People's Democracy

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


No. 19

May 13, 2007

India’s Freedom Struggle


B T Ranadive


IN EX-COLONIAL countries the formation of a nation and the growth of national consciousness takes place in the course of struggle against foreign rule. India was not a nation in the modern sense, when it was conquered by the British. This is an historical truth and should not be treated as denigration of our people. Neither England nor France, for that matter, were modern nations before the rise of capitalism, in these countries. They became nations when the rising capitalist class overthrew feudal rule, abolished feudal relations, and integrated the country into single economic units for the purpose of commodity exchange, etc.


However, the fact that India was not a nation in this sense does not mean that the Indian people were alien to each other, with nothing in common between the peoples of various parts and regions. There was a history of common culture, outlook, ideological traditions and the firm idea that India extended from one end of the country to another. The common culture reinforced by modern convictions of economic unity helped the people to unite against the British.


It was natural and inevitable that in the early years of our national struggle, leaders emphasised that India was always one nation. But we should know that this was not so, that the process of nation-building is still going on. We should bear in mind that no country of such immense dimensions as India was conquered for the foreigners by its own army, as our country was. It took nearly a century after the introduction of British rule to organise a national resistance to the enslaver.


When the people of a country have to fight a foreign ruler the illusion of a complete homogeneity in the ranks is easily created. No thought is given to the role of various interests and their relation to the foreign ruler. Few analyse the old social situation in which the country could be enslaved. If at all this is done, it is regarded as irrelevant, as problems to be hushed away by saying that all these will be settled once the country is free. No effort is made to demarcate those whose interests run counter to the ultimate interests of the people and ensure that they do not affect the shape, the destiny of the struggle.


The struggle for the formation of a nation cannot start without the existence of a modicum of capitalist relations. It is therefore inevitable that where capitalist relations are weak, where the modern working class exists in small number and its consciousness is still dominated by the old structure, the struggle for the formation of a nation is increasingly led by the intellectuals representing the new bourgeois democratic values. Till then the struggle against foreign rule remains compartmentalised, and, though it sometimes takes the form of a national revolt, lacks a cohesive ideology and programme to sustain it over the years.


This as we will presently see, was the experience of India. The revolts of Indian soldiers in the British army represented a hatred of the foreigners and a desire to drive them out. Yet they cannot be said to possess popular national consciousness. The process was developing through the very acts of the British --- through the steps they had to take to introduce modern means of communication and exploitation.


1857 War Of Independence


The 1857 War of Independence was an inspiring story of armed resistance against British enslavement and misrule. Through the 18th and 19th centuries a series of struggles against the British occurred. This period of militant struggles started with the Sanyasi Rebellions (1763-1800), around which centered Bankim Chatterjee’s famous novel Anand Matha, and continued till the Birsa Rebellion (1890-1900).


From Garo to Lushai Hills, to Trivandrum in the south, from Cutch in west to Rajamundhri on the eastern coast, people were involved in the fight at one time or other during the course of these hundred years.


The 19th century saw a number of armed mutinies of Indian soldiers against the British. The earliest mutiny was in 1824-25 by soldiers who were to be despatched to Burma. The apparent reason was that they did not want to be despatched by the sea route. The sepoys, besides, made a demand for increased allowance. However, it is evident that a strong anti-British current was developing in the country. The Press Regulations of 1823 added fuel to the fire and it was widely believed in official circles that Ram Mohan Roy’s appeal for the freedom of the press was a source of the inspiration for the rebels. The mutiny spread beyond Bairakpur (in Bengal). The mutiny was crushed but the discontentment could not be suppressed. Another protest developed in 1827-28 concentrating around Calcutta and directed against the Stamp Duties Regulations Act of the Company. The people should not be taxed without their consent, was the slogan. (Ashok Lal Ghosh, British India’s First Freedom Movement – 1820-1830).


What was the source of this desperate resistance? It was a period when the British East India Company was carrying on its robbery of the people, without any pretence to law or rules. It was soon followed by imports of products of the British cotton industry, which shattered the union of agriculture and industry in India, imposing unspeakable misery on millions.


