Salute the Heroes of the 1857 Indian War of Liberation

LALKAR has been marking the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the First Indian War of Independence (1857-1859) with a series of articles.

With part 1, in our November/December 2007 issue, we showed the causes of this, the largest anti-colonial uprising anywhere in the world in the 19th century, engulfing about 35 per cent of present-day India; and in the March/April issue, in part 2, we dealt with the eventual brutal suppression by the English forces of this independence war.  With part 3, we conclude this series .

We must now look, albeit briefly, at the reasons for the failure of such a widespread revolt against the British Raj.  There were several causes of its failure.  First, the revolt had been by and large a spontaneous response to the economic and political policies of the East India Company, the ruler of India, on the eve of 1857, which turned Indians of all classes, from the topmost landed aristocracy to the downtrodden peasantry and artisans, against the Raj.  In the objective situation prevailing, feudal rulers, with grievances of their own, joined the revolt, whose declared aim was to expel the alien rulers from India.  Their personal interests and Indian national interest came to coincide at this point in time, with the result that the feudal rulers and talukdars (big landowners – zamindars), by their participation in this popular armed uprising played a patriotic role.

No centralised organisation

However, there was no centralised organisation to spearhead this revolt.  There did not exist at the time in India either a bourgeoisie or a proletariat, the classes that could have given direction and thrust to the revolutionary movement.  As a result there were no political parties (unlike the Jacobin clubs in Paris on the eve of the great French Revolution).  The economic and political developments in India at the time had not yet prepared the soil for the emergence of these conditions, so necessary for the success of the struggle.  Though the insurgents had a vision of India, this vision was seriously impaired by a feudal mindset, lacking in the clear concept of a modern state.

Absence of a centralised command

Second, the absence of a single centralised leadership, a single military command and a well-considered plan of action proved to be a major factor in the defeat of the insurrection.  While the British could devise strategies and plan troop movements all across the important centres of the rebellion and thus concentrate their military strength at the vital points according to need, the rebel forces by and large lacked a coherent strategy and plan of action.  It was a serious weakness on the part of the rebels that they had failed in finding a man “upon whom to bestow the supreme command”, an essential precondition for organising “a serious and protracted resistance” against the British forces.  None of the rebel sepoys had ever been officers in the army, never in command and always fighting under the command of British officers.  Although, as Engels noted in his analysis of the successful British assault on Delhi, the tactics of the rebels showed “that some notions of scientific warfare had penetrated among the sepoys”, but either these tactics “…were not clear enough, or not powerful enough, to be carried out with any effect… or that disorganisation and want of command turned practical projects into weak and powerless  attempts” (Marx and Engels, The Capture of Delhi, 16 November, page 126).

The British were able to storm Delhi, not through “… an act of uncommon or extra-heroic bravery, although as in every battle individual acts of high spirit no doubt occurred on either side…”, but by showing “more perseverance, force of character, judgement and skill … (Engels, ibid page 122).  The British forces were able to secure reinforcements in time for the storming of Delhi, while the rebel forces were being weakened by dissension, disorganisation and a sinking morale.

Feudal decadence and treachery

Third, the internal weakness of the feudal leadership played its part in the defeat of the revolt. Bahadur Shah Zaffar, the disinherited air of the Great Moghal, and crowned emperor by the insurgent sepoys, was old, inexperienced, indecisive, weak-willed, and was governed by his favourite wife (Zeenat Mahal), who, along with some members of Zaffar’s own family, was secretly in touch with the British to bring the rebellion to an end through some compromise under which they would “… guarantee the pension and privileges of the King and restore the status quo ante bellum” (Dr S N Sen, Eighteen Fifty Seven, p 95).

Just as the virtues of patriotism, heroism, courage and commitment to the cause of freeing India from the British yoke were symbolised by such heroic feudal figures as Rani Jhansi, Nana Saheb, Maulavi Ahmadullah, Tantya Tope, Begum Hazarat Mahal, Kumwar Singh and Amar Singh of Jagdishpur, so was on full display all the putrefaction of the decaying feudal order, with its selfishness, cowardice and treachery, hand in hand with excessive indulgence, dissipation, debauchery and drunkenness.  Allamah Fazle Haq, who was close to the emperor and his court, having stated that the indecisive Zaffar was ruled by his wife and his wazir, that the latter and some members of the King’s family were the deadly enemies of the rebels and friendly towards the British, provides us with this shocking portrayal of the life of incompetence, uselessness and debauchery, led by the king’s sons and grandsons:

“[Bahadur Shah] appointed as officers of the army some of his sons and grandsons, who were stupid, dishonest, and cowards. They hated honest and wise persons.  They had never witnessed the battle nor had they any experience of the blows of swords and lances.  They selected men from the gutter to their society and consultation.  These inexperienced fellows drowned themselves in the ocean of luxuries and extravagance and submerged themselves in the flood of debauchery.  They were poverty stricken and (suddenly) they became opulent; when they became opulent, they took to a life of dissipation.  They obtained enormous sums from the people under the pretext of securing provision of the army and ate themselves all that they got.  The leading-most of the prostitutes made them negligent in the matter of the leading the rebel forces and their association with mistresses kept them from marching in the night with the army… they’ve passed their nights sleeping and their days in intoxication.  When they woke up and came to their senses, they felt embarrassed and amazed” (The Story of the War of Independence, 1875-58, pp 30-32).

