Freedom 75
Carry Forward the Radical Legacy of India's Freedom Movement
by Dipankar Bhattacharya

The Modi government has turned the seventy fifth anniversary of India’s independence into a massive exercise of rewriting and hijacking India’s history. The ideological and organisational predecessors of today’s BJP hardly played any role in India’s anti-colonial national awakening, busy as they were collaborating with the colonial rulers and assisting them in executing their ‘divide and rule’ strategy by dividing and derailing secular Indian nationalism with their politics of Hindutva or Hindu supremacist communal nationalism. Today, their successors are busy rewriting history and redefining India on those disastrous lines.

The Modi government is celebrating the 75th anniversary as Amrit Mahotsav of India’s independence, poisoning the air with lies and hate in the name of Amrit or nectar. The declared focus seems to be on celebrating unsung heroes of India’s freedom movement. There can be little objection to this stated objective except that the greatest unsung hero in the BJP’s history of freedom movement is VD Savarkar, the first theorist of Hindutva who had laid the ideological foundation of India’s eventual partition apart from tarnishing the glorious tradition of India’s freedom fighters with his repeated petitions seeking mercy for the ‘prodigal son’ and promising to serve the interests of the colonial masters. Many in the Sangh parivar also openly celebrate the ‘legacy’ of Nathuram Godse, the Hindutva terrorist who had killed Gandhi soon after independence.

Apart from rehabilitating Sangh parivar icons as ‘unsung heroes’ and projecting the parivar itself as an ‘unsung stream’ of freedom movement, and distorting and misappropriating various episodes and icons of struggle, the BJP’s war on history seeks to devalue and discredit the goals and gains of the freedom movement, virtually reducing freedom to the ‘horrors of Partition’. Significantly enough, the government has now proclaimed August 14, the day of formation of Pakistan as ‘horrors of Partition remembrance day’. Muslims as a community are demonised as villains who walked away with parts of India as their own land while Hindus are projected as victims who suffered the trauma of Partition – denying the shared trauma across communities which characterised Partition.

While celebrating the seventy fifth anniversary of India’s independence we must therefore not just revisit the major events and turning points in the history of freedom movement and the heroic struggles and sacrifices by countless freedom fighters, but also grasp the ideological battle and conceptual evolution that marked the freedom movement and constitutes its radical legacy that resonates even today after more than seven decades of freedom. As the Modi government tramples upon the constitutional democratic framework of our republic and rules like the descendants of the erstwhile colonial rulers, the ‘bhure Angrez’ or brown sahibs Bhagat Singh had warned us about, we must invoke the radical legacy of our freedom movement to wage our ongoing battle for freedom from fascism.

During the colonial era, freedom was first of all freedom from colonial subjugation. It was our national liberation struggle, and this vision of national liberation was anchored around the people of India as the arbiters of the nation. Much before the Indian National Congress formally adopted the Purna Swaraj resolution, anti-colonial fighters in India had begun to articulate the notion of freedom and popular sovereignty. The 1857 anthem declared the people of India as the owners of the country: ‘hum hain iske malik, Hindostan hamara’ (we are the owners of this land, Hindostan/India belongs to us). The Ulgulan of Birsa Munda issued the clarion call “Abua Dishum, Abua Raj” (our state, our rule). This spirit of popular sovereignty or power to the people found its constitutional recognition in the preamble to the Constitution with “We, the people of India” solemnly resolving to constitute India into a sovereign republic. The people are thus central to the idea of India and Indian nationalism.

The people of India have always been a diverse lot. Diversity – ethnic, linguistic, cultural and religious – is the foundational principle of India’s unity. Improved communication and increased migration certainly led to closer bonding and greater national unification in the course of the freedom movement, but this unity must not be mistaken for a quest for uniformity or homogeneity. Attempts to bring about uniformity or homogeneity have always weakened unity and been strongly rebuffed by adversely affected regions or communities. The unfortunate eventual partition did diminish diversity to an extent, but even post-partition India is by far the world’s most diverse country. The freedom movement developed a healthy understanding and mutual respect and recognition for India’s diversity which alone can explain the resilience of India’s national unity and the quick integration of hundreds of princely states (under Hindu and Muslim rulers) with the Indian nation-state.

The Constitution gave us a commitment to non-discriminatory and equal citizenship, it kept the state relatively free from religion and even though it did not recognise India as an explicitly federal country, the states had a degree of autonomy on many subjects. The need was to carry forward the process of secularisation, federal restructuring and greater recognition for India’s essential diversity and pluralism. The BJP government under Modi is moving rapidly in the opposite direction – CAA has introduced discrimination among citizens, and immigrants applying for citizenship, on the basis of religion; the state is increasingly behaving like a Hindu state; the centre is arrogating all powers to itself reducing states virtually to the status of glorified municipalities; and plurality is being increasingly  demonised and subordinated to uniformity.

Apart from Azaadi or freedom, the other keyword of our freedom movement was inquilab or revolution, immortalised in the slogan ‘inquilab zindabad’ or ‘long live the revolution’. Coined by the Urdu poet and freedom fighter Maulana Hasrat Mohani and immortalised by Bhagat Singh and his comrades, this slogan drew our attention to the revolutionary significance of freedom and to the centrality of continued struggle and eternal vigilance for progressive changes and rights. And this revolution saw itself as part of an international anti-imperialist mass awakening.

