The Great Revolt Of 1857. Racialism

After nearly a century of British rule, Bengal had accommodated itself to it; the peasantry devastated by famine and crushed by new economic burdens, the new intelligentsia looking to the west and hoping that progress would come through English liberalism. So also, more or less in the south and in western India, in Madras and Bombay. But in the upper provinces there was no such submission or accommodation and the spirit of revolt was growing, especially among the feudal chiefs and their followers. Even in the masses discontent and an intense anti-British feeling were widespread. The upper classes keenly resented the insulting and overbearing manners of the foreigners, the people generally suffered from the rapacity and ignorance of the officials of the East India Company, who ignored their time-honoured customs and paid no heed to what the people of the country thought. Absolute power over vast numbers of people had turned their heads and they suffered no check or hindrance. Even the new judicial system they introduced became a thing of terror because of its complications and the ignorance of the judges of both the language and customs of the country.

As early as 1817, Sir Thomas Munro, writing to the Governor-General, Lord Hastings, after pointing out the advantages of British rule, said:

but these advantages are dearly bought. They are purchased by the sacrifice of independence, of national character, and of whatever renders a people respectable…. The consequence, therefore, of the conquest of India by the British arms would be, in place of raising, to debase a whole people. There is perhaps no example of any conquest in which the natives have been so completely excluded from all share of the government of their country as in British India.

Munro was pleading for the employment of Indians in the administration. A year later he wrote again:

Foreign conquerors have treated the natives with violence, and often with great cruelty, but none has treated them with so much scorn as we; none has stigmatized the whole people as unworthy of trust, as incapable of honesty, and as fit to be employed only where we cannot do without them. It seems to be not only ungenerous, but impolitic, to debase the character of a people fallen under our dominion.

British dominion was extended to the Punjab by 1850 after two Sikh wars. Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who had held and extended the Sikh state in the Punjab, had died in 1839. In 1856 Oudh was annexed. Oudh had been virtually under British rule l for half a century, for it was a vassal state, its nominal ruler being both helpless and degenerate, and the British Resident all-powerful. It had sunk to the very depths of misery and illustrated all the evils of the subsidiary state system.

In May, 1857, the Indian army at Meerut mutinied. The revolt had been secretly and well-organized but a premature outburst rather upset the plans of the leaders. It was much more than a military mutiny and it spread rapidly and assumed the character of a popular rebellion and a war of Indian independence. As such a popular rebellion of the masses it was confined to Delhi, the United Provinces (as they are now called), and parts of central India and Bihar. Essentially it was a feudal outburst, headed by feudal chiefs and their followers and aided by the widespread anti-foreign sentiment. Inevitably it looked up to the relic of the Mughal dynasty, still sitting in the Delhi palace, but feeble and old and powerless. Both Hindus and Muslims took full part in the Revolt.

This Revolt strained British rule to the utmost and it was ultimately suppressed with Indian help. It brought out all the inherent weaknesses of the old regime, which was making its last despairing effort to drive out foreign rule. The feudal chiefs had the sympathy of the masses over large areas, but they were incapable, unorganized and with no constructive ideal or community of interest. They had already played their role in history and there was no place for them in the future. Many of their number, in spite of their sympathies, thought discretion the better part of valour, and stood apart waiting to see on which side victory lay. Many played the part of quislings. The Indian princes as a whole kept aloof or helped the British, fearing to risk what they had acquired or managed to retain. There was hardly any national and unifying sentiment among the leaders and a mere anti-foreign feeling, coupled with a desire to maintain their feudal privileges, was a poor substitute for this.

The British got the support of the Gurkhas and, what is much more surprising, of the Sikhs also, for the Sikhs had been their enemies and had been defeated by them only a few years before. It is certainly to the credit of the British that they could win over the Sikhs in this way; whether it is to the credit or discredit of the Sikhs of those days depends upon one’s point of view. It is clear, however, that there was a lack of nationalist feeling which might have bound the people of India together. Nationalism of the modern type was yet to come; India had still to go through much sorrow and travail before she learnt the lesson which would give her real freedom. Not by fighting for a lost cause, the feudal order, would freedom come.

The Revolt threw up some fine guerrilla leaders. Feroz Shah, a relative of Bahadur Shah, of Delhi, was one of them, but, most brilliant of all was Tantia Topi who harassed the British for many months even when defeat stared him in the face. Ultimately when he crossed the Narbada river into the Maratha regions, hoping to receive aid and welcome from his own people, there was no welcome, and he was betrayed. One name stands out above others and is revered still in popular memory, the name of Lakshmi Bai, Rani of Jhansi, a girl of twenty years of age, who died fighting. ‘Best and bravest’ of the rebel leaders, she was called by the English general who opposed her.

