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The Revolt of 1857

The suppressed feelings of India against British East India company were given a sudden vent in 1857. The disputes very soon spiraled into a full blown revolt of Indian soldiers against East India Company. Although unsuccessful in throwing out British, the event remains an important chapter in Indian history.

Different Perspectives.

VD Savarkar wrote a book in 1908 titled Indian War of Independence. He was the first to call the 1857 revolt as the war for independence. He presents following argument in his book

  • The annexation of Oudh and the case of greased cartridges were merely but small excuses to what was already in the process
  • The rupture of local traditions, mockery of Indian customs and religion, not recognizing the adopted rulers (a tradition allowed by Hindu Dharmashastras), the promotion of Christianity – these were the main factors behind rebellion.
  • The unifying feature of the war was the desire for swadharma and swaraj .
  • The presence of secret organizations illustrates that the revolt had plan and a purpose. – these secret cells spread the message, awakening sense of purpose, pride and nationalistic consciousness. It involved a coded communication language, infiltration of garrisons and villages by activists dressed as fakirs, sanyasis, sadhus, maulvis etc. The start of war was signaled by symbolic distribution of chapatis and red lotuses.
  • Further, the restoration of Bahadur Shah was not a retrograde action, but the consequence of nationalist re-awakening. A declaration that the long-standing war between Hindus and Mohammadens has ended (for the greater purpose of defeating British).

Savarkar believed that though the attempt was defeated, the spirit of nationalism has survived and it will lead to another war for independence in future.

For the War of 1857 shall not cease till the revolutionary arrives, striking slavery into dust, elevating liberty to the throne…. The war began on the 10th of May 1857 is not over on the 10th of May 1908, nor shall it cease till a 10th of May-to come sees the destiny accomplished, sees the beautiful India crowned

Another discourse, calling the uprising to be a mere sepoy mutiny, was led by British Historians.

  • Triggered by few disgruntled soldiers, the revolution was just an act of indiscipline within army. A normal occurrence in course of time for such a large organization.
  • It was sporadic, unplanned and occupied only parts of India.
  • Beyond overthrow of East India Company, the soldiers had no greater vision behind the revolt.
  • There was no unity of purpose, while sepoys wanted to restore Mughal rule, the inhabitants of Oudh wanted their Nawab back and so did the people of Zansi. Peasants, on the other hand, just wanted reduction in their tax rates.
  • There was no central leadership to the revolt. The feudal leaders like queen of Zansi, Tantia Tope, Kunwar Singh – all fought only to restore their former privileges.

India’s freedom struggle was a protracted battle. It included multiple strategies in multiple periods and also variety of actors. In this topic, we will be studying various phases and various actors of Indian freedom struggle from analytical perspective. Please remember that, in Political Science, we give more importance to analysis than historical facts.

Constitutionalism (Moderate Phase).

  • There are different types of political strategies adopted by the politicians or groups to achieve the political aim. Constitutionalism is a political strategy based on the philosophy of liberalism. Liberalism is based on the assumption that man is rational and hence political ends can be achieved by rational dialogue. There is no need of the use of violence in achieving political aims.
  • Constitutional methods can be called as institutional methods. States can provide different institutions like legislatures, local governments, for representation of people’s demands, involvement of them in administration. Free and fair judicial system for redressal of grievances.

Constitutional methods in India.

  • The idea of constitutionalism is itself an imported idea. Constitutionalism originated in Britain, it was introduced in India by the colonial masters. Britishers had introduced modern institutions like rule of law, modern judicial system, civil services and assemblies.
  • Britishers did not rule India only by the use of coercive methods. They tried to build hegemony by doing certain good actions for Indians. To gain the legitimacy of British rule, they incorporated Indians in assemblies as well as in civil services.
  • Early nationalists employed constitutional methods like bringing resolutions in the assembly, sending memorials, prayers, petitions, appeals to justice and protests.
  • Thus constitutional methods differ from direct actions like passive resistance, satyagraha, non-cooperation, dharana, haratal, boycott, civil disobedience, rebellions, mutiny, terrorism, criminal actions, aiding foreign invasions, subversion.

Why early nationalists adopted constitutional methods?

1. Ideological reasons: Most of them were educated in western education and impressed with values of liberalism.

  • Early nationalist believed that British rule is blessing in disguise. They had great faith in British sense of justice. M G Ranade thanked British for introducing rule of law, expressed that British rule in India is a divine intervention to eradicate the evils of misrule of the past.
  • Surendranath Banerjee appealed to the British to introduce the institutions which are truly British in character so that Indians can rejoice in permanent union with British.
  • Dadabhai Nauroji held that British are justice loving people. Indians have to communicate their demand to the British in ‘reasonable manner’. Ranade held that British rule is a source of inspiration, hope and confidence. He held that Indians are fortunate that they are ruled by the British.

