1857 Revolt and the philosophy of Nationalism – A Critique

via M. P Ajith Kumar published on December 16, 2008

Irrespective of their
nationalities, many thinkers considered nationalism as a religion. Philosophy
has accepted it as a creed. To history it is one of the corner stones of
cultural evolution. Wars were fought and won for it. It has down the millennia
left its ever-lasting impression on the ever-shifting sands of the ages gone



one of the
leading philosophers of patriotism had it that God has written each line on the
brow of every nation, the line that reads out its mission. According to him
Nations are born with a mission, which is inscribed by God “upon the
cradle, the past life, the national idiom and physiognomy of each…Nations do
not die before they fulfill their mission…You cannot destroy them by denying
that mission”.
Nationalism was to him a universal religion soaked in
love and truth, an incarnation of the divine which binds everything with the
chord of the highest principle. “God and the people, the fatherland and
humanity, are the two inseparable terms of the device of every people striving
to become a nation”,


firmly believed, and exhorted his people:


Love your country. Your
country is the land where your parents sleep, where is spoken that language in
which the chosen of your heart blushing whispered the first word of love; it is
the home that God has given you, that by striving to perfect yourself therein,
you may prepare to ascend to him. Give to it your thoughts, your counsels, your
blood. Raise it up, great and beautiful as it was foretold by our great men.
And see that you leave it uncontaminated by any trace of falsehood or of servitude;
unprofaned by dismemberment. Let it be one as the thought of God.


Mazzini considered nationalism as a means to attain the Divine, another
philosopher of nationalism from India,
an admirer of him, did hold the same view. India’s the idea of nationalism was
philosophized, given the divine hallow by her most noted patriot saint, Sri
who took nation as the incarnation of the divine. According to
him “nation is Parasakthi [supreme
energy] concealed in geographical entity”.
He wrote:


Nation is a persistent
psychological unit which nature has been busy developing throughout the world
in the most various forms and educating into the physical and political unity…
Nationalism is an Avathar or incarnation and cannot be slain. Nationalism is a
divinely appointed sakthi of the eternal and must do its god-given work before
it returns to the bosom of the universal energy whence it came.


Addressing the members of the National
Union, Bombay
he said:


There is a creed in
India, which calls itself nationalism … Nationalism is a religion that has come
from God … You must remember that you are the instruments of God … Nationalism
has come to the people as a religion, and it has been accepted as a religion.
But certain forces, which are against that religion, are trying to crush its
rising strength. It always happens when a new religion is preached, when God is
going to be born in the people that such forces rise with all their weapons in
their hands to crush the religion … Nationalism has not been crushed.
Nationalism survives in the strength of God and it is not possible to crush it.
Nationalism is immortal; Nationalism cannot die … God cannot be killed; God
cannot be sent to jail.


Aurobindo’s address before the national Union, Bombay, 19 January 1908]


the earliest of the world literatures, the Vedas are eloquent on the idea of
the nation, which they define as self-effulgent (rAjadIpthau), the
incarnation of the universal spirit, the infinite energy, the source of all the
cosmic existence.
Ramayana well equates the motherland with mother herself.
What Rama said to Laxmana before his return trip from Lanka to Ayodhya is worth


abhI svarnamayI lanka namErOchatE laxmanA

jananI janmabhUmischa svargAtapi garIyasi


Motherland and the Mother Goddess have thus been the trinities to the devotees
of the nation as we later find in the history of India, when in modern times
patriots like Rishi Bankim Chandra developed such a highly sublime idea of
nationalism with the mother of his vision holding trenchant steel in her twice
seventy million hands, the repository of infinite potential.


while looking towards some of the movements we usually study in connection with
India’s freedom fight from such a celestial height of the idea of nationalism
as envisioned by the philosophers of patriotism many objective questions stir
our integrity, sincerity and genuineness.

How far an enlightened
nationalistic thought dawned to most of the leaders who participated in these
struggles or on what reason and in which circumstances many of them had come
forth to fight the British, or were at least some of those whom we now eulogize
as patriots not enthusiastic in replacing the British with the pre-British
invaders and their new generation, are indeed questions with contextual
relevance. Or could we consider any movement as the part of India’s freedom
struggle just because it was anti-British?
These are truly the objective
doubts that naturally haunt any inquisitive researcher. Because if we tend
to see anything and everything as the foundations and expressions of
nationalism the coming generation would naturally fail to distinguish between
what is nationalism and what is not, a state that would dig the graveyard of
nationalism and the nation.
Those who take fifth
columnist for patriots are as foolish as Indian National Congress, which
trucked with the Khilaphatists to fight for the national independence.

