On the 10th of May, 1857, the soldiers of the British East India Company at Meerut began the historic uprising against colonial rule. The Company Raj called it the “sepoy mutiny”, but history remembers it as India’s first war of Independence. Indeed, it was the first dawn of an Indian national consciousness: where people in the Indian subcontinent united for the very first time across the divides of religion, caste, community, and language against a common enemy – the colonial Company Raj. It was the wide participation in the Revolt by the peasantry and the artisans which gave it real strength as well as the character of a popular revolt. The peasant rebels attacked moneylenders and some pro-British zamindars, the British-established law courts, revenue offices (tehsils) and police stations.
Today, the Indian PM Modi, true to the Hindu supremacist vision of his organisation the RSS, uses the occasion of the 75th year of Indian Independence to peddle the false notion of thousands of years of Hindu enslavement to “Muslim rule”. The 1857 rupture challenges that false narrative: why, after all, was there never that kind of uprising against Mughal rule?
1857 happened precisely because British rule was so qualitatively different from that of the Mughals or any other previous rulers. The Mughals may have arrived from a different geographical terrain and culture, but their rule was simply not perceived as 'foreign'. Mughal rule did not involve a huge drain of wealth to other shores; it was no more or less oppressive than that of various Hindu rulers before them. Further, there was no major difference in the lives of ordinary Hindus and converts to Islam. And above all, there simply was no sense of 'national' identity – not even a sense of 'Hindu' identity. True, some kings who happened to be Hindu, did war with the Mughals, but so did Hindu kings do war with other Hindu kings. There were Hindu generals in the Mughal armies and Muslim generals in Hindu armies. Nowhere in the wars between various rulers was there any evidence that these wars were perceived as wars between nations, let alone religions-as-nations.
In sharp contrast, we find the intellectuals of the 1857 uprising sharply articulating a collective national sense of belonging and ownership over the land – and the need to free the land from the plunderer from afar. The best instance of this, is what can well be called India’s first national song – penned the 1857 revolutionary Azimulla Khan:
Ham hain iske malik,
Pak watan hai kaum ka,
jannat se bhi pyara…
Ye hai hamari milkiyat,
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,
Neeche sahil par bajta,
sagar ka nakkara…
Iski khanein ugal rahi hain,
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,
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
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.)]
This song, sounding fresh and modern even today, identifies the enemy clearly as the colonial ruler who ransacked and plundered the land. The “We” who are declared to be the “owners” of the “beloved Hindostan” are “Hindu-Muslim-Sikh, all our beloved brothers.”
No wonder this clear anti-colonial national consciousness, free from sectarian and communal sentiment, haunted British colonialists throughout their rule over India. Historian Kim A Wagner, author of a book on the Jallianwala Bagh massacre published this year (Jallianwala Bagh: An Empire Of Fear And The Making Of The Amritsar Massacre, Penguin Random House, 2019), observes in his very first chapter that “In the British colonial imagination, the ‘Mutiny’ never ended and in India, the ruling class were surrounded by constant reminders of the potential dangers of ‘native rebellion….the very notion of the ‘Mutiny’ did not refer simply to a historical event as much as a particular colonial outlook - a cause of persistent panic but also a blueprint for maintenance of colonial control in the form of exemplary punishment and indiscriminate violence.” Just the presence of Muslims distributing sherbet or dancing alongside Hindus in Ram Navami processions in Amritsar in April 1919 were enough to call up the spectre of 1857 where Hindu-Muslim unity had first manifest itself into national anti-colonial sentiment, and cause British administrators of the city to demand military resources like machine guns and troops ready to repeat the slaughter of Indians that followed 1857. How important to remember this in these times when Ram Navami processions have become demonstrations of Hindu-supremacist hate and violence against Muslim homes and mosques!
Just days ago, at Meerut University, wall murals of some of the Muslim leaders of the 1857 uprising – Khan Bahadur Khan Rohilla and Bahadur Shah Zafar – were blackened by Hindu supremacists with the lettering “Not a freedom fighter”.
It was the Rohilla chieftain Khan Bahadur Khan who established Bareilly as a leading centre of the uprising, where Nana Saheb and other leaders could take refuge after the British recaptured Lucknow. After Bareilly, too, was captured by the British, Khan Bahadur Khan escaped to Nepal where the King of Nepal had him captured and turned over to the British. He was sentenced to death and hanged in the Kotwali (Police Station, Dhaka) on 24 February 1860. It is a shame that the followers of the RSS which never participated in the freedom struggle, can insult his memory because of his Muslim identity.
