Remembering a Revolutionary War, a Revolutionary Book

By L.K. Advani   |   Wednesday, 09 May 2007

Homage to the martyrs and heroes of India’s First War of Independence, on the occasion of the commencement of the yearlong 150th anniversary commemoration of 1857

Today is a sacred day in the long history of our Motherland. A day becomes sacred when it is associated with the life of an outstanding historical personality -- a hero or a martyr, a saint or a social reformer – who meant a lot to the nation. But its sacredness grows manifold when it is associated with the heroism and sacrificing spirit of an entire nation struggling unitedly to recover its freedom from foreign rule. May 10 is one such super-sacred day in the millennial history of India for it marked, 150 years ago, the beginning of what subsequently came to be regarded as India’s First War of Independence.

I pay my respectful homage to all those brave sons and daughters of India who fought in that war to liberate India from the yoke of an alien people from a far-away island, who had come to India as traders but became its colonial rulers. We know some names of the leaders and martyrs of the war of 1857 – Mangal Pandey, Bahadur Shah Zafar, Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi, Nanasaheb Peshwa of Kanpur, his close confidantes Azimullah Khan and Tatia Tope, Raja Kunwar Sinh of Jagdishpur in Bihar, Maulvi Ahmed Shah of Oudh, and many others. But the names of countless others have either entered the oblivion of history or are still lying unexplored and unsung in local histories across the vast expanse of the then united India. All of them deserve to be gratefully remembered.

Of course, on this occasion, we should not forget that in several places in India the flame of the struggle for freedom had been lit by patriots well before 1857. Two great names that comes to my mind are: Veerapandya Kattabomman of Tamil Nadu, who waged a guerilla war against the British and sacrificed his life in it, and Rani Chennamma of Kittur in Karnataka.

My own introduction to India’s first national uprising against the British rule happened at a young age. And it happened through a remarkable book by a remarkable writer, both having become inseparable from the legend of 1857. I was a schoolboy of 14 in Karachi in Sindh, the city of my birth where I spent the first 20 years of my life before migrating to this side of India after Partition. I was already touched by the winds of the freedom struggle in Sindh. Due to my interest in patriotic literature, I came to know about Vinayak Damodar (“Swatantryaveer”) Savarkar’s book 1857 - The War of Independence. It was banned by the British and hence unavailable. Someone told me that I could get it from a person selling underground literature. I purchased it from my accumulated pocket money – for Rs. 28, which was a lot of money those days.

I met Savarkar (1883-1966) only once – in November 1947. I had gone to Bombay for two days, on what was my first visit to the city. The person I was staying with asked me which places of attraction I wished to see. “Take me to Veer Savarkar’s house,” I said. As I sat in awe of his magnetic presence at his Shivaji Park residence, he asked me about the situation in Sindh and the condition of Hindus after Partition.

The book’s thrilling pre-publication journey

I have still not forgotten the effect Savarkar’s book had on me. This book truly deserves the appellation “incendiary”, which is an honour when used by a foreign power that was so frightened by it that it was banned even before its actual publication. The story of the journey of the book’s manuscript from India to England, France, Germany, Holland and back, and the role it played in inspiring revolutionaries after its clandestine publication, is as thrilling as any of the battles fought in 1857. Savarkar wrote it in London, where he had gone to study law but soon got involved in revolutionary activities, when he was only 25. The original text in Marathi was completed in 1907, to mark the 50th anniversary of 1857, and was secretly sent to India. But it could not be printed in India because the British authorities, who had come to know of it, raided the printing press.

Miraculously, the manuscript was saved and sent back to Savarkar in Paris. His fellow-revolutionaries translated it into English but no printer in England or France was willing to print it. Finally it was printed in Holland in 1909 and copies of it were smuggled into India. But the author was arrested in London in 1910 on charges of sedition, brought to India, convicted for two life imprisonments, and transported to “Kala Pani”, the dreaded Cellular Jail in Andaman and Nicobar Islands. It was the same place where the British had deported thousands of patriots who had participated in the uprising of 1857. Savarkar spent 11 years in near-solitary confinement in a dark, dingy cell that overlooked the gallows where prisoners were routinely executed.

Though banned, the book went into several reprints. Madame Cama brought out the second edition in Europe. Lala Hardayal, a leader of the revolutionary Ghadar Party, brought out an edition in USA. It was printed for the first time in India in 1928 by Bhagat Singh and his comrades. Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and Ras Behari Bose got it published in Japan in 1944, and the book became almost a textbook for the soldiers of the Indian National Army. Before the ban was lifted in 1947, Savarkar’s book was available in several Indian languages in the underground network. Thus, this was not a book written by an ordinary historian enjoying his comfort, safety and academic support structure, all of which he takes for granted. Rather, it was penned by a revolutionary who suffered unimaginable hardships for his activities and which in turn motivated countless other revolutionaries in their common goal of liberating India.

