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Deciphering the Concept of “SWA”

WebdeskAug 18, 2021, 01:04 PM IST

Deciphering the Concept of “SWA”


 J Nandakumar


Bharat will celebrate its 75th year of Independence from August 15, 2021. In this Context, it is important for us to revisit the whole Idea of the Bharatiya freedom movement from the perspective of Swa (“our Selfhood”), which has much to inspire our people and will, hopefully, unfold its true meaning to the people of our times. The 75th Independence Day celebration is a great opportunity for all of us to revisit, refine and reinvent our lost ‘collective truth’ about the whole narrative of freedom struggle, to explore and acknowledge the unsung heroes of the freedom struggle as well as to change our perspectives to analyse the unfolding truths about our past and collective identity

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The British ruled Bharat for about two hundred years. Bharat got freedom from the British Raj on August 15, 1947. The exploitation of the Bharatiya people and our economy was just one part of it, the cultural and intellectual colonisation was the larger context of it. It is a fact that the Bharatiya people never accepted foreign domination without resistance. Since the fifteenth century itself, there had been a number of popular protests in different parts of Bharat by diverse sections of society against the expansion of colonial rule. Their protests may look localised and isolated in spread but definitely national in its content.

During this long struggle for Independence our people fought for the Idea of Swa (selfhood); they believed that there would be no point in getting rid of the British without getting rid of the centralised, exploitative, and violent system of governance and the economics of greed it pursued. Sri Aurobindo and Mahatma Gandhi led this socio-philosophical construction with the idea of Sarvodaya, Swarāj, and Swadeshi. The first concept in this trinity was Sarvodaya, the uplift of all; this includes the care of the Earth–of animals, forests, rivers, and land. The second is Swaraj – the self-government. Swaraj works to bring about a social transformation through a small-scale, decentralised, self-organised, and self-directed participatory structure of governance. It also implies self-transformation, self-discipline, and self-restraint. Thus, Swaraj is a moral, ethical, ecological, and spiritual concept and method of governance.


Historians like Jadunath Sarkar, R C Majumdar, and K A Nilakantha Sastri have made epochal contributions to Bharatiya history but they are systematically sidelined in the teaching and research of the history


The third in the trinity is Swadeshi, ‘local economy’, which was an attempt to recreate the local demand and supply chains for local products and consumers. Earlier, the idea of Swadeshi was confined to economics, but later it was used in socio-cultural aspects as well. If we closely observe in the trinity (Sarvodaya, Swarāj, and Swadeshi), there is a common root in all these three words and that is Swa, which is the ‘self’.

If we expand the idea of Swa from the above trinity (Sarvodaya, Swarāj, and Swadeshi) we find that the colonial structure was a device to suppress this idea of Bharatiya Swa through various methods and techniques. An attempt was made to diminish the Bharatiya Identity and self-respect of the people by enforcement of the foreign rule and foreign religion in the land of Ram and Krishna.

It is important to look at this colonialism through the perspectives of religious-cultural imperialism to the people of the East by the people of the West. The notion of racial superiority and the white man’s burden is visible through various narratives, which must be re-investigated in the light of new findings in history. We are celebrating this 75th Independence for a larger cause, and we are also seeking this opportunity to correct our own identity as a Rāshtra which has been misrepresented and manipulated by Islamo-Leftist historians in the second half of the twentieth century. Before analysing the real character of the Independence struggle, it is necessary to understand the myths created around the same.

