150 th anniversary of 1857 – India’s first war of independence

By Neeraj Nanda

Melbourne:India and the world are celebrating the 150th anniversary of 1857 – India’s first war of independence. The British colonialists called it a mutiny. The revolt by sections of the British India Army supported by many local rulers in 1857 was a historical start that culminated into India’s independence (despite the tragic partition) in August 1947. The present generation may not know that thousands sacrificed their lives in 1857. Thousands were hanged by the British in revenge and punishment. The events of 1857 are a trail of blood and heroism of the Indian people against the East India Company (the rulers then) and its colonial rule. Hindus and Muslims rallied together and proclaimed Bahadur Shah Zafar as the king of India. This was too much for the British rulers and the rest is history. Any one who supported the freedom fighters (rebels) was declared an enemy and seen as waging a war against the British Empire. It is a strange coincidence that at present another empire building attempt in one part of the world is facing stiff resistance.

This is what “Pages from the history of India’s Freedom Struggle” have to say:

“It also needs to be mentioned that many local rulers did not support the rebels and actively supported the British colonialists. But “For several months after the uprising that began in Meerut on May 10, 1857 – British rule ceased to exist in the northern plains of India. Muslim and Hindu rulers alike joined the rebelling soldiers and militant peasants, and other nationalist fighters. Among the most prominent leaders of the uprising were Nana Sahib, Tantia Tope, Bakht Khan, Azimullah Khan, Rani Laksmi Bai, Begum Hazrat Mahal, Kunwar Singh, Maulvi Ahmadullah, Bahadur Khan and Rao Tula Ram.”

“Threatened by such a radical turn of events, the British rulers poured in immense resources in arms and men to suppress the struggle. Although the rebels fought back heroically – the betrayal by a number of rulers such as the Sikh princes, the Rajasthani princes and Maratha rulers like Scindia allowed the British to prevail. Lord Canning (then Governor General) noted that “If Scindia joins the rebels, I will pack off tomorrow”. Later he was to comment: ” The Princes acted as the breakwaters to the storm which otherwise would have swept us in one great wave”. Such was the crucial importance of the betrayal of the princes. The British were also helped by the conservatism of the trading communities who were unwilling to put up with the uncertainties of a long drawn out rebellion.”

“But equally important was the superior weaponry and brutality of the British in defending their empire. British barbarity in suppressing the uprising was unprecedented. After the fall of Lucknow on May 8, 1858 Frederick Engels commented: “The fact is, there is no army in Europe or America with so much brutality as the British. Plundering, violence, massacre – things that everywhere else are strictly and completely banished – are a time honoured privilege, a vested right of the British soldier ..”. In Awadh alone 150,000 people were killed – of which 100,000 were civilians. The great Urdu poet, Mirza Ghalib wrote from Delhi, ” In front of me, I see today rivers of blood”. He went on to describe how the victorious army went on a killing spree – killing every one in sight – looting peoples property as they advanced.”

“Bahadur Shah’s three sons were publicly executed at “Khooni Darwaaza” in Delhi and Bahadur Shah himself was blinded and exiled to Rangoon where he died in 1862. Refusing to plead for mercy from the British, he courageously retorted: “The power of India will one day shake London if the glory of self-respect remains undimmed in the hearts of the rebels”. Thomas Lowe wrote: “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.”

And “The 1857 revolt which had forged an unshakable unity amongst Hindus and Muslims alike was an important milestone in our freedom struggle – providing hope and inspiration for future generations of freedom lovers. However, the aftermath of the 1857 revolt also brought about dramatic changes in colonial rule. After the defeat of the 1857 national revolt – the British embarked on a furious policy of “Divide and Rule”, fomenting religious hatred as never before. Resorting to rumors and falsehoods, they deliberately recast Indian history in highly communal colors and practised pernicious communal politics to divide the Indian masses. That legacy continues to plague the sub-continent today. However, if more people become aware of the colonial roots of this divisive communal gulf – it is possible that some of the damage done to Hindu-Muslim unity could be reversed. If Hindus and Muslims could rejoin and collaborate in the spirit of 1857, the sub-continent may yet be able to unshackle itself from its colonial past.”

Well, while celebrating the glory of 1857 it finally needs to be mentioned that the Indian subcontinent (all countries) nations are under challenge from the forces of intolerance, communalism, religious fundamentalism, violence and socio-economic exploitation. The spirit of 1857 is not just organizing marches and functions but taking a pledge to fight and free ourselves from these forces. This will be the best homage to the martyrs of 1857.

(Edit – South Asia Times – May 2007)

One comment on “150 th anniversary of 1857 – India’s first war of independence

  1. nirmal kumar singh says: