The First War of Indian Independence 1857 – The Lesson To Be Learnt

This article will not traverse the historical ground of the First Indian Struggle or War of Independence of 1857 or talk of Mangal Pandey, Bahadur Shah Zafar etc. It hopes to jump straight to the heart of the matter.

The historiography of the event shows it has been looked at by Indian nationalist views; undergone Marxist analysis; seen the view of the Mutiny as a traditionalist rebellion; and that of being treated as intensive local uprisings.’ Dalrymple emphasized ‘the role of religion, and explored in detail the internal divisions and politico-religious discord amongst the rebels. He did not discover much in the way of proto-nationalism or any of the roots of modern India in the rebellion.’ The arguments for and against looking at it as a mutiny or revolt or rebellion or insurrection on the one extreme hand as many of the British did and as India’s First Freedom Movement are not only heated, but controversial and pointless.

The truth is while the struggle might have had various causes, such as the soldiers revolting, the doctrine of lapse, East India company’s high handedness etc, it began to take on clear aspirations as it progressed for a new national unity beyond religions and petty kingdoms and languages, a hunger for a large enough ‘geographical’ identity. This would have helped to muster enough power to drive out the intruders who had come not for conquest and rule and settlement but for commerce and trade and eventual return to their native land, to colonize in short, and were thus sensed to be more deeply inimical to the well being of the land than earlier conquerors. The British were robbers and plunderers and looters and took the spoils away with them, this marked the fundamental difference between them and others that made it imperative to develop such a ‘geographical consciousness’ that would eventually give rise to the nation. The fight was widespread and popular and covered many areas, spanning several regions. The sepoys wanted a country-wide rule, though this meant for them what was once the Mughal kingdom under one god, one king and one army. ‘The objective of driving out “foreigners” from not only one’s own area but from their conception of the entirety of “India” signifies a nationalist sentiment;’ They thus had a clearly common, uniting purpose.

112 years later it is possible to see that the real issue was not failure, in fact; if overthrowing the East India Company was the objective; they succeeded. The real issue is that while power was being transferred to Britain’s Crown, as a result of the Company’s defeat, the stirrings of this semi-nationalist sentiment was not sustained and developed into a stronger desire for total ouster and self governance of a larger geographical area that would have been our-India then itself.

This is where colonialism or neo imperialism is a threat not easy to deal with, because it is not a united impulse but has in it disparate tendencies only negatively united by the concept of gain and profit. In countering it, as it is in the present in India regarding the neo imperialism of transnational business corporates that are waiting to come in a big way, those who do not know their post-colonial thinkers like Homi K Bhabha for example, will end up not recognizing new forms of hybridity, ambivalence, difference and mimicry in policy and end up in the same boat as before 1857. The lesson to be learned is to perhaps not let in the new traders for commerce so that we do not need another “mutiny” in the ranks of the poor employees that will soon be working in the new East India Companies, before we become only the slaves and business colonies of organizations like WTO or worse still like Goldman Sachs etc, due to international debts that we can’t clear and possible financial collapse. But who will take heed to the writing on the wall and take timely action? We may yet live to witness another version of 1857 in the near future, about 45 years hence or sooner…

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