Independence Day Thoughts

via V.N. Gopalakrishnan published on August 14, 2011

It is commonly believed that the Indian Rebellion of 1857 against the rule of the East India Company was the beginning of the Indian independence struggle. It was called the ‘Sepoy Mutiny’ by British and the First War of Independence by the Indian historians.  But the Battle of Kulachal fought on August 10, 1741 between the forces of Marthanda Varma, the Raja of Travancore and the Dutch East India Company, during the Travancore – Dutch War was the first major defeat of a European military force by one from South Asia. The Dutch never recovered from the defeat at the Battle of Kulachal and no longer posed a large colonial threat to India.

In a series of battles, Marthanda Varma annexed neighbouring kingdoms and started his campaign against the allies of the Dutch East India Company. In 1741 AD, the Travancore army inflicted a crushing defeat on the Dutch armies forcing the Dutch to retreat to Cochin. A battle began when a force of the Dutch marines under the leadership of Captain Eustachius De Lannoy, a Flemish Commander, were sent to Travancore to secure a trading post from the Raja. They landed with artillery in Kulachal, a small coastal town and captured the territory up to Padmanabhapuram, the capital of Travancore. The Dutch forces were attacked and defeated by the Travancore Nair Brigade locally known as the Nair Pattalam. Captain Eustachius De Lannoy was pardoned on condition that he helped modernize the Travancore Army. He carried out the Raja’s orders with devotion and rose to become the Valia Kapitan or Commander in Chief. To commemorate the Battle of Kulachal, the Indian government has built a pillar of victory in Kulachal. The Postal Department released a stamp on April 1, 2004 to commemorate the tercentenary or 300th anniversary of the raising of the 9th Battalion of Madras Regiment.

European traders reached Indian shores with the arrival of Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese explorer in 1498 at the port of Calicut in search of the profitable spice trade. More than a century later, the Dutch and English established trading outposts, with the first set up at Surat in 1612. During the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the British defeated the Portuguese and the Dutch militarily, and remained in conflict with the French. The decline of the Mughal Empire in the first half of the eighteenth century provided the British with a firm foothold in India. After the Battle of Plassey in 1757, the East India Company army under Robert Clive defeated Siraj-ud-Daula, the then Nawab of Bengal.

The East India Company’s army and cantonments increasingly came into conflict with the religious beliefs and prejudices of the Sepoys. They were disillusioned by their low salaries and racial discrimination in matters of promotion and privileges. The indifference of the British towards Indian rulers like the Mughals and ex-Peshwas and the annexation of Oudh were political factors triggering dissent among Indians. Dalhousie’s Policy of Annexation, the Doctrine of Lapse or Escheat, and the projected removal of the descendants of the Great Mughal from their ancestral palace at Red Fort to the Qutab, near Delhi angered some people. The final spark was provided by the rumoured use of cow and pig fat in the newly-introduced Enfield rifle cartridges. The reported presence of cow and pig fat was offensive to Hindu and Muslim soldiers.

On May 10, 1857 the Sepoys at Meerut broke rank and turned on their commanding officers, killing some of them. They then reached Delhi on May 11, set the East India Company’s toll house on fire and marched into the residence of Bahadur Shah II, the last Mughal emperor at the Red Fort. They asked the emperor to become their leader and reclaim his throne. He was reluctant at first, but eventually agreed and was proclaimed Shehenshah-e-Hindustan by the rebels. The lack of effective organisation among the rebels, coupled with the military superiority of the British, brought a rapid end to the rebellion. The last significant battle was fought in Gwalior on June 17, 1858 during which Rani Laksmi Bai of Jhansi was killed. Intermittent fighting led by Tantia Tope continued until 1859, but most of the rebels were finally subdued. The Rebellion of 1857 was a landmark event in the annals of India and hence the 150th anniversary of “India’s First War of Independence” was celebrated by the Government of India in 2007.

The Rebellion was a major turning point in the history of modern India, affirming the military and political status of the British. The administration of former East India Company territory was replaced with direct rule under the British Crown. India came under the direct control of the British Parliament with a Viceroy being appointed to represent the Crown in India and a Secretary of State from the Cabinet assisted by a Council being placed in charge of Indian policy. In 1877, Queen Victoria took the title of Empress of India.

