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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 21 New Delhi May 11, 2019

Marx and India

Tuesday 14 May 2019

Karl Marx was born on May 5, 1818 and passed away in 1883. His 200th birth anniversary is now coming to a close. On this occasion we are carrying the following two articles for the benefit of our readers.

by Rup Narayan Das

At a time when the 200th birth anniversary of Karl Marx is coming to the conclusion, it is worthwhile to recall the writings of Karl Marx on India, particularly on the ‘First Indian War of Independence’, although historians in India for all justifiable reasons will not agree on his contention that the revolt of 1857 fired the first salvo of rebellion against the British rule in India as there had been sporadic movements against the British rule in India such as the Vellore uprising in 1806 in the South. The duo Marx and Engels since the early eighteen fifties wrote a number of incisive articles for the Left-wing American newspaper New York Daily Tribune on the 1857-59 national revolt in India. Founded by Horace Greeley, the prominent American journalist and politician, it was the mouth-piece of the Left-wing of American Whigs until the mid-eighteen fifties, and later of the Republic Party. Besides, Marx on his Notes on Indian History wrote in 1853 on the situation in India on the eve of the revolt. 

Marx along with his ideologue comrade Engels had evinced a very keen interest on developments taking place in India and the Asian countries, particularly China, and they were sanguine that of some sort of revolution would occur in India. In fact since the early eighteen fifties both of them together and Marx separately wrote a number of incisive articles about the firmament taking place in India both during the Sepoy Mutiny and also prior to that. Marx perceived the revolutionary impact of the far-reaching changes snowballing in India and China with the dissolution of what he called patriarchal and feudal relations and the gradual transition of those countries to capitalist development, as new important factor that would inevitably influence the prospects of the impending European revolution. Although the English called it a Mutiny and an isolated uprising, Marx described it as an insurrection which was just a part and parcel of the general anti-colonial liberation struggle of the oppressed nations unfolding in the eighteen fifties nearly in all Asia. He refuted the contention of the British ruling classes who tried to describe the insurrection as an armed Sepoy mutiny and to conceal the involvement in it of broad sections of the Indian population.

Both Marx and Engels viewed the outbreak linked to the European revolution which, in their opinion, was due to break out as a sequel to the first world economic crisis which swept the European countries and the United States at that time. In his article, the ‘Revolt in the Indian Army’ which he wrote on June 30, 1857 and published in the New York Daily Tribune as the leading article on July 15, 1857, Marx analysed the conquest and subjugation of India and noted the variety of forms and methods of British colonial rule and exploitation. He described the East India Company as the tool of the Indian conquest and stressed that the British seized the Indian territories in predatory wars by taking advantage of the feudal strife between local princes and fanning racial, religious tribal and caste antagonisms among the people of India.

Marx demonstrated that the colonial plunder of India—one of the principle source of enrichment for the ruling oligarchy in Britain—caused the collapse of entire branches of the Indian economy and the impoverishment of the people of the vast, wealthy and ancient country. The British, he noted, neglected public works and thus brought about the collapse of India’s irrigated agriculture which in turn doomed millions of Indians to starvation by breaking up local industries, notably the hand weaving and hand-spinning, which could not compete with the British cotton fabrics flooding the Indian market. The colonialists broke down the patriarchal framework of communal land-ownership. At the same time, however, by introducing successively two land-tax and tenure systems—the Zamindaris and Ryotwari—they preserved many feudal survivals in the Indian social system, which slowed down the country’s progressive development and burdened the Indian peasantry.

Marx drew the conclusion that it was the predatory policy of the British intruders in India and the colonial exploitation which nurtured the Indian revolt and observed that the immediate causes that precipitated the insurrection were linked to the changes that took place in India under the British rule by the mid-19th century, particularly in the functioning of the native Army. In creating the native Army, the British simultaneously organised the first general centre of resistance which the Indian people were never possessed of, he opined.

The author is a Delhi-based scholar. A Ph.D, he is a Joint Secretary, Lok Sabha Secretariat, Parliament Library House, Parliament House, New Delhi.

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