The Spirit of 1857 – Dr.Subramanian Swamy

On May 10, 1857, Indian soldiers of the regiments stationed in Meerut (U.P) killed their British officers, marched to Delhi and liberated the city from British control. They then proclaimed the 82-year-old Bahadur Shah Zafar as the ‘Emperor of Hindustan.’ The Emperor then appointed a Hindu, Mukund Ram, as his ‘Prime Minister’ just as Nana Saheb Baji Rao, the adopted son of the Peshawa and partner in the revolt, appointed a Muslim, Azimullah as his ‘Prime Minister.’ At Red Fort, the Bhagwa Dhwaj (saffron flag) was unfurled.

The uprising did not last long. In Delhi it was over by September 1857, and the domino effect of revolt was contained by end 1858. But the popular uprising fired the imagination of the nation and from the ashes of the burnt out revolution, sparks continued to ignite revolt in the country till Mahatma Gandhi led the nation finally to Freedom in 1947.

Exactly 148 years later today, however, the whole of India has become oblivious of this historic date and the event that was the forerunner of India’s freedom. No meetings, no TV discussions, no resolutions for this revolutionary day in a country, which is ready to celebrate or mourn anything or anybody. Even for a Pope in far away Vatican we mourned for three days when the rest of the world except Italy did not see it fit to do so.

We forgot May 10, 1857, because we were programmed since then for nearly a century to delete it from out collective memory. After achieving Independence in 1947, the amnesia was not cured by Free India’s government. Even the NDA government in the six years in office forgot about it, as they did most other items of the nationalist agenda that had brought them centre-stage in the first place.

Time has, however, arrived to re-activate our memory and remember May 10, 1857, and put it on par with August 15, 1947. In one way, which I will explain shortly, the 1857 date is more significant for Indian nationhood and history than even the 1947 ‘date with destiny.’

The British imperialists, who understood the significance and import of the 1857 uprising, had ensured that it be ridiculed and downgraded as a “Sepoy mutiny,” as a sporadic and limited uprising of soldiers that was ignited due to obscurantist reasons such as aversion to ‘pig fat’ in the cartridges. Not only the Imperialists, but the Marxist thinkers as well sought to play it down as a ‘reaction.’ Writing in New York Daily Tribune in a series of articles in 1857, Karl Marx termed it as an army revolt, “a military mutiny” but of national proportion only because “the natives’ apprehension” that the Government may otherwise interfere with their religion. It was much later, in 1957, a hundred years later that Marxist writer PC Joshi corrected the perspective of the party line. Others like Sir John Kaye, a prolific scribe, wrote that 1857 was due to the “fear on part of the Brahmins of the social changes” introduced by the British.

It was Veer Savarkar, however, who in 1909 challenged this diminution and degradation of the 1857 uprising. He wrote his account of 1857 under the title “The Indian War of Independence: 1857.” It was printed in Holland, but nevertheless the British authorities proscribed it. Savarkar re-interpreted 1857 as a war of independence, and his magnum opus served to fire the imagination of the youth for years to come till 1947. His unfortunate involvement with those who conspired to assassinate Mahatma Gandhi dimmed the shine of his work, but in the end, Indira Gandhi as Prime Minister commemorated his memory by issuing a special postal stamp in his honor.

Savarkar’s contribution to nation-building by his well researched and scientific analysis of 1857 uprising the First War of Independence shall remain everlasting and deserving of a Bharat Ratna. Only those brainwashed by the British Imperialists can devalue it or detract from its seminal character. Savarkar saw the 1857 uprising as a national spirit that aroused the “sepoy and civilian, king and pauper, Hindu and Mahomedan” to a revolution.

In his book the Indian War of Independence of 1857, he asks:

What then were the real causes and motives of this revolution? What were they that for them men by the thousand willingly poured their blood year after year? What were they that Maulvis preached them, learned Brahmins blessed them, that for their success prayers went up to Heaven from the mosques of Delhi and the temples of Benares?

And he answered this question as: “These great principles were Swadharma (one’s duty) and Swaraj [self-government].”

Savarkar approvingly quotes the newly installed ‘Emperor of Hindustan’s Proclamation’ as stating:

“Hindus and Mohamadans of India! Arise! Brethren arise! Of all the gifts of God, the most gracious is that of Swaraj. God does not wish that you should remain idle. He has inspired in the hearts of Hindus and Mohamedans the desire to turn the English out of our country”.

Thus Savarkar credits Nana Sahib, Bahadur Shah Zafar, Rani of Jhansi, and Khan Bahadur Khan of Rohilkhand along with the priests (Brahmins and Maulvis) of forcefully attempting a national consciousness of Hindustan to liberate the nation from foreigners.

Hindustan, a term used by both Hindus and Muslims even today to describe India, would be ‘Swadesh” for both Hindus and Muslims. Savarkar explains this adherence to the concept of Hindustan as follows: As long as the Mohamedans lived in India in the capacity of rulers, so long, to be willing to live with like brothers was to acknowledge national weakness. Hence, it was, up to then, necessary to consider the Mahomedans as foreigners.” And naturally so since no Muslim ruler adopted a secular state, and in fact adopted discriminatory taxes based on religion. Conversion to Islam was carried out by force, coercion and cruelty as evidenced in the tribulation suffered by Guru Tegh Bahadur. So where was the question of brotherhood?

Savarkar then holds that after the heroism of Guru Gobind, Rana Pratap, and the Mahrattas, that grievance was no more valid, and that the original distinction between the Hindus and Muslims “must be laid to eternal rest.” Both communities, he adds in his magnum opus, are children of the soil of Hindustan, children of the same Mother India and of the same blood. He exhorted all to “create a passionate desire in the Hindustan for this ideal, and make all the country to rise simultaneously for the purpose of achieving it.”

The 1857 spirit and the magnificent articulation of it by Veer Savarkar stood us in good stead throughout the Freedom Struggle. It was ultimately derailed and destroyed by one “Himalayan Blunder” and two acts of treachery. The blunder was the Khilafat Movement of Mahatma Gandhi, which he himself acknowledged as his Himalayan Blunder. By opposing the modernizing secular movement of Kamaal Ataturk in Turkey, Gandhi legitimized the reactionary movement among the Muslims of India, and enthroned the concepts of Darul Islam (Muslim ruled states) and Darul Harab (Muslims in violent rebellion in non Muslim ruled states).

But it was the betrayal of Jawaharlal Nehru of the 1937 Lucknow electoral pact with Khaliq uz Zaman of the Muslim League that shocked the Muslims, especially those who had wanted to be partners with Hindus in the Freedom Movement by acknowledging that they were both children of Mother India. Nehru wriggled out of a pre-election agreement with the Muslim League to share in power in the UP government after finding that Congress party won majority on its own. This betrayal of a written pact swung emotional Muslims to demand Pakistan for the first time in 1940 at the Lahore session of the Muslim League.

Nehru again, in 1946 by addressing a provocative press conference in Bombay, sabotaged all efforts by Gandhi to effect a transfer of power from the British without Partition. Pakistan became a certainty that day, and the Hindu-Muslim brotherhood which flowered from 1857 onwards was subverted and finally laid to rest in 1947.

But the framework for Hindu-Muslim brotherhood that Savarkar so brilliantly set out in his The War of Independence 1857 needs to be revived. For that we must celebrate May 10, 1857, as equal to, if not more than August 15, 1947. The threat from the Feringhi (foreigner) is today as real as in 1857 and the nation must unite for it without any appeasement or compromise on the ancient roots of Hindustan.

Posted on : 05/10/2005


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