Tuesday, March 11, 2008

On our Independence Movement

I think we all read our histories in school. And some of us, who showed more interest in history than others, have read up from various other sources. I have read about our Independence movement at different stages of my life, going back to read about it at regular intervals. I see certain patterns which I would like to talk about here. This is one version of how I want to tell this story. This is not the only version. I concede that there are many versions. But I find this the most interesting. [Remember, There are no facts; only interpretations – Nietzsche]

First War of Independence?

We usually term 1857 revolt as First War of Independence. In the beginning it was called Sepoy Mutiny- that’s how British termed it. However, Indians wanted to see it in a different light and called it War of Independence. Was it really a war of Independence?

Not really. It was not even close to one actually. The way it started has nothing to do with India or Indian nationalism or patriotism. It was more to do with religious sentiments and inferior treatment of soldiers by their masters. A Muslim not able to chew on a pig’s fat because of what was said in Koran and a caste Hindu not able to chew on cow’s fat due to fear of loss of his caste. Did these soldiers really think in terms of Indians vs. British? Not really.

However, once the mutiny picked up, there was a widespread participation from many other soldiers and also from local rajahs and landlords. These rajahs and landlords were keen on bringing back their rule by throwing off British. They were neither keen on bringing independence to its people or giving them the rights as citizens. The people were to remain subjects of the kings and bonded laborers of landlords, not citizens.

This movement was then taken up by Mughal-Empire-revivalists. These were those petty kings who wanted to bring back Mughal Empire so that they can have their share of the pie in ruling. This was more of a war where Indian feudals wanted to restore their power. It had no element of Independence that we finally obtained, where the people became citizens, where we had adult franchise, elected legislature, independent judiciary, people’s rights, etc.

The fact that India did not get Independence in 1857 was actually good for its people, in retrospect. If we had thrown off British right then, we would have gone back to having many kings and rajahs with independent kingdoms, and we wouldn’t have had opportunity to bring in a national movement that gave its people rights as citizens and modern institutions that safeguard their rights as citizens.

Indian National Congress

Few years later, Indian National Congress (INC) was formed with great support and help from some British people. During these initial days, Indian National Congress was completely an elite pastime. The members were intellectuals, coming from well-to-do families. INC was not a movement either; it was an organization that met once a year where intellectuals discussed issues from a podium. It was not a people’s movement nor did it involve the masses. If India got Independence during this time, it would have remained an extremely aristocratic rule, where certain intellectuals would have captured power while the actual freedom to its people and its participation would have been a distant dream.

Moreover, it did not include Muslims in those days. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan had his own ideas about the role of Muslims in India (vis-a-vis British). He wanted to be friendly with British, because he saw them as somewhat equals, both being from ruler clan (first the Mughals, now the British). He expected special treatment for Muslims from British because of their earlier record of ruling India.

Entry of Gandhi

Only when Gandhi came onto the picture, did we see the actual people’s movement. What is so significant about Gandhi’s role is that he wanted to bring in revolution in India on many fronts, not just kicking out British, but bring untouchables into the mainstream, to bring women into the mainstream, to bring Muslims into the fight, to bring in self-respect in a common man, and teach him the duties of a citizen. [For example, he spent a great amount of time to teach Indians to clean up streets, to bring accountability and responsibility to its people and leaders, form a nation based on peace not based in hatred and violence, etc]

He wanted to see Indians capable of ruling ourselves fair and just when British were gone. He had strong suspicions on whether we were ready to rule ourselves.

The intervening years are quite important because he brought Muslims into the fold. Khilafat Movement which sounds so ridiculous now, was his way of bringing in Muslims into the people’s movement. If in the subsequent years, the talks with British failed, it was because Gandhi did not want to concede on the differences between Muslims and Hindus. He was against separate electorates, because he saw roots for division in it. He was bent on giving sops to Muslims so that they come together and fight. His fear, that Muslims having a separate agenda would dilute the cause and would also break up India, was clearly seen from many of his actions.

First Taste of Power

The fact that INC participated in one of the governing elections (during British rule) and had actually held power is significant because that allowed some of its leaders the taste of governance before India got Independence. Work on Indian Constitution started long before the Independence itself. Many of the notions of how we are going to rule ourselves were learnt between 1857 and 1947. And thanks to Gandhi, many of its rulers were ready to concede to the notion that this country belonged to its people, not its elite, not its rajahs, not its upper caste, not its Hindus, not its men.

