Young India/Chapter 2

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INDIA FROM I757 TO 1857 A.D.

Aurangzeb, the 6th Mogul Emperor of India, died in 1707 a. d. Within fifty years of his death, the Mogul sovereignty in India was reduced to its last gasp. The seeds sown by his bigotry, fanaticism, and suspicious nature were ripening and bringing to his successors a harvest of dissensions and discords, of rebellions and revolts. In the North as well as the South, forces had been generated which threatened the end of the Mogul rule. The martyrdom of Guru Teg Bahadur, the Sikh Guru, who was foully murdered at Delhi, where he had gone on a mission of peace, had sunk deep into the hearts of his followers, and his son, Guru Govind Singh, was organising forces which were destined to supplant Mogul rule in the Land of the Five Rivers.[1].In the Deccan, Sivaji’s[2] standard and throne had become the rallying point of the fighting forces of Southern India.

By 1757 a. d., the Sikhs in the Punjab and the Mahrattas in the Deccan had succeeded in undermining the foundations of the Mogul rule, which was now steadily disintegrating. The Nizam of Hyderabad, and the Nawab of Mysore had asserted Aurangzeb, their independence and were disputing the mastery of the Deccan with the Mahrattas. Similarly the Nabobs of Bengal and Oudh owed only nominal allegiance to the King of Delhi. The greater part of the peninsula, Central India, was under the Mahrattas.

Conflict of French and English in India. The political fate of India was hanging in the balance, when a power arose to take advantage of the disturbed conditions of things. The French and the English both entered the arena, taking different sides, and began to shuffle their cards. They sold their help to the highest bidder, and at the conclusion of every game, or even in the midst of it, changed partners as often as they could in the interest of their respective masters. The first military achievement of note, which gave decisive advantage to the British, was at the battle of Plassey in 1757. That practically gave them the key to the sovereignty of India. From 1757 to 1857 was the century of struggle, both military and diplomatic. The one end kept in view was the making of the Empire and the amassing of wealth.

How British Ride in India was Established. Hindus were played against the Mohammedans, and vice versa, states and principalities against states and principalities, Jats against Rajputs, and Rajputs against Jats, Mahrattas against both, Rohillas against Bundelas, and Bundelas against Pathans, and so on. Treaties were made and broken without the least scruple, sides were taken and changed and again changed without the least consideration of honour or faith. Thrones were purchased and sold to the highest bidder. Military support was purchased and given like merchandise. Servants were induced to betray their masters, soldiers to desert flags, without any regard to the morality of the steps taken. Pretences were invented and occasions sought for involving states and principalities in wars and trouble. Laws of all kinds, national and international, moral and religious, were all for the time thrown into the discard. Neither minors nor widows received any consideration; the young and the old were treated alike. The one object in view was to loot, to plunder, and to make an empire. Everything was subordinated to that end. One has only to read Mill and Wilson’s “ History of British India,” Burke’s “ Impeachment of Warren Hastings,” Torrens’ “ Our Empire in Asia,” Wilson’s “ Sword and Ledger,” Bell’s “ Annexation of the Punjab ” to find out that the above is a bare and moderate statement of truth.

Methods of Consolidation of British India. Policies (fiscal, industrial, religious, educational) were all discussed and formulated from one point of view, viz., the establishing of British authority, the consolidation of British rule, and pecuniary gain to the East India Company. If one were to pile up “ scraps of paper ” which the British destroyed or disregarded in the making of their Indian empire, one could fill a decent sized box therewith. The administrations of Wellesley and Dalhousie alone would furnish sufficient material for the purpose. We do not know of anything in Indian history which could be compared with the deeds of this century. It was a century of consistent, prolonged, and deliberate spoliation, subtle and scientific sometimes, in the pursuance of which all laws of morality, humanity, and fairness were tossed aside, and the object in view was persistently and doggedly kept in view and achieved. It was not the doing of this man or that man, but, with some noble exceptions, of the whole body of Administrators sent by the East India Company to manage their affairs in the East. The policies and doings of the various rulers that were sent from England to administer the affairs of India differed in degree only.

British Public Ignorant of Facts. It is true that the British people as a whole had no notion of what was going on in India. They were as ignorant of it, then, as they are to-day of the doings of their countrymen in that vast “ continent.” It sufficed for them to know that their countrymen were carving an empire there, conquering provinces and bringing millions of alien people under British rule; as it suffices for them to know to-day that they have an empire in India. India brought them wealth and material prosperity. Individuals became fabulously rich and their wealth filtered downward and filled the whole British nation. The nation became rich by the dividends of the East India Company, and by the enormous profits which British manufacturers and British traders made by the fact of British supremacy in India. That was enough for the nation Even when their moral sense was at times shocked by certain disclosures, which by chance found their way into the press or into the literature of the country, it was soon calmed and set at rest by the speeches made by the statesmen at the helm of affairs, who explained them away, excused their authors on political grounds, and laid down in high, grandiloquent terms that the general aim of British rule in India was beneficent, and that this aim was steadily being pursued. The impeachment of Warren Hastings by Burke should have opened the eyes of the British public as to what was happening in India; but the eventual acquittal of that famous pro-consul set matters at rest. And Warren Hastings was by no means the worst offender. What happened then is happening every day in India, only in a different way and on a different scale.

