1857: Then and Now
On May 10, 2007, India’s Parliament held a brief special session to mark the 150th anniversary of 1857, the country’s First War of Independence. Many MPs, including several Ministers, were conspicuously absent, and the meeting did not bother to remember the great martyrs of 1857. But what was even more striking was the President’s choice of this occasion and forum to advocate a two-party system for India in order to tackle the challenge of the proliferation of political parties in the country! Could there be more manifest evidence of the deep disconnect between the great people’s revolt of 1857 and the agenda and vision of the ruling elite of 2007?
The unease of our rulers with the meaning and spirit of 1857 is also as old as 1857 itself and its reasons are not difficult to understand. 1857 was a massive popular uprising, it was truly India’s first war of independence, but while signalling the rise of Indian nationalism it also revealed the early signs of class realignment in colonial India. Let us just remember who were indifferent and even inimical to 1857 right when it was happening. India’s budding capitalist class, considerable sections of landlords and most of the princely states, and the emerging ‘renaissance’ intelligentsia of Bengal, the foremost centre of colonial education and indoctrination in 19th century India, were all afraid of 1857 even as half of our soldiers, large sections of peasants and artisans and small traders and a small section of feudal and princely aristocracy closed ranks in a series of rebellions.
While British colonialists surpassed their own past records of barbarity to crush 1857, they encouraged the sections of Indian society ranged against 1857 to gradually organise themselves. Thus was born the Indian National Congress twenty-eight years after that great people’s revolt, and the British rulers back then were firm in their belief that the Congress would serve as a safety-valve and save ‘British India’ from exploding again on the lines of 1857. Indeed, some half a century later, the Congress was to prove instrumental in facilitating the British game plan of bifurcation of India, which completed the British conquest of 1857. How on earth can the Congress ever feel comfortable with the spirit of 1857? When Manmohan Singh recently thanked Britain for making India modern, it was not a slip of a careless tongue, but a candid comprador confession from a grateful loyal heart.
Manmohan Singh is of course not alone; he has LK Advani as his colonial cousin, if not twin ‘nationalist’ brother, who now invokes Savarkar’s writings on 1857 in a vain attempt to forge some teleological links with that great Indian uprising. But if anything, 1857 remains the strongest refutation of Advani’s entire thesis of communal nationalism. The pseudo-patriotic doctrine of the Sangh brigade, which defines patriotism as an exclusive trait of whoever is born in India and follows a religion which is also born in India – the so-called identity between fatherland and holy land – while followers of any religion originating from any other part of the world are allowed to live in India only as ‘paying guests’, second-grade citizens and voiceless immigrants, falls flat before the united glorious march of the Indian people in 1857! Take any aspect of 1857 and it defies strict religious categorisation, it is impossible to separate what was Hindu about 1857 and what was Muslim.
The Congress and the BJP, the two self-proclaimed custodians of Indian nationalism who now compete among themselves to curry favour with their American bosses, have no roots in 1857. Their ‘nationalism’ of the comprador and communal varieties emerged historically as an antithesis of that great Indian insurrection. But the spirit and mission of 1857 also kept growing simultaneously; its legacy of popular uprising was not to be lost in the labyrinth of colonial history. The people of India, especially the peasant masses, kept up the tradition of revolts and rebellions against injustice and oppression, responding energetically to every major call of the freedom movement, no matter how much Gandhi rebuked them for their militancy. And in ideological-political terms, the mission of 1857 was carried forward by the Gadar movement and subsequently by Bhagat Singh, Chandrashekhar Azad, Ashfaqulla Khan and their comrades, and this is what laid the true foundation of the communist movement in India.
It is a remarkable fact of history that while the march of 1857 was on in India with all its popular vigour and militant anti-colonial spirit, Marx and Engels were chronicling that advance of history live from faraway London. They followed that insurrection as keenly as they followed many revolutionary battles across the world throughout their lives, and especially the Paris Commune some years later, and they had absolutely no hesitation in recognising and welcoming the true meaning and great potential of 1857 as an emerging battle for national liberation in the colonial world. It is a tragedy of the Indian communist movement that many of its leaders, ideologues and historians failed to imbibe this communist attitude and analysis and fell prey to the prejudices and ambivalence of colonial historiography. This only emboldened the progeny of the traitors of 1857 to deliver sermons on nationalism to the real heirs of 1857!
Forty years ago, when Naxalbari happened, it not only resurrected Telengana on the limited terrain of land struggle and radical agrarian reforms. It also challenged the ideological descendants of the traitors of 1857 and tore apart their patriotic pretensions. It forcefully articulated the need to revisit our history and recognise our real national heroes and people’s leaders. It inspired whole new schools of historical studies that have since given us new insights into our past. It armed a whole new generation of communist revolutionaries with the courage and strength of history to oust the rulers from all the positions they have occupied by forcible and fraudulent means. In short, it placed the contemporary agenda of class struggle on the firm grounding of class struggle in the past.
Today, 150 years after 1857, when the peasants of India fight heroically against the neo-colonial designs of corporate landlordism and the Indian people reassert their historical bonds of shared unity and renew their anti-imperialist quest for freedom, revolutionary communists rededicate themselves to the great revolutionary mission of the Indian people as the true inheritors of 1857.