Nationalism and Non-violence

Another significant aspect of this movement is Gandhi’s insistence on non-violence. According to him, this country could not have been borne out of blood and iron. He saw too many cultures, too many languages, too many religions, too many castes, too many classes- too many differences in this country, and he couldn’t find a unique slogan for all them, except nationalism and non-violence, which could be applied to different kinds of people irrespective of their allegiance to a local identity. The first one (nationalism) gave a sense of reason to fight British and to stay united; the second one (non-violence) gave a sense of self-restraint to become more mature and responsible to be able to serve and govern India better.

During 1920s, when some young nationalists, who got fed up with Gandhi’s delaying tactics, took to violent forms of protest, Gandhi felt the time was not ripe. Much to the dismay of so many ardent nationalists, he called off the movement designed to dislodge the British and secure the independence. Time and again Gandhi disappointed many leaders who wanted a quick route to India’s freedom. Gandhi believed that if it was complete freedom, then it had to come when Indians are more responsible.

Rejection of other ideologies

Also, during this time, India got time to experiment with communist and militant ideologies only to reject them. It also got time to experiment with what happens when you tried to share power with those Muslims who saw themselves different and wanted to be treated differently because they came from ruling clan. India got time to dabble with organization capabilities, both in terms of moving masses across the nation, and also in terms of ruling the country through bureaucracy. India got a chance to look at how world was divided on various cultures, and thus imbibe those principles in drafting its constitution. India got a chance to uplift its masses, bring them into the mainstream. With the advent of Ambedkar fighting for Dalits, reservations were possible. If India got Independence too soon, such a thing would have been unimaginable.

India got time to experiment with ideologies of Subhas Chandra Bose and other militants to reject them in favor of more balanced and composed approaches towards dealing with its inner conflicts.

India realized that it cannot embrace military ideology of Japan or Germany, that it cannot embrace communist ideology of Soviet Union, and that it cannot be oblivious to differences between religions, cultures and languages. That it cannot use one language or one religion to rally its people. That it cannot impose one identity onto everyone. That it had to be all-embracing, which also means more restraint and more composure. More patience and more balance. No room for militant ideology, because it can easily spin out of hand.

Mature parting with British

Whether we like it or not, the decision to part with British on friendly terms was hallmark of that maturity, which Gandhi championed, wherein we accepted what happened in the past as consequence of those times, and looked towards future without rejecting the legacy and the past. We did not have to resort to breaking up their statues, their buildings and their idols; we did not have to reinvent our identity through breaking up idols or hating our masters. We smoothly transitioned into a mature young adult having been a rebel in its teens, eventually accepting the independence without having to hate the parents or the fathers.

This is what Gandhi envisioned and that’s what happened. Gandhi had high expectations from British. He did not hate them or found them repugnant. Instead he brought out that gentleman in British and negotiated with him, as man to man. To him, history was not a snapshot of few years, but a continuum in which we had different masters at different times. British happened to be those masters now. What was important to him was not overthrowing of British, but that we learn to rule ourselves, to know how diverse India is, accept its diversity, and gear ourselves to act maturely.

If Gandhi failed, he failed when India got partitioned. He was so sad that day, when India got Independence, that instead of celebrating in New Delhi he was elsewhere nursing the wounds Partition left on India.

Right set of leaders for new nation

Our Independence movement threw a slew of mature and well-trained leaders who could later become the governing body. It threw open many architects who framed our constitution, making sure it respected each language, culture, religion, and also to uplift women and lower castes. Though Gandhi and Nehru had many differences over the future course of India, Gandhi believed Nehru was the right person to take the helm.

Sardar Patel did not live long enough. Nehru, having gone through the troubled times that preceded Indian Independence, had a grand vision for India. In it, democracy was important, creating the right institutions was important. There was no room for bigotry, militancy, sectarianism. Also, the results of Enlightenment were embraced by the rational Nehru. He ensured that we pursued the tools of rationality. For that he created the institutions that bore fruit long after he was gone. He had his own flaws. He believed that the state was somehow more humane than the individual. That belief led to License Raj and other ills that befell on India later on.

I see the period between 1857 and 1947 as a class struggle- a movement of its people, emancipation of the untouchables, lower caste and women, a struggle to deal with multiple identities in the modern world which put us in conflict with each other more often than in the past, a process of maturing where we didn’t have to settle the scores on the killing fields.

The Independence Movement is the story of our fight within- an inner struggle, maturing of a teen into an adult. India had to cope with its own problems. The enemies were its past, its caste system, its ruling class, its subjugation of woman and many of its superstitions and belief systems. And those problems were far bigger than the British.