Fazle Haq’s account is fully confirmed by the accounts of British historians, officials and spies.  Such treachery sowed confusion among the rebel forces and undermined their morale.

The same Fazle Haq, a learned and patriotic either-witness of the events, paints a similarly unpleasant picture of the life and conduct of state affairs in the Oudh court during the last phase of the revolt when the insurrectionary forces were losing to the British.  This is what he says:

“All the officers of his (Nawab’s) Government and the ministers of the state were worthless, timid and cowardly and were foolish and dishonest; they were neither wise nor trustworthy.  Amongst them were illiterates, ease-loving, impertinent, noise-making, lazy and feeble fellows and flatterers, hangers-on and sycophants.  They broke their pledges and promises… they acted as hypocrites, began to favour the Christians [ the British], joined them and helped them to achieve victory” (ibid pp 42-43).

Dual role of feudal leaders in Oudh

The words of Fazle Haq describe, without doubt, the spiritual weakness that characterised the Oudh Court and its leadership.  All the same, a proper estimation of the role of the feudal leaders in Oudh during the uprising furnishes the following picture.  In the first phase of the uprising, with a few exceptions, the big landowners joined the ranks of the rebellion but did not on the whole play an active role, adopting an attitude of wait and see which side would come out on top.  During the second phase, which commenced with Lord Canning’s March 1858 proclamation, under which the land of all except six named talukdars (landlords) were confiscated, the landlords en masse enthusiastically threw themselves into the rebellion.  During the last phase, following the fall of Lucknow, it becoming clear that the British were winning, most of the feudal leaders began seeking terms of submission with the British.  Even the Queen of Oudh, whose role had been largely patriotic, sent her emissary to the British high command while she retreated in the direction of Nepal with her remaining troops and supporters.

Thus it can be seen that feudal patriotism had two sides.  During the period of the upswing of the insurrection, through a combination of mass pressure and shared general hatred of foreign rule, the big landowners joined the uprising and played a decidedly positive patriotic role.  But when the revolutionary tide began to ebb, and the disintegration set in the revolutionary camp, the weak side of their feudal character asserted itself and they ended up acting as cowardly traitors.  Thus, as a class, they “played a dual role, neither pure patriotic nor downright selfish and treacherous” (Joshi, ibid, page 49).

Treachery of the Princely States

Fourth, in addition to the disinherited and dispossessed sections of the feudals, there were the rulers of the princely States.  Though most of them, under the pressure of a powerful anti-British sentiment that pervaded their kingdoms, and the existence of an organised faction in each court which stood for active participation on the side of the revolutionary insurrectionists, adopted an attitude of dubious neutrality, an important section of them supported the British wholeheartedly.  With the revolutionary tide subsiding, all of them rushed to demonstrate their loyalty to the British.  The role of these princely states was to prove of strategic and decisive importance in settling the fate of the revolt.  The Princes literally saved the British Raj in 1857-58 and helped to give it another 90 years’ lease of life, with all its attendant exploitation and misery for the vast masses of the Indian people.  Here are some notable examples of the timely succour provided by a disgustingly fawning coterie of treacherous Princes to the British rulers of India.  The Nizam of Hyderabad, which was crucial to the whole of southern India, dutifully lined up behind the British and prevented the South from joining the rebellion.  “If Hyderabad had risen” wrote Norton, “we could not escape insurrection practically over the whole of the Deccan and southern India” (Topics for Indian Statesmen, p.56).

The rulers of the princely States of Rajasthan, who forever boasted of their venerable and ancient lineages and martial traditions, proving to be cringing lickspittles and belying the hopes of their own subjects and of the rest of the Indian people, handed over their troops to the British for the suppression of the great revolt. “Had Rajputana risen”, wrote Malleson, “it is difficult to see how Agra could have held out, how our force before Delhi could have maintained its ground” (op cit. Vol 1, p 261).

Gwalior occupied a key position in central India. Scindia was under intense popular pressure to join the rebels, but he resisted it.  Had he put himself at the head of his own 20,000 soldiers, who were eager to join the revolt, it would have proved disastrous for the British – Agra and Lucknow would surely have fallen to the rebels, General Havelock would have been boxed in Allahabad and, having either taken the fortress there or bypassed it, Scindia’s troops would have marched through Benares on to Calcutta, for there were no British troops or fortifications to stop them (see the Red Pamphlet, page 194).  “Scindia’s loyalty saved India for the British”, wrote Innes (p 123).

