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Story Publication logo May 19, 2024

India to South Africa: How Two Activists Defied Their Family Legacies To Challenge Injustice

Hindu temple in South Africa

This project looks into political and religious tensions in Africa’s largest Indian community.


Bert Verhoeff for Anefo, CC0. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Samyak Prakashan.

Beyers Naudé was an outspoken Christian minister in South Africa, Shridharpant Tilak was an anti-caste activist in Maharashtra.

The month of May marks two important anniversaries for two very different activists. One was born on May 10, 1915; the other died on May 25, 1928. These individuals led very different lives over the course of the 20th century — one was an outspoken Christian minister in South Africa, the other was an anti-caste activist in Maharashtra.

These men shared one key similarity: they were born into privileged families, with incredibly influential fathers who held regressive attitudes, one about race, the other about caste. And yet, through the course of their lives, both these activists defied their family legacies to challenge the injustice they saw around them.

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In this current moment, when hate and bigotry of all forms seem to be on the rise across the world, the examples of Beyers Naudé (1915-2004) and Shridharpant Tilak (1896-1928) are worth revisiting today.

Beyers Naudé

Beyers Naudé (1915-2004) was a Christian minister who became one of the most prominent white activists in South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle. He was born in Johannesburg in 1915 into an influential Afrikaner family (descendants of primarily Dutch settlers) who were known to be “faithful members” of the Dutch Reformed Church, which later played a key role in justifying apartheid through Christian teachings.

Three years after Beyers’ birth, his father, Jozua Francois Naudé, became a founding member of the Afrikaner-Broederbond, a secret society for Afrikaner men that became extremely influential in South African politics. The Broederbond was founded “with an aim to protect Afrikaner interests,” with a feeling that “the Afrikaner had to ensure that they were not swamped by the English who were economically and culturally stronger than them at the time”

Members of the first executive council of the Afrikaner-Broederbond in 1918. Image courtesy of public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The Broederbond was founded just seven years before the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in India, and its role in South African politics came to resemble that of the Sangh in Indian politics today. During the period of apartheid between 1948 and 1994, every South African prime minister and state president was a member of the Broederbond. As the authors of a 1979 book on the Broederbond put it, “The South African government today is the Broederbond and the Broederbond is the government.”

Beyers Naudé studied theology at the University of Stellenbosch, which had “shaped generations of Afrikaner elite.” In 1940, at the age of 25, he began his career as a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church and also became a member of the Afrikaner Broederbond. Over the next 20 years, he served six different Dutch Reform congregations. He was deeply connected with apartheid South Africa’s political elite – for example, when he served as a minister in Pretoria, “half the congregation was made up of cabinet ministers.”

From his time at Stellenbosch onwards, Beyers Naudé gradually became more critical of apartheid, and its justification through Christianity. However, Beyers Naudé’s turning point did not come until 1960. That year, in what came to be known as the Sharpeville massacre, South African police opened fire on a crowd of Black protesters, killing 69 people and injuring 180.

The graves of those killed in the Sharpeville massacre. Image courtesy of Andrew Hall, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons. South Africa.

In the words of Archbishop Denis E Hurley, the Catholic archbishop of Durban: “Out of that tragedy, God spoke to Beyers Naudé.” The massacre deeply moved Naudé. His daughter has stated, “He could not come to terms with that. Not then. Not ever. I think it haunted him more than we will ever know.”

In 1963, after years of internal turmoil, Naudé preached to his congregation in a wealthy suburb of Johannesburg for the last time. Before he left his church, “he told his congregation that the Afrikaners had betrayed their God in favour of a working relationship with capitalism.” He was 48 years old.

Naudé left the Afrikaner Broederbond and his position in the Dutch Reformed Church, and helped to start the Christian Institute, a multi-racial Christian organisation. He was deeply influenced by the Black Consciousness movement championed by activist Steve Biko. From this point on, Naudé became an increasingly important voice in South Africa, as a prominent Afrikaner who opposed apartheid.

Naudé and the Christian Institute faced a wide range of challenges from fellow Afrikaners, his former church, and the South African government, including imprisonment, government investigations, smear campaigns, arson attacks, and violence.

On his death in 2004, Nelson Mandela declared, “His life was a shining beacon to all South Africans. His life shows what it means to rise above race and to be a true son of South Africa.”

Shridharpant Tilak

Thousands of miles from South Africa, in the Indian state of Maharashtra, another activist was defying his father’s legacy and challenging the prejudices he saw within his own community.

Shridhar Balwant Tilak (also known as Shridharpant Tilak) was the youngest son of Bal Gangadhar Tilak (1856-1920), a Chitpavan Brahmin who was a prominent leader in India’s anticolonial struggle. Although the elder Tilak generated significant public support for India’s freedom movement, he held regressive attitudes when it came to caste and gender.

In his book Caste Pride, Manoj Mitta describes Tilak as one of many Congress leaders who “pushed back against caste reforms at different times even as they positioned themselves as reformers” — in fact, Tilak’s positions “led to a consensus in the Hindu right that no social reform should be undertaken until India was rid of colonial rule. Among the casualties was, of course, the struggle against untouchability.”

