The 75th year of India’s independence is, of course, a moment of celebration but it should not pass on with mere sloganeering, stereotyped publications, festive programmes and the exaggerated glorification of the icons and incidents from the freedom struggle. This would be a missed opportunity to reread our own history. The occasion should be used to not only critically understand the anti-imperialist struggle, but also to know the many socio-cultural and political processes which expanded its social base. The magnitude of the history of India’s freedom movement is bigger than we know. Rigorous and consistent efforts to unravel and interpret historical events and the forces behind them strengthen their power to deliver a message to posterity. Hegemonic writings deplete the capacity to ferret out critical ideas and make icons out of a few actors. Similarly, the institutionalisation of ideas, the only source of success in achieving India’s freedom, makes the present a prisoner of the past while obstructing the progressive evolution of thought processes. The Indian freedom movement was a battle of ideas that gave it a sense of modernity and also the quest for its own civilisational strength, which was demonstrated by its resilience against the efforts of the European mind to culturally subjugate the people.
Understanding the freedom struggle and colonial forces constitutes the basic paradigm for post-colonial India. Everywhere, colonialism masked itself as social transformation. This gave it the space for socialisation with the local elites and progressives. Moreover, in politics, it used the negotiation table for a meeting between unequal forces. It sought to end the abhorrent leadership of the exploited masses and exhibited pseudo-sympathy for the colony. This was a strategy to delegitimise those who considered colonialism a demon to be defeated by force. There are commonalities between the “marginalised” and “discredited” ideas and forces battling against the British regime in India and the anti-imperialist ideas and leadership of the African mainstream. For instance, forces like the Forward Bloc and the Indian National Army (INA), both formed by Subhas Chandra Bose, and the RSS, along with the revolutionaries, despite their differences in socio-economic perspectives, campaigned and acted to dethrone the British regime and made violence moral. At the same time, there was counter indoctrination of the masses against their ideology and programmes by the mainstream leadership. Nevertheless, they survived and played their role as the nationalist grassroots. This is obvious from certain historical instances.
Despite the unbounded reverence for Mahatma Gandhi, the masses rejected his silence on the hanging of Bhagat Singh. Another instance is no less important. In the Tripuri Congress session in 1939, Bose was re-elected as the president of the INC. His subsequent resignation is important for understanding the evolution of internal democracy of social and political organisations.
It is aptly said that history does not explain, it has to be explained. Both the Gandhian and revolutionary movements had their own understanding of colonialism as well as post-colonial India. Anti-imperialist thinker Frantz Fanon’s argument that colonialism was not a thinking machine but the state of brute violence does not need much rigour to be proved. Baji Rout of Odisha, merely 12 years old, was killed by British bullets for his anti-colonial demonstration. Tileswari Barua of the same age met a similar fate in Assam. Seven teenagers who hoisted the tricolour at the Patna Secretariat were killed by the British police on the orders of district magistrate W G Archer on August 11, 1942. There are innumerable painful and unforgettable instances that are ignored or are footnotes in history books.
Freedom does not put an end to the colonial impact on a post-colonial society. Although Gandhi was a daring anti-colonialist who wanted indigenous ideas to supplant the colonial ones, the influential leaders of the freedom movement remained the social partners of colonialism. Gandhism was frequently and fervently quoted, but rarely practised.
This was reflected in independent India. We became lazy decolonisers and consumers of European ideas. On August 19, 1959, G Ramachandran, a veteran parliamentarian, and on November 3, 1965, M P Bhargava, asked India’s sovereign government why the statues of Queen Victoria, King Edward and King George remained on Indian soil. On September 5, 1969, Dattopant Thengadi asked the government in the Rajya Sabha why the symbols of the British crown were still there on the pillars of North Block and South Block. It showed a disregard for the emotions and pains of innocent Indians who had sacrificed their lives for the motherland. Another instance is more glaring. On November 22, 1966, Atal Bihari Vajpayee expressed anguish over the imprisonment of Mohan Ranade, who fought against Portuguese colonial rule in India, and was awarded 25 years imprisonment after being arrested. He asked why the government at the time of Goa’s liberation sent back 3,500 Portuguese prisoners without demanding Ranade’s repatriation.
The Gandhian movement, based on non-violence, expanded with the help of violent resistance and the indoctrination of the masses by the nationalist grassroots. Teachers and religious leaders worked to invigorate Indians’ sense of self and gave enormous strength to the freedom movement. There are umpteen stories. Dadoba Pandurang’s A Hindu Gentleman’s Reflections Respecting the Works of Swedenborg (1878) or Col U N Mukherjee’s Hinduism and the Coming Census (1910) and prabhat pheris, melas, plays and religious festivals acted as patriotic catalysts to expand anti-imperialism. The INC failed to go beyond politics. Tilak’s Ganesh and Shivaji festivals or Ramnarayan Basu’s Hindu Mela were discredited by Marxist historians for creating a divisive discourse in the nationalist movements. This is an example of the fractured understanding of anti-colonialism.
This column first appeared in the print edition on August 14, 2021 under the title ‘Reading our freedom struggle again’. The writer is a BJP Rajya Sabha member.