Anti-Colonial Movements and the Birth of Nationalism:
Early Uprising Against British Rule and Contributory factors for the outbreak of the Great Rebellion of 1857. The subsequent changes in the British approach to governing India as follows:
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Introduction to Early Uprising Against British Rule:
On 23 June 1757, the Nawab of Bengal Siraj-ud-daulah was defeated by the East India Company at the Battle of Plassey. The battle was orchestrated by Robert Clive, commander-in-chief of the East India Company, who managed to get the clandestine support from Mir Jafar, the uncle of Siraj-ud-daulah and the chief of the Nawab’s army. Clive was helped by the Jagat Seths (money lenders from Bengal) who were aggrieved by Siraj-ud-daulah’s policy. The Battle of Plassey was followed by the plunder of Bengal. Between 1757 and 1760, the company received ₹ 22.5 million from Mir Jafar, who became the new Nawab of Bengal. The same money was later invested to propel the industrial revolution in Britain, which rapidly mechanized the British textile industry. On the other hand, India was led to the path of de-industrialization and forced to create a market for the products manufactured in Britain. The plunder of India by the East India Company continued for another 190 years.
After Plassey, the British adopted a policy of territorial expansion. Soon the remaining parts of the Indian subcontinent came under their control. British brought systemic changes in land revenue administration, army, police, judicial system and other institutions of governance.
The early Indian response to colonial exploitation and the colonial political and economic domination consisted of two elements. The response in the late 18th and early 19th centuries was restorative in nature. Tribal uprisings and peasant rebellions made an attempt to restore the old order. The second response appeared in the second half of the 19th century in the form of Indian nationalism that imagined India as a nation emphasizing on the consciousness of unity and national aspiration.
(a). Farazi movement:
Farazi movement launched by Haji Shariatullah in 1818, in the parts of eastern Bengal, advocated the participants to abstain from un- Islamic activities. This brought him into direct conflict with the Zamindars and subsequently with the British, who favored the Zamindars to suppress the peasant uprising. After the death of Shariatullah in 1839, the rebellion was led by his son Dudu Mian who called upon the peasants not to pay tax. It gained popularity on a simple doctrine that land and all wealth should be equally enjoyed by the common folk. Dudu Mian laid emphasis on the egalitarian nature of religion and declared that “Land belongs to God”, and collecting rent or levying taxes on it was therefore against divine law. Large numbers of peasants were mobilized through a network of village organizations. There were violent clashes throughout the 1840s and 1850s with the zamindars and planters. After the death of Dudu Mian in 1862, the was revived in the 1870s by Noah Mian.
(b). Wahhabi Rebellion in Barasat:
The Wahhabi rebellion was an anti-imperial and anti-landlord movement. It originated in and around 1827, in the Barasat region of Bengal. It was led by an Islamic preacher Titu Mir who was deeply influenced by the Wahhabi teachings. He became an influential figure among the predominately Muslim peasantry oppressed under the coercive zamindari system. However, the fact that the majority of zamindars were Hindus, gave this movement an anti-Hindu complexion.
On 6 November 1831, the first major attack was launched in the town of Purnea. Titu Mir immediately declared freedom from British rule. Soon there was retaliation from the British and a large number of troops were sent to Narkelberia. Titu Mir along with his 50 soldiers was killed in the struggle.
In the end, the peasant rebellion clearly showed an awareness of the power structure in rural society and a strong will to restructure authority. The rebels were quite familiar with the political source of oppression, demonstrated in their actions against the Zamindar houses, their grain stocks, the moneylenders, and the merchants. At times the British state machinery, which came forward to protect these local agents of oppression, was also attacked. These characteristics were reflected in the peasant movements of the 20th century too.
(i) Tribal Uprising:
Under colonial rule, for the first time in Indian history, the government claimed a direct proprietary right over forests. British rule and its encouragement of the commercialization of forest led to the disintegration of the traditional tribal system. It encouraged the incursion of tribal areas by the non-tribal people such as moneylenders, traders, land-grabbers, and contractors. This led to the widespread loss of Adivasi land and their displacement from their traditional habitats.
Tribal resistance was, therefore, a response against those who either introduced changes in the peaceful tribal life or took undue advantage of the innocence of the tribal people.
(i) ‘Tribes’ who are they?
The modern usage of word tribe in India restricts the definition to distinguish them (tribes) from the rest of the Indian society, a stratified system based on caste. Often the term is misused to refer to isolated groups. Tribes in India were and are very much part of the Indian society. They, in fact, have acted for long as part of Indian peasantry subsisting through shifting cultivation.