The Sikh rulers of Patiala and Jind, as well as the Nawab of Karnal, put their forces and resources at the disposal of the British usurpers and undertook to keep open, with their own conscripts, the road between the main British base at Ambala and Delhi, thus facilitating the flow of reinforcements to the British troops laying siege to the insurgent capital.

On reading newspaper accounts, Marx recorded in his chronological notes thus: “Scindia loyal to the ‘English dogs’, nicht so his ‘ troopers’; Rajah of Patiala – for shame – sends large bodies of soldiers in aid of the English!” (quoted in Joshi, p 54).

Let it be remarked in passing that, though their rulers sided with the British, the soldiery of the princely States and their people had become infected with the revolutionary spirit.  The troops of the maharaja of Indore mutinied, forcing the British to quit the state.  In a most dramatic incident, when the Rani of Jhansi and Tantya Tope reached Gwalior, a large body of Scindia’s soldiers went over to their side, forcing Scindia, with a handful of followers, to flee for the safety of the British Fort at Agra.  The troops of the Maharaja of Udaipur and of quite a few other princely states of Rajasthan on many an occasion showed little willingness to fight the insurgents.  These episodes obliged Malleson to conclude:

It was plainly shown that when the fanaticism of an Oriental people is thoroughly roused, not even their Raja, their father as all consider him, their God as some delight to style him, not even their Raja can bend them against their convictions”  (op cit, Vol I, p 552).

What to leave prejudiced British historian appears as fanaticism was no less than the expression of a fiercely nationalist and patriotic anti-British sentiment, transcending, and expressing the breakdown of, traditional feudal loyalties.  As a result, during 1857, while the Princes were swearing undying loyalty to the hangmen and butchers of the Indian people, their soldiers in many cases came out as the true defenders of India’s honour and independence.  However, being still under feudal influence, the mass of the people in the princely states, while entertaining sympathy with the rebellion, awaited their rulers to lead them in the struggle against the British.  Since the Princes deserted to the British side, the masses were left leaderless and their discontent remained unexpressed, except for a few localised rebellions, which were easily brought under control.

Why did the Princes act so shamelessly?

The question arises: what made the Princes so bereft of honour and sense of national duty as to shamelessly enlist themselves in the menial service of British colonialism?  The answer lies, first, in the corroding effect of the system of subsidiary alliances, which had long trapped them all.  Under it the Company’s troops were quartered in every state and the British Resident (Agent) was the real ruler.  This system had “… a natural tendency to render the Government of every country in which it exists weak and oppressive; to extinguish all honourable spirit among the higher classes of society, and to degrade and impoverish the whole people.  The natural remedy of a bad government in India is a quiet revolution in the Palace, or a violent one by rebellion, or foreign conquest.  But the presence of a British force cuts off every chance of remedy, by supporting the Prince on the throne against every foreign or domestic enemy” (quoted by Nehru in his Discovery of India, pp 266-8).

In the second place, the British were able to use feudal divisions, mutual distrust, historic memories of the Sikhs and Rajputs against the Mughals, of the Maratha Princes against the Nizam in the South and the Mughals in the North, to their own advantage.  In short, the British successfully played the same game of divide and rule to suppress the revolt of 1857-58, which they had so successfully played in the first place in the conquest of India.  The revolt was crushed ultimately with Indian help, just as the subjugation of India had been achieved with the help of Indians.

If we knew nothing of the past history of Hindustan,” wrote Marx in 1853, “would there not be one great and incontestable fact, that even at this moment India is held in English thraldom by an Indian army maintained at the cost of India?” (The Future Results of British Rule in India).

The Roman ‘divide et imperia’ was the great rule by which Great Britain, for about 150 years, continued to retain the tenure of her Indian Empire.  The antagonism of the various races, tribes, castes, creeds, and sovereignties, the aggregate of which forms the geographic unity of what is called India, continued to be the vital principle of British supremacy”. So wroteMarx in his first article, published in the NYDT on 15 July 1857, after the great revolt had begun (Marx and Engels, page 41).

Through the planting of British residents in the capitals of the princely States, the British brought them to ruin, for one of the “duties of these officers was to foment dissensions” (Grant Duff, History of Marathas, Vol I, p.340).  The British intruders, having decided to hold India, broke the power of the native rulers “by force or by intrigue” and, following in the track of Roman politics, they adopted “a system of fattening allies as we fatten oxen till they were worthy of being devoured” (quoted by Marx in The Native States, July 25, 1858).

