Who is Afraid of 1857?

--Pranay Krishna

THE coming year marks the 150th Anniversary of India’s first war of Independence. We hear that the Government has a lavish 150 crore Budget to celebrate this event. On the eve of the 150th Anniversary of 1857 and the Birth Centenary of Bhagat Singh, we are witness to the Central Industries Minister declaring that he would “ideally” like to see the whole of India turned into an SEZ; to the swelling ranks of farmers’ suicides and starvation deaths; to snatching away of land from tribals and peasants to hand over to corporate capital; to an unprecedented degree of ‘strategic’ slavishness towards the US; towards a US shadow over everything from agrarian policy to security secrets to military plans. It is well known that a ruling class that is a broker of imperialism needs to mask itself in nationalist garb. On the other hand, an alternative tradition of nationalism is just as badly needed by those who dream of a second war of independence in this age of breakneck neo-colonialism. It is in this context that the tussle over defining nationalism and history becomes relevant and urgent. 
The Congress and the BJP keep vying to outdo each other in craven pro-Americanism in economic as well as foreign relations. Similarly they also compete to outdo each other to don the nationalist garb – and we saw a crude demonstration of this recently on September 7. This date neither marked the centenary of the composition of Vande Mataram nor of its adoption as national song by the Congress. But on this date, cadres of both Congress and BJP enthusiastically sang Vande Mataram in their respective offices. The shadow-boxing match over nationalism was fought over whether two stanzas should be sung or the whole song? Whether the singing should be voluntary or compulsory? The Sangh Parivar, in the name of Vande Mataram, targeted the Muslims – and perhaps they won the shadow-boxing contest.
But it seems that such a ruling class appropriation of 1857 and Bhagat Singh will not be easy. 1857, which in essence was a peasant insurgency, marked by a remarkable Hindu-Muslim unity, is especially indigestible for the Indian ruling classes, whose policies have made farmers’ suicides into a national metaphor of the times. What can a ruling class of brokers for imperialism, surrounded by crores of peasants battling starvation, debt, and displacement, do with the memory of the insurgent peasants of 1857? The problem is that India’s peasants have time and again chosen the path of the peasants of 1857 – from Chauri Chaura, Telengana, to Naxalbari. In such circumstances, what can be more suitable than to turn 1857 into a museum? Preserve it as the mortal remains of a lived history and then celebrate it as a festival?
But 1857 is not ready to become the stuff of a museum. It haunts the forces of power in so many terrifying and disturbing ways. Not only that, it is not particularly reassuring even for an entire section of the liberal intelligentsia. The fear of 1857 has a good long history. The reactions of Ghalib, Sir Sayyed, and Bhartendu give us some idea of the terror that pervaded the entire feudal class as well as the newly emergent middle class intelligentsia, when this battle ended with the bloody massacre of lakhs of Indians. The torchbearers of the Bengal Renaissance were as it is, not just indifferent but hostile to 1857. In any case, it is fairly easy to understand such reactions dating to the second half of the 19th century. But in these early years of the 21st century, the fear of 1857 is being played out on the screen of a collage of old and new discourses and logics. We can consider some representative examples.
Dalrymple’s Distortions
Some excerpts of The Last Mughal, published by Penguin in November, appeared in the 3 July issue of Outlook maghazine. Its author William Dalrymple is regarded to be a liberal Indophile. The excerpts of his book carried in Outlook suggest that according to him, public, political and national tragedies are ultimately expressed at the level of the private-domestic and the personal/individual. Consequently, he defines his objective as depicting the suffering of ordinary people caught in the crossfire of the terrible with ‘a chaotic and officerless army of unpaid peasant soldiers set against the forces of world’s greatest contemporary military power.’ Here it is important to recall that quite a few moneylenders, landlords, and tradesmen had left eye-witness accounts which described the damage inflicted by the insurgents on their family and property. As for ordinary citizens, in all the arenas of rebellion, they would either have been with the insurgents, or they would have scarcely had the resources to leave behind records of their experiences. Anyway, Mr. Dalrymple reads 20,000 pages worth of documents confiscated from the Red Fort by the British (written in Persian) with the help of his friend Mahmood Farooqui, and arrives at the conclusion that the Revolt cannot be understood through the ideological grids of nationalism, imperialism, orientalism, etc.; rather, what one hears in it is the echo of the Clash of Civilisations.                     
