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When a Catholic gave India the slogan: “Freedom is my birthright”

Baptista, Tilak and Annie Bessant together, founded the Indian Home Rule Movement in 1916, and thus the adaptation of a typical Catholic idea became the forerunner of India’s freedom movement through a devout Catholic, Joseph John Baptista.

When a Catholic gave India the slogan: “Freedom is my birthright”

By Joe Palathunkal
Where history is an active burial ground of memories, if Indians who celebrate freedom on every August 15 have forgotten the man who gave us the key-slogan of our freedom movement, there is no wonder.

But to forget this Catholic from the East Indian community of Bombay, will be a perilous negligence when India’s freedom is on pillory for various reasons, especially because of the lack of vigilance in a big chunk of people. “Freedom is my birthright and I shall have it,” roared Kaka Joseph Baptista, the acclaimed trade union leader and freedom fighter from Bassein (Vasai), Bombay.

Joseph was born on March 17, 1864, in the East Indian village of Matharpacady, Mazgaon, and his father John Baptista, hailed from Uttan, near Bassein. After his education in Bombay’s Catholic School, Saint Mary’s, he joined the College of Engineering in Pune and did B. A. in Political Science from Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge and later continued his studies to be a barrister.

It was during his stay in England that Baptista came in touch with Irish Home Rule Movement, started by Charles Stewart Parnell, which was a continuation of the Home Government Association founded by Isaac Butt in 1870. It was totally a Catholic one, as Ireland was a Catholic country within the domain of Britain.

When Joseph Baptista returned to India, he adopted and adapted the Irish Catholic movement for the Indian context and shared the idea with Lokmanya Tilak and Annie Besant, which fascinated the duo. Together, they founded the Indian Home Rule Movement in 1916 and thus the adaptation of a typical Catholic idea became the forerunner of India’s freedom movement, through a devout Catholic, Joseph John Baptista.

This makes Joseph Baptista’s place in our country’s freedom history, a significant and crucial one, and in a speech, former President Pranab Mukherjee did refer to him as the founder of the Home Rule Movement in India.

When he gave the slogan “Swaraj is my birthright and I shall have it,” he did not mean merely political freedom, but was hinting at an integral and holistic freedom because, he knew well that political freedom alone is useless if we don’t have freedom from poverty, communalism, casteism and others, that curtailed and curbed the freedom of every Indian.

That is why in 1920 Joseph Baptista founded the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) to alleviate the sufferings of mill workers, postmen and other blue collar people who were at the receiving end, when it came to pay and freedom. It was his most powerful weapon to fight against the exploitation of the workers. He was successful in getting 1.5 lakh workers as members of AITUC and 50 other trade unions to be part of it.

Though a highly religious minded Catholic, Baptista did not want to mix politics with religion and therefore vehemently opposed religion-based separate electorates. That averted the terrible danger of religion-based nationalism during the freedom movement.

It is true that Baptista supported Tilak to start Ganpati celebrations as a public function to arouse nationalistic feelings, which he felt was the most popular cultural medium to do it, but this should be understood within the context of those days in Maharashtra.

Throughout his life, Baptista’s concern was freedom and well-being of the suffering sections of Indian society, irrespective of their religion or caste or lack of caste, but a true Catholic outlook governed all his decisions in all his public activities.

As an active member of Bombay Municipal Corporation (BMC) for 17 years, starting from 1901, including BMC's mayorship for a year (1925 – 1926), he had shown this universal outlook in varied ways. One clear example is his advocacy that the tax-paying tenants must have the right to vote in Bombay municipal elections. Remember, it was at a time when Universal Adult Franchise was not a very favourite concept in the political world.

Yes, ‘at the stroke of midnight’, in August 1947, we all got the right to vote, but Kaka Baptista’s role in giving a push to it, in those days, must not be underestimated. So when he died on September 18, 1930, we lost a beacon and icon of our freedom struggle.

Unfortunately, historians who profiled India’s freedom struggle and its icons, inadvertently or knowingly have left out Joseph Baptista—a historical blunder that must be corrected before we murder history itself, an unhealthy trend that has crept into our land in these days. The textbooks for our students must have Baptista smiling from its pages.

(Joe Palathunkal is the Associate Editor, Living in Faith)

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