People's Democracy

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


No. 42

October 21, 2007



Remember The Glorious Chapter With All Its Ramifications


Sitaram Yechury


WITH this issue People's Democracy is concluding the observations of the 150th anniversary of the Great Uprising of 1857. Initially, we had planned that this series beginning with the Republic Day issue, 2007 would end with the Independence Day issue marking the 60th anniversary of our freedom from British colonial rule. Subsequently, we decided to extend this till September end to mark the birth centenary of one of India’s greatest revolutionary freedom fighters, Saheed Bhagat Singh. The series however continued till this issue.


This was so because of the tremendous response that we had received from our contributors -- historians, artists, cultural personalities and creative thinkers -- on the various aspects of the 1857 uprising. We have been overwhelmed by this response. When we decided to observe this event, we were conscious of the official observations that the government had decided to conduct through a specially formed committee. Given the inadequacies of this committee and the lack of clarity on its objectives we decided on this parallel observation to bring out various hitherto unknown aspects of the uprising. Truly, this series has been eventful in the sense that it brought various aspects hitherto unknown, in terms of the spread of the uprising, the impact it had on laying the foundations for the subsequent evolution of a pan Indian nationalism, and the immense and profound impact it had on the evolution of folk culture and connected imagery. We wish to place on record our deep sense of appreciation and gratitude to our distinguished contributors for having served this very much needed purpose.


Such a need in fact arises from the scrupulous effort made by the British to erase records and chronicles of the uprising and to seek to eliminate it from people’s memory. In the face of this, the consequent distortions of India’s history of its struggles against foreign rule laid the basis for colonial historical writings. However, as these observations reveal, notwithstanding the suppression of this record, even the British could not eliminate the collective memory impact of the uprising on their own officers. For instance, many decades later when Col. Dyer was vacationing in Shimla he was informed of the `disturbances’ in the Punjab. He notes that his first apprehension was to hope that these disturbances were not of the nature of 1857. His return to Amritsar and the infamous Jalianwala Bagh massacre is well known as one of the darkest chapters of British colonial oppression of the Indian people. Such was the impact of 1857 that despite all efforts a collective memory continued with even the British officers who were not even born in 1857.


It was therefore necessary to reconstruct this glorious chapter in the history of the Indian people’s struggle for freedom. As has been noted in this series, 1857 was probably the biggest and the most powerful people’s uprising anywhere in the world against colonial occupation in the 19th century. Through these observations the People’s Democracy makes its humble contribution to this effort at reconstruction which we hope will be continued in right earnest.




There is another important reason for these observations. This has to do with the manner in which British colonialism adapted itself in controlling and continuing its occupation of India. This in turn has had an impact on the evolution of Indian politics itself. Some of the political battles being waged today in fact stem from the seeds sown by the British rule of India post 1857.


Following the British triumph in quelling India’s first war of independence in 1857 on 7th of January 1858, the trial of Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar begins on charges of leading the rebellion, which constituted, according to the laws of the colonial power, grounds of treason against the British crown. The British, having established their presence in 1757 through treason and forgery, later consolidated their empire in 1857 through a ruthless butchery of those who rose in revolt against their rule. Prior to this the British had murdered in broad daylight the entire lineage of the emperor including his two sons. The emperor himself was then incarcerated in the Mandaley Jail in Rangoon, till his death in 1862.


Bahadur Shah Zafar blind as he was in the Rangoon Jail used to compose his poetry using coal to scribble on the prison walls. In a famous couplet, he bemoaned that he was so unfortunate that he could not even get two square yards of land in his homeland – for his burial.


It is impossible not to notice some parallels in contemporary Indian political realities. While Zafar yearned in vain for a burial in his homeland, the RSS/BJP characterize him and his ancestors as “Babar ke Aulad” . The consequent whipping of hatred against the Muslims is based on the spread of communal poison claiming that the Mughal Empire was established by usurping the so-called Hindu lands. Such historical realities as that of Babar defeating another Muslim emperor Ibrahim Lodhi in the first battle of Panipat to establish the Mughal empire does not bother the conscience (if they have one) of the communal forces.


The fact remains that the British, learning from the 1857 experience, came to the conclusion that if they were to permit ever again the unity of the various religious and other linguistic, ethnic etc. identities in India, in a struggle against their alien rule, they have no chance of survival. A contemporary British chronicler, Thomas Lowe, in Central India during the rebellion of 1857-59 wrote in 1860: “To live in India now was like standing on the verge of a volcanic crater, the sides of which were fast crumbling away from our feet, while the boiling lava was ready to erupt and consume us”.


Further, he exclaimed: “The infanticide Rajput, the bigoted Brahmin, the fanatic Mussalman, had joined together in the cause; cow-killer and the cow-worshipper, the pig-hater and the pig-eater…..” had revolted together.




Precisely to prevent such a unity from ever again surfacing emerged the infamous policy of divide and rule. This also generated some “native” (as the British would call) expressions. The Muslim League on the one hand and the RSS on the other very ably assisted the British in perpetuating their colonial rule. The demand for an Islamic state post-independence from the British, eventually led to the partition of the country and its horrendous consequences that continue to haunt and effect us till date. The RSS, on the other hand, seeks the establishment of their rabidly intolerant fascistic version of a Hindu rashtra. Having been born with such a vision that is in complete antagonism with the aspirations of the Indian freedom struggle which sought and established a secular democratic modern republic, the RSS has never reconciled to these modern realities. Having created the conditions and circumstances that consumed the life of the Mahatma and lakhs of other innocent lives through communal holocausts, the RSS and its current political arm the BJP continue to reaffirm that the raison d’etre of their political existence can only be based on the sharpening of communal polarization.


