On the 165th Anniversary of the Great War of Indian Independence — the Ghadar of 1857

The struggle continues today against those who are dividing us and exploiting and plundering our land and labour

The 10th of May this year marked 165 years since the soldiers of the East India Company stationed in Meerut marched to take control of Delhi. It was the beginning of the Great Ghadar, a war for independence from the illegitimate, oppressive and self-serving rule that an English trading company had established over vast territories of the Indian subcontinent.

People from all walks of life united to overthrow the oppressive Company Raj. They rose above all differences of religion, caste, language and culture. The toiling kisans and artisans in numerous parts of the subcontinent, tribal peoples, traders, scholars, religious heads, patriotic kings and queens participated in the armed uprising. They united around the aim of establishing a new state in which the people of this subcontinent will determine their own destiny. They displayed death defying courage as they entered the battlefield with the words on their lips: Hum hain iske maalik, Hindustan humara! (India is ours and We are her Master!)

The historic significance of the Ghadar of 1857 is that it smashed the myth that the people of this subcontinent, divided into different religious and caste communities, were incapable of uniting against their oppressors

The reason why the experience of 1857 is relevant today is because the exploitation and plunder of the land and labour of our country are continuing, in spite of colonial rule having come to an end almost 75 years ago. It is relevant because the people of India continue to be victims of the divide and rule principle, which was established and consolidated by the British Raj.

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The East India Company had started with trading activities in this subcontinent in the early 17th century. By the first half of the 18th century, it had started to conquer territories, by cunning exploitation of contradictions between rival kingdoms in the subcontinent, by bribing traitors, and by befriending, inciting and betraying various kings and princes. By the 1850s, the Bengal, Bombay and Madras armies of the East India Company consisted of about 2,00,000 Indian soldiers and 38,000 English officers.

The land and labour of all the people in this subcontinent were being exploited and plundered for the benefit of the capitalists of England, leading to famines and widespread misery. The desire to end this condition brought together people from all corners of the subcontinent.

On 12th May, Bahadur Shah Zafar, who the revolutionary forces had proclaimed to be their chief representative, issued the following shahi firman (royal decree):

To all the Hindus and Mussalmans of India, taking my duty to the people into consideration at this hour, I have decided to stand by my people. … It is the imperative duty of Hindus and Mussalmans to join the revolt against the English. They should work and be guided by their leaders in their towns and should take steps to restore order in the country. It is the bounden duty of all people that they should, as far as possible, copy out this Firman and display it at all important places in the towns. But before doing so, they should get themselves armed and declare war on the English”. 

Bahadur Shah also issued another firman which warned the people:

The English will try to raise the Hindus against Mussalamans and vice versa. Do not give heed to what they say, drive them out of the country”.

People rose up with arms in hand in more than 20 cities, which were the major centres of production in British India. They captured large tracts of northern India including Awadh. The majority of soldiers in the Bengal army of the East India Company rebelled against their officers in command and joined the revolutionary forces.

The Ghadar shook the very foundation of British rule over India and became the centre of political debate in London and all over the world.

The fact that people united in action, across the length and breadth of this subcontinent, had thoroughly shaken the British rulers. Until then, they had believed that the differences among the people of India, in terms of language, religion and caste, would prevent them from waging a united struggle for an end to colonial rule.

Dividing to conquer and dividing to rule were the principles which had guided the British bourgeoisie in establishing their Indian empire. In 1822, Lieutenant Colonel Coke, the then Commandant of Moradabad under the Company Raj, had written, “Our endeavour should be to uphold in full force the separation which exists between the different religions and races, not to endeavor to amalgamate them. Divide et Impera should be the principle of Indian government”. ‘Divide et impera’ means Divide and Rule.

The British rulers displayed unprecedented ferocity against the fighters for Indian independence, both during the period of the uprising and in the years following its suppression. They hanged to death tens of thousands of patriots, one for every tree that lined the Grand Trunk Road from Peshawar to Kolkata. Whole cities were looted, unarmed people were massacred and villages razed to the ground. Millions of people from the Awadh region were forced to flee to other parts of India, to escape the reign of terror. Some historians have estimated that one crore (10 million) people, over 5 percent of the population of British India at that time, were massacred by the colonial rulers in 1857-58. It took more than a year for the British troops to suppress the mass uprising and regain control over the Indian subcontinent.

