As we go to press, parts of Europe are mobilizing a sombre recall of World War I, which started on 28th July, 1914, a hundred years back. Millions of people lost their lives in the many conflicts that occurred, once again proving the same point, that war doesn’t determine who is right; it merely determines who is left. In Britain, France, Belgium and elsewhere curators are at work to offer conducted tours to battlefronts, lectures by descendants of martyrs, and more. In these countries, as also in USA and some others, chances are for some time you will see a lot of the red poppy—the flower that symbolizes that war—in the streets, in cinema halls and in parks. It’s a noble sentiment.
Because India was colonized, in her early 20th century wisdom she sent some 70,000 troops to fight that war for the British, and out of these, about 50,000 never came back. The India Gate monument in Delhi was erected mainly to commemorate our dead in that war, men whose names are engraved on its surface. We even made a film on the story. This 1960 feature was called Usne Kaha Tha, it starred Sunil Dutt and Nanda, and it contained a remarkable chorus-backed Manna Dey-Sabita Bannerji song set to a march, Jaane waale sipahi se poochho wo kahaan ja raha hai.
But look at the way our masters rewarded us, just an year after their war was over. In 1919, at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, the British fired at a non-violent gathering of protestors, resulting in the deaths of anywhere between 370 Indians (the British figure), and 1000 lives (our own number). That was savage enough. But did the British ever offer an official apology for this piece of savagery? No. The nearest they did was to condemn the shootings, but apologize they did not. Last year, in February 2013, David Cameron became the first in-office British Prime Minister to visit the Jallianwala Bagh site. He laid a wreath, and paid respects to those who lost their lives, but apologize he did not. ‘It would be wrong to reach back into history’ is what he said. In fact, Britain has never offered an official apology for even colonizing India.
The above is not written with a political slant. This essay shies away from pretensions of authority on the subject of war too, nor does it seek to ferment the idea of a debate on ungratefulness. It is written with the hope that people who read it will maybe empathize with the pain and the anger our parents and their parents must have felt when living in the suffocating atmosphere of their times.
These people were certainly in the millions, ordinary folks like you and I. But across platforms, there have been hundreds of those whose exemplary resistance to the British has been identified and remains admirable. Here are some of those names, spanning generations and in no particular order: MK Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhash Chandra Bose, VD Savarkar, Tipu Sultan, Jai Prakash Narayan, Ram Prasad Bismil, JB Kripalani, Lajpat Rai, Vallabhbhai Patel, Rash Bihari Bose, Bhagat Singh, Madam Bikhaji Cama, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Rani Lakshmi of Jhansi, Tatya Tope, Mangal Pandey, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, and many more.
Let’s engage through music with India’s story till 1947 now, even if some songs were made post independence. We give a miss to general patriotism and also to songs relating to wars that happened later:
- Door hato aye duniyawaalo Hindustan hamaara hai was in Kismet (1943), echoing the sentiments of the Quit India movement initiated an year earlier. Composer: Anil Biswas. Lyricist: Kavi Pradeep. Singers: Amirbai, backed in chorus by Anil Biswas, Kavi Pradeep, and others.
- Watan ki raah mein watan ke naujawaan shaheed ho, went Dilip Kumar and his compatriots in a clarion call in Shaheed (1948). (Credits: Rafi, Khan Mastana/Raja Mehdi Ali Khan/Ghulam Haider)
- Netaji ka jeevan hai (Samadhi, 1950) was a wonderful paean to Subhash Chandra Bose by the pen of Rajinder Krishan and the tune of C. Ramchandra, who also sang the song in his singing avatar as Chitalkar.
- The Bankim Chandra Chatterjee classic Anand Matth (1952) was dedicated to all those who died singing Vande maataram (I praise thee, mother). Vande maataram was rendered by Lata and Hemant and composed by Hemant Kumar.
- In Dharamputra (1961), Shashi Kapoor lip synced Mahendra Kapoor in manifesting a mood that wanted the British out: Jai janani jai Bharat ma (Sahir/N. Datta)
- In Shaheed Bhagat Singh (1963), we found Sarfaroshi ki tamanna ab hamaare dil mein hai (Rafi/Ram Prasad Bismil/Husnlal-Bhagatram), while we met an underplaying Shammi Kapoor as the revolutionary.
- Manoj Kumar gave a sensational performance as the eponymous Shaheed (1965). Aye watan aye watan humko teri qasam stood out high and tall.
British rule benefited us too
It isn’t that we got nothing from being a colony. We gained lots. Hardly anyone can deny that, but we paid a heavy price for those gains. We were treated contemptuously till the end. Before we did get our freedom, the British debated much on the issue; after all, India was the jewel in their crown. In a parliamentary debate on March 6, 1947, here is what Winston Churchill remarked: “In handing over the government of India to these so-called political classes we are handing over to men of straw, of whom, in a few years, no trace will remain”.
Thank God he got it wrong this time. For in spite of its many warts, India remains free. She is vibrant and kicking. Churchill underestimated our will and passion, exemplified by this song, written and composed by Prem Dhawan for an impassioned Rafi in Shaheed (1965): Tu na rona ke tu hai Bhagat Singh ki maa…Mar ke bhi laal tera marega naheen…
As for that apology, it may never come. Perhaps we should stop thinking of it now. Why not think of Ratan Tata, a Parsi from Mumbai who took over ownership of that great pride of Britain, the Jaguar? Or a vegetarian Marwari from Rajasthan, LN Mittal, who is among the richest people in England? More such happy takeovers and start-ups are on their way.
The British got their toehold into India via the East India Company. Many hundred years on, are we seeing the reverse, a ‘West India company’ sort of ‘takeover’ of Britain, without a shot fired? Maybe I imagine too much.
(Photo: Aye watan aye watan humko teri qasam)
Originally published: August 15, 2014