August 13, 2017

India’s Independence Movement: Revisiting its History

Revisiting of history keeps happening all the time. There are a couple of reasons why one revisits history time and again. One reason is of course that we get newer information as time passes. When we chance upon a new document or a new discovery we have to reinterpret a few things in the light of that new document or discovery.

But there is another imortant reason to revisit history and that is to draw contemporary lessons for the present and for the future. We have to revisit history from hundreds of angles. Napoleon had said, ‘What is history after all, it is a fable mutually agreed upon’! History is what the rulers and the ruled have agreed upon; that is how history is written. Somebody has seen history from a perspective and that is validated by the rulers, scholars or the leaders of the time. That becomes history. That is why the attempt to reinterpret history from varying perspectives with changing times should keep happening.

That does not mean one can play with facts. After all what is history, it is essentially the interpretation of certain facts. History is prone to interpretations. This process involves biases and depending on the interpreter, same fact is presented in varying ways; so biases are inherent in history. It is therefore hard to say if anything like ‘unbiased history’ exists.

But history does not have if-s and but-s. This must be kept in mind while interpreting history. For example. ‘Had Gandhi not existed, what might have happened’ – Such if-s don’t have any meaning. Today when we describe history and go on to blame certain individuals, it must be pondered upon that in history do you really have the scope of if-s and but-s. ‘Had he not done this’ etc are all mere imaginations.

Then what is the purpose to revisit history? Jawahar Lal Nehru used to say, ‘Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.’ Basically, every time we revisit history we should draw some contemporary lessons from that history.
Did the history of our independence movement have a wider canvas? Did it have multiple main and fringe players? Our independence movement had four or five prominent streams. The tribals, the writers and literary figures et al had their own movements. Similarly there were movements for independence led by saints and revolutionaries. The mainstream movement for independence was led by Congress but that too had various streams. Congress was just a platform and was never a homogeneous movement. Right from the beginning there was division between moderates and hardliners. Many streams merged with the Congress in order to achieve one common objective of Independence. Every such stream was no less important. It is not the question of whose contribution was larger or which was more important!

I have seen one such interretation of history. Clement Attlee, when he became the Prime Minister of Great Britain, had decided to give independence to India. Churchill was staunchly opposed to this idea. Churchill believed that if independence is given there will be anarchy in India. He believed that Indians are incapable of self rule. Attlee on his part thought that India should be given independence and he gave three reasons for the same.
First reason was that in WWII Britain had suffered huge losses and didn’t have enough resources to manage their own country. Its condition was best described in the statement: ‘Won the war, lost the empire’. It became very difficult for Britain to manage the Colonies.

Second, there were protests across India against the Red Fort Trials of Azad HindFauj, which had even crept into the Armed Forces to a point that Sardar Patel had to be brought in to intervene (this included the Navy mutiny in Mumbai, Army base in Jabalpur, Air Force Base in Rajasthan).
Third, the loyalty of 2.5 million strong Indian Army was too big to be controlled by the 40,000-strong British force stationed in India at that time. WWII had drained all energy to fight more wars and the British soldiers were not in a mood to go in for another battle.

Now these three reasons given by Attlee are open to interpretation. Someone can say that while talking about the reasons for giving Independence to India, Attlee did not even mention Gandhi! There was a judge based in Kolkata who claimed that Attlee had visited him in 1956 at his residence and he asked him why didn’t he even mention the contributions of Gandhi and Congress as one of the reasons for giving independence to India. Did they have no role worth mentioning? According to that judge, Attlee twisted his lips and said: ‘minimal’. Was the contribution of Gandhiji and Congress really minimal? No. But that is the problem with interpretations. Therefore when we revisit the movement, we should be careful not to jump to any hasty conclusions but to learn lessons from each new fact and finding.

What is it that we can learn from this revisiting of history in contemporary times? One important lesson is what John Kenneth Galbraith had said in an interview in 2001, ‘The progress of India didn’t depend on the government, as important as it might be, but was enormously dependent on the initiative of the Indian people’. One leader who understood this lesson during the independence movement was Gandhiji. It was he who had transformed India’s independence movement into a popular movement. Gandhiji understood that India’s strength lay not in leaders but in its people. For independence movement to succeed, it had to be a popular movement.