The British rulers also carried out a genocide of Indian culture. They destroyed entire libraries of our people, to erase the thought material created by Indians over thousands of years. They banned the publication of any book on the Ghadar by any Indian author, and published distorted accounts of it by British authors.

After suppressing the Ghadar of 1857, Queen Victoria issued the proclamation of 1858, replacing the rule of the East India Company by the direct rule of the British state. The British bourgeoisie began to build political institutions and an education system which reinforced the divisions among the people and were designed to prevent another united mass uprising. They promulgated laws to declare the British plunder of India as legitimate and the striving of Indian people for national liberation as a crime.

The British bourgeoisie hid the fact that people cutting across religious beliefs united in the Ghadar of 1857. They promoted the lie that it was a “revolt of the Mussulmans”. They organised the slaughter of patriots in collaboration with various traitorous Maharajas. This state organised communal slaughter of people was then falsely attributed to people of other religious beliefs.

The communal outlook, of considering Indian people as consisting of a Hindu majority, a Muslim minority and other minority religious communities, was deliberately made the basis of the laws of the land. Lord Curzon, Governor General of India (1895-99) and Viceroy (1899-1904) was told by the British Secretary of State for India, George Francis Hamilton, that they “should so plan the educational text books that the differences between community and community are further strengthened.”

Those propertied and titled Indians who collaborated with the British rulers were rewarded with land and industrial licences. The British bourgeoisie recognised that it was in their interest to encourage the growth of capitalists and landlords among Indians, in whose interest it would be to perpetuate the colonial system. They sponsored the formation of political parties of these propertied classes, such as the Indian National Congress and the Indian Muslim League. In the early 20th century, they introduced a process of electing members of provincial legislative bodies, in which Congress, Muslim League and other such parties could field candidates, and in which educated and propertied Hindus and Muslims would vote in separate communally divided electoral constituencies.

In order to deepen the communal divide, the British rulers created the impression of favouring Hindus at one time and favouring Muslims at another time. The truth is that they oppressed and plundered the land and labour of all the Indian people, irrespective of their religious beliefs. It was only a minority of self-serving traitorous elements who were given privileges and benefits under the British Raj.

The Partition of India in August 1947, based on the religious identity of people and involving the division of the nations of Punjab and Bengal, was the greatest crime committed by the British colonialists against the Indian people and our united struggle for liberation from colonial yoke. Two countries — India and Pakistan — were created on the communal foundations established by the British colonialists, in order to ensure the continued exploitation and plunder of our land and labour by domestic and foreign capitalists.

The Indian ruling class has deliberately spread the lie that the people of a particular religious community are responsible for the partition of India. The truth is that it is the British imperialists who were responsible for the Partition.

The reason why Divide and Rule remains the principle of government, and why state-organised communal violence remains a preferred method of rule, is because the nature of the state did not change in 1947. The big capitalists of India, allied with the big landlords and traitorous royal families, took the place of the British bourgeoisie. The economic system, the state structure, the laws, coercive instruments, administrative machinery and methods of rule have all been retained to serve the interests of the Indian bourgeoisie.

The political process of parliamentary democracy serves to maintain the rule of the bourgeoisie. People have no role in making the laws and policies. A tiny minority of about 150 monopoly capitalists are imposing their will on 140 crore Indians. Super-exploitation and plunder of the land and labour of India, by Indian and foreign capitalists, has continued till today.

The Ghadar of 1857 gave birth to the idea of India as an independent state in which the people would be the master. Today, 165 years later, the struggle is continuing for realising that vision and aspiration, which was betrayed in 1947.

The Ghadar defeated the attempts of the British rulers to set people of different religions against each other. A similar challenge faces us today. We have to defeat the plots of the ruling bourgeois class to break our fighting unity. We must draw inspiration from the fact that crores of toiling and thinking people of India united in 1857 against their common enemy. It shows that it can be done.

We, the people of India who aspire to bring to an end the scourge of communal violence and ensure prosperity and protection for all, must carry forward the program which the martyrs of 1857 began. This is the program of building an India in which the people are empowered, where every individual is treated as an equal citizen and human being, where those who toil enjoy the fruits of their collective labour, where the economy is self-reliant and oriented to fulfil human needs and not capitalist greed.

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