2. Pragmatic reasons: According to Gokhale, constitutional methods were adopted according to the circumstances. Direct action required immense preparation and Indians were not ready for such action. According to C. Y. Chintamani before introducing direct actions, we have to address internal divisions and disunity.

Criticism of constitutional methods

1. Tilak: ‘Constitutional methods in front of alien bureaucracy is a political suicide’

2. Aurobindo Ghosh: Constitutional methods reflect ‘intellectual bankruptcy of the leaders’. Aurobindo Ghosh believed that Indians will have to strike at the roots of colonialism. That is – boycotting the foreign goods and adopting Swadeshi.

3. Pandit Nehru: Constitutional methods will not work because India does not have constitutional government.

4. Assessment by Bipin Chandra

  • Direct action is possible only when masses are organized, unified and have common consciousness of the common end. The objective conditions of the colonial rule were bringing Indians together but the subjective consciousness of the common ends was missing.
  • Moderates were ‘leaders as well as learners.’ There was no readymade critique of imperialism available for them to understand. (The first analysis of imperialism as colonialism came with the publication of Lenin’s book IMPERIALISM, THE HIGHESTS STAGE OF CAPITALISM.) At the same time, British did introduced some good practices. All the features of the evil empire were not on surface.
  • Though moderates didn’t carry mass struggle, but they carried struggle at ‘ideological level.’ They led the foundation of the most spectacular mass movement.

Bipin Chandra quotes M.G. Ranade, who held that “the memorials are not addressed to the British, they were addressed to Indians.” He also quotes Gokhale, in the words of Gokhale ‘We are at such a stage that our achievements are bound to be less and our failures too frequent. We must content  ourselves by serving our country by our failures. It is through these failures that the struggle will emerge.’

Extremist phase

  • The second generation of the leaders represented by Lal Bal Pal (Lala Lajpat Rai, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Bipin Chandra Pal) are called as extremists. They were dis-satisfied with the achievements of early nationalists. The use of the term extremists and militants is relative. These leaders appear extremist in their demands and methods in comparison to earlier leaders which now appeared ‘moderates’.
  • There is not much basic difference between the two in terms of goals. The goal of both remained Swaraj. With the exception of Aurobindo Ghosh, Swaraj even for all extremist leaders was ‘dominion statues’ and self rule.
  • The only difference was that they were getting impatient. Whatever reforms Britishers have introduced in the name of Indian council acts appeared too little and too late. It failed to meet the aspirations. No effective representation of Indians in law making, Indians only got gradual rights to ask questions on budget and to bring resolutions.
  • The main difference was in the strategy. Extremists favored direct actions like passive resistance, boycott, Swadeshi, national education, national courts etc. Tilak rejected the method of petition and asserted that Swaraj is the birthright of Indians. Tilak justified prajadroh i.e. the right of the people to resist the government which exploits.

Evaluation of extremists.

  • Extremists phase was the next logical step. Swadeshi movement can be considered as successful movement led by INC. Extremists could preserve the credibility of INC and created the base for the  launch of Gandhi’s mass movement.
  • Extremists have given the stronger theory of nationalism based on cultural symbols. Unfortunately it provided opportunity to the British to give communal color to the movement, presenting INC as party of Hindus. To defeat the nationalist consciousness  which emerged because of Swadeshi, Britishers had introduced Morley-Minto reforms of 1909, gave separate electorate to Muslims. Thus led the statutory foundation of the two-nation theory.

Strategy of mass movements [Gandhian Phase]

Gandhi led one of the biggest mass movements in the world, successfully.

Mass movements can be categorized into two basic types.

  • Uncontrolled mass movements: French revolution was spontaneous, uncontrolled mass movement.
  • Controlled mass movements: Russian revolution, Chinese revolution, Gandhian movements are examples of planned, directed and controlled mass movements.

We can also categorize mass movements in terms of strategy into two basic types.

  • Marxist – Leninist movement: The characteristic is they are sudden, comprehensive and achieve the immediate overthrow of the system. (Overnight movements.) 
  • Gramscian and Gandhian movements: Gramsci and Gandhi were contemporaries and show unique convergence in context of the strategy. They suggested two-stage revolution in case of ‘opaque states’. (Where it is difficult to understand the exploitative nature’. Hence the movement has to be ‘protracted movement’ known as war of position before arriving at a point of direct action or war of maneuver/frontal attack.

According to Bipin Chandra, Gandhian mass movement was a long, protracted movement with its active and passive phases. Active phases included mass agitation, passive phases included constructive programs. Bipin Chandra calls Gandhi’s strategy As a strategy of S-T-S (Struggle-Truce-Struggle). Gandhian strategy was based on the understanding of mass psychology. Masses have limited capacity to participate. Besides being a psychologist, Gandhi was a master strategist. Gandhi knew when to start the movement, when to call off the movement.
Gandhi’s approach as ‘proactive’ rather than reactive. Gandhian movements are proactive in the sense Gandhi never left ball in the courts of enemy. He forced enemy to respond. It was always initiative of Gandhi. The time and place, issue was all choice of Gandhi. Gandhi was offensive rather than defensive.