It was a period of growing political awareness and emergence of Indian leadership. Dadabhai Naoroji formed the East India Association in 1867 and Surendranath Banerjee founded the Indian National Association in 1876. Inspired by a suggestion made by A.O. Hume, a retired British civil servant, 73 Indian delegates met in Mumbai in 1885 and founded the Indian National Congress. The independence movement encompasses a wide spectrum of political organizations, philosophies, and movements which had the common aim of ending first, East India Company, then the British Raj. Early 1900s saw a more radical approach towards political independence proposed by leaders such as the Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Bipin Chandra Pal and Lala Lajpat Rai popularly known as Lal Bal Pal and Shri Aurobindo Ghose.

Bal Gangadhar Tilak was the first person to oppose the British education system that ignored India’s culture, history and values. In 1907, the Congress was split into two factions. The Radicals led by Tilak, Bipin Chandra Pal and Lala Lajpat Rai advocated civil agitation and direct revolution to overthrow the British Empire. The Moderates led by Dadabhai Naoroji, Gopal Krishna Gokhale and others wanted reform within the framework of British rule. Organisations like Jugantar and Anushilan Samiti had emerged in the 1900s. The Ghadar Party operated from abroad and co-operated with the revolutionaries in India.

Lord Curzon, Viceroy and Governor-General ordered the partition of the province of Bengal in July 1905. The Indians viewed the partition as an attempt by the British to disrupt the growing national movement and divide the Hindus and Muslims. The revolutionary philosophies and movement made their presence felt during this time. The partition outraged the Bengalis and widespread agitation ensued and the Congress advocated boycott of British products under the banner of Swadeshi. People showed unity by tying Rakhi on each other’s wrists and observing Arandhan (not cooking any food).

The influence of socio-religious groups such as the Arya Samaj started by Swami Dayanand Saraswati and Brahmo Samaj founded by Raja Ram Mohan Roy and others became apparent in pioneering reform of the society. The work of men like Swami Vivekananda, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Sri Aurobindo Ghose, Subramanya Bharati, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, Rabindranath Tagore and Dadabhai Naoroji spread the passion for renaissance and freedom. The rediscovery of India’s glorious past by European and Indian scholars also led to the rise of nationalism among the Indians.

Although the Congress had emerged as an all-India political organization by 1900, it could not attract the Muslims. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, therefore launched a movement for Muslim regeneration which resulted in the founding of the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College at Aligarh in 1875 renamed as Aligarh Muslim University in 1920.

The British Government announced a series of constitutional reforms in 1909 to mitigate the situation and by appointing a few moderates to the imperial and provincial councils. As a goodwill gesture, King-Emperor George V visited India in 1911 during which he announced the reversal of the partition of Bengal and the transfer of the capital from Calcutta to New Delhi. However, the ceremony of transfer on was marred by the attempt to assassinate Lord Hardinge, the Viceroy on December 23, 1912.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was a prominent leader of the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa and a vocal opponent of basic discrimination and abusive labour treatment. Gandhi had already perfected the concept of Satyagraha, which had been inspired by the philosophy of Baba Singh who led the Kuka Movement in Punjab in 1872. Gandhiji, a stranger to India’s politics had arrived on January 6, 1915. Gopal Krishna Gokhale, a veteran Congressman, became Gandhi’s mentor. Gandhi had great respect to Lokmanya Tilak and his programmes were all inspired by Tilak’s “Chatusutri” programme. The freedom struggle from the 1920s saw the Congress adopt the policies of Non-violence and Civil disobedience led by Gandhiji. Leaders like Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose came to adopt a military approach. The World War II witnessed the movements like the Quit India Movement led by Gandhiji and Indian National Army movement led by Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose.

The Rowlatt Act also known as Black Act of 1919, vested the Viceroy’s government with extraordinary powers to suppress agitation by silencing the press, detaining the political activists without trial, and arresting any individuals suspected of sedition or treason without a warrant. The agitation unleashed by the acts culminated in the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre on April 13, 1919 in Amritsar. Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer, the British military commander, blocked the main entrance-cum-exit, and ordered his soldiers to fire into an unarmed crowd of some 5,000 men, women and children resulting in the death of 1,499 and wounding 1,137.
Gandhiji urged the use of Khadi and Indian materials as alternatives to those shipped from Britain. He also urged people to boycott British educational institutions and law courts; resign from government employment; refuse to pay taxes; and forsake British titles and honours. The movement enjoyed popular support, and it presented a serious challenge to foreign rule. However, Gandhiji called off the movement following the Chauri Chaura incident, which saw the death of 22 policemen at the hands of an angry mob.

The period also witnessed the emergence of a new generation of leaders from the Congress Party, including C. Rajagopalachari, Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel, Subhash Chandra Bose and others. In the mid-1920s, the political spectrum was further broadened by the emergence of both moderate and militant parties, such as the Swaraj Party, Hindu Mahasabha, Communist Party of India and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

An all-party Conference was held in Mumbai in May 1928 following the rejection of the Simon Commision recommendations. The Conference appointed a drafting committee under Motilal Nehru to draw up a Constitution for India. The Calcutta session of the Indian National Congress urged the British government to accord Dominion Status to India by December 1929. At the historic Lahore session in December 1929, the Indian National Congress under the presidency of Jawaharlal Nehru adopted a resolution calling for complete independence from the British. It also authorised the Working Committee to launch a Civil Disobedience Movement throughout the country and decided that January 26, 1930 should be observed as the Purna Swaraj (total independence) Day.

Many past revolutionaries joined the mainstream politics by joining Congress and other parties, especially the Communist Party. The first of these, the Azad Hind Movement led by Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, saw its inception early in the World War and sought help from the Axis Powers. The arbitrary entry of India into the War was strongly opposed by Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. After lobbying against participation in the War, he resigned from Congress in 1939 and started a new party, the All India Forward Bloc.

On August 8, 1942, the Quit India Resolution was passed at the Bombay session of the All India Congress Committee. In response to Gandhiji’s call for immediate independence and against sending Indians to World War II, the Quit India Movement (Bharat Chhodo Andolan) launched in August 1942.

Meanwhile, the Royal Indian Navy Mutiny known also as the Bombay Mutiny on February 18, 1946 encompassed a total strike and subsequent mutiny by the Indian sailors on board ships and shore establishments at the Mumbai Harbour. The Mutiny spread and came to involve 78 ships, 20 shore establishments and 20,000 sailors. The strike found immense support among the population already in grips with the stories of the Indian National Army. The actions of the mutineers were supported by demonstrations which included a one-day general strike in Mumbai.

In 1946, the Labour government in Britain, after the conclusion of World War II decided to end British rule of India, and in early 1947 announced its intention of transferring power no later than June 1948. Lord Mountbatten advanced the date for the transfer of power, allowing less than seven months for a mutually agreed plan for independence. In June 1947, the leaders, including Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Abdul Kalam Azad, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar and Master Tara Singh agreed to a partition of the country along religious lines. The predominantly Hindu and Sikh areas were assigned to the new India and predominantly Muslim areas to the new nation of Pakistan.

Millions of Muslim, Sikh and Hindu refugees trekked across the newly drawn borders. Between 250,000 and 500,000 people died in the violence on both sides of the new borders. On August 14, 1947, the new Dominion of Pakistan came into being with Muhammad Ali Jinnah sworn in as its first Governor General in Karachi. At the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru, proclaimed India’s independence. India became an independent country with Jawaharlal Nehru assuming the office of the first Prime Minister and the Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, staying on as its first Governor General.

Independence Day is celebrated on August 15, to commemorate India’s independence and its birth as a sovereign nation in 1947. Flag-hoisting ceremonies are conducted all over the country. The main event takes place in New Delhi where the Prime Minister hoists the national Flag at the Red Fort and delivers a nationally televised speech from its ramparts. The Prime Minister also pays his tribute to leaders of the freedom struggle.

(Author is a Mumbai-based Freelance Journalist and Social Activist. He can be contacted on [email protected]).

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