Opinion » Lead

Updated: June 19, 2012 00:06 IST

India and the last jubilee queen

Dinyar Patel
Comment (17)   ·   print   ·   T  T  
The Hindu

The 1897 celebrations for Victoria proved to be an important turning point in the nationalist movement

Last week's diamond jubilee celebrations in London, marking the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II's reign on the British throne, garnered relatively limited coverage in the Indian media. While several British South Asians played a prominent role in the festivities, any Indian citizens in attendance were more than likely curious tourists. Amongst the hundreds of boats on the Thames was one carrying the Indian tricolour, which, flying amidst the flags of other Commonwealth nations, provided perhaps the only visible reminder that a British Empire even existed.

What a difference a century makes. As celebrations for Elizabeth continue, it is worthwhile to reflect on the last time that a diamond jubilee was celebrated. That was in 1897, when the aged monarch, Victoria, was also the Kaiser-e-Hind, the Empress of India. Consequently, India played a much bigger role in the jubilee, and the jubilee, in turn, had much greater significance for India. The jubilee was an important moment for India in two ways. Firstly, in an imperial system that placed great weight on public displays of loyalty, it gave various Indian communities an opportunity to jockey for political capital and recognition. Secondly, the jubilee presented a conundrum to Indian nationalists. How best to respond? How should congratulatory messages be balanced with political protest? Ultimately, this question helped widen fissures between emerging moderate and radical factions. By the time the jubilee festivities ended in late 1897, the radicals had proven themselves to be a force with which to be reckoned.

Addresses of loyalty

Victoria's diamond jubilee was designed to demonstrate the strength and diversity of the British Empire. The festivities, which like Elizabeth's, occurred under mercurial June skies, featured representatives from across the colonies, ranging from Dayaks from Borneo to Hausas from western Africa. Over forty thousand soldiers from all parts of the empire descended on London. Within India, British administrators sought to recreate a microcosm of this pomp and splendour. They invited delegations to present addresses of loyalty and thanks to the viceroy in the summer capital of Shimla. From across the subcontinent streamed in official representatives of the Hindus of Lahore, Khojas of Bombay, Awadhi taluqdars, and Muslim Bengali women.

Other Indians lost no opportunity for lavish and oftentimes servile demonstrations of their loyalty to the crown. Princes held darbars, fed thousands of poor people, and laid foundation stones for new hospitals and schools to be named after the queen. Prayer meetings were organised in temples and mosques across the country. Residents of Lahore argued over how best to erect a statue of Victoria. Two hundred Parsi priests packed into the confines of Bombay's Wadia Atash Behram in order to deliver a special jashan prayer for the monarch. In Ajmer, dargah custodians pitched in to organise a large fair, while the Bene Israelis of Ahmedabad decided to collectively illuminate their houses. The Jains of Calcutta made what was perhaps the best use of an obligatory message of congratulation: they appealed to Victoria to ban all animal slaughter on her jubilee day. These memorials, darbars, festivals, and prayers were readily picked up by the British press, as well as by European papers in India, in order to reinforce the common belief that loyalty to British rule, alone, united India's diverse and teeming multitudes.

But celebrations and flowery messages barely masked what was otherwise a dark year in Indian history. Famine had swept over much of the north and west, followed soon after by a major plague epidemic. These tragedies were compounded by the Raj's relatively apathetic response to the famine and its imposition of draconian plague regulations. Leaders of the Indian National Congress, an organisation barely 12 years old, were at loggerheads as to how to balance declarations of loyalty with stern condemnation of British policy. At their December 1896 meeting in Calcutta, the Congress passed a feeble resolution congratulating the queen. This sent Henry M. Hyndman, the father of British socialism and an outspoken critic of British rule in India, into a fit of rage. ‘Congratulations for what?' he asked his friend, Dadabhai Naoroji, in January 1897. ‘For having ruined India for two or three generations to come? It is pitiful.'