At the time (1858), the Indian states covered an area of nearly 700,000 square miles with a population of close to 53 million.  They had, however, now ceased to be allies but had become “… dependants of the British government upon multifarious conditions and under various forms of the subsidiary and of the protective systems.  These systems have in common the relinquishment by the Indian states of the right of self-defence, of maintaining diplomatic relations and of settling disputes among themselves without the interference of the Governor-General.

The conditions under which they are allowed to retain their apparent independence are, at the same time, the conditions of a permanent decay and of an utter inability of improvement.  Organic weakness is the constitutional law of their existence, as of all existence living upon sufferance” (ibid).

It was this system of subsidiary alliances, and the policy of divide and rule, used by the British with such devastating effect during 1857-58, that Fitchett described in the following maliciously gleeful, racist and arrogant tone:

What a demonstration the whole story is, of the Imperial genius of the British race! ‘A nation’, to quote Hodson – himself one of the most brilliant actors in the great drama – ‘which could conquer a great country like the Punjab with a Hindoostanee Army, then turn the energies of the conquered Sikhs to subdue the very army by which they were tamed; which could fight out a position like Peshawar for years, in the very teeth of the Afghan tribes; and then, when suddenly deprived of the regiments which effected this, could unhesitatingly employ these very tribes to disarm and quell those regiments when in mutiny – a nation which could do this, is indeed, destined to rule the world’” (W H Fitchett, The Tale of the Great Mutiny, pp.48-49).

The aftermath of 1857

The revolt of 1857 constitutes a historic landmark occupying the boundary line between the end of one phase and the beginning of a new one in the history of India.  As for the British side, it put an end to the East India Company’s rule in favour of the assumption of direct rule by the British Crown, thus sealing irrevocably the victory of the industrial bourgeoisie in Britain over mercantile monopoly.

Further, realising how close it had come to losing India through the alienation and disaffection of the Indian feudal elements, the British ruling class made a drastic revision of its policy towards the Indian feudal rulers.  Discarding the policy followed hitherto of attacking feudal interests, the cardinal principle of British policy after 1857 was the reconciliation of feudal rulers as the chief social base for Britain’s rule over India.  The former policy of annexations of princely states made way for the respect for “the rights, dignity and honour of native princes as our own” for the “safety of our [British] rule is increased, and not diminished, by the maintenance of native chiefs well affected to us” (see Queen Victoria’s Proclamation and Lord Canning’s Minute of 30 April 1858).  Under this new dispensation, the Indian princes were to play the role of Britain’s fifth column in India and used for disrupting the unity of the Indian people.

The process of bribing the princes began at the very height of the uprising.  As a reward for their treachery to the cause of Indian liberation, two thirds of the talukdars (big landowners) got back their estates on terms more favourable than those under which they had held them before the beginning of the revolt.  Showing indulgence towards the landlords and handing over the peasantry to their tender mercies became the hallmark of British policy after the suppression of the revolt of 1857.

Since the revolt of the Indian army had rocked British rule in India to its very foundations, the army was, following the suppression of the revolt, reorganised.  While the proportion of British troops was enhanced, the artillery was taken away from Indian soldiers.  Reserving all senior appointments for the British, the Indian regiments were reorganised on divisive communal lines, with recruitment being confined to allegedly ‘martial races’, i.e., those like the Punjabis who had been conquered by the East India Company with Indian soldiers recruited from ‘non-martial races’, who had proved so dangerous to British rule during the revolt of 1857.

On the social front, whereas prior to the revolt the British rulers had been associated with some measures of social reform, such as the outlawing of Sati and allowing widows to remarry, after the fearful experience of 1857 and with the subsequent close alliance of the British with feudal reaction, they became vehemently opposed to all progressive social reform, instead supporting everything that was socially regressive in Indian society.  Somewhat later, being forced to introduce some form of limited representation for the Indians, the British rulers instituted separate electorates for Hindus and Muslims – the first expression of the pernicious two-nation theory, which was to end in the tragic partition of India at the time of its Independence in 1947.

All to no avail

In the end, none of these measures succeeded in preventing the rout of the British Raj at the hands of the Indian people.  The memory of 1857 and the exploits of the rebels never faded away.  Even the reorganised army was never free from the memory of those heroic days, with the growth of the modern Indian national movement in the earlier part of the 20th Century, the army could hardly remain untouched by the momentous events then unfolding.  At the height of the national movement in April 1930, the Garhwali soldiers refused the order to fire on the people – Hindu troops in the midst of a Muslim crowd refused the order to shoot, broke ranks, fraternised with the crowd, with a number of them handing over their arms.  In the aftermath of the Second World War, in the midst of the rising tide of the liberation struggle, after a number of revolts in the Indian Army and Air Force, the Royal Indian Navy staged a historic revolt on 18 February 1946, forcing the British Prime Minister (Clement Attlee) the following day to announce the despatch of the Cabinet Mission to India to begin negotiating for India’s independence from Britain.

