MoT presents webinar titled ‘Lesser known stories of India’s struggle against the British’

In this webinar, their presenters took through the lesser known stories of India’s struggle against the British.

As India gears up to celebrate its 74th Independence Day celebrations, the Ministry of Tourism’s Dekho Apna Desh Webinar Series presented a webinar titled 'Lesser known stories of India’s struggle against the British' recently.

The 47th in the series of Dekho Apna Desh webinars, the 'Lesser known stories of India’s struggle against the British' was presented by Akila Raman and Nayantara Nayar. They both represent a company called Storytrails, an organisation that designs story-based walking tours, audio tours, local experiences and learning programmes for children and adults. Their stories showcase the history, culture and the way of life in India.

On this webinar, their presenters took through the lesser known stories of India’s struggle against the British. Dekho Apna Desh Webinar Series is an effort to showcase India’s rich diversity under Ek Bharat Shreshtha Bharat.

Sivaganga - Velu Nachiar

This story is set in Sivaganga, during the rule of Muthu Vaduganatha Peria Odaya Thevar. He was married to the princess of Ramanathapuram, Velu Nachiar.  King Muthu came into conflict with his neighbour, the powerful king of Arcot. At that time, the British power too was rising in South India, and the British had a strong alley in the Nawab of Arcot. In 1772, the British attacked Sivaganga, intending to capture it for the Nawab. Muthu sent out emissaries to negotiate with them. It seemed though the British agreed to talk with them, so the Sivaganga forces relaxed their guard. The British forces swept in and massacred all of them, including King Muthu.

The crux of the story was the heroic battle waged by Velu Nachiar. She was determined to avenge her husband’s death. She had the support of the Marudu Brothers, fierce warlords who stood by her, along with a band of loyalists. Velu Nachiar was protected by Udaiyal, the leader of her bodyguards. The British captured her and tortured her to get her to reveal the whereabouts of Velu Nachiar. Udaiyal did not give in, and was killed. The brave Velu raised one more battalion of women and named it Udaiyal Regiment. It was commanded by the fiercely loyal Kuyili. Velu Nachiar met Haidar Ali, the king of Mysore, and convinced him to help her. Haider Ali sent 5,000 men to help Velu Nachiar to get back Sivaganga.

But, by now, Sivaganga had been handed over to the British, and they had fortified the place. Kuyili smuggled some female guerillas in, and while they held the British at bay, she entered the ammunition store, and set it on fire. She died in the process.

Velu Nachiar became Queen of Sivaganga and ruled for ten years. Sivaganga remained under the rule of her family until the merger of princely states happened in 1947. The Government of India has released a stamp in her honour in 2008.

Mumbai -  Benjamin Horniman

The Horniman Circle Gardens is a large park in South Mumbai, situated in the busy Fort district of Mumbai. It got its name in honour of Benjamin Horniman, the British editor of a newspaper called The Bombay Chronicle.

The Bombay Chronicle was begun by Sir Pherozeshah Mehta. As its editor, Horniman spoke up against colonialism. He used the Bombay Chronicle to speak about Indian nationalist causes.

Then in 1919, the Jallianwala Bagh massacre happened in Amritsar.  The British knew that there would be a terrible backlash over the incident. They immediately clamped down on the press. Horniman defied the censorship. He smuggled a first-hand report of the massacre out of Punjab and published it. He continued publishing follow ups to the story and got the British really worried. They deported Horniman to England. Horniman smuggled reports and photos of British atrocities with him and broke the same stories to an equally shocked British public.  All this forced the British to confront many of the harsher truths of colonial rule. The Jallianwala Bagh massacre was brought before the Parliament and condemned by several British politicians. Horniman continued to protest against the cruelties of the British rule in India in all his writings from England. In 1926, he exploited a loophole in his deportation order and returned to India to continue his work.

Even today, in the Horniman Circle, one can see a red building that is the office of the Bombay Samachar, a newspaper printed in Gujarati. It is the oldest functioning newspaper in all of Asia. It was started in 1822 and is still running after nearly 200 years, today as the Mumbai Samachar. That building was also the birthplace of the Bombay Chronicle and the place where Horniman worked from.

Horniman died in 1948, soon after Indian independence. That’s when this circle where the Bombay Chronicle functioned from, was renamed Horniman Circle - in honour of an Englishman who showed Indians the power of a free press.

Institutions to Control India

The British East India Company was a private Company ruling over parts of the Indian Subcontinent. The East India Company was a private limited company, reporting to a board of directors in London. Gradually, as their landholdings in India increased, they found it more and difficult to rule in India. So they introduced some British institutions to manage and control India, including the Judiciary, the Railways, the Army and English education.

