On 7 May 2007, more than 10,000 young Indians gathered in Meerut to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the First Indian War of Independence. A troop of cavalry and a martial band marched at their head as they set off on a five-day, 45 mile, march to Delhi, following the route of the first ‘mutineers’, the East India Company sepoys (soldiers) who rose in rebellion to lead a national uprising against British rule in India. The war, dubbed a ‘mutiny’ by the British rulers, united hindus, muslims and sikhs, and brought together Indians of many castes and classes for the first time in common cause against the imperialists.
Before setting off, the young marchers paused to garland local freedom fighters – men in their 80s and 90s who had been imprisoned for challenging the British before independence. Drawn from all corners of India, the marchers waved flags and chanted the rallying cry of the sepoys, “Dilli Chalo! [To Delhi!]” and the slogan of India’s independence movement, made famous by Bhagat Singh, “Inquilab zindabad! [Long live the revolution!]”
The rally was addressed by secular politicians calling for an end to the divisive communal politics that have been a defining feature of life in India ever since the British instituted their notorious, well-honed divide and rule strategy, aimed at breaking the independence movement and, later, at weakening the nation left behind when they were finally forced out.
The aggravation and incitement of religious and caste divisions, and especially anti-muslim propaganda, has been a staple tool of the Indian ruling class ever since India gained her independence 60 years ago (as has anti-hindu propaganda been for the Pakistani bourgeoisie).
That this is not a reflection of the true feelings of the Indian masses can be gauged by the observations of Peter Foster, a Daily Telegraph journalist, who wrote on 8 May 2007 as follows:
“Amid all the nationalistic fervour, the desire for greater social and religious unity in modern India – a state comprised of myriad people, languages and religions – was a recurring theme.
“India’s economic boom has brought many material benefits, but for men like 94-year-old Muna Lal, who was imprisoned by the British in Meerut from 1941-2 for his part in the Quit India movement, the spirit of those days is perilously close to being lost.
“‘We fought for the freedom and equal rights of all men,’ he said, his hands shaking with age, ‘but today people fight only for power and money. Sometimes this is a country I can no longer recognise.’ Mani Shankar Aiyar, a senior government minister, who launched the week of commemorations, recalled a lost era when religious differences were not so deep.
“‘When the sepoys reached Delhi, did anyone ask them if they were Hindus or Muslims?’ he said. ‘We must always remember that though we are many peoples and religions in India, we are also unified as one.’ …
“Sitaram Yechury, a leading figure of the Communist Party of India, is among those who urged that the 1857 anniversary be used not as a platform for mindless nationalism but as a reminder of a better, more harmonious India. As the march progressed slowly down the road to Delhi, a group of teachers from Meerut’s Muslim college, the Faiz-e-am, gathered on the roadside to cheer.
“Afzal-ur-Rehman, a 52-year-old biology teacher at the college, said: ‘The ordinary Muslims and Hindus live together happily. The trouble is caused by the politicians and their propaganda games. The people must learn to see through this, only then will there be peace.’” (‘Indians seek unity through Mutiny’s memory; Marchers call for a return to the religious tolerance of another age’)