Just two years before his death, Tilak spoke at a conference saying, “I think the evil custom of untouchability must be extinguished.” But yet, he refused to “sign a declaration stating that participants in the conference would not observe untouchability in their own daily life.”

Bal Gangadhar Tilak with his family. Image courtesy of public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1920, when the elder Tilak died, his youngest son, Shridharpant, was 24 years old. Shridharpant began to embark on a different path, eventually befriending many of the state’s anti-caste activists, such as Keshavrao Jedhe and BR Ambedkar.

In 1927, Ambedkar and a number of dominant-caste activists founded the “Samaaj Samata Sangh, an organisation meant for “upper caste” allies of the Dalit movement.” Shridharpant became involved with the Sangh, and opened his house to the organisation.

In September that year, for example, “when a Krishna mela procession organised by people of various castes including untouchables was interrupted by the police, he approved of the procession coming into his residential compound.” Given that the Tilak family home, Gaikwad Wada, was in a Brahmin-dominated area of Pune, this was a radical move.

Scholar Suraj Yengde notes that in October 1927, Shridharpant Tilak spoke at a Dalit student conference organised by Ambedkar in Pune. The following month, he spoke at a Bombay event celebrating Mahatma Jotiba Phule’s 100th birth anniversary.

In April 1928, Shridharpant Tilak officially started the Pune branch of the Samaj Samata Sangh at his home. Scholar Masao Naito writes that “the setting up of its branch at the very centre of the Brahman residential area was a shocking event in Pune.”

Ambedkar spoke at the inaugural meeting, declaring that “people will say that he [Shridharpant] has accomplished a thousand times as an important work than his father.”

Shridharpant Tilak even put up a sign outside his home that said “Chaturvarnya Vidhwansak Samiti” (Chaturvarna Annihilation Committee). Brahmins in Pune were enraged by his activism (and that of his progressive brother Rambhau as well). Shridharpant Tilak was regularly attacked in Kesari, the newspaper his father had founded.

Keshavrao Jedhe and BR Ambedkar. Image courtesy of Rupali Sirsat, CC BY-SA 4.0, and in public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

A month later, on May 10, 1928, Shridharpant Tilak decided to host a “sahabhojan” event at his home, at which nearly 200 people of different castes would eat together. Ambedkar was to be the chief guest. Given that this communal meal would challenge caste rules around inter-dining, backlash from the local Brahmin community was inevitable.

Just before Ambedkar arrived at the feast, the trustees of the Kesari Trust switched off the power supply to the Tilak residence. As journalist Chinmay Damle writes, “Shridharpant immediately took charge of the situation and requested his friends to bring lanterns and lamps from their homes. In a few minutes, Gaekwadwada was lit up with hundreds of lamps and lanterns.”

Although this event went on successfully, the harassment Shridharpant faced from his Brahmin community soon became unbearable. Two weeks after the sahabhojan, Shridharpant Tilak died by suicide, jumping under the Mumbai-Pune train.

In a letter to Ambedkar the previous day, he wrote, “​I am going to present my bahishkrut [Dalit] brothers’ grievances at the feet of Bhagvan Shrikrishna himself.” Shridharpant Tilak was 32 years old.

Ambedkar wrote his obituary for a Marathi newspaper, declaring “If anyone from the Tilak family deserved the title ‘Lokmanya,’ it was Shridharpant.”

Comparing the two

The lives of these two activists — Beyers Naudé and Shridharpant Tilak — were, of course, extremely different. Shridharpant Tilak was a young revolutionary who charted out his own path while he was in his 20s. On the other hand, Beyers Naudé spent nearly half a century deeply embedded in the elite world of white South African society. Naudé was a member of the Broederbond for 22 years, and did not publicly condemn apartheid until 1963, at the age of 48, when apartheid had already been in effect for 15 years.

In India today, Shridharpant Tilak’s life has been largely forgotten — his life is relegated to a few paragraphs in various books about Ambedkar’s life and anti-caste movements in Maharashtra. Naudé, on the other hand, grew in prominence as a national figure in South Africa, receiving several international human rights awards, honorary doctorates, and even being nominated for the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize.

And yet, despite their many differences, both Beyers Naudé and Shridharpant Tilak represent something important. As a white South African and a Brahmin, both men were born into their societies’ dominant community, but they chose to speak out against the hate and prejudice they saw among their own people.

They rejected their fathers’ legacies of promoting white supremacy in South Africa and opposing social reform efforts in India. In doing so, they suffered consequences ranging from harassment to imprisonment.

Segregational signs at a train station in South Africa. Image courtesy of Ernest Cole, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Challenging one’s own community is not easy, but it is critical, especially for members of dominant social groups. Today, we see similar efforts by Jewish people speaking out against Zionism, or Hindus challenging caste and Hindu nationalism.

Across the United States, students at public and private universities are challenging the complicity of their institutions in the current Gaza genocide, calling for divestment from weapons manufacturers and companies that are linked to Israel.

Similar to Beyers Naudé and Shridharpant Tilak, these progressive voices often face backlash from conservative forces within their own communities. And yet, these activists persist, leveraging their positions at the top of power structures they perceive to be unjust. Their motivations can be summed up in the words of Beyers Naudé himself: “I must feel the agony of this, especially because the people who are in control and in power doing this, these are my people.”


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