People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 08

February 25, 2007



Irfan Habib


KARL MARX began writing on India in 1853 as a London correspondent of the New York Daily Tribune, a newspaper with the largest circulation in America at the time. In two seminal articles entitled ‘British Rule in India’ and ‘Future Results of British Rule in India’, he described how British rule had violently destroyed the older system of society and economy in India, inflicting untold misery on the Indian people. He also underlined the fact that, without at all intending to do so, British colonialism was creating in India the necessary conditions for the country’s regeneration. In the second article, he looked forward to the day when “the Hindoos (Indians) themselves shall have grown strong enough to throw off the English yoke altogether.” With what would prove to be words of uncanny premonition four years later, Marx also noted that “the native army, organised and trained by the British drill-sergeant, was the sine qua non of Indian self-emancipation” (NYDT, August 8, 1853). When the Bengal Army rose in May 1857, Marx returned to this theme, in his very first article on the Revolt (NYDT, July 15, 1857). “On first view”, he wrote, “it is evident that the allegiance of the Indian people rests on the fidelity of the native army, in creating which the British rule simultaneously organised the first general centre of resistance which the Indian people were ever possessed of.” In his next report, dated July 17 (NYDT, August 4), he wrote of the growing scale of the Army’s revolt and of the rebels’ determination “as if on a preconcerted plan,” to rush to the defence of Delhi held by the sepoys from 11 May onwards. He nevertheless detected a lapse on the part of the rebels in not “discovering a man upon whom to bestow the supreme command” which was indispensable for organising “a serious and protracted resistance” against the British forces now assembling near Delhi. Marx, very early in the day, thus located a fatal flaw in rebel arrangements in that no single unified command could be established by them. 


Further events persuaded Marx that the military revolt in India was not confined just to the sepoys, and that even “the Sikhs, like the Mohammaedans, were making a common cause with the Brahmins, and that thus a general union against the British rule, of all the different tribes, was rapidly progressing.” He was now confident that “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” (NYDT, August 14, 1857).
In a subsequent article (NYDT, August 29) Marx expressed his conviction that the rebels in Delhi were very strongly placed, and that “as to the talk about the apathy of the Hindoos [in American usage, Indians], or even their sympathy with British rule, it is all nonsense.” He noted that the difficulties faced by the English in obtaining supplies and transports “do not witness to the good feelings of the peasantry” towards them. This was the first reference in Marx to the positive existence of peasant support for the rebellion; hitherto he had referred only to support from dispossessed land owners and deposed princes. At the same time, he warned that “it is a curious quid pro quo to expect an Indian revolt to assume the features of a European revolution.”


And yet, owing to its expanding spread, Marx was beginning to treat the Indian Revolt more and more as a full-fledged “revolution”. In his report, written on September 1 (NYDT, September 15, 1857), after describing the stand-still at Delhi and the outbreaks of rebellion at Agra, Kanpur, Lucknow and other places, he summed it up all by stating that “the British forces were gradually drifting into the position of small posts planted on insulated rocks amid a sea of revolution.” In his next report, written shortly afterwards on September 4 (NYDT, September 16), he mused on an analogy with the French Revolution of 1789: “The first blow dealt to the French monarchy proceeded from the nobility, not from the peasants. The Indian revolt does not commence with the Ryots, tortured, dishonoured, and stripped naked by the British, but with the Sepoys, clad, fed, petted, fatted and pampered by them.” The implication is obvious: the rising was spearheaded by the sepoys, but now other classes, notably the peasants, had joined the ranks of the rebellion to turn it into a veritable revolution.


Marx’s sympathy with the rebel cause is frequently expressed in his articles. In his early reports this showed in his repeated insistence that Delhi was being actively defended by the rebels, and the English were bound to give up the attempt to seize it. This he went on claiming so late as about October 7, when he wrote the report published in NYDT, October 23. The news of the fall of Delhi that occurred in mid-September, and on which Marx’s report was published in NYDT, November 14, came as a piece of unpleasant surprise to him. In a letter to Engels of November 13, 1857 he acknowledged that the fall of Delhi had “to some extent discredited myself and the Tribune”. However, Marx in his report in NYDT (October 11, 1857) had protected himself somewhat by arguing that the British by concentrating on Delhi had “simply played into the hands of the mutineers,” for they thereby left to them the remaining part of the country as an “open field.” He obviously now looked hopefully at the rebels’ more mobile and flexible defence of the large area (practically the whole of Uttar Pradesh) that had by now come into their hands.


Marx at this point wished his friend Frederick Engels to take a hand in reporting on the Revolt, and henceforth left the task of covering the military events entirely to Engels. Engels began by analysing the British army’s successful assault on Delhi. He thought that the tactics followed by the rebels showed “that some notions of scientific warfare had penetrated among the Sepoys, but either they [these tactics] were not clear enough, or not powerful enough, to be carried out with any effect” (NYDT, December 5, 1857). He followed this up by two articles on Campbell’s temporary relief of the Lucknow Residency, November 14-23, 1857. While taking a dim view of the rebels’ inability to capture the Lucknow Residency despite a siege of over five months, he yet recognised that the “Oude insurgents…. proved immediately after the arrival of Campbell the strength of a national insurrection,” which compelled the British commander-in-chief to order a retreat from Lucknow. Engels commented that “the strength of a national insurrection does not lie in pitched battles, but in petty warfare, in the defence of towns, and in the interruption of the enemy’s communications” (NYDT, February 1, 1858).


