1857: The Foundations of Indian Nationalism and Democracy

The US has ravaged and brutalized Iraq just as British imperialist had massacred Indian people in 1857. This time, students and youth have launched an anti-imperialist campaign culminating in the celebration of 10 May as Anti-Imperialist Day. On 10 May this year, students and youth from all over the country will march to the Lucknow Residency (a major site of the 1857 struggle). They will demand that memorials to the martyrs of 1857 be set up at the Residency. And they will burn a bonfire of the products of American multinationals which are today feeding, like vultures, off the corpses of the Iraqi people in the name of “reconstruction”.

The British of course termed 1857 a ‘revolt’ and a ‘mutiny’. But though Indian historians did recognize it as the First Indian War of Independence, the independent Indian polity has largely neglected 1857. Except for some reference to the Rani of Jhansi, most of the other figures of this War, including thousands of peasants whose names are lost, have been consigned to near oblivion. Added to the insult of neglect has been the saffron injury of subtle slander. For long, the saffron brigade’s hate campaign has associated Ayodhya with the bloody strife over ‘Mandir’ vs. ‘Masjid’. Effectively lost in this communal clamour is the priceless legacy of Awadh as the epicenter of the War of 1857, which marked the birth-pangs of anti-imperialism, national unity and democratic modernity. Now the saffron forces are going even further. The new NCERT textbook on Contemporary India deliberately distorts the legacy of 1857, especially by questioning the intent and content of Muslim participation in that struggle.
Even in progressive circles, there is often some hesitation about hailing the legacy of 1857, which has unfortunately been stereotyped as an uprising sparked off by ‘greased cartridges’, which was primarily religious in impulse.
In fact, the history of 1857 not only records the dawn of our nationalism, it is an emergent modern democratic consciousness in India. In the first place, the 1857 uprising was, in a way, the culmination of a series of hundreds of uprisings by peasants and tribals against British authority. Resentment at backbreaking land revenue and taxes, and anger at events like Dalhousie’s forced annexation of Awadh had accumulated, and the ‘greased cartridges’ episode was merely a catalyst. Peasantry was the mainstay of the 1857 Freedom Struggle – most of the ‘sepoys’ of the East India Company’s army came from peasant backgrounds, and keenly felt the anger of the peasantry against the unprecedentedly tyrannical and exploitative colonial regime. While the limitation and reservation of the 1857 leaders, especially the kings and princes, which several historians refer to, are undeniable, it is also important to recognise and affirm the pulse of democracy that makes its presence felt.
The leaders of the 1857 struggle display an acute understanding of the economic and material factors underlying the colonial exploitation. The revolutionary command at Delhi announced “land to the tiller” and end to zamindari as its official policy. Even religious leaders displayed insights into aspects of economic exploitation. For instance, Maulvi Fazle Haq’s theoretical treatise on 1857 combined an analysis of the British monopoly of grain trade and their official policy of creating food-grains shortages as one of the main causes of the uprising, with religious grievances. The proclamation issued by Begum Hazrat Mahal in the name of her son Birjis Qadar, crowned ruler of Awadh, makes specific mention of the intention to establish social equality between people of all castes and religions: “Everyone is allowed to continue steadfastly in his religion and persuasion, and to possess his honour according to his worth and capacity, be he a person … of any caste or denomination, Syed, Sheikh, Mughal or Pathan among the Mohammedans, or Brahmin, Chhattri, Bais or Kaith among the Hindus. All these retain their respectability … and all persons of a lower order such as sweepers, chamar, dhanook or passee, can claim equality with them.”
It was this democratic impulse, which forged, for the first time, bonds of anti-imperialist unity across caste, religious and regional identities, which alarmed the British. In response, the British tried desperately to counter it with a communal sense of history, mentioning concocted stories of ‘atrocities’ by ‘Mussalmans and Sikhs … when they had the government’. In the face of this overtly communal propaganda, thousands defiantly chose unity.
Apart from rulers like Begum Hazrat Mahal and the Rani of Jhansi, and leaders like the brave Maulvi Ahmadullah whose guerrilla war took on the British as well as their collaborators among merchants and moneylenders, thousands of ordinary Hindus and Muslims unitedly sacrificed their lives fighting the British. The historic struggle at the Lucknow Residency, led by Begum Hazrat Mahal, included figures like ‘Engineer’ Mohammed Ali, product of Roorkee Engineering College, who had been involved in designing the waterways of the city of Lucknow.
