Observing anniversaries has turned out to be more than a casual ritual; it is now almost de rigueur. There are some dates it would be heresy to run away from. In Anno Domini 2007, the patriotic-minded here feel particularly duty-bound to commemorate two events that happened two hundred fifty and one hundred years ago respectively: the battle of Plassey took place in 1757, and 1857 was the year of the Great Indian Uprising.
Historians have debated over the relative significance of the two occurrences, and will continue to do so. Plassey has a distinct emotional context for the Bengalis; that was the occasion, they love to think, they were deflowered of their liberty. Facts do not quite endorse this assumption. The protagonists on either side of that battle amid the mangroves of Plassey were not one hundred per cent, or even ten per cent, of Bengali vintage. The East India Company personnel apart, Siraj-ud-Daula, his grandfather, Alibardi Khan, and the rest of the lot were presumably of Pathan stock; so too was Mir Jafar. Such characters as Mir Kasim and Mir Madan belonged, one is pretty sure, to the tribe of Biharis who converted to Islam some generations ago. Mohanlal was a Kashmiri. Amir Chand and Jagat Sheth, the two financiers of Robert Clive, must have been banias who travelled down from the wilderness of Oudh or Rajputana. Even if these descriptions are erroneous in detail, it does not really matter, for the Bengalis in any case were nowhere in the picture; they were a docile flock who had accustomed themselves, over the centuries, to paying their fief to this or that rung of diverse feudal hierarchies. The rise of the Bengalis — specially of their Hindu species — actually coincided with Clive’s conquest of eastern India.
Few will, however, quibble over the proposition that the outcome of the battle of Plassey provided the East India Company with a firm foothold on Indian territory, and allowed them the breathing space to plan the strategy of subjugating the rest of the subcontinent. In that sense, the seeds of the Indian Empire were indeed planted at Plassey, not so much by armed forces directly owing their allegiance to the British crown, but by mercenaries of the trading company. Bengali histrionics notwithstanding, there can, therefore, be no question that the year 1757 marks a watershed in the country’s history.
What would have happened if Napoleon had not met his Waterloo in 1815 is a different matter. In the course of the century following Plassey, the British though succeeded even beyond their wildest expectations. Formally, it was still not British state power that kept winning the laurels, but the board of directors of the East India Company. This was, in many ways, unique: a bunch of traders annexing foreign lands on their own, without overt state support, except for the fortuitous possession of a royal charter.
On to 1857, which was a very near thing for the till-then-all-conquering Company; heterogeneous elements from different parts of the country were on the verge of expelling the white interlopers. Never mind if it was chance-erected, once the uprising took off, it was touch and go; the hegemony of the Company was saved only by the skin of the teeth. London realized it was much too risky to leave the affairs of this prized possession to the care of a freewheeling mercantile body of men. Although the rebellion was quelled, 1857 also marked the eclipse of the East India Company. The Empire of India qua Empire of India was ushered in; the empress, Victoria Regina, was certainly amused in this instance.
It was a coming together of disparate elements, with vastly divergent backgrounds and causes, who engineered the great rebellion of 1857, and, despite its eventual failure, it evoked widespread patriotic emotions. The Bengalis, however, were not a part of this grand national coalition. Their present descendants are welcome to suffer from a retrospective sense of shame for the role their forefathers played during the nationwide stir against the British, but that is neither here nor there. Circa the 1850s, the Bengali bhadralok community had just started to emerge. They never had it so good, thanks to British dispensations. They were solidly with the raj, and presented a united front against the beastly sepoys and suchlike who had the audacity to question the rule of law set up by the Cornwalises and the Bentincks. Mangal Pandey was no Bengali, but a Brahmin from the Prayag region. Barely a quarter of a century after the revolt was quelled, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee wrote a novel, Anandamath, to inform fellow Bengalis about the salient positive aspects of the British reign and how it would save Hindu culture and civilization from the oppression let loose by filthy Muslim infidels.
Anyway, by now, controversies over the significance of Plassey and, a century later, the siege of Delhi, Lucknow and Kanpur, have been rendered somewhat passé. All the greater reason to wonder why the anniversary of another happening, which took place much closer in the past — exactly fifty years ago, in 1957 — is apparently receiving so little attention. By no means it was an event deserving to be passed over in silence. Till that year, 1957, the only instance of a communist party coming to power under what is described as a ‘free’ democratic system was the sleepy Italian canton of San Moreno. San Moreno was however never taken seriously; it was just a curiosum. What could be cured had to be endured: both the Italian regime presided over by the strongly entrenched Christian Democratic Party and the Catholic Church chose to put up with this aberration on the part of the otherwise well-behaved men and women of San Moreno — voting term after term for the communists.
San Moreno was not much more than a village; Kerala was a vastly different proposition. It was a state belonging to the Union of India, and its frontiers had been recently redrawn along linguistic lines. It had the highest rate of literacy in the country and it had the reputation of producing the smartest set of civil servants. And yet, come 1957, it voted the communists to power in the state assembly elections that year. That occurrence transmitted a shock wave across the nation and the continents: how could such an absurdity take place, the communists are not supposed to win in a freely-fought election contested by a multiplicity of parties. A frenzy of intolerance took over. The blessed Article 356 of the country’s Constitution was availed of to pack off the communist chief minister, E.M.S. Namboodiripad, and his wretched flock. This blatant act of authoritarianism was crucially necessary, the people were informed, to rescue them from the menace of authoritarian communism.
1957 still made the point. It buried, once and for all, the notion of a monolithic India even as it destroyed the inviolability of the supposed axiom that free social choice will always exclude the communists. None can therefore refute the claim of that year being another milestone in the nation’s annals.
The town cynic is however irrepressible in all seasons. The year 1957, he will pass the judgment, also signalled the beginning of the end of the communist movement in India: once the comrades, to their own surprise, began to win ‘free’ democratic polls, some of them convinced themselves that a revolution is not a necessary condition for the establishment of a popular democratic society. From there, it was only a short haul to reach the conviction that not necessarily socialism, capitalism too could bring about people’s liberation. It is hardly surprising — the cynic will add, egregiously or otherwise — that comrades from Bengal are in the vanguard of those propagating this brave new thesis.