Remembering the Indian Freedom Struggle Movement

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The story of India’s resistance took different forms at different stages of British expansion. Therefore, revisiting these events serve multiple purposes by helping us draw lessons from the past and look for new heroes that are lost in the cumbersome process of history writing. The movement can be looked at from two sides, the first one involving the old form which regarded the British as usurping foreigners and sincerely believed that they should be swept off the face of India even if through violent means. The other was the new and improved form of resistance inculcated by English education and western ideas which tried to achieve constitutional self-government by a slow progress under the protection of the British.

The spread of the English pattern of education and the impact of western ideas of liberty, equality and nationalism influenced the growth of the national movement. This class had an implicit faith in the British sense of justice and fervently hoped to be entrusted with a larger share in the administration of their own country. It would seem the history of the freedom struggle fails to acknowledge the role played by the former group due to hijacking of the academia by a group of historians who have left no stone unturned in their scathing review of this group while creating a specific class of people predominantly the ‘bhadraloks’ as the flag-bearers of Indian independence. It can be argued that biases are inherent to history writing but, in this case, it is the selective representation of the role of revolutionaries, women, and peasants relegated to the footnotes of history. A more complex and inclusive account of Indian history is the need of the hour.

However, with the passage of time even the educated Indians or, as Lord Macaulay called them, the “Brown Sahibs” felt disappointed and disillusioned as they found that the despotic rule of an alien power gave them no opportunities. Thus, towards the closing of 19th century, dissatisfied with the rate of progress achieved, many Indians started favoring the adoption of measures which, it was hoped, would produce speedy results. The new leaders infused with a deep religious spirit, exemplified by the promotion of native culture, sprang up, especially in Bengal, designed to remove the reproach that Indians were a non-martial and effete people. Exhortations were addressed to the people, particularly the youth of the country, in the name of Kali, the goddess of strength, and in the name of Shivaji, to unite and retaliate against the foreign rule.

But over the years, the historiography of Indian nationalism dominated by Marxist historians has reduced nationalism to a sort of ‘learning process’ through which the native elite became involved in politics simply with the expectations that certain favors in the form of wealth and power would be given to them. The general orientation of the elitist historiography is to represent Indian nationalism as primarily an idealist venture in which the indigenous elite led the people from subjugation to freedom. It fails to acknowledge the contribution made by the people on their own i.e. independently of the elite. There are numerous instances in the past which clearly indicates that in several cases the principal actors were the subaltern classes and groups constituting the mass of the laboring population and the peasants. This was seen in peasant uprisings of Santhals, Paiks, Kols along with the revolt of 1857.  

Along with the active participation of peasants and the artisan class, we often come across what has been called as passive resistance by the historians where they deliberately delayed their duties and performed other tasks in the service of their English masters. In many historic instances involving large masses of working people and petty bourgeois in the urban areas, the bigwigs derived their strength directly from the paradigm of peasant insurgency and mobilized them to their benefits especially visible in the taluqadari crisis of 1856. However, Leftist historians waited for the rise of mahatma Gandhi and the Indian National Congress(INC) to explain the peasant movements of the colonial period so that it would be treated as the ‘prehistory of the freedom movement’. A peasant, according to subaltern historian Ranajit Guha, knew what he was doing in a revolt and the fact that they were designed primarily to destroy the authority of the subordinate elite and carried no elaborate blueprint for its replacement, doesn’t put it outside the realm of politics. Therefore, motives of such rebellions were less primitive than it is often presumed to be.

In the long history of India’s liberation movement, it is important to trace the emergence of revolutionary ideology which grew very popular along with the ideas of non-violence. The British became unpopular among Indian masses when their promises of colonial state being a benevolent and welfare state appeared to be failing and the economic exploitation of Indians reached unprecedented levels. Dadabhai Naoroji writing about the drain of wealth to England as a result of British economic policies in his book,  Poverty and Un-British Rule in India followed by some works by scholars like RC Dutt and William Digby brought an end to the façade of a welfare state.

However, the stalwarts of INC directed a majority of the resistance against the British, endorsing the passive methods of boycotts, hartals and demonstrations as their main weapons. A lot of people considered them too moderate and ineffective becoming disillusioned with these methods and opting to obtain freedom via individual conspiracies instead. The initial decades of 20th century proved to be conducive to their growth both abroad and at home, especially in Bengal, which became the hotbed of revolutionary activities and Indian nationalism primarily because it was the first province to have received western education, hence getting a taste of ideas of democracy and freedom of speech. By the time Gandhi landed in India, the ideas of Swaraj had already captivated the minds of millions of Indians.

Historians have projected India’s freedom either as a sole achievement of INC or as a wartime gift by Britain. When INC was conducting nationalist movements towards the end of 19th century, a minority of ardent Indian patriots headed by Bal Gangadhar Tilak were preparing the mind of the people for an acute struggle, believing in action and extreme sacrifice for the country. Shyam Krishna Verma is credited with the propagation of the movement abroad and foundation of the “Indian Home Rule Society” aimed at securing Home Rule for India by mobilizing the support of public in England. The revolutionary movement itself was a result of gradual emergence of national renaissance manifested through social and literary movements in which the works of Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Swami Dayanand Saraswati and many others were used to invoke the sense of nationalism and India’s ancient glory.

