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Famous Last Words

Posted in British Raj, History, India, politics by Anuraag Sanghi on March 11, 2012

Many Indians willingly credit the British Raj with the unification of India. This is a claim worth examining – especially in the backdrop of the War of 1857.

Kashmiri Gate was evidence of the heavy fighting between the British army and the Indian defenders. This was a double gateway to Delhi, built in 1835, on the north wall of Delhi, by a British engineer, it suffered from major assault by British forces. Later this became a major draw for British tourists. In 1858, Delhi was besieged by British, and this gate was the scene of the final assault on Delhi by forces under Brigadier John Nicholson. | Image of Kashmiri Gate from Felice Beato photographs. | Source & courtesy - bbc.co.uk. | Click for larger image.

Kashmiri Gate was evidence of the heavy fighting between the British army and the Indian defenders. This was a double gateway to Delhi, built in 1835, on the north wall of Delhi, by a British engineer, it suffered from major assault by British forces. Later this became a major draw for British tourists. In 1858, Delhi was besieged by British, and this gate was the scene of the final assault on Delhi by forces under Brigadier John Nicholson. | Image of Kashmiri Gate from Felice Beato photographs. | Source & courtesy - bbc.co.uk. | Click for larger image.

Divide … or unite?

There is a modern myth, especially among the English-speaking Indian élite, that the British ‘unified’ India.

This is a little strange, because in the next breath, the same people will also claim that the British could rule over India because of divide et impera – divide-and-rule policy of the British.

The Delhi Bank building wrecked during the Anglo-Indian War of 1857. The Delhi Bank, set up in 1847, owned by the Dyce Sombre family in Delhi, had other local businessmen as shareholders, was housed in this stately building. In May 1857, the manager of the bank, one Beresford, was killed by the rebels during the fighting. British forces took back the bank in September. | Image source & courtesy - bbc.co.uk | Click for larger image.

The Delhi Bank building wrecked during the Anglo-Indian War of 1857. The Delhi Bank, set up in 1847, owned by the Dyce Sombre family in Delhi, had other local businessmen as shareholders, was housed in this stately building. In May 1857, the manager of the bank, one Beresford, was killed by the rebels during the fighting. British forces took back the bank in September. | Image source & courtesy - bbc.co.uk | Click for larger image.

So did the British divide-and-rule over India – or did they unify India.

Or were the British able flip around their policy by 180 degrees, on a regular basis?

A simple question that begs asking is ‘why would the British want to unite India.’

If India was a divided lot?

British legacy

Before making this claim, no one is looking at the British record in other parts of the world.

Starting with their own backyard.

More than two centuries after the annexation of Ireland in 1801, Northern Ireland, a small part of Ireland that Britain occupies, has still not been integrated into the UK. Coming to the Middle East, the British worked hard to break up the moderate Islāmic Ottoman Empire – releasing a global wave of fundamentalist Islam. British record in Cyprus, Malaysia has been equally disastrous.

Or the other British creation, Pakistan, broke into two, within 25 years.

Another angle of Bank of Delhi building. The street fights between Indian warriors with the British colonialists.  |  Image source & courtesy - prophotos-ru.livejournal.com  |  Click for larger image.

Another angle of Bank of Delhi building. The street fights between Indian warriors with the British colonialists. | Image source & courtesy - prophotos-ru.livejournal.com | Click for larger image.

None of the above examples have the complications of language, religion, race that India has. So how did British achieve the singular feat of uniting people who speak hundreds of languages and dialects, dress differently, worship differently, into one nation?

Something that they could or would not do in any other part of the world!

Not British, but Gandhiji

There are others who would claim that it was Gandhiji who did this? Although Gandhiji could and did bring many disparate elements together, it could not have happened, without a pre-existing ‘bias’ among Indians.

Much before Gandhiji was even born, soon after the start of the Anglo-Indian War of 1857, (aka The Sepoy Mutiny of 1857), an American journalist wrote on India.

Army movements and transport in circa 1857. Elephants, camels, oxen, horses, mules, hauling cannon, carts, luggage, people over long distances. Pitched battles were fought - and this was no mutiny.  |  Image source and courtesy - bbc.co.uk  |  Click for image.

Army movements and transport in circa 1857. Elephants, camels, oxen, horses, mules, hauling cannon, carts, luggage, people over long distances. Pitched battles were fought - and this was no mutiny. | Image source and courtesy - bbc.co.uk | Click for image.

We are so accustomed to speak of India as if it constituted one country, and were inhabited by homogeneous people, that it is difficult to understand that not even in Europe are nations to be found more unlike to one another than in British India. In Hindostan and the Deccan there are ten different civilized nations, resembling each other no more than Danes resemble Italians, or Spaniards Poles. They differ in moral, physical, and intellectual conditions, — in modes of thought and in modes of life. This is one of the chief causes of England’s supremacy, just as similar state of things not only promoted the conquests of Rome, but facilitated her rule after they had been made. The Emperors ruled over Syrians, Greeks, Egyptians, and other Eastern peoples, with ease, because they had little in common, and could not combine against their conquerors. (via British India by Charles Creighton Hazewell).

This 'picket' fence could not safeguard the 1000-acre estate of Metcalfe against the local people, who stormed the barricade after the war broke out. | Photographer Felice Beato's Image; Source & courtesy - bbc.co.uk | Click for larger image.

This 'picket' fence could not safeguard the 1000-acre estate of Metcalfe against the local people, who stormed the barricade after the war broke out. | Photographer Felice Beato's Image; Source & courtesy - bbc.co.uk | Click for larger image.

Mutiny that lasted for more than a year

One proof of this unity in India was the 1857 War against Colonial England.

Finally, Britain’s new-found wealth from slavery, piracy, loot from the Spanish Empire, coupled with British brutality against Indians defeated the Indians in 1857.

This ‘mutiny’ lasted for nearly two years, had lakhs of soldiers, moving across the Deccan plateau and the Indo-Gangetic plains. The triangular region, measuring across nearly 2000 km (Nagpur to Dhaka to Rawalpindi) had coördinated troop movements, needed huge volumes of arms and armaments, that had to bought.

This war was fought simultaneously on multiple fronts.

How was the spontaneous Sepoy mutiny coördinated across such a huge geography, for so long, with such a huge cost. The fighting, mainly between 10 May 1857 to the capture of Gwalior (20 June 1858), was an expensive affair, and extended to nearly two years.

While the main theater of war was Deccan plateau and the Indo-Gangetic plains, disturbances spread to Burma, Malaysia, Trinidad.

After the blood on the ground dried, after the dead were buried, and the dust settled, the the iron pillar at Mehrauli in Delhi was still standing.  |  Image source & courtesy - Image source & courtesy - prophotos-ru.livejournal.com | Click for larger image.  |  Click for larger image.

After the blood on the ground dried, after the dead were buried, and the dust settled, the iron pillar at Mehrauli in Delhi was still standing. | Image source & courtesy - Image source & courtesy - prophotos-ru.livejournal.com | Click for larger image. | Click for larger image.

Republic of 65 years

65 years ago, when the British could not no longer stay in India, British apart, there were many Indians who predicted that India will break up – and soon.

65 years later, the Indian republic is the only Republican democracy, apart from USA, to have lasted for more than 50 years without a break down. Though smaller countries like Switzerland, Israel, Singapore, can make a similar claim, they do not generate the same challenges to create a historic landmark.

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