Crawford Market in South Mumbai, is one of the busiest shopping areas of the city, with thousands thronging there each day. Amidst the noise, the jostling crowds and the chaotic traffic, stands a crumbling, pale yellow building that you could easily miss. But do pause and take a look. At the entrance you will find a bust of one of the most influential leaders of India’s struggle for independence, Lokmanya Tilak. This is the ‘Sardar Griha’ where Tilak lived whilst in Mumbai and it played host to all the meet-ups in the formative days of the struggle.
Established in 1898, Sardar Griha was the most well equipped, and well run guesthouse of its time in Mumbai, which catered to Indians. Other hotels like the Watsons Hotel close by, were ‘only’ for Europeans. No wonder then that notable Indians like Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Patel and noted social reformers like Rajashri Shahu Maharaj all stayed here.
Apart from his famous war cry ‘Swaraj is my birthright and I shall have it’ Lokmanya Tilak was also someone who realised the need to connect India’s independence movement to the grass roots and create a sense of national pride. He did this by using the local Maharashtrian Ganesh festival as a community celebration with the aim to unite the Hindus in 1892. The following year, he brought the festival to Mumbai and the first sarvajanik Ganesh Utsav was celebrated at the Keshavji Naik chawl, in the Girgaum area of Mumbai, not very far from Sardar Griha. He would also start the Shivjayanti celebrations to commemorate the birth anniversary of Maratha King Chhatrapati Shivaji.
However, it was his political activities that would keep bringing him to Mumbai. It was in the central hall of the Bombay High Court that Lokmanya Tilak was tried on three occasions for the charges of sedition and provocative speeches and articles in his Marathi newspaper ‘Kesari’. He was defended by none other than Muhammad Ali Jinnah but was found guilty. On being asked by the judge whether he had anything to say before the final verdict, Lokmanya Tilak uttered the following words which are now carved on a marble tablet outside the Central Court of Bombay and can be seen even today.
Again in 1908 and 1916, Lokmanya Tilak was charged with similar allegations and tried at the Bombay High Court. It was in 1908 trial, that Tilak repeated his famous remark ‘Swaraj is my birthright, and I shall have it’. By 1916, Lokmanya Tilak was also ready to hand over the baton of leadership to the next generation of leaders and the young MK Gandhi, who had just returned to India, was an able candidate to take a leaf from Tilak’s book and make India’s Independence movement a pan-India mass movement.
It was in his room on the fourth floor of the Sardar Griha, that Lokmanya Tilak passed away on 1stAugust 1920. It was the very same day that Mahatma Gandhi launched his civil disobedience movement. Over two lakh people came to bid a final goodbye to Lokmanya Tilak at his funeral on the Chowpatty, beach on Mumbai’s Marine Drive.
The city had never seen an outpouring of this magnitude!