The observations of the 150th anniversary of 1857, termed as the first war of independence, its relevance and the lessons to be drawn, have become the current flavour of intellectual discussions. Last evening, the National Book Trust released a seminal volume of articles covering various aspects of the 1857 revolt. The more such discussions, the better for all of us and India. Better still if the right conclusions are drawn from this experience.
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 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 preoccupied with current fratricidal communal conflicts.
A digression is in order. On my maiden visit to the Andamans recently, I discovered, quite distinct from our preoccupation with OBC reservations, a community called the LBCs. They have a significant, if not a majority, presence in the islands. The British had classified this category as locally-born communities. These were the progeny of those incarcerated in the notorious kala pani. Periodically, the British would parade the male and female prisoners, asking them to choose their partners as people were needed to man British repression.
The present curator of the museum was one such product, tracing her lineage to a Pathan male prisoner brought there following 1857 and a woman who reached there after the Moppalah rebellion in Kerala. Though these two events are separated by time, the offsprings of earlier generations would marry later prisoners. This could be considered as syncretic evolution through the force of colonial power.
For at least two centuries prior to 1857, there has been an exciting intellectual interaction between religions and civilisations in India. I have recently acquired a forgotten English translation of the seminal work in Persian, authored in 1654-55 by Prince Dara Shukoh, titled Majma-ul-Bahrain (the mingling of two oceans). Dara Shukoh 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 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 to note is that such theological and intellectual exercises, which could have been capable of raising the levels of civilisational enlightenment, were taking place at that time.
Through his theological discourses, Dara Shukoh not only carried forward these syncretic traditions laid down by Akbar but also infused a spirit of liberalism into medieval Indian life, expanding the horizons of the Indian mind. The impact of this was such that in May 1857, at the outbreak of the revolt, the widely circulated daily, Dihli Urdu Akhbaar, reported that the “rebellion had been sent by the gods to punish the kafirs for their arrogant plan to wipe out the religions of India” (emphasis added, quoted by William Dalrymple, The Last Mughal).
Gopal Gandhi dedicates his magnificent play in verse, Dara Shukoh, to the Peri Mahal, the magical ‘Fairies Palace’ built by Dara Shukoh on a barely accessible spur overlooking Dal lake in Srinagar. Intended by Dara to be a centre for the study of celestial bodies, the magnificent structure is now derelict, its broken terrace a reminder of the precariousness of lofty visions.
This vision is articulated as follows in Dara’s words, “Babur laid the foundation/For our future nation;/ Humayun saved it from marauders/ Within and beyond its borders./ Then Akbar built in granite brick/ Stalwart walls, elephant thick,/ To withstand siege, storm or quake/ Which none but God could shake./A strength that came not from rock/ Or some man-excluding lock/But from the versatility/Of Hindostan’s plurality./Jehangir made the howdah/ Of statehood even prouder/By a measured ostentation/Which my father’s celebration/Of power has finally crowned… India needs a thinker/On the Peacock Throne./A thinker, who will link her/With creation’s ozone,/ Who will proclaim an ‘ilahi’/greater than ever thought of yet,/Not for abetter badshahi/But a re-defined badshahyat/That will transform Delhi’s ruler/From a sway-sozzled, lusty/ King of varying demeanour/Into India’s First Trustee.
History can never be the realm for speculation. It is a different matter as to what would have happened if Aurangzeb had not come on to the scene and usurped the Mughal crown. We are not attempting an historical evaluation. We are recollecting all this only to note that somewhere down the line, these threads of syncretic evolution have faded into the background.
A quick look at the ongoing election campaign in UP rudely jostles us to the parameters of present-day discourses. The BJP’s strident plank of prakhar Hindutva, the exhortations to rid India of Babur ke aulad and the obnoxious CD circulating among the electorate only proves that rabid communal polarisation for political and electoral gains rules the roost. Indeed, the ‘precariousness of lofty visions’ once again plagues us.
From a feudal absolute monarchy and dynasty, India, overcoming two centuries of colonial occupation, has emerged as a modern State where the sovereignty rests with the people. As a self-proclaimed secular, democratic republic, a status gained by a gigantic freedom struggle and innumerable sacrifices, we have created for ourselves a structure and system that is best suited to carry forward the battle of ideas to a higher level of syncretic enlightenment.
Surely, this cannot be allowed to be hijacked by forces whose very ideological existence is the antithesis of a secular, democratic republic. Equally, this opportunity cannot be allowed to be squandered.
Decades after 1857, Swami Vivekananda visualised the future of India as “a Vedantic mind in an Islamic body”. On religious tolerance, even the Bhagvad Gita says: “Whatever celestial form a devotee seeks to worship with faith, I stabilise the faith of that particular devotee in that particular form” [Chapter VII (21)]. Vivekananda ends his famous address to the world parliament of religions in Chicago at the end of the 19th century thus: “If anybody dreams of the exclusive survival of his own religion and the destruction of others, I pity him from the bottom of my heart and point out to him that upon the banner of every religion will soon be written, in spite of resistance, help, and not fight, assimilation and not destruction, harmony and peace and not dissension.”
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.
Sitaram Yechury is Rajya Sabha MP and member, CPI(M) Politburo