1857: Some Reflections

- Akhilendra Pratap Singh

We are in the 150th anniversary year of 1857. The debate over how to characterize it continues, though its aspects have changed. Earlier the dominant debate was over whether or not 1857 had a national character. However, the debate has transcended Mutiny or Gadar paradigm. It is now broadly accepted as National revolt or First War of National Independence, (though there are serious differences regarding its interpretation). Now there are some attempts to reject it by branding it as a feudal reaction.

The India War of 1857 was the greatest anti-colonial war of 19th century. While Marx termed it India’s First War of Independence, the British Chartist leader Ernest Jones called it “The Revolt of Hindostan”. Referring to Jones, Prof. Hiren Mukerjee wrote, “The ‘Revolt of Hindustan in 1857’ was a trumpet-call which, transcending time and space, echoed whenever our people mustered their roll for a fight, whether in the last quarter of the 19th century or in the days of Swadeshi and revolutionary terrorism, or in 1920-22 and the grand sequence of movements culminating in 1946. Subhas Chandra Bose’s adoption of the 1857 rebels’ slogan of Chalo Delhi (To Delhi) was a stroke of real insight, redolent of history, whatever text-books and pale-faced scholarship might suggest.”

 In his foreword to Dr Surendra Nath Sen’s book, Maulana Azad wrote, “Bengal is referred to by Dr. Sen as “an undisturbed province” though he concedes that there, and even in Madras, “there was a feeling of impotent disaffection that delighted in every news of British reverse.”  Engels visualizes 1857 as the Indian War, and Marx accords it the status of an Asiatic variety of Revolution. Marx wrote “as to the talk about the apathy of the Hindoos [in American usage, Indians], or even their sympathy with British rule, it is all nonsense. The princes, like true Asiatics, are watching their opportunity…it is a curious quid pro quo to expect an Indian revolt to assume the features of a European revolution.” (‘The Indian Insurrection’, New York Daily Tribune, August 29, 1857).

There are two main arguments offered against terming 1857 as a Revolution. First, that its leadership was in the hands of feudal forces and second that the material conditions for a Revolution were non-existent. In 1857, while a large section of the feudal lords sided with the Britishers, another section of them, for whatever reasons, valiantly fought against the Britishers. But that is not end of the story. The fact remains that the people below, too, fought; the peasants fought and were in the leadership too. P C Joshi quotes British historian Forest who interprets 1857 as a warning that the British can no longer take for granted that strife among religions and castes will prevail to British benefit; rather Brahmins and Shudras, Hindus and Muslims all could unite against the British. And there is yet more to the story. The question is who was providing leadership from the centre, who held the reins of the war in Delhi. The Bengal Army, which revolted, had 139807 soldiers. It was a giant, modern army of those times. This army fought from Afghanistan to Burma for the expansion of the British Raj. During the opium war, it was sent overseas twice to fight against China. The Bengal Army was the Bengal Presidency Governor General’s own army. The recruitment was basically from UP, Haryana and Western Bihar and most of the soldiers belonged to small peasant families. These soldiers were actually peasants in uniform. But this army, fighting colonial wars from place to place, had developed a broad vision and gained rich experience. More than one lakh soldiers of this Army participated in the rebellion. And it was the soldiers who formed a united front with those feudals and merchants who were opposed to British colonialism. The reins of the revolution were in the hands of soldiers. Power was not in the hands of the feudal lords, be it in Delhi or in Lucknow. The power was actually wielded by ‘peasants in uniform’. In Delhi, the centre of power was the ‘Military Council’. From May 11 to September 14, for the first time in India’s history, it was the peasants who through the Military Council were holding power in the national capital of Delhi. The rule of the Military Council lasted 4 months and 4 days. Despite this remarkable fact of history that stares us in the face, why such a fuss about the ‘feudal leadership’? Even if it were true, the character of the anti-colonial struggle is not determined by whether its leaders were feudals or soldiers. The real question is who was the target of the attack? Objectively, this revolt addressed the principal contradiction: liberating India from the British colonialism. Hence this battle was not the last cry of a dying feudalism but a war for the sake of Indian revolution, a battle by Indians to snatch political power from the British. Politically how can this revolt be characterised as anything but a national revolution? Marx’s comment on the ironies of revolutions is relevant to the question of participation of the landlords and talukdars in 1857. Marx compared this revolt to the great French revolution of 1789, ‘The first blow dealt to the French monarchy proceeded from the nobility, not from the peasants. The Indian revolt does not commence with the Ryots, tortured, dishonoured, and stripped naked by the British, but with the Sepoys, clad, fed, petted, fatted and pampered by them.” Lenin in his article on ‘Democracy in China and Narodism’ said of Sun-Yat-Sen, “the Asiatic Provisional President of the Republic is a revolutionary democrat, endowed with the nobility and heroism of a class that is rising, not declining, a class that does not dread the future but believes in it.” However Lenin finds Sun-yat-Sen’s ideology to be petty-bourgeois utopianism and therefore reactionary. Lenin finds him utopian in the sense that his theory is linked with socialist dreams bypassing and thwarting the capitalist stage in China.  But Lenin emphasizes that Sun-Yat-Sen’s progressive programme of bourgeois democratic land reform blows to pieces his reactionary Narodnik ideology. Lenin asks if Sun-Yat-Sen supports any reactionary land settlement based on his reactionary economic theory; and answers that this was not the case. Here the moot point to grasp is the fact that one’s progressive programme demolishes one’s own reactionary theory. Lenin says that it is here that the isolated liberal Marxism gets puzzled.