It is strange that the seeker of private-domestic and personal tragedies, who is unwilling to lose the pain of the common man in the grand narratives of nationalism-imperialism etc…, should have no objection to the grand narrative of ‘Clash of Civilisations’. After all that research, Dalrymple finds out that the 19th century British rulers and administrators, unlike William Jones and Hastings of the 18th century, did not see Indians as heirs of an advanced civilisation and ancient wisdom. The evangelical British and missionaries branded them as uncivilised and savage, and launched an aggressive proselytising campaign. There was an outcry of religion being polluted, which took the form of the Revolt. One may well ask- what is new about Dalrymple’s thesis? After all, British historians had always propagated the ‘greased cartridges’ as the main reason for the insurgency. But there is indeed something new in Dalrymple’s narrative; the story of Hindus and Muslims alike being galvanised to revolt against the British because of religious sentiments being hurt doesn’t fit in easily with the thesis of Clash of Civilisations, which has a conflict between ‘Islam and the West’ at its centre. Dalrymple therefore sets his sights on words like ‘kafir’, ‘ghazi’, ‘mujahideen’, and ‘jehad’ in the Persian documents. He finds a ‘strong contemporary echo’ of these expressions.In his own words, “These were words which had no resonance to the historians of the 1960s. Now, sadly, in the aftermath of 9/11 and 7/7 they are words we understand all too well, and words like jehad scream out of dusty pages of the source manuscripts, demanding attention.” The British scholar conflates the meaning of a particular idiom, a particular religious vocabulary of a national war of independence to resonate and echo a contemporary terror act. Even today, the different usages of the word jehad in common parlance of Hindi-Urdu belt may shock people from Bush to Dalrymple who attribute a single, frozen meaning to the word to mean ‘a terror act’. When a local politician of Hindi belt [whether Hindu or Muslim] in a characteristic rhetorical stance, vows to launch jehad against injustice, poverty, corruption or crime, what meaning would Mr. Bush or Mr. Dalrymple deduce from such an expression? Dalrymple himself mentions that it was Hindus who formed the majority of rebels on the Delhi front. In these same documents, the author found an appeal by Pandit Harichand, citing the Mahabharata to appeal to traders to shut shops and plunge into the revolt. But this appeal in a Hindu idiom does not find pride of place in the ‘Clash of Civilisations’. For Dalrymple, what is important is that in the Persian documents, the enemy is not called ‘angrez’ or ‘gora’ but ‘kafir’ and ‘nasrani’; while the fighters are called ‘jehadi’, ‘mujahideen’ and ‘ghazi’. Dalrymple also underlines the fact that on the Delhi front, it was the small contingent of ghazis who fought till the end, and they had suicide squads too. One does not need to be well versed in the metaphorical usage of the word ‘Kafir’in Urdu-persian poetry, as a signifier of ‘beloved’, ‘an intimate other’ or more prominently, ‘a positive oppositionality to orthodoxy’, to question the freezing and fixing of meaning of such words by the ‘terror struck’ contemporary western scholarship. Dalrymple must answer what kind of clash of civilisations was this in which believers (Muslims) joined hands with kafirs (Hindus) to fight kafirs (the British)? Recall that in Huntington’s paradigm of the Clash, Hindu civilisation was meant to ally with the West against Islam. It is true that in addition to making appeals for religious unity, the rebel leaders also issued separate appeals to people from different religions. For the literate class in those days, the only available idiom was a religious one. Pay attention to Dalrymple’s linguistic usage – he takes infinite pains to avoid identifying that the call for ‘jehad’ was issued against a particular injustice, a particular Government; because the meaning of jehad (from Bush to Dalrymple) has been fixed.
Presuming end of all grand narratives, Dalrymple freezes 1857 into the single grand narrative of Clash of Civilisations. Why, after all, did Ruhelas, Bundelas, Jats, Gujjars, Pasis, Mughals, Rajputs, Brahmans, Pathans, Satnamis, Bahavis, Kols and other tribal people (who did not as yet identify themselves only as Hinuds or Muslims), join hands to fight the British? Why did the entire struggle, which simultaneously drew together and cut through multiple religious, caste, and regional identities, hinge only on one point – who was with the British and who was against them? Most of the princely states (both Hindu and Muslim) were with the British. Many zamindars and some riyasats on the brink of devastation, supported the peasants and sepoys. But those moneylenders and zamindars who had benefited from colonial agrarian policy were firmly with the British. The ‘dumb’ natives may bother their heads with these questions; Dalrymple’s book is forever and always at the service of the ‘Clash of Civilisations’, and presents a gift of fresh legitimacy to the ‘War on Terror’ – a fresh neo-colonial reading of 1857.
‘What If’ 1857 Had Been Successful? 
What was the character of political consciousness of the 1857 rising? This question has always been a fraught one. The indifference of the torchbearers of the Bengal Renaissance to 1857 is famous. This indifference gave rise to the notion that the rebels of 1857 did not possess ‘new ideas’, and this was the reason for their failure. It was the torchbearers of the Bengal Renaissance who possessed ‘new ideas’. For a considerable section of intelligentsia, the Bengal Renaissance became the touchstone by which to judge 1857. Taking their cue from this, some put forward the thesis that there had never been any renaissance in the Hindi region, and this was why left politcs could not gain ground here.
In this context, some discussion of new ideas would not be out of place. The writings of Marx and Engels are often quoted in defence of, and in opposition to 1857. But it was none but Marx and Engels who called 1857 India’s First War of Independence, and to our knowledge, they never modified this opinion. Is any war of independence possible without its consciousness (nationalism)? And isn’t the concept of nation a new idea? For some, nationalism is the product of western ideas. The birth of such a notion in colonial historiography is well known. For long, the Cambridge School of History nurtured this notion. According to this notion, Indian nationalism is nothing but an elite response to the colonial stimuli. Despite all nationalist and subaltern historiography, this notion continues to wield influence. Those who hold on to this notion ought to seek an answer: if the colonial loot, violence, repression, famine, racism etc…of the British Raj failed to produce a new consciousness in the peasantry, artisans, weavers, traders and some sections of the old feudal class, how and why was such a consciousness present in 1857? To avoid quoting innumerable proofs, it will for the moment suffice to quote the following song by a revolutionary intellectual of 1857 Azimulla Khan (a song that one can call India’s first national song)–

Ham hain iske malik,
Hindostan hamara.
Pak watan hai kaum ka,
jannat se bhi pyara…
Ye hai hamari milkiyat,
Hindostan hamara.
Iski ruhaniyat se roshan
hai jag sara…
Kitna kadeem, kitna naeem,
sab duniya se nyara.
Karti hai jarkhez jise
gango-jaman ki dhara…
Upar barphila parvat,
pehredar hamara.
Neeche sahil par bajta,
sagar ka nakkara…
Iski khanein ugal rahi hain,
sona-heera, para.
Iski shan-o-shaukat ka
duniya mein jaykara…
Aya phirangi door se,
aisa mantar mara.
Loota donon haath se,
pyara watan hamara…
Aj shahidon ne hai tumhein
ahle watan lalkara.
Todo ghulami ki zanjeerein,
barsao angara…
hamara bhai-bhai pyara.
Yeh hai azadi ka jhanda,
ise salaam hamara…

(Page 1266, Samajik Kranti ke Dastavez, Vol II)

[We are its masters,
this Hindostan of ours,
Pure land of our people,
dearer than Paradise…
This land is ours,
this Hindostan of ours,
Its spirituality lights up
the whole world…
How ancient, how wise,
unique in the whole world,
Made fertile by the
streams of Ganga-Jamuna…
Above, icy peaks guard over us,
Below, on the coastline plays
the sea’s mighty drums…
Its mines brim with gold and brilliant gems, 
The entire world hails its glory
and fame…
From afar came the foreigner,
cast such a spell,
Greedily ransacked this dear land of ours…
Today the martyrs call out to you, the people of this land,
Break the shackles of slavery,
rain fiery embers…
all are our beloved brothers,
This is the pennant of our freedom,
we offer it our salute…

(Freely translated from the original - Ed.)]

Note that the nationalist sentiment in this song is not confined to descriptions of the physical contours of the land; further the ‘enemy’ is explicitly spelt out to be the colonial ruler who ransacked the land. So the song is clearly not the product of any cultural nationalist paradigm. One must also point out that what we call communalism today, was also a new and modern idea of which 1857 was totally free (despite its religious consciousness), but the Bengal Renaissance could not escape (despite its modern consciousness). Further, the Congress-led freedom struggle never triumphed above the virus of communalism, and a fractured independence was won. Those who had for a thousand years lived together, 'agreed' to be divided into two nations as a colonial legacy. It was not that no communal discourse had been forged prior to 1857. The British, from whom some keep exhorting us to learn parliamentary democracy, civic life, modern consciousness, multi-culturalism and so on and so forth, had a policy of non-interference in the civil, religious and social institutions of the Hindus. The British Administrators, orientalist scholars and missionaries in the latter half of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th  saw the Hindu religion and its customs as synonymous with notions of political submissiveness, natives who have become used to dependence, and Hindu women devoted to patriarchy. In this view, there was not much difference between Orientalists like William Jones and Hastings (who had ‘respect’ for India’s ancient glory) and Dubois, Macaulay and Mill (who viewed all natives with contempt). There was no limit to the ignorance of these learned men on Indian society and history. They speculated that Mughal Rule of centuries could be sustained because it did not interfere in Hindu social and religious institutions. But this conclusion did not provide British rule with a more legitimate basis as compared to Mughal rule. To meet this challenge, therefore, they cast Hindus as the oppressed, Muslims as oppressor and themselves (the British) as liberators. This discourse is elaborated in the French Roman Catholic missionary Abbe I. A. Dubois’ book Hindu Manners, Customs and Ceremonies.
This book was bought in 1807 by Lord William Bentinck on behalf of the East India Company and virtually accorded the status of an administrative handbook. This book had been used by James Mill in his history of India that he wrote without ever visiting India. According to Dubois, the ‘untrustworthiness, deceit and double dealing’ of the naturally ‘timid’ Hindus were character flaws that developed as a result of facing Muslim subjugation. Stewart’s Historical Anecdotes, written in 1825, tells us that the British ‘liberal’ policy towards the Hindus was premised on the Hindus’ hostile relations with Muslims. There is a host of historical evidence available now to illustrate this British policy. But 1857 demolished this entire communal discourse. During the entire revolt, despite the innumerable efforts of the British, riots refused to occur. After 1857, the communal campaign of the British was intensified. Eliot and Dowson’s History of India as told by its own Historians (1867) collected tales of Hindu-Muslim conflict and declared them to be Indian history. In their preface they set out to tell Hindus of the oppression they had suffered at the hands of the Muslims, until liberated by the British. In the same breath, they have also expressed irritation at the fact that no Hindu historian has taken note of these oppressions against his own community.
If the ‘mutineers’ of 1857 had learnt their national political consciousness from the British, its character would have been whatever the likes of Dubois, Eliot and Dowson sought to impart. The religious and social reform movements of the 19th century, the freedom struggle, literary production and politics of North India – none could escape the communal poison. Those who ask what if 1857 had succeeded, and reply with elaborate imagined scenarios should at least consider that perhaps there is much – from Partition to the Gujarat carnage – that might not have occurred. It is not that this question is arising anew today, or that Hans editor Rajendra Yadav is the first to ask it (as he has done in the June 2006 editorial of Hans). 50 years ago, in his noted book written on the occasion of the centenary of 1857, San 57 ki Rajyakranti aur Marxvad Ramvilas Sharma encountered the same question. In his preface, he writes, “What would have been the consequences (of a victorious revolt) for the British Empire? The Empire would have remained – but it would not have been one over which the sun could never set. Perhaps the horrific First World War of 1914 might not have occurred, or even if it had, at least lakhs of Indian soldiers would not have died in that world war and the next, in defence of that Empire. Far from the battleground, the thousands of peasants who lost their lives to starvation, might not have done so.” Anyway, history does not have much room for ‘What if’ questions; but if one does raise them, imagination must be backed up by some research and logic, else flights of fancy will fall to the depths - as the Hans editorial has done.