To the last point --- i.e. how a ‘national insurrection’ could be continued despite the inability to win battles in open field --- Engels returned in his two articles on the final fall of Lucknow that took place in March 1858. He discounted the reports of heavy fighting or of British heroism and was disappointed at the sorry measures of defence adopted by the rebels. He, however, noted that the rebels had dispersed in large bodies across the country, and so believed that a phase of “guerrilla warfare” would now begin (NYDT, May 25 and June 15, 1858). His expectations of how such warfare should proceed were, perhaps, fulfilled only by the famous Kunwar Singh and his brother Amar Singh of Jagdishpur. Speaking later, specifically of Amar Singh, Engels said that he showed some “knowledge of guerrilla warfare; at all events, he attacks the British whenever he can, instead of quietly waiting for them.” But while penning these words, Engels was now writing his final piece on the Rebellion. By autumn of 1858 the hopes of a sustained general guerilla warfare stood tragically belied; and Engels concluded that the revolt had now dwindled to such a level as deprived it of all “military interest.” Yet he was still sure that the “anti-British sentiments of 150,000,000 Indians” it was leaving behind, might still become “a matter of serious consideration” one day (NYDT, October 1, 1858).




While Engels was studying the military aspects of the Rebellion, Marx concentrated on its political aspects. He was, first, concerned with contesting the hysteria that was being raised in England over the rebels’ “atrocities.” In an early article on the rebellion (NYDT, September 16, 1857), he agreed that the rebels had committed such appalling “outrages,” as one meets, indeed, “in wars of insurrections, of nationalities, of races, and above all, of religion,” pointing to precedents from Europe’s own history. He recalled to mind “the violations of women, the spittings of children, the roasting of whole villages” that the British themselves had perpetrated in the recent Opium War in China. He then cites report after report of the fiendish action of British officers in their work of suppressing the Indian rebellion: the cruelties, and the hangings of both combatants and non-combatants. Marx went on to doubt the deliberately exaggerated accounts of the rebels’ atrocities derived from “cowardly” persons, sitting at long distances from the sites of events. He followed up this report by an account of the kinds of physical torture Indian peasants normally suffered under British rule (NYDT, September 17, 1858). In NYDT, April 5, 1858, he reverted to the use made of the ‘reports’ of the rebels’ crimes, which served to incite British passions, though discovered to be false after they had been put to full use for propaganda purposes. He also gave a fresh account of the brutal atrocities committed by the British on rebels, and on their non-combatant supporters, or just ordinary people. He condemned the bloodthirsty spirit adopted by England, “hateful enough in a single tyrant, but which, when adopted by a whole nation, becomes horrible indeed.” It may be added that Engels too was disgusted at the way Lucknow was given over to loot by British soldiery, and he sarcastically referred to the “civilising and humanising progress” of the British army (NYDT, May 25, 1858). In an article in Pall Mall Gazette, London, November 11, 1870, he recalled that the English had violated all military norms by shooting down prisoners of war.


Marx took up, next, the questions of legitimacy. He showed how the British annexation of Oudh in 1856, was totally illegal, so that it could not be said that the people of that state had committed any breach of loyalty to their legal sovereign by joining the rebellion. Rather, “all these treacherous and brutal modes of proceeding of the British toward the natives of India are now beginning to avenge themselves.” These proceedings had now been crowned by Canning’s Proclamation of March 3, 1858 confiscating the entire “proprutary right in the soil of the Province of Oude” by dispossessing all present proprietors until they could prove their loyalty! (NYDT, May 28, 1858).


Another aspect of Marx’s writings on 1857 derives from his anxiety to provide supporters of the Indian cause in England, like Ernst Jones, the Chartist leader (on whom see the previous issue of People’s Democracy), with arguments that might appeal to the English audience. Marx showed that India was misgoverned and overtaxed only to provide members of the English “governing class” within India and individuals belong to certain groups in England with large incomes. The ordinary English people and tax-payer gained nothing from India: rather they had now to pay more and more heavily for the costs of imperial aggrandisement (see ‘British Incomes in India’, NYDT, September 21, 1857, and ‘Taxation in India’, NYDT, July 23, 1858). In April 1859 after analysing in detail how much the expenditure incurred over the suppression of the Revolt was going to burden the English tax-payer with, Marx summed it all up in these final words: “it will be confessed that these financial fruits of the ‘glorious’ reconquest have not a charming experience; and that John Bull pays exceedingly high protective duties for securing the monopoly of the Indian market to the Manchester free-traders.”


In the words we have just italicised Marx gives vent to his total scepticism about the anti-colonial professions of the English Free Traders. Indeed, nearly a hundred years before the term “Imperialism of Free Trade” was coined by John Gallagher and R Robinson in 1953, Marx had here effectively and succinctly described the phenomenon designated by that term. The Indian “National Revolt” had been crushed in a huge blood bath so that British industrial capital could rule over India in the name of the British Crown in as absolute a manner as force and terror could provide.