The people of India commemorate with great pride the 10th of May as the anniversary of the Great Ghadar against the rule of the British East India Company. On this day in 1857, soldiers of the army garrison in Meerut raised the banner of revolt against the British. They marched to Delhi and, with the backing of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the Mughal ruler, proclaimed their intention to drive out the British from India. They called on people from all communities, and across the length and breadth of the country, to join them. Hum hai iske malik, Hindustan hamara (India is ours, we are its masters) was their powerful rallying call.
Within a short time, the uprising spread like wildfire all across northern, central, eastern, northeastern and southern India. The British power in the subcontinent very nearly collapsed, as its own armies backed by the masses of people turned their guns against them. It was the largest uprising anywhere against British power in the nineteenth century, at a time when it was in its heyday. Using unparalleled brutality and terror, the British succeeded in eventually crushing the struggle. Nevertheless, the Great Ghadar of 1857 has remained a powerful force inspiring our people in their struggles for emancipation ever since then.
Right at that time, Karl Marx recognised and hailed the uprising as India’s First War of Independence. It was clear that this was a movement that involved people from different regions, religions, and different classes and strata of society. Its aim was not to restore the privileges of a few, but to build a new Hindustan that belonged to its people. This was deliberately covered up by the British colonisers, who tried to diminish its significance by calling it just a “sepoy mutiny” of the Bengal Army which was all over in a few months. The bourgeois rulers of India after the end of colonial rule also have downplayed the significance of the Great Ghadar. Their class came to power in 1947 by striking a deal with the British and maintaining intact most of the structures of oppression and exploitation of our people that the colonialists had developed. It was in their interest not to bring out the real emancipatory character of the 1857 uprising, its patriotic and democratic ideas and its vision for India.
Contrary to how the British tried to portray it, the 1857 uprising did not arise from a vacuum or from the discontent within one army regiment. Masses of people in villages and towns across India, and tribal peoples, had fought numerous battles against the British and their oppressive rule and exploitative practices for many decades. Before the outbreak of the revolt, efforts had been on for months to mobilise people to rise up against the British occupiers. This was the context which enabled a revolt that began in one regiment in May 1857 to assume the character of a pan-Indian uprising against foreign rule.
Once the flag of the Ghadar had been planted in Delhi, the fighting sipahis promptly proceeded not only to organise the conduct of the war against the British, but also to set up the basis of a new state power that was neither the restoration of the Mughal state nor an imitation of British power. This shows that they were farsighted people whose vision extended beyond the aim of defeating the British.
A military council was set up which issued a six page document that could be called the ‘constitution’ of the new government, and which included a twelve point program. Among other things, it proceeded to set up a court of administration to look after matters of governance, which elected its president and vice-president. The court of administration had two representatives each from the infantry, cavalry and artillery sections of the army, and four civilian members who were elected. Each member was in charge of a department and was assisted by a committee of four other members. The committees would deliberate and make recommendations but decisions were taken by the majority of the members who had one vote each, except for the president who had two votes. The Mughal emperor had the right to sit in on the court’s meetings, and had to give his approval to its decisions, but the decisions were taken by the court of administration.
This new type of state power had to remain in embryonic form because the fighters had to constantly wage war against the savage and cunning enemy. This left them with little time to consolidate and further develop the new power. Yet this shows that the people of India, in rising up against the British, drew upon their own democratic traditions and genius to put forward a new system in which they would be the masters.
The British colonialists tried to make out that the rebellion was confined to certain parts of northern India and to certain regiments. In particular, they claimed that Punjab was ‘loyal’ to them. The facts show that there was revolt in many parts of Punjab against the British at this time. Similarly, it is said that the uprising did not extend to southern India. On the contrary, many rebellions took place in this region which, even though they were not mainly in the army, involved different sections of the people. The rebels in this region were aware of the ghadar taking place in the north and sought to coordinate their struggles with it.
This was without doubt a mass uprising of the soldiers and peasantry, tribal peoples, artisans, urban population and patriotic people from various sections, who united across religion, caste and regional differences with the aim of throwing out the foreign invaders. The uprising did not end in September 1857, when the British forces retook Delhi. It continued in various forms in different parts of India for a number of years thereafter. Even afterwards, it remained a source of inspiration for the Indian people, and for all patriots and revolutionaries who have fought for freedom.
Although the rulers of India after the end of British colonial rule in 1947 never held the British imperialists to account for their crimes, the Indian people have never forgotten the utter savagery that they unleashed against the heroic fighters of 1857. It has been calculated that roughly 7% of the Indian population, or 10 million people were killed on account of British atrocities against the people at this time! Whole regions of the country were depopulated for many years afterwards, to the extent that British colonial officials later complained that they could not find enough labour for their projects in many districts. Delhi and other cities were laid waste with great vindictiveness. The representatives of a power that claimed it was bringing ‘civilisation’ to India used the most barbaric methods to suppress the uprising. This included blowing fighters from the mouth of cannon and hanging them from rows of trees along the roads. This shows what a threat this ‘mutiny’ posed to the powerful British empire.
Although the sustained struggles of our people compelled the British colonisers to leave India in 1947, the aims for which the heroes of 1857 fought were not realised in full. The Indian big bourgeois class which had collaborated with the colonial rule became the new masters. They have continued to oppress and exploit the workers, peasants and ordinary people using most of the same laws and institutions that the British had used to keep our people down. A version of the British Westminster system of government continues, which only serves to give the illusion of democracy while keeping the people away from the real exercise of power. The wealth and resources that belong to the people continue to be siphoned off to benefit the exploiters here and abroad. The struggle for real emancipation, begun by the fighters of 1857, continues. In this struggle, the ideas and example of the Great Ghadar of 1857 continues to provide lessons and point to the way ahead.