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Why Modi’s India looks eerily similar to the one under British after 1857 revolt

Based on Modi govt's loyalty audit, a checklist of devotees and dissenters is being approved and a system of rewards and punishment being devised in India, just like the British did.

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More than 160 years after India fought its ‘First War of Independence’, the nation is on trial again. The Narendra Modi government’s inquisition to determine absolute loyalty from Indians is a reminder of the dark days that had followed the Revolt of 1857 against the British rule. A checklist of devotees and dissenters is being approved and a system of rewards and punishment is being devised. As this audit becomes more and more formalised, a deeply anxious India awaits its fate.

Updating the National Register of Citizens (NRC) to isolate illegal immigrants is the Modi government’s weapon of choice, and it is just one among many. The process is crude, chaotic, and decommissions citizenship without forewarning. It misfires all too often, and its supporters say that there’s plenty of friendly fire as well. The future is suddenly based on identity, antecedents and paperwork. But more than anything else, the NRC does enough to create lasting suspicion, even hatred, between neighbours, communities and religions, its primary objective. The proposed Citizenship Amendment Bill, essentially an invitation to all religious minorities – except Muslims – living in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan to become Indian citizens, will worsen the divide.

Also read: We are not able to openly criticise Modi govt, Rahul Bajaj to Amit Shah at ET event

Mirroring history

The Revolt of 1857, also called ‘Sepoy Mutiny’ or the ‘First War of Independence’ depending on one’s post-colonial or national impulse, was possibly the last time such panic had gripped India. When the ownership of India passed hands from the East India Company to the British Crown in 1858 following the rebellion, a project of sifting communities that were considered reliable and those that could no longer be trusted began. In that process, the colonial state addressed its fragilities and reinforced its grand civilising claims.

The prime suspects of the Revolt were Muslims, considered by the British to be the instigators and the organisers. This was partly because the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar – whose influence now stretched only as far as the eye could see – had been hoisted by the impatient rebels as their titular head. Zafar’s religion held great value in the eyes of the British. They acted on the belief that they had captured India from ‘Muslims’, regardless of the fact that many decades earlier, powerful forces like Marathas and Sikhs had already slashed vast portions of imperial land. But the logic was that those deposed must be persecuted, and other suspects of the same denomination either forced to withdraw from public space or be given amnesty on British terms.

This suspicion was well articulated in the popular Victorian press as well as in postal communications between officials. In an article on Delhi in the Illustrated London News during the early stages of the Revolt, the author clearly nails the nemesis: “The intolerant fanaticism of Delhi, as far as Mohammedans are concerned, exceeds that of any part of India, and, therefore the feeling that animated the mutinous soldiery is scarcely to be wondered at …” And John Lawrence, the Chief Commissioner of Punjab during the Revolt, is more overt in his profiling when writing to Governor General Lord Canning: “The Mohammedans of the Regular Cavalry, when they have broken out have displayed a more active, vindictive and fanatic spirit than the Hindoos – but these are the characteristics of the race.”  

Also read: Aparna Sen & Ramachandra Guha should know sending letters to Modi only makes him look good

Creating distrust

These post-Revolt policies, similar to those that now hold India hostage, were based on the colonial bogey of ‘civilisational conflict’. The argument is that the interests of Hindus and Muslims are irreconcilable, in fact antagonistic, and they have been so since the time Mahmud of Ghazni, lured by the promise of great wealth, entered the plains of India. The British became the patron saints of the argument and used it to choreograph popular memory and create historical distrust. The entire period from the 11th century to the 19th century was imagined as a continuous epic war between the indigenous and the foreign. The 1857 Revolt itself became about a well-planned ‘Mohammedan conspiracy’ to reclaim the lost glory of their community and establish rule. This British fear of the ‘invader’ was, of course, implicated in their own self-image as colonialists.

The early men of Hindutva, pushing the lost cause of Aryanism, not only inherited these civilisational misgivings but also similarly turned them into questions of national allegiance.