It is precisely the appeal and power of this model of anti-imperialist unity that threatened the British then, and the Sangh Parivar now. Which is why the BJP government’s new NCERT textbook on contemporary India, while forced to acknowledge that “the Muslims had also participated in the 1857 uprising in a big way” (emphasis mine), slanders the role of the Muslims by claiming that “they had taken part in the anti-British struggle in order to regain the ground lost and restore the Mughal Empire to its pristine glory”. The textbook claims that after this hope was frustrated by the defeat of 1857, the ‘disappointed’ Muslims lost interest in the freedom struggle! Whereas in fact, even Bahadur Shah Zafar himself had proclaimed that he was willing to hand over power to any other person, since the war was not for the benefit of the Mughal house alone.
Despite the sheer scope and spread of the War of 1857, it was defeated and crushed, as much by the superior firepower of the British, as by the hostility of the moneylenders, merchants and a significant section of zamindars. Following the defeat, the peasantry and common people were subjected to brutal humiliations and repression, including mass public hangings.
The struggle of 1857 had deep roots in popular imagination. Yet the mainstream leaders of the national movement and later, the Indian State, did not draw much upon its legacy. It was only the revolutionary trends within the freedom struggle which kept the memory of 1857 alive. Revolutionary youth groups like the Abhinav Bharat Society first defied British authority in 1907 by public commemorations and celebrations of 10 May, the anniversary of the First War of Independence in 1857. These celebrations by young students in India and abroad were occasions of political mobilization. Memorial meetings were held even in London, the British capital, pledges taken, leaflets distributed and poems exhorting people ‘never to forget 10 May/The day the War of Independence began’ were recited. Indian students at Oxford and Cambridge wore colourful badges commemorating the martyrs of 1857, and boycotted teachers who insulted the martyrs. As a result, several lost their scholarships and several voluntarily gave them up.
Later, the Ghadar Party continued the revolutionary tradition of celebrating 10 May. And in 1928, the Punjabi revolutionary magazine ‘Kirtee’ which Bhagat Singh assisted in editing, carried an article, penned probably by Bhagat Singh’s comrade Bhagwati Charan Vora, titled ‘The Sacred Day of 10 May’. This article explained the context and significance of 1857, and told the story of the efforts of nationalist revolutionary youth to keep its memory alive in face of the oblivion and misinformation imposed by the British.
Interestingly, the first history of 1857 which challenged the British representation of it as a ‘mutiny’ or a ‘revolt’, and asserted that it was the first Indian War of Independence, was by Barrister VD Savarkar. He wrote ‘Indian War of Independence, 1857’ in 1909, spurred to do so in reaction to the British celebrations of the 50th anniversary of their victory over the ‘mutiny’ in 1907. The British banned the publication of this book. Savarkar wrote it early in his career, when he was a leader of the revolutionary group, Abhinav Bharat Society. In this book he describes Maulvi Ahmadullah Shah thus: “The life of this brave Muslim is proof that there is no contradiction between Islamic principles and national respect and deep love for the Indian soil. And a true Muslim can feel pride in giving up his life for his motherland.”
The same Savarkar, having joined the Hindu Mahasabha and theorized on ‘Hindutva’, later tried to insist that he had written ‘1857’ from a ‘Hindu viewpoint’. Contrast the above comment on Maulvi Ahmadullah with Savarkar’s theory of ‘Hindutva’, which claimed that Muslims could never be truly nationalist, since their ‘punyabhoomi’ (land of faith) lies outside India, and to be nationalist, one’s ‘pitrabhoomi’ and ‘punyabhoomi’ must be the same. Clearly, it is Hindutva which distorts Savarkar’s vision and, necessarily, makes him disown the revolutionary legacy of both 1857 and his Abhinav Bharat days. Inevitably, this change of heart led him to collaborate with the British and seek pardon in exchange for loyalty to the British.
Today’s followers of Savarkar’s ‘Hindutva’, the RSS-BJP, of course shun the implications of 1857 legacy, seeking to turn Awadh from the land of heroic anti-imperialist resistance, to that of bloody communal strife. Will we let them? Or will 1857 inspire Indians to once more forge unity against the imperialists and their collaborators, the ‘united shades of saffron’?