A 150 years ago the British learnt that the unity of India’s vast diversity amongst its peoples is the surest guarantee for its freedom and prosperity, and hence worked assiduously to prevent this from happening to continue and consolidate their rule. In today’s India, such a unity of the rich diversity amongst our people, so crucial for our advance and prosperity, is once again being prevented from being realized by the communal forces in pursuit of their political objective of establishing their Hindu rashtra.. Victory over of such communal machinations is thus imperative if India need to march forward as a modern nation aiming to be an economic power house and a knowledge society in the 21st century.




Ironically therefore, the current battles being waged by us in a sense are essentially against such very forces that either enslaved India in the past or are seeking to subjugate India in various ways today, and against those who are preventing the Indian people in their advance in consolidating their freedom and prosperity. The struggles against imperialism, to steadfastly safeguard our political and economic sovereignty and the struggles against the communal forces that seek to destroy the very unity and integrity of the modern Indian republic must therefore once again engage the attention to consolidate and advance our struggles for a better India.


There was yet another aspect that emerged through these observations which has immense significance for the present and the future. 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.


There has been for at least two centuries prior to 1857, an exciting intellectual interaction between religions and civilisations in India. Take, for instance, the forgotten English translation of the seminal work of Prince Dara Shukoh 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.


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.


Though we are concluding this series it shall be our endeavour to continue to contribute to this much needed reconstruction of Indian history as it continues to have its impact on modern day politics.


We once again thank our contributors and readers for the enthusiastic response and support they have rendered in this effort.







1. Remembering 1857


Irfan Habib

January 28


2. The Revolt And Its Historiography: An Overview 


Biswamoy Pati

February 04


3. 1857: An Overview Of Events


Nalini Taneja

February 11


4. Ernest Jones On The Revolt of 1857



February 18


5. Marx And Engels On The Revolt Of 1857


Irfan Habib

February 25


6. The 1857 Rebellion: A Pre-History


Archana Prasad

March 04


7. The 1857 Revolt In India: Lessons For Us


2. Proclamation Issued By Emperor Bahadur Shah II


Jyoti Basu

March 11

8. Patriotic And Comprador Zamindars

In The Great Rebellion Of 1857


Utsa Patnaik

March 18


9. The Myth of Early Savarkar: His “Nationalist”1857 Book


Nalini Taneja

March 25


10. Background To The Great Rebellion


Biswamoy Pati

April 01


11. Agrarian Uprisings And Rural Society

The 1857 Rebellion and its Aftermath


Archana Prasad

April 08


12. The Impact Of The 1857 Revolt In Tamilnadu


N Rajendran

April 15


13. 1857 and The Hindoo Patriot: Other Voices


Malini Bhattacharya

April 22


14. Rebel  Journalism: Dehli Urdu Akhbar, May-September 1857


Shireen Moosvi

April 29


15. Some Aspects Of The 1857 Rebellion In Bihar


Ram Swaroop

May 06


16. Reflections On 1857


Prabhat Patnaik

May 13


17. Bourgeoisation And the Great Revolt of 1857


2. Destruction of Delhi


Amit Kumar Gupta

May 20



18. Role of Punjab, Haryana And

Himachal Pradesh In 1857: Myth and Reality


K C Yadav

May 27


19. Theocracy And The Rebels Of 1857: Assessing The Role Of The Wahabis


2. Imam Bakhsh Sahbai and the Massacre at Kucha Chelan (Delhi)


Iqtidar Alam Khan

June 04


20. The Great Rebellion Of 1857 In The 19TH Century Colonial Novel


Indrani Sen

June 10


21. Bahadur Shah Zafar And The 1857 Revolt


Amar Farooqi

June 17


22. The 1857 Rebellion In Orissa: Looking For The ‘Echoes’?


2. Jharkhand In The 1857 War Of Independence


Biswamoy Pati


J S Majumdar

June 24


23. “Delhi Renaissance”, Intellectuals And The 1857 Uprising


S Rahman

July 01


24. Urdu Literature in Context of the Great Uprising


Naresh Nadeem

July 08


25. Echoes Of The 1857 Uprising In North-Eastern India


David R Syiemlieh


July 15


26. The War Of Independence And Contemporary Hindi Literature


Murli Manohar Prasad Singh

July 22


27. The War Of Independence And Contemporary Hindi Literature – II


Murli Manohar Prasad Singh

July 29


28. The Revolt Of 1857 In Eastern India: An Overview


Basudeb Chattopadhyay

August 05


29. The Battle For Delhi: Myths Of The ‘Mutiny’ And The Construction Of The Raj


Madhu Prasad

August 12


30. The Battle For Delhi: Myths Of The ‘Mutiny’ And The Construction Of The Raj (II)


Madhu Prasad

August 19


31. India’s First War Of Independence:

The Dalit Connection


Sukomal Sen

August 26


32. Bengali Literature Before And After 1857


Gopal Haldar

September 02


33. The July 1857 Rebellion At Patna


William Tayler

September 09


34. Rethinking Sepoy ‘Mutinies’ In Chotanagpur


S Sinha

September 16


35. Making The ‘Margin’ Visible: Courtesans And The Rebellion Of 1857


Lata Singh

September 23


36. 1857: An Internationalist Pespective; The Lessons Of Chartism


Badri Raina

September 30


37. Gujarat During The Great Revolt: The Rebellion In Okhmandal


2. The East India Company As A Business Organisation


S V Jani

October 07


38. Lucknow In 1857-58: The Epic Siege


Amar Farooqi

October 14