The sparse and meagre manner in which the UPA Government has treated the 150th anniversary of 1857 shows a surprising indifference to history and the lessons we have to learn from it. And what can be said of the UPA government can also be said about all other political parties.
It is as if no one wants truly to be reminded that prior to 1857 there was no India, only a conglomeration of feudal rulers who were content to rule over their little fiefdoms and had no concept of a great and united India stretching from Kanyakumari to the towering heights of the Himalayas.
The British unwittingly shook Indian ways of thinking and living and pulled it from the morass of feudalism to the unplanned glory of a united people. The British may have done it for their own purpose. It was not Macaulay who conceived the idea of imposing English in India'seducational system but Charless Grant, adviser to Lord Cornwallis, then Governor General in 1792, a good six decades prior to 1857.
Upto 1830 there was no uniform system of education prevailing in the country. Blame the British as much as one can, but it remains a fact that in making Indians their slaves, they turned the slaves into Indians. The British opened the world to India and when they initiated English courses in Delhi College in 1828 to ?effect the complete uplift and reformation of the ?uneducated and half-barbarous people? they had opened the door to another?and a brave new?world to Indians.
Charles Trevelyan was to say in 1828: ?Christians, Mohammadans and Hindu boys of every shade and colour and variety of descent?standing side by side in the same class, engaged in the common pursuit of English literature, contending for the same honours and forced to acknowledge the existence of superior merit in their comrades of the lowest as well as those of the highest caste. This is a great point gained.?
Trevelyan added: ?Habits of friendly communication will thus be established between all classes, they will insensibly become one people and the process of enlightening our subjects will proceed simultaneously with that of uniting them among themselves.? A most remarkable statement to make. For this one thought, the British can be forgiven all the atrocities they committed prior to and following 1857.
Macaulay'sMinutes, first issued on February 2, 1835 was merely a follow up of Trevelyan'slarger dream of uniting India into one people through the medium of English. It was a gift to a nation then wallowing in feudal misery. And this was acknowledged by no less a figure than Maulana Abul Kalam Azad in a preface to a book by A.N.Sen. The 1857 rebellion, Azad said, ought not to be a matter of political polymeric as it has been when it was claimed to be a war for the lost privilege of the nobility. Rather, he declared, Indian national character had sunk so low that no agreed leadership could be found to unite the people. Disjointed protests faced an organised and cohesive foe. When he wrote this, Azad was president of the Indian National Congress.
One can compare 1857 with the Civil War in the United States fought about the same time. The population of North America in 1860 was only 31 million. Both the Confederacy and the Union resorted to conscription during April 1862 and March 1863. The total enlistment in the Union Army numbered 2,898, 304 and in the Confederate Army about 1,406,180. There was no conscription in India because there was no central authority to do so. In 1857 India'spopulation exceeded 200 million but the total number of civilians and Indian soldiers killed in the First War of Independence just exceeded 1,00,000 whereas the American Civil War cost the lives of 3,60,000 Union and 2,60,000 Confederate soldiers. We can, of course attribute this to the lack of communication among Indian rebels, both princes and people. There were great leaders like Rani Laxmi of Jhansi and Tantia Tope, not to speak of Mangal Pande and Khan Bahadur Khan and Nana Saheb. But they all fought independently and not in cohesion. Communication between them was poor. Information passed from word of mouth or through sawars riding on horses. The British had introduced telegraph but that was strictly for British use. Communication between various factions of Indian rebels was poor, even when it existed. The British took advantage of that fact. And inevitably, the rebels lost.
They lost also because there were ?traitors? in their midst. In May 1857 the most exclusive Bengal Army had 12,000 Britishers, 16,000 Punjabi infantry and 1,500 Gurkhas. Between 1857 and 1859 the number of Indian soldiers in the Punjab Frontier Force rose from 25,000 to 43,736 to 52,446. On April 1, 1858, the loyal elements of the Bengal Army and the Punjab Frontier Force comprised 80,053 Indians. The man who betrayed Tantia Tope was an Indian, Raja Man Singh.
The British also depended on the armies of the Indian princes who remained loyal to the Company, though, it must be said, several princely armies also joined the rebels. The point to all this is that it is impossible to generalise the reasons behind 1857. M.N. Roy, a Leftist, saw in 1857 the shattering of the last vestiges of feudal power and the beginning of a struggle between a wornout feudal system and an emerging commercial capitalism.
Another Leftist, Rajani Palme Dutt saw in 1857 ?a major peasant revolt? even though it was led by decaying feudal forces fighting to get back their privileges and turn back the tide of foreign domination. Whatever the cause, 2007 is a time to review the last 150 years and see which way India is moving. Currently tremendous changes are taking place in India of which neither the UPA nor the parties of the NDA seem aware of. The revolt of the Gujjars is a small sample of what is happening in India below the surface.
Indian society is in a ferment but there is no leadership to provide a vision to the people as a whole. What is happening goes beyond the stereotype thinking of the Congress or the Leftists. A new type of politics is emerging which calls for careful study, clear understanding and more importantly, right guidance. Intra-party fighting just will not do.
(The author is indebted for most of the material used in this article to Economic and Political Weekly (May 12-18) to which grateful thanks are given).