Gopal Krishna Gokhale (9 May 1866 – 19 February 1915) was one of the founding social and political leaders during the Indian Independence Movement against the British Empire in India. Gokhale was a senior leader of the Indian National Congress and founder of the Servants of India Society. Through the Society as well as the Congress and other legislative bodies he served in, Gokhale promoted not only primarily independence from the British Empire but also social reform. To achieve his goals, Gokhale followed two overarching principles: non-violence and reform within existing government institutions.
He was born on May 9, 1866 in Kothluk village of Guhagar taluka in Ratnagiri district, in present-day Maharashtra (then part of the Bombay Presidency) in a Chitpavan Brahmin Family. Despite being relatively poor, his family ensured that Gokhale received an English education, which would place Gokhale in a position to obtain employment as a clerk or minor official in the British Raj. Being one of the first generations of Indians to receive a university education, Gokhale graduated from Elphinstone College in 1884. Gokhale’s education tremendously influenced the course of his future career – in addition to learning English, he was exposed to western political thought and became a great admirer of theorists such as John Stuart Mill and Edmund Burke.
In 1905, when Gokhale was elected president of the Indian National Congress and was at the height of his political power, he founded the Servants of India Society to specifically further one of the causes dearest to his heart: the expansion of Indian education. For Gokhale, true political change in India would only be possible when a new generation of Indians became educated as to their civil and patriotic duty to their country and to each other. Believing existing educational institutions and the Indian Civil Service did not do enough to provide Indians with opportunities to gain this political education, Gokhale hoped the Servants of India Society would fill this need.
In his preamble to the SIS’s constitution, Gokhale wrote that “The Servants of India Society will train men prepared to devote their lives to the cause of country in a religious spirit, and will seek to promote, by all constitutional means, the national interests of the Indian people.”
The Society took up the cause of promoting Indian education in earnest, and among its many projects organized mobile libraries, founded schools, and provided night classes for factory workers. He was elected to the Council of India of Governor-General of India on 22 May 1903 as non-officiating member representing Bombay Province. He later served to Imperial Legislative Council after its expansion in 1909. He there obtained a reputation as extremely knowledgeable and contributed significantly to the annual budget debates. Gokhale developed so great a reputation among the British that he was invited to London to meet with secretary of state Lord John Morley, with whom he established a rapport.
Gokhale would help during his visit to shape the Morley-Minto Reforms introduced in 1909. Gokhale was appointed a CIE (Companion of the Order of the Indian Empire) in the 1904 New Year’s Honours List, a formal recognition by the Empire of his service.
Gokhale was famously a mentor to Mahatma Gandhi in his formative years. In 1912, Gokhale visited South Africa at Gandhi’s invitation. As a young barrister, Gandhi returned from his struggles against the Empire in South Africa and received personal guidance from Gokhale, including a knowledge and understanding of India and the issues confronting common Indians. By 1920, Gandhi emerged as the leader of the Indian Independence Movement. In his autobiography, Gandhi calls Gokhale his mentor and guide.
Gandhi also recognised Gokhale as an admirable leader and master politician, describing him as pure as crystal, gentle as a lamb, brave as a lion and chivalrous to a fault and the most perfect man in the political field. Gokhale was also the role model and mentor of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the future founder of Pakistan, who in 1912, aspired to become the “Muslim Gokhale”. Even the Aga Khan ( the Spiritual Head of the Islamic sect of Ismaili Khojas & grandfather of the present Aga Khan) has stated in his autobiography that Gokhale’s influence on his thinking was probably considerable.
He continued to be involved in the Servants of India Society, the Congress, and the Legislative Council while constantly advocating the advancement of Indian education. All these stresses took their toll, however, and Gokhale died on Feb 19, 1915 at an early age of forty-nine. Bal Gangadhar Tilak, his lifelong political opponent, said at his funeral:“This diamond of India, this jewel of Maharashtra, this prince of workers is taking eternal rest on funeral ground. Look at him and try to emulate him”.
Through his close relationship with the highest levels of British imperial government, Gokhale forced India’s colonial masters to recognize the capabilities of a new generation of educated Indians and to include them more than ever before in the governing process. Gokhale’s firm belief in the need for universal education deeply inspired the next great man on the Indian political stage, Mohandas K. Gandhi; his faith in western political institutions though rejected by Gandhi, was adopted by an independent India in 1950.