The legacy of 1857 is something that Hindu supremacist politics would like to erase from public memory – a feat that is not so easy to achieve since the legacy survived the ruthless and brutal British attempts to stamp out its memory through oral history narratives, where every village has its own specific memories of that first battle for freedom. Subhadra Kumari Chauhan’s poem immortalised how the oral storytellers/singers of Bundelkhand passed on the story of how Rani Lakshmibai died leading the freedom fighters’ army: “bundele harbolon ke munh hamne suni kahani thi – ki khoob ladi mardani vo to jhansi vali rani thi.”
And it is impossible to erase Muslims from the story of 1857: they are to be found among every layer of the freedom fighters – from kings to commoners to the intellectuals.
The 1857 uprising had forged a strong unity amongst Hindus and Muslims alike, and it took more than 7 decades of British machinations to disrupt that unity. The rebels of 1857 established a Court of Administration consisting of ten members six from the army and four civilians with equal representation of Hindus and Muslims. The rebel government abolished taxes on articles of common consumption, and penalized hoarding. Amongst the provisions of its charter was the liquidation of the hated Zamindari system imposed by the British and a call for land to the tiller. All proclamations were issued in popular languages. Hindi and Urdu texts were provided simultaneously. Proclamations were issued jointly in the name of both Hindus and Muslims.
Savarkar’s place in history is, of course, tainted by his advocacy of the two-nation theory, his communal fascist view of Hindu Rashtra, his craven apologies to the British and his role in the murder of Gandhi. This is why even Lal Krishna Advani, writing about Savarkar on 10 May 2007 on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the 1857 war of independence, (LK Advani ‘150 yrs of Heroism, via Kala Pani’, Indian Express, May 10, 2007), conceded that “Savarkar's views on several issues in the latter half of his life were problematic.” However, Advani argued that Savarkar stood redeemed by his 1907 publication - The Indian War of Independence 1857.
Marx and Engels had already chronicled the 1857 uprising as a war for ‘national independence’. Syed Ahmad Khan (1817–98) was the first Indian who wrote a tract (Asbab-e-Baghawat-e-Hind, 1858) recognising 1857 as a “Indian rebellion” not a “mutiny”; however he later wrote another tract seeking to allay the British rage which was concentrated against the Muslims, by showing them that there were “loyal Muslims” in 1857. But, as Biswamoy Pati notes, “Khan’s was perhaps the first Indian viewpoint to be presented that critiqued imperialism and its policies as con- stituting causes of the Rebellion, and most importantly, locating 1857 as a ‘Rebellion’ (viz. Baghawat).” (The Great Rebellion of 1857 in India: Exploring transgressions, contests and diversities, ed Biswamoy Pati, Routledge 2010).
After Khan, Savarkar’s tract was perhaps the first Indian to reject the term ‘mutiny’ and call 1857 a ‘war of Independence’, and as such, for the Gadar Party, for Bhagat Singh and Madame Cama, and others, it was a source of great information and inspiration.
But even in this early avatar, we can see Savarkar struggling to reconcile his Hindu supremacist view of history with the actual facts of history, and specifically with the Hindu-Muslim unity that suffused the 1857 uprising.
It is true that the book devotes several pages to recounting the deeds of heroic Muslim patriots and warriors – any book on 1857 could hardly avoid doing so. But Savarkar, in his attempts to reconcile the facts of Hindu-Muslim unity against the British in 1857 with his vision of Indian history as a long saga of Indian (Hindu) resistance to 'outsiders' and against 'foreign Muslim rule', comes up with tortuous, forced explanations. This is a pervasive thread that runs throughout the whole book. In his author's introduction, he writes, "The feeling of hatred against the Mahomedans was just and necessary in the times of Shivaji, but such a feeling would be unjust and foolish if nursed now…" (The Indian War of Independence: 1857, Rajdhani Granthagar, New Delhi 1970, p IX-X)
Here is yet another passage where Savarkar ties himself in knots over the question of Hindus' relationship with Muslims and Muslims' place in the nation: "He (Nana Sahib) also felt that the meaning of "Hindusthan" was thereafter the united nation of the adherents of Islam as well as Hinduism. As long as the Mahomedans lived in India in the capacity of alien rulers, so long, to be willing to live with them like brothers was to acknowledge national weakness…..after a struggle of centuries, Hindu sovereignty had defeated the rulership of the Mahomedans…It was no national shame to join hands with Mahomedans then, but it would, on the contrary, be an act of generosity….Their present relation was one not of rulers and ruled, foreigner and native, but simply that of brothers with the one difference between them of religion alone…." (1857, p 75-76)
None of the leaders of 1857, even the Hindu ones, seem to have needed to offer such defensive explanations for Hindu-Muslim unity. It is Savarkar, not the leaders of 1857, whose imagination is obsessed with a mythical 'past hatred', and who therefore is hard put to reconcile it with the historical fact of 1857's anti-colonial unity.