The stereotyping of castes, classes and religions through new vocabularies was the basis of social engineering in the years after 1857. This form of control used plenty of ethnographic data, census reports, and covert knowledge flows. These tools were used to arrange historically complex identities into simple, descriptive groups – for instance, ‘criminal tribes’, ‘martial races’ or ‘Aryanised castes’. British officials sat down with local informants and arbitrated their rights and entitlements, honouring and privileging some, and emasculating or de-historicising others. Once the new order was created and the collaborators and outliers marked, state policies were set accordingly. India, they say, became unrecognisable.

Surely, the past is being echoed in the political agonies of the present.

Anshul Avijit is national spokesperson of Congress and holds a PhD from Cambridge University. Views are personal.

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  1. British exploited india economically and Finally Left
    But Muslim Rulers captured /killed /converted exploited there are visible signs allover country, Muslim rulers changed the DNA of the country
    Non believers in Muslim faith needs to be killed, Any Muslim in India believes of being Arabic , Conversion forgotten after enjoying Muslim Rulers patronage
    The British made them think of Hindu Brathern when they lost power- The Ganga Yamuni Tahjeeb Born
    What if All Muslims trace their Roots, Denounce force full conversion
    The conflict ends

  2. Who gives you know what’s ass about Modi looking like a lap dog more than a century ago. The more immediate issue is cleaning up his house in Gujarat and make it ready for him to perform house warming party in 2024.

  3. Muslims got Pakistan and Bangladesh in the name of religion. Since then, non-muslims of those countries have been disappearing, which is a clear sign of religious persecution. India is a natural place for those persecuted minorities to seek refuge. It is as simple as that. Case closed. If you are a PhD from Cambridge, I guess your mind is so indoctrinated with Marxism and other -isms that it loses its ability to see a simple truth written clearly on the wall.

    • “India is a natural place for those persecuted minorities to seek refuge.” – not true at all! India’s Mulsim, Christian, and other minorities such as dalits, are having tough time in India at this very moment! Don’t you read media?

    • first India was and still is a secular country – equal rights for everyone including muslims. second, in case you did not read history, Bangladesh was created in 1971 on the basis of language, not religion. third, Cambridge is not a place where one is indoctrinated in Marxism.

    • The responsibility of governing balkanised parts of the Equator,has been placed of the British Race.

  4. Cambridge graduates write bizarre articles drawing ugly comparisons which are far from the ground reality. I think the author’s brain lost its balance after studying so much to graduate from Cambridge, so much so that he lost his common sense. So it’s time for common man of India to give these “highly-educated” and overrated writers a bit of common sense.
    1. The British invaded and occupied India. Modi won two general elections with a popular mandate. Modi became leader by people’s choice.
    2. The moghuls were fighting to protect their Empire from the British and not for India as such. It was the Muslim rulers who isolated every other religion when they were ruling but not the other way around
    3. The British might have amplified the caste divide for their benefits. But the contemporary India is offering equal rather greater opportunities to the erstwhile oppressed classes than the classes that you’re claiming to be Aryans. The best example is Modi himself who’s an OBC, who went on to become chief minister and prime minister
    4. On your argument that allowing refugees from all religions except Muslims would create more hatred is logically incorrect. Because the very premise of the partition of India was creation of a Muslim nation and a secular nation. Muslims who opted India are staying and flourishing here. When a nation was created for Muslims specifically and people who opted to leave India for their nation… why do they want to come back and seek refuge in India? Why can’t they enjoy full rights and resources in their own nation ? There’s no separate nation for rest of the religions. So it’s logical for them to seek refuge in India and for India to accept them.
    So leave the fate of India to India and stop spreading misinformation and wrong interpretations of the history

  5. So we should wait 30 more years to form another Indian National Congress to fight them.
    Good enough comparison, as Rahul Gandhi will be 80 by then and might not be active in politics (since he is no Sharad Pawar) .
    Let’s start the countdown for 30 years.

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