Saturday, February 03, 2007

Remembering 1857…. Some issues (had this published in the Economic Times, February 3, 2007)

The celebrations observing the 150th anniversary of the events of 1857 is now cause for some political debate in Delhi. And unlike the instances in the recent past, where the debates were triggered by the BJP and other arms of the RSS, the one this time is between the Congress party and the CPI(M). In that sense, the controversy is not marked by the usual charges of any diabolical designs.

This is not to say that there is nothing diabolical about the BJP’s acts while in power to revise curriculum in general and history writing in particular.

The CPI(M) has disputed the Congress party’s claims to monopoly over a legacy that belongs to the communists as well. And the party has decided to establish its own claim over that legacy by observing the anniversary in its own way. Well. Both the Congress party and the CPI(M) were founded years after the events of 1857; the Congress, as we all know came into being in 1885, the CPI in 1924 and the CPI(M) in 1964.

Let that be as it is. The issue is not whether the leaders of any of these parties were involved in the events of 1857. A legatee, in the historical sense, is not determined in the same way as it is in the legal sense and hence need not depend on a will or by birth. Claims to a legacy, in the historical sense, is determined from an ideological lineage; in other words, recalling the past is done in order to invent the present from the point of view of the future. And in that sense, the CPI(M) should not attempt to claim the legacy of 1857.

This does not, in any sense, mean that the legacy of 1857 belongs to the BJP or any other arm of the RSS. And this is a valid statement notwithstanding the fact that it was Vinayak Damodar Savarkar who first called the 1857 events as the First War of Indian Independence. Savarkar’s approach to the events of 1857 is only one more instance of the many inconsistencies he had with the larger Hindutwa ideology that unfolded during his own time and after.

Savarkar, for instance, was an atheist. He refused to belong to the RSS. And he called the events of 1857 that culminated in the crowning of Bahadur Shah Zafar, last of the Moghuls as Emperor against the British East India Company and its Governor General. This being the fact, there is a serious infirmity in the RSS and its outfits celebrating Savarkar now. The RSS notion of Indian nationalism, formulated by M.S.Golwalkar, after all, traces back India’s subjugation to Mohammed Ghazni vandalizing Somnath. The struggle for freedom, for the Sangh, hence, began with every bit of resistance since then and through the battles fought by Maharana Pratap and Chatrapathi Shivaji.

And then, it claims to Tilak’s legacy because his association with the Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations. This claim is not contested by a section of the nationalist and secular historians only because they have their own problems with Tilaks resort, even if it was only symbolical, to religious traditions for mobilizing opinion against the British. All this should do to establish that the RSS and its outfits too have nothing in common with the legacy of the events of 1857.

Insofar as the Indian National Congress (not the same as the Congress party of the present) is concerned, it makes sense to recall Jawaharlal Nehru’s assessment of the events of 1857: ``Essentially’’ says Nehru, ``it was a feudal outburst, headed by feudal chiefs and their followers and aided by the widespread anti-foreign sentiments.’’ And he goes on: ``Inevitably it looked up to the relic of the Moghul dynasty, still sitting in the Delhi palace, but feeble and old and powerless.’’ Nehru then stresses: ``It brought out all the inherent weaknesses of the old regime, which was making its last despairing effort to drive out foreign rule… There was hardly any national and unifying sentiment among the leaders and a mere anti-foreign feeling, coupled with a desire to maintain their feudal privileges, was a poor substitute for this.’’

Nehru certainly cannot be accused of being less nationalist than Sonia Gandhi, his daughter Indira’s daughter-in-law. And the Indian National Congress, of which he was an integral part until its transformation into the Congress party in August 1946 (when the Interim Cabinet, he headed, came into place), was indeed committed to this view that 1857 did not represent the idea of independence. Lest it be mistaken, the roots of the idea of independence, even from Nehru’s approach are to be found in the defeat and the destruction of the old order, based on feudal values, in 1857.

It is another matter that with the transformation of that Indian National Congress into the Congress party and that of Nehru from being the agitator into independent India’s Prime Minister, the agenda was revised. And the regime that he presided over did as much as it could (and achieved a large measure of success too) to accommodate and preserve many aspects of the feudal order. This is evident from the prominent role that some descendants of the old kingdoms play in the party’s affairs and also that of the nation even now. This, incidentally, is true of the BJP as much as it is with the Congress. And it is only natural that these parties would want to celebrate 1857.

But then, it is strange that the CPI(M) is now upset over its exclusion from this ``national’’ celebration of the 150th anniversary of 1857, an event in history that was essentially a last ditch effort by the old order. Those who romanticize the past and resist modernity are dismissed as Narodniks by the officials in the party otherwise. Prakash Karat, incidentally describes those who celebrate the cause of the farmer in Singur and hence oppose the acquisition of farm lands for industrial use as Narodniks!

2 Comments:

Blogger Nandhu said...

couple of typos apart, great blog sir. good to see that u are publishing ur work again. there was no break, u might say, i presume.

9:07 AM  
Blogger vikas said...

It's true that the CPI(M), which is definitely a modernist organisation, and the Congress, cannot claim the legacy of 1857. The RSS cannot also do so for the reason that it does not accept the legacy of the Mughals as a possible building block of the Indian nation -- which the sepoys did. But the one event of greased cartriges is a legitimation of the entire cow protection movement of the Arya Samaj-Hindu Sabha-RSS ideological fraternity.
And, Sir, I disagree with you a bit about Savarkar. He moved over time from some sort of a composite nationalism to Hindutva -- term that he himself coined, and which has become the corner-stone of the Sangh's understanding of India. It is noteworthy that Godse had left the Sangh in 1932 and had become associated with Savarkar's Hindu Mahasabha as he found the RSS too mild. Savarkar was the most virulent anti-Muslim Hindu nationalist in his later days and some of his statements, like the one saying that Shivaji was afflicted by a false sense of chivalry when he guarded Muslim women against his own men, are the high-point of Hindu fundamentalism.
Moreover, in Savarkar's early phase, the colonial historical understanding of the Medieval period as one of incessant Hindu-Muslim strife was uncontested. Even the modernist Gokhale believed this -- as is evident from a speech he made before a Bombay Muslim gathering in the 1890s. It was only after 1910 that nationalist scholars constructed the discourse of composite culture, with Akbar as its icon.

10:43 PM  

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