Can Britons be considered as the reason for the birth of Indian nationalism, which was absent until 1857?

By Sunil Kumar

No, actually. A pan-Indian identity and ethos has been present in the subcontinent for a long time; and even foreigners and invaders acknowledged this.

Indian identity was in existence since the Indus Valley Civilization with the Sumerian name Meluhha; which Amish Tripathi has used in his book on Lord Shiva; “The Immortals of Meluhha”.

Devotion and religious identity coupled with distinctly “Indic” practices and religion were integral to the landmass of the subcontinent; which stretched from Afghanistan to Bangladesh. Probably the reason for the historical moniker “Uttarapatha” and “Dakshinapatha”; the ancient trading routes in Jambudvipa(Hindu and Buddhist name for India) for a very long time.

Uttarapath And Dakshinapath: The
Great Trade Routes Of Jambudwipa

Now; the Europeans were also tacitly aware of the fact; otherwise why the names “Dutch East India Company”; British East India Company or French East India Company.

Nearly everybody with even a cursory knowledge of history knows that Columbus was looking for India; went the wrong way and (re)discovered the Americas.

The name came from Greek Historian Herodotus(5th century BC- 2550 years ago) description of “Indika” even though Indians called themselves by a myriad of other names including Bharat, Jambudvipa, Aryavarta etc and outsiders “mleccha” or barbarians. The guy was also the reason Europeans referred to Iran as “Persia”.

As for 1857; it is a notable event but over-rated. Look at the greatest icons we associate with this; the Rani of Jhansi(Manikarnika or Lakshmibai); Tantia Tope; Nanasaheb Peshwa(adopted son of last Maratha Peshwa); a few kings in MP, sepoy units and the last vestige of the Mughals; all of whom were busy cosying up to the British but frustrated at the obvious deviousness and treachery of Dalhousie’s “Doctrine of Lapse” rebelled.

The British cleverly overplayed a few Indian excesses; got the newly enlisted Sikhs and the Gurkhas to Delhi; while Jhansi was betrayed by rulers from Orccha; Datia and the former Maratha chieftains of Gwalior(Scindia: famous in present-day Indian politics with one CM(BJP-Rajasthan) and the other a loyal toadie of the Congress(MP).

After achieving victories all over India; the British were getting used to ruling India; arrogance and hubris had set in; and they were startled at a revolt over what was in their minds an insignificant thing(the beef and pork grease on Enfield musket cartridges) but inflamed the religious sentiments of both Hindus and Muslims.

Also; a pan-Indian nationalist movement cannot be solely attributed to this alone; as events later were more instrumental in the pantheon and long list of revolutionaries who rose in the first half of the 20th century.

British(English) Education by which Macaulay wanted to create a servile class of wogs useful to the Empire was actually instrumental in fostering nationalist sentiment.

The inquisitive Indian mind with a natural bent for philosophy and intense questioning read works by great European thinkers on humanism and democracy; and naturally wondered why this was denied to them.

D.N Naoroji; supported by the Maharaja of Baroda Sayyaji Gaekwad, Jinnah and Florence Nightingale was the first Indian elected in the British Parliament.

He raised India’s civil rights situation in their legislature in the 1890s. Starting with Bengal(the longest under British rule) the flames of nationalism spread across the country. You have to also give credit to great writers and social revolutionaries across the subcontinent who resented colonial rule, wrote both in English as well as local languages; and incited change in a largely passive population.

1857 was used as an ideal but every intelligent individual campaigning for freedom knew that the “Idea of India” had persisted for a long time; over thousands of years. So; the statement that Indian nationalism was absent until the Revolt of 1857 is utterly wrong.

Other ideas of a single cultural entity had been part of the mindscape for a very long time e.g Marathas with “Hindavi” Swaraj; the Vijaynagar Empire who kept ancient culture alive; even the Sultans and Mughals who fancied “rule” over Hind(ancient name for India).

Now; whether Britons are the reason for the birth of Indian nationalism. Very important contributory factor; but not the sole instigators. Marathas; Sikhs, Assam(Ahoms), Kerala(Travancore) etc had been fighting against different invaders from the Mughals to the Dutch, the French or the Portuguese.

Obviously; any nationalist movement will rally against the “power” which has the maximum influence and control; the British controlled practically everything(barring a few pockets) from the Khyber to Burma. So; ideologues will have to create a nationalist movement against them. (Side note; Goa was under Portuguese rule for 450 years).

The 1857 struggle was limited to a certain swathe of land; but definitely caused considerable consternation in England and Europe. Even Marx and Engels; famous communist icons commented on the movement. Marx observed;

“However infamous the conduct of the sepoys, it is only the reflex, in a concentrated form, of England’s own conduct in India.—There is something in human history like retribution”

Source: Marx and Engels on 1857 Revolt

Engels: “There is no army in Europe and America with so much brutality as the British.—For twelve days and nights, there was no British army at Lucknow—nothing but a lawless, drunken, brutal rabble-far more lawless, violent and greedy than the sepoys.—The sack of Lucknow in 1858 will remain an everlasting disgrace to the British military service.”

The deception of the British; the treachery of Indian princes like the Scindias left an indelible impression on later students of history and the intelligentsia who later became the backbone of the Indian freedom struggle. So; for that reason alone; it is a significant thing.

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