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The Empire strikes again

From its very inception, the composition of the committee to observe the 150th anniversary of India?s first war of independence was flawed ? no historian of consequence was included, writes Sitaram Yechury.

india Updated: Jan 11, 2007 23:52 IST

With much fanfare, the government had formed a committee to observe the 150th anniversary of India’s first war of independence. From its very inception, the composition of the committee was flawed — no historian of consequence was included. Though some sporadic advertisements have appeared, the significance of the anniversary has been lost. This needs to be urgently corrected. Such observations carry significant relevance to contemporary realities. Such commemorative events, in fact, begin a century prior to 1857.

Two hundred and fifty years ago, on January 2, 1757, Robert Clive recaptured Calcutta from the Nawab of Bengal, Sirajuddaulah. The earlier developments of 1756 — the Nawab’s capture of the East India Company’s Fort William in Calcutta and its recapture by the British — led to the decisive Battle of Plassey in June 1757, which firmly established the beginning of British colonial rule in India. The circumstances in which the British overpowered the Nawab are now part of folklore, especially the betrayal by the Nawab’s army general Mir Jaffer. Many years later, Jawaharlal Nehru commented that the British won their way to establish the Empire, "by promoting treason and forgery”.

A century later, following the British triumph in quelling India’s first war of independence in 1857, the trial of Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar began on January 7, 1858, 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, from where he emerged only four years later — after his death in 1862.

A century and a half later, it is impossible not to note that the barbarity of the imperial empire has not changed much.

The mock trial of Saddam Hussein and his outrageous execution was preceded by the murder of both his sons. Like the British sought to consolidate its empire in 1857 through deceit, brutal repression, death and mayhem, US imperialism today seeks to consolidate its hegemony through precisely such means. To meet these ends, there is no human law that they would not trample upon and there are no scruples they would observe.

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.

Once again, it is impossible not to notice parallels in contemporary Indian political realities. While Zafar yearned in vain for a burial in his homeland, the RSS/BJP characterise him and his ancestors as ‘Babar ke aulad’. The consequent whipping of hatred against Muslims is based on the spread of communal poison, on claims that the Mughal empire was established by usurping so-called Hindu lands. Historical reality — such 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 British concluded from the 1857 experience that if they were to, ever again, permit the unity of the various religious and other linguistic, ethnic identities in India — for a struggle against their alien rule — then they, the British would stand 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 unity from resurfacing, emerged the infamous policy of divide and rule. This also generated some ‘native’ (as the British would call it) 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, eventually led to the partition of the country and its horrendous consequences that continue to haunt and affect us to date.

The RSS, on the other hand, seeks the establishment of a rabidly intolerant fascist version of Hindu rashtra. Having been born with a vision that is completely antagonistic to 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 their political  raison d’etre can only be based on sharpening communal polarisation.

This is the precise message conveyed at the BJP’s recent national executive meeting. The recourse to prakhar (aggressive) Hindutva as the mainstay of their electoral strategy and tactics is an ominous forewarning.

The British learnt 150 years ago that the unity of India’s vastly diverse peoples is the surest guarantee for the nation’s freedom and prosperity. They worked assiduously to prevent this and thereby consolidated their rule. In today’s India, such unity among our people, so crucial for our advance and prosperity, is once again prevented from being realised  by the communal forces in pursuit of their political objective of establishing a Hindu rashtra. Victory over such communal machinations is thus imperative, if India wants to march forward as a modern nation aiming to be an economic powerhouse and a knowledge society in the 21st century.

Ironically, therefore, the current battles being waged by us are essentially against such forces that either enslaved India in the past or seek to subjugate India in various ways today. The battle is against those who are preventing Indians from consolidating their freedom and prosperity.

The struggle against imperialism, steadfast safeguarding of our political and economic sovereignty, and the struggle against communal forces that seek to destroy the unity and integrity of India, must engage our attention this year.

Two and a half centuries since the Battle of Plassey, one and a half centuries since the first war of Independence and 60 years since our freedom from British colonial rule, are occasions that need to be recollected, and appropriate lessons must be drawn in order to strengthen this modern Indian republic in 2007.

Sitaram Yechury is MP, Rajya Sabha and Member, CPI(M) Politburo