Mahadev Govind Ranade, a noted historian, social reformer, judge of the High Court of Bombay, co-founder of the Indian National Congress and one of India’s original liberals.
The muddy and gushing Panchganga river adorns the town of Kolhapur like a necklace. The fertile valley and abundant water make for lush green sugarcane fields in the district. Kolhapur has nurtured many of India’s liberals, none more impressive than Mahadev Govind Ranade.
Ranade, born in 1842 in Nashik district, spent much of his childhood in the town of Kolhapur. He then moved to Bombay to enroll in the first batch of the B.A, L.L.B degree programme at the newly constituted Bombay University. He graduated top of his class in both the bachelors and masters programmes. Soon thereafter he became the editor of an Anglo-Marathi publication called Induprakash, founded in Pune by the social reformer Gopal Hari Deshmukh. Ranade cut his social reform teeth at this publication. Throughout his life Ranade remained committed to the cause of women’s education and empowerment, inter-caste marriage, and widow-remarriage and spoke against the caste system, dowry and polygamy. He established several schools for girls including the Hazurpaga Girl’s School, and the Female High School. The Hazurpaga school, only the second instance of Indians starting a girls school for Indians at the time, remains an institution to this day.
Ranade was an institution builder. Along with Dr Atmaram Pandurang, Dr Bhandarkar and Vaman Abaji Modak, he established the Prarthana Samaj (Prayer Society) in Mumbai. He also set up the Sarwajanik Sabha and the Bharatiya Samajik Parishad. Ranade founded these organisations with the belief that society needed to reform itself before it prepared to govern itself politically. He firmly held the view that reformers must attempt holistic reform, with man at the centre rather than reform on a parallel track.
Ranade was not just sharp as a whistle but also wise. A paragraph from his writings stands out in particular, “You cannot be liberal by halves. You cannot be liberal in politics and conservative in religion. The heart and the head must go together. You cannot cultivate your intellect, enrich your mind, enlarge the sphere of your political rights and privileges, and at the same time keep your hearts closed and cramped. It is an idle dream to expect men to remain enchained and enshackled in their own superstition and social evils, while they are struggling hard to win rights and privileges from their rulers. Before long these vain dreamers will find their dreams lost.” This is a short, but powerful passage and those of us studying contemporary politics may conclude that many Indian leaders of today fail this test.
Justice Ranade nurtured a unique idea of nationalism. He believed that if individuals removed their own defects, then society would become so powerful that the British would be forced out of India. Many years later, Gopal Krishna Gokhale encouraged Mahatma Gandhi with just such a framework. What Gokhale was to Gandhi, Ranade was to Gokhale. Ranade and Gokhale alike spiritualised the politics of India, not in a religious sense per se but by inserting a moral frame to the debate about self-government in society.
Gokhale said this about Ranade at a speech made in 1903, “the first thing that struck anyone who came into contact with Mr Ranade, as underlying all his marvelous personality, was his fine, fervent, profound patriotism”. In another passage Gokhale says, “or we might speak of him as a reformer, whose comprehensive gaze ranged over the entire fabric from summit to base, and took in at the same time all parts of it, political social, religious, industrial, moral and educational; or we might speak of him as a scholar or a teacher or a worker – I believe, the greatest worker of our time; or we might take his opinions and teachings and the methods that he favoured in the different fields of our national activity and examine them”. High praise indeed, coming as it did, from one of India’s greatest intellectuals.
Ranade was not without his critics. Much of this arose in the years after his death when the Congress party transformed itself from being an elite party to a party of the masses under Gandhi and also switched its goal from home-rule to poorna-swarajya (full independence). B R Ambedkar delivered a seminal speech in 1943 titled “Ranade, Gandhi & Jinnah”. In this brilliant speech, Ambedkar damns Ranade with words and words of praise. Says Ambedkar “was Ranade a great man? He was of course great in his person. Vast in physique — he could have been called “Your Immense” as the Irish servant who could not pronounce Your Eminence used respectfully to call Cardinal Wiseman — his master. He was a man of sanguine temperament, of genial disposition and versatile in his capacity. He had sincerity, which is the sum of all moral qualities, and his sincerity was of the sort which was prescribed by Carlyle. It was not a conscious “braggart sincerity.” It was the natural sincerity a constitutional trait and not an assumed air. He was not only big in his physique and in his sincerity, he was also big in intellect. Nobody can question that Ranade had intellect of a high calibre. He was not merely a lawyer and a judge of the High Court, he was a first class economist, a first class historian, a first class educationist, and a first class Divine. He was not a politician. Perhaps it is good that he was not. For if he had been, he might not have been a Great Man”.
In one of his most eloquent political speeches, Ambedkar concludes his argument that Ranade was a ‘greater’ man than Gandhi and Jinnah, but that the ultimate failure of the liberal party must be laid at Ranade’s feet. Ambedkar was not an unbiased observer in this slow revolution that took India from British dominance to eventual independence over a 100 year period. But it is remarkable that an objective critic like Ambedkar can speak volumes about the courage, vanguard spirit, selfless service, wisdom and sagacity of one of India’s greatest sons.
The muddy waters of the Panchganga, metaphorically representing our cloudy memory and dominance of the Nehru-Gandhi political tradition, have drowned out the life and teachings of Mahadev Govind Ranade. He deserves to be remembered for these pioneering liberal ideas and the civility with which he propagated them. Some of them are contextual to time and place. But a vast majority of them stand the test of time.