Even the English-educated intelligentsia, created by the British to secure cheap, efficient and depoliticised cadres for manning the essential lower layers of the administration, and which by and large had stayed loyal to the British during 1857-58, soon became disillusioned with the oppressive, racist and exploitative British rule.  It soon learned that the much-trumpeted British ideals of human equality and political democracy were not meant to be put into practice in India; that India had not been conquered by the British for the benefit of Indians; that India had been conquered by the British by the sword for the benefit of Britain; and that it was held by the sword solely in the interests of Britain.

The transition in the mindset of the Indian intelligentsia, from being loyal supporters of the British Raj during 1857 to being its disillusioned opponents in the aftermath of 1857, is typified by the person of Rabindranath Tagore..  In his address to mark his 80th birthday in May 1941, he made the following moving and sincere assessment of his own change of attitude towards the British rulers:

As I look back on the vast stretch of years that lie behind me and see in clear perspective the history of my early development, I am struck by the change that has taken place both in my own attitude and in the psychology of my countrymen – a change that carries within it a cause of profound tragedy.

The educated of those days had recourse to English language and literature.  Their days and nights were eloquent with the stately declamations of Burke, with Macaulay’s long-rolling sentences, discussions centred upon Shakespeare’s drama and Byron’s poetry and above all upon the large-hearted liberalism of the nineteenth century.

At the time, though tentative attempts were being made to gain our national independence, at heart we had not lost faith in the generosity of the English race.  This belief was so firmly rooted in the sentiments of our leaders as to lead them to hope that the victor would of his own grace pave the path of freedom for the vanquished…

Certainly that spirit of abject dependence upon the charity of our rulers was no matter of pride.  What was remarkable, however, was the whole-hearted way in which we gave our recognition to human greatness even when it revealed itself in the foreigner …

I naturally set the English on the throne of my heart.  Thus passed the first chapter of my life.  Then came the parting of ways accompanied with a painful feeling of disillusion when I began increasingly to discover how easily those who accepted the highest truths of civilisation disowned them with impunity whenever questions of national self-interest were involved” (quoted by J Nehru in his Discovery of India, pp. 276-278).

Material basis

The material basis for the change in perception and attitude of the Indian intelligentsia towards British rule was furnished by the economic developments in the subcontinent following changes in Britain’s policy for exploiting India. It was already becoming clear before 1857 that India could no longer simply be looted and its productive capacity destroyed with reckless abandon, in the way the Company had been wont to do.  For India to be a continuing source of profit to the triumphant industrial bourgeoisie in Britain, its productive powers had to be developed, for Britain could not continue to export her products – cloth in particular – without importing products from India.  And, in order for India to be in a position to export, her productive capacity had to be literally built anew after the devastation caused by a century of the Company’s misrule.  This is how Marx, with his inimitable prescience, stated the position nearly four years before the outbreak of the great revolt:

The ruling classes of Great Britain have had, till now, but an accidental, transitory and exceptional interest in the progress of India.  The aristocracy wanted to conquer it, the moneyocracy to plunder it and the millocracy to under sell it.  But now the tables are turned.  The millocracy have discovered that the transformation of India into a reproductive country has become of vital importance to them, and that, to that end, it is necessary, above all, to gift her with means of irrigation and of internal communication” (Marx, ‘The future results of British rule in India’, New York daily Tribune, 8 August 1853, in Marx and Engels on India, p.35).

After the suppression of 1857, Britain had no choice other than to take important economic measures to develop India’s economic powers.  The matter acquired added urgency when the American Civil War followed hot on the heels of 1857.  During this War, with the Union forces blockading the Confederates, the supply of cotton from the southern slave states to the Lancashire cotton mills all but ceased.  Finding alternative sources of cotton made the question of turning India into a major producer of cotton a matter of urgent and unprecedented necessity. What is more, cotton had to be not just produced but also taken to ports hundreds of miles away before being exported to Britain.  This required the construction of a vast network of railways – doubly needed as the British had found during the fateful years of 1857-58 how difficult it had been for them to transport troops, war materiel and other supplies in their absence.  Thus it was that Britain was forced to revive the productive powers of India through the introduction of steam, railways and irrigation systems.

Whereas prior to 1857 Britain had succeeded in breaking down “…the entire framework of Indian society, without any symptoms of reconstitution yet appearing”, with the result that this “…loss of his old world, with no gain of a new one” imparted “a particular kind of melancholy to the … misery of the Hindu,” and separated “Hindustan, ruled by Britain, from all its ancient traditions, and from the whole of its past history”.  Britain had also succeeded in destroying Indian agriculture through neglect of public works.  “British steam and science uprooted…the union between agriculture and manufacturing industry”, said Marx (see ‘The British Rule in India, 10 June 1853, Marx and Engels, pp. 16 and 18).