British Colonialism, Marx, and Indian Modernity
If one takes Rajendra Yadav’s word, no nation need ever fight colonialism – since it is nothing but the self-expansion of the world’s most developed civilisation. He takes all modern knowledge, science, and resources to be the gift of British colonialism. The question is, if the West could pass from slave-economy and feudalism to achieve modernity, what was there to prevent the rest of the world from entering modernity without passing through the portals of colonialism? White colonialists find an answer in racism and the inherent civilisational superiority of the white race. Why does Rajendra Yadav stop short of this logical conclusion to his argument?
Yadav writes that ‘were it not for the well-knit and structured administration of the British, it would have been impossible for a sluggish, useless, futureless society like India to free itself from feudal shackles. Perhaps the situation would have been like Saudi Arabia, Nepal, Afghanistan, or Africa.”
Mr. Yadav, don’t we have China in our own neighbourhood, which did not have the opportunity to benefit from the ‘well-knit and structured’ administration of the British? This nation, with its image of being ‘stupefied with opium’, was considered at least as ‘sluggish’ and ‘useless’ as India, but even without the blessings of British colonial administration, where does China today stand in terms of technology, science, and modernity, and where is India?
Rajendra Yadav invites us to speculate – what if India had been an Indian colony rather than one of the British. Amazingly, he presents the lack of development, the obscurantism, the persistent caste system and so on of post-colonial India as evidence of what India would have been if Indians had colonised it! If this is the scene in India after two centuries of colonialism, Mr. Yadav, so much for the excellence of British rule! It is indeed misleading to imagine that colonialism offered liberation to women and the oppressed castes from the shackles of Brahminical patriarchy. Is there any count of how many sudras, atisudras and adivasis succumbed in the terrible famines, massacres of artisans and weavers, the tribal insurgencies and 1857? Is there no relation between the desperate landlessness of dalits and adivasis and colonial agrarian policies? There is a wealth of literary and historical evidence to show the massive participation of sudras and adivasis in the war of 1857.
Even now, thousands of documents relating to 1857 exist, defying termites and an indifferent bureaucracy, waiting to be recorded in history. The need is to rise up to the challenge of tracing those processes by which the vast majority of dalits, adivasis, workers and women sought to become the nation – contending with the vision of nation shaped by the capitalists and landlords who eventually secured power and hegemony.
Rajendra Yadav’s attempt to quote Marx in defence of colonialism, feigning ignorance of widespread academic attention and informed debates around them, displays the kind of courage that is the hallmark of fools. It is like a World Bank document quoting those lines from the Communist Manifesto in which Marx, drawing upon the European experience, had spoken of capitalism’s revolutionary role in ending feudalism, 150 years later in defence of an inhuman and decadent capitalism, an act of audacity of which only imperialism is capable!
Marx wrote a series of 33 despatches on India for the New York Tribune – 12 in 1853, 15 in 1857 and 6 in 1858. Before we discuss one early 1853 piece that Yadav cites, a salutary reminder is in order: that however harsh Marx’s observations on India’s pre-colonial society, his remarks on Europe’s own feudal past, the excesses of its monarchies or of the German burghers are no less devastating. Obviously, the context in which capital is seen to play a revolutionary role in the destruction of feudalism (although this role did not always materialise, especially in the colonial context of Asia), does not prove the author of Capital to be a supporter of capitalism.
