On May 10, 1857 began the first war of Indian independence when soldiers revolted in Meerut, proceeded to Delhi, drove out the British and proclaimed Bahadur Shah Zafar as the ruler. The flames of that war spread widely. Much about it is already known to all patriotic and progressive sections.
The 1857 war still resonates for some aspects which are still very much relevant. First, it was an attempt to overthrow yoke of colonial rule. It was the beginning of forging a common struggle of Indian people against a foreign power which had enslaved the country. It had exploited India for colonial loot and plunder and shipped this loot to England which paved the way for its emergence as the biggest contemporary power on earth and helped its emergence as the most advanced capitalist country in Europe. Second, it was a united struggle of the people of all religious faiths and communities. People of all faiths, including its two largest faiths- Hindus and Muslims- participated in this struggle. This was a secularism of common aspirations and not just mutual tolerance. Another important aspect was eclipse of feudal princes who aspired for independence from foreign rule and emergence of peasantry as a player on All India scene. 1857 was the first struggle in which peasantry participated on its own at most places, unlike earlier wars against colonial rule which were waged by feudal kings. It was also the first pan India war against colonial rule though it was preceded by local revolts and wars against colonial rule at several places.
163 years later, much has changed. The most important political change is the end of direct colonial rule in 1947. Power was transferred to local ruling classes in erstwhile India along with its division into India and the then Pakistan. The ruling classes which came to power were the very classes which had been acting as the social and economic props of colonial rule i.e. big landlords and comprador capitalists. Their seventy years of rule has been an undiluted catastrophe for Indian people. Though some changes in the economic, social and political structure came, these were brought about to consolidate their rule and not for basic change in Indian society or improvement in the conditions of Indian people. India remains the most backward among the large countries particularly as concerns the bulk of Indian people. Advocates and apologists of the system talk of progress, taking credit for whatever has happened, as if coming of day and night i.e. rotation of earth is also because of them. They tell of what has happened and not what could happen had the independence been genuine and colonial collaborators i.e. reactionaries, been overthrown.
Today India is home to the largest number of poor, hungry, destitute, malnourished and marginalized. We are a superpower in communicable diseases and those ailments which have been eliminated from the major part of the world still take heavy toll of India. Like other aspects we have worst of both worlds – we have problems due to survival and continuance of the past as well as emergence of the new. Even Corona epidemic, with its origins elsewhere, is spreading on this fertile soil irrigated with callousness and criminality. When one sees the pictures of the people from other countries, dutifully and shamelessly painted by Indian media as examples of abysmal poverty and starvation, like those from North Korea, Syria, Iran or even from Africa, one wonders why even those conditions do not exist in India. Yes, India has a large and growing number of billionaires but it has even faster growing number of destitute and unemployed, poor and hungry. These two Indias have been the product of the transfer of power.
This abysmal poverty and utter helplessness has been on display in the present Corona epidemic when hundreds of millions, greater than the total population of most of the countries, have gone on forced foot march across deserts, forests and plains of India, hungry and ill, uncared for and unwelcome, showing the character of the ruling classes of India. Having failed to provide food and shelter, what to talk of wages and employment, these govts. are locking down the people, forcing them to stay, reminding everyone of slave labour; their treatment worse than under Anti-Poor laws of England where at least food and shelter were provided.
Even when the people are facing such hardships the rulers are dreaming of inviting US companies to India from China. These minions who have been catapulted to power thanks to continuing hold of very narrow stratum of economic and social elite, are simply incapable of even contemplating of any future without imperialist benefactors. More of it, better for them. Even while India is suffering from lack of equipment and testing kits, they arekeener to meet the needs of their imperialist masters. They are incapable of taking India ahead. The struggle initiated by 1857 is still unconsummated, India needs to be freed from imperialist domination and stranglehold of imperialist capital along with their compradors.
British colonial rulers forged the weapon of communal polarization especially after 1857 when it became a very important tool of their colonial rule. The enmity sown among these two large religious groups, obviously with the help of elite from these sections whom they lured and cajoled into this, has further degenerated into religious nationalism. In India, coming to power of RSS-BJP has been culmination of this process. These rulers are continuing their communal conspiracies even during Corona pandemic, intensifying their campaign against Muslims, seeking to further polarize the society and pulverize opposition to their misrule. 1857 calls out for the unity of the people for carving out a common and shared destiny, a future prosperous, responsive, free of divisiveness and social oppression. 1857 remains the prototype of the secularism India needs.
No wonder remains of Bahadurshah Zafar remain buried in Myanmar, still waiting for two yards of land in his native land. But the ruling classes see danger in this symbol of anti-colonialism and secularism.
People’s struggle at present has gone beyond the one in 1857. The rule of big capitalists and big landlords since 1947 have added to the misery of people and changed the contours of and targets of the people’s struggles. Situation has become more complex. Yet the relevance of anti-colonialism and secularism symbolized by 1857 remains. Peasants whose distress propelled the first war of independence remain the main force in the struggle for a New Democratic India to lead India to a prosperous and socialist future.
May 9, 2020