Yet I am not disposed to criticise the British public. Democracies have no time for the critical examination of the affairs of other countries and other people. They have their own trouble, enough and to spare. They look to material benefits, and their imagination is fired and their mind is thrilled by the fact of so many millions being under their rule. In the case of the British, both combined make them proud of their countrymen, who rule and administer India in their name. They have no reason to be critical. Human nature is human nature after all. Ordinary human nature is not inclined to be critical at gains, especially when it does not directly feel the iniquity of the methods by which those gains are made. But this is only by the way.

To continue the thread of my narrative: the history of British “ conquest ” of India from 1757 to 1857 A. D. is a continuous record of political charlatanry, political faithlessness, and political immorality. It was a triumph of British “ diplomacy. The British founders of the Indian empire had the true imperial instincts of empire-builders. They cared little for the means which they employed. Moral theorists cannot make empires. Empires can only be built by unscrupulous men of genius, men of daring and dash, making the best of opportunities that come to their hands, caring little for the wrongs which they thereby inflict on others, or the dishonesties or treacheries or breaches of faith involved therein. Empires can only be conceived by Napoleons, Bismarcks, Disraelis, Richelieus, and Machiavellis. They can only be built by Clives, Hastings, Wellesleys, and Dalhousies. Burkes and Gladstones cannot do that work, nor can Morleys, though they may connive at others doing it, and might accept it as fait accompli.

Conquest of India Diplomatic, not Military. The British conquest of India was not a military conquest in any sense of the term. They could not conquer India except by playing on the fears of some and the hopes of others, and by seeking and getting the help of Indians, both moral and material. The record is as black as it could be; but nothing succeeds like success, and all that is largely a forgotten page so far as the present generation of Indians is concerned. Only one feels disposed to smile when one hears of Indian nationalists being charged in British-Indian courts with attempting to subvert “ the government established by law.” One is inclined to ask “ By what law? ” and “ Who made that law ? ”

The Great Indian Mutiny of 1857. We have, however, referred to this story in these few words only to introduce the great Indian mutiny of 1857, as the first Indian political movement of the nineteenth century. The movement was national as well as political. The underlying causes and the contributory forces were many. The union of the Hindus and Mohammedans, the thoroughness of the organisation which preceded the mutiny, the stubbornness with which the mutineers fought, and the comparatively few treacheries that characterised the mutinous campaign, all point to the same conclusion.

The mutiny, however, failed because the people on the whole had no faith in the constructive capacity of the mutineers. The mutineers had no doubt agreed to postpone the question of the constructive ends in view, until after they had turned out the British, but the people could not. The people’s patience had been exhausted by the military activities of the preceding century and the accompanying disorder and anarchy, and they saw before them the possibility of a recurrence of the same in the case of success attending the arms of the mutineers. They hated the British; the Indian nobility and aristocracy, as well as the Indian people, hated them. They sympathised with the mutineers; but they helped them only half-heartedly. They had no faith in them. The ruling families of India, the aristocracy and the nobility, were perhaps more dreaded and hated by the people than were the British. There was no one to rally them to one standard.

How the Mutiny was Put Down. Here again it was British “ diplomacy ” that saved the British situation. The British rallied to their support the newly born aristocracy of the Punjab,— the Sikhs. The Sikhs had been persecuted and oppressed by the Mohammedans. They were not in a mood to look favourably at the chance of Mohammedan supremacy being re-established in India. They had had enough of the “ Turk,” as they called every Mohammedan; and they threw the whole weight of their recently gathered virility on the side of the British. They were told and they believed, that in crushing the Mohammedan power, they were revenging themselves on the slayers of Guru Teg Bahadur, the oppressors of Guru Govind Singh, and the murderers of his sons. It was the thought of Sirhind and the incidents associated with the name of that cursed place,3 that goaded them to the destruction of the last chance of Mohammedan supremacy in India.

The mutiny failed, but its course showed with what intensity the mutineers hated the British. The[3] Indians are a very kind-hearted people; they would not injure even an ant, much less a human being, if they could help it, but some of them were guilty of the most cruel excesses during the mutiny. The British, too, in their turn did not spare the Indians in any way either during the mutiny or after it. Innocent and guilty alike were placed before the cannon and shot in lots.[4] In their marches through the country, British soldiers tortured men, women, and children,[5] and sometimes hung their heads or carcasses on the trees.[6] Both sides vied with each other in their cruelties.

