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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 34, August 19, 2023

Why PM Modi’s Thousand-Year-Old Slavery Narrative in His Independence Day Speech Distorts History and Negates the Vision of Gandhi, Nehru and Netaji Subhas Bose | S N Sahu

Friday 18 August 2023, by S N Sahu


Prime Minister Modi while addressing the nation from the ramparts of the Red Fort on 15th August 2023 stated that India suffered slavery for a thousand years following the defeat of a small kingdom of India 1000-1200 years ago. He is the first Prime Minister of India to have said so while delivering his speech on independence day. No other Prime Minister ever made such a claim.

Modi’s Narrative of Thousand-Year-Old Slavery in India and Abroad

He did not say this for the first time. On 13th December 2021 while inaugurating the Kashi corridor project in Varanasi Modi claimed that it represented India’s arduous struggle to step out of the “inferiority complex” brought upon it by centuries of slavery. In that context he said when Aurangzeb attempted to kill culture with radicalism Shivaji arose and when the Salar Masud invaded Raja Suhaldev countered him. Even earlier in June 2014 he while replying to the ‘Motion of Thanks’ to the President’s address to both the Houses of Parliament, assembled together said, “Barah sau saal ki gulami ki maansikta humen pareshan kar rahi hai”(The slave mentality of 1,200 years is troubling us). And it is worth noting that even outside India he repeated the same scripted narrative with flourish. For instance three months back while addressing the joint session of the American Congress on 23 June 2023, he stated that India celebrated the 75th anniversary of independence after “a thousand years of foreign rule in one form or another”. [1]

It is well worth reiterating the point that no other Prime Minister so recurrently put forth an entirely odd formulation of thousand-year-old slavery both at the domestic and international arena. Such a formulation is in complete contrast to the settled account of historians and illustrious leaders of freedom struggle such as Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose that India came under foreign subjugation with the advent of British rule in 17th century.

Gandhi Described British Rule as the Era of Slavery

Prime Minister Modi who ad nasueum proclaims while on official tours to foreign countries that "Mein Gandhi ka Desh se Aya Hun", "I am from the land of Gandhi," should pay heed to two of Gandhi’s statements which he made a few months before India attained freedom from the British rule. On 12th May 1947 while talking to socialists he used the word slavery in the context of India getting converted to a colony after the British ruled our country and said, "Our people have lived in slavery for 150 years and need to be trained for a different way of life now."

On 6th June 1947, slightly more than two months before India’s independence he yet again referred to 150 years of slavery and very sensitively wrote, "...we would need at least half that much time to cleanse our body-politic of the virus that has infiltrated every cell and pore of our being during our subjection." He then very thoughtfully, rather presciently, remarked, "... that far greater sacrifices will be needed after the attainment of self-government to establish good government and raise the people than were required for the attainment of freedom by means of Satyagraha".

Gandhi’s categorical assertion that there was slavery for 150 years because of British rule clearly exposes the falsity associated with the persistent claim of Modi that there was thousand-year-old slavery. Had there been slavery in India preceding the British period then Gandhi would never have said in his speech in Cuttack on 24th March 1921, “The pre-British period was not a period of slavery. We had some sort of Swaraj [self-rule] under Mughal rule." [2] “In Akbar’s time", he said, "the birth of a Pratap was possible and in Aurangzeb’s time, a Shivaji could flourish". Then, he proceeded to raise a question by asking, “Has 150 years of British rule produced any Pratap and Shivaji?”

The Aurangzeb-Shivaji and Salar Masud-Raja Suhaldev binaries used by Modi while inaugurating the Kashi corridor project to spin the “Barah sau saal ki gulami ki maansikta humen pareshan kar rahi hai” (The slave mentality of 1,200 years) stand in sharp contrast to Mahatma Gandhi’s Akbar- Pratap and Aurangzeb-Shivaji binaries employed to explain the prevalence of Swaraj during the Mughal period.

Gandhi’s Understanding of Slavery During Pre-British Period

Of course, Gandhi also talked about India’s slavery preceding the onset of British rule. For instance, on 24th March 1945 while addressing a meeting of the All India Spinners’ Association in Sevagram he said, "India has been enslaved for so long—its slavery dates since even before British rule—that all initiative and originality in us has been killed and we are paralyzed with despair". He said so because people lacked ability and drive to do something because of long spell of hopelessness which incapacitated them. In fact that remark should be seen in the backdrop of the massive difficulties faced for producing workers for the Charkha Sangh (Spinners’s Association).

Again a few days later on 11th April 1945 while speaking at a camp in Borivili he said, "India was a slave country and her slavery dated much farther back than the British conquest of India." He then stated that "Slavery of evil customs and superstitions” "was the worst form of slavery". In other words, he said that the "Slavery of evil customs and superstitions” persisted right from the pre-British period and impeded India’s advancement.