Just as a nation has its cultural nationalism it has a national community too
and it is highly deplorable and suicidal that the Indians still fail to
recognize these two.


Nationalism is not a madness to be prejudicially dealt with
but something to be analyzed with reason and unattachment.

statements are made by however much reputed a scholar, whether it is India’s
nationalist historian Ramesh Chandra Majumdar or a staunch patriot as Vinayak
Damodar Savarkar, should always be evaluated only after ascertaining their
objectivity and accuracy. The students of history, as Dr. Majumdar said, are
pilgrims to the shrine of the Goddess of truth. Indeed these kinds of thoughts
on history make us analyze the nature of 1857 Revolt in the light of the
patriotic backgrounds of those who are said to have spearheaded it.


history writing often makes the writers fall wide off the mark, they being
compelled by the requirements and political considerations of those in power,
and especially in a ‘reserved’ democracy like India which gives communal and
sectional reservations these historians are bound to keep half part of the
effort for the nation’s freedom struggle reserved for certain communities.

If such a style was followed, historians like Majumdar knew, truth would spread
its wings and fly off our textbooks. In fact many of the textbooks on 1857
Revolt could be placed against the backdrop of this reality. And definitely it
was this fact that compelled them to leave the government history writing and
take to their own personal effort so that they could write history of India’s freedom
struggle with as much objectivity as they could, their freedom from applying
the principles of communal reservation in writing history apart.


these historians with patriotic outlook and objectivity, Ramesh Chandra
Majumdar is prominent and his History of Freedom Movement in India, even
as controversies in regard to the nature of 1857 Revolt raged down the
preceding times, still remains with its factual accuracy and objectivity
unchallenged. It was this objectivity that helped him identify and critically
judge each and every personality involved in the revolt and led him to conclude
that the uprising was devoid of any highly sublime patriotic outlook. This is
especially notable in the case of Nana Sahib who, as evidences prove, was
selfishness incarnate. Perhaps the question that would he have turned
anti-British if the British Government in India continued to pay Nana the
pension it used to pay to the Maratha Peshwa is something relevant. He had lost
the annual amount of Rs. 800000, which his father received from the British
treasury. Yet gobbling down this dissatisfaction Nana still continued to be a
trusted friend and helper of the British. It is interesting to note that Nana
sent his armed men to Canpur at the request of the frightened British officials
to protect the Government treasury there when the revolt broke out. But later,
heeding to the threat and coercion of the sepoys he became one of their
leaders. The leadership was in fact fastened upon him. Truly it could only be
taken as a joke that with such a leadership forced on him he sent letters to
Nargund and other centers exhorting people for the revolt. But he did this,
because he was threatened and forced to do it, and was left with no other
alternative. Of course once having taken over the leadership of the revolt he
was stubborn in his fight. But one should not forget that the background of his
transformation towards leadership was highly deplorable, as Nana himself
confessed that he “joined the rebels from helplessness”. He elucidated his
position of helplessness to the British later:


    My soldiers were not
of my own country, and I previously urged that so insignificant (gureeb) a
person as myself could render no material aid to the British. But General
Wheeler would not listen to me and invited me into the entrenchments. When your
army mutinied and proceeded to take possession of the treasury my soldiers
joined them. Upon this I reflected that if I went to the entrenchments my
soldiers would kill my family, and that the British would punish me for the
rebellion of my soldiers. It was therefore better for me to die. My ryots were
urgent and I was obliged to join them.

(Quoted in R. C. Majumdar, History
of Freedom Movement in India
Calcutta, 1971,
Vol. I, p. 143)


shameless confession made before the British by the descendent of the great
Maratha leader Sivaji who eroded the foundations of the foreign empire in India and sounded the victory of the Hindu
nationalism was by all means to demean India’s long cherished patriotic