A joint Hindu-Muslim war for ‘Swaraj’ and ‘Swadharma’

Savarkar’s book is remarkable for its inspirational and analytical content. Tracing the historical and social causes that led to the uprising, he debunks all the self-serving theories of British historians, some of which, surprisingly, are still being recycled and republished. Saying that it was not some accidental or inchoate mutiny by disgruntled sepoys who were influenced by some wild rumours, he asks: “Could the vast tidal wave from Peshawar to Calcutta have risen in flood without a fixed intention of drowning something by means of its force?” He explores the reasons that “roused the spirit of the sepoy and the civilian, the king and pauper, Hindu and Mahommedan.” He encapsulates these in two words: Swadharma and Swaraj. “In what other history,” he observes, “is the principle of love of one’s religion and love of one’s country manifested more nobly than in ours?...Our idea of Swadharma is not contradictory to that of Swaraj. Swaraj without Swadharma is despicable and Swadharma without Swaraj is powerless.”

One of the proclamations issued by the leaders of the 1857 war said, “Hindus and Mahomedans of India! Arise! Brethren, arise! Of all the gifts of God, the most gracious is that of Swaraj. Will the oppressive demon who has robbed us of it by deceit be able to keep it away from us forever? Can such an act of God stand forever? No, no. The English have committed so many atrocities that the cup of their sins is already full. To add to it, they have got now the wicked desire to destroy our holy religion! Are you going to remain idle even now?”

Savarkar does not gloss over the long period of Hindu-Muslim hostilities that marked India’s medieval history, but he brilliantly chronicles how 1857 brought the two communities together and made them fight shoulder to shoulder for national liberation. He describes how the uprising’s leaders, belonging to both communities, felt that “now the original antagonism between the Hindus and Mahomedans might be consigned to the past.” This, because “their present relation was one not of rulers and ruled, foreigner and native, but simply that of brothers with one difference between them of religion alone. For they were both children of the soil of Hindustan. India being the common mother of these two, they were brothers by blood.”

Savarkar’s book, while describing the valour of Indian patriots, also examines in a dispassionate manner the reasons for the ultimate failure of the War of Independence. According to him, these were: weak central leadership, lack of organization and betrayal by traitors at crucial stages. “The Revolution of 1857,” he writes, “was a test to see how far India had come towards unity, independence and popular power. The fault of failure lies with the idle, effeminate, selfish and treacherous men who ruined it. But those who, wielding the sword dripping with their own blood, in that great rehearsal, walked boldly on the stage of fire and danced in joy even on the very breast of Death, let no tongue dare to blame those heroes! They were not mad, they were not hasty, they were not the sharers of defeat. It was at their call that Mother India woke up from her deep sleep and ran forth to smite slavery down. But while one of her sons gave a terrific blow on the head of Tyranny, alas, her other son thrust a dagger in her own heart!”

UPA government’s vilification campaign against Savarkar

What is especially remarkable about Savarkar’s 545-page magnum opus is that there is not a trace of communal prejudice or partiality in his narration of 1857. If he showers praise on the bravery of Rani Laxmibai, Nanasaheb Peshwa and Tatia Tope, he is no less fulsome in eulogizing the contribution of Maulvi Ahmed Shah and Azimullah Khan. Where he mentions treachery by Muslims, he is no less sparing in denouncing the treachery by Hindus.

It is for this very reason that, like many fellow-Indians, I was shocked and deeply pained when some people in the Congress and Communist parties mounted a vicious vilification campaign against Savarkar two years ago. The UPA chairperson even boycotted the unveiling of his portrait in Parliament by the President of India! It is neither possible nor necessary for every Indian to agree with everything that a great historical personality wrote or did in his or her lifetime. If we look at India’s freedom movement, we see that serious differences existed between Ambedkar and Gandhiji, Ambedkar and Nehru, Netaji Bose and Gandhiji, and so on. Bhagat Singh was never a part of the Congress-led struggle and charted his own path. The differences between Communist and Congress leaders were even more basic.

But should these historical differences, or the differing contemporary appraisals of the roles of various historical personalities, come in the way of our grateful remembrance of all of them? No, they must not. True, Savarkar’s views on several issues in the latter half of his life were problematic. But before defaming him, let his detractors in the UPA government read his book on 1857, visit his hellish prison cell in Andaman, listen to the stirring patriotic songs he composed there and then ask themselves: “Are we right in denying Savarkar his due place as India commemorates the 150th anniversary of 1857?”

Three suggestions

Before concluding, I would like to place three suggestions for the consideration of my fellow-Indians and also those in the government.

1: The government-funded National Book Trust of India has recently published a book Rebellion 1857 by P.C. Joshi, former general secretary of the undivided CPI. I have nothing against it. But, surely, Savarkar’s book is even more deserving of publication by the NBT, especially since this year marks the centenary of the writing of 1857 – The Indian War of Independence.

2: The UPA government’s planning and preparation for the 150th anniversary celebrations leaves a lot to be desired. It should shed its political prejudices and make the celebrations more broadbased with maximum people’s participation. Let there be district-level celebration committees. These should be tasked, inter alia, with digging out well-researched information about all the significant events and people in that district associated with the 1857 War of Independence. I make this suggestion because much of this information is in danger of being altogether lost.

3: Let us establish a befitting memorial park to honour the martyrs and heroes of 1857 at a suitably large location in Uttar Pradesh, where the main battles of the uprising took place. Students all over the country should be encouraged and supported to visit this park, and also other places associated with 1857 such as the Cellular Jail in Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

By worthily commemorating the 150th anniversary of 1857, let us make it an occasion to revive and strengthen the spirit of nationalism among all sections of the Indian society.