In the beginning the rapacious Company attacked all interests; the peasants, handicraftsmen, merchants, landlords and feudal princes – all were the victims of its piracy. Exorbitant demands were made on the landlords and feudal princes to serve as an excuse for depriving them of their properties and principalities. To meet the Company’s demands they intensified the oppression of the peasants. Merchant’s houses were often raided, peasants and weavers were treated as serfs. Territories of ruling princes who were without an issue, were absorbed in the extending domination of the British.


It was because of this exploitation of all, that landlords and peasants, feudal princes and subjects often fought together against the British. Their ranks were strengthened by the disbanded Moghul and other feudal armies. However, as days passed, the peasants got involved in a simultaneous fight with the foreign rulers and the landlords.


The figures that emerged in these stormy struggles constitute a spectrum of the entire society. Adivasis, peasants, religious reformers, disbanded soldiers, ministers of feudal princes, all appear on the stage. Heroic figure such as Majanu Saha, Bhawani Pathank, Devi Choudharani (all leaders of the Sanyasi Rebellion), Vijaya Rama Raja of Vishakapatnam, Wazir Ali, Nawab-designate of Oudh, the Bhil leades, Dasaratha and Hiri (Maharashtra), Chinnamma of Kitur (Karnataka), Sayyed Ahmed (of Bareilley), the Wahabi leader and his colleague Teetu Meer, and the patriotic Valu Thampi of Travancore, the anti-British Veer Raja of Coorg, the anti-landlord anti-indigo planter Deedu Mian of Faridpur (now in Bangladesh), Narain Reddy of Kurnool who embraced the gallows, Matu Bommen Naik of Ramnad, Tribhuvan Santhal, Mansinha Maji, leaders of the Santhal rebellion, the well known leaders of 1857, Viswanath Sardar, leader and initiator of the indigo revolt, Vesudeva Balwant Phadhuke of Poona and Birsa of Ranchi, Hindus and Muslims, fought shoulder to shoulder. Heroic women led the struggle on a number of occasions. The people fought in one part of the country or another, emphasising that the entire country was passing through the same mill of foreign oppression.


On every occasion they were defeated overwhelmingly by a more well-equipped force. British superiority was not the superiority of courage and individual bravery, but of modern armies and an advanced social order, pitted against a decaying order and outdated armies. But by the courageous resistance of the people these struggles were laying the foundation of future national resistance.


Falsifiers of history did their best, at one time, to hide this militant national tradition of the Indian struggle.


The culmination of this era of struggles was the great national outbreak of 1857, which had a more cohesive consciousness, organisation and purpose behind it. It was in the fitness of things that it was Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, the revolutionary freedom fighter, who claimed for the people the heritage of this fight calling it the “War of independence of 1857.” The delicate constitutional politics of the post-1857 leaders abhorred this kind of disloyalty and unconstitutional aberration.


It was almost the first attempt to organise resistance on a nation-wide plane, the first direct product of the new civilisation implanted by the British. Its religion-based appeal and failure to formulate its aims in modern national and democratic terms, marked its limitations. But the objective character of a struggle can never be measured solely in terms of its own consciousness.


Objectively it was a national revolt and men like Disraeli, ex-prime minister of Britain and leader of the opposition in 1857, asked in Parliament, “Does the disturbance of India indicate a military mutiny or is it a national revolt? Is the conduct of the troops the consequence of a sudden impulse or is it the result of an organised conspiracy?”


The unity exhibited in 1857, cutting across religious distinction, was emphatically noted. This fact is very important, as it shows that the Sikhs, like the Mohammedans, were making common cause with the Brahmins, and that a general union against the British rule of all the different tribes, was rapidly progressing.


The 1857 revolt was the first great awakening of the Indian people. It was hazy in its conception and poor in its execution. But it relied on the most widespread and basic section of Indian society – the peasantry. It was a mixture of old and new --- new aspirations and old leadership, a struggle fought under the deadweight of tradition. It failed because the forces which could successfully hold together various sections of the people and provide viable modern leadership had not yet arisen.


(Excerpted from “India’s Freedom Struggle” published in Social Scientist, No 159-160)