People's Democracy

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


No. 19

May 13, 2007

1857 And The Syncretic Evolution


Sitaram Yechury


THE observation of the 150th anniversary of 1857, termed as the first war of independence, its relevance and the lessons to be drawn, have become the current flavour of intellectual discussions. Many official functions are being held but more important have been the new insights thrown up by a variety of intellectual discussions organised by renowned research organisations and those responsible for historical inquiry. Many cultural and literary organisations have also joined these observations collating hitherto invisible but available material. More such discussions and activities, the better for all of us and India. Better still if the right conclusions are drawn from this experience.


Apart from everything else, post-1857 British Raj represented an important break in the syncretic evolution of Indian civilisation. But for the conscious policy of `divide and rule’ perpetuated by the British to continue and consolidate their rule, aided admirably by the local communal forces, the syncretic evolution of our civilisational ethos would surely have been elevated to higher levels of enlightenment. It is a pity that today we have to revisit this history and ethos rather than being products of such higher enlightenment. Remembering 1857 would eminently serve the purpose if we are able to pick up these threads rather than being pre-occupied with current fratricidal communal conflicts.


A digression is in order. On my maiden visit to the Andamans recently, I discovered, quite distinct from our current pre-occupation with OBC reservations, a community called the LBCs. They have a significant, if not a majority presence in the islands. The British had classified this category as locally-born communities. These were the progeny of those incarcerated in the notorious kala pani. Periodically, the British would parade the male and female prisoners asking them to choose their partners as people were needed to fight the wars of British colonial expansion and to man British repression in the Indian sub-continent. The present curator of the museum was one such product tracing her lineage to a pathan prisoner brought there following 1857 and the mother reaching there after the Moppalah rebellion in Kerala. Though these two events are separated by time, the offsprings of earlier generations would marry later prisoners. Such progeny, however, could be considered as syncretic evolution through the force of the colonial power. But, there had been a powerful natural evolution of syncretic civilisational culture that existed prior to the State-sponsored institutionalised policy of divide and rule that the British Raj practiced following 1857.


There has been for at least two centuries prior to 1857, an exciting intellectual interaction between religions and civilisations in India. I have recently laid my hands on a long forgotten English translation of the seminal work of Prince Dara Shukoh (Shahjahan’s eldest son who was murdered by Aurangazeb in the struggle for the ascendancy of the Moghal throne) titled Majma– ul-Bahrain (the mingling of two oceans) in Persian authored in 1654-55. Dara Shikoh had not merely learnt Sanskrit but translated the Upanishads into Persian, “in order to discover Wahdat al Wujud hidden in them”. He bemoans the reluctance of open discussions on the vedic works (though not mentioning the caste system preventing all lower castes from access to this knowledge) which led to, “hiding the Upanishadic truth from both Hindus and Muslims”. In this particular treatise, a study of Islamic Sufism and Hindu mysticism, he comes to the conclusion that, “they were identical”. It is not necessary to agree with Dara Shukoh’s views. The point at issue is to note that such theological and intellectual exercises which could have been capable of raising the levels of civilisational enlightenment were taking place at that time.


Through his theological discourses, Dara Shukoh not only carried forward these syncretic traditions laid down by Akbar but also infused a spirit of liberalism into the medieval Indian life expanding the horizons of the Indian mind. The impact of this was such that in May 1857, at the outbreak of the revolt, the widely circulated daily Dihli Urdu Akhbaar reported that the “rebellion had been sent by Gods to punish the kafirs for their arrogant plan to wipe out the religions of India”.


Gopal Gandhi (presently the Governor of West Bengal), dedicates his magnificent play in verse, “Dara Shukoh” to the Peri Mahal, the magical `Fairies Palace’ built by Dara Shukoh on a barely accessible spur overlooking Lake Dal in Srinagar. Intended by Dara to be a centre for the study of celestial bodies, the magnificent structure is now derelict, its broken terrace a reminder of the precariousness of lofty visions.


