Some thoughts on Independence Day

Over the last few years, I have been reading various alternative voices of Indian history, and this has opened my eyes to perspectives beyond what we study in school. The Indian freedom struggle from the British is also a topic that has multiple narratives. The one we study in school is the one we celebrate every Independence Day — that a group of freedom fighters, mostly educated professionals who sacrificed lucrative careers (e.g. Gandhiji, Jinnah, Nehru, Patel), led the entire country to freedom and independence; and that this independence removed the evil yoke of British imperialism from Indian soil. After Independence Day, Indians were no longer second-class citizens; and India regained control of our own economic destiny.

But there is an alternative view of this. While the educated, professional classes were fighting for freedom from the British, a much larger section of the Indian population — Dalits, tribals and the lower castes — were fighting their own freedom struggle. This freedom struggle was not from the British but from the fetters of the Indian caste system; and these fetters were greater than almost any atrocities that the British inflicted on Indians. The lowest castes were not just considered racially inferior — they were considered sub-human. Any labor of these castes was considered entirely for the profit of the higher castes. These castes constituted 25-50% of India’s pre-1947 population.

The crucial difference in view is this. Not only did the atrocities of British imperial rule leave the lowest castes unaffected (so degraded was their condition already); but in many cases, British rule actively helped them in their struggle to their own independence. The Mahars — an untouchable caste to which Ambedkar belonged — were entirely, utterly subjugated by Peshwa rule: buried alive to protect secrets, trampled to death by elephants for protesting their condition, denied education, “playfully” put to death when the Peshwas felt like it. The Mahars considered the British to be their saviors. The East India Company recruited the Mahars in thousands for their army; and a major landmark in Dalit history is the Battle of Koregaon, in which Peshwa Baji Rao II’s Maratha Army was defeated by the British. This day is marked in Maharashtra, not as a day of British victory, but as a day of Dalit victory over their oppressors; Koregaon even has a monument commemorating this.

To read Ambedkar’s scholarly works is an eye-popping experience. One learns about various movements, rebellions and struggles that were entirely absent from our history education. One such incident is the Mahad Satyagraha. On 20th March 1927, Ambedkar led a group of 3,000 Dalits to the Chavadar Tank in Mahad, to drink a few drops of water and assert their right to use this pool — a right which had been granted to non-Hindus, animals and caste Hindus, but denied to the Mahars. They had the full backing of the British Government for this Satyagraha; and Ambedkar considers this day the true “Independence Day” for Dalits. The Mahad Satyagraha was followed by widespread riots by upper-caste Hindus. Ambedkar even spent a night at a police station. But in June 1927, an unprecedented event happened: 5 upper-caste Hindus were sentenced by the (colonial) magistrate to 4 months’ hard imprisonment for violence against Dalits. Ambedkar said: “Had the chief officers in the district not been British, justice would have been denied. Under Peshwa Rule, I would have been trampled to death by an elephant.”

I consider Ambedkar second only to Mahatma Gandhi as the greatest Indian of the last 200 years. He is a scholar; his writings sparkle with logic and wisdom, if only one is able to look beyond his complete, wholesale hatred of Hinduism. In my circle of friends, we tend to look at caste issues through the one-dimensional lens of reservations; we are aghast that someone with merit is denied an opportunity because a seat is reserved for someone from another caste. Yet every month in India, Dalit boys are killed for marrying caste Hindu girls; entire political parties have been created for the sole purpose of providing representation to caste Hindus that want to maintain caste hegemony (the foremost in Tamil Nadu being the one led by “Change, Progress, Anbumani”); and in the margins of our urban society, Dalits still live in segregated villages and drink water from separate tumblers.

Reading works about and by Ambedkar (and other Dalit doyens) should be compulsory for every Indian. Our celebration of Independence Day is not — should not be — a celebration of our fellowship with other people ‘like us’. It’s a great day to remind ourselves that this country is not only ours; there are a great many people, living somewhere out of our peripheral vision, who share this country with us, who have an equal right to everything it has to offer — and are still very far from Independence.

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