A social revolution

The period of regeneration, of reconstitution, was to begin in earnest in the aftermath of 1857.  Both in the destruction of the old Indian society – the village system – and laying the basis for the regeneration of India, Britain was “…actuated only by the vilest interests, and was stupid in her manner of enforcing them”.  All the same, despite all her crimes, Britain “…was the unconscious tool of history” in bringing about a fundamental revolution in the social state of India (see Marx, op.cit. p.21).

Every measure taken by the British to ensure an efficient administration of the country, to exploit it more thoroughly, in the end served to undermine British domination of, and rule over, India.  The political unity of India imposed by the British bayonet, augmented by the electric telegraph, steam, railways and irrigation, and with it the beginnings of India’s industrialisation, the organisation of the Indian army on modern European lines, the introduction of the press and the creation of a native intelligentsia “endowed with the requirements for government and imbued with European science” – all these in the end turned out to be so many sources of revolt against British rule.  Of course, the British ruling class undertook, inter alia, the construction of a network of railways in India, principally for the purpose of securing, at much reduced cost, cotton and other raw materials for processing into their manufactures in Britain.  But machinery, once introduced into the locomotion of India, a country richly endowed with iron and coal, cold not but lay the foundations for its fabrication in that country, for it is not possible “…to maintain a net of railways over an immense country without introducing all those industrial processes necessary to meet the immediate and current wants of railway locomotion, and out of which there must grow the application of machinery to those branches of industry not immediately connected with railways.  The railway system will therefore become, in India, truly the forerunner of modern industry” (Marx, ‘The future results of the British rule in India’, July 1853, Marx and Engels p.37).

Marx was fully aware that the economic measures which the British bourgeoisie was forced to undertake were not sufficient in themselves either to emancipate or even cause material change in the social conditions of the masses of India.  For that to happen, in addition to there being development of productive forces, the latter had to be appropriated by the people.  What he thought was beyond doubt, however, was that the British bourgeoisie was laying down “…the material premises for both,” adding “Has the bourgeoisie ever done more?  Has it ever effected progress without dragging individuals and peoples through blood and dirt, through misery and degradation?” (ibid. p. 38).

Marx was rightly of the view that for the Indians to harvest “…the fruits of the new elements of society scattered among them by the British bourgeoisie,” either the British bourgeoisie had to be overthrown by the industrial proletariat of Britain or the Indians had to prove strong enough to throw off the British yoke altogether.  All the same, Marx was enthused at the prospect of India’s regeneration, the material basis for which was then beginning to be laid by the British rulers, even if out of the vilest and most selfish of motives.  He expresses himself on this score with great gusto in the following, almost gushing, terms:

At all events, we may safely expect to see, at a more or less remote period, the regeneration of that great and interesting country, whose gentle natives are, to use the expression of Prince Saltykov, even in the most inferior classes, ‘plus fins et plus adroit que les Italiens’ [more subtle and adroit than the Italians], whose submission even is counterbalanced by a certain calm nobility, who, notwithstanding their natural languor, have astonished British officers by their bravery, whose country has been the source of our languages, our religions, and who represent the type of ancient German in the Jat and the type of the ancient Greek in the Brahmin” (ibid.).

New centres of opposition

Surely, if slowly, events turned out just as Marx had predicted.  The steps taken by the British rulers created two new powerful centres of opposition to British rule – the bourgeoisie and the proletariat – in addition to the newly reorganised Indian army.  During the second half of the 19th century began the process of formation of an Indian bourgeoisie.  1853 saw the establishment of the first successful cotton mill in Bombay.  A quarter of a century later, by 1880, there were 156 mills employing 44,000 workers.  By 1890 the number of mills had increased to 193 and the workers employed in them to 161,000.  By 1930 the number of workers employed in factories, mines, on railways and in water transport was 3.2 million, and the number of factories stood at 8,148  (see R P Dutt, India Today, Victor Gollancz, London, 1940, p.497).  The textile industry from its outset was mainly financed and controlled by Indians and had to struggle for its existence against great difficulties put in its way by British competition and the British rulers of India alike.  The clash of economic interests between the Indian rising bourgeoisie and the British bourgeoisie came to the surface in 1882 when the authorities abolished all duties on cotton imports into India as demanded by the Lancashire manufacturers.  Such a measure could not fail to hurt the interests of, and cause great resentment among, the rising Indian bourgeoisie.

At the same time a new educated layer of petty-bourgeois intelligentsia, composed of lawyers, doctors, teachers and administrators, well-versed in western education and imbued with the ideals and conceptions of democratic liberty and citizenship, was increasingly appearing on the scene.  Although both these developments – capitalist industry and the new intelligentsia – were small to begin with, nevertheless a new class had sprung up which was surely to find in the British bourgeoisie a competitor and an obstacle to its own progress.  This new class was to become the first, and more or less articulate, expression of Indian national claims and provide leadership to the anti-British struggle.