(a). Kol Revolt:
One major tribal revolt, the Kol uprising of 1831-32, took place in Chota Nagpur and Singbhum region of Jharkhand and Orisa, under the leadership of Bindrai and Singhrai. The Raja of Chhota Nagpur had leased out to moneylenders the job of revenue collection. The usury and forcible eviction of tribals from their land led to the resentment of Kols. The initial protest and resistance Kols were in the form of plunder, arson, and attacks on the properties of outsiders. This was followed by the killing of moneylenders and merchants. The tribal leaders adopted varied methods to spread their messages such as the beating of drums and the circulation of arrows accompanied by a warning to all outsiders to leave.
Kols organized an insurrection in 1831-32, which was directed against government officers and money lenders. The Kol rebels took control of the king’s palace. They even succeeded in forming an independent government there. The British suppressed the rebellion with great violence.
(b) Munda Rebellion:
One of the prominent tribal rebellions of this period occurred in Ranchi, known as the Ulugulan rebellion (Great Tumult). The Munda people were familiar with the cooperative or collective farming known as Khuntkatti (joint holding) land system. It was totally eroded by the introduction of private ownership of land and the intrusion of merchants and moneylenders. The Munda people were also forcefully recruited as indentured laborers to work on plantations. The corrupt police, lack of access to justice and the disillusionment with Christian missionaries aggravated the miseries of Munda people. In the 1890s tribal chiefs offered resistance against the alienation of tribal people from their land and imposition of beth begari or forced labor.
The movement received an impetus when Birsa Munda declared himself as the messenger of God. Birsa claimed that he had a prophecy and promised supernatural solutions to the problem of Munda people and the establishment of Birsaite Raj. The Munda leaders utilized the cult of Birsa Munda to recruit more people to their cause. A series of night meetings were held and a revolt was planned. On Christmas day of 1889, they resorted to violence. Buildings were burnt down and arrows were shot at Christian missionaries and Munda Christian converts. Soon police stations and government officials were attacked. Similar attacks were carried out over the next few months. Finally, the resistance was crushed and Birsa Munda was arrested in February 1900 who later died in jail. Birsa Munda became a folk hero who is to this day celebrated in many folk songs. The Munda rebellion prompted the British to formulate a policy on Tribal land. The Chotanagpur Tenancy Act (1908) restricted the entry of non-tribal people into tribal land.
The Great The Great Rebellion of 1857
In 1857, British rule witnessed the biggest challenge to its existence. Initially, it began as a mutiny of Bengal presidency sepoys but later expanded to the other parts of India involving a large number of civilians, especially peasants.
The events of 1857–58 are significant for the following reasons:
1. This was the first major revolt of armed forces accompanied by civilian rebellion.
2. The revolt witnessed unprecedented violence, perpetrated by both sides.
3. The revolt ended the role of the East India Company and the governance of the Indian subcontinent was taken over by the British Crown.
1). Annexation Policy of British India:
In the 1840s and 1850s, more territories were annexed through two major policies:
The Doctrine of Paramountcy: British claimed themselves as paramount, exercising supreme authority. New territories were annexed on the grounds that the native rulers were corrupt and inept.
The Doctrine of Lapse: If a native ruler failed to produce a biological male heir to the throne, the territory was to ‘lapse’ into British India upon the death of the ruler. Satara, Sambalpur, parts of the Punjab, Jhansi, and Nagpur were annexed by the British through the Doctrine of Lapse.
2. Insensitivity to Indian Cultural Sentiments:
There was always a suspicion among the people regarding British intentions. In 1806 the sepoys at Vellore mutinied against the new dress code, which prohibited Indians from wearing religious marks on their foreheads and having whiskers on their chin while proposing to replace their turbans with a round hat. It was feared that the dress code was part of their effort to convert soldiers to Christianity.
Similarly, in 1824, the sepoys at Barrackpur near Calcutta refused to go to Burma by sea, since crossing the sea meant the loss of their caste.
The sepoys were also upset with discrimination in salary and promotion. Indian sepoys were paid much less than their European counterparts. They felt humiliated and racially abused by their seniors.
(b). The Revolt
The precursor to the revolt was the circulation of rumors about the cartridges of the new Enfield rifle. There was a strong suspicion that the new cartridges had been greased with cow and pig fat. The cartridge had to be bitten off before loading (pork is forbidden to the Muslims and the cow is sacred to a large section of Hindus).