What is the source of Savarkar’s discomfort? It arises from a theoretical confusion – from a tendency to conflate religion with nation. His first chapter title says it all – "Swadharma and Swaraj", in which he asks, "In what other history is the principle of love of one's religion and love of one's country manifested more nobly than in ours?" He makes no mention whatsoever of colonialism and its impact on the lives of peasantry or common people; the horrors of British rule, for him were all about the humiliation of "foreign" rule.
And foreignness is also much to do with religion - he asserts that for "orientals", "Swaraj without Swadharma is despicable and Swadharma without Swaraj is powerless." (1857, p 9-10). Savarkar strives to read back his theory of religious nationalism into 1857, and that is what blinds him from perceiving the true significance and content of 1857. Savarkar’s comment that to live like brothers with Muslims was “national weakness” shows that he bought into the orientalist theory that the Hindus were “weak and effeminate” because they did for the most part live like brothers with Muslims. Full of his imaginary vision of "Hindu-sthan" (a term he uses in this early work well as the later ones), Savarkar is unable to see the Hindostan envisioned by Azimullah and the warriors of 1857.
Savarkar is able to accommodate 1857 in his Hindu-supremacist historic schema by making it seem like a temporary truce, fancifully decreed by the motherland. Describing five days of the 1857 war, he writes, "These five days will be ever memorable in the history of Hindusthan for yet another reason. Because these five days proclaimed…the end for the time being at any rate of the continuous fight between Hindus and Mahomedans, dating from the invasion of Mahmud of Ghazni. …Bharatmata who was, in times past, freed from Mahomedan yoke by Shivaji, Pratap Singh, Chhatrasal, Pratapaditya, Guru Gobind Singh and Mahadaji Scindia – that Bharatmata gave the sacred mandate that day, 'Henceforward you are equal and brothers; I am equally mother of you both.'…" (1857, p 126)
He also feels compelled to offer a contorted apologia for the restoration of Bahadur Shah Zafar to the throne of Delhi: "…the Mogul dynasty of old was not chosen by the people of the land. It was thrust upon India by sheer force…by a powerful pack of alien adventurers and native self-seekers…It was not this throne that was restored to Bahadur Shah Zafar today…it would have been in vain that the blood of hundreds of Hindu martys had been shed in the three or four centuries preceding. …For more than five centuries the Hindu civilization had been fighting a defensive war against foreign encroachment on its birthrights. …the conqueror was conquered and India was again free, the blot of slavery and defeat being wiped off. Hindus again were masters of the land of the Hindus…" (1857, p 283-84)
Savarkar in his work on 1857 documented the heroic battles and sacrifices of Muslims. Yet, he went on later to argue for an India purged of Muslims just as Hitler had purged Germany of Jews. In 1944 Savarkar told American journalist Tom Treanor that Muslims in India should be treated “as Negroes are in the US” – i.e segregated, prevented from access to ‘white’ spaces on buses, schools and other public spaces, deprived of voting rights, and other civil rights.
The vision of the 1857 warriors was as far removed from Sarvarkar’s as can be. They were not fighting merely for a restoration of the old order of kings and princes: they were drawing up a blueprint of a new society in which peasants and people from the various oppressed and marginalised castes would have dignity and recognition.
When the 1857 fighters held power, what did their rule look like? Talmiz Khaldun, in his essay ‘The Great Rebellion’, (The 1857 Rebellion, ed Biswamoy Pati, New Delhi : Oxford University Press, 2007), writes that the Mughal ruler was in essence a constitutional monarch alone. The revolutionary democratic nature of the uprising is clear from the measures adopted by its Court (its highest decision making body in Delhi). Khaldun observed: “Necessity forced the Court to heavy and arbitrary taxation. This cannot be denied, though, that the incidence of taxation fell almost entirely on the classes which could pay. Tax measures left the man-in-the-street untouched. On the contrary, the Court tried to give him relief. It passed orders for liquidating the zamindari system and giving proprietory right to the actual tiller. It is evident from the orders passed by the Court that it had intended to overhaul the system of revenue assessment. Its authority was, however, too short-lived to accomplish the task.”