The real Nature of Freedom Struggle

Swami Vivekanand exhorted young students: “Now it is for us to strike out an independent path of historical research for ourselves, to study the Vedas and Puranas and the ancient annals of Bharat and from these make it our life’s sadhana to write accurate, sympathetic and soul-inspiring histories of the land. It is for the Bharatiyas to write history.” Instead of taking up this task immediately after the Independence, the Left historians not just continued with the myths created by the British but added few more to it. There is a huge gap in Bharatiya history because of the selective approach of historians on a particular ideology. Multiple narratives of Bharatiya history have got marginalised due to the distortion of history by many modern Bharatiya historians. Historians like Jadunath Sarkar, R C Majumdar, and K A Nilakantha Sastri have made epochal contributions to Bharatiya history but they are systematically sidelined in the teaching and research of history. Seventy-five years celebration of Independence is the perfect opportunity to correct these wrongs and present our freedom struggle from a truly indigenous point of view.

It was a Long One

Many scholars and intellectuals trace the beginning of the national freedom struggle to the establishment of the Congress party in 1885. This is a dangerous myth. Some might take a more liberal view and stretch the time period to 150-200 years, beginning from the Battle of Plassey or the War of 1857. This is a very limited view of our struggle. The British dismissed the 1857 war as a Sepoy Mutiny. It was Veer Savarkar who first called it a ‘War of Bharatiya Independence’. It took a long time for it to be accepted and it was officially declared to be the ‘First War of Bharatiya Independence’ only on the occasion of its 150th anniversary in 2007. However, Savarkar never called it the ‘First War,’ because he knew that Bharatiyas had been fighting for their Independence much before this war. In these pages, we will discuss these attempts. To give just one example, we had heroes like Martanda Varma of Travancore (present-day Kerala) who defeated the Dutch in their prime in 1741, long before the Japanese became the next Asian power to defeat a European power decisively in 1905.


Matangini Hazra (1870-1942)

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Matangini was a woman who drew inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi. Despite her poor eyesight, she began spinning yarn and dressed in khadi. Matangini led a massive procession and was an active member of the Quit India and Non-cooperation movements. During the Salt Satyagraha, she sneaked into Tamluk Court without raising the suspicions of the police protecting the building and hoisted the national flag. People began referring to her as Gandhi Buri (Old Lady Gandhi) because of her devotion to Gandhian principles. The police shot her but the gunshot did not stop her from moving ahead. She was again shot at, but she didn’t stop and raised her voice saying ‘Vande Matram’. She held the flag aloft as she was shot at for the third time. She finally succumbed to her injuries and died with the flag in her hand. 


It was Nationwide

One of the hallmarks of the freedom struggle was how several parts of the country put collective resistance to win freedom. There had always been an idea of a nation embedded within the consciousness of our people. It was expressed through the medium of the widespread usage of Sanskrit, pilgrimages to holy places, and sacred geography. The War of 1857 is an exemplary event where Bharatiyas joined hands to forcefully overthrow British power. We have examples of national leaders like Mangal Pandey, Tatya Tope, Rani Lakshibai, Nana Saheb, Kunwar Singh, and many others. But it was not only during the War of 1857 that leaders emerged who were willing to sacrifice their lives for our national struggle. Two prominent examples from South Bharat are: Sangolli Rayanna (1796-1831) from Kittur, present-day Karnataka, who fought the British until his death at their hands; another is, Thampi Chempakaraman Velayudhan (1765-1809), the Prime Minister of Travancore, present-day Kerala, who led a rebellion against the East India Company in 1809. Another figure emerges from the state of Manipur, Tikendrajit Singh (1856-1891), who led the Manipuri army in a war against the British and was publicly hanged by them.

Across the all Social Sections

Our National freedom movement was significant for it brought together various strands of society, at different points of time, in a collective effort to regain our freedom. There is a myth that only English-educated Bharatiyas from north Bharat took part in the freedom movement, while most people were passive followers. This couldn’t be further from the truth, for every class of society, from all parts of the country participated in this movement. Sometimes people took matters into their own hands when they felt their leaders were lagging behind. For example, the Sannyasi revolution which rocked northern Bengal and adjacent areas of Bihar between 1763 and 1800, the Bheel movement of 1818 against the British in Rajasthan, and the Santhal Revolution in 1856. For a while, Santhals even ended British rule in their territory but it came at a great cost. For when the British sent troops to crush the uprising between 15 to 20 thousand people were killed. There are hundreds of such movements strewn across our nation’s history which speak volumes about the strong desire for Independence within our countrymen.