On 29 March a sepoy named Mangal Pandey assaulted his European officer. His fellow soldiers refused to arrest him when ordered to do so. Mangal Pandey along with others was court-martialled and hanged. This only fuelled the anger and in the following days, there were increasing incidents of disobedience. Burning and arson were reported from the army cantonments in Ambala, Lucknow, and Meerut.
Bahadur Shah Proclaimed as Emperor of Hindustan:
On 11 May 1857, a band of sepoys from Meerut marched to the Red Fort in Delhi. The sepoys were followed by an equally exuberant crowd who gathered to ask the Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah II to become their leader. After much hesitation, he accepted the offer and was proclaimed as the Shahenshah-e- Hindustan (the Emperor of Hindustan). Soon the rebels captured the north-western province and Awadh. As the news of the fall of Delhi reached the Ganges valley, cantonment after cantonment mutinied till, by the beginning of June, British rule in North India, except in Punjab and Bengal, had disappeared.
The mutiny was equally supported by an aggrieved rural society of north India. Sepoys working in the British army were, in fact, peasants in uniform. They were equally affected by the restructuring of the revenue administration. The sepoy revolt and the subsequent civil rebellion in various parts of India had a deep-rooted connection with rural mass. The first civil rebellion broke out in parts of the North-Western provinces and Oudh. These were the two regions from which the sepoys were predominately recruited. A large number of Zamindars and Taluqdars were also attracted to the rebellions as they had lost their various privileges under the British government. The talukdar–peasant collective was a common effort to recover what they had lost. Similarly, artisans and handicrafts persons were equally affected by the dethroning of rulers of many Indian states, who were a major source of patronage. The dumping of British manufactures had ruined the Indian handicrafts and thrown thousands of weavers out of employment. Collective anger against the British took the form of a people’s revolt.
Prominent Fighters against the British
The mutiny provided a platform to aggrieved kings, nawabs, queens, and zamindars to express the anti-British anger. Nana Sahib, the adopted son of the last Peshwa Baji Rao II, provided leadership in the Kanpur region. He had been denied pension by the Company. Similarly, Begum Hazrat Mahal in Lucknow and Khan Bahadur in Bareilly took the command of their respective territories, which were once ruled either by them or by their ancestors. Another such significant leader was Rani Lakshmi Bai, who assumed the leadership in Jhansi. In her case Dalhousie, the Governor-General of Bengal had refused her request to adopt a son as her successor after her husband died and the kingdom was annexed under the Doctrine of Lapse. Rani Lakshmi Bai battled the mighty British Army until she was defeated.
Bahadur Shah Jafar, Kunwar Singh, Khan Bahadur, Rani Lakshmi Bai and many others were rebels against their will, compelled by the bravery of the sepoys who had defied the British authority.
(c). Suppression of Rebellion:
By the beginning of June 1857, the Delhi, Meerut, Rohilkhand, Agra, Allahabad and Banaras divisions of the army had been restored to British control and placed under martial law. The British officers were given the power to judge and take the life of Indians without due process of law.
William Howard Russell, the correspondent of the London Times, who was in India in 1858, met an officer who was a part of the column under Colonel Neill’s orders marched from Allahabad to Kanpur. The officer reported that ‘in two days, 42 men were hanged on the roadside, and a batch of 12 men was executed because their faces were turned the wrong way when they were met on the march.’ Even boys who had playfully flaunted rebel colors and beaten a tom-tom were not spared. Every Indian who appeared in sight was shot or hung on the trees that lined the road;
(d). Causes of Failure:
There is hardly any evidence to prove that the rebellion of 1857 was organized and planned. It was spontaneous. However, soon after the siege of Delhi, there was an attempt to seek the support of the neighboring states. Besides a few Indian states, there was a general lack of enthusiasm among the Indian princes to participate in the rebellion. The Indian princes and zamindars either remained loyal or were fearful of British power. Many a time they acted as a fifth column. Those involved in the rebellion were left with either little or no sources of arms and ammunition. The emerging English-educated middle class too did not support the rebellion.
One of the important reasons for the failure of the rebellion was the absence of a central authority. There was no common agenda that united the individuals and the aspirations of the Indian princes and the various other feudal elements fighting against the British.
In the end, the rebellion was brutally suppressed by the British army. The rebel leaders were defeated due to the lack of weapons, organisation, discipline, and betrayal by their aides. Delhi was captured by the British troops in late 1857. Bahadur Shah was captured and transported to Burma.
