The Third International after Lenin

Thursday, November 25, 2010

First War of Independence of Indian people against colonial rule

War of Independence of 1857 and Democratic Revolution in India

Written by cpimlnd
Tuesday, 24 April 2007

On the 150th anniversary of the First War of Independence of Indian people against colonial rule it is both relevant and necessary to discuss some aspects connected with the struggle. Despite their differences with each other, the common opinion of the parties of ruling classes is that the First War of Independence of 1857 reached its logical conclusion with the transfer of power in 1947 (which they hold to be “independence”.) Here they conveniently ignore that in 1947 the British colonial rulers transferred power to those very classes who had sided with the colonial aggressors in the War of independence of 1857-59 or those the colonial rulers had nurtured after crushing the peoples revolt. In a sense the transfer of power of 1947 was not the completion of the War of Independence of 1857 but the continuing in modified form of the colonial rule victorious in the war of 1857-59. The independence struggle of the people continues even now in today’s concrete conditions.

At the root of the understanding of the ruling class parties, supported and nourished as they are by imperialism, is their evaluation of the character of colonial rule. The praises showered on colonial rule by Manmohan Singh is in accordance with this evaluation. Yes, this much is there that the politicians of ruling classes used to avoid openly praising their masters as shamelessly as he did.

The question in context of the War of 1857-59 is whether the British colonial rulers were destroying feudalism in India and thus the War of 1857 was merely a feudal reaction against this. The basic question in relation to the above understanding is whether there were no processes of democratization in Indian society? Did the colonial rule, despite all its atrocities and destruction, democratize Indian society? With this outlook, the War of 1857-59 becomes a reactionary campaign, not a war of independence. This understanding takes colonial rule to be a synonym of destroying feudalism and building capitalism in India. It is another matter that the task of democratic revolution is not over even after 150 years of 1857, and the task of democratization of society is still on the agenda. In short, the issue is, with the victory of which forces in the war of 1857-59 was the task of democratic transformation in India associated?

Was the British colonial rule in India really a campaign to establish capitalism after destroying feudalism? When the colonial rule actually began in the first half of the 18th century, India was a feudal society pregnant with capitalist forces. Spinning and weaving was the occupation second to farming in which people found employment in large numbers. The muslin of Dacca was renowned throughout the world. Cottage industry was widespread on a countrywide scale and many people depended on it for a livelihood. Mineral resources were also used according to the needs of the society.

The British destroyed native industry completely. This was necessary to ensure use in India of mill products from Britain. With the start of British colonial rule the use in India of British goods increased very fast and many figures are available to show this. Textile industry in India was completely destroyed and this was not only due to competition between goods but was done through barbaric repression and atrocities whose hair-raising accounts are available in large numbers. In Capital, Marx had termed the uprooting of weavers in India the biggest human tradegy till that time. Weavers, carpenters, blacksmiths and other artisans became victims of unemployment on a large scale. In the proclamation on 25th August 1857 of Mughal prince Firoz Shah the state of artisans is mentioned and it is furthur stated that the entry of English goods snatched the livelihood of spinners, weavers, carpenters, blacksmiths, shoemakers etc. and made the artisans beggars in every way. The inflow of English goods into India finished off all possibilities of capitalist development in place of capitalist development of the country. Even today the ruling classes of India are showing a mirage of development leaning on imperialist capital. Actually by destroying the capitalist forces with which feudal India was pregnant the British did not ‘democratize’ India but rather tried to finish off any possibilities of this. By finishing off the industries of India the colonial rulers spread the use of industrial goods from British mills. In this way they prepared an economic basis for an alliance with feudalism.

The British colonial rule is synonymous with the cruelest loot. The British rulers looted the then rulers of the country as well the people and carried away all the resources to Britain. The British colonial rulers showed the way of capitalist development in Britain by leaving India penniless and of making Britain the biggest power of the world of that time.

The colonial rule targeted for plunder not feudalism but the whole agricultural system of India. The tax on land was significantly raised and peasants were dispossessed in the event of non-payment. The economic burden on both peasants and landlords was increased so much in order to intensify loot that large tracts of land became barren. According to SB. Chowdhry “heavy rent increased taxes and made the peasants destitute. In many parts of the country rent was settled at very high rates.” At the same time there were rent free areas in the country on a large scale. All rent free areas were declared ended and a period of terror against them was launched. Each piece of land was brought into the tax nexus. In order to increase its income the Company also used the method of direct extraction from peasants but altogether burden of tax and rent on the peasantry increased. The echo of the exploitation of the peasantry on such a large scale was heard even in England when Disraeli commented on it in a parliamentary debate. The British L.L.S. Omelie wrote referring to a report “I can challenge that one third of land in company ruled areas of India has become a jungle in which only wild animals live”.

By auctioning the possession of farmers and landlords who did not pay the high rents to the colonial rulers a web of usury capital was laid out in the country. In the struggle of 1857-59 these too were attached in many places. Altogether colonial rule made agriculture a special target of its exploitation due to which the situation of the peasantry become quite pitiable. This was an attack not on feudalism but on Indian agriculture and its aim was to intensify colonial loot of the country.

