From the First Indian War of Independence (1857) to
Another War of Independence to more Wars of Independence:
The 150 year Lesson of Union, Division to Further Vivisection
Dr. Sachi Ghosh Dastidar
It is great for my wife Shefali and me to be among historians of Peshawar University and rest of the world especially after taking a 5,000 kilometer historic road journey following the ancient Silk Route. History has been my passion for the past three decades as I have delved into partition of India and social-economic-cultural-religious consequence of that partition. Four of my books are based on that, albeit in the East, but focused on present situation. Thus I had to learn about the Indian independence movement, Pakistan movement, partition of India along with the provinces of Assam, Bengal, Kashmir and Punjab, pre-independence Indian history, 1905 Bengal Partition and establishment of Muslim League, British policy of divide and rule, Swadeshi (self-reliant) Movement, establishment of the Congress Party, the rise of Indian — all-encompassing Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Sikh-Jain-Parsee-Brahmo-Buddhist religious identity and pluralistic identity based on hundreds of linguistic groups, British Direct Rule, the 1857 First War of Independence, the rise of modern native intelligentsia, the Brahmo Samaj, Indian Renaissance, Hindu and other religious reform movements, the decline of Mughal Empire, the Battle of Plassey (Palashi) of Bengal, the rise of British Empire, and eventually the rise and decline of pan-Indian nationalism. As we studied the 1947 Indian partition and subsequent changes in the divided lands of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, we learned about our glorious as well as shameful past and realized why history is important for all of us, especially why it is important to learn from one’s own history, otherwise, we are told we may repeat itself. I am afraid that already history has repeated upon us.
We are not here to reconstruct our past history — at times cordial and caring and at other times brutal and oppressive. The question one may ask of historians, What if they — the independence fighters of 1857 — succeeded? This could a good topic for adda or gossip but what meaning does that have 150 years later? Historians should be able to point to some lessons that we needed to learn. Did we really learn any lesson especially that is applicable to day? Or, did we miss the essence of that event completely? This is a task of historians to teach our children, about ourselves, about our past. This, we are afraid, have long been neglected. A few days ago we discovered in my Pakistan travel book that there is a memorial, not far from our conference site, of an Englishman killed during the First War of Independence but not of the Pathans, Punjabis, Dogras, Rajputs, Paharis, Hindus and Muslims killed by the British colonial forces at the same battle during the same war. British forces used unprecedented brutality to crush that rebellion. Many English authors of the time wrote about the cruelty of the native forces against the English population, reinforcing the already existing prejudicial “uncivil” nature of the “native” Indians. Furthermore we have a taboo of discussing the 1947 partition that accompanied a fratricide, ethnic cleansing and mass killing that was done by ourselves, not by the Englishmen. The colonial administration remained a silent bystander. It is my belief that this silence of mass killing led to another genocide during the 1971 Bangladesh War. Yet none of the perpetrators of 1947 and 1971 killings were held accountable: a lesson that people must not forget to avoid more massacres and ethnic cleansing in the days ahead.
During thousands of years of Indian history two streams of struggles were always present: one militant-religious — Islamist, Sikh, and Hindu on the images of demon-killer Mother Goddesses Kali and Durga; and the other pacifist-Hindu Vaishnavaite-Buddhist-Jain tradition where killing of any living being, including pants and animals, are discouraged. Within Islam the Sufis have a pacifist tradition. (Incidentally many of the ancient pre-Buddhist and pre-Jain Hindu figures come from what is today’s Frontier Province and Afghanistan; and the epic battle of Mahabharat took place in neighboring Punjab.)
Let me now go back to the beginning of the rise of modern Indian nationalism from the late 18th and early 19th Centuries. After the defeat of Bengal-non-native Muslim rule in Bengal at Palashi (Plassey) in 1757, European colonialism through British rule established its foothold in India, first through Bengal, and its new British-established capital of Calcutta. It started the rule of the British East India Company — not a direct government rule — which after 1857 rebellion, was transformed into a direct British rule. Yet that foreign rule would not go unchallenged for long and soon Indian nationalism and sentiment for free India would take hold beginning with the educated intelligentsia. This nationalistic feeling — an all-India, multi-religious, multi-linguistic, multi-caste, multi-race — gave rise to what is commonly known as Indian Renaissance, and closely related to that was Hindu Reform Movement. A reformation of pluralistic Hindu religion, heritage of all Indians, attempted to instill a pride in their past, purge the society of caste-, gender-, linguistic- and regional-prejudice, empower women and traditionally-oppressed castes. This reform movement was to influence peoples of other religions who lived next to each other. Raja Ram Mohon Roy, who came in close contact with traditional Hindu and Indian society and European and Christian reform movements, soon symbolized new India. Roy was the first Indian to challenge both regressive practices of Hinduism and oppressive use of English colonialism. On the other hand, Roy, the Father of Indian Renaissance, was a keen observer of both positive aspects of Hindu and non-Hindu Indian practices, and the benefits of enlightened Europe and England. Thus there emerged, with the help of another Indian stalwart Dwarkanath Thakur (Tagore), the formless monotheism of Brahmo religion — the Brahmo Samaj — as opposed to polytheistic one-god many-path concept of Hinduism. Brahmos took to the ancient Hindu scripture of Upanishad going back to old Hindu roots which allowed debates and discourses in the enlightened fashion, somewhat similar to the Unitarian tradition of Christianity. Yet at that time in history Brahmos considered themselves separate from Hinduism, especially as Hinduism was practiced then, but not from Hindu roots. Soon other centers of learning and centers of Indian nationalism would rise away from capital Calcutta in such cities like Bombay, Madras, Lahore, Lucknow and throughout India. Irony was that nationalist movement led by the educated paralleled with the establishment of English education, English-medium British-style colleges and universities. Initially, like Ram Mohon Roy, anti-British, pro-Indian nationalism was led by Bengal and her Calcutta-based learned groups, but that soon spread to other provinces and indigenously-ruled kingdoms — the princely states. Bengal was the first to be colonized, but she was the first to rebel against European colonialism.
On the other hand it was not just the self-respecting educated Indians with whom tension was rising with foreign colonizers. Tension was also rising with the Indian working-class, poor and peasants. Import of cheap goods from English factories, at times with protection and subsidy of the British Government, working-class Indians were being forced out of their jobs. To protect market for British goods and to promote aggressive colonization, East India Company often destroyed local industry, like Bengal’s muslin industry, with which it could not compete. Similarly in the case of Indian farmers many were forced to grow crops to support British economy instead of crops of higher value or that sustained local life. Moreover, on the part of a section of Indians, especially Muslims, though not all, there was a longing for Muslim rule over Christian-British rule. They wanted to bring back the Mughal rule through Bahadur Shah, though frail and aging, the last Mughal ruler. Thus pressure was rising against Company colonialism from all sides: educated and uneducated, Indian and English educated, professionals and working-class, Hindu and Muslim. This combined force finally erupted as The First War of Independence or Shepoy Mutiny as the British called it, in 1857. This was the first pan-Indian rebellion stretching from Bengal to Baluchistan and from the Northwest Mountains to Southern Peninsula. After the brutal suppression of the rebellion by the Company and British Army, the British Crown directly took over ruling of India — which at that time included Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Burma (Myanmar) — and speeded up English education and creating British-style institutions throughout India, including today’s Pakistan.
Post-1857 War of Independence era opened up a new chapter of governance of India as it was now being ruled by the monarch of England. Queen Victoria became the Empress of India, replacing Bahadur Shah, the Mughal king. British Government then began a new civil service by selecting young Englishmen to govern India. They also started a policy that will soon be known as the “divide-and-rule” policy of dividing Indian peoples on the basis of religion, caste, language and region. The people who remained loyal during the 1857 rebellion, mostly Punjabis, were rewarded generously by the British, that may have caused, one can argue, the 1947 partition-related genocide in the West and East, and again another genocide during the 1971 Bangladesh war in East Pakistan/East Bengal. Britain militarized a section of population, who was considered non-martial before that event. But that is a different issue, not selective favoritism. This kind of selective favoritism led to aggressive institutionalized communalism in the British Empire. Few years down the road Britain partitioned Bengal in 1905 into Muslim Bengal and Hindu Bengal where there was no demand for such a division from either the majority Muslims or from minority Hindus culminating into the great Muslim non-Muslim divide, and finally in Muslim-non Muslim partition in 1947 and continued tension in independent India, and an emergence of new Pakistan devoid of her Hindu-Sikh-Jain minorities.