Hyndman's relationship with Naoroji forms an important part of the story of India's response to the jubilee. Naoroji was then in residence in London, where he had been agitating for Indian political reform. With increasingly horrific accounts of the famine and plague streaming in, Naoroji decided to throw in his lot with Hyndman's Social Democratic Federation (SDF) and launch a series of protests and public meetings across Britain. Both men agreed that a steady drain of wealth and resources by the British were the root causes of India's poverty and misery. They had both spent the last several decades clamouring for more Indian representation in the government.

But now their campaign took a much more radical turn, employing language that did not spare the Kaiser-i-Hind. The silver jubilee, Hyndman told a mass meeting that he organised with Naoroji in February, should be celebrated in a manner befitting a monarch who had been ‘the Empress of Famine and the Queen of Black Death.' Naoroji wrote directly to the queen in the same month, accusing the British of inflicting upon Indians “all the scourges of the world[:] war, pestilence, and famine.” Naoroji and Hyndman continued to hold rallies and demonstrations in the months leading up to the jubilee.

Platform for demonstration

More moderate voices in the Congress also decided to turn the jubilee into a platform for demonstration. G.K. Gokhale, Surendranath Banerjea, Dinsha Wacha, and Subramania Iyer — who had been called to London as witnesses for the Royal Commission on Indian Expenditure (Welby Commission) — launched their own speaking tour around England and Scotland. In May, M.G. Ranade informed Naoroji about a movement afoot to hold “a Congress meeting in London in connexion with the jubilee festivities.” A London Congress, Ranade hoped, would provide an opportunity for Indian political associations to present their petitions directly to the India Office. William Wedderburn, another close British ally of the Congress, urged Ranade to stir up ferment in India for major political reforms. “Unless some clear expression of Indian public opinion is placed before the British public,” he argued, “it will be assumed that a few KCSIs [Knight Commander of the Order of the Star of India] &c to official favorites is all that the people of India desire.”

Ultimately, nothing came of the proposal for a London Congress. Naoroji and Hyndman's joint campaign came to a grinding halt. Naoroji, it appears, got cold feet from Hyndman's exhortations for Indians to rise up in open and violent rebellion against their British masters, and began distancing himself from the SDF. The defining jubilee moment for India happened not in London but in Poona, where several individuals were following a similar line of thought to Hyndman's. On the night of 22 June, as carriages departed jubilee ceremonies held at Ganeshkhind, the governor of Bombay's official Poona residence, two men leaped out of the dark and fatally shot the hated local plague commissioner, W.C. Rand, and a young British lieutenant, Charles Ayerst. The assailants were, of course, the Chapekar brothers, and their action produced shockwaves across the British Empire, completely drowning out, for the moment, the memorials, petitions, and protests of the Congress moderates.

Aside from bringing a bloody end to jubilee ceremonies in India, the Chapekar brothers helped bolster the prominence of an emerging band of extremist and revolutionary nationalists. B.G. Tilak, immediately suspected of complicity in the assassinations, shot to all-India fame in his ensuing trial for sedition. It was only after his sentencing in late 1897 that the honorific title of Lokmanya was bestowed upon him. Hyndman, who grew increasingly disillusioned with Naoroji and the moderates in the Congress, continued to call for revolution in India, defended Tilak in the press, and, in due time, linked up with one of Tilak's young friends, Shyamji Krishna Varma, the founder of India House in London, the premier laboratory for Indian revolutionary activity. It was people like Hyndman, rather than moderate voices such as Wedderburn and A.O. Hume, who served as inspiration for a rising generation of radicals.

For India, therefore, Victoria's diamond jubilee proved to be much more than an opportunity for restrained political protest, leave alone sycophantic memorials, deputations, and displays of loyalty. Instead, 1897 became an important turning point in the nationalist movement. The Poona assassinations raised the spectre of more extremist activity in disaffected regions. By the end of the year, Congress moderates had fully realised the potent threat that radicals — especially charismatic ones such as Tilak — posed to their dominance of the party. With little surprise, therefore, when the Amraoti Congress was held in December 1897, many Congress leaders tried to leverage the Lokmanya's mass appeal through sympathetic resolutions and speeches. Victoria's grand jubilee celebrations, it appears, were already a distant memory.