  1. Beautifully written. For all their faults Gandhi and Nehru were great visionaries who dreamt of a new resurgent united India free of regional and casteist clashes. However many people in the present generation discredit Nehru for his policies saying he stagnated the growth of India by his economic policies not understanding that a socialist ploicy was the most viable economic alternative for a newly liberated country like ours.

    But one can never say what India would have been like if the Partition had not taken place. Would we have been a united country free of communal hatred or would we be struggling to tackle Muslim extremists and jehadis?

  2. A good analysis!
    Particularly the words which u used made more sense to me:
    ..."our fight within- an inner struggle".

    I am reminded of the film 'Platoon' by OliverStone.
    at the end there is a dialogue:

    Sergeant O'Neill!
    - How are you doing? - Just fine, sir.
    That's good, cos you got second platoon.
    Yes, sir.
    - Ready? - You bet.
    I think now, looking back,we did not fight the enemy,
    we fought ourselves, and the enemy... was in us.
    The war is over for me now,but it will always be there,
    for the rest ofmy days,as I'm sure Elias will be,
    fighting with Barnes for what Rhah called possession ofmy soul.
    There are times since...
    I've felt like the child born ofthose two fathers.
    But be that as it may, those ofus who did make it...
    have an obligation to build again,
    to teach to others what we know,
    and to try with what's left ofour lives...
    to find a goodness, and meaning, to this life.
    --just thought of mentioning this!.
    Keep up your good work Sujai!

    regarding platoon:
    It is not a film; It is an experience! http://imdb.com/title/tt0091763/)

  3. Prasanna:
    Platoon is a very good movie. Thanks for quoting from that movie.

  4. The fact that India did not get Independence in 1857 was actually good for its people

    Wonderful piece of text. Thanks for this beautiful "what-if" analysis. I think it was bad that India got its independence in 1947 also. We could have gotten a unified India with much broader influence if we got the independence in 2047 instead.

    Not getting independence in 1857 was very good for the people who lived during that time also.

  5. Shyam Benegal's movie "Netaji: The Forgotten Hero" mentions the important role that INA played in India's freedom. At the end of WWII, more than Gandhi's agitations, it was the danger of rebellion by the British Indian army and navy when members of INA were tried in court that led to the British realizing that it was time to go. INA's impact.

    In hindsight, it is easy for us to pass judgment on freedom fighters like Bhagat Singh and Bose, but their patriotism and the role they played in India's freedom was no less important than that of the non-violence movement led by Gandhi and Nehru. Everyone contributed in the way they thought was best at that time, without the luxury of 20/20 vision that we have.

  6. Chirkut:

    I am much smarter than you think I am ;-)

    Did I discuss the role and contributions of people towards ‘freedom for Indians from British’?

    Not really. If you see the above article, this discussion is glaringly omitted.

    I did not attribute our ‘freedom from British’ to anyone in particular. I did not discuss or dismiss the patriotism of different leaders. And I definitely did not discuss who contributed more towards attaining freedom. [I could not have attributed attainment of India’s freedom to anyone in particular because I know my history. So many other countries in Asia and Africa attained freedoms after WWII. Is it something to do with home-grown freedom struggles or is it that the world has changed?]

    In this article I was discussing the importance of internal struggles – which were far more important than fighting off the British.

    The day you get my message I would start believing that humans are evolving to become a smarter race ;-)

  7. I am much smarter than you think I am ;-)

    Oh, I have no doubt of that!! The problem with smart people is that they think they're always right, and don't listen (or read), or are always in a competitive mode. :-)

    And, there's a difference between being smart and being wise. The day you grasp that difference, I'll start believing that there's hope for India. ;)


  8. So many other countries in Asia and Africa attained freedoms after WWII. Is it something to do with home-grown freedom struggles or is it that the world has changed?

    I wouldn't know, since you are the smart one. Why not ask Nelson Mandela whether the world changed after WWII? ;)

  9. Thanks a lot for the post. It was a good piece of information for me.

  10. Sujai, is that all your smart thinking is capable of - putting people in boxes and looking at issues in either-or paradigm ("either you're with us or against us"), or only through the lens of an ideology? :)
    Aise cheap shots aapko shobha nahin dete.

  11. Sujai, since you're such a champion of freedom of expression/speech, maybe this issue (and this too) will be of interest to you.

  12. A well groomed capsule! In spite of six decades of democracy we are yet to learn the art of how to elect representatives but patrons.

    Since majority of Indians are illiterate, it is easy to manipulate their votes by offering food kits, liquor, subsidies, and even free Television! If British were allowed to rule India for two more decades,literacy rates should have reached much better level than Brahmin rule.

