The author begins this deeply researched assessment of the first phase of the Indian national movement, the 30th in the People’s History of India series, by refuting the popular claim that India was ruled by “foreigners” for 1,000 years, a reference that clubs the Mughals with the British.
“There was actually no ‘foreign rule’ over India before the British conquest,” he writes, and quotes Adam Smith to underline the deleterious impact of British rule. In 1778, Smith wrote, “unlike the preceding Indian rulers the English East India Company by its control over trade… was tending to ‘degrade the cultivation of the whole country and to reduce the number of its inhabitants’.”
Dr Habib dates the start of the independence struggle from the 1857 uprising, highlighting its socio-economic origins. The discontent among peasant-cultivators at the Company’s exploitative land revenue policies played into unrest among the British Indian army’s sepoys, many of whom came from those same agrarian regions. The famous “greased cartridge” rumour, thus, served as kindling to ignite revolt.
As Dr Habib writes, “There is no doubt that the revolt of 1857 not only involved over 100,000 men of the Bengal army but was the largest agrarian uprising ever witnessed in India, spread as it was over such a large region.” He reminds us that communalism was an alien concept at the time: “Not only this… it was common to see Indian sepoys choose their Muslim brethren as their leaders and vice-versa.”
Before discussing the emergence of Indian national consciousness, Dr Habib cautions that, “Any scrutiny of the causes of the revolt of 1857 must bring into focus two negative factors inherited from old India; a limited notion of India as a country among people across regions, and the division of people in a hierarchy of castes and communities”. How could such a “disunited” society develop any feeling of nation and nation consciousness? Unlike Hindu national chauvinists who claim that ancient India had everything, including science and technology, the author acknowledges the contribution of the British in creating the conditions for regeneration of Indian society — the printing press, postal system, and the railways facilitated the emergence of a new consciousness among Indians. “The very existence of the railways helped to create in many minds, the vision of a modern, industrialised India, achievable if Indians could control their own destiny,” he writes.
Modern education and the spread of the English language played a critical role in creating a new Indian middle class. The best products of Western education in Bengal and Maharashtra launched Hindu reform movements to synchronise with the needs of modern society. Among Muslims, Syed Ahmed Khan challenged Muslim theologians, insisting that the Quranic message must be regularly reinterpreted “to keep the Word of God in conformity with the Work of God”.
Alongside, nationalist economists offered trenchant critiques of British colonial policies. The tallest among them was Dadabhai Naoroji, affectionately called the “Grand Old Man of Indian Nationalism”. Dadabhai Naoroji’s famous monograph, Poverty and UnBritish rule in India, is a searing assessment of British land revenue policies that led to a “drain of wealth” from India to Britain, and caused the “underdevelopment” and “pauperisation” of the colony.
Chapter three focuses on the Ilbert Bill controversy of 1883-84, which stipulated that Europeans could be tried only by juries of their own race. The Bill convinced sections of the middle class that Indians needed to defend their interests, and it was against this background that the Indian National Congress was founded in 1885 with W C Bonnerjee as its first president. This period, which included the presidencies of Naoroji and Badruddin Tyabji, was the “moderate” phase, and it is worth underlining that secularism was a founding principle.
The moderates believed in a gradual approach to social reform within the framework of British institutions, seeking a voice in shaping government policies rather than in sharing power. Among their leaders was Gopal Krishna Gokhale, whose ideological clash with the “extremist” Bal Gangadhar Tilak altered the dynamics of the Congress. Tilak condemned the Congress as the “slow party” and called for “swaraj” (self-rule).
Communalism was born in 1906 when the All India Muslim League was established, and the British endorsed it by enacting the Morley-Minto reforms that recommended separate electorates for Muslims. This played straight into the type of nationalism that Tilak was building on the foundations of Hindu religious symbols and rituals.
The last chapter ends the story with the arrival of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi from South Africa, and Gokhale’s nomination of him as his “political heir”. Gandhi launched his passive resistance against British rule, but as Dr Habib points out, he maintained a “constructive attitude towards constitutional reforms”.
The additional value of this volume is an extensive appendix at the end of each chapter that throws new light on a crucial phase of India’s national awakening that is being misinterpreted by politicians who never participated in the freedom struggle in the first place.
The National Movement ; The First Phase, till 1918; Irfan Habib; Tulika Books; 124 pages; Rs 280