Manifestation of Swa

What was the real inspiration behind this long and society-wide Independence Movement? It was our Swa (National Soul/collective selfhood) consciousness. People from all walks of life took part in this struggle, not just for political power but to express their identity in every sphere of national life and reclaim our national soul. The national fighters of the movements were determined to shape the future of the nation according to this national soul. They attempted to awaken the masses to the vision by regenerating fields as diverse as art, drama, songs, literature, etc. Western education and culture were interpreted in terms of the indigenous civilization’s experience and efforts were made to ignite a sense of pride in our national history and culture. The first step in this was to make them aware of the treasures of Hindu civilization, foster a national language and ideas, and honor national symbols. Human activities were not compartmentalized into separate spheres of society, economy, religion, or politics; rather they were all directed towards a single goal of reclaiming our national soul. Efforts at the revitalisation of our national culture led to the development of patriotic regional literature in Bangla, Marathi, Tamil, Telugu, Hindi, and in new art forms. Due to the efforts of the earliest national fighters, our Swa kept on strengthening until it culminated in the Swadeshi movement. The immediate cause of the movement was the division of Bengal in 1905. The widespread uproar and strenuous efforts of Bharatiyas led to its reversal in 1911. A visible form of our Swa during the protests was the boycott of foreign clothes and encouragement of Swadeshi industries. The British saw it only as an attempt to hurt their cloth industry and encourage Bharatiya manufacture. While that was its immediate goal but it was more than that. For it was also an attempt on the part of Bharatiyas to train the heart and minds of the younger generation. It was also an attempt to make Bharat self-reliant by encouraging Bharatiya labour, Bharatiya manufacture, and Bharatiya articles. It was inspired by a love of our countrymen, not a hatred of others. But after the end of this movement, our Swa weakened and it culminated in the partition of our country.

Multidimensional Response

Bharatiya National movement was multifaceted and nation-wide resistance against the British Raj. Apart from the resistance by political leaders, there was staunch resistance in the world of education, art, literature, music, and drama. All kinds of expressions were used to fight and protest against this foreign suppression of Swa. Local agitation reached its zenith and transformed into national agitation through the associated efforts of people from all strata of society. Writers and poets such as Rabindranath Tagore, Aurobindo, Savarkar, G K Gokhale, Lala Lajpat Rai, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Bipin Chandra Pal, and Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay used literature, poetry, and speech as a tool to spread awareness against the atrocities by the British on Bharatiyas and provoke the thought of freedom, encouraging people to fight for their country.

Socially, women leaders promoted the emancipation of Bharatiya women and encouraged their participation in national politics. Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Devi Chaudharani, where a woman was the protagonist and leader of the struggle, inspired women to take up the cause of independence. Ananda Math also featured a strong woman character, and in both books, while women do take up arms, they fight embodying the values of love. Kanaklata Baruah, Matangini Hazra, Bhogeswari Phukanani, Kittur Rani Chennamma, and Rani Gaidinliu were some of the flag-bearers of the fight against colonialism. The British planned to educate a small section of upper and middle classes, thus creating a class “Indian in blood and colour but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals, and intellect”. Thus, Bharatiya's learning declined. But education in Bharat went back to the ancient Takshashila and Nalanda Universities. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has found that subjects taught at Nalanda included theology, grammar, logic, astronomy, metaphysics, medicine, philosophy, and mathematics. Bharat also developed a ‘Gurukul’ tradition—a residential schooling system originated in the Vedic Age.


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"Religion and practical life are not different. To take Sanyas (renunciation) is not to abandon life. The real spirit is to make the country your family work together instead of working only on your own. The step beyond is to serve humanity and the next step is to serve God" — Bal Gangadhar Tilak