The relevance of 1857
By Mubarak Ali; Dawn, April 29, 2008
ON the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the uprising of 1857 against the British Raj in India, we organised three conferences — in Lahore, Karachi and Gujrat. The idea was to recall and analyse the events of that historic year.
Some friends raised questions about its relevance to the times in which we are living. We realised how people can misunderstand history and take it as an obsolete discipline.
True, all historical events are not relevant to the present. But very often those events which are forgotten surface again in a pattern that sheds light on the happenings of today and inspire us to learn lessons from the past. The commemoration of 1857 not only serves to revive the past and to help us remember the sacrifices of those who fought against foreign rule, it also helps us understand the people’s response to such rule. Thus we can grasp its consequences.
The revolt of 1857 was a widespread popular reaction against British rule and its injustices. But the paradox was that there were also a number of native groups and individuals who supported and collaborated with the British. That raises the question: why did they collaborate with a foreign power against their own people?
There were actually three groups which had supported British rule.
First, there were those who were in the service of the East India Company and, following the tradition of loyalty, defended the Company’s interests.To them the Company Bahadur was personified as their patron whose servants they were and to support it in case of trouble was their moral duty as they had eaten salt with them — (namak halali). Being low-ranking office-holders, they were overawed and impressed by the Company’s organisation and its military power.
Second, there were the princes and feudal lords whose interest it was not to get involved in any conflict which could endanger their own property and privileges. They realised that the rebel forces could not successfully fight against the well-disciplined and well-organised British army. They were not interested in supporting a losing cause and paying heavily in the end. Only those princes and jagirdars sided with the rebels who had already lost their positions as a result of political structural changes.
The third group consisted of those who sincerely believed that British rule would modernise India. To them, foreign intervention offered the only option to pull India out of its backwardness. How far were these expectations proven correct? This is a question that needs to be analysed in order to understand the colonial period. As a matter of fact, British rule in India was beneficial to only those sections of society which were already at a certain level of civilisation and culture. Such was the case with the Brahmins and the Muslim bourgeosie.
The rest of the Indian population was backward, illiterate and extremely poor. The benefit of political reforms and technological advancement did not reach the majority. Here is an example for those who believe that relinquishing our national sovereignty and accepting foreign intervention is the only solution to our problems. The fact, as history tells us, is that nations cannot be reformed by alien and foreign powers. Only their own leaders can change them.
When the rebellion of 1857 was over, the British started to analyse its causes. The revolt had been too unexpected for them and they failed to understand why there was such a strong reaction against their policies. Some British bureaucrats reached the conclusion that the revolt was masterminded by the Muslims and the Hindus were just trapped in it. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, for one, was very much concerned with the hostile attitude of the British towards the Muslims. He had already written The Causes of the Indian Mutiny and Tarikh-Sarkashi-i-Bijnor (The History of the Mutiny of Bijnor). To respond to this allegation and to prove the innocence of the Muslims, he started to write a series of articles known as ‘The Loyal Mohammedans’.
He collected material from those Muslims who had supported the British during the rebellion and had protected their lives and properties, in some cases at the cost of their own lives. In his articles, Sir Syed mentioned the certificates which were given to the loyal servants of the Company by British officers acknowledging their support and loyalty. He also mentioned the awards of the British government to these people in the shape of landed properties and robes of honour in appreciation of their loyalty. He convinced the British that all Muslims were not against their government. On the other hand, they had respect for Christians as ‘people of the Book’ and remained loyal to their cause.
The interpretation of 1857 changed with the emergence of nationalism and the ‘mutiny’ was interpreted as a ‘national war of independence’. The heroes of the British became the villains of the people. However, the families of those ‘loyal Mohammedans’ who were awarded landed properties and cash remained as powerful and influential as before, especially in parts which later became Pakistan. For lack of historical knowledge and perception they are never brought to justice. The result is that there is no anti-colonial approach in our historical narrative. On the contrary, there is great admiration for British rule.
What is the lesson of history? History tells us that imperialism cannot succeed in occupying another country without local collaboration. Today, we are facing the same situation in Iraq and Afghanistan on the one hand and Palestine on the other. We are hearing the same arguments that with the help of foreign powers and intervention, religious extremism and terror will be wiped out. Again, history tells us that it is not correct. We cannot rely on others to fight our wars.
We learn from 1857 that the defeat of a resistance movement is not the end of the struggle, as those involved in it always learn a lot as a result of defeat and correct their approach for the next engagement. The events that followed 1857 were a mix of violence and non-violence. It was not the constitutional approach alone but also resistance which consequently led to our independence.