Indeed, the other slogan which Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutta raised in the Central Assembly was ‘down with imperialism’. India’s freedom movement was not an isolated and exclusive fight against British colonialism, it grew as an integral part of international anti-imperialist resistance. And after the 1917 Russian revolution when Europe witnessed the rise of fascist reaction, the progressive stream of India’s freedom movement supported the anti-fascist resistance in Europe. Six Indians – writer Mulk Raj Anand, journalist Gopal Mukund Huddar, doctors Atal Menhanlal, Ayub Ahmed Khan Naqshbandi and Manuel Pinto, and student Ramasamy Veerapan – had joined the International Brigade to fight against the fascist troops led by General Franco. Indians based in London raised funds and Jawaharlal Nehru paid a solidarity visit to Spain in 1938. While the RSS in India drew inspiration from Mussolini and Hitler, India’s progressive freedom fighters joined forces with the anti-fascist resistance in Europe.

The freedom movement was not just about ending the British rule in India, it was about building a modern democratic progressive India. Adivasis and other peasant communities who constituted the biggest mass base of the freedom movement were fighting relentlessly for freedom from landlords and money-lenders. After the Adivasi revolts and the 1857 war of independence, British colonial rule consolidated itself not just through military control and repressive laws, but also by the strengthening of feudal power exercised by the class of landlords created through ‘permanent settlement’ and other revenue systems, perpetuation of the power of princely states and vigorous application of divide and rule between Hindus and Muslims. In the revealing words of a senior British military official of that period, "Our endeavour should be to uphold in full force the (for us fortunate) separation which exists between the different religions and races...Divide et impera should be the principle of Indian government’ (Lt. Col. Coker, Commandant of Moradabad, cited by Rajani Palme Dutt in India Today, 1940). The landlords and the puppet rulers of  princely states, with a few honourable exceptions, constituted the social foundation of colonial rule and hence the anti-colonial struggle drew its strength from peasant struggles against landlords and money-lenders.

Abolition of landlordism and usury emerged as the central slogan of the peasant movement in colonial India. With the Gandhian satyagrah movement not according due emphasis on this core agenda and moving away from all signs of peasant militancy, the peasant movement founded its own militant platform in the shape of All India Kisan Sabha. The All India Kisan Sabha was formed in April 1936 with Swami Sahajanand Saraswati as its first President and it released a Kisan Manifesto in August 1936 demanding abolition of the zamindari system and cancellation of rural debts. Powerful peasant struggles not only weakened feudal-colonial power in rural India but also created a powerful narrative and countervailing force against communal polarisation and violence. After independence, the old form of landlordism was legally abolished, but beyond that land reforms remained largely unaccomplished and of late we are seeing a reversal of land reforms. Replace colonial with corporate and we will see the peasant movement grappling with the new threat of corporate landlordism and debt crisis.

The battle for working class rights including the right to organise and fight for better working and living conditions constitutes another important part of the radical legacy of India’s freedom movement. These struggles led to the passage of several legislations concerning workers’ rights during the colonial period itself. From the Factories Act and Trade Unions Act 1926 to Payment of Wages Act and Minimum Wages Act, many of India’s core labour laws were passed before Independence. Apart from the All India Trade Union Congress founded in 1920 and the organised Communist movement since the 1920s, the Independent Labour Party formed by Dr. Ambedkar in 1936 also made major contributions to the securing of working class rights in colonial India. The ILP which identified both Brahminism and capitalism as enemies of the working class emerged as a significant trend in Bombay Presidency, secured major electoral victories and played a key role in the legislative arena as well as broader worker-peasant struggles.

1936 was indeed a year that gave rise to two radical calls. While the Kisan Sabha called for abolition of landlordism, Ambedkar came out with his clarion call for annihilation of caste. The call for annihilation of caste effectively raised the agenda of social justice to the higher plane of social transformation. Departing from the limited Gandhian theme of abolition of untouchability, Ambedkar drew India’s attention to the need for doing away with the entire caste system. Rebutting the attempts to justify caste in the name of division of labour, Ambedkar exposed caste as division of labourers. The answer would clearly lie in unification of labourers on an anti-caste basis whereby caste would dissolve into class. A convergence of these radical ideas – abolition of landlordism, annihilation of caste and unification of labourers – had the potential of taking class unity and class struggle to a much bigger scale and higher level, but unfortunately this potential could not be realised at that juncture. This is precisely where we need to explore this unfulfilled potential and legacy of the freedom movement in today’s India.

freedom of india

The freedom movement also meant increasing participation of women in public protests which in turn led to widespread questioning of patriarchal practices and controls and strengthening of the battle for equal rights and dignity and freedom for women. The participation of women was not limited to a few specific forms of struggle – from the Santhal Hul and 1857 war of independence to Chattagram armoury raid and militant peasant uprisings like Tebhaga and Telangana, women were in the forefront of almost all major phases and forms of struggle. There were struggles where women played the leading role as in the less well-known Nupi Lan struggles of Manipur (1904 and 1939). Nupi Lan in Manipuri literally means ‘women’s war’ and the Nupi Lan waged by Manipur’s women against the local king and rich traders as well as the colonial power was fought in defence of women’s relatively high status in Manipur which patriarchal colonial forces sought to undermine, but also secured freedom for Manipur’s male workers from bondage and oppression. It was truly the forerunner of today’s Shaheen Bagh protests against the discriminatory and divisive CAA or the powerful protests against AFSPA and state repression and terror by women in Manipur and Kashmir valley.

For the BJP, nationalism means Hindutva, and celebration of the Amrit Mahotsav of Azaadi is an exercise in hijacking of history to serve the Sangh brigade’s unfinished project of transforming secular democratic India into a fascist Hindu Rashtra. For us, the legacy of the freedom movement remains a powerful warning against the perils of communal polarisation and colonial survivals, and a lasting inspiration to harness the untapped potentials and fulfil the unrealised promises of the journey of “we, the people of India” towards the goal of modern India as a sovereign socialist secular democratic republic. The people of India defeated the fascist conspiracy in the course of the freedom movement, they will defeat it again after seven decades of independence.

India's Freedom Movement