such was the case of Nana Sahib, the case of the Rani of Jhansi was not
different. The Rani who was no friend of the mutineers was forced by them to
help them. The Rani herself said that she was threatened by the sepoys that “if
she at all hesitated to comply with their requests, they would blow up her
palace with guns” and she was therefore “obliged to all their demands to pay
large sums to save life and honour”. She was also maintaining the line of
communication with the British on the eve of the revolt and was still hopeful
that the British, if she would side with them, would recognize the adoption of
her new successor. And she used to send report to the British Commissioner of
the Sagar Division condemning the sepoys massacring the Europeans, with the
result that the Commissioner, seeing all the European officials massacred,
appointed the Rani to rule the territory on behalf of the British till they
would be able to reestablish their government there. The Rani gladly accepted
this offer. And it was only after her joining the mutineers owing to their
irresistible threat that she appeared anti-British. Even after joining the
mutineers she was still communicating with the British in an anti-mutineers
manner. She was thus following a wait and see policy, sitting on the fence
watching the direction the wind of victory was blowing so that she could join
the victors. However as the British started suspecting her she was finally left
with no other alternative than to be permanently with the mutineers till the
last breath. True she is the heroine of Swathanthrya Vir Savarkar’s celebrated
work on 1857 revolt, which by all means is a classic one on the history of India’s freedom
movement. But this work, Savarkar wrote more as a manual for the freedom
fighters of India
who he knew would certainly be inspired by it, than a history book for academic
purpose. The selfish Rani could never envision a sublimated patriotic spirit of
the kind Savarkar could. Here too one comes across the doubt that whether the
Rani too would have continued to remain loyal to the British had the Government
recognized her adopted successor. In fact many of those who led the revolt
during its peak hours were pro-British on its eve. They turned fully
anti-British when only they realized that the British would not favour them
however much they would turn pro-British to fight against the revolutionaries
who too would not give them an easy go. Where is the religion of nationalism,
which according to the visionaries is the incarnation of God, and where are the
selfish motives of invertebrate opportunists?


deplorable than all these was the communal and fanatic nature expressed through
out the period of the revolt. It is true that in many places the Muslim leaders
fought the British but the background and sentiments that turned them against
the latter appear controversial. Among the Muslims who fought the British many
were motivated by communalist aims as is revealed from the activities of the
outfits like Wahabhi and Faraizi. Though the Faraizi movement that grew up
under the patronage of Haji Shariyatullah of the Faridpur District (now in
Bangladesh) went on with many anti-British activities it was purely Islamic
oriented and of course anti-Hindu. Shariyatullah, denouncing the un-Islamic
innovations, customs and rituals, declared Bengal
under the British rule to be a Dar-ul-Harb where the Muslims did not
enjoy political and economic rights and privileges. He gathered round him a
militant band of about 12000 with distinctive dress and equipments. This
large body became notorious for its acts of communal violence. “A letter
published in a Bengali periodical in its issue of 22 April 1837 describes in
detail the outrages perpetrated by them on the Hindus, particularly by breaking
the images of Hindu deities, desecrating Hindu temples, and slaughtering cows
in Hindu houses, as a regular feature of their activities”.
(R. C.
Majumdar, Op. Cit, p. 118.) Muslim communalism became more aggressive
than ever during the time of Shariyatullah’s son Maulavi Muhamad Muslim, better
known as Dudhu Mian (1819-1860). Having set out to establish his own rule in
Bengal, Dudhu Mian set up regular headquarters at Bahadurpur, divided East Bengal into circles called halqahs and
appointed a Deputy designated Khalifa in each to “keep the sect
together, make proselytes and collect contributions”. Wearied of his fanatic
activities, Zamindars, Indigo cultivators and peasants turned against him.
Finally arrested on the charges of abduction, plunder and murder, he was jailed
by the British Government at Alipur till he died in 1860.


fanatical was the nature of the Wahabhi movement. In 1827 Sayid Ahamad, its
leader with headquarters at Sittana in North West Frontier Province, declared
holy war against the Sikhs whom he wanted to be exterminated or converted. This
hostility was turned against the British when they succeeded the Sikhs as the
rulers of Punjab. In Bengal
the Wahabhis, organized under their leader Mir Nizar Ali, known as Titu Mir,
committed indescribable crimes against the non-Muslims, the Hindus and the
British. In the campaign against Zamindar Krishna Ray, Titu Mir collected a
large number of militant followers and declared a Zihad or holy war. The
armed Wahabhis marched on to the village Poorna, murdered a Brahmin priest,
slaughtered two cows and sprinkled blood on Hindu temples and committed violent
outrages on Hindu life, property and faith. They declared that the British Raj
was over and proclaimed their “sovereign power as the hereditary right of the
Muhammadans which had been unjustly usurped by the Europeans”.
There are
also instances of the Wahabhis appealing to Islamic powers outside India
to help them in their war against the ‘Firangi and Indian infidels’
or Indian non-Muslims whom the Islamic tradition has continuously disparaged Kafirs.
And as Dr. Majumdar very aptly points out, if we regard the Wahabhi fight
against the English as war of national independence, “by no logic can we
withhold this nomenclature from their fight against the Sikhs”. To put it
rightly “we are reduced to the absurd position of regarding a war against the
Sikhs and the Hindus of India as a war of independence”.  These and many
other communal and fanatical outbreaks by the Muslims caused untold miseries to
non-Muslim communities. Of course these movements were anti-British, but their
communal character cannot be denied in view of the outrages against the