(Dinyar Patel is a Ph.D. candidate in History at Harvard University. Some of the material quoted here will be published in the forthcoming volume, The Grand Old Man of India: Selections from the Dadabhai Naoroji Papers (Oxford University Press), which he is co-editing with S.R. Mehrotra.)

More In: Lead | Opinion

Excellent article. Very few of us may be aware that radical opposition to British rule in India was initiated within Briton itself by the British socialist H. M. Hyndman.

from:  s s padalkar
Posted on: Jun 17, 2012 at 23:27 IST

Really appreciating work done but these scholars, they tried well to get us aware to real untold and unwritten story of that time.
I congratulates to you both for your hard work on Indian History!

Posted on: Jun 17, 2012 at 23:18 IST

As an ardent student of history, this article gave me a glimpse of the 1890's, thank you Mr.Patel for this excellent article.
Hopefully my next generation is reading these kind of articles, all the sacrifices of these great men may never reach the goal of a free and great nation. At present we are on course to be a failed nation if we fail to keep the massive corruption in check.
Some times I wonder if the present and future generations know how we got our independence,maybe we will be a little more responsible citizens.
Awaiting to read Mr.Patel's Grand old man of India.

from:  Dr.Gopi K Punukollu.
Posted on: Jun 16, 2012 at 22:24 IST

Very informative article by Mr. Dinyar Patel, who hails from the same
Parsi Zarathushti (Zoroastrian) community which produced many Indian
patriots like Dadabhai Naoroji (who was president of the Indian
National Congress and exposed the British policy of robbing Indian raw
materials and selling goods back to them manufactured in England, and
fought for Indian rights as an MP in England), Dinshah Watcha ,
Pherozeshah Mehta, Parsi Rustomji, and Perin Captain (who all helped
Mahatma Gandhi in his fight for Indian rights and independence) , and
Madame Bhikhaiji Cama (who was exiled by the British for unfurling the
first free India flag in Germany at a Labour conference there), as
well as Air Chief Marshals Aspi Engineer and Fali Homi Major, and
Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw and many other Parsi soldiers who gave
their lives in wars to defend India, and philanthropists who donated
schools, hospitals, and set up charities and scholarships for all
Indians.Keep up the good work Dinayar !

from:  Maneck Bhujwala
Posted on: Jun 16, 2012 at 22:24 IST

Just Britishers are carrying the legacy of imperialism. Why should Indians grorify the imperialist grand show? Feudal mind set of Britishers are yet there. If goven opportiunity, they will spread their imperialism throughout the planet once more. We are also sufferring from that mind-sets like President of India,which glorifies the feudalism in this country when over majority of people in India are starving. A president in India signifies the sign of imperialism and conservatism! There must be decision that India must quit commonwealth, which is proving a big sign of slavery yet after independence of our country. UK is sign of imperiaslism , we must forget them in shaping our destiny living in the Commonwealth even after they exploited us for hundreds of years and practically robbed our country and indulged in thievery-this is what is ENGLAND!

from:  krishn kumar singh
Posted on: Jun 16, 2012 at 17:34 IST

History is famous for repeating itserlf.But this history of
British queen's rule in India and the jublee celebrations would not
repeat in India even by a far fetched imagination.But histories do
repeat in some form or other.In Julius caesar the famous play of
Shakespeare ,caesar was killed by a group headed by Brutus.They
plotted and murdered him.One of the group said This planning and killing would happen at any number of times as long as there are humans and they are jealous.We do not see plots and murders to gain power.But we do see group of persons joining togehter and plan to over throw a popular leader.The current party syatem and election opportunities display the repeat of what happened to julius caesar.

from:  doodu
Posted on: Jun 16, 2012 at 16:16 IST

Dinyar Patel should be congratulated for spot-lighting one of the most brutal episodes of British Colonial rule in India. The famines during the last quarter of Victorian rule in India were not a ‘natural’ disaster but an avoidable tragedy. To put in context the magnitude of this disaster; it is estimated that from 1876 and 1902 between 12.2 to 29.3 million Indians died either through starvation or through diseases they were unable to resist (due to malnutrition). These famines were a consequence of misguided application of poorly formulated economic theories and the contempt the British had for Indians. While the ‘virtues’ of the British Raj remain in the world history curriculum, and are extolled even by India historians, almost no allusion is made to the worst famine for 500 years. It is like writing the history of the Second World War without mentioning the Jewish Holocaust.