* Judiciary: The British found the Indian legal system very difficult to use. So they just imported their own law into India, and even set up three courts, one each in the presidencies of Madras, Bombay and Calcutta. These courts functioned as the Supreme Courts of those presidencies. One can still see the three beautiful court buildings in the three cities.

These courts declared that everyone was equal under the law. But an Indian judge could never sit in judgement over a European.  Lord Ripon, a Governor General of India, tried to set this right with the Ilbert Bill, but it wasn’t really successful.

The Ilbert bill left the Indians disillusioned and awoke them to the injustice that was being meted out to them. It became one more rallying point for the Indian independence struggle.

* Railways: The Royapuram station in Chennai is the oldest existing railway station in the whole of India. So why did the British gift the railway system to the Indians? Because they were here for trade and they needed to move their goods quickly and efficiently. Another reason was to move their troops fast for security. By the 1850s, the British had laid out railway lines connecting their big ports to the interiors. But the Indian railway system had some unintended consequences.

Those old Indian trains had carriages reserved for the white man. The other carriages were for ALL Indians - every social class and caste, bunched up together in one compartment, without giving any leeway for class and caste distinctions. This was very difficult for the Indians to accept. The idea that all people were equal was a new concept for most Indians. But a ride on a train quickly taught them this. It was on the railways that Indians started thinking of themselves as fellow Indians.

Funnily enough, the idea of equality under the law started in the second class railway carriages and rose up as a surge of nationalism. Ironically, the system which the British designed to hold on to India eventually made them lose it.

* Armed Forces: Did you know that the Madras regiment is the oldest regiment of the Indian Army? It was formed by Major Stringer Laurence, who gathered a willing bunch of Indians and made them into a fighting force. The army grew and was a great protection to the British.  But there were some places where the army turned against their British masters The Vellore mutiny and the 1857 revolt come to mind. It was after the 1857 revolt that India was taken over by the British crown. This period, lasting 90 years, is today called the British Raj. The army too was taken over. But it was not demobilised. It was too precious an instrument of control to be abandoned. And it showed in the fact that more than 2 million Indians fought for the British in the 2 World Wars, and very honourably at that.

* English Education in British India: The British found it very difficult to govern a country the size of India. So they decided to educate the Indians and use them. They settled on using English as the medium of instruction. They also set up universities in Madras, Calcutta and Bombay – all of which are still standing.

In time, there was a whole new generation of Indians speaking English, and quite well too. They took up government jobs in offices, banks, army, railways -everywhere. They quickly realised that Indians were being exploited. Alll the prominent freedom fighters not only spoke clear English, and some of them were actually trained in England: Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah, Bose, and many more. And so it was the education system that the British established in India, that unexpectedly rebounded on them.

Madurai - Masi street

The image of a frail-looking Mahatma Gandhi in his khadi attire is an iconic one. He even went to England to meet King George V, wearing his Dhoti, shawl and chappals. Gandhi was actually making a statement with his clothes, a statement about economic conditions in India. India was always famous for her cotton cloth. When the British came here, they too took back lots of cotton with them. Gradually, they began taking raw cotton from here, weaving it in England, and selling the finished cloth in India, for a high profit. This meant the spinners and weavers were left jobless in India. Gradually, the entire well-established cotton weaving industry ground down to almost nothing.

In 1921, Gandhi was on a visit to Madurai in Tamil Nadu. He was shocked by the poverty he saw on the streets. Many people were so poor that they only had a length of cloth around their waists, and little else. Gandhi was horrified. He decided that he would only wear what the poorest in the nation wore. The next morning, on the 21st of September, 1921, Gandhi emerged from his room in Madurai, clad in a short dhoti, sandals on his feet, and a shawl. And from then on, these clothes became his fashion statement and his identity, until his death.

Gandhi urged Indians to use a spinning wheel - the charkha - to spin their own yarn and to make khadi cloth with it. People of all classes across the country took to this enthusiastically. With this act, Gandhi took the freedom movement out of the hands of the educated elite and handed it over to the masses. From then on, the hand spun cotton called khadi became the uniform of the freedom fighters and a symbol of the freedom movement.

The house where Gandhi adopted his new attire still stands in Madurai. Today, the ground floor is a Khadi Kraft store. There is a small museum on the first floor with a stone tablet marking this historic moment.

Rupinder Brar in her concluding remarks spoke about Ministry of Tourism’s Incredible India Tourist facilitator certification programme which will enable citizens to learn online, and become a Certified facilitator that will give them the opportunity to showcase our beautiful Country. This will further empower them to be responsible and do their rights and duties properly.



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