The victors have immortalised the reprisals (or say, the iniquities) of the vanquished by building permanent memorials on the spots where they were perpetrated; their own, they have forgotten, and so have perhaps the descendants of those who were the objects thereof, though they are recorded in history.

The impression which a visit to these memorials leaves on the mind of an English visitor can be better realised by the following extract from an account published in The Outlook (the English journal) on the 3rd of April, 1915, over the signature of one F. G. A. Speaking of the mutiny memories and monuments of Lucknow and Cawnpore, the writer remarks:

"Their mutiny memories are quite distinct, as are the impressions they leave on the pilgrim to these shrines of heroism and devilry. The battered ruins of Lucknow, testifying to a heroism so splendid as to rob even death of its sting, bring an inspiration that is almost joyous. Every crumbling gateway and every gloomy cellar has its tale of heroic endur- ance and magnificent defence, and the final relief of the beleaguered garrison wrote such a finis to the story as erased much of its earlier bitterness. . . .

“ None of this forgiveness is conceivable in those who visit Cawnpore. Even the sculptured angel over the unspeakable Well bears, on one profile at any rate, an expression of stern condemnation that holds out no promise of pardon. The atmosphere of historic Cawnpore is one of haunting horror and a sadness that will not pass with the years. Time seems powerless to heal this rancour. I care not whether the pilgrim wanders through the beautiful Memorial Gardens (in which, significantly, no native is allowed to enter), feasting his eyes on the blaze Bougainvillaea, or resting them in the shade of the peepul and the banyan, or whether he lingers in the strangely Italian-looking Memorial Church and reads the roll of honour that fills a series of mural tablets; everywhere his soul will be filled with gloom and will cry for eternal vengeance on the authors of the massacre and on those who threw the dying with the dead into the awful blackness of the pit. These memories hold nothing but hate and horror, without one redeeming chapter to leaven them with comfort or forgiveness.”[7]

The English are mistaken if they think that a reading of the history of the mutiny and the excesses and cruelties indulged in by the British does not excite similar feeling in the minds of the Indians. The British can express their feelings freely. The Indians cannot; their feelings must be repressed. It would, however, be better for both parties to try to wipe off the past in a spirit of mutual trust and mutual good will, which is only possible if England were to cease to pursue a policy of exploiting India and to establish her connection with India on a basis of equality, honesty and justice. That can only be done by treating her as a partner in the Empire and not as a mere “ dependency ” or “ possession.”

  1. The Punjab
  2. Sivaji was the founder of the Mahratta Empire in India
  3. Sirhind is a small town on the road to Delhi, where the Muslim governor of the time tortured the two minor sons of Guru Govind Singh to death by placing them between two brick walls.
  4. See Kaye and Malleson, vol. II, p. 367. "In respect to the mutineers of the 55th, they were taken fighting against us, and so far deserve little mercy. But, on full reflection, I would not put them all to death. I do not think that we should be justified in the eyes of the Almighty in doing so. A hundred and twenty men are a large number to put to death. Our object is to make an example to terrify others. I think this object would be effectually gained by destroying from a quarter to a third of them. I would select all of those against whom anything bad can be shown—such as general bad character, turbulence, prominence in disaffection or in the fight, disrespectful demeanor to their officers during the few days before the 26th, and the like. If these did not make up the required number, I would then add to them the oldest soldiers. All these should be shot or blown away from the guns, as may be most expedient. The rest I would divide into patches: some to be imprisoned ten years, some seven, some five, some three."
  5. History of Indian Mutiny, Kaye and Malleson, vol. II, p. 203. "Martial law had been proclaimed; those terrible Acts passed, by the Legislative Council in May and June were in full operation; and soldiers and civilians alike were holding Bloody Assize, or slaying natives without any Assize at all, regardless of sex or age. Afterwards the thirst for blood grew stronger still. It is on the records of our British Parliament, in papers sent home by the Governor General of India in Council, that the aged, women, and children, are sacrificed, as well as those guilty of rebellion. They were not deliberately hanged, but burnt to death in their villages—perhaps now and then accidently shot. Englishmen did not hesitate to boast, or to record their boastings in writings, that they had 'spared no one,' and that 'peppering away at niggers' was very pleasant pastime, 'enjoyed amazingly.' It has been stated in a book patronised by high class authorities, that 'for three months eight dead-carts daily went their rounds from sunrise to sunset to take down the corpses which hung at the cross-roads and market-places,' and that 'six thousand, beings' had been thus summarily disposed of and launched into eternity."
  6. See Kaye and Malleson's History of the Mutiny, vol. II, p. 177. "Already our military officers were hunting down the criminals of all kinds, and hanging them up with as little compunction as though they had been pariah-dogs, or jackals, or vermin of a baser kind. One contemporary writer has recorded that, on the morning of disarming parade, the first thing he saw from the Mint was a 'row of gallowses.' A few days afterwards the military courts or commissions were sitting daily, and sentencing old and young to be hanged with indiscriminate ferocity. On one occasion, some young boys, who, seemingly in mere sport, had flaunted rebel colours and gone about beating tom-toms, were tried and sentenced to. death. One of the officers composing the court, a man unsparing before an enemy under arms, but compassionate, as all brave men are, towards the weak and the helpless, went with tears in his eyes to the commanding officer, imploring him to remit the sentence passed against these juvenile offenders, but with little effect on the side of mercy. And what was done with some show of formality either of military or of criminal law, was as nothing, I fear, weighed against what was done without any formality at all. Volunteer hanging parties went out into the districts, and amateur executioners were not wanting to the occasion. One gentleman boasted of the numbers he had finished off quite 'in an artistic manner,' with mango-trees for gibbets and elephants for drops, the victims of this wild justice being strung up, as though for pastime, in 'the form of a figure of eight.'"

