It has oft been stated that Empire is a concept whose time has gone; and this has been used to justify that India would have anyway become Independent despite Netaji and Mahatmaji. Nothing could be farther from the truth; the reality is that no one knows for certain what would have happened. But this is a question that does occur: and is becoming increasingly strident among the younger generation of Indians.
This is a question that I first asked myself in 2009; and since then, I have looked into at least 10 authentic books in my hunt for an answer. This is a hunt that is still on; for I cannot understand one fundamental question: why is it that a people who fought together in 1857 should become so against each other in 1947? There was no answer forthcoming, and no current book answered it, Thus began my search for the truth… and that is what I shall chronicle below. It is a hunt that is still on; I am currently reading From the Ruins Of Empire By Pankaj Mishra; but I think that I am beginning to get a glimmer of an Idea. The questions just keep cropping up: Why the riots in an essentially peaceful country, esp one that was truly united as late as 1857? Did India exist earlier – or have we just created it? What exactly is India? What defines it? What was the real role of The Mahatma?
But let me start from the beginning: the first question we must ask ourselves is – was India ever one nation? Now let us leave hyperbole, pro-Indianness and patriotism, ancient history et al to one side. And let us further start trying to base each and every point on documentary evidence- not analysis or conjecture. References will be provided at the end of the post.
The answer to that is, unequivocally, India was never one political entity; it was never a nation-state. Yes, culturally, there is evidence of extensive cultural interaction within the borders of what is now modern India, This is evident in trade links in ancient India going right upto Independence, in the internal migration of people, in the similarity in cutlure, food and languages, in the cross-cultural links both formal as well as informal that existed in medieval, as well as ancient India. Further, this interaction is far greater than interaction outside the borders of Modern India. Thus, while we are beyond any doubt one people – the question remains one of a national identity. The people did not identify themselves as Indian. Please – no brickbats, I did state evidence. This is crystal clear in any number of historical books: not one state a politcal unity or realisation of “India”or, indeed, anything remotely close to it.
The memoirs of an Indian Traveller from 1857 – 1859 bring this through superbly well. ” For example, the family of the Author refers to the trip to Gwalior as a trip to “Hindustan”, “their women are full of wiles and entice an innocent man” . We are looking at our India in a proto-nationhood stage of its lifecycle” This is the year 1859. This man was a resident of what is now Maharashtra – and was a simple pujari. This issue is simple: a political entity is shaped when the people identify themselves as a part of a larger concept called nation.
Thus, we can see that there was nothing called “India” as late as 1857. Hence, the question is when did this come into being? For this, we have to move forward. and look at the developments from 1885 – 1915 in particular. Here we have the emergence of Bal Gangadhar TIlak, Gokhle et al, Critically, none of these fighters were asking for complete independence. This is absolutely vital to our quest; since we are on a quest to determine the real role of The Mahatma.
All of them were asking for some increased participation in government, and all of them were fighting through the courts only. The British simply gave them no heed, and made only cosmetic changes.There was no real pressure on the British to bring in real changes. Furthermore, there was again little mass involvement; the people were still accepting the Raj as a reality. All the freedom fighters were asking for was increased participation ultimately leading to dominion status at some point in the unspecified future. This is amply borne out by the divisions of the freedom movement along the moderates and the extremists in 1908 – 1912, and their coming together again. The British simply checkmated them by jailing them for 6 years at Port Blair, Result: Zilch. Even at this Juncture, there was no concept of India; yes – this was rising and rising fast – but there was little acceptance or chance of political unity. The moderates and extremists could not see eye to eye; there was no consensus on anything – or any specific timeline
Then? Enter The Mahatma. Mahatma Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.
He virtually crafted us together…
” It delves with the amazing control he had over the Indian masses, their devotion for him, his regard for them and his control over them. It gives the reader some idea about how he became what he was. ” This is from my book review of a book – which you can find in the references. The control, the phenomenal and almost magical control he had over the masses was a thing of wonder; he was the first leader to address – to really, truly address the masses on a Pan-India scale. Due to his simplicity and dressing, they were able to identify with him, and eventually this gave him a spell over the masses of India.
There are 2 clear breakpoints in the Indian Freedom struggle- the advent of The Mahatma, and the re-entrance of Jinnah circa 1930s. Before The Mahatma, there was no popular mass struggle; after the Mahatma, there was no legal fight. It was The Mahatma who brought people of India into the mass struggle, and who carried the concept of India into the hearts and minds of every man, woman and child in India. Not for him the appeals of the educated; not for him the cases in court. He was a man of the masses- he took the struggle out of the courts, and into the streets. His control over Indians was phenomenal; he could make all India rise on one call. This is undisputed fact. The increasing mass struggles made holding onto India much more of a task for the British.
But they were not done just yet.