Congress in the initial years was an elitist movement. One of the founders of Congress was A O Hume, a British civil servant who came to India in order to perpetuate the British rule here. Among other founders were leaders like Surendranath Banerjee, who were seeped in English education and culture. First 15-20 years of Congress history was that of petitions and applications. It was Gandhiji who transformed this elitist movement into a truly mass movement. People from places far away from Delhi too were prompted to participate. People contributed to the movement in whichever manner they could.

But did our independence came through this popular movement led by Gandhiji alone? Suppose there was no popular movement, would Independence not have come? Where was any popular movement for Pakistan? Pakistan was the product of a bargain. There was no popular movement. Whatever popular support was there for Pakistan came from areas that became India after partition. Those who became the citizens of Pakistan never fought for Pakistan. If you look at the 1946 election results to provincial assemblies in what is Pakistan today, Muslim League lost elections in almost all those provinces. Muslim League, the champion of Pakistan or partition of India, could not secure popular mandate in those very parts which became Pakistan one year later.

There is a probability that the British could have been thrown out without any popular movement. They could have been thrown out by revolutionaries or by the Azad Hind Fauj’s armed rebellion.
But Gandhiji believed that independence struggle was for its people and not merely for the change of government. That’s the reason why when all the important leaders were celebrating independence in Delhi, Gandhiji was away at Noakhali among the suffering people. He could have come for a day, participated in celebrations and then gone back. But he had a conviction that governments in India will come and go but India is about its people.

Here Gandhiji was not alone, there were other similar leaders and groupsat that time. We have been branded differently today. I come from the RSS. The RSS leadership believed right from its inception in 1925 that India needs independence but independence as a product of popular movement. That is why it chose the mission of inculcating patriotism in ordinary Indians. All social reformers too had the same belief that society needs to be prepared first, to become an independent nation. Mere change of government was not what independence meant to them. Unfortunately, such movements have not been accorded due respect and place in history.

At the time of independence, we paid a heavy price in the form of partition. One-third of our motherland became a foreign territory overnight. The Muslim League had passed Pakistan resolution in 1940 at its Lahore session. The reaction of the Indian leadership at that time is worth recollecting. ‘Vivisect me before you vivisect India’, exhorted Gandhiji. Sardar Patel went one step further to declare: ‘Talwar se talwarbhidegi’ – ‘Sword will be met with sword’, meaning India will fight till end against the partition. Dr.Rajendra Prasad, sitting in jail during the Quit India Movement, went on to write the book ‘India Divided’ in which he narrated about all the ills of partition and how illogical the thought was. Even before the ink of that book could dry out India was partitioned. Nehru, in his typical romantic way proclaimed that the idea of partition was a ‘fantastic nonsense’, meaning ‘the idea of some mad people’. Tragedy is that it was the same Nehru who went on to sign the partition agreement called the June 3rd plan. Sardar Patel who claimed that sword will be met by sword remained a mute spectator.

Not just the Indian leaders, even the British leaders had not wanted India to be partitioned initially. Viceroy Wavell famously declared his opposition to the idea in 1944 stating that: ‘India is a God made triangle, you cannot divide it’. Even Atlee’s mandate as the Prime Minister to Mountbatten was not to partition India. ‘Keep it united if possible. Save a bit from the wreck. Bring British out in any case’ – this was the mandate given by Attlee to Mountbatten.

Nobody wanted partition, still it happened. There is a big lesson to learn from this; that nations can’t put all their faith only in their leadership. A Nation has to have its own innate strength.

Let us map the hundred year journey of India from the First War of Independence in 1857 as Savarkar described it to 1956. In 1857 leaders like Tantya Tope, Rani Laxmibai and Nanasaheb had launched a war in order to throw away the British rulers from India. The immediate provocation was the obduracy of the British to impose certain un-Indian cultural practices on the British Indian Army. Then came the revolutionary movement initiated by VasudevBalwantPhalke in 1880s, followed by the Congress movement leading to independence in 1947. India secured freedom from the British and had its own leaders as rulers.