from:  P Gondhalekar
Posted on: Jun 16, 2012 at 16:11 IST

In your article you have mentioned about India House, this historic
heritage property (India House) of Indian Indepence movement is for
sale in London.Pandit Shyamaji purchased this property in 1900 at price of £750 but now it is for sale at amazing price £1,750,000. Since the erection of Panditji plaque on this house in 2004, There has been common feeling
among many patriots that this place should be bought and transformed
into a temple of Indian independence movement in London, the capital
of British empire. India and abroad show similar respects and love for
this forgotten Hero of Indian Independence and buy this Historic
property and donate to Indian Nation or The Government of India and
Government of GUJARAT and converting into a temple or museum of INDIAN

from:  Dr. Darshan Mashroo
Posted on: Jun 16, 2012 at 13:17 IST

Breathtakingly relevant to the diamond jubilee of the contemporary Indian empire.

from:  S. Suchindranath Aiyer
Posted on: Jun 16, 2012 at 10:38 IST

Many thanks to Dinyar Patel for this informative note on Indian history. Too much of Indian History, especially pre-independence history, tends to put Indians in good light rather than accurately reflect the historical events. It is really striking to see the role India House and Indians who went abroad played in gaining India's independence not only from the British but also from feudal Maharajahs, Nizams, etc. Freedom from both of these groups was essential to give Indians some sense of their individual rights.

from:  Virendra gupta
Posted on: Jun 16, 2012 at 08:26 IST

very informative article really came to know that a Britisher was the one who encouraged for the agitation.Hope such articles will be published by The Hindu for the the young generation to know the struggle for independence.

from:  N.shailaja
Posted on: Jun 16, 2012 at 07:51 IST

I generally read Patel's pieces with a great care and attention. Detailed with excellent historical sources put in a right context, this article reveals one of the forgotten, rather highly neglected, events in modern Indian history. Thanks to Diniyar for his insightful views and curious depiction . We'll certainly be looking for your forthcoming publication with much enthusiasm!

from:  N Annavaram
Posted on: Jun 16, 2012 at 07:30 IST

Thanks for providing such brilliant perspective. Queen was always irrelevant for the Indian masses - empire or no empire.

from:  veera
Posted on: Jun 16, 2012 at 07:21 IST

60 years of Congress rule has conveniently hided the role played by these so called 'radicals'.

from:  Nan Maran
Posted on: Jun 16, 2012 at 06:42 IST

Enough of celebration,pomp and circumstance ! How about returning the 'Kohinoor' the stolen gem which remains the center of attraction and power!?

from:  Avinash
Posted on: Jun 16, 2012 at 05:11 IST

I grew up religiously reading Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak's Kesari. I still worship his courage honesty integrity and faith in the dignity and strength of common man in pursuit of independence. Regrettably i still pine pray for the stewards of our national strategy to have at least a small measure of these qualities. I was educated in Ganeshkhind six decades ago.I am nostalgic and gratified to read this perspective on the Jubilee then and the Jubilee now. Thank you.

from:  Govind S. Mudholkar
Posted on: Jun 16, 2012 at 02:53 IST

History re-written to educate and enlighten. I doubt how many of us really know of these happenings. Any material in the Archives of our daily 'The Hindu' about this. If available please publish it for the benefit of your readers. Thank you.

from:  S.R.Nagarajann
Posted on: Jun 16, 2012 at 02:36 IST
Show all comments
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor



Recent Article in Lead

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal shakes hand with Lt. Governor Najeeb Jung, after taking oath of office as new Chief Minister. File Photo: R.V. Moorthy

More constitutional than political

A reasonable case can be made that the Delhi Lieutenant Governor’s discretionary powers do not extend to the appointment of the Chief Secretary without the ‘aid and advice’ of the Chief Minister and his Council of Ministers »