Such sensitive characterization of slavery traced to pre-colonial era stands in sharp contrast to the communal overtone defining the narrative of thousand-year slavery.

Nehru’s Understanding of British and Mughal Rule

There is unanimity among historians that India was converted to a colony during British rule. There is no account of a single historian that during Mughal rule India was converted to a colony with all its resources drained out and its status reduced to a market for the finished product of Mughal rulers. In fact, historians have documented that India’s contribution to the world economy during the Mughal rule was 25 percent and it got substantially reduced to 5 percent by 1950. It meant that economically India during that period was far better than the British period. By employing that logic how on earth one could say that India suffered from Barah sau saal ki gulami, 1200 years of slavery?

Our first Prime Minster Jawaharlal Nehru used to be outraged whenever our history was given a communal interpretation to describe Mughal rule as the rule of foreigners. He used to say that as a foreign Government located in London appointed Vice Roys and key functionaries British regime to rule over India it was a foreign rule in every sense of the term. Whereas, he argued that no foreign regime located beyond the boundaries of India ever put the Mughal rulers on the throne for exercising their power and authority over our country.

Syama Prasad Mookerjee Hailed Mughals as Great

Even Syama Prasad Mookerjee, the founder of the Jan Sangh in the early 1950s, while participating in the debates of the Constituent Assembly on 17th December 1946 on the Objectives Resolution famously described Mughals as great. He said so while sharply reacting to Lord Simon’s remarks that the Assembly represented the high-caste Hindus of India. Mookerjee countered it by saying that not just Hindus but also Muslims, Parsis, Christians, tribals, scheduled castes, and even Anglo-Indians were represented in that August Assembly. Then he asserted by saying that the British authorities should be told by the Constituent Assembly that they came as supplicants to the great Mughals for trade and commerce. Prime Minister Modi often invokes the name of Syama Prasad Mookerjee with great respect because the origin of BJP, Bharatiya Janata Party, can be traced to the Jan Sangh, founded by Syama Prasad. So by following his example, Modi should treat the Mughals with the respect they deserve and not give any wrong interpretation that they enslaved India.

Protagonists of 1200 Years of Slavery Never Participated in Freedom Struggle

In fact, those who give the spin that there was 1200 years of slavery have a proven record of opposing our freedom struggle for India’s liberation from British rule. For instance Savarkar, the Leader of Hindu Mahasabha, who is often invoked by Prime Minister Modi with great respect never supported Quit India movement. Mahatma Gandhi, in his article, “Savarkar Brothers”, published in Young India on 26 May 1920, pleaded for their release from prison by citing, among other grounds: “They both state unequivocally that they do not desire independence from the British connection.” “On the contrary,” he wrote, “They feel that India’s destiny can be best worked out in association with the British.” Again on August 8, 1942, Gandhi, referred to “Those Hindus…like Dr. Moonje and Shri Savarkar,” and stated that they believed “in the doctrine of the sword…to keep the Mussalmans under Hindu domination”.

Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, in his book Indian Struggle: 1920-1942, provided an account of his meeting with Gandhi, MA Jinnah (president of the Indian Muslim League), and Savarkar, (president of the Hindu Mahasabha before he left India to continue his struggle for freedom from outside the country. He wrote of holding hearty and cordial talks concerning India’s struggle for independence with Gandhi, but that his meetings with Jinnah and Savarkar were disappointing.

Bose wrote, “Savarkar seemed oblivious of the international situation and was only thinking how Hindus could secure military training by entering Britain’s Army in India.” He concluded, “...nothing could be expected from either the Muslim League or the Hindu Mahasabha.”

Against this historical backdrop, the spinning of a narrative about “thousand years of foreign rule” fits with the strategy of Hindutva leaders to target the Muslims by drawing false parallels with the “enslavement” of Indians when the Mughals ruled over large swathes of India. Such a strategy is clearly against the ethos of our freedom struggle which upheld inclusive ideals by disregarding faith as the factor to define the idea of India.

Nehru on 1000-year-old history of Harmony and Unity

While Modi on the occasion of the 76th anniversary of India’s independence talked about 1000-year-old history of India’s slavery, Jawaharlal Nehru on the occasion of 10th anniversary of our freedom from British rule in 1957 interpreted the 1000-year-old history of our country in terms of the peace and coexistence of people of all faiths. In the audio recording of that speech of Nehru available in Youtube his vision of our thousand-year-old heritage marked by concord and communal solidarity is of enduring relevance for our time to counter the spread of hatred and polarisation process by employing the false interpretation of history.

The example set by Gandhi, Nehru, and Netaji Subhas Bose in upholding the idea of India based on their understanding of history is of abiding relevance for upholding our unity and integrity being assaulted by Hindutva forces unforgivingly.

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