ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Echoes of 1857

The celebrations to mark the 150th anniversary of the 1857 uprising, instead of being a mere nostalgic trip to the past, should be an occasion for reflecting on the present in the light of the lessons of that momentous event. While the popular emotional associations surrounding 1857 acclaim it as the first full-blown instance of anti-imperialist resistance, academic interpretations of its objectives and the reading of the composition of the rebels and their leaders have changed considerably in the last 150 years. The events of 1857 can therefore be read in a number of ways. One reading is that it was a harbinger of the revolutionary current of India’s national movement (ranging from the actions of militant groups in the early 20th century to the rebellions in the armed forces in the 1940s reflected in the Royal Indian Navy mutiny and the formation of the Indian National Army). Leaders of this current had always acknowledged 1857 as their source of inspiration. Further, we may look back at the rebellion as a forerunner in the annals of anti-imperialist uprisings in other parts of Asia, Latin America and Africa, as well as a precursor of the numerous battles that are being waged today in different parts of the world against a new colonial order that is insidious and yet more repressive than the East India Company of the past.

This particular reading of 1857 may not appear out of place if we observe the processes of US-led economic hegemony and military expansionism that are under way all over the world today. In June 1853, writing about the consequences of British rule in India, Karl Marx (who could not yet anticipate the popular resistance that it would provoke four years later) complained about the “deterioration of an agriculture which is not capable of being conducted on the British principle of free competition, of laissez-faire and laissez-aller”, and described how the new British technology of the steam engine “uprooted over the whole surface of Hindustan, the union between agriculture and manufacturing industry”. Today, something of the same sort (albeit on a higher level of economic development) is happening with the imposition of a neoliberal model of industrial growth that is uprooting workers from their homes and depriving them of their traditional manufacturing occupations. In the rural areas farmers are being driven to suicide by new uncertainties in a market economy that is now more open to the global economy, and in the industrial sector huge manufacturing projects and special economic zones are displacing thousands of people. The adivasis, dalits and other sections of the poor who are being dispossessed by this new laissezfaire-oriented competition by the big players for control of resources are breaking out into sporadic violent upsurges – recalling the numerous tribal uprisings and peasant jacqueries that led the way to the final upheaval in 1857. Are India’s dispossessed masses quivering in suspense on the threshold of another epic upheaval?

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