History repeats itself, we are often told, and we do not learn enough from it.
History repeats itself, we are often told, and we do not learn enough from it.
In 1857, it was desperate and deprived ex-soldiers of an alien, colonising army who led a large disaffected population in rebellion. For several months the British colonial “State” had no authority in large swathes of what it claimed as its territory. Look at a map of India today, and the scenario is no different. The Prime Minister himself has declared Naxalism as the “greatest threat to our internal security”. And while security experts may moan about the Maoist Menace, the Red Corridor is a reality. And while they create frenzy and manufacture the monsters of Islamist insurgency, the complete disenchantment of the Kashmiri people with the Indian State is just as real. Pause a moment to look at the peripheries of this geo-physical entity we call Republican India, in the North East and elsewhere, and you will see that one can argue that the writ of the state does not extend beyond three fourths of its self-claimed boundaries.
And in 1857 too the British never stopped claiming that they still owned the country.
We are now in the sixtieth anniversary of the hell of Partition, in the 150th of the great Ghadar. We are, as one eminent writer put it recently, an ancient people trying to be a modern nation. It is then an opportunity for reflection; a time to remember and re-engage with the highs and lows of our turbulent voyage through the birth pangs and adolescent pains of post-colonial nation building.
India is often touted as the “world’s largest democracy” It is also described sometimes, and not entirely inappropriately as ‘a functioning anarchy’. This is not a chimera, but evidence, as it were, of an inner resilience: a trait which has helped India survive, an endurance, in sharp contrast to not only her Asian neighbours, but several other post-colonial states across the globe.
Experts have often attributed this inherent tenacity to ‘safety mechanisms’ enshrined in the Constitution. It is, of course, an exemplary document. It promises liberty and equality, endows universal adult franchise, guarantees the right to free speech and expression.
None of this is, however, evidence that the Indian state has always been a benign, liberal or tolerant instrument of governance. The fact is that the same constitution also contains an elaborate system of controls and restrictions, concentrating enormous power in the hands of the state. To the Oriya tribal who is losing his land because some one wants to mine the ore from the bowels of the earth below the very place where his ancestors have been nurturing crops for centuries, the Greater National Good must appear as distant and incomprehensible as Permanent Settlement did to an Awadh peasant.
Colonial rule left us destitute and decrepit. But the British were aliens, we recognised their intentions. We did not expect better.
While we celebrate the anti colonial movement in all its avatars, we must remember that the British dubbed our heroes rebels and renegades.
Six decades of so called self-rule still leave us confronting fundamental issues of inequity and social friction. This is a grim reminder that behind modern India’s survival is not just responsive government or simply a long run of good fortune. Rather, at its core are constant interventions by various groups from civil society. Direct action by citizens, especially in negotiation with the ‘state’, is as vital to the practice of democracy as voting is on Election Day.
Republican India has fortunately had a robust tradition of ‘direct action’, of resistance, protest and agitation. These have been led by student unions and political parties, by peasants and industrial workers, by artists and media practitioners. It is a tradition that has defied authority and contested policy.
In the mainstream discourse, these are the very people who are almost always dubbed anti-national anarchists. Notice the parallels?
We also know that the British were at their brutal worst when they retook the contested territories from the rebels in the aftermath of the Ghadar. In his Dastan e Ghadr, Zahir Dehlavi, a Darogah at the Lal Qila, has written1:
"When I came to the side of the Jama Masjid, I saw such a huge pile of dead bodies that for a moment, I thought it was a wood-sellers stack. More dead bodies were scattered all around the Killih Bazaar and the lanes between the masjid and the kotwali."
The scale of this violence is corroborated by British evidence as well. Edward Vibart, a 19-year-old artillery officer wrote in a letter to his uncle2:
"The regiment was ordered to clear the area between the Dilli and Turkman Gates, and the orders were to shoot every soul. I think I must have seen 30 or 40 defenceless people shot down before me. It was literally murder and I was horrified".
That was the brutal colonial power removing all obstacles in the way when it wanted to acquire something for itself. Today in Republican India, in this largest of the world’s democracies, the state-sponsored violence unleashed against those who protest to merely protect their way of life and their livelihoods is almost identical.
On January 2 2006, 12 adivasis, part of a larger group to protest a bhumi pooja conducted by Tata Steel in Kalinganagar, Orissa, were shot dead by local police. Eyewitnesses have said that the firing was unprovoked.
According to a PUCL report of the incident3:
"That day, with the help of the administration, the Tatas undertook the programme of leveling the land where their plant was to come up. Top district officials, including SP and DM, were present. People of the area had assembled to protest. Coming sporadically from several villages, their numbers had gradually swelled to 300-400, including women and children, some of them carrying bows and arrows, tangias (a kind of pick axe) and other traditional weapons, customarily carried by tribal people. They were assembled on the adjacent fields to the site, close to Champakoila village. By all accounts, the mobilisation of the police was massive, around 10 platoons, that is around 300 policemen, requisitioned by the SP for overseeing the levelling of a piece of land. They had come prepared for combat, for a decisive show of strength, armed and battle ready."
This is just one incident. The British administration refrained from calling the Ghadar a Revolt. Republican India disguises its internal wars in other terms; it has an arsenal full of draconian laws, which it unleashes on its citizens. POTA, TADA, and AFPSA – their acronyms read eerily like launching codes for ballistic missiles. All this is aided by the mainstream media, which has invented an equally chilling new lexicon-encounter, insurgent, crossfire, police self defence.
Yes, the echoes of contemporary India with the Ghadar are still reverberating.
If that was colonial exploitation fuelled by economic greed and dressed in a larger notion of unifying a people and rescuing them from their ‘backwardness’ – contemporary India’s tryst with globalisation is no better: it is corporate greed dressed up as a battle against poverty. Resistance is combated yet again brutally. It is time to perhaps reactivate a word that went out with Pol Pot – Auto Genocide: the mass killing of your own people.
The Ghadar ended with the British Crown formally taking over the Government of India. The current scenario is a call to action – It is resistance that must be globalised. It is not alarmist to say that we are in danger of losing our nation all over again.
S Gautham is a researcher and producer of documentary films. His writings have appeared in The New Statesman and Himal Southasian, as well as in the online journals countercurrents.org and indiatogether.org.
- Quoted in William Dalrymple, The Last Mughal, the fall of a Dynasty, 1857 , New Delhi, Penguin India 2006.