The truth about British rule and Queen Victoria, as historians have written, is quite different.
The Hindu right wing’s ‘suspicion of Muslims’ is well-known but this week an organisation associated with it, the Hindu Sena, took it to a ludicrous extreme by thanking Queen Victoria for helping India get Independence in 1857 from “foreign Islamic invaders/terrorists”.
According to the little-known Hindu Sena, which organised an event 22 January to celebrate the 118th death anniversary of Empress Victoria, she will remain immortal. “Britishers”, added the Sena’s media statement, under the dynamic leadership of Empress Victoria, “brought hundreds of princely states under one roof, and became one country under one law (sic)”.
These statements are wrong at several levels although it is not unusual to find colonial fanboys among right-wingers – both in their communal periodisation of the study of history, borrowed from James Mill and largely discarded by contemporary historians, as well as in their belief in the Aryan foundation of Indian civilisation.
As historian Romila Thapar has pointed out in the past, ‘history’ as written by the RSS and Hindutva ideologues has only to do with “Hindu history of the early period” and the victimisation of Hindus under “Muslim tyranny in the medieval period”. Thapar says the RSS and Hindutva ideologues speak of Hindus being enslaved for a thousand years by Muslim rule, but do not pause for a moment to give thought to at least two facts. These are: the exploitation of lower castes and tribals by upper caste Hindus, and the efflorescence of popular Hindu religious sects in the last thousand years, a bulk of which falls under the so-called Muslim period. (From N on Nationalism, by Romila Thapar, A.G. Noorani and Sadanand Menon, Aleph, 2016).
What is unusual though is the belief that the British were responsible for ending “Muslim” rule. London-based academic David Lunn says the idea that 1857 was about the “benevolent” British saving anyone from anything – Hindus from Muslims, peasants from despots – is laughable. This was the cut-throat defence of rapacious commercial and colonial interests that only entrenched an exploitative, extractive, and racist regime. The Mughals, he points out, were already only a symbolic regime in 1857, and Bahadur Shah Zafar’s role was minimal. Indeed, it was not until the end of the first war of Independence in 1857 that Queen Victoria formally displaced the East India Company, becoming Empress of India or Kaiser i Hind in 1877.
The Hindu Sena is also not aware of the overwhelming sentiment of 1857, when, historian Miles Taylor points out, the rebels singled out Queen Victoria for being behind a plan to forcibly Christianise sepoys in the Indian army. Taylor writes in his new book, The English Maharani: Queen Victoria and India: “A similar rumour, claiming that the queen had personally approved of a decision by the governor-general in Council to convert all sepoys, was expressed at Lucknow. Then, in early July 1857, a pamphlet invoking a holy war against Britain –titled Fateh-i-Islam – argued that servitude under a Muslim king would be better for Indian rajas than under the infidel Victoria and the English”.
Add to that, Britain’s intervention with France in the Crimea in the defence of Christian minorities, together with the war against the Shia Shah of Persia in 1856, demonstrated Britain’s willingness to fight in the name of religion, with Queen Victoria being invoked for her Protestant zeal, not for her tolerance. As if that was not enough, notes Taylor, there were her evangelical aspirations for two of her favourite young Indian royals, Duleep Singh and Gouramma.
As for the Hindu Sena’s beloved ‘tyranny-ending’ railways, Queen Victoria wrote to Lord Dalhousie that she hoped that the growing network of railways in India would “facilitate the spread of Christianity which has hitherto made very slow progress”. The first war of independence changed that, but only to make her neutral, rather than supportive of either Hinduism or Islam.
As various representations of Queen Victoria percolated down through popular culture, there was no one version of the queen that dominated the narrative.
Taylor writes: “Hindus might associate her with deliverance from Mughal rule, Muslims might see her as the champion of minority rights… She was looked up to by the principal movements of religious reform in nineteenth century India, amongst them the Brahmo Samaj. But she also was a guiding light to Muslim educational reform for men such as Syed Ahmed Khan. Over time she came to be seen as the ally of Indian nationalism.”
“After her death in 1901, it was as though India awoke from a ‘strange hypnotism’ as the nationalist Bipin Chandra Pal described colonial rule,” he writes.
As Taylor writes in his new book, she was even deified: “Queen Victoria was the Adya-Shakti of our mythology, explained Suorindro Mohun Tagore. She was included in the telling of the ‘Lays of India’, delivering India from the ‘anarchy’ of its former rulers… A ‘Hindu pundit’, writing in the Madras Mail, credited Queen Victoria with reviving respect for kingship, as she summoned from the Sastras the natural obedience shown by Hindus towards monarchs. For Nava Yug, a Bengali newspaper in Calcutta, the queen was a jagadhatri (protector of the world). She had returned India to prosperity, of the sort not known since the time of Rama, according to Kalpataru, a Marathi paper from Bombay.”
The truth, as historians have written, was quite different. By the end of her reign, Queen Victoria was as supportive of Muslims as she was of Hindus and, as Taylor mentions, had Muslim servants (Abdul Karim and Mahomet Bahksh) at her court in the last 14 years of her life. He says the present interpretation by the Hindu Sena is a new version – with roots in the past – but is understandable in the present context of a Hindutva-oriented provocative reassessment of India’s past, especially in Queen Victoria’s bicentenary year.
The author is a senior journalist
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