(e). India Becomes a Crown Colony:
The British were shocked by the events of 1857. The British Parliament adopted the Indian Government Act, on November 1858, and India was pronounced as one of the many crown colonies to be directly governed by the Parliament. The responsibility was given to a member of the cabinet, designated as the Secretary of State for India. The transfer of power from the East India Company to the British Crown also meant that there was a regular parliamentary review of Indian affairs.
Changes in the Administration
British rule and its policies underwent a major overhaul after 1857. British followed a cautious approach to the issue of social reform. Queen Victoria proclaimed to the Indian people that the British would not interfere in traditional institutions and religious matters. It was promised that Indians would be absorbed in government services. Two significant changes were made to the structure of the Indian army. The number of Indians was significantly reduced. Indians were restrained from holding important ranks and positions. The British took control of the artillery and shifted their recruiting effort to regions and communities that remained loyal during 1857. For instance, the British turned away from Rajputs, Brahmins, and North Indian Muslims and looked towards non-Hindu groups like the Gorkhas, Sikhs, and Pathans. British also exploited the caste, religious, linguistic and regional differences in the Indian society through what came to be known as “Divide and Rule” policy.
Partition of Bengal:
In 1899, Lord Curzon was appointed the Viceroy of India. Instead of engaging with the nationalist intelligentsia for handling the problem of famine and plague, Curzon resorted to repressive measures to undermine the idea of local self-government, the autonomy of higher educational institutions and gag the press. Partition of Bengal in 1905 was the most unpopular of all. The partition led to widespread protests all across India, starting a new phase of the Indian national movement.
The idea of partition was devised to suppress the political activities against the British rule in Bengal by creating a Hindu-Muslim divide.
(a). Hindu–Muslim Divide
It was openly stated that the objective of partition was to curtail Bengali influence and weaken the nationalist movement. By placing Bengal under two administrative units Curzon reduced the Bengali – speaking people to a linguistic minority in a divided Bengal. Curzon assured Muslims that in the new province of East Bengal Muslims would enjoy unity, which they never enjoyed since the days of the Mughals.
Instead of dividing the Bengali people along the religious line partition united them. The growth of regional language newspapers played a role in building a sense of proud Bengali identity.
(b) Anti- Partition Movement
The leaders of both the groups – extremist and moderate – were critical of partition. Initially, the objective of the anti-partition campaign was limited to changing public opinion in England. So they protested through prayers, press campaigns, petitions, and public meetings. However, despite widespread protest, the partition of Bengal was announced on 19 July 1905.
With the failure to annul the partition moderate leaders were forced to rethink their strategy and look for new techniques of protest. The boycott of British goods was one such method. However, the agenda of the Swadeshi Movement was still restricted to secure an annulment of partition and the moderates were very much against utilizing the campaign to start a full-fledged passive resistance. The militant nationalists, on the other hand, were in favor of extending the movement beyond Bengal and to initiate a full-scale mass struggle.
The day Bengal was officially partitioned – 16 Oct 1905 – was declared as a day of mourning. Thousands of people took bath in the Ganga and marched on the streets of Calcutta singing Bande Mataram.
(c) Boycott and Swadeshi Movement in Bengal (1905–1911)
Boycott and swadeshi were always interlinked to each other and part of the wider plan to make India self-sufficient. Four major trends can be discerned during the Swadeshi Movement in Bengal.
1. The Moderate Trend – Faith in British rule and their sense of justice and democratic practice. The moderate leaders were not ready to wrest power from British in one single movement and therefore Boycott and Swadeshi Movement was of limited significance to them.
2. Constructive Swadeshi – Rejected the self- defeating modest approach of moderates and focused on self-help through swadeshi industries, national schools, arbitration courts and constructive programs in the villages. It remained non-political in nature.
3. Militant Nationalism – A section of Indian nationalists who had little patience for the non-political constructive programs. They ridiculed the idea of self-help and were more focused on a relentless boycott of foreign goods.
4. Revolutionary terrorism – A far more radical response to the British rule in India was to fight the British with violent methods. British officials who were anti-swadeshi or repressive towards the native population were targeted. It also marked the shift from the mass-based movement to individual action.
The constructive programs largely stressed self-help. It focused on building alternative institutions of self-governance that would operate free of British control.
