‘At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.’
A Stunning Visual Record of India’s Struggle for Independence
This elegant volume attempts to chronicle, for the first time ever, the visual moments of the moments of the movement that changed the history of India. The culmination of over a hundred years of striving that had claimed thousands of lives, the Indian freedom movement was a struggle marked by remarkable leadership, personal integrity and terrible sacrifice. It was the first non-violent mass movement that overthrew an empire.
With a thought – provoking introduction by Pavan K. Varma, who enumerates the enduring legacies of the freedom movement, this book is replete with photographs, maps, newspaper clippings and letters sourced from various archives, museums and libraries from India and abroad.
The richly illustrated pages take you from the decades prior to the Revolt of 1857 to the Independence of India on 15 August 1947 and to the formation of the Republic of India.
It is at once an introduction to the subject for the lay reader and a companion to the volumes of written history on the struggle that we all know so well.
The Illustrated History of the Freedom Struggle is a must have for anyone who believes that when it comes to chronicling the epochal events of a nation’s history, a picture is worth a thousand words.
Pavan K. Varma, best-selling author of The Great Indian Middle Class, Being Indian and Ghalib, is with the Indian Foreign Service.
So much has already been written on our freedom movement that one wonders what more there is to say. Patriots, pamphleteers, historians and politicians have all been part of this exegesis, and for understandable reasons. Newly independent nations tend to be proud of the process by which they threw out their colonial oppressors. Over time, history and mythology combine to create the right dose of nationalistic fervour; fact and folklore merge to glorify the struggle and the sacrifice, and every milestone becomes an occasion for a ritual reaffirmation by a grateful people of their debt to those who made that freedom possible.
I will not, therefore, mechanically recapitulate what is known or has already been said. The origins of the movement are well known, its chronology is textbook knowledge, and its leaders are household names. In fact, even though most Indians normally have a rather underdeveloped sense of history, they have appropriated the story of the freedom movement as part of a personalized legacy. What I propose to do is to take an overview, to dwell a little on what makes this struggle for freedom unique in the annals of human history, and to try and resurrect a selective iconography that alone can explain why the movement succeeded in capturing the imagination of millions of Indians and the world beyond.
The 20th century saw a host of countries gain independence. India was one of the first to do so, and her success became a clarion call and an inspiration to freedom fighters across the colonized world. What sets apart the Indian experience from other struggles for political freedom? One of the answers, to my mind, is that while political freedom was the goal in India too, the ideology animating that struggle refused to be confined merely to politics. It grappled, almost from the very beginning, with the imperatives of social emancipation, the need for religious coexistence, the preservation of a plural society, gender empowerment, the competing demands of industrialization versus agricultural growth, and with the installation of democracy as the unalterable framework of a free India. In other words, in parallel to fighting the British, our freedom movement was a remarkably cerebral movement, self- absorbed in a very indian sort of way not only with what was unfolding in the immediate, but what ought to be the structure of tomorrow, superimposing always the blueprint of the future on the plans and tactics of the present.
How this came to be is the critical sub-text of the struggle, and in the beginning, when the first stirrings of unrest began, there was every reason to believe that it may not have been so. l857, which historians now dub the first war of independence, was a powerful explosion of anger against British rule. But its very spontaneity and lack of cohesive ideological moorings, led to its defeat. The British were shaken, but quickly recouped, and India, the jewel in the crown of the Empire, was taken under direct control of the British government, The decades following 1857 were those of frozen peace, when in the shadow of the most brutal quelling of the revolt, the British went about consolidating their rule.
It is not sufficiently understood how successful the British were as colonizers. Their policy was not only to physically subjugate the natives, but to colonize their minds, to co-opt them as subordinate accessories of their rule, and to give to them the illusion of having a stake in its running. Not surprisingly, when the Indian National Congress was set up in 1885 by an Englishman, Allan Octavian Hume, it was essentially an upper and middle class affair was less concerned with larger issues of society or nationhood and more with a deferential dialogue with the rulers on such matters as finding a place in the legislative councils Indianizing—gradually, of course—the civil services and the army. The method to achieve this was through constitutional agitation and the presentation of petitions and appeals that iii not seek to question the legitimacy of British rule. Nehru attended the Bankipore session of the Congress in 1912 and recalled: (It was very much an English-knowing upper-class affair where morning coats and well pressed trousers were greatly in evidence. Essentially it was a social gathering with no political excitement or tension.
