People's Democracy

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


No. 19

May 13, 2007

1857 And Our Struggle For Freedom


Hiren Mukherjee


THOUGHTS of the great uprising of 1857 stir powerfully, at its centenary, the national memory, but it is noteworthy that there is a serious move, sponsored even by some who should know better, to minimise its significance and to lowlight, to the point almost of denying, its role in our struggle for freedom.


A few voices have even been raised against celebration of the centenary, for it rakes up, in their view, what was better forgotten. The argument, roughly, is that the events of 1857-58 show neither British nor Indian in favourable light, in spite of the countless instances which occurred then of heroism and kindness to counter the general impression of man's inhumanity, and that since the two countries have parted friends, recalling 1857 is neither necessary nor likely to have salutary effects.


This idea does not require much rebutting. We cannot ignore history, except at our peril. We cannot, conceivably, shut our eyes to the great events of 1857, for they are part and a significant part, of our evolution. Unsavoury happenings are not a unique feature of 1857-we live in an age unable yet to conquer its haunting fear of warfare likely to efface all civilisation-and in any case, true history is not just a record of past follies and crimes but a guide to the understanding of the social process.


More formidable is the contention that 1857 saw little more than what the British have tenaciously called a "mutiny, that much of the country and more of its people were unaffected and unconcerned, that feudal reaction, insensible of nationalist emotion, had joined hands with aggrieved armymen, that the better elements of Indian society had wished the British well, and that, as the last desperate gamble of those who wished to pull back history's wheels, eighteen fifty-seven, if it must be remembered, had better be unhonoured and unsung.


This is a view which is wrong and perverse, and an unmerited slur on our people. Like statistics which can often lie, historical evidence can be so treated as to buttress what is fundamentally untrue. There is no dearth, and never has been, of historians who are capable and conscientious investigators but cannot see the wood for the trees. In defiance of experience, they strenuously deny the sli ghtest pre-possession in respect of subjects of their study, and parade a loyalty to what they deem to be "facts," even when such "facts" do not fit in with the truth of the matter. Discrimination, which in this context is the same as insight, is a virtue, however, which historians, staggering under the load of little findings, should not lack.


There is hardly another event in Indian history about which so much material is available as about 1857. The bibliography (in itself a delight), appended to Surendra nath Sen's valuable study does not claim to be exhaustive. No Indian of the period, however, has written a real account from the Indian point of view. This is noted by Maulana Abul Kalam Azad in his foreword to Dr. Sen's book.


Bengal's referred to by Dr. Sen as "an undisturbed province" though he concedes that there, and even in Madras, "there was a feeling of impotent disaffection that delighted in every news of British reverse." Bengal, however, can hardly be termed "undisturbed," and in spite of the panegyrics of British rule which have emanated from our educated classes since 1857, it would be wronging our ancestors if we really think they welcomed servitude to Britain. In 1857-58, objectively, the situation was unripe for a full-fledged nationalist revolt; a bourgeoisie was then only in embryo, and the landed gentry, whose interests Britain had by such instruments as the Permanent Settlement clasped closely to herself, supplied and sustained the new "literati." These latter were, no doubt, exhilarated by the 'spirit of 1857 but, as ruthless repression was the rule, generally preferred discretion to valour. It is of interest to find the Rev. Alexander Duff, greatly respected by educated Indians, observing that in Bengal "discontent lurks deeply in the hearts of millions" and that while "many, it cannot be doubted, are at the same time well enough disposed towards our rule, to talk of attachment would only tend to mislead."


A British civil servant found not a district in Bengal where, during the days of 1857, the administration was not directly in danger or in grave fear of it. Whether it was Dacca or Chittagong or Comilla or Noakhali or Nadia or Jessore or Birbhum or Burdwan, panic prevailed among white men and officials. This is testified by the district gazetteers and the columns of journals like The Englishman. If it was not for the massive help which, for instance, the Maharaja of Burdwan, like so many of his peers elsewhere, rendered to the British (as he had done against the Santhals in 1855), the situation in Bengal might well have turned very different.


It was this factor, indeed, the alliance of Britain with vested interests, which saved British rule during 1857-58. It was with much prescience that Bentinck, governor-general from 1828 to 1835, had said:


There is a link, thus, between 1857 and subsequent' stages of our national struggle. "The Revolt of Hindostan," as 'Ernest Jones, the British Chartist leader, termed the rising of 1857, was a trumpet-call which, transcending time and space, echoed whenever our people mustered their roll for a fight, whether in the last quarter of the 19th century or in the days of Swadeshi and revolutionary terrorism, or in 1920-22 and the grand sequence of movements culminating in 1946. Subhas Chandra Bose's adoption of the 1857 rebels' slogan of Chalo Delhi (To DelhI!) was a stroke of real insight, redolent of history, whatever text-books and pale-faced scholarship might suggest:


In as much as our freedom has still to make strides and become a reality to people's lives, the legacy of 1857, purged of its dross, remains "a heap of ,treasure, which as a great English writer once said in quit another context, "neither moth nor rust can corrupt, and even our traitorship, if we are to become traitors to it, cannot sully."


(From New Age, August 1957)