  13. About the link given to the art exhibition depicting Aurangazeb as a tyrant. The Arcot of Nawab wanted to call off the exhibition not because he was a rabid supporter of Aurangazeb as mentioned by the blogger but because he thought this exhibition of Aurangazeb tyrannizing Hindus would strain Hindu Muslim relationship further and lead to communal clashes. If he was a supporter of Aurangazeb he would have been proud of the exhibits! Of course that is no excuse to call off any exhibition. Besides in any country it is the minorities who are more vunerable and it makes sense to highlight their problems.

  14. Rags,
    So as per your logic

    Germany should not teach Holocaust because it will strain relationship between Jews and native germans. This totally contradics sujai's thinking.

    Are you assuming why Arcot Nawab wanted exhibition to be closed?. I understood different motives based on television footage shown in Tamil news channels. Those who wanted exhibition to be closed were arguing that Aurangazeb was a good king and proofs in exhibition were wrong.

  15. That was never my logic. I am all for freedom of expression. That is why I said "That is no reason to cancel the exhibition". I was just mnetioning the Nawab's comments as published in certain regional newspapers in Tamilnadu. I was just saying that the possiblity exists that the Nawab might have wanted the exhibition cancelled not because he thought Aurangazeb was a good king but because he wanted cordial relationship between people of both the religions. I never defended the Nawab's right in doing so.

  16. This is the Nawab’s reply to an article published in the Indian Express:
    “It is true that I visited the purported art exhibition on the great Mughal emperor Aurangazeb with high hopes and expectations of learning something about the monarch and his times. I found the exhibition a complete diatribe against Aurangazeb organized by a well-known Muslim hating columnist , totally biased and one sided in his presentation and calculated to stir up feelings of ill will and animosity towards the minority community for the alleged acts and omissions of rulers a century ago.
    The exhibition seemed to dwell only on Aurangazeb’s alleged misdeeds and said not a word of his munificent contributions of lands and grants to Hindu temple. It seemed quite obvious that the effect of such an exhibition would be to promote enmity between various groups and thereby vitiate the peaceful atmosphere of coexistence of different religions.
    There can be no doubt that right thinking people interested in the promotion of communal harmony ,secularism and national integration would welcome the decision of the police authorities to close down the exhibition.
    How long is this game of using the remote and dead past to stir up hatred,enmity and ill-will among today’s living be played?”

    I concede that I was partly wrong on deducing the intentions of the Nawab as reported by Tamil newspapers. The Nawab seems to believe that Aurangazeb contributed lands and grants to Hindu temples which I doubt is the truth.

  17. "The Nawab seems to believe that Aurangazeb contributed lands and grants to Hindu temples which I doubt is the truth."

    He did. But he also did the contrary to many other temples. Aurangzeb will remain controversial forever. There is no changing that. I cannot fathom why he would on the one hand grant land for temple building and on the other hand break down others. That requires a more objective, dispassionate and neutral approach to the study of Aurangzeb.
    He also remains eccentric and enigmatic in his personal life. While he particpated in conspiracies, plots and assasinations to get power and to remain in power, he also did not partake of the benefit of the wealth gained; he continued to be scrupulously ascetic in his personal life. Again, I do not have an explanation for that contradiction; his life story is full of that.

    ps- apologies Sujai that we have allowed Chirkut to derail the comments on this post of yours.

    ~ Vinod

  18. Vinod,
    Derailment of topic happened after Sujai started teasing Chirkut. Tajmahal is Hindu temple is nothing to do with this topic.

  19. Nicely written article. Got to know a lot of things. I am getting to know how much the Indian youth (esp myself) is oblivious of its own history. Nyways expecting more articles like this from u....

    Destination Infinity.

    PS: Believe a person who is seeking the truth. Not the person who claims to have already attained it. Nice quote, wanted to share.

  20. Nice article, and I completely agree with you. (I would have disagreed if I had not read Freedom at Midnight). Like majority of us Indians do, I thought that we should have been independent as early as possible, that is 1857. But now I think we could have waited more (if only Jinnah had told Mountbatten about his health..maybe partition could have been avoided..who knows?)

    Just a random thought, Gandhi was never given any severe punishment by the British (capital/kalapani). (In fact many of his punishments were self-imposed). Any views on this?

  21. Could it be because if his popularity with the masses?

  22. Old Ranting ..for more insight i suggest author must read Operation Red Lotus. Else author will keep rating no no 1857 is not an war of independence. Or author will stuck into popular parlance of Pigs and Cows or Mangal Ji. 1857 war of independence is more than that ...and your not even close to understand it.

    124 regiment scarified during a well planned and managed war.


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