INDIA’S FREEDOM STRUGGLE (Part II)
One must remember that the movement of history is never smooth and never uniformly linear, there are constant ups and downs, little or big disruptions and diversions. The so-called mainstream hides within it the contributions of thousands of small streams and minor currents, that combine together to give shape and substance to the mainstream. In our recounting of the major trends within the struggle for freedom we have tended to ignore the seminal contributions made by a large number of individuals, and while doing so we have also tended to deify a few and demonise a few, giving some larger than life images while reducing others to the status of also-rans, in this effort to place a selective some on a high pedestal. But this is how history is always written, all histories are histories as recorded by the victors. Or those who came to dominate in course of time. Let us see if we can find little things that have not been highlighted in the larger histories of our struggle for freedom and see if we come across a perspective that is normally not presented.
The rebellion, revolt, mutiny, the first battle for freedom, call it what you will, was suppressed with a brutality that was unprecedented. Ghalib, who saw it all happening before his eyes, was to record in his anguished voice
Ghar Se Baazar Ko Nikalte hue, Zahra Hota hai Aab Insaan ka
Chok jisko kahen wo maqtal hai, Ghar Bana hai Namoona Zindaan ka
Aadmi yaan na aa sake waan se, aadmi waan na ja sake yaan ka
One is terrified of stepping out into the marketplace
Every street crossing has a gallows and each house is a prison cell
No one can come from anywhere, and none can think of leaving from here.
He was to write in a letter to a friend that so many that he knew have been slain that he wonders if there will be anyone left to carry his body when he too dies.
The massacres continued unabated for months, not only in Delhi but also in Kanpur, Lucknow, Meerut, Barelliy, Faizabad, Jhansi and scores of other places. It is worth noting here that the three presidencies of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras by and large stayed unmoved, the princely states of Punjab actively supported the British and helped them with soldiers. As already noted in the earlier piece, Hyderabad, Mysore, Travancore, Kashmir, Bhopal, Rajputana and others did not side with the rebels. The ferociousness of the reprisals was aimed at terrorising an entire people and to ensure that no one ever dare dream of freedom again. But when a people decide that they will not remain subjugated, no power, no matter how strong, can keep them in bondage. Within four decades (or two generations), a new wave was sweeping across the country represented by all manner of opinion, there were constitutionalists, reformists, revivalists and rapidly growing revolutionary movements that were taking roots in Bengal, Maharashtra, Punjab UP, Bihar, Kerala and elsewhere. Most of them wanted to rid India of British Rule, though a few were also working in cahoots with the British by projecting Muslims or Hindus as the Principal enemy, but in the main there was a growing understanding that the need of the hour was an all India movement against the British.
This realisation was born out of the understanding that since the British were now entrenched all over the country and the areas where they were not in direct control they were ruling through their proxies – the local Rajas, Ranas, Maharajas and Nawabs, and therefore the movement to dislodge them will have to be an all India movement.
Close on the heels of this realisation came the understanding that a majority of Indians did not consider themselves as Indians, instead they identified with others in terms regional, linguistic or caste markers and no overarching cultural or political identity like an Indian Identity existed till that time. There was nothing wrong with this cultural plurality, in fact in a country of continental proportions this was only natural. Quite a few of the problems that are straining the idea of unity are a result of the process of homogenisation that was set in motion in the nineteenth century in an effort to create political unity against a common enemy.
Prior to 1857 and certainly until much later, the common people owed their allegiances to their own feudal lords and that is why we saw people in Awadh or Jhansi or Bhojpur or Kanpur fighting the British in 1857, because their rulers Hazrat Mahal and Birjees Qadr, Lakshmi Bai and Kunwar Singh and Nana Ji of Bithur had decided to fight them, whereas places like Bhopal, Hyderabad, Punjab and Rajasthan did not see any major mobilisation of people in 1857 because the rulers were with the British. Another reason, in fact a major reason for the lack of involvement of these areas and the people of these areas, was also because the prime movers of the rebellion – the sepoys, had primarily been recruited from UP and Bihar and not from Rajputana , Punjab and Central provinces.
The point that we are trying to make is that prior to 1857 there did not exist anything akin to a Pan Indian identity, and a semblance of such an identity began to emerge in the process of struggle against British Colonialism. The fight for freedom from colonial rule was not merely a fight against the British, but it soon turned into a struggle that was increasingly articulating the democratic and progressive aspirations of the people for an equitable society, and so there were struggles for living wages, struggles against practices of discrimination directed against women and dalits, and rising demands for spread of education, and so we have a range of movements initiated for equality. The movements initiated by Jyotiba and Savitri Bai Phule for an end to caste discrimination and for spread of education among the Dalits including education for girls, a movement that was to later give us leaders and thinkers like Ambedkar, a movement for equal rights for widows initiated among others by Pandita Rama Bai, the movement for the education of girls on an equal footing with boys, initiated by the likes of Lala Devraj at Julundhar 1886, Dhondo Keshav Karve in the 1890s at Hingne near pune, Sheikh Abdullah at Aligarh in 1906, and Ruqqaiya Sakhawat Bhagalpur in 1909.