The political emergence of Mahatma Gandhi in 1920 gave, for the first time, a mass character to the national movement. For all his reputation as the satyagrahi who successfully took on the racist government in South Africa, his return to India did not mean that the entire Congress patty was willing to immediately accept his leadership, The moderates were very much entrenched, and neither Gandhi’s participatory empathy for the masses nor his methodology were much to their liking. The ideological battle that ultimately led to the acceptance of Gandhi’s approach was prolonged and not without acrimony, and is often unremembered in recalling the history of the freedom movement. For instance, within the Nehru family, Motilal was initially opposed to his son Jawaharlal’s attraction for Gandhi. Motilal preferred the gradualist approach; he was an affluent patrician, who felt that the loincloth khadi»clad Gandhi was a subversive influence on his son. Things came to such a pass that father and son were almost not on talking terms. Nehru, under the sway of Gandhi, had begun to wear khadi, and would bring a tin plate for his food to meals presided over by Motilal at Swaraj Bhavan where the best china in the world was in evidence. When Gandhi, on the invitation of Jawaharlal, came to stay at the Nehru home, Motilal was not amused. Vijayalakshmi Pandit recalls in her eminently readable autobiography, The Scope of Happiness, that on one occasion Nehru walked into the drawing room, where the family had gathered, with a rope in his hand, and putting it dramatically around his neck, wondered aloud: I wonder how it feels.’ Motilal stormed out of the room, but the next day he took to wearing khadi and threw his lot in with Gandhi.
This anecdote is a metaphor for the tussle of faith and belief that animated the freedom movement. In hindsight it might appear that the struggle was a unified upsurge against the colonizers under the universal leadership of Gandhi—which in many ways it did come to be—but there were strong differences of opinion on how it should be waged, and some of these remained unassimilated till 1947. The moderates thought Gandhi was too radical; but the ‘extremists’ within the Congress, the most notable of whom was Subhas Chandra Bose, felt that Gandhi and his non-violent methods, were too moderate. And, outside the Congress, there were two further extremes; Bhagat Singh and his young hand of idealists believed that ‘revolutionary` means through violence were the only way to dislodge the British, while a significant segment of influential Indians at varying levels of the British government were quite happy at the perpetuation of British rule.
The miracle of the Indian freedom movement was that these profound differences did not lead to an endemic and self-defeating internecine warfare, the fate so often of such movements in other parts of the world. The clash of opinions was often hostile, and in parts irreconcilable, but under the influence of Gandhi, they were tolerated or resolved through the force of moral persuasion. The fact of the matter is that Gandhi was not a freedom fighter in the conventional sense of the term. He was an opponent of British rule but be and merely defeating it, he wanted to do so in accordance with his conviction of what is morally right.
Satyagraha, non-cooperation, and now violence were his tools to give a mass base to his unfaltering moral convictions. These tools had never before been tried out in a mass struggle for freedom. But equally, never before had there been a man who never for a moment thou ht that the could be inefficacious. It was this moral rectitude this passionate belief in principle over expediency for which he was willing to unhesitatingly and publicly suffer, that made the diminutive lawyer from South Africa into Mahatma Gandhi. The incident of Chauri Chaura in 1922, where Gandhi suspended the Non-Cooperation Movement struggle when it was in full momentum because his followers resorted to violence leading to the death of twenty-two policemen, will remain enshrined forever in history as root of the correlation during the freedom movement between means and ends. The interesting thing is that even those who were completely under Gandhi’s sway, like Jawaharlal Nehru, had the freedom to oppose some of his tactics and opinions. The correspondence between Nehru and Gandhi is remarkable for the candour with which the young acolyte was willing to go on record against his mentor. The left leaning Nehru was repeatedly flummoxed by Gandhi’s obscurantist fads and tactical eccentricities; he railed against the latter’s perplexing propensity to retreat to his ashram when strategically he should have been seizing the ripe political opportunity; and, he found Gandhi’s economics conservative, even though his concern for the poor and the deprived was so apparent. Dissent rather than conformity, debate rather than fiat, dialogue rather than command, principle rather than expediency, cooption rather than exclusion, and ideology engaging with a wide range of issues rather than an obsession only with tactics—is what made the Indian freedom movement unique.
