With reference to your edit ‘Lessons of 1857’, Mint, 7 May, some other events need to be highlighted. This is the sesquicentennial year of the Indian Mutiny aka the First War of Independence. Why did it fail? Because the British moved fast. They adopted a strategy that had a global impact and still has a national impact. First, they hastened the construction of the Suez Canal, which changed the geo political character of Euro-Asia. This cut the travel time from England to India from four-six months to four-six weeks. They then constructed railways all over India, which facilitated the movement of troops. India was linked to England via Europe telegraphically in 1866. Thus the strategic “external lines” as propounded by General Helmut von Moltke, the then German army chief, were firmly secured. Our leadership had no inkling. In fact, they were totally lost as far as strategy was concerned, right up to 1962.
The British also realized that the main reason why the mutiny failed was because it had no central intellectual leadership or strategy. Given the absence of communications technology, it was tough for the mutineers to gather a critical mass. The fact that six big maharajas did not join in, and some even helped the British, made things easier for the latter. To ensure that the intellectuals got no further ideas, the British opened the Indian Civil Service for Indians, making them a part of the administration.
But the biggest master stroke was the formation of the Indian National Congress (INC). Note that it was a British civil servant, Allan Octavian Hume, who founded it. Soon, the intellectuals joined INC and for years, it was nothing but a large “talk-shop”. The British got what they wanted. The creation of various political and non-political constituencies on the basis of religion, caste and language ensured that Indians spent (they still do) more time fighting amongst themselves than in fighting the British. Whitehall must have had a good laugh. Only leaders such as Tilak, Rashbehari Bose, Subhash Chandra Bose, Bipin Chandra Pal and Lala Lajpat Rai saw through this ingenious plan. But they were a minority and as their methods posed a danger, they were hounded. Tilak died soon and Rai was arrested and virtually beaten to death.
What do we infer? That the British used INC as an instrument not only to prevent any further uprisings but also to delay independence. They left when it suited them and even 90 years after 1857, INC was grossly unprepared—till 1958, there was at least one British chief of a branch in our armed forces. Can we honestly say INC “fought” for independence? Naturally, this view did not, and still does not, suit the political dispensation of ‘the family’. Six of the largest Indian rulers either actively cooperated with the British in putting the mutiny down or stayed away— Scindia of Gwalior, the Maharaja of Patiala, the Begum of Bhopal, the Nizam of Hyderabad, the Sikh chiefs of Punjab and Gulab Singh of Kashmir. In fact, Patiala even supplied a force to the British. Scindia refused refuge to the Rani of Jhansi. In 1861, the Indian Councils Act enlarged the Central Legislative Council and the first three Indians rewarded for the “help” in 1857 included were the Maharaja of Patiala, Raja Dinkar Rao, the PM of Gwalior, and Raja Deo Narayan Singh. The British also ceded Jhansi to the Scindias.
2007: Guess who is in the unwieldy, 70-member committee for the 150th anniversary of the mutiny celebrations—the scion of Gwalior, Jyotiraditya Scindia! Isn’t this ironical? Will the media dig into other stories of those who kowtowed with the British and are now politically active?
T.R. Ramaswmi is a former commercial and investment banker. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org