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.
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.”
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.