well-meaning liberals like Justice Ranade unwittingly helped the authorities and the hostile Anglo-Indian press to misrepresent the aims and objectives of the festival. A close watch was kept on all the activities connected with the festival and the secret police reports on it were regularly received by the Government. Undeterred by the vicious propaganda that the festival was essentially Brahmin-oriented and decidedly anti-Muslim, Tilak and his supporters went ahead with the programme and achieved a remarkable success in the very first year of the festival.

In an editorial in the Kesari of September 18,1894 while expressing his delight at the grand success of the festival, he deligently refuted the critics’ concocted charges. He said that he did not wish to write anything about the highly prejudiced Anglo-Indian Bureaucracy or Muslims whose minds are paralysed by “ jealousy, fear and anger”. He, however, told the critics that it is absolutely absurd to call it an all-Brahmin affair, when people from all castes, low and high, enthusiastically worked together to make it truly a national festival. The need for national festival, on the lines of the ancient Olympiad festivals of the Greeks, for achieving national unity and spreading national culture, he explained in several articles in the Kesari. Such festivals, he said, provided great opportunities to the educated classes to come into close contact with the illiterate masses, to “enter into their very spirit”, and to disseminate ethical, social and political ideals among the common people. To the Prarthana Samajists and the other social reformers who were not well-disposed to the public Ganapati festival, he replied with a tinge of bitter sarcasm: “Ranade, mixing with the people in the Ganesh festival and lecturing to them in front of that God of learning, or participating freely in the anniversary celebrations of a saint like Ramdas and expatiating before hundreds of people that gathered there on the national work of that mighty and heroic sage, would be inconceivable more useful to the nation than Ranade sitting in the prayer-hall of the social reformers with his eyes and lips closed  in devoted contemplation  of their idea of almighty”. After all, nationalism is primarily a psychological phenomenon and loyalty that it evokes is essentially emotional. It is an acquired sentiment. Tilak made an effective use of the religious festival to produce national sentiments among the people. And, in turn, it was the Ganapati festival, more than anything else that first made Tilak a household name throughout Maharashtra. He was hailed as “Tilak Maharaj”.

The much-advertised anti-Muslim theory was not sustained by the secret police reports on Ganapati festivals in the different parts of the Presidency. On September 17, 1894, the Bombay Commissioner of Police made the following report on the 1894 Ganesh festival in the city: “The ‘Ganapati’ festival passed off without any disturbance. On the two principal days (the 8th and the 13th instant) there were enormous crowds accompanying the idols to the seashore, and, though the news from Poona made the people somewhat anxious, not the slightest indication of ill will between the Hindus and Musalmans was observable. The fact that the Musicians employed by the Hindus were mostly Musalmans show that at present, at all events, both parties are on good terms”.

The vexations issue of paying music before the mosques did create some serious disquiet during the 1894 Ganesh festival in Pune. For Tilak, the Muslim attitude towards the question of music was unreasonable. He hold, not without reason, that the authorities were extremely partial to the Muslim and indifferent to Hindu sentiments. The question of music was directly responsible for the communal clash that took place in Pune on the 13th September 1894 between the members of Tatyasaheb Natu’s mela and some Muslims emerging out of the mosque situated close to Daruwalla Bridge. That was the work of fanatics on both the sides. The official version of the incident was heavily loaded against the Hindus. Fortunately, this incident, which had the potentiality of producing grave consequences, was soon blown over, and the Ganapati festival continued to be celebrated, year after year, even with a greater zeal and enthusiasm.

In order to counteract the Muslim opposition to the playing of music before mosques, a claim to stop music past Hindu temples was made. But the Government did not pay any attention to it. Therefore, a month before the start of the Ganapati celebrations in Pune in 1895, there was a move on the part of the organisers to “obtain some definition of the hours of public worship in Muhammadan mosques and Masjids, since the stopping of music past Hindu temples is not enforced”. In this connection, as per the police report, “Mr. Bal Gangadhar Tilak visited the District superintendent of police this week (week ending July 23, 1895), and, in course of discussion on the ‘music question’, admitted that the claim to stop music past Hindu temples was only put forward to  bring pressure to bear upon the Muhammadans to force them to come to terms and that there is no real objections at all to the playing of any music while passing a Hindu temple”. Although the number of melas in 1895 was far more than that of the previous year, the festival passed off without a hitch.

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