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The First War Ever?
The Government of India has decided to celebrate the anniversary of 1857 as the First War of Independence. A debate has been raging about the 1857 uprising. One eminent group would like to remember it as a momentous event, almost unprecedented in its sweep, which gave a great fillip to our fight against the British. For another equally eminent group, it was merely a sepoy mutiny, involving rebellious kings and potentates, and not necessarily a progressive event.
The debate is not over yet, despite the government's decision. I therefore want to warn our present-day rulers against reinventing history in their own partisan way. It's a mistake all successful rulers have made since they became aware of the role of history in the march of time. For who would not like to see his or her name emblazoned in the roll-call of history?
To me, the entire renewed effort to call the cataclysmic events of 1857 the first war of India's Independence is to trivialise the importance of history. And as a mature nation—a nation with a mind—we should desist from doing so.
After all, what do we mean by the term 'first war' of independence? If we think that this battle against the British should be called the war of independence, then what should we call the wars of Mysore that Tipu fought? Or, what were the wars that the Marathas fought with the Mughals? Or, if it is a war against all foreign invaders, where should we place the heroics of Maharana Pratap or Chhatrapati Shivaji?
Should we not remember the first Anglo-Sikh War in 1846, when the British governor-general himself was in danger of being captured by the Sikhs? If the Sikhs had then been able to march to Delhi, who knows, the British might have had to leave India altogether.
We should be very clear about the enemy against whom the war is being waged. For example, the Sikh Misl specialised in waging guerrilla warfare against scourges from the West like Nadir Shah or Abdali, who would invade India and take away Indian women in the thousands, to be sold in the streets of Basra. And Sikh guerrillas would harass them right up to the Attock (Indus) to recover as many Indian women as they could and then try to restore those unfortunate women to their families. Now, what war were they waging? Evidently, a war of independence! For, it was the Sikhs under Hari Singh Nalwa who re-established the traditional border of India across the Khyber.
And what about the time when Zaman Shah invaded India to re-establish the Afghan empire here? Ranjit Singh, or more correctly the Sikhs again, met him in open battle, destroying the pride of Central Asia. Twenty thousand Afghan soldiers lay dead as against 15,000 Sikhs of the Misl levies before Zaman Shah retired from the battlefield.
The point I am trying to make here is that love of the motherland has been deeply ingrained in the hearts of men since the dawn of history. It is Lord Rama, after all, who said "Janani janmabhumishcha swargadapi geeyasi" (Mother and the motherland are even greater than heaven)". Hence, fighting for the honour and defence of the motherland has always been a sacred cause.
Even so, it is a common human weakness to create benchmarks of man's achievements, by saying this or that happened for the first time ever. So let me talk of a benchmark of this kind. There was one Banda Singh Bahadur, the first ever Jathedar of the Khalsa Panth, nominated by Guru Gobind Singh himself. And for a time in 1709, he destroyed all the vestiges of Mughal tyranny in Punjab, as a hurricane removes all the dead leaves from a tree. He became the first ruler of Punjab and he issued coins in the name of Guru Nanak and Guru Gobind Singh, as a symbol of Sikh sovereignty. It was perhaps for the first time that such a thing had happened in India, after the fall of Anangpal, as the second millennium began.
Now, can we not call his achievement the first battle of independence won? No. It is the march of evolutionary history that counts its benchmarks in firsts and seconds. And that happens in the West. But our time is cyclical, because the Indian cosmic order was evolved as Time itself took birth. It has no beginning and no end.
I take great pride in what happened in 1857. And I salute its heroes and martyrs. This was certainly an event that shook the British to their very foundations. Still, I shudder to call it the first battle of our independence. To me, it appears that by doing so we are trivialising history and compromising its sacredness for very small ends. Let me, therefore, hope and pray that my Cassandra's voice is listened to.
(The author is a Rajya Sabha member and former chairman, National Commission for Minorities)