Freedom did not come at midnight

The principal architects  of India’s independence are not the usual suspects.

A  persistent Indian myth gleefully accepted as truth by the country’s liberals  and Macaulayites – a class of people western in outlook but Indian in looks –  is that freedom came too easy. The British, the myth goes, after ruling India  for 190 years, became so tired of the responsibilities of running an empire  that they simply wound up their empire and left.

Yeah,  right! This myth would be laughable if it weren’t so sinister. Though it was  clearly invented by the British to cover their ignominious and hasty retreat  from India, millions of Indians have been brainwashed into swallowing the myth  wholesale. Many Indians believe M.K. Gandhi used the weapon of non-violence and  shamed the British colonialists into leaving India, and since then both  countries have been best friends.

Freedom  didn’t come overnight. It was obtained at a great cost – the sacrifice of  millions of Indian lives. Contrary to the belief that the British period was a  time of great stability, India was in fact roiled by uprisings and rebellions  everywhere, virtually throughout colonial rule.

The  First War of Independence of 1857 was the biggest uprising against the British.  The sweep of the war covered nearly the entire country and for months India was  turned into one massive battlefield. Britain came perilously close to losing  its most prized possession: India. (Dr B Ambedkar considered the 1857 Mutiny to  be a revolt by Muslims to reestablish their rule over India - Editor.)

In War of Civilisations: India AD 1857, Amaresh Misra, a writer and  historian based in Mumbai, argues that there was an “untold holocaust” which  caused the deaths of almost 10 million people over 10 years beginning in 1857.  Speaking to The Guardian newspaper, Misra said, “It was a holocaust, one  where millions disappeared. It was a necessary holocaust in the British view  because they thought the only way to win was to destroy entire populations in  towns and villages. It was simple and brutal. Indians who stood in their way  were killed. But its scale has been kept a secret.”

After  the British re-conquered India, The Guardian itself wrote about the  savage retribution that followed: “We sincerely hope that the terrible lesson  thus taught will never be forgotten.”

Here’s  what the writer Charles Dickens remarked: “I wish I were commander-in-chief in  India … I should proclaim to them that I considered my holding that appointment  by the leave of God, to mean that I should do my utmost to exterminate the  race.”

The  Vellore Mutiny of 1806 predates even the war of 1857 by half a century. The  revolt, which took place in the south Indian town of Vellore, was rather brief,  lasting only one full day but brutal, as mutineers broke into the Vellore fort  and killed or injured 200 British troops, before they were subdued by  reinforcements from nearby Arcot.

Again,  in 1824, Rani Chennamma, the queen of the kingdom of Kittur in Karnataka, led  an armed rebellion against the British. The queen, born 56 years before 1857  leader Rani Laxmi Bai, was the first woman to fight against the British.

From  1858 to the beginning of 1900s the British enjoyed some semblance of stability.  This can well be described as the time when they undertook the task of the  destruction of thriving Indian industries, including spinning, weaving and  metallurgy, as well as agriculture and trade.

Angered  by the havoc being wreaked by the British, the revolutionary forces now  gathered for a new phase of struggle. They derived inspiration from the cult of  nationalism preached by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Swami Vivekananda and others  during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Chatterjee’s soul-stirring  cry of Vande Mataram or Hail to the Mother, which he penned in 1882, became the  hymn of nationalism.

The  spark for a full-fledged struggle came in 1905 with the launch of Swadeshi –  the refusal to buy foreign goods and the promotion of indigenous industry. This  massive pan-Indian movement aroused the spirit of nationalism. It was Veer  Savarkar who first lit the bonfire of foreign clothes in Pune on 7th October  1905. (Ironically, MK Gandhi, who much later became the leader of the freedom  struggle, criticized that action from far away South Africa although he himself  did precisely that sixteen years later.)

