We are celebrating, simultaneously, the 60th anniversary of Independence and 150th anniversary of the 1857 mutiny against British rule. Some historians and most politicians call the mutiny the first war of independence. This is a dubious proposition. The concept of nationhood did not exist in India at the time. We now pretend that nations have existed through history, but in fact the nation-state is largely a 19th century invention — even Italy and Germany came into being only then.
In 1857, Indians knew what kings and emperors were, but not nations. Desh, now interpreted as country, used to mean a person’s neighbourhood, and places beyond that were called pardesh (foreign lands). Indeed, any Indian who claimed loyalty to a country rather than his king could be beheaded for treason.
But if 1857 was less than a war of independence, it was also more than a sepoy mutiny. The planning of the mutiny involved many princes. However, rebels like Nana Saheb and the Rani of Jhansi had lost their thrones (or were in danger of losing them) and were fighting to recapture them, not to establish an Indian nation. The overwhelming majority of princes remained loyal to the British Raj. Punjabi Sikhs helped the British to crush the revolt.
This reinforced the old British notion that India could not be ruled against its will. The number of white colonial administrators never exceeded 12,000, yet they ruled over 500 million people in the subcontinent. For this the British needed strong local support. To avoid antagonising local rulers, they stopped taking over princely states after 1857.
History repeated itself in World War II. Once again there was an army revolt, led this time by Subhash Chandra Bose. Japan had captured thousands of Indian troops when it conquered Malaya and Singapore. Bose persuaded Japan to let him organise the captured soldiers into the Indian National Army, to march with Japanese forces and overthrow the British Raj.
As things turned out, the INA and Japanese were crushed in the battles of Kohima and Imphal. It is politically incorrect but true that that the INA was beaten not by British soldiers — these were very few in number — but by the British Indian Army composed of 2.5 million Indian soldiers, all of whom had enlisted voluntarily. As in 1857, one set of Indians helped the British put down a mutiny by another section.
At school, we were taught that Mahatma Gandhi had fought the British using the marvellous new weapon of non-violence, and forcing (some said shamed) the British into leaving. No textbook or teacher in my youth traced any connection between the 1857 uprising and independence. Indeed, the whole ethos of independence was said to be non-violence, as opposed to the violence of 1857.
We were taught about Bose, but mainly as a misguided patriot who failed to grasp the importance of ahimsa. The success of the independence movement was ascribed to spirituality and high morality, not armed insurrection. However, the sheen of ahimsa wore off as years passed. India’s military takeover of Goa in 1961 was a watershed. And India’s disastrous military defeat by China in 1962 ended all talk of ahimsa as a practical policy, and created a new determination to be militarily powerful. This led soon after to the drive to build a nuclear bomb.
The changed atmosphere was conducive to the thesis that the 1857 mutiny should be regarded as the first war of independence. With ahimsa in the doghouse, independence could be viewed in terms of war rather than non-violence. But is the new thesis valid?
For an answer, it is worth recalling a seminar in 1967, on the 20th anniversary of Independence. Speakers debated at which point independence became certain beyond all doubt, overcoming resistance from diehard imperialists like Churchill. The British high commissioner at the time, John Freeman, opined that independence became certain after the 1946 revolt of the Royal Indian Navy.
This astonished many youngsters in the audience, including me, for we had never been taught about the naval revolt. On making enquiries, we were told it was a minor event stemming from complaints about bad food in the navy. But it soon escalated, and a naval strike spread to several ships and ports. The British sent gunships to cow the rebel vessels, but there was little actual fighting.
At the time, Indian political leaders were negotiating independence, and did not take kindly to the naval revolt. Gandhiji condemned it, and so did Jinnah. Vallabhbhai Patel negotiated with mutineers in Bombay to end the naval strike, which became a minor footnote in the history of the independence movement.
Why, then, did the British high commissioner regard it as the critical event that ensured independence beyond all doubt? The answer is that the British were petrified of a repeat of the 1857 mutiny, since this time they feared they would be slaughtered to the last man.
In 1857 the mutineers were limited in numbers and lacked effective leaders. But to fight World War II, the British created an army of 2.5 million Indian soldiers, including a capable officer cadre trained at Sandhurst. By 1946, patriotic expectations had risen to a high pitch in India. Even Congressmen like Nehru, who had condemned the INA in 1942, were now defending INA rebels in military trials.
In this atmosphere, the British feared they could no longer rely on the loyalty of the 2.5 million soldiers of the British Indian Army. Unlike in 1857 or 1942, friendly Indian forces would not put down a mutiny. In which case the mutineers would win and British civilians would be slaughtered.
That, according to Freeman, made Britain’s exit absolutely certain. The 1857 mutiny may not have been a war of independence. But the 1946 naval mutiny made a repetition of 1857 seem so likely, and with such fearful results, that Churchill and his imperialist crowd lost all credibility even in Britain.
You may or may not accept Freeman’s analysis fully. But it does suggest that Bose played a greater role posthumously than when alive. And it further suggests that the threat of himsa was at least as big a factor in winning independence as Gandhiji’s ahimsa.