Meanwhile, the second half of the 19th century witnessed the growing impoverishment and despair of the vast peasant masses, resulting from the cumulative process of penetration by British capital.  If in the first half of the 19th century there took place seven famines, which claimed the lives of 1.5 million people, the second half of the century experienced 24 famines in which 28.5 million Indians perished.  This situation led to peasant uprisings, especially in the Deccan (south of the country).

Thus from the 1870’s onwards conditions had been created that served as a sure foundation for a truly modern Indian national movement.  There now existed a bourgeoisie and a proletariat, both small but growing, and a vast mass of impoverished peasantry – all discontented and angry, and all correctly attributing their miserable lot to the policies and actions of the alien rulers.  No wonder, then, that 1885 saw the formation, under the guidance of an English administrator, A O Hume, of the Indian National Congress, albeit as a safety valve to safeguard British rule against the Indian people’s then impending revolutionary struggle.  In view of the rising tide of anger against British rule, British imperialism itself was forced to take the hazardous, if mild, step of setting up, through Hume, for the rising Indian bourgeoisie, a platform from which to articulate its demands and at the same time to act as an organ of opposition to a truly revolutionary anti-imperialist and anti-feudal programme and revolutionary methods of struggle to fulfil it.  The Indian bourgeoisie, through the Congress Party under Gandhi’s leadership, fulfilled this two-fold despicable role very successfully indeed – in conflict with the British bourgeoisie and desiring to provide leadership to the anti-British struggle, yet shunning like the plague all revolutionary programme and methods which might end up sweeping away its own privileges along with those of British imperialism.

The honour of pursuing a genuinely anti-imperialist programme, and employing revolutionary methods of struggle, belongs to the revolutionaries of the Ghadar Party (the Party of Revolt), formed in April 1913, the Hindustan Republican Association (formed in January 1925) and its successor the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (formed in 1928), the Indian working class and peasantry.  Through a combination of brutal suppression and show trials of the revolutionaries on the one hand and making concessions to the Congress Party, the representative spokesman of the Indian exploiting classes, British imperialism succeeded in frustrating the anti-imperialist and anti-feudal struggle of the Indian people, with the result that the end of the British Raj was followed by the partition of India, the establishment of two independent states following communal strife and mass slaughter, with these states ruled by exploiting classes, in which the interests of the vast masses were totally ignored, and continue to be ignored to this day.  What British imperialism could not succeed in achieving, however, was in preventing India slipping out of its grip altogether. And this, in no small measure, is attributable to the glorious events of 1857-59, the first Indian War of Independence, and the political and economic measures that the British rulers were forced to institute in its aftermath.

For their part the Indian people drew entirely different conclusions from the events of 1857-59 for the next phase of their liberation struggle.  Seeing that the princes and a large number of feudal landlords, whom they had previously regarded as their natural leaders, had betrayed them in 1857, the masses of the people concluded that, in order to be successful, their struggle had to be anti-feudal as well as anti-British.

Inculcation of national consciousness

What is more, the revolt of 1857, as well as the brutal suppression of it by the British authorities, managed to inculcate in the masses the conception of India as the common home of all Indians. Prior to 1857, love of one’s country meant no more than the love of one’s own principality ruled by a traditional ruler.  The feudal rivalries and historic memories of local conflicts between neighbouring rulers came in the way of the realisation of such a conception as India being the home of all Indians.  More importantly, the material foundations to underpin such a conception – the telegraph, the railways, steam, irrigation and machine industry – had not yet been laid.  The revolt of 1857 helped greatly in the growth of such a conception.  The Times of London noted the rise of this conception in the following terms:

One of the great results that have flowed from the rebellion of 1857-58 has been to make inhabitants of every part of India acquainted with each other. We have seen the tide of war rolling from Nepal to the border of Gujarat, from the deserts of Rejputana to the frontiers of the Nizam’s territories, the same men overrunning the whole of India and giving to their resistance, as it were, a national character.  The paltry interests of isolated states, the ignorance which men of one petty principality have laboured under in considering the habits and customs of other principalities – all this has disappeared to make way for a more uniform appreciation of public events throughout India”.  Somewhat contradictorily, The Times concludes:  “We may assume that in the rebellion of 1857, no national spirit was roused, but we cannot deny that our efforts to put it down have sown the seeds of a new plant and thus laid the foundation for more energetic attempts on the part of the people in the course of future years” (quoted by Savarkar, op.cit., pp. 534-535).

