Nehru lecture on 1857 Indian Mutiny

On May 10, 1857, the ‘Indian Mutiny’ began in Meerut and started a nationwide uprising now known as the First Indian War of Independence. In my recent archival adventures in South Africa, I found some lecture notes by Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru on this uprising in the papers of Communist Party of South African members’ Jack and Ray Simons. There is no date on the document, but the wider file has a date of 1947 to 1990. I am unsure whether this lecture was delivered in South Africa or how the Simons came to own the document. The document is not necessary for my current research, but I thought I would post an extract from it to commemorate the anniversary of the uprising.


THE GREAT REVOLT OF 1857  by Jawaharlal Nehru

[…]In May, 1857, the Indian army at Meerut mutinied. The revolt had been secretly and well organised but a premature outburst rather upset the plans of the leaders. It was more than a military mutiny and it spread rapidly and assumed the character of a popular rebellion and war of Indian independence. As such a popular rebellion of the masses, it was confined to Delhi, the United Provinces (as they are now called), and parts of a central India and Bihar. Essentially it was feudal outburst, headed by feudal chiefs and their followers and aided by the wide-spread anti-foreign sentiment. Inevitably it looked up to the relic of the Mughal dynasty, still sitting in Delhi palace, but feeble and old and powerless. Both Hindus and Moslems took full part in the Revolt.

This Revolt strained British rule to to the utmost and it was ultimately suppressed with Indian help. It brought out all the inherent weaknesses of the old regime, which was making its last despairing effort to drive out foreign rule. The feudal chiefs had the sympathy of the masses over the large area, but they were incapable, unorganised and no constructive ideal or community of interest. They had already played their role in history and there was no place for them in the future… There was hardly any national and unifying sentiment among the leaders and a mere anti-foreign feeling, coupled with a desire to maintain their feudal privileges, was a poor substitute for this…

It is clear, however, that there was lack of nationalist feeling which might have bound the people of India together. Nationalism of the modern type was yet to come; India had still to go through much sorrow and travail before she learnt the lesson which would give her real freedom. Not by fighting for a lost cause, the feudal order, would freedom come…

British memorials of the Mutiny have been put up in Cawnpore and elsewhere. There is memorial for the Indians who died. The rebel Indian sometimes indulged in cruel and barbarous behaviour; they were unorganised, suppressed, and often angered by reports of British excesses. But there is another side to the picture that also impressed itself on the mind of India, and in my own province especially the memory of it persists in town and village. One would like to forget all about this, for it is a ghastly and horrible picture showing man at his worst, even according to the new standards of barbarity set up by nazism and modern war. But it can only be forgotten, or remembered in a detached impersonal way, when it becomes truly the past with nothing to connect it with the present. So long as the connecting links and reminders are present, and the spirit behind these events survives and shows itself, that memory also will endure and influence our people. Attempts to suppress that picture do not destroy it but drive it deeper in the mind. Only by dealing with it normally can its effects be lessened…

It is hateful to have to refer to this past history, but the spirit behind those events did not end with them. It survived, and whenever a crisis comes or nerves give way, it is in evidence again. The world knows about Amritsar and Jallianwala Bagh, but it does not know of much that has happened since the days of the Mutiny, much that has taken place even in recent years and in our time, which has embittered the present generation. Imperialism and the domination of one people over another is bad, and so is racialism. But imperialism plus racialism can only lease to horror and ultimately the degradation of all concerned with them. The future historians of England will have to consider how far England’s decline from her eminence was due to her imperialism and racialism which corrupted her public life and made her forget the lessons of her history and literature. 

BC1081, S4.2, Discussion Papers, 1947-1990, University of Cape Town Special Collections Library



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