Shyamji openly propagated the use of force to achieve independence, foreseeing that the possibility of a peaceful revolution was very remote. He also started “India House” owned by Madam Cama which became the center of patriotic extremism. Amongst his finest recruits was Vinayak Damodar Savarkar who took over the movement after the departure of Shyamji and was a founder of “Abhinava Bharata”, a secret society of revolutionaries involved in clandestine operations and preaching the gospel of freedom to influence world opinion in favor of India’s independence. He also communicated with President Roosevelt regarding the appeal to Hitler to ward off the colonial danger to civilization and argued that he should also ask Britain to withdraw armed dominance over Hindustan. Shyamji Krishna Verma, SR Rana, Mrs. VR Cama and VD Savarkar formed the earliest band of revolutionaries working in Europe. Rash Behari Bose had been watching all these political developments on the Indian scene and in the years preceding the Second World War kept up the correspondence with Savarkar and founded the Japan branch of Hindu Mahasabha with himself as its president.

“Anushilan Smiti’’ based in Calcutta was another organization founded on the same lines in Bengal, arising out of conglomeration of local youth groups and gyms which came into being as a club of physical exercises in 1902 and was led by nationalists such as Aurobindo Ghosh and his brother Barindra Ghosh and had started a weekly newspaper Jugantar to preach armed struggle. It had branches in Calcutta and Dacca. Its members swore an oath of liberating their country with a copy of the Gita placed in their hands in front of the sacrificial fire. This presents a unique example of how religion played a critical role in driving people to action and exhibits how religious revivalism became a vital force for the growth of revolutionary work. With the outbreak of swadeshi movement, it gradually began to acquire a political complexion and within a few years it grew by leaps and bounds and became the most important recruiting agency of Bengali youth for secret work. By 1902, their activities were supported by ample funds and a well-equipped technical and intelligence department and it was forging alliances with other rebellious groups.

The working of revolutionaries is dismissed by historians as lacking planning and coordination without any idea of creating a republic union as we see today but what is even more fascinating is the existence of a common network of revolutionary conspiracy from Punjab to Bengal in which Anushilan Smiti formed an important link. However, it is worthwhile noticing that the Smiti focused less on manufacturing of arms and ammunition and more on propagation of the cult of violence through its far-flung and close-knit organistion. The idea of non-violence and satyagraha didn’t fit well with its leaders resulting in its indifference towards the Non-Cooperation Movement. Sachindra Nath Sanyal was one such leader who was borne out of this Smiti and was incharge of its branch in UP and later went on to found “Hindustan Socialist Republican Association” at Firoz Shah Kotla in Delhi which sought the ‘banishment of British from the seats of political power’.

It was not as if only those directly affected by the British were inclined towards extremism. Har Dayal, who was studying at Oxford on returning to India is an example. By 1910, he set up an independent press in San Francisco for the publication of Ghadr from which the name Ghadr Party was derived to neutralize the British propaganda in US and elsewhere. The movement got a fillip from the voyage of Kamagata Maru after which the Indians in Canada started thinking in terms of challenging the immigration laws of their country which created an unfair distinction between Indian and Europeans. Ghadr Party is also credited with the formation of the provisional government of India rooted in Kabul proclaiming alliance between Hindus and Muslims with the support and approval of their cause by the Sultan of Turkey and the Kaiser of Germany. After the departure of Har Dayal from the American scene, the tradition of his lecture tour was maintained by Ram Chandra, Barkatullah, Bhagwan Singh and Govind Lal.

The vital contribution of Indian revolutionaries can be clearly seen from the “Sedition Committee Report of 1918” which regarded them as a bigger threat to the mighty empire due to their unwillingness to compromise and demand for full-fledged independence unlike the INC which had developed an attitude of compromise and petitions. The revolutionaries, some scholars argue, would have presented a bigger threat if they had successfully driven out British from India with the use of force and violence resulting in a power vacuum in the absence of a single pan-Indian Party leading to an outbreak of civil war. Such arguments are largely speculative though, owing very little to facts. If we look at some of the letters written by Bhagat Singh to his fellow comrades, one can get an idea of his thought process and how deeply rooted his philosophy and ethics were. He believed that power had to be transferred to the revolutionary party through popular support, to organize the reconstruction of society on the socialist basis and to educate masses with no intent of laying down a populist regime at all.

The initial years of independence witnessed a shift in the manner of history writing from chronicling the details of kings and queens to documenting the aspects of the lives of common people but still when it comes to historicizing sensitive events such as the independence movement, the colonial historiography, predominantly the Cambridge school of thought, known for its cynical outlook towards the issue of Indian nationalism remains influential to date. It is only through exposure to similarities and differences of opinion among different schools of thought that we can engage in a meaningful debate. Selective representation of facts is also a form of biased history propelled to indoctrinate young minds by preventing their exposure to the other side of the story which has to be taken care of immediately via promoting and pioneering research that portrays both sides in an adequate and holistic manner.

The pertinent question here is not to argue over what won us independence but to open the stage for a discourse over how the forces of revolutionary activities and Ahimsa played their part without diminishing the role of the former. Many scholars from the time of independence itself have been indulging in the process of history writing and in debates as to what extent was the use of force instrumental in achieving freedom. Their impact may have been minuscule but that doesn’t mean that their heroic contribution don’t deserve a place in history. Their contribution should in fact be floated as an alternative narrative that led to Indian independence so that they are able to color present passions and set right the course of History-making.

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