British memorials of the Mutiny have been put up in Cawnpore and elsewhere. There is no memorial for the Indians who died. The rebel Indians sometimes indulged in cruel and barbarous behaviour; they were unorganized, suppressed, and often angered by reports of British excesses. But there is another side to the picture also that impressed itself on the mind of India, and in my own province especially the memory of it persists in town and village. One would like to forget all this, for it is ghastly and horrible picture showing man at his worst, even according to the new standards of barbarity set up by Nazism and modern war. But it can only be forgotten, or remembered in a detached impersonal way, when it becomes truly the past with nothing to connect it with the present. So long as the connecting links and reminders are present, and the spirit behind those events survives and shows itself, that memory also will endure and influence our people. Attempts to suppress that picture do not destroy it but drive it deeper in the mind. Only by dealing with it normally can its effect be lessened.

A great deal of false and perverted history has been written about the Revolt and its suppression. What the Indians think about it seldom finds its way to the printed page. Savarkar wrote ‘The History of the War of Indian Independence’ some thirty years ago, but his book was promptly banned and is banned still. Some frank and honourable English historians have occasionally lifted the veil and allowed us a glimpse of the race mania and lynching mentality which prevailed on an enormous scale. The accounts given in Kaye and Malleson’s ‘History of the Mutiny’ and in Thompson and Garrett’s ‘Rise and Fulfillment of British Rule in India’ make one sick with horror. ‘Every Indian who was not actually fighting for the British became a “murderer of women and children”… a general massacre of the inhabitants of Delhi, a large number of whom were known to wish us success, was openly proclaimed.’ The days of Timur and Nadir Shah were remembered, but their exploits were eclipsed by the new terror, both in extent and the length of time it lasted. Looting was officially allowed for a week, but it actually lasted for a month, and it was accompanied by wholesale massacre.

In my own city and district of Allahabad and in the neighbourhood, General Neill held his ‘Bloody Assizes.’

Soldiers and civilians alike were holding Bloody Assize, or slaying natives without any assize at all, regardless of age or sex. It is on the records of our British Parliament, in papers sent home by the Governor-General in Council, that “the aged, women, and children are sacrificed as well as those guilty of rebellion.” They were not deliberately hanged, but burnt to death in villages— perhaps now and then accidentally shot.’

Volunteer hanging parties went into the districts and amateur executioners were not wanting to the occasion. One gentleman boasted of the numbers he had finished off quite “in an artistic manner,” with mango trees as gibbets and elephants for drops, the victims of this wild justice being strung up, as though for pastime, in the form of figures of eight.

And so in Cawnpore and Lucknow and all over the place.

It is hateful to have to refer to this past history, but the spirit behind those events did not end with them. It survived, and whenever a crisis comes or nerves give way, it is in evidence again. The world knows about Amritsar and Jallianwala Bagh, but it does not know of much that has happened since the days of the Mutiny, much that has taken place even in recent years and in our time, which has embittered the present generation. Imperialism and the domination of one people over another is bad, and so is racialism. But imperialism plus racialism can only lead to horror and ultimately to the degradation of all concerned with them. The future historians of England will have to consider how far England’s decline from her proud eminence was due to her imperialism and racialism, which corrupted her public life and made her forget the lessons of her own history and literature.

Since Hitler emerged from obscurity and became the Fuehrer of Germany, we have heard a great deal about racialism and the nazi theory of the herrenvolk. That doctrine has been condemned and is today condemned by the leaders of the United Nations. Biologists tell us that racialism is a myth and there is no such thing as a master race. But we in India have known racialism in all its forms ever since the commencement of British rule. The whole ideology of this rule was that of the herrenvolk and the master race, and the structure of government was based upon it; indeed the idea of a master race is inherent in imperialism. There was no subterfuge about it; it was proclaimed in unambiguous language by those in authority. More powerful than words was the practice that accompanied them and, generation after generation and year after year, India as a nation and Indians as individuals were subjected to insult, humiliation, and contemptuous treatment. The English were an imperial race, we were told, with the god-given right to govern us and keep us in subjection; if we protested we were reminded of the ‘tiger qualities of an imperial race.’ As an Indian, I am ashamed to write all this, for the memory of it hurts, and what hurts still more is the fact that we submitted for so long to this degradation. I would have preferred any kind of resistance to this, whatever the consequences, rather than that our people should endure this treatment. And yet it is better that both Indians and Englishmen should know it, for that is the psychological background of England’s connection with India, and psychology counts and racial memories are long.

One rather typical quotation will make us realize how most of the English in India have felt and acted. At the time of the Ilbert Bill agitation in 1883, Seton Kerr, who had been Foreign Secretary to the Government of India, declared that this Bill outraged

the cherished conviction which was shared by every Englishman in India, from the highest to the lowest, by the planter’s assistant in his lowly bungalow and by the editor in the full light of the Presidency town—from those to the Chief Commissioner in charge of an important province and to the Viceroy on his throne—the conviction in every man that he belongs to a race whom God has destined to govern and subdue.



The Discovery Of India – Pt. Jawahar Lal Nehru




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