To cut a long story short, Enter Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. His call – Tum mujhe khoon do, mein tumhe azaadi doonga” galvanised the POWs into the INA. Would these POWs have heeded his call had they not been exposed to the Freedom Calls of The Mahatma? These soldiers were Indian people from within Indian Society. The core question that occured to me is why did the soldiers rise to this call? What had changed in the preceding 40-50 years to bring this about? What catalysed this feeling of nationalism? There is only one answer that occurs to me: the relentless mass struggle led by The Mahatma. Without his clarion calls to the people, it is very likely that the INA size would have been lesser. For it cannot be denied that these soldiers were from the same people who were supporting The Mahatma; they were talking to, eating with, marrying, playing with the same people who were crazy about the Legend Of The Mahatma, the man with the almost magical control over Indians in those days. They had listened to him, and were exposed to his arguments and his observations. For the first time, a leader was talking to them – not to the courts
The INA trials after the WW2 got the nation together – including the Army. And, for the first time – British India could not rely on the Indian Army to maintain control over India.
Thus, in my humble opinion, it was the dynamic duo of The Netaji with The Mahatmaji who won us India. The Mahatma got us together; while Netaji snatched the Army from the British. Without either of them..
South Africa was ruled by whites till the 1990s, Zimbabwe etc…. Consider these facts:
1) Prior to The Mahatma, no one was asking for Sampurna Swaraj
2) At the most, the target was Dominion status at an unspecified date
3) Princely India was ruled independently; Hyderabad, for ex, held out even after 1947
4) Prior to The Mahatma, the public at large were not involved
5) Hong Kong released only in 1997
6) Colonial reality continued till the 1980s in some countries
7) USA-UK convinced that India needed British “Help”
etc etc etc etc…
Thus, we can see that if not for Mahatmaji – Netaji duo, we would very likely be still ruled by whites, or would have been a colony for several decades. It is a matter of documented record that the British had no intention of leaving India as late as 1945 – they were planing a sojourn of several decades, despite the WW2 etc. It is not enough for the enlightened to be aware of a national concept; the people have to be a part of it… this is where The Mahatma came in…
1. The Real Story Of The Great Uprising: Vishnu Versaikar ed 1885 / 1905
2. An Economic History Of India – RC Dutt ed 1906
3. Early India – Romila Thapar
4. Land Of The Seven Rivers – Sanjeev Sanyal
5. Jinnah, India, Partition, Independence – Jaswant Singh
6. The Discovery Of India – Jawaharlal Nehru
7. The Great Indian Novel – Shashi Tharoor
8. India – From Midnight To The Millenium And Beyond – Shashi Tharoor
9. The Shadow Of The Great Game: The Untold Story Of India’s Partition – Narendra Singh Sarila
10. India’s Struggle For Independence – Bipin Chandra Pal et al
11. Freedom At Midnight – Dominique LaPierre
12. From The Ruins Of Empire: The Revolt Against The West And The Remaking Of Asia – Pankaj Mishra
13. Churchill’s Secret War: Madhushree Mukherjee
14. India Unbound – Gurcharan Das
15. The Argumentative Indian – Amartya Sen
These books may not all deal with Indian Independence; but I regard them as central to the understanding of India as it is today. as well as the big question: Why? Further, each contains at least one relevant chapter of Indian History as well as exposes me to contrarian viewpoints. Not only that, these books have helped me in my continuing quest to understand the wonder that is…. India!
I am writing these words which will be offensive to some Indians as I want to meet head-on the claims to ancient heritage; it is high time we Indians took justifiable pride in the crafting of a political identity from a cultural union. Even a crude perusal of Indian History will tell you were were perennially divided; and that we have paid a heavy price for our lack of political unity. Yes – we were one people, and have been so for 8000 years. Yes, we are the ONLY surviving and unchanged ancient civilization – all others have metamorphosed; yes, apart from the gizmos and clothes and language, an Indian from 6000 years ago will find almost the same cultural practices – true; yes, there was cultural union – and it was this cultural unity that formed that basis for Political Unity. Political Unity has the potential to take us to greatness… but taking that to mean India was one is saying too much, and means belittling the contributions of our Freedom Fighters. There was a “Bharat” in the enlightened people only; and this was present across Ancient India. True, and granted. But the people at large were not educated, or aware enough, or cared enough, to accept it. They owed allegiance to the local satrap; that was their political identity. This was what the Indian Freedom Struggle created; a feat that remains unparalleled in World History. No one has till date crafted a political union from a cultural union encompassing so many different sub-cultures, Bringing them together is a feat not matched in the History Of Planet Earth: high time we Indians learnt to accept the enormity of what our forefathers have achieved. Every single international commenter predicted that Pakistan would stay but India, with its divisions, would collapse. We have proved all of them wrong… a matter of considerable pride!