Now the significance of 1956! In 1956, the then prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru gave an interview to John Kenneth Galbraith in which he was famously quoted to have said : ‘You know Galbraith! I am the last Englishman to rule this country’. Look at this journey which started with a resolve to throw away the British rulers and ended up after hundred years in having our own leaders who were more British than probably the British themselves. What did we really fight for? What was the battle all about? Was it just to replace people of one skin colour with another?

Independence meant a great spirit of quintessential Indianness. We have identified independence with the leadership and not with the spirit. Gandhiji realized this, but it was too late. In 1946, when the Great Kolkata Killings were going on after Jinnah’s call for Direct Action, Gandhiji was asked as to whether he would still stand by his statement of 1940? Did he still think that partition could be prevented? Could Hindus and Muslims live together after all this murder and mayhem? Gandhiji’s response provided one of the greatest lessons of our independence movement. Gandhiji said that his words in 1940 were a reflection of the popular sentiment of the time. But on seeing the madness all around he realised that the young men of our country were not prepared to stand firm, plunge into the streets and fight it to the last for the unity and integrity of this nation. Therefore there was no option but to agree for partition. This is a very important lesson. When the time came for shedding blood for country’s unity, our countrymen were not prepared to pay that price. And the country was partitioned.

Let us go back in history by 40 years. First attempt at partitioning the country on communal lines had happened in 1905. Bengal was partitioned into Hindu and Muslim Bengal. There was a nationwide opposition to this act of the British led by the trio of Lal, Bal, Pal –LalaLajpatRai, BalGangadharTilak and Bipin Chandra Pal. The then Viceroy Curzon had pompously declared that the ‘partition of Bengal is a settled fact’. But the opposition for partition of Bengal grew so strong and loud that six years later King George V had to rush to India in 1911 and annul the partition of Bengal. The so-called settled fact had been unsettled by the national will. Why then did we become so helpless when in 1947, not one province, but the entire country was being partitioned? This is an important facet of our history to revisit. Did we miss the spirit and identified the entire movement with some individual leaders? When those individuals became helpless the entire movement became helpless? We cannot afford to ignore this important question.

Our independence movement shows that whenever the national will was robust and strong we achieved success. There was a phase in our independence movement, of roughly three decades, between 1915 and 1947, when a lot of confusion had crept in. Several incidents during this 30-year period should be revisited by scholars. It was during this period that M A Jinnah, a follower of Tilak and a volunteer of Congress, goes on to become the founder of Pakistan! How did the independence movement become a bargain between different groups is a topic of research! A slogan was coined by Tilak at the Lucknow Session of the Congress in 1916 – ‘Luck Now at Lucknow’. What was the luck in 1916 that Tilak was referring to? Muslim League had come to participate in the Congress session. We started believing that without the League there would be no independence. We started negotiating with them and when they agreed to attend the session we got elated to declare that luck had finally laughed on us. We made independence movement a bargain from thereon!

Savarkar’s famous advise to Gandhiji regarding this bargain was that he should tell those people categorically that: ‘If you come, with you. If you do not, without you. If you oppose, in spite of you’. This is called the national will. But the history of 1916 to 1946 was just the opposite. I would urge young scholars to revisit this part of our history. Why did institutions like AITUC, created by Congress, turn leftist organizations? How did the left and anarchist streams enter Congress? Where was the confusion created? Why were compromises made regarding issues like national flag, national anthem and national language etc? How did Jawaharlal Nehru become influenced by socialist ideology after his return from Moscow in 1927? What was the seriousness of differences between Gandhiji and Jawaharlal and how much did they influence the outcome of our independence?

These are some of the things to be revisited. We cannot undo anything in history by revisiting it. But we can always learn lessons from it. There might be lessons that are unpalatable but we have to learn even those lessons. This is important so that we do not repeat the past mistakes. Interpretation of history has no end, there can be and will be many further interpretations. History should be analysed with openness.

(This article is the summary of valedictory address delivered by Shri Ram Madhav, National General Secretary of BJP and Director of India Foundation, at the national seminar on “Revisiting Indian Independence Movement” organised by India Foundation at New Delhi on 18th March, 2017)
(This article is carried in the July-August 2017 issue of India Foundation Journal.)



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