In 1901, the fiery political leader Bal Gangadhar ‘Lokmanya’ Tilak journeyed through parts of India, Sri Lanka and Myanmar (then Burma). His release from prison, two years before in 1898, had left him physically weak. Yet in this time, he had read a lot, including the Rig Veda. His political thinking too underwent radical shifts.

Tilak’s journeys convinced him that the Hindu religion was intact and vibrant, though it comprised varied practices, including the worship of diverse deities. It left him with the conviction that the followers of the religion lacked pride and self-respect. He was certain this could be corrected – but only with a national regeneration, akin to what he believed was happening in Japan at the time.

In accounts given by some historians and later biographers, Tilak and a few of his associates considered the possibility of a “Hindu invasion” – a revolution that would violently overthrow British rule to bring about an awakening. According to these, a plot was devised that envisioned Nepal’s Hindu king becoming a symbolic figure for Hindu unity, which would inspire a violent upsurge in India against the imperialists.

Such accounts, for their sheer fancifulness, have been dismissed.

Stanley Wolpert is the first to mention the plot – in his 1962 book Tilak and Gokhale, he cites an account from the early 1930s by T Devgirikar, the manager of the Chitrashila Press in Pune, set up by Tilak acolyte, Vasudev Joshi. Apart from Wolpert, AK Bhagwat and G Pradhan, who wrote a biography of Tilak in the 1960s, mention the plot too, as does present-day historian Arvind Ganachari, who refers to YD Phadke’s book on the man, Lokmanya Tilak Ani Krantivarak, and accounts by Krushnaji Prabhakar Khadilkar, a Tilak associate who played a role in the plot.

Disillusionment and deception

In 1901, Tilak and Joshi attended the Indian National Congress’ yearly session in Calcutta (now Kolkata). On an earlier occasion, Tilak, already alienated from moderate Congressmen, had ruffled feathers when he referred to these annual exercises as “frog croaking sessions”. In Calcutta, Tilak and Joshi made the acquaintance of a mysterious lady who called herself Mataji. She was a native of Tanjore, an acquaintance of Khadilkar’s, and taught at the Marathi Girls’ School in Calcutta.

The details are sketchy and Mataji remains a shadowy figure through the story – apparently, she was a controversial figure who had been involved some years ago with a member of the powerful Rana family in Nepal.

Chander Shamsher Jung Bahadur Rana. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]
Chander Shamsher Jung Bahadur Rana. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

Family intrigue and a series of murders in 1885 had already created rifts within the Rana family. In 1901, Chander Shamsher Jung Bahadur Rana had become the prime minister, after deposing the previous incumbent – a cousin, who had been in office for a mere hundred days or so. Nepal’s king then was the 25-year-old Prithvi Bir Bikram Shah. According to Dhananjay Keer, who wrote Lokmanya Tilak: Father of the Indian Struggle in 1969, despite the instability in Nepal, Mataji offered to introduce Tilak and his associates to Lt. Col. Kumar Narsingha (as mysterious a character as Mataji). Narsingha promised Tilak and Joshi that he would help them make the necessary connections in Nepal.

The plot

As it happened, Tilak and Joshi were unable to cross into Nepal due to the outbreak of a plague. Yet this is how the plot took shape: Joshi managed to convince the Maharaja that the roof of the royal palace needed re-tiling. The tile-making enterprise managed by Vasudev Joshi, Damu Joshi and Hanumantrao Kulkarni, would form the front for a bomb-making factory. The ammunitions or parts for the bombs would be supplied by a German company based in Calcutta.

Joshi also weighed upon the king to send students to Japan for training. Tilak was also enamoured with Japan at that time, as were revolutionaries across the political spectrum in India. But the promised ammunition supplies never really came through.

Despite this, Joshi was indefatigable in his efforts. In Devgirikar’s account cited by Wolpert, Joshi travelled to Afghanistan to meet adherents of the Mahanubhav (also known as the Mahanbhav) Panth. This sect dated back to around the 15th or 16th century and had once been based in the western Deccan. As the anthropologist K Suresh Singh writes, they were believers in the Krishna sect but their questioning of the Vedas and rejection of caste led to their persecution by more powerful castes and feudal elements.

As the story goes, the panth had its monasteries in the northwest, beyond the Indus. Joshi believed he could get sect members to intercede with the Amir of Afghanistan, the reform-inclined Habibullah Khan. From the retelling, it does seem that if not Tilak, his associates were certainly preparing to take a bipartisan approach toward political violence – but as with the Nepal plot, this plan too went nowhere.

There is really no detailed record or notes about this Hindu invasion. As is clear, there was no way that Tilak and his associates could engineer a Hindu invasion, either through Nepal’s king or Afghanistan (which was far-fetched, even for them). Yet events around that time and a bit later do offer an indication that radical political elements (including Tilak) considered such options quite seriously.

The Kolhapur angle

Meanwhile, Tilak’s editorials in the Kesari became even fierier. He spoke of guerrilla tactics as a useful strategy for resistance, citing examples of Italy and the Boers in South Africa. He also praised Japan and its nationalist recovery.

The other evidence of an invasion plot at this time comes from Kolhapur, a princely state in the Deccan, ruled by one of Shivaji’s descendants, Shahu Maharaj. According to the historian Ian Copland, ever since his accession in 1894, Shahu Maharaj had been keen to circumscribe the powers and cultural domination of the Brahmins. He resented their refusal to confer the Kshatriya status on him and his family.

Shahu Maharaj. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].
Shahu Maharaj. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].

A decade later, in 1903, Shahu Maharaj courted more controversy by having non-Brahmins read the Vedas and perform certain rituals – this came to be known as the Vedokta controversy. He also brought more non-Brahmins into the administration.

All this antagonised the powerful Brahmin lobby, who dominated the press and the administration – not just in Kolhapur and its feudatory states like Ichhalkaranji, but also in the Bombay Presidency. To discredit Shahu Maharaj in British eyes, a conspiracy was hatched by radical Brahmin elements, including Damu Joshi. But two attempts in 1907 and 1908 to assassinate the British political agent in Kolhapur failed spectacularly, and the conspiracy’s ringleaders were soon arrested. Damu Joshi confessed that the attempts had been made by Hanumantrao Kulkarni (in some accounts, Kulkarni was an alias for Khadilkar but this isn’t clear) who had learnt the art of bomb-making in Nepal between 1901 and 1905.

Joshi was imprisoned, and Khadilkar, a well-known playwright and journalist, would see his play Keechak Vadha banned. The evil Keechaka, a Mahabharata villain, was clearly a thinly-disguised version of the Viceroy back then, Lord Curzon. By this time, Tilak had already been arrested for sedition a third time and from 1908 onward, he served a six-year prison term in Mandalay, Myanmar.