was this very same communalism, which Bahadur Shah exuded by the end of 1857
Revolt. True it was to retain the Red Fort and his Royal insignia that Bahadur
Shah remained pro-British on the eve of the Revolt. That he joined the
mutineers’ front owing to the sepoys’ inescapable pressure is also true. But
when it seemed that the revolt would succeed, Bahadur Shah turned
enthusiastic to declare the reestablishment of the Mughal Empire, the hell of
sectarian autocracy and communal discrimination which collected Jazia
and pilgrim-tax from the non-Muslims. 
He could not dream of a secular
If what Muhamadali Jinnah gained in 1947 was an independent Pakistan what Bahadur Shah would have gained, if
the 1857 Revolt had succeeded, would have been the Mughal Empire which could
otherwise be described as a greater Pakistan
with Delhi its
capital! We had better examine how a modern supporter of the Mughal tradition
appreciates this Mughal mentality behind the Revolt:


The … important fact, which attracts our
attention during this uprising, is the way in which Muslims and Hindus … looked
to Delhi and
Bahadur Shah. There was unanimous and spontaneous agreement that he alone had
the right to become the emperor of India … all proclaimed their
allegiance to the Mughal Emperor … he [Nana Saheb] did not for a moment
hesitate to declare himself a Subedar or Governor of the Mughal court. The real
ruler, he proclaimed, was the Emperor of Delhi.
The coins struck were in the name of the Emperor … The date is Hijri followed
by Samvat… as was the custom of the Mughal court. The loyalty, which the people
of India
offered to Bahadur Shah, was not to him as a person but to the descendent of
the Great Mughals. The Mughal court had made such an abiding impression on the
Indian mind that when the question arose who should take over power from the
British, Hindus and Muslims with one voice selected Bahadur Shah. This gives us
an idea of the deep roots the empire established by Babur and consolidated by
Akbar had struck in India.
Indians obviously looked upon Mughals not as foreign rulers but as their own
King Emperors.

(Maulana Abul Kalam Azad’s foreword, S. N. Sen, Eighteen
Fifty Seven
, New Delhi, 1977)


is how Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Minister of post-independence India evaluated
the charisma of the Mughal Empire This was indeed the reflections of the
sweet dreams that this minister of the secular India cherished about an empire
a foreign conquistador established in India through the bloody conquest
. It
is interesting that he tries to make us believe that all the Indians liked the
Mughal Empire and during 1857 days they were eagerly waiting for its return to
power. This gives queer reading, which naturally leads to some questions. What
made the Rajputs under the leadership of Mewar fight relentlessly against the
Or why the Chhathrapathi Sivaji dug the graveyard of the Mughal
Empire in his efforts to unfurl the flag of Haindavi Swaraj? Or why the Sikhs
engaged the Mughals in long drawn wars?
Were these due to the nation-wide
charisma the Mughals commanded?
In fact what is seen reflected in Azad’s
writing is the mind of some one who wanted to see all Indians loving the Mughal
Empire and the Mughal Empire come back to power. Surely Azad was not unaware
that no proud Hindu acknowledged the sovereignty of the Mughals and that what
he opined was only a travesty of historical truth. But he could still not be
free of his ailing heart lamenting over the death of his beloved Mughal Empire.


are only two options. They are, either we learn from history or perish. It is
high time that the Indians realized the realities. Indeed the deplorable state
that might have befallen the non-Muslims had India once again returned to the
sectarian hell of Mughal autocracy is not beyond the know of those who know
history. To pay the Jazia and pilgrim-tax, mass conversion or massacre would
certainly have filled the list the non-Muslims were to select from, had the
1857 Revolt succeeded. Except for the oft-repeated hair-raising refrain that 1857
was India’s first freedom
fight it was by all means the freedom movement of the Mughal Empire, not of
a secular India.

That a cursed relic of the Maratha nationalism like Nana Saheb who was not
ashamed to declare himself a mere governor of the Mughal Empire participated in
this revolt would not change the nature of this mutiny.


author of this article is  a Lecturer in History, SanatanaDharmaCollege,
Alappuzha, Kerala)




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