According to another argument India in 1857 was still in the pre-capitalist stage. There was no modern material base in the form of Railways, Telegraph and uniform modern education. In the Mughal period, there was no development of capitalist relations and historical dynamism was absent in medieval Indian society. According to this view, without colonialism the development of capitalism in pre-colonial India was impossible. In sum, the new modern revolutionary class was yet to make an entrance on the stage of Indian history. But there are many other historians who believe that from mercantile capitalism we were marching towards industrial revolution. That even without being colonized by Britishers, India could have become a modern nation; as the Taiping revolt showed that China could have become modern on its own. Marx too changed his ideas about India and accepted private land-ownership and division of labour in Indian society.  These historians claim that there was commodity production in India and according to them wherever there is tendency of commodity production, and monetary relations as well as market start developing, there capitalism does emerge despite all obstacles. In a nutshell, the material conditions of revolution had begun to develop in India. To negate the possibility of revolution based on the presence or absence of certain features of the material base would be misguided.

Criticising the war of 1857 from the angle of Shudras and Atishudras, it is claimed that Jyotiba Phule expressed satisfaction on the defeat of 1857 and said, “Had the British rule been abolished in that war, history would have repeated itself. Brahmin Peshwas would have again come to rule. The Hindu culture of Shruti-Smriti-Puran would have again come to dominate and the hope of liberation of the overwhelming Shudra and Ati-Shudra population could have been destroyed.” There is no doubt about the fact that the condition of dalits in Indian society was inhuman and they had to suffer all sorts of oppression. Whatever work division there was in the village economy and society, it was unchangeable and controlled by the upper castes. Dalit castes were the most exploited and oppressed in this structure and their anger against Brahminism was echoed by people like Jyotiba Phule and Ambedkar and it was quite justified. But their hope of liberation with the help of British Raj was soon belied and they were left disillusioned. In fact not only the dalit movement but all those intellectuals, the leaders of social reform movements who had expectations from the British rule, were disillusioned. This disillusionment became a rule rather than an exception in the 19th century. And this disillusioned intellectual class played a role in organizing the political protest. They showed by an economic critique of British rule that the British rule was resulting in pauperisation, drain of wealth and deindustrialization in India. The heart-rending misery of India was not due to past but was a result of the sustained impoverishment and loot by British rule. In 1883, in the introduction to his book Shetkarayacha Aasud (Cultivator’s Whipcord), Jyotiba Phule commended on how expanding land settlements were resulting the creation of agricultural castes like Malis, Gadarias or Kunbis, and “These peasants do not have enough money to send their children to the school, on the other hand the Englishmen waste all their time in luxury and spend all their wealth on the salaries of the officers. There is no fund for the welfare of these poor peasants.” In a memorandum submitted by Jyotiba Phule to the Hunter Commission in1882, he said, “The government collects revenue from the peasants but invests it only for the education of the upper castes. There is no money for the welfare of the poor peasants.”

In his speech in Ludhiana of October 28, 1951, Dr. Ambedkar said that British rule had betrayed the untouchables. On 1857, he commented, “What was the reason behind the turmoil during the revolt of 1857? Because the Britishers failed to do anything for our people, our people in the army revolted. When the revolt was suppressed, it became known that our people had revolted against the Britishers and after that they actually stopped recruiting our men in the army. Instead, they started recruiting Hindus and Rajputs. In this way the main source of income of our people was actually snatched away. When the Britishers left India in 1947, the condition of the untouchables was as bad as at the time when they came to rule here.”