All these movements combined with the gradual spread of education, though still confined to a select few, had begun to question the settled hierarchies in society and the tensions that these created can easily be judged from the reactions of some of our tallest leaders of the time Tilak attacked Pandita Rama Bai in Public Meetings, Lala Lajpat Rai wrote articles against Lala Devraj, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan told Sheikh Abdullah off about his desire to start a school for girls in Aligarh.
Those who had entrenched themselves in privileged positions because of their caste or gender were not prepared to give up their positions of dominance without a struggle and so they took refuge in diversionary tactics and tried their level best to disrupt the growing unity of the people against colonialism. While all this is going on there was a simultaneous rise in political mobilisation, the political struggle demanded the widest possible unity of the people while the vested interests were not prepared to surrender their privileges that such a unity of the people would naturally result in. And so from the womb of reform there emerged revivalism and the seeds of disunity that were to play havoc with the struggle and with the unity of the people. In fact the struggle gave birth to not one united discourse of India but three.
There emerged an Idea of India that talked of the Golden Period, and this golden period was an exclusively Hindu period, a Hindu period that was imagined in the 19th century, based on this vision an imagined past was created as the idea of India. An India that was ahistorical, because it did not talk of caste discriminations, it did not talk of the non-Aryans, did not have a place in its Vedic, Sanskritic discourse for those who spoke and wrote in the Dravidian, Austro-asiatic and Tibeto-Burman languages. The idea of the great Vedic civilisation obviously had no place for its single largest majority, the Muslims, and so the Muslim became the aggressor. Clearly this would have gladdened the hearts of the colonialists, because this fitted into their scheme of presenting the Hindus as natural allies and Muslims as natural enemies of the British.
Almost simultaneously there emerged a parallel discourse that presented the Muslims as natural inheritors of India once the British were driven out. So, while the former discourse talked of a thousand years slavery, the second discourse gloated about a thousand years of Islamic rule and hoped that the British will hand over the reins of India to them as they leave. There was another discourse and this was the discourse that based itself not in Imagined histories of denial or glory, but in the lived experience of the people. This discourse talked of a common Heritage of Culture, Music, Food, of lived histories of togetherness and sharing, histories of standing up together against imperialism and of a common dream of building an equitable, secular and democratic future for all Indians.
It is thanks to the combined wisdom of the people of India, the poor, the uneducated, the illiterate, the deprived, all those who have been made to break their backs labouring for feudal masters for thousands of years, those who have been forced to put up with sub human existence, starvation and degradation for millennia, and those who have been exploited in the name of religion and birth that they rejected the first two exclusivist discourses and chose an alternate (subaltern if you will), inclusive vision for modern India. The former two gave us the two nation theory and the third discourse gave us the Idea of a secular, modern democratic nation.
An impression is sought to be created that the secular discourse is the creation of the congress, and frankly, this is what may be called being very economical with the truth. The inclusive discourse was certainly not the creation of the likes of Hedgewar, Sawarkar and Jinnah, these gentlemen are primarily responsible for giving shape to the idea that nations can be created on the basis of religion.
The contribution of a diverse range of political formations and movements to the Idea of India as a secular, democratic nation has for long been marginalised and it is time that we begin to question this kind of history writing. The formation of the communist party in the 1920s with P.C. Joshi, Muzzafar Ahmad, B.T. Randive and others, the formation of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association in 1928 with Chandrashekhar Azad, Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and others, the formation of the Congress Socialist party in 1934 with Jayprakash Narain, Acharya Narendra Dev, and EMS Namboodripad, and the valiant mutiny of the Naval Ratings in 1946, joined by the Air force and the constabulary in several states that rattled not only the British but also the leadership of the Muslim League and the Congress, are just a few of the political developments that contributed to the development of this inclusive agenda and inspired countless millions of youth and toiling people to join the struggle against Imperialism.
We only hear of Rabindra Nath Tagore among those who led the cultural renaissance, but let us also remember that it wasn’t him alone, we talk but rarely of Periyar and Narayan Guru who did so much to fight for the dignity of the so called aswarna and then there were the cultural movements of the late 30s and early 40s like the Indian People’s Theatre Association and the Progressive writers Association that gave us the likes of Ravi Shankar, Uday Shankar, Salil Chaudhuri, A.K.Hangal, Krishan Chandar, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Habib Tanveer, Faiz, Kaifi, Sahir, Shailendra, Majrooh, Krishan … the virtual who’s-who of the cultural pantheon of India that galvanised countless initially in the fight for freedom and later in the struggle to defend the ideals of a secular and democratic India.
This was not a struggle fought and led by the congress alone, it was fought for by all those who believed that once we rid ourselves of the colonisers we will build an inclusive, tolerant, democratic and equitable nation. And in this 66th year of independence, it is essential to remember that the Idea of India as it had evolved in the struggle against imperialism was the idea of an inclusive India. Any effort to deny this core of India can only have disastrous implications for the inheritors of this glorious gift of united struggle.