And, this vision is articulated as follows in Dara’s words, “Babur laid the foundation/For our future nation;/Humayun saved it from marauders/Within and beyond its borders./Then Akbar built in granite brick/Stalwart walls, elephant thick,/To withstand siege, storm or quake/Which none but God could shake./A strength that came not from rock/Or some man-excluding lock/But from the versatility/Of Hindostan’s plurality./Jehangir made the howdah/Of statehood even prouder/By a measured ostentation/Which my father’s celebration/Of power has finally crowned… India needs a thinker/On the Peacock Throne./A thinker, who will link her/With creation’s ozone,/Who will proclaim an `ilahi’/greater than ever thought of yet,/Not for abetter badshahi/But a re-defined badshahyat/That will transform Delhi’s ruler/From a sway-sozzled, lusty/King of varying demeanour/Into India’s First Trustee.


Dara Shukoh proceeds to state: “India needs a scholar/On the Peacock Throne./Anyone who is smaller,/That seat will now disown.” Though the peacock throne did not disown Aurangazeb, it was nevertheless subsequently looted by Nadir Shah and given as tribute to the Caliph, Sultan of the Ottoman empire. It is now a prized possession of the museum at the Topkapi palace in Istanbul.


History can never be the realm for speculation. It is a different matter as to what would have happened if Aurangazeb had not come on to the scene and usurped the Moghal Crown. We are not attempting an historical evaluation. We are recollecting all this only to note that somewhere down the line, these threads of syncretic evolution have faded into the background post 1857 British Raj.


A quick look at the recently-concluded election campaign in Uttar Pradesh rudely jostles us to the parameters of present-day discourses. The BJP’s strident plank of prakhar Hindutva, the exhortions to rid India of Babar ke aulad (notwithstanding the fact that, amongst many others, the devout Hindu queen of Jhansi Lakshmi Bai annointed the same Babar ke aulad Bahadur Shah Zafar, as the sovereign monarch of India after getting rid of the British rule), the obnoxious CD circulating amongst the electorate only proves the fact that rabid communal polarisation for political and electoral gains rules the roost. Indeed, the “precariousness of lofty visions” once again plagues us. From a feudal absolute monarchy and dynasty, India overcoming two centuries of colonial occupation has emerged as a modern State where the sovereignty rests with the people. As a self-proclaimed secular democratic republic, a status gained by a gigantic freedom struggle and innumerable sacrifices, we have created for ourselves a structure and system that is best suited to carry forward the battle of ideas to a higher level of syncretic enlightenment.


Surely, such an opportunity cannot be allowed to be hijacked by such communal forces whose very ideological existence is the antithesis of a secular democratic republic. Equally, this opportunity cannot be allowed to be squandered. Remembering 1857 means the need to consolidate this opportunity and build on it to strengthen the modern secular democratic republic of India.


In fact, religious tolerance for us in India is no western concept borrowed in modern times. Way back in the 3rd century BC, Emperor Asoka commanded in his edicts, “Whosoever honours one’s own sect and condemns other sects, out of devotion to one’s own sect, intending to glorify it, in acting thus injures his own sect the more.”


Decades after 1857, Swami Vivekananda visualised the future of India as, “a vedantic mind in an Islamic body”. On religious tolerance, even the Bhagavad Gita says: “Whatever celestial form a devotee seeks to worship with faith, I stabilise the faith of that particular devotee in that particular form” [Chapter VII (21)]. Vivekananda ends his famous address to the world parliament of religions in Chicago at the end of the 19th century thus: “If anybody dreams of the exclusive survival of his own religion and the destruction of others, I pity him from the bottom of my heart and point out to him that upon the banner of every religion will soon be written, in spite of resistance; help, and not fight, assimilation and not destruction, harmony and peace and not dissension”.


Remembering 150 years of 1857 needs, therefore, to bring on to the agenda the task of picking up lost threads of such syncretic evolution. Instead of being devoured by fratricidal communal passions and poison, India’s future truly lies in picking up these lost threads and carrying them forward.