May 10:153rd anniversary of the first war of Indian independence
By Dipin Damodharan
The revolt of 1857 (May 10)- the British historians termed it Sepoy Mutiny, Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of Independent India labeled it a feudal revolt, but the prince of Indian revolutionaries, Vinayak Damodhar Savarkar rightly described it as the first war of Indian Independence. It was exactly 153 years ago on this day (May 10, 1857) that the first upheaval had erupted against the British.
The uprising started on May 10, 1857 in Meerut, when Mangal Pandey, a soldier in the Army shot his commander for forcing the Indian troops to use the controversial rifles. Indians constituted 96% of the 300,000 British Army and the violence against British swiftly spread (hence the name Sepoy Mutiny). The local chiefs encouraged scattered revolts. The rebellion spread across the country by peasants, artisans and soldiers who sacrificed their lives for the sake of others. There were many different reasons for the outbreak of the revolt of 1857, exploitation by the British, imposing of their faith forcefully on Indians, etc. The story of the rebellion is well-known to the world. This article revolves around Vinayak Damodhar Savarkar’s (a great revolutionary patriot of Indian independence struggle) effort in exploring the real history of the 1857 revolt. As mentioned earlier; the British and some Indian historians dismissed the uprising as just a Sepoy mutiny. But it was really a premeditated and organized political and military rising aimed at obliterating the British power in India.
It was Veer Savarkar who redefined the 'Sepoy mutiny' as the first war of Indian Independence. Savarkar was motivated by the passionate zeal, the heroism, bravery, suffering and tragic fate of the leaders of 1857. He decided to re-interpret the story and to relate it in full with the help of all the material available to him at the time. He spent days and months at the India Office Library (London) for studying the revolt. Savarkar wrote the story as a book. It was originally in Marathi and completed it in 1908. As it was impossible to get this book published in India, the manuscript was returned back to Savarkar. Attempts to get this book published in Germany also failed. Some Indian students staying in India House translated this book into English.
Finally, the work was published in Holland in 1909, under the title “The Indian War of Independence –1857”. The second edition was published by Lala Hardayal on behalf of the Gadar Party in America; the third edition was published by Sardar Bhagat Singh, while the fourth edition was published by India’s national hero, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose in the Far East. The book was translated into Urdu, Hindi, Punjabi and Tamil.
Further, one edition was published secretly in India after the end of World War II. The original Marathi manuscript was kept in the safe custody of Madame Cama (the Mother of Indian revolution) in Paris. This manuscript was handed over to Dr. Coutinho of the Abhinav Bharat when Paris was in turmoil during World War I. Dr. Coutinho preserved it like a holy scripture for nearly 40 years. After India became independent, he returned it to Ramlal Vajpeyee and Dr. Moonje (a staunch nationalist of pre-independent India) who in turn gave it back to Savarkar. The ban on this book was finally lifted by the Congress Government of Bombay in May 1946.
Historians, inside and outside India, also recognized on the effect Savarkar's book had in redefining the 1857 struggle. Lahore-based historian Dr Mubarak Ali once said, "Savarkar's book was instrumental in redefining the 1857 event which, till then, was termed a localized rebellion." He also added that there is a lot of hero worship in the book and despite the fact that Savarkar used history as a tool to glorify the struggle, the book, nevertheless correctly interpreted the 1857 struggle as the war of independence.
However, the revolt of 1857 marked a defining moment in the history of India. The revolt brought many changes in the British system of governance in the country. The immediate result of the revolt was the end of the East India Company as the ruling power. The East India Company was substituted by the British Crown with Queen Victoria as the Empress of India. It was the beginning of a new age. It coroneted the sunup of India’s independence from the chains of foreign rule that had bound her. It was the foundation stone of nationalism in Modern India. Above all, it was an unfailing source of inspiration to patriots, who felt inspired by the example set by the rebels who had died fighting the British despite the heavy odds against them. While remembering the heroes of the revolt, like Mangal Pandey, Jhansi Rani, and Tantya Tope etc, we must remember Swantatra Veer Vinayak Damodhar Savarkar also, one of the great revolutionaries, who heralded India’s dawn.
Dipin Damodharan is a Journalist (Sub Editor with Jeevan TV) based in Kerala. He is reachable on firstname.lastname@example.org