How could this be one of the lessons learned from the united struggle of 1857? Did we learn any collective lesson then? Certainly not. On the other hand the colonial administration learned a lot from that war and started to divide Indians. This divisive process was applied in 1905 Bengal partition which ultimately created Indian partition forty-two years later. Indian partition of 1947 — along with partitions of Assam, Bengal, Punjab and Kashmir — created genocide and ethnic cleansing taking lives of millions of people and displacing millions of more people from their ancestral homeland. That process of ethnic cleansing is still continuing to this day! Yet no one was held responsible for these losses of life and ethnic cleansing. This intolerance, absence of repentance, mass murderers remaining scot-free, absence of democratic tolerance led to another war, vivisection and genocide during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, as mentioned earlier. Even after that war no murderer was prosecuted like the 1947 partition; some of the killers even got promotion to better offices.
As we read reports of celebrations of the First War of Independence in India and Pakistan, one of the pleasurable trend that we noticed was that each region highlighted their role as the “first” group trying to overthrow the colonial British Empire and complained against other regions that they were stealing the show: Marathis highlighted their roll as did Lucknow-walas, Bengalis projected Mangal Pandey so did Punjabis with Punjabi martyrs, similarly with Oriyas, Pahtans and other nationalities, Hindus and Muslims, women and men, and so on, but not with malice. Delhi entered picture a bit late. It was nice to see everyone wants a piece of their past glory. We hope in their excitement there is no biased re-writing of history.
What lesson can we learn from the First War of Independence?
There are many lessons that we could have learned. One of them is that one can live together when tolerance, pluralism, nationalism are present; but not when ultra-nationalism, separatist nationalism, militant subjugation, and supremacist ideology are present. This is also the basis for democracy as opposed to theocracy, dictatorship and one-party and one-thought governance.
Within India 1857 War speeded up several factors, including consciousness of being Indian, demand for self governance that resulted in the establishment of Congress Party in 1885 and later Swadeshi (self-reliant, read self-respect) Movement, respect for its own tradition, heritage and nationalism. Some Muslims saw the 1857 war as a set back to “Muslim” rule over “Hindu” India. This is understandable, though full of contradiction.
Pacifism without a conscience of the brutalizing forces is unworkable. There are many examples in the 20th century of brutal, genocidal regimes or that engaged in ethnic cleansing where pacifism didn’t work — whether Gandhian, Vashnavite, Jain or Buddhist. This lesson Indians also learned during the suppression of 1857 rebellion.
In 1857 the pan-Indian nationalism was defeated by the British supremacist ideology, while in 1947 that pan-Indian nationalism was defeated by religious ultra-nationalism. 150 years later, or 60 years from the Indian partition and independence of India and Pakistan, we are yet to resolve that contradiction of peaceful cohabitation or unending militant sectarianism.
 Based on lecture at the First War of Independence conference of History Department of Peshawar University, Peshawar, Pakistan. A different version was presented at the International Conference on 150 Year Commemoration of War of Independence (of India from Britain), Peshawar University, August 18-19, 2007
 Jose Roleo Santiago, the author of Pakistan: A Travel Survival Kit (Lonely Planet, South Yarra, Australia, 1987; 101) writes, “Further east, beyond Hasanabdal and Taxila, on a spur of a ridge, there is a tower built in memory of John Nichlson, a slightly strange British officer who died in the assault of Delhi following the Indian Mutiny” (now known as the First War of Independence.)
 Research for my upcoming book, Empire’s Last Casualty, (recently released), finds that just from the Government-published Census of Bangladesh/East Pakistan the number of minorities lost from the land since 1947 partition will surpass 49 million; while the loss of life is between 1.3 million and 3.2 million based on various estimates.