People's Democracy

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


No. 39

September 30, 2007

1857: An Internationalist Pespective; The Lessons Of Chartism


Badri Raina




“I am one of the unemployed, but if I was in India, I
would say the same thing that Mr Gandhi is saying.”


(A Lancashire mill worker to Gandhi, 1931)


UPON some honest reading in and around the event of 1857, spread over a diverse spectrum of ideological concerns, I just wish to sound the caution that in this celebratory year we may be that little bit guilty of a Saidesque Orientalism in unproblematically denoting the uprising of 1857 as a “nationalist” happening, treating even “the religious factor (as) part of the national factor” (P C Joshi). It may be argued against this caution that after all Marx himself projected a nationalist construction of the uprising, and with him the Chartist ideologue, Ernest Jones: “The revolt turns out to be. . . from the commencement, not a military mutiny but a national insurrection” (August 1, 1857). The question to ask is whether their perspective on national concerns was the same as ours, either in 1857 or indeed now.




Undeniably, many discrete and diverse sources of disaffection with British domination did aggregate into a felt fury against “firangi” rule (Irfan Habib has shown that this sentiment was overtly reflected in vernacular press of the time). Yet, this fury not only remained confined to parts of the Central Provinces, the Gangetic belt, Meerut and Delhi — leaving the whole of the south and Bengal largely untouched, and indeed even in these parts losing out to collaborators like the Scindias and Holkars, and finding the Sikh forces under Nicholson ranged against it, not to speak of the loyal Gorkhas — but seemed informed by motivations that hardly cohered into what Savarkar, interestedly, was to call the “first war of independence.”


Without intending any postmodernist subversion of what has increasingly come to be a “nationalist discourse” with respect to the events of 1857 (endorsed also by British historians like Alexander Duff, Malleson and others, the latter writing that “extraneous causes were at work to promote an ill-feeling, a hatred, not personal but national”), Indian historiography itself represents perspectives on crucial aspects of the uprising that remain internally contradictory.


For example, on the role of the feudals, Nehru and P C Joshi seem so obviously at two ends of the interpretative spectrum. Nehru was to write:


“Many of their number, inspite of their sympathies, thought discretion the better part of valour, and stood apart waiting to see on which side victory lay. Many played the part of quislings.


The Indian princes as a whole kept aloof or helped the British, fearing to risk what they had acquired or managed to retain.
There was hardly any national and unifying sentiment among the leaders and a mere anti-foreign feeling, coupled with their desire to maintain their feudal privileges, was a poor substitute for this.”


(The Discovery of India, Asia Publishing, p.324)


Joshi, contrarily, drawing support from the role of “Russian feudal generals and leaders who organised the resistance to Napoleon”, argues that in a context in which British policies had “turn(ed) every section of the Indians from the topmost Indian ruler to the poorest Indian peasant against their regime,” if “in such circumstances a section of the Indian feudals joined a popular armed rebellion whose avowed object…was to expel the foreigner they did objectively play a patriotic role” (Joshi, 1857 in Our History, Rebellion 1857, NBT, 2007, p 180). Not unsurprisingly, while Joshi cites and endorses Nehru’s view of the hubris of “Herrenvolk and the master race” as “inherent in imperialism”, he passes over Nehru’s view of the feudals altogether.


Likewise, controversy remains in place with respect to the position of the Bengal intelligentsia on the uprising. S N Sen who wrote the official account in 1957, was to say as follows:


“The gentry of Bengal was full of appreciation for the beneficial results of the British rule” and “refrained from showing any sympathy for the sepoys who rebelled at Barrackpore”; and that “an address pledging loyalty to the British was presented by the the Maharaja of Burdwan, including 2501 other signatures” after end of the siege of Delhi.


(S N Sen, 1857, Publications Div., 1957)


This representation is countered by Benoy Ghose as follows:


“The loyalty of the Bengali intelligentsia was. . . conditional. So long as the British rulers acted in favour of the class interest of the intelligentsia, their loyalty was assured but not otherwise.”


(“The Bengal Intelligentsia and the Revolt, Rebellion 1857, p.112)


Clearly, this defence in itself has a tale to tell — one that rather vitiates an unqualified “nationalist” construction of the event of 1857.




Nor does it seem that construing the “religious factor as part of the national factor” is without its problems.


It is of course true that under Canning, missionary activity began to receive official State patronage. Indeed, in many places missionaries would be accompanied by the police force, just as in some cases new convert couples were taken from their families and deposited in mission premises. That all this was in pursuance of a concerted imperial policy is testified to by several authoritative accounts of the time. For example, Mangles, chairman of the Directors of East India Co., was to say the following in the House of Commons:


“Providence has entrusted the extensive empire of Hindustan to England, in order that the banner of Christ should wave triumphant from one end of India to the other.”


Rev., Kennedy was to pronounce that the “chief work” of the regime lay “in the propagation of Christianity. . . until Hindustan from Cape Comorin to the Himalayas embrace the religion of Christ, and until it condemns the Hindu and Muslim religions, our work must continue.”