The cerebral character of the struggle did not dilute the dramatic manner in which it unfolded. A unique iconography informed key events, capturing the imagination of the masses, and inspiring them to become more involved. The highlights of this compelling storyboard need to be recalled today, not as chronology or dry historical fact, but as living episodes, for unless we are able to do this any remembrance or tribute would be insipid and mechanical. We have to severe the umbilical cord with the present and allow our imagination to wander reverentially and creatively to give blood and flesh again to events that have reduced themselves only to images in textbooks. If we are able to do this, we shall feel the surge of anger and anguish at the Jallianwala Bagh massacre at Amritsar in 1919 when General Dyer’s troops shot down in cold blood hundreds of peaceful demonstrators. Perhaps we will be able to wince in pain recalling the lathi that hit Lala Lajpat Rai on his head in 1928 leading to his premature death. Champaran, an unknown village in Bihar where the peasantry was starving because the British wanted them to make dyes even if there was no food to eat, would conjure itself before us, and once again we would relive how Gandhi gave their suffering and anguish voice and victory. The image of Gandhi leading the march from Sabarmati to Dandi in 1931 will appear before us, one man wearing only a dhoti walking 387 kilometers with a staff in his hands to make salt in violation of British law. We will be able perhaps to understand the degree of courage and conviction that seized ordinary people at Dandi who were beaten up mercilessly but refused to react with violence under the vow that was given to them by the Mahatma. The martyrdom of Bhagat Singh and of Sukhdev and Rajguru who went to the gallows with a smile on their face and Inquilab Zindabad on their lips will then bring tears afresh to our eyes. Subhas Chandra Bose’s clarion call for freedom immediately and at any cost, will ring in our ears with renewed fervour. The fact that priceless objects in the Nehru home in Allahabad were repeatedly auctioned off because none in the family would agree to pay the fine imposed by the British would hit us anew in the blindly materialistic world we live in now. As would perhaps the picture of a frail Kamla Nehru racked by tuberculosis suffering alone because her husband was in jail and refused to ask for his release even in such circumstances.
These are at best snapshots, but their iconography is powerful enough to move us even today. Our freedom movement was a moving pageantry of sacrifice and idealism, and in the prevalent mood of cynicism this needs to be recalled. It created a galaxy of leaders- Vallabhbhai Patel, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Rajendra Prasad, Gobind Ballabh Pant, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Rafi Ahmed Kidwai, Sri Aurobindo and Subramanya Bharati, to name a few—each of whose contribution was unique and inspiring.
Tribute must be paid too to the innumerable foot soldiers, anonymous men and women who often remain unsung. They were there in their thousands upon thousands, willing to be cannon fodder for the cause of freedom. There are photographs in this book that depict the mass character of the struggle, a multitude of people in khadi white stretching as far as the eye can see. These were the people willing to go to jail with no thought for the morrow: these were the freedom fighters who, responding to the call of swadeshi, did not think twice about publicly burning from among their meager possessions anything made in Britain: they were the ones who donated without thought of recompense their gold and silver ornaments; these unknown soldiers gave a mass profile to the ideology of not resorting to violence or retaliating against brute force; these were the swatantra senanis who flocked to Gandhi’s call of Karo ya Maro: Do or Die, when in 1942 he told the British, Quit India.
In spite of the manifest involvement of the masses, historians have debated the class character of the freedom movement. As we have discussed, until the emergence 0f Gandhi in 1920, the involvement of the segments below the intelligentsia and the middle class, namely, the industrial workers and the peasantry—the vast majority of the population-was minimal. The Swadeshi movement launched in 1903, with its emphasis on traditional popular festivals and melas such as the Ganapati and Shivaji festivals and the use of folk theatre forms such as the jatras in Bengal, had taken its message beyond the frontiers of drawing room parlours. Yet its impact could not be sustained to go beyond the lower middle classes in the cities. The Home Rule League movement led by Annie Besant had also acquired popularity, but largely among the educated. The phase of revolutionary terrorism from 1908 to 1918, was no doubt contributory to the growth of nationalist feeling, but this too lacked a mass base. It was Gandhi’s personal lifestyle, his identification with the poorest and the deprived, and the Indian ethos he conjured up for the articulation of his goals and ideals, which combined to win for him and the freedom movement, for the first time and on a generally sustained basis, the involvement of the masses. This mass involvement was more than evident during the non-cooperation movement of the 1920s and 1930s and in the Quit India movement of 1942. It was equally identifiable in the support Gandhi received for the charkha and swadeshi movements and for his politics of socioeconomic reform.
