“Swaraj is my birthright, and I shall have it.”
This legendary quote is often attributed to Bal Gangadhar Tilak, a stalwart of the Indian Independence Movement.
However, there is a growing consensus that it was not Tilak, but Joseph ‘Kaka’ Baptista, his close associate and fellow freedom fighter, who coined the phrase.
So, who was Kaka Baptista?
He was a lawyer and one of the founding members of the Home Rule Movement alongside the likes of Tilak and Annie Besant.
The movement was established in 1916 with the objective of mobilising Indian public opinion—largely by peaceful means—in favour of self-government from the British.
Born on March 17, 1864, to an East Indian Catholic family, Kaka attended St Mary’s School in Mumbai, before joining the College of Engineering in Pune.
It was Dadabhai Naraoji, who first took notice of his oratory and leadership skills, and urged him to sail for the UK to study politics and law. He eventually pursued his Political Science and Law degree from Fitzwilliam College, University of Cambridge.
During his time there, he came across the Irish Home Rule movement, which sought self-government for Ireland within the UK.
The movement, left a real impression on Kaka, and he began to envisage the same for India. Tilak, who was already an early prominent leader of the freedom movement, took to Kaka’s ideas and the two would grow to become close associates.
In fact, it was Kaka who played an integral role in helping Tilak launch the Sarvajanik Ganpati (public Ganpati celebrations)—an attempt to utilise community gatherings to mobilise support for the freedom movement.
In 1901, he joined the Bombay Municipal Corporation, an agency he would serve for the next 17 years. During his tenure in the BMC, Kaka successfully pushed for reforms which would allow tax-paying tenants in the city to cast their vote for the municipal elections.
Both as a lawyer and labour leader, he fervently took up the cause of blue-collar workers in the city, including mill workers and postmen, among others. However, he had other high-profile clients as well, including Tilak, whom he defended in 1907 against charges of sedition and Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, “for whom he demanded an open trial to assure the dignity of fundamental rights.”
He was one of the founders of the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) in 1920, a labour leader, as well as the one who started the Home Rule League in Belgaum in 1916, says this profile.
Speaking to the Times of India, Neville Gomes, a writer, and historian says, “It is significant that the AITUC of which he was a co-founder rattled up a membership of over 50 unions and 1.5 lakh workers.”
In 1925, Kaka was elected as Mayor of the Bombay Municipal Corporation, a post he held only for a year.
Although he was a god-fearing Catholic, Kaka wasn’t fond of mixing religion with politics. On certain occasions, he even disagreed with his community particularly on the question of separate electorates for Indian Christians.
“I thoroughly disapprove of separate electorate for Indian Christians in water-tight compartments,” he once said. His advice to the community was for greater integration into the mainstream since he knew at the time that it was too small to survive on its own.
Five years after he was first elected Mayor, Kaka passed away in Mumbai due to heart problems.
After his passing, Dr DA D’Monte, one of the mourners, told the Times of India in 1930, “his (Baptista’s) friends knew that he was a man of Hindustan, a typical Maratha, and that this meant (he was) too large to be limited to his immediate surroundings.”
Today, his body remains buried in the Sewri cemetery. The Joseph Baptista Gardens in South Mumbai, that are locally known as the Mazagaon Gardens, are named after him.
In its obituary for this leading light of freedom struggle, the Times of India wrote in 1930, “He (Baptista) will be remembered more as a protagonist of home rule for India, a man who sang that slogan almost a generation before it became really popular.”
For the longest time, there was no concerted effort to keep his memory alive with possibly the exception of a book by KR Shirsat titled ‘Joseph Baptista: The father of Home Rule in India.’
However, today the East Indian community in Mumbai have started the ‘Kaka Baptista Project’ to raise awareness about the contribution of this leader.
We need to learn more about these forgotten heroes.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)