As India celebrates the 250th anniversary of the birth of Rammohan Roy, one of modern India’s earliest and greatest activists, on May 22, 2022, we are faced with one of the cruel ironies of the story. The ruling regime is pushing 21st century India into revenge-fueled mass violence by distorting history and using wrongs perceived to be committed by the Mughal dynasty that ruled India some three centuries ago. This paradoxical backdrop should help us appreciate the true significance of the battle Rammohan and his contemporary reformers had to wage in the early 19th century to popularize the vision of a modern India in the face of aggressive colonial rule on the one hand and to fierce social and ideological violence. resistance from within India on the other hand.
Rammohan was born in 1772, fifteen years after the East India Company seized Bengal by defeating NawabSiraj-ud-Daulah at the Battle of Palashi and consolidated its control over the whole of India. In the words of Rabindranath, “the scales of the trader had turned into the ruler’s scepter”. During the first forty years of his life, Rammohan mastered the key scriptures and texts of all the major religions, often reading them in their original language as he was a polyglot with an excellent command of a range of languages, including including Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian, to English. , Latin and Greek. He also worked as a revenue agent for the East India Company before giving up his job and moving to Kolkata in 1815 to concentrate on his writing and organizing work.
Rammohan is best remembered for his historic contribution to the abolition of Sati, the supposedly “voluntary” act of self-immolation by Hindu widows which was in fact a religiously sanctioned act of lynching women in India. expiration of their husband. Polygamy being a common practice at that time, it could even mean the simultaneous sacrifice of several wives. Rammohan had seen it with his own eyes when his sister-in-law fell victim to this odious custom. His fiery, daring and persuasive campaign for the abolition of this system, through a series of articles on the pages of Sambad Kaumudi, the Bengali weekly started by Rammohan mainly for this purpose, eventually forced Governor-General William Bentinck to prohibit the Sati system. in 1829.
The abolition of Sati was the first historic legal step in favor of Hindu women’s rights, the importance of which can only be compared to the Widow Remarriage Act of 1856 pushed by Vidyasagar and the Widows’ Remarriage Bills. Hindu code in 1952 and 1956, legislated under the leadership of Ambedkar and Nehru. The fact that nearly one hundred and sixty years later, India needed another anti-Sati legislation (following the Roop Kanwar sati case of 1987 followed by an aggressive RSS-BJP campaign to propagate the sati) explains the historical significance of Rammohan’s campaign.
For Rammohan, the anti-Sati campaign was part and parcel of a larger progressive program of rationalism and modernity that saw him as a religious and social reformer, pedagogue, and journalist. He also demanded inheritance rights for women – which takes on greater significance given the fact that until 1870 women in England could not retain control of property inherited from a parent after marriage. Eventually he moved away from Hinduism towards the idea of a universal religion and the founding of Brahmo Sabha and Brahmo Samaj with the aim of ridding Hinduism of the caste system and reforming it along monotheistic lines.
While engaging with the British administration for social reform, modern education and justice, Rammohan also had strong ties to the descendants of the Mughal Empire who were his contemporaries. The nineteenth Mughal Emperor Akbar Shah II who occupied the Mughal throne from November 1806 to September 1837 conferred on him the title of Raja, which has since become the well-known honorary prefix of his name.
It was as an envoy of the Mughal Emperor that Rammohan traveled to Britain in 1830 where he fell ill and died three years later. While the idea of Indian independence had yet to arise during his lifetime, Rammohan was deeply influenced by the emancipatory ideas of the French Revolution of 1789 and felt very excited about attaining the independence of South American countries from Spanish colonialism in the first quarter. of the 19th century.
Two decades after Rammohan’s death, India was on the road to a final national awakening to freedom. After a series of adivasi revolts starting in the late 18th century, we had the first war of independence in May 1857 when Azimullah Khan wrote that ever inspiring hymn “hum hain iske malik, hindostan hamara” (this land the Hindostan belongs to us) and large parts of North India have revolted. Much to the horror of colonial rulers, Hindus and Muslims joined hands and scripted the unprecedented saga of shared value in united resistance. It was this shared legacy of Rani Lakshmibai and Begum Hazrat Mahal, Kunwar Singh and Maulavi Ahmadullah Shah Faizabadi fighting under a common umbrella that laid the foundation for India’s long subsequent struggle for independence.
Rammohan died in Britain as an envoy of the 19th Mughal Emperor Akbar Shah II. The fighters of 1857 chose his son and the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar as the leader of the revolt. On November 8, 1862, Bahadur Shah Zafar died in exile in Rangoon. Contrary to the Sangh-BJP’s sinister attempt to define 21st century Indian nationalism as opposed to Mughal dynasty, India’s freedom fighters of the 18th and 19th centuries had no problem accepting Mughal emperors as allies and even leaders in the common quest for a free world. Modern India.
Rammohan Roy may not have formulated an explicit vision of India’s liberation from British colonialists, but he had begun to argue against colonial flight of resources and surpluses away from India. Like Rammohan, all the dreamers and creators of modern India who fought for social and religious reform and cultural and educational progress should be considered heroes of India’s freedom movement.
From Rammohan and Vidyasagar in Bengal to Jyotiba and Savitribai Phule and Fatima Sheikh in Maharashtra, we have a very rich heritage of 19th century Indian awakening. Their vision was of a diverse, plural and democratic India, free from sectarianism, Brahminical patriarchy, superstition and tyranny, where reason and harmony would be the pillars of dignified human development. Today, this inspiring legacy and vision of India should help us fend off those who would rake up the past to destroy the present and vitiate our future. (API Service)
** The author is the General Secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation.