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Wars in India: Looking back at history

January 16, 2018

War, as the word suggests, is an armed conflict. It is fought against external forces or between two opponents. In a democracy, we have another kind of war — a “political war”. By its very semantic implication, it’s a “non-weapon, lung-power war” between competitors and rivals to capture power.

Democratic India, however, beginning its independent political journey in 1947, continues to be a unique and somewhat baffling case of ceaseless political power-squabbling, a “war game” of cacophony, clash, chaos, confusion and confrontation. It’s rarely of cooperation between men, matter and mind — the overall success of democracy notwithstanding.

Today, as the nation celebrates Army Day, let’s explore a little history.

Before 1947, India was a British colony and hence not a democracy. But in ancient times, around 6th century BCE, the country did have several democratic states like the Koliyas of Ramagrama, the Bulis of Allakappa, the Kalamas of Kesaputta and the Bhaggas of Sumsumara Hill. The most famous and organised of all the ancient republics were the Sakyas of Kapilavastu and the Lichchhavis of Vaishali (modern-day UP and Bihar respectively).

Nevertheless, the 5,000-year history of South Asia (then Bharatvarsha) is marked by two unique features that are most conspicuous: first, the region faced an internal “war of all against all”; and second, recurring foreign invasions, mostly through the land routes.

Thus, all across the geography of Indian history, we find numerous instances of indigenous forces joining hands with foreign invaders to subdue their own local neighbours and rivals. This baffling scenario could constitute a researcher’s delight — one can spend a lifetime exploring, narrating and scripting the bewildering blend of bravery and butchery of Indian and foreign soldiers, simultaneously participating in a war which inevitably constituted a mixture of both war and civil war.

We have plenty of stories of Maratha, Jat, Sikh, Rajput, Oudh, Bengal, Mysore, Burma and various rajas, maharajas, sultans, badshahs and principalities either on an endless fighting spree among themselves, or joining foreign forces (Mughals, British, French, Dutch, Portuguese and Danish) to fix their domestic rivals. Seen against this backdrop, the recent celebration of the 1818 KoregaonBhima battle (fought on January 1, 1818 between the British East India Company and the Peshwa faction of the Maratha Confederacy at KoregaonBhima) is neither new nor newsworthy. It was in tune with the historical forces of India and neatly fits into the virtually uniform character and characteristics of the whole of Hindustan. For that matter, you may take any battle of Indian history and the answer will be there for all to see.

When the Anglo-Gurkha war was fought, it was the Bengal Army’s Hindi-speaking East Indian soldiers, affectionately referred to as the “purbaiyas” (recruited mainly from Arrah, Balia, Chhapra, Danapur), and Bengali-speaking troops from eastern part of Bengal who joined the British. Did Indian troops celebrate their “victory over Gorkhas” which ended with the treaty of Sigauli in 1816?

Similarly, when the six battles of the Anglo-Sikh war (Mudki, Feroze Shah, Buddewal, Aliwal, Sobraon and Chilianwala) led to comprehensive defeat for Sikh soldiers of Lahore Durbar in 1849, (which once again happened due to the contribution of soldiers from East India, known as the Bengal Army, and treachery in Sikh ranks), did the Hindi-speaking as well as Bengali soldiers celebrate their victory over Sikhs, highlighting what a brave bunch of Indians they were?

Again, when the same Gorkhas and Sikhs, who were humbled not too long ago by the combined might of a majority East Indian soldiers and a minority British troops in 1816 and 1849, crushed the Sepoy Mutiny (First War of Indian Independence) in 1857, which consisted of the likes of Mangal Pandey from Ballia and Muslim soldiers of the remnants of the Mughal Durbar, did the victors celebrate? No. And rightly so, as one does not celebrate civil war, but in retrospect regret it.

The Mahabharat was a civil war and no Indian, to my knowledge, really celebrates it. The Ramayan, on other hand, was a war. Hence, the celebration of Diwali (festival of lights) is linked with it. One celebrates and commemorates victory against foreigners, not a civil war with fellow countrymen.

Thus, the recent political muscle-flexing and consequential violence on the streets of several towns of Maharashtra and Gujarat stand out as glaring examples of contemporary India’s inherent “ability” (not inability) of not coming to terms with its traditional faultlines of ignorance and prejudice, and a lack of any desire to learn lessons from its own history.

Apparently, it all began with a proposed memorial rally; a rally to celebrate and salute “one indigenous group’s” victory over “another group”, belonging to same geography. That is fine. Recalling the past and holding a remembrance day for a historical victory is always exemplary. For herein lies the beauty and uniqueness of celebration. It stood out owing to its occasion being one in which both victors and vanquished belonged to the same state, speaking the same language, following the same culture, hailing from the same geography, possessing the same food habits and worshipping the same gods — the only exception being their caste. They were one. Yet they were not one because they refused to be one. They were inseparable, but they were not, by choice. There also existed a prominent hyphen between these two Indian groups. A microscopic minority — the British. Both cause and effect first evolved and then revolved round this microscopic minority. Western white Christians who came as traders from 8,000 km away but found a sizeable number of “civil war-loving Indians” — a fascinating specimen of homo sapiens whose fondness and preference for foreigners was too conspicuous to be missed. A large number of Indians traditionally have been gracious hosts to far-off people. Unlike China, which always hated foreigners as barbarians, a sizeable number of Indians loved the “white” foreigners more than their own “coloured” countrymen. It didn’t take long for the Europeans, who came as traders, to grasp this basic reality.

Today, the best (or worst) part of the story is that the history of Indian geography is either being conveniently forgotten or deliberately being ignored by a large section of the Indian demography. Learning lessons from the past is an anathema to most people. “What is there to learn from the past? Isn’t history a dead subject?” Indeed! But shouldn’t the dead subject be thoroughly studied and relived to ensure that the present and future don’t prematurely turn out deadly and fatal?

To understand this further, only one instance from Indian history would suffice. Let’s face it with grace and dignity, without recourse to rancour and revenge. Reality be “realised”, not denied.

Thus, when the rank white Christian stranger Vasco da Gama arrived at the Malabar coast port of Calicut on May 17, 1498, he received “friendly treatment from the Hindu ruler (bearing the hereditary title Zamorin)”. The Portuguese soon saw through the faultlines of the Orient. Later, the English succeeded in stamping out their rivals. Indian rulers and soldiers defeated other Indian rulers and soldiers. They “made foreigners their rulers” and “India ruled”. “Mera Bharat Mahaan” and “VasudhaivaKutumbakam” at its zenith!

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