Beyond Occident – an opinion column by Avatans Kumar that explores a native perspective on the Indian diaspora

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There was a sense of jubilation as Jawaharlal Nehru lowered the Union Jack for the last time and raised the Indian Tiranga (the tricolor, the Indian flag) on 15 August 1947. But there was also a sense of loss. The sacred land, the Deva Bhoomi, and the Punya Bhumi of the indigenous Indians – the progenies of Bharat Mata who had lived on the land for thousands of years – were dismembered.  The horror and trauma of Partition still haunt many Indians. Millions perished. Tens of millions more lost their family, friends, homes, and livelihood. 

Jawaharlal Nehru – Tryst with Destiny Speech, 15 August 1947. Source: Wikimedia

After Independence, historians and scholars affiliated with the Indian National Congress made a conscious effort to write a history of a “non-violent” freedom struggle. “The basic focus of the chroniclers of the Indian freedom movement,” writes Shivaji Ganguly (Indian Revolutionary Struggle, India Quarterly, October-December 1983), “has been the Gandhian non-violent struggle under the Indian National Congress.” Such chronicling created a narrative that, at best, attempted to minimize the legacies of the revolutionaries such as Chandrashekar Azad, Lala Hardayal, Jatin Mukherjee (aka Bagha Jatin), Rashbehari Bose, V.D. Savarkar, Ashfaqulla Khan, Sardar Bhagat Singh, and Khudiram Bose, etc.

Violent Resistance Against British Rule

Violent resistance against British rule, led by the revolutionaries, was part of India’s independence movement. Such resistance was “preached and practiced throughout the independence movement and had a significant role on its course and outcome” (Peter Heehs, Terrorism in India During Freedom Struggle, in The Historian, Spring 1993, Vol. 55, No. 3). It is the existence of the revolutionaries, many believe, that made it easier for Mahatma Gandhi’s “non-violent” methods to accomplish its goals. The 1946 mutiny of the Royal Indian Navy (RIN), many believe, proved to be the final nail in the coffin of British rule in India. The effects of the mutiny were felt in Mumbai the most. Hundreds died in clashes with police and soldiers. Several police stations were burned, buses overturned, and life ground to a halt.

The primary objective of the Indian revolutionaries, right from the First War of Independence in 1857, was the overthrow of the British Raj. In pursuing their goal, the revolutionaries were not hesitant in resorting to violent means, nor were they shy about asking for help from anyone, including those outside of India.

The Indian Arms Act, 1878

Smarting from the popular armed uprising against the Raj in 1857, the British government enacted the Indian Arms Act of 1878. The Act regulated firearms manufacturing, selling, possessing, and carrying. It severely reduced the possibility of an Indian armed struggle against British rule. The scale of the violent resistance also decreased significantly. The Act failed miserably, however, in curtailing the spirit of rebellion against the British Raj.

The Chapekar Brothers, Revolutionaries

One of the first acts of revolutionary violence associated with India’s freedom movement was the assassination of a British officer in Pune in 1897. The Chapekar brothers – Damodar Hari and Balkrishna Hari – killed a British officer in charge of enforcing anti-plague regulations. The brothers believed that the officer’s methods were anti-Hindu, and the officer “made himself an enemy of our religion” (S.A.T Rowlatt et al., Report of Committee Appointed to Investigate Revolutionary Conspiracies in India).

The Chapekar Brothers: L to R: Damodar Hari Chapekar, Vasudeo Chapekar and Balkrishna Chapekar

More Indians were growing disenchanted with the moderate policies of the Indian National Congress in fighting for freedom. As an alternative, secret societies started forming across India towards the end of the 19th century. The writings of Bankimchandra Chattopadhyaya (Anandmath), the rituals of the Shivaji festival, Ganapati puja, etc., provided the necessary impetus for militant nationalist resistance towards British colonial rule in India.

Anushilan Samiti – A Revolutionary Group

The legendary Anushilan Samiti of Bengal was one of the most influential revolutionary groups of the early 20th century. The Samiti was extremely close-knit. It was known for its organizational effectiveness and highly selective recruitment procedures. The Samiti brought several similar groups operating in Punjab, Bengal, UP, Bihar, Maharashtra, and Madras (now Chennai) together for a collaboration of revolutionary activities across the Indian subcontinent.

The Samiti challenged British rule in India through frequent bombings of British interests, assassinations of British officials and their agents, and other politically motivated violence. Besides others, the Samiti is known for its role in the Kakori Train Robbery (the Kakori Conspiracy) and the Chittagong armory raid.

Kakori Train Robbery. Source: Twitter

Indian revolutionary activities were not restricted on the domestic front alone. Several revolutionary organizations abroad were also engaged in India’s armed revolutionary struggle. In this context, the role of the Ghadar Party in the US and Canada, the Independence Committee in Germany, and Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose’s Azad Hind Fauz are pretty influential.

The Trauma Of Partition: Freedom & Fragmentation

Old Sikh man carrying his wife. Margaret Bourke-White. 1947. Source: Wikipedia
Photograph, 1947, Margaret Bourke-White. An aged and abandoned Muslim couple and their grand children sitting by the roadside on this arduous journey. Source: Wikipedia

According to some estimates, nearly two million people lost their lives in the events leading up to and after Independence Day in 1947. The actual count could be much higher, as usually is the case. For those who died, it was the most horrific death nobody expected and none deserved.

“Early in August 1947, things began to change,” wrote Khushwant Singh in his book Punjab, Punjabi, and Punjabiyat, “The riots assumed the magnitude of a massacre, and it became clear that Sikhs and Hindus would have to clear out of Pakistan.” That fear forced one of the worst human migrations in history. It was a tragedy of epic proportions.

As the Indian subcontinent was split based on religion – Hinduism and Islam – close to 14 million people found themselves in the wrong country and on the move overnight. Many started on an unknown journey – by foot or by trains – hoping they would return ‘home’ one day once the dust settled. After all, most of them had lived there for hundreds or even thousands of years. 

“The only person who seemed real,” wrote Khushwant Singh, “was Mahatma Gandhi, who had refused to participate in the festivities and was going about on foot from village to village exhorting people to stop killing neighbors.”

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Avatans Kumar

Avatans Kumar is a columnist, public speaker, and activist. A JNU, New Delhi, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign alumnus, Avatans holds graduate degrees in Linguistics. Avatans is a recipient...