It is not true that no national spirit was roused in the rebellion of 1857.  In fact, what marks out 1857 from all previous anti-British wars is that whereas in previous wars people of a single principality or nation fought against the British (the Bengalis at Plassey, the people of Karnataka led by Tipoo Sultan in Karnataka and Mysore, the Sikhs in Punjab), in 1857 by contrast, people over a large part of India and belonging to several nationalities, religions and castes, coming from different kingdoms, rose together, in a unity hitherto unprecedented, to end British rule.  In the words of Marx:

Before there had been mutinies in the Indian army but the present revolt is distinguished by characteristic and fatal features.  It is the first time that the sepoy regiments have murdered their European officers; that Mussalmans and Hindus, renouncing their mutual antipathies, have combined against the common masters; that disturbances beginning with the Hindus, have actually ended in placing on the throne of Delhi a Mohammedan Emperor; that the mutiny has not been confined to a few localities” (‘The revolt in the Indian army’, 15 July 1857, Marx and Engels p. 42).

Even the Governor-General and Viceroy, Charles Canning, in a communication of 8 August 1859 to Charles Wood, Secretary of State, was obliged to observe that the “…struggle we have had has been more like a national war than a local insurrection.  In its magnitude, duration, scale of expenditure and in some of its moral features, it partakes of the former character” (quoted in Mahdu Prasad, People’s Democracy, 19 August 2007).

The later use of the term ‘mutiny’, instead of a national war, was yet another myth perpetuated by the victors to present this national war as a minor disturbance of the peace, and its brutal suppression and the subjugation of the Indian people as a supposed return of peace and business as usual.


As a matter of fact, in the historical context of India’s liberation struggle against British rule, what needs to be emphasised “is not the limitation and narrowness of the 1857 uprising but its sweep, breadth and depth” (P C Joshi, 1857 in our history).  Of course, there were negative aspects already enumerated above which led to the defeat of this national revolt.  All the same, the events of 1857 left a lasting impression on succeeding generations of freedom fighters.  The British rulers were never to rest easy after 1857, which acted as a continuing source of inspiration to the modern national liberation movement in India, which broke out in the early years of the 20th century.  The Ghadar revolutionaries, linking themselves to, and regarding their struggle as a continuation of the Ghadar (revolt) of 1857, named their party after it. This revolutionary tradition was carried on by Bhagat Singh and his comrades of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association, as well as the then newly-emerging working-class and communist movement in India.  Such was the sweep of the 1857 revolt, such was its inspiring effect on subsequent generations, such was its hold on Indian national thought and consciousness, that even a historian like Dr R C Mazumdar was constrained to conclude his study of the revolt with the following words:

The outbreak of 1857 would surely go down in history as the first great and direct challenge to the British rule in India, on an extensive scale.  As such, it inspired the genuine national movement for the freedom of India from British yoke which started half a century later.  The memory of 1857-58 sustained the later movement, infused courage into the hearts of its fighters, furnished a national basis for the grim struggle, and gave it a moral stimulus, the value of which it is impossible to exaggerate.  The memory of the revolt of 1857, … hallowed with sanctity, perhaps did more damage to the cause of British rule in India than the revolt itself” (The sepoy mutiny and the revolt of 1857, p.279, quoted in Joshi, op.cit, p.9).

The memory of 1857 continued to haunt succeeding generations of Indian freedom fighters. In 1944, in a ceremony held in Rangoon at the tomb of Bahadur Shah, the last Mogul ruler whom the British had exiled to Burma after the suppression of the Great Revolt, members of the Indian National Army, vowed to free the country from British colonialism.  In his call to arms, Subhash Bose recalled the slogan of the 1857 heroes – the road to Delhi is the road to freedom.  And in 1947 it was from the Red Fort, the headquarters of the 1857 revolt, acknowledged throughout the subcontinent as the symbol of India’s pre-colonial sovereignty, that the flag of an independent India was hoisted.

While fully acknowledging that the Independence of India under the leadership of the Congress Party, and that of Pakistan under the Muslim League, did not bring in its train the economic liberation of the masses; while recognising thus the mutilated character of this independence, it was nevertheless an event of historic proportions, which set in train the process of post-Second World War decolonisation of scores of countries in Asia and Africa.  Inter alia, with the loss of India, the British bourgeoisie lost its position of being the pre-eminent colonialist and imperialist power and had to accept the role of a junior partner of US imperialism.

For the people of the Indian subcontinent, a new chapter opened up – that of their struggle for economic and social emancipation, a struggle which is carrying on and which, by a number of intermediary links, connects itself with the glorious spirit of 1857 and the heroic exploits of its participants, as well as those of subsequent generations who were inspired by the memory and legacy of those momentous days.  It is precisely because of this that we continue to honour and cherish 1857, with its spirit of revolutionary patriotism, courage, unflinching defiance and self-sacrificing heroism.