Historians and writers have collected many examples of the impoverishment of the people of India by this destruction of Indian industry and by especially targeting agriculture for exploitation. Macaullay’s own admission is in these words, “Delicate women, who had never ventured out of their homes and never seen the sun, touched the feet of passerbys, spread their hands and begged for a fistful of rice Scores of corpses of the hungry were swept in the Hoogly river past the mansions and gardens of the British to disappear into the sea.”

Renowned poet Ashraf Ali Khan ‘Fuga’ described the impoverishment of the people of the country in words which captured the piteous condition of the people. Marx has mentioned the destructive effects and the regeneration in the context of colonial rule in India. The British colonial rulers gave full effect to the destruction of the country. Of the other aspect Marx said “The Indians will not reap the fruits of new elements of society” till “in Great Britain itself the now ruling classes shall have been supplanted by the industrial proletariat” or till they “themselves shall have grown strong enough to throw off the English yoke all together. Marx said the situation of the Indian people was one of losing an old world and not getting a new one. The sympathy of Marx and Engles was with the war of independence of 1857-59 because only by “fully overthrowing the yoke” of British colonialists did they see the road for the regeneration of India.

The widespread participation of the people in the war of independence of 1857-59 can be easily understood in the context of their impoverishment by colonial rule. However in this the role of the peasantry and the peasant in uniforms (sepoys) was main. Despite this the intellectuals of the ruling classes of India either opposed this or understood it mainly as a revolt of feudals. Bankimhandra Chatterjee, Ram Mohan Roy, Sir Syed Ahmed openly criticized the war. Savarkar did call it the war of independence of India but mainly described the role of feudal rulers in it. Jawaharlal Nehru wrote, “Essentially, the revolt was a feudal outburst headed by feudal chiefs and their followers and aided by the widespread anti foreign sentiment.” (The Discovery of India)

Here it is important to state that not only was there no feudal king at war with the British at the start of the war, but rather it is only because of the support of the feudal kings that British could maintain their rule over India. Scandia, Holkar, Thzam, Nawab of Rampur, Begums of Bhopal, Maharaja of Patiala, the Ranas of Nepal and many feudals stood with the British and the war of independence of 1857 had divided the feudal forces. A big section was with the British while the feudals opposing colonial rule jumped into the war. The war of independence of 1857-59 was fought between the British colonialists and their supporters on one hand and the people of India including some feudals on the other. Those who refute war of independence by showing the handful of participating feudals should remember : “The first blow dealt to the French monarchy proceeded from the nobility, not from the peasants.” (Karl Marx, On Colonialism)

The main force of the war of independence of 1857-59 was the peasantry and the war extended against the pro English feudals also. However, it was not an anti-feudal peasant war but a war against colonial rule. In this context the comment of some writers are guilty of exaggeration. Even so, the support extended by major part of the feudals to the British exposes this false propaganda that this was a mere revolt by feudal forces.

The war of independence declared Bahadur Shah Zafar as the Emperor of India but the aim of the war was neither to restore the old Mughal Sultanate, and nor did the circumstances to do so exist. In this context a reference to the letter written by Bahadur Shah Zafar to several kings is relevant: “It is my fervent desire that the foreigners should be thrown out of India using all means and at any cost. It is also my fervent desire that the whole of India should be freed from the foreigners. After throwing out the British from India I have no desire to rule for my own importance. If all you native rulers are ready to take up arms to throw out the enemy I am ready to give up my kingly powers to any elected group of native kings”.

The most important issue in context to the war of independence of 1857-59 is its evaluation in view of social progress. Colonial rule which crushed living forces of Indian society could not be the harbinger of regeneration of India. Colonial rule along with feudal forces destroyed both, the industries and capitalism developing in feudal society and pushed the peasantry into a cycle of prolonged exploitation and backwardness. The main burden of the failure of the war of independence of 1857-59 fell on the peasantry and on artisans. Colonial rule tightened its collaboration with feudals because this was the reactionary section which could be of assistance in Colonial loot and plunder, could become the social base of colonialism and was incapable of existing independently from colonial rule. The social progress of India was only possible by uprooting the colonial rule along with its supporters.

Comprador capitalists and feudals in the twentieth century made use of the anti colonial struggle to extract concessions from colonial rulers. After the weakening of imperialism following 2nd world war and in the context of the world wide intensification of anti colonial struggles, the comprador capitalists and feudals betrayed the independence struggle and reached an agreement for transfer of power with British imperialism. With this India changed to a semi colony from a colony and the alliance of imperialism – comprador bureaucrat capitalism – feudalism began exploitation and plunder of people of the country. The aim of democratic revolution in India was to uproot imperialism and its compradors but in 1947 the comprador classes reached an agreement with imperialism and foiled this struggle.

Today too the exploitation and plunder of India by the alliance of imperialism – comprador bureaucrat capitalism and feudalism is continuing. The people of India are writhing under the loot of imperialist exploitation and feudal loot. The natural resources and labour of India are being exploited for the benefit of multinational companies of imperialist countries and comprador big corporates. The major part of the people of the country are victims of extreme poverty, impoverishment and backwardness. It is only by uprooting the ruling classes that this situation can be got rid off. That is, only by new democratic revolution in the country can a new India be built. Even today the enemies of revolution in our country are imperialism and its compradors.

This is the relevance of the war of independence of 1857. The freedom struggle of 1857 is incomplete even today and can be completed only by agrarian revolution under the leadership of the working class.

(Translated from Hindi, Pratirodh Ka Swar, February, 2007)

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