    On mock trials see Holmes' History of the Sepoy War, p. 124. "Officers, as they went to sit on the court martial, swore that they would hang their prisoners, guilty or innocent. . . .Prisoners condemned to death after a hasty trial were mocked at and tortured by ignorant privates before their execution, while educated officers looked on and approved." "Old men who had done us no harm, and helpless women with sucking infants at their breasts felt the weight of our vengeance, no less than the vilest malefactors."

    Again see History of the Siege of Delhi quoted by Savarkar in his "War of Indian Independence," p. 111, by an officer who served there, how, on the way from Umbala to Delhi, thousands were placed before a court martial in rows after rows and condemned to be hanged or shot. In some places cow's flesh was forced by spears and bayonets into the mouths of the condemned. (All Hindus abhor cow's flesh and would rather die than eat it.)

    See Charles Ball's Indian Mutiny, vol. I, p. 257. "One trip I enjoyed amazingly; we got on board a steamer with a gun, while the Sikhs and the fusiliers marched up to the city. We steamed up throwing shots right and left till we got up to the bad places, when we went on the shore and peppered away with our guns, my old double-barrel bringing down several niggers. So thirsty for vengeance I was. We fired the places right and left and the flames shot up to the heavens as they spread, fanned by the breeze, showing that the day of vengeance had fallen on the treacherous villains. Every day we had expeditions to burn and destroy disaffected villages and we had taken our revenge. I have been appointed the chief of a commission for the trial of all natives charged with offences against the Government and persons. Day by day, we have strung up eight or ten men. We have the power of life in our hands and, I assure you, we spare not. A very summary trial is all that takes place. The condemned culprit is placed under a tree, with a rope around his neck, on the top of a carriage, and when it is pulled off he swings."

    "In the Punjab, near Ajnala, in a small island, many a Sepoy who had simply fled away from a regiment which was working under the reasonable fear of being disarmed and shot by the Government for suspicion, was hiding himself. Cooper with a loyal body of troops took them prisoner. The entire number, amounting to two hundred and eighty-two, were then conveyed by Cooper to Ajnala. Then came the question what was to be done with them. There was no means of transporting them to a place where they could be tried formally. On the other hand, if they were summarily executed, other regiments and intending rebels might take warning by their fate, and thus, further bloodshed might be prevented. For these reasons, Cooper, fully conscious as he was of the enormous responsibility which he was undertaking, resolved to put them all to death. Next morning, accordingly, he brought them out in tens and made some Sikhs shoot them. In this way, two hundred and sixteen perished. But, there still remained sixty-six others who had been confined in one of the bastions of the Tahsil. Expecting resistance, Cooper ordered the door to be opened. But not a sound issued from the room; forty-five of them were dead bodies lying on the floor. For, unknown to Cooper, the windows had been closely shut and the wretched prisoners had found in the bastion a second Black-Hole. The remaining twenty-one were shot, like their comrades. 1—8—'57. For this splendid assumption of authority, Cooper was assailed by the hysterical cries of ignorant humanitarians. But Robert Montgomery unanswerably vindicated his character by proving that he had saved the Lahore division."—Holmes's History of the Indian Mutiny, p. 363.

    "It is related that, in the absence of tangible enemies, some of our soldiery, who turned out on this occasion, butchered a number of unoffending camp-followers, servants, and others who were huddling together in vague alarm, near the Christian church-yard. No loyalty, no fidelity, no patient good service on the part of these good people could extinguish, for a moment, the fierce hatred which possessed our white soldiers against all who wore the dusky livery of the East."—Kaye and Malleson's Indian Mutiny, vol. II, p. 438.

  7. It should be noted that this visit took place during the present war and the observations recorded above were penned after the “unique” outburst of loyalty on the part of the Indians in connection with the Great War.