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The nation and the national festivals May 12, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in history, india, politics.
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Ram Guha talks about his latest book :

If there is a defining feature it is this: that Indian democracy, the Indian state, has gone from crisis to crisis and somehow we have been able to contain these crises. Since the 1950s there’s a kind of insurgency in Kashmir and then it stops. Then you have the whole linguistic movement, which is contained through the creation of linguistic states. Then you have the Dravidian movement but then the Tamils decide that they want to be a part of India. There is Naxalism, which gets contained. And then there is Punjab. It is a nation that lurches from crisis to crisis, but unlike any other nation in the Asian, African or ex-colonial world, it is not enough to (destroy) the democratic fabric of society except for that brief period of Emergency.

So, a sick man who refuses to die or an warrior who is always at war and each time just manages to scrape through ? But the British in 1947 must have thought ( like Bush does now ( and rightly so perhaps )) that if they leave the sub-continent, India will break up in pieces. Well, we did and we didn’t. Mostly latter. I wrote about this before.

Post-independence history hence is indeed interesting. I recently bought a book “Nehru” by Vincent Sheehan, an American journalist who knew Nehru personally. The first chapter of the book is ironically mostly about Gandhi. (Vincent was covering Gandhi’s prayer function when he ( Gandhi ) was assassinated.) If I get to the second chapter which I often don’t these days, I will write more.

Meanwhile, the Indian Express has something compelling on a related topic.

Without a doubt, 1857 is an important milestone in the evolution of modern India. But the lacklustre character of the celebrations surrounding the one hundred and fiftieth year of India’s First War of Independence raises some profound questions about the relationship between the nation and the important events that made it. The first is the striking contrast we still see between India’s religious celebrations and its civic ones. The former are colourful, spontaneous, diversely imagined and organised by the people. The latter remain for the most part dull, solemn, doled out in standardised formats and manufactured by state.

The question is: why aren’t citizens taking charge of their own history, commemorating them in their own way? The reasons are complex. Part of it has to do with the state constructing 1857 as an icon, rather than lively history. 1857 is also a touchy subject, because there many competing narratives about these events. And for all our talk about unity in diversity, these competing narratives can expose our faultlines. There is also something to the claim that the character of our patriotism may be changing: rousing narratives of sacrifice do not move us in the same way they used to.

True, isn’t it. I can through arguments perhaps talk about how 1857 meant a big deal, but I am not sure that would be too sincere in terms of what I feel. As for state sponsored celebrations like the Oct 2/Jan 26, somehow it feels distant compared to say, Holi.

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Comments»

1. Rajshekhar - May 13, 2007

I agree with the view expressed by Mr. Ram Guha about crisis in Indian democracy, and much of the crisis is the outcome of developing weak loyalty towards positive legacy of our historical traditions flourished during independence struggle.

2. Abhinav - May 13, 2007

Firstly, welcome back. It’s been a while since you blogged!

I don’t comprehend this sentence of yours:

So, a sick man who refuses to die or an warrior who is always at war and each time just manages to scrape through ?

My views on 1857:

1857 was NOT a war of independence. It was merely a revolt by the employees of the East India Company.

Analogical setting: a flourishing MNC in Bangalore, circa 2007. Some Tam-Bram guys hear their CEO is passing out beef jerky for a snack while saying it’s 100% veg or chicken jerky (if there’s such a thing), and eventually revolt. There are other reasons to the revolt as well, such as poor work conditions, a policy of lapse which results in snatching cubicles away from employees in managerial posts etc. After the revolt begins, other ethnic groups join the revolution as well. They want to establish their old IIT prof, whose predecessors were cruel and despotic like the MNC bosses as well, as the company CEO.

Soon employees in OTHER campuses of the MNC revolt as well. But in most campuses, let’s say, particular ethnic groups refuse to revolt with their revolting brothers. They instead help the MNC’s top brass to quell the revolt. Overall, the revolution will be killed. Tam-Brams and ethnic groups which supported the revolt would be labelled as a non-techy race. The ethnic groups which supported the MNC will be a techy race and get the privilage of having a quota for employment.

150 years later, the revolt gets called the first war of technological independence.

Blah.

3. Sharath Rao - May 13, 2007

@rajshekhar : thanks for the comment. I agree with you – its the independence movement that forged much of the common identity …its still a process in the making ..but in country as diverse as india, it might never happen that we identify more with indep. days as opposed to hundreds/thousand year old traditions …

@abhinav : I was referring to india being the sick man going from one trouble to another, barely managing to survive each time.

as for your analogy, I am not sure I agree…. irrespective of how the war started, its scale was really rather big. infact its supposed to be the largest armed struggle against british colonialism anywhere in the world before or since. Given that India is almost the size of western europe, its really some kind of european war in scale atleast. ( marathas, mughals, jhansi, kittur ( karnataka ) and TN kingdoms as well and several other smaller states in the north )

I agree though that since the very existence of “india” in 1857 as such is questionable, it was a mutiny of different kingdoms that morphed into war to oust the british. I don’t care what it is called, but it was a major event in British Raj that woke them up and cause them to take major steps. I guess after this East india company lost control and Queen directly took over India. ( Don’t believe India had a queen at some point ..psst. ! )

4. Abhinav - May 14, 2007

Actually both our basic premise is the same: that it was a large scale armed struggle, irrespective of what it’s called. But just wanted to add on to/reufte some of your points.

@irrespective of how the war started, its scale was really rather big

I agree. But the Punjab, NWFP, Gwalior, Gurkhas etc., which had rather larger provinces, were supporting the British and were instrumental in quelling the revolution. So how can a unified Indian federation celebrate an event in which ancestors of Modern day Indians were killing each other? What kind of a war of independence involves overthrowing the pesky Brits and replacing them with the atrocious Mughals? That’s trading masters, not freedom.

And wikipedia has this map:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Indian_revolt_of_1857_states_map.svg

If it’s genuine, the scale of the rebellion was pathetic compared to the size of the Indian Subcontinent.

@it was a mutiny of different kingdoms that morphed into war to oust the british.

There was no central command for the rebels for the entire mutiny so how can it be called a war? Many of the rebels were former EIC soldiers. After a while into the mutiny, it seemed the objectives were simply to drive the British out of their rebelling kingdoms/provinces, not the Indian Subcontinent. Take Jhansi for example: they were friends with the British & paid them taxes till the Doctrine of Lapse threatened Jhansi’s royalty’s status as the ruling party and the British would have usurped the Kingdom like they did in Punjab.

@but it was a major event in British Raj that woke them up and cause them to take major steps.

The Raj only began after the Sepoy Mutiny:)

@Don’t believe India had a queen at some point

India has been under foreign control for so many centuries that it doesn’t really surprise me. I think we had a female Sultan also, who ruled over the Delhi Sultanate, Razia Sultana I think.

And despite all this, I think Mangal Pandey was a brave, brave man:) On a trip to Calcutta, I made sure to visit Barrackpore, where 1857 had truly begun..

5. Sharath Rao - May 14, 2007

Thanks abhi for all those details. The map itself was informative and you have a point there.

as for the queen, razia sultana’s was a rather brief reign and over a much smaller area than the subcontinent…so shudn’t really count…


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