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Monday 14 May 2007, by SC

As we observe the 150th anniversary of the Great Indian Revolt of 1857 this week, it is necessary to recount the positive features of that First Indian War of Independence which shook the edifice of the colonial empire.
First of all, there was remarkable unity among all those who engineered the upsurge or else it could not have sustained for a considerable length of time while injecting fear into the minds of the alien rulers.

Secondly, Hindus and Muslims fought side by side against the common enemy—the colonial power—since all sections of the populace had suffered under the oppressive colonial regime that was established through the East India Company. In one of the well-known proclamations during the Revolt it was pointed out:

Be it known to all Hindu and Muhammadan inhabitants of India... that within the last few years the British commenced to oppress the people of India under different pleas and contrived to eradicate Hinduism and Muhamadinism and to make all the people embrace Christianity... Since the real purpose of this war was to save religion, let every Hindu and Musalman render assistance to the utmost.

This, as has been aptly explained by distinguished historian K.N. Panikkar, showed that those who organised the Revolt, their world view was not influenced by religious identity, which enabled them to fight together—both Muslims and Hindus—against the British. What persuaded them to do so was their perception of the British as a common enemy. In doing so, neither their religion nor that of the enemy assumed an ideological role.

And that is why Hindu-Muslim unity in the Revolt remained intact despite the devious British efforts to sow disunity in the ranks of the mutineers by exploiting the religious factor.

Thirdly, one cannot possibly ignore that aspect of peasant uprising in the Revolt which has been mentioned in Communist leader P.C. Joshi’s outstanding work “1857 In Our History” excerpts from which have been carried in the current issue of this journal. Again as Eric Stokes noted in his The Peasant Armed: The Indian Revolt of 1857,
In any event the peasantry formed the vital link between military mutiny and rural turbulence. In a real sense the revolt was essentially the revolt of a peasant army breaking loose from its foreign masters. In the Bengal Army, the landholding Chhatri (Rajput) and Brahmin experienced the shattering of the local horizons in which village life is commonly bound. They entered a brotherhood closely knit by the frequent interchange of regiments between widely flung cantonments, each regiment possessing its own set of native officers who had risen up from the ranks and were accustomed to command companies on detachment and to bear considerable responsibility... once the sepoy had been moved to treat the white officers’ orders with deliberate defiance, there was no saying where he might not go. For as in all fragile military despotisms, any mutiny of the army predicated political revolution.

P.C. Joshi brought into focus the peasant participation in the 1857 uprising. While doing so he rejected Jawaharlal Nehru’s view that the Revolt was essentially a “feudal outburst, headed by feudal chiefs and their followers and aided by the widespread anti-British sentiment”, official historian Dr S.N. Sen’s contention that the mutiny leaders “wanted a counter-revolution”, as well as Talmiz Khaldun’s thesis that during the uprising the “Indian peasantry was fighting desperately to free itself of foreigners as well as feudal bondage” and the “mutiny ended as a peasant war against indigenous landlordism and foreign imperialism”. Within its limitations the uprising constituted a firm step towards upholding the peasants’ interests.

No doubt the architects of the Revolt had numerous weaknesses and these should not be glossed over even if we do not dilate on them here. Yet there is no gainsaying that because of the initial cohesion in their ranks, the Hindu-Muslim unity and the peasant participation in the Revolt in substantial measure it did acquire a distinct character.

Karl Marx had the foresight to fully comprehend this reality. That is why in his unsigned newsletter to the New York Daily Tribune on July 31, 1857 he made a perceptive observation:

By and by there will ooze out other facts able to convince even John Bull himself that what he considers a military mutiny is in truth a national revolt.

It required exceptional perspicacity at that juncture to make that statement.

In today’s context how should we view the 1857 Revolt? As K. N. Panikkar has boldly underscored,

At any rate the anti-colonial legacy of the Revolt is worth recalling, as it was unmistakably a struggle for independence, when the country is steadily but surely slipping into dependence in the name of development.

Simultaneously the secular nature of the struggle needs to be recounted—despite the manifold machina-tions of the British the rocklike Hindu-Muslim unity among those who had directed and led the Revolt could not be broken. The significance of this phenomenon can never be minimised especially when communalism is trying to once again capture the centre-stage with majoritarian onslaught manifesting itself in a variety of ways.
The peasant participation in the Revolt was a feature that lent a new dimension to the uprising. This too is of extraordinary importance in the present scenario when the peasant community is getting a raw deal from all segments of the ruling class.

Overall the remembrance of 1857 should spur us all to once more reclaim the heritage of the battle for freedom because it is needless to emphasise that in the current situation when the neo-liberal offensive has assumed such menacing proportions, our independence, freedom and sovereignty are all at peril. Against such a backdrop reviving the spirit of 1857 is a major task before all of us who are committed to build a new India and a better world for the benefit of the oppressed and exploited humanity.

May 10 S.C.

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