It also laid emphasis on the need of self- strengthening of the people which would help in creating a worthy citizen for political agitation. Swadeshi shops sprang all over the place selling textiles, handlooms, soaps, earthenware, match and leather goods.
From 1906 the Swadeshi Movement took a turn where the repeal of partition was no longer on the agenda. For many leaders, the movement was to be utilized for propagating the idea of political independence or Swaraj across India. Under this new direction, the swadeshi program included four points: boycott of foreign goods, the boycott of government schools and colleges, courts, titles and government services, development of Swadeshi industries, national schools, recourse to armed struggle if British repression went beyond the limits of endurance.
The method of passive resistance had no practical utility in a situation where there is a ruthless and mighty administration on the side and on the other the militarily weaker people. Resistance in such a situation can be provided through relentless non-cooperation and disobedience.
(d) Militant Nationalism
Lala Lajpat Rai of Punjab, Bala Gangadhar Tilak of Maharashtra and Bipin Chandra Pal of Bengal were three prominent leaders during the Swadeshi period and were referred to as Lal-Bal-Pal triumvirate. Punjab, Bengal, and Maharashtra emerged as the hotbed of militant nationalism during the Swadeshi Movement. In South India, Tuticorin became the most important location of Swadeshi activity with the launch of a Swadeshi Steam Navigation company by V.O. Chidambaranar.
Swaraj or Political Independence
One of the common goals of the extremist leaders was to achieve Swaraj or Self Rule. However, the leaders differed on the meaning of Swaraj. For Tilak Swaraj was the attainment of complete autonomy and total freedom from foreign rule. Unlike the moderates who were critical of the reckless revolutionaries, militant nationalists were sympathetic towards the extremists. However, the political murders and individual acts of terrorism were not approved by the militant leaders.
The British brutally crushed the Swadeshi Movement by jailing prominent leaders for long spells of imprisonment. Revolutionaries were hanged to death. The press was crushed.
Home Rule Movement (1916–1918)
The Indian national movement was revived and also radicalized during the Home Rule Movement (1916-1918), led by Lokamanya Tilak and Annie Besant. World War I and Indian’s participation in it was the background for the Home Rule League. When Britain declared war against Germany in 1914, the moderate and liberal leadership extended their support to the British cause. It was hoped that, in return, the British government would give self-government after the war. Indian troops were sent to several theatres of World War. But the British administration remained non-committal to such goals. What was seen as a British betrayal to the Indian cause of self-government led to a fresh call for a mass movement to pressurize the British government?
(a) Towards Charting a Common Path
The 1916 Annual Session of Congress began with two significant developments. One, moderate leaders Pherozeshah Mehta and Gokhale, two main voices of opposition against the militant faction, had died in 1915. The rising popularity of Annie Besant was the other factor that compelled the moderates to put up a common front against the colonial government. In the Lucknow session of the Indian National Congress (1916), it was decided to admit the militant faction into the party.
Tilak set up the first Home Rule League in April 1916. In September 1916, after repeated demands of her impatient followers, Annie Besant decided to start the Home Rule League without the support of Congress. Both the leagues worked independently. The Home Rule Leagues were utilized to carry extensive propaganda through, press, speeches, public meetings, lectures, discussions and touring in favor of self-government. They succeeded in enrolling young people in large numbers and extending the movement to rural areas. The Home Rule Movement in India borrowed much of its principles from the Irish Home Rule Movement.
(b) Objectives of the Home Rule Movement
1. To attain self-government within the British Empire by using constitutional means.
2. To obtain the status of dominion, a political position accorded later to Australia, Canada, South Africa, and New Zealand.
3. To use non-violent to achieve their goals.
(c) Lucknow Pact (1916)
The Home Rule Movement and the subsequent reunion of moderate and the militant nationalists opened the possibility of fresh talks with the Muslims. Under the Lucknow Pact (1916), the Congress and the Muslim League agreed that there should be self-government in India as soon as possible. In return, the Congress leadership accepted the concept of separate electorate for Muslims.
(d) British Response
The response of the government of British India to the Home Rule Movement was not consistent. Initially, it stated that there should be reform to accommodate more Indians in local administrative bodies. As the demand for Swaraj was raised by Tilak and Annie Besant that gained popularity, the British used the same old ploy to isolate the leaders by repressing their activities.
In 1919 the British government announced the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms which promised gradual progress of India towards self-government. This caused deep disappointment to Indian nationalists. In a further blow, the government enacted what was called the Rowlatt Act which provided for arbitrary arrest and strict punishment.
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