Those who reject 1857 in the name of defending dalit rights must answer: how could an India which defeated the most powerful fortress of British Empire remain the same old India of the past? Could British colonialism be defeated without the participation of the toiling masses? It is a matter of common sense that the British rule could have been defeated only through a protracted people’s war; peasants were the only possible base of such a war and in social terms the dalits, adivasis and backwards constituted the overwhelming majority of this peasantry. It is unbelievable that this politically awakened class could have accepted the Brahminical system as its critics claim.

There are some recent attempts to make 1857 out to be a part of the discourse of the ‘clash of civilizations.’, establishing thereby that Muslims are by nature Jehadis and the battle fought against Britishers was basically the battle of these Jehadis, at the most by an alliance of Savarna Hindus and Upper caste Muslims where dalits and backwards were used as cannon fodder. The ‘Clash of Civilisations’ theory is the new ideological weapon of today’s imperialism. Plekhanov in his Fundamental Problems of Marxism (Chapter XV) paraphrases Marx as saying that “the greater the development of the contradiction between the grow­ing productive forces and the existing social order, the more does the ideology of the master class become imbued with hypocrisy. The more the falseness of this ideology is revealed by life, the more elevated and virtuous does the language of that class become.” In the middle of 19th century itself, when the ideal of China’s Taiping rebellion was Christian idealism, our war was fought, not only in the Hindi belt, but from Dhaka to Karachi and Gilgit to Tamilnadu, in the name of Hindustan. Talmiz Khaldun wrote on the basis of archival documents that the Military Council gave the slogan of Land to the tiller. He writes, “They issued orders for abolishing landlordism and granting ownership rights to the actual tillers”. Among the intellectual leaders of 1857 were people like Azimullah who regarded themselves beyond all religions. There were leaders like Nana Saheb and Kunwar Singh who had liberal ideas about religion and harboured no animosity towards Christianity. The basic reason behind the rebellion of Hindu-Muslim soldiers was the economic exploitation and the unjust land settlement. Here it is worth recalling that mostly the soldiers from Mahalwari settlement areas fought in this war. Contrary to Permanent Settlement areas of Bengal and Bihar, the rate of revenue collection was continuously increasing in this region. After the annexation of Awadh in 1856, this area too was to be governed under Mahalwari system. Mark Thornhill, a local officer of Awadh, reported, “However contradictory it may appear, the fact remains that the agricultural labouring class who has benefited most from our rule……..was most opposed to our rule while the propertied classes who suffered losses in our regime, remained firmly with us.” Thornhill is actually talking about the old Mahalwari areas of western UP. Speaking on Awadh in 1861 in the House of Commons, India Secretary Sir Charles Wood said, “As a result of that opinion (about the perfection of Mahalwari System) it was implemented in the newly annexed areas of Awadh. We supposed that we were benefiting the common people and defending them from the oppression of Tallukedars but in Awadh rebellion, the raiyats (commoners) fought against us and joined hands with the Tallukedars.” Howsoever strongly people may claim that there was no consciousness of Nation-State in people, no one can deny the fact that the whole war was fought in the name of ‘Hindustan’. Dara Shikoh not only saw India as a future nation but visualised its strength in the diversity and pluralism. Bahadur Shah Zafar wrote, “Gazion mein boo rahegi jab talak iman ki, takhte London tak chalegi teg hindustan ki.” The marching song of the revolutionaries of 1857, which was composed by Azimullah Khan, the principal ideologue of the battle and friend of Nana Sahib, has by now become widely known, ‘Hum hain iske malik, Hindostan hamara…….aaya firangi door se aisa mantar maara, loota dono hath se pyara watan hamara.”

Industrial capitalist development, religious tolerance, cultural pluralism and modern nationalism in its Asiatic embryonic form were present in India in the medieval period, especially during the Mughal period and it was destroyed by British colonialism. However 1857 tells us that even without becoming a colony India had the potential of evolving into a modern nation state, and only such a nation state where all identities and trends can march together, while maintaining their separate existence can be the basis for smashing the neo-liberal offensive. Let the comprador ruling classes clamouring about the TINA factor be ousted from Indian politics, progressive and democratic forces in India will build Hindustan basing on our indigenous resources and human wealth without relying on the WTO, IMF and WB.