While  the educated classes were fighting the British through Swadeshi, violent  outbreaks were happening all over India. In Jharkhand, Birsa Munda led a long  struggle directed against the British. In 1914 Jatra Oraon started what is  called the Tana Movement, which drew the participation of over 25,000 tribes  people. In 1920, the Tana Movement stopped the payment of land taxes to the  colonial government. The fire of revolution spread even to the Indian rulers –  the Raja of Darbhanga at great risk fully supported the resisting farmers. In  the tribal tracts of Andhra Pradesh a revolt broke out in August 1922. Led by  Alluri Ramachandra Raju, the tribes people of the Andhra hills succeeded in  drawing the British into a full-scale guerrilla war.

A  hugely popular force was the Khaksar Movement founded by Allama Mashriqi in  Lahore. Mashriqi wanted no compromise with the British. Comprising Muslims,  Hindus and Sikhs, the Khaksar had four million members and thousands of offices  all over India. Its activities for mobilising the nation included holding  parades in public places, staging mock wars, organizing training camps and  striving to create a strong brotherhood of Muslims and non-Muslims in order to  jointly overthrow foreign rule. Mashriqi and his young sons were arrested and  tortured.

Both  Hindus and Muslims were more than willing to unite against the British, as they  demonstrated by joining the Indian National Army of Subhas Chandra Bose. It  demonstrated to the British that there was no safety for them in India. The  British were feeling the heat at home too. Bhagat Singh exploded a bomb in the  British Parliament. The revolutionary Uddham Singh went to the UK and  assassinated Michael O’ Dwyer, the British Lt Governor of Punjab, for the  murder of over 2000 unarmed men, women and children in Jallianwallah Bagh.  While General Reginald Dyer, who personally supervised the massacre of the  peaceful gathering, had boasted in court he would do it again, O’ Dwyer had  called his action “the right thing”.

Meanwhile,  the British, addicted to the easy loot from India, even as millions of Indians  were dying in manmade famines, were not prepared to leave. As Neville  Chamberlain put it clearly: "The astonishing gold mine that we have  discovered in India’s hordes has put us in clover.” Churchill was adamant. “I  have not become prime minister to preside over the demise of her majesty’s  empire,” he said.

But  after the Second World War, the momentum of the freedom movement led to growing  militant actions that weakened British authority in an irreparable way.  According to M.G. Agrawal in his four-volume Freedom Fighters of India, “In  February 1946 the Indian Navy declared an unprecedented strike. It quickly drew  support from the Indian crews of all the 20 vessels anchored in Bombay port;  20,000 naval ratings revolted.” The British panicked because the single biggest  factor that facilitated colonialism was the military.

Clement  Atlee, the British Prime Minster, who decided to finally quit India, told chief  Justice P.B. Chakrabarty of the Calcutta High Court that the principal reasons  why Britain decided to quit India was the erosion of loyalty to the British  Crown among the Indian army and navy personnel.

According  to Fenner Brockway, political secretary of the Independent Labour Party of  England, the two major causes of Britain’s hasty exit from India were: “One,  the Indian people were determined to gain independence. Two, was the revolt by  the Indian Navy.”

Indian  soldiers, whose brilliant performance on the battlefields of Europe had won  them grudging praise from the British as well as the Germans, had seen  firsthand the collapse of the British in the face of the German challenge,  which exploded the myth of the invincibility of British arms. Indeed, US Army  generals like Bradley and Eisenhower had expressed contempt for the British  Army's fighting skills.

Britain  was also in steep decline. London had been nearly destroyed by the German  Luftwaffe and V-2 rockets. The Russians and Americans were the new superpowers,  and both wanted an end to colonialism. The British had no stomach for a fight  with Indians and were looking for a face-saving exit from India.

Independence  came through the indefatigable spirit of our revolutionaries rather than the  mere transfer of power at midnight.

(Rakesh  Krishnan Simha is a features writer at Fairfax New Zealand. He has previously  worked with Businessworld, India Today and Hindustan Times, and was news editor  with the Financial Express.)

Also read:
1. Did Gandhi’s Ahimsa get India freedom
2. Gandhi, Ahimsa and Christianity
3. Who was responsible for Partition
4. How India became a poor country

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