It was even suggested by one Mr Edmund in a letter to the Governor General that the homogeneity brought about in the colony by the telegraph and the railroad can be complete only when one faith permeates the whole realm as well.


No wonder then that such a crude and vicious onslaught on the constitutive identity of all Indians (since class hardly seemed foregrounded) would bring about a convergence of interests between Hindus and Muslims.


The caveat one wishes to add is the following: how clever might it be to project this confluence as a desirable aspect of the formulation of a new nationalism? If the history of the subsequent six or seven decades is any guide, it might be possible to argue that this centre-staging of the religious factor was to vitiate India’s further movement towards a secular modernity in ways that still besmirch the nation-state. The impulse to carry on with mobilisation around religious concerns was after all to become a dominant feature of the freedom movement. Whether it was the Congress under Tilak, or later the Hindu right-wing under the Mahasabha and the RSS, or the Muslims under the League, post-Khilafat struggles were to remain fatally embroiled in religious considerations, and such considerations eventually were to be deftly deployed by vested material interests among both communities to yield the partition of the country.


Indeed if a citizen of India, 2007 may be permitted a rather agonised sacrilege, it was the Mahatma who was to stipulate as one of the rules of the Satyagraha Ashram that “Politics, divorced from religion, has absolutely no meaning.”


(A Gandhi Reader, ed. Homer A Jack, Samata Books, 1983, p.144) We haven’t ceased to suffer the consequences, however nobly meant that injunction.


Clearly, by hindsight (although historians, we are told, are not permitted to read events by hindsight), the religious “progressive” of the 1857 event may have ended up muddying Indian nationalism more than salvaging it.




Although Edward John Thompson sought in his Other Side of the Medal (1925) to balance the nationalist excesses of British historiography of the uprising (they called it mutiny) by bringing to the fore the brutalities vented by the British with a view to “atoning” for the brutalities so that the empire might be put on a more civilised footing (another Liberal, E M Forster, was to put the rebellion down to “ill-breeding”), in and around 1857 itself one would have been hard put to find even the most liberal of British opinion-makers who was not a votary of the empire at bottom. Dickens, that much-lauded radical reformer, was, for example, to say “extirpate the entire population of Hindustan” (see B J Moore-Gilbert, Kipling and Orientalism, 1986, pp.75-76). Some eight years later he was also to be a member of a committee set up in England to defend Governor Eyre of Jamaica who had ordered the massacre of some six hundred blacks.


The only segment of British organised opinion that did not succumb to the nationalist point of view was the then working class. Much like the anonymous Lancashire worker cited in my epigraph, they took their stand on the Indian uprising from an internationalist class perspective (just as the Bengal intelligentsia had taken their’s in favour of the British from their class perspective!)


The Chartist leaders, John Frost and Ernest Jones, clearly saw the linkages of British ruling class oppression at home and in the colonies. Having been participants in the Newport uprising of 1843 (where a workers’ demonstration in favour of the Charter was set upon by ruling class State-apparatus, killing 24 of the demonstrators), they had small illusion about the constitutional allegiances of the trumpeted Whig parliament. The Chartists were to point out that the British ruling classes with all their constitutionalism were more tyrannical than the Ottoman Turks; in Turkey no laws existed that obliged the unwilling to slave “as the English slaves work” — a situation that had been brought about consequent to the promulgation of the New Poor Law (see Henry Weisser, British Working Class Movements and Europe, 1815-1848, Manchester, 1975 for an account of the Chartist trials.)


In the People’s Paper on Sept., 5, 1857, Jones wrote:


“There ought to be but one opinion throughout Europe on the Revolt of Hindostan. It is one of the most just, noble and necessary ever attempted in the history of the world. How anyone can hesitate which side to take is inconceivable to us. England — the people, the English people — sympathise with liberty. On which side were they when Poland struggled for its freedom against Russia? On the side of Poland. On which side were they when Hungary struggled for its rights with Austria? On the side of Hungary. On which side are they when Italy struggles for its life against the Germans, the French, the Papists, and the despot? On the side of Italy. Was Poland right? Then so is Hindostan. Was Hungary justified? Then so is Hindostan. Was Italy deserving of support? Then so is Hindostan.”


And consistent with this internationalist class perspective, Jones reminded the English worker that he would be “called on to bleed and pay for the maintenance of one of the most iniquitous usurpations that ever disgraced the annals of humanity.”


(These articulations, in passing, rather beg the question as to who we are with today — the American imperialists or their victims the world over?)


Earlier, while in prison in 1851, Jones had in his own blood written a song/poem in praise of democracy; this later came to be titled “Revolt of Hindostan”:


“Devotion vain, vain science, deadliest pride, God, hope, and history take the Hindu (read Indian) side! Here but a host in misused courage strong, A nation there with centuries of wrong.”


(see James Bryne, British Opinion and the Indian Revolt, Rebellion 1857, pp.313-336)


As to the promises held out by the Royal proclamation taking the colony directly under the so-benign rule of Victoria, John Frost — who was at one point sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered but subsequently exiled — was to make this succinct formulation: “if they took the power out of the hands of the East India Company and gave it to the government they would put it in the hands of much worse men”. Prophetic words from an internationalist revolutionary.