This is not an article about the recently released film, Sardar Udham, or the power-packed and understated performance of Vicky Kaushal. The movie was a good watch, intense and engrossing as a biopic ought to be and searing in its indictment of British colonial rule. The only minor blemish is its extended and gory depiction of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. The impact of the massacre would have been driven home with a shorter sequence. The biggest takeaway from the film is its indirect and oblique indictment of several contemporary Indian historical narratives that underplay the impact of revolutionaries like Subhas Chandra Bose, Bhagat Singh and Udham Singh on British colonial strategies. The film also shines a light on the failure of traditional Indian historiography to assess the countervailing impact of the more publicised non-violent freedom movement over the several violent expressions of angst amongst the Indian people, and its bearing on British rule.
Beyond a chapter or two, I do not recall having read much in school about the various violent and militant expressions against British rule beyond the rather disparaging analysis of the 1857 Revolt, which was showcased as a failure and a manifestation of a divided India. The narratives that influenced many young Indians like me were the building of the road-railway-telegraph network by the British; or the Quit India Movement, Dandi March or the several imprisonments of Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi in urban prisons, and not the trials, tribulations and even torture of prisoners like Udham Singh, or those incarcerated in the Andamans. Seminal events such as the Indian Naval uprising of 1946 and other violent acts of defiance by youth across the country have been subsumed by an Anglicised pedagogical system that drew heavily from colonial archives. Making matters worse was the inability of vernacular historiography to contribute to the predominantly Oxbridge and Delhi-centric histories churned out since Independence.
The propensity of traditional Indian historians to overplay the impact of the non-violent movement, which had its roots in a hybrid value system that combined a westernised model with spiritual Indian moorings, suited the exit strategies of India’s colonial masters in several ways. First, it allowed the sun to set gently on the empire and helped the British retain significant influence in the subcontinent for decades. Second, imagine if events like the assassination of Governor Michael Dwyer; the Naval Revolt; a widespread violent uprising against the trial of the INA leaders; or the organised expression of dissent by the tens of thousands of troops of the Indian Army led by well-trained Indian officers coerced the British out of India. There has been little discussion on whether such events could have prevented the British from influencing events such as the Partition or continuing with the Great Game during and after the first India-Pakistan conflict in 1947-48.
The impact would have been huge and was anticipated by prescient British generals like Claude Auchinleck, who transmitted their fears to Whitehall soon after WWII ended. That London appreciated this possibility and sped up the transfer of power to a political dispensation that was largely trained by them and heavily influenced by Western liberal thought, is testimony to the strategic foresight of an erstwhile great power.
War and conflict as waged by states are nothing more than sophisticated and organised violence, and the apparatus that states build to wage war is largely dictated by the strategic elite. India’s emerging strategic posture and its ability to intellectualise the conduct of war as a legitimate instrument of statecraft in the post-Independence era, was, to a large extent, shaped by the intellectual DNA of a well-meaning, well-educated and unrealistically altruistic set of leaders who overestimated the impact of the non-violent freedom struggle on nation-building. Consequently, the flavour of deterrence that emerged in independent India was one of diffidence clothed in the garb of restraint and responsibility. This is not to glorify the use of violence in inter or intra-state conflict. Nor to undermine the achievements of India’s founding fathers, who laid the foundations of a vibrant democracy.
By consigning the more militant and military events that dotted India’s struggle for independence to the sidelines, the British shaped a significant part of the larger historical narrative even as they left India. It is in this context that Sardar Udham is a “must watch” for every Indian to understand “other” narratives of India’s freedom movement.
This column first appeared in the print edition on October 21, 2021 under the title ‘Remembering Udham Singh’. Arjun Subramaniam is the President’s Chair of Excellence at National Defence College, New Delhi and the author of India’s Wars and Full Spectrum
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