Marx’s remarks about the social organisation (caste system) of Indian villages, its obscurantism, narrow minds full of superstitions are of a piece with his remarks describing the ‘idiocy’ of the rural life of European peasants. 19th century Europe inherited the picture of an unchanging, stagnant Asia from leading lights of the Enlightenment like Hobbes and Montesquieu. In the absence of any contemporary scholarship on India, Marx relied on Parliamentary Papers and the 17th century Travels of Bernier. As a result, Marx’s reiteration of the common view of India – its self-sufficient rural communities, the hydraulic state, unchanging agrarian economy, absence of property on land and so on was partially speculative and inaccurate. Today, 150 years later, there is still very little study on these subjects, but what there is suggests that the rural economy was linked to a far larger network of exchange and appropriation. Small dams, shallow seasonal wells, local ponds – the product of individual, family and community labour, played as great a part in irrigation as centrally organised waterworks. Land property and agrarian techniques was not stagnant for centuries as Marx assumed and the stratification among the peasantry was far more common.
Marx’s view of British colonialism as the “unconscious tool of history” should be seen in context of his expectation that capitalism would play a revolutionary role in the abolition of pre-capitalist structures. Today those of us who belong to the colonies know very well that no such thing happened. Bipin Chandra points out in this context that for R.C. Dutt, Dadabhai Naoroji and Ranade down to Jawaharlal Nehru and R.P. Dutt, their “criticism was never merely or even mainly that the traditional social order was disintegrated by British rule but that the structuring and construction of the new was delayed, frustrated, and obstructed.”
Returning to 1857, what is indisputable and undeniable is that Marx saw it as India’s First War of Independence. He hailed it as part of a great Asian upheaval, – a glimpse of which he saw in the Taiping Rebellion. Many are unwilling today to give the acts of ‘marauding’ rebels of 1857 the status of a national struggle. They ought to read Engels’ words, also written in 1857: “There is evidently a different spirit among the Chinese now…The mass of people take an active, nay, a fanatical part in the struggle against the foreigners. They poison the bread of the European community at Hongkong by wholesale, and with the coolest meditation…The very coolies emigrating to foreign countries rise in mutiny, and as if by concert, on board every emigrant ship, fight for its possession…Civilization mongers who throw hot shell on a defenseless city and add rape to murder, may call the system cowardly, barbarous, atrocious; but what matter it to the Chinese if it be successful?…We had better recognize that this is … a popular war for the maintenance of Chinese nationality.”
Even in 1853 Marx had described the destruction of the Indian village communities by the British as inspired by “the vilest interests”. It is Rajendra Yadav’s intellectual dishonesty that he quotes from the 18 July 1853 despatch, but suppresses the 22 July piece where Marx writes, “All the English bourgeoisie may be forced to do will neither emancipate nor materially mend the social conditions of the masses of the people…
The Indian will not reap the fruits of the new elements of society scattered among them by the British bourgeoisie, till in Great Britain itself the new ruling classes shall have been supplanted by the industrial proletariat, or till the Hindus themselves shall have grown strong enough to throw off the English yoke altogether.” None of the great social reformers of 19th century India – from Raja Rammohun Roy to Sir Sayyed Ahmad to the founders of the Congress – were willing to take such an unambiguous position on British colonialism. Even Gandhi himself, during the First World War, actually recruited soldiers for the British Army.
Marx and Engels had no fear of 1857. they had declared that world revolution was unimaginable without an awakening in Asia, and had wholeheartedly welcomed all anti-colonial struggles from this viewpoint. But it is natural for the neo-colonial ruling powers to fear 1857. If those who are committed to yoking India’s fate to global monopoly capital and its centre (America) seek to distort 1857, what is surprising? In his preface to the second edition of San 57 ki Rajyakranti aur Marxvad, Ramvilas Sharma wrote, “What was more essential for the progress of humankind – the destruction of British colonialism or that of India’s village communities? To focus on village communities and Indian feudalism in the context of 1857 is a sleight of hand, designed to legitimise British colonialism.”

Replace the last phrase in this with “legitimise US neo-colonialism” – and the observation continues to be relevant and powerful, even today.