Non Cooperation movement

It was first truly Gandhian movement at pan India level. Gandhi started the movement at that time because the political environment was conducive to start the movement. People were looking for action in background of 

  • Rowlett Act and suppression of civil liberties.
  • Extreme pain because of Jallianwala bag tragedy.
  • Extreme disappointment and frustration because of the report of Hunter commission, and the massive support by British public for General Dyer. 
  • Economic distress because of 1st WW. 
  • Khilafat movement as an opportunity to bring Muslims together.

In Nagpur session of 1920, congress adopted the program of extra-constitutional mass struggle led by Gandhi. Right to refuse cooperation with the ruler who misrules. Gandhi’s promised that such method can deliver Swaraj within a year.

Strategy of non-cooperation.

  • Surrender of titles and honors.
  • Boycott of government schools, colleges and foreign clothes.
  • No tax campaign in case provincial congress committee approves.
  • Opening of national schools, colleges, panchayat courts, promotion of Khadi, maintaining Hindu-Muslim unity, giving up untouchability.
  • Strict adherence to non-violence.
  • Congress to reach to mohalla levels.

Congress described the movement as a peaceful, legitimate protest for attainment of Swaraj, by direct action rather than constitutional means.
However, Gandhi called off the movement abruptly after Chaurichaura incident in February 1922.

Reaction against Gandhi’s decision

  • Gandhi came under harsh criticism not only by non-congress leaders but even from congressmen. Even Pandit Nehru questioned the rationale of calling off the movement. Major criticism came from communists. They believed that Gandhi was fearful of masses acquiring power.
  • Analysis by Bipin Chandra: The real reason was that Gandhi wanted ‘graceful exit’. By this time, masses were getting exhausted. There were violent incidents in some regions like Mappila revolt in Malabar. Mappila revolt would have taken communal color. Gandhi realized that because of Chaurichaura incident, government will get excuse to use massive force. If government uses force, people will get scared and it will be difficult to rebuild the movement.

Assessment of Non-Cooperation movement.

Movement was failure in terms of stated objectives and the promises made by Gandhi and Congress. However movement was successful in the sense Gandhi got all that he wanted.

Gandhi’s wanted to test the capacity of masses for struggle. He wanted to establish Congress as the party of masses and not representing ‘microscopic minority’. Gandhi wanted national movement to become mass movement. It means multi-class movement rather than just limited to the middle classes.

There were also some visible successes


  • Boycott of the visit of prince of Wales.
  • Boycott of foreign goods.

Civil Disobedience Movement [CDM] (1930-31)

  • It is a finest example of Gandhian strategy. Non Cooperation can be considered as mild in comparison to Civil Disobedience, which was more provocative. Civil Disobedience was direct challenge to the authority whereas NCM was just targeting the economic base of colonialism.
  • NCM was not cooperating with the state, but civil disobedience was ‘willful disobedience’ of the authority. It is like questioning the legitimacy of the state.
  • CDM was more offensive than NCM. Gandhi wanted Britishers to use force. It would have challenged the myth of ‘benevolent despotism’. In case British state does not use force, it meant ‘collapse of the state’, if it uses force, it meant the collapse of its hegemony.
  • Since the strategy of CDM has put colonial state in dilemma, expressed by Viceroy as ‘dammed if you do and dammed if you don’t.’ It took them time to decide the arrest of Gandhi. This permitted Gandhi to complete his march. Once Gandhi completed his march, similar marches were organized. It became impossible for state not to arrest Gandhi. Arrest of Gandhi led to more rigorous protests. Ultimately government had no option but to release Gandhi. This has shown the victory of Gandhi. CDM ended in Gandhi-Irwin pact 1931, where govt. had accepted almost all of the demands of Gandhi.
    It strengthened:
    • Credibility of Congress
    • It has elevated Congress at a equal footing with govt.
  • CDM is also an example of Gandhi’s proactive approach. Gandhi started the movement when he realized that the atmosphere is favorable. Atmosphere was surcharged with ‘anti-British’ feelings because of a) economic hardships because of economic depression &  b) Simon commission and death of Lala Lajapatrai.

Gandhi’s demands

There were 11 point demands.

  1. Abolition of salt tax.
  2. Total prohibition on sale of liquor.
  3. Reduction of land revenue by half.
  4. Reduction of military expenditure by half.
  5. Reduction in the salary of the higher officials.
  6. Hike in the tariff of imported goods.
  7. Release political prisoners.
  8. Abolition of CID.
  9. License to use arms in self defense.
  10. Rationalization of rupee pound-sterling ratio.
  11. Coastal tariff regulation bill.
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