Yet, it is equally true that this populist transformation was achieved largely without any change in the entrenched social structure or economic inequities in society. It thus involved the masses without fully empowering them. Through their participation the struggle for freedom acquired the profile of a mass movement; but essentially the focus of power and the control of policy remained where they had always been—with the dominant elites. The peculiar paradox of a powerful political movement against an external force and the absence of radical transforming change in the internal domain is perhaps explained by the organizational strategy of mass mobilization adopted by the Congress to capitalize on Gandhi’s wide appeal. In every area and locality the natural interlocutors for the Congress leadership were the `dominant men and powerful social groups, leading the eminent historian Professor Ravinder Kumar to conclude that ‘by the l930s, upper and middle class interests had crystallized within the national movement in a manner which ensured that the lowly classes, urban and rural, participated in nationalist agitations only under the hegemony of the propertied classes’. As a result, the strategy of struggle which succeeded so spectacularly in uprooting the world’s most powerful colonial power was not the most effective in bringing about enduring changes in the existing socioeconomic structures in India. This is not to imply that both Gandhi and his political heir, Nehru, did not seek to change the glaring inequities in the Indian social fabric. Their intentions in this regard are beyond a shadow of doubt. Yet the fact of the matter is that non-violent non-cooperation against the external enemy turned out to be non-violent moral persuasion against the vested interests blocking the desired change internally. And moral persuasion alone has rarely, if ever, succeeded in bringing about the restructuring of societies.
This being said, there is little doubt that Gandhi’s creed of non-violence was a revolutionary contribution to the methodology of struggle against a more powerful enemy. An instrument of action linked to a larger and deeper philosophical vision and espoused with the most unwavering conviction, it captured the imagination of the Indian people and on more than one occasion left the British groping for an effective response. As a legacy it gave to the freedom movement a moral high ground which in many ways has become its chief distinguishing characteristic. Gandhi’s way was to try and transform, through the force of his personal example and the moral pressure that was its luminous corollary, the relations within the existing social structure. His path-breaking struggle for the upliftment of the Harijans has to be seen from this reference point; it is the same approach which renders explicable his concept of the rich holding their wealth as trustees for the poor. It can also be argued that Gandhi was an astute pragmatist. His goal was the freedom of India and the end of British rule; the attempt to simultaneously bring about revolutionary change within Indian society could have unleashed uncontrolled social turmoil and become a hindrance to the achievement of that goal.
The Partition was a negation of much of the ideology of the freedom movement. If the movement was waged on the principle of ahimsa, the Partition was affected by a degree of horrific violence rare in the annals of history; if the goal for freedom united all Indians in unprecedented ways, the Partition divided them implacably along lines never seen before; if the fight for independence was consciously forged to transcend religious sectarianism, the Partition proved that these loyalties could still be exploited with tragic consequences on a mass scale. The last years of the freedom struggle were waged under the shadow of the Second World War and the growing momentum of the forces that would lead to the division of India. The World War enervated the rulers; the Partition almost fatally wounded the near invincible moral high ground of the ruled. The British will stand forever diminished for their role in playing the Divide and Rule game; the Indians can never redeem themselves fully for falling prey to it so easily. After 1945 there was little doubt that the British would not be able for long to hold on to the jewel in the Crown. But the manner in which they finally left, hurrying through a Partition and leaving an entire country at war with itself, marks the most tragic phase of India’s struggle for freedom.
Although the Partition seriously challenged the ideological premises on which the freedom movement was based, it did not defeat them completely. Decades of public commitments to desired goals of how to build a liberated India survived the Partition holocaust. Any other movement, where the ideological foundations were not so strong, would have succumbed to A that divisive and cataclysmic onslaught. But the strength of the Indian freedom struggle was that its core concepts survived the challenge. The partition of India on religious grounds, and the violence that accompanied it, did break the spirit of Gandhi. It was his darkest hour, where engulfed by the fierce communal violence, he must have questioned the very foundations of his beliefs and their efficacy in defeating a mighty imperial power. Yet his political heirs, led by Nehru, retained the resolve to structure the new nation along lines which would be in conformity with the principles and precepts and pronouncements of that titanic struggle. What then was the legacy of the freedom movement, and how did it influence the making of modern India?
The play of cause and effect is not easy to identify in the unfolding of history; we must be careful not to simplify the process, but in this case the evidence is transparent and verifiable. The fact that India chose to be a democracy and carried out her resolve to remain one is directly related to the vision of its freedom fighters. For the leaders of the Congress, and those who led other political factions, democracy was an article of faith, beyond negotiation or question. The tradition of parliamentary democracy in Britain influenced their thinking, but to them goes the credit of never questioning its relevance and desirability in the independent India for which they were striving. Another legacy indelibly linked to the freedom movement—and notwithstanding the trauma of Partition—was that of the need of religious tolerance. While Gandhi made no secret of his belief in religion—religious symbols occurred frequently in his writings and public pronouncements—there was not the slightest doubt about his catholic spirit and respect for all religions. He genuinely believed that Hindus and Muslims could live together in peace and amity, and his efforts to douse communal passions in the years leading to Partition, and after, constituted a deeply moving and powerful influence in reinvesting hope and faith in the possibility of communal harmony. Nehru, quite unlike his mentor, was not religious in the conventional sense. In keeping with his espousal of the modern and rationalistic outlook, he shied away from religious imagery and rituals. But the common ground of both his supra-religious modernity and Gandhi’s eclectic religious faith—in evidence throughout I the freedom struggle—was a fundamental opposition to communalism, and the secular fabric of modern India is a direct consequence of this vision.
A concern for the poor and the deprived was a third legacy. We have discussed how Gandhi and the Congress stopped short of radically restructuring the historical inequities in Indian society. But Gandhi’s continuous efforts during the freedom movement for the upliftment of the Harijans and his personal austerity and identification with the destitute constituted a powerful message to work for the lowliest and the humblest. Nehru too, as the spokesman of the Congress Left, was identified with the ideological assertion that the needs of the impoverished peasantry and the proletariat must be addressed as an intrinsic part of the exercise of building a modern and progressive nation. Finally, charkha, khadi, the Swadeshi movement and the economic dependency and exploitation intrinsic to colonialism had made self-reliance a self-evident goal for independent India. Gandhi’s stress on cottage industries and his somewhat pastoral vision of self-sufficient village communities was a powerful message in 1947. But it was Nehru’s vision of an awakened India, invulnerable to outside manipulation and moving towards the creation of a modern and industrialized economy on the basis of its long suppressed strengths—a vision that he articulated consistently during the freedom movement—that had an emotional appeal for all Indians. Consequently, self-reliance, both in the economic sense and in the political sense of being resistant to external pressure, was accepted as a valid policy paradigm to ensure that independent India would be able to stand on its own.
In the initial years after Independence in 1947, memories of the struggle for freedom were still fresh. Patriotism had not as yet become a tired and clichéd slogan to be used for partisan political ends. Today, more than sixty years after that event, the time has come to revisit the iconic nature of that event. Nations that do not have a historical memory ultimately lose themselves in the sands of time. India, at the threshold of emerging as a global power in the 2lst century, cannot afford to do that, and it is something that younger generations will do well to remember.
This volume, The Illustrated History of the Freedom Struggle, will, I am confident, find a wide readership within and outside India as it offers a fresh perspective, pictorially and textually, on an oft-quoted area of study. The photographic material in the book has been sourced from a large number of organizations like the National Archives of India, the Indian Council for Historical Research, the British Library, the India International Centre as well as the archives of newspapers like the Anand Bazaar Patrika and the Hindustan Times. As we turn the pages of this book, characters and events, lost in the distance of time and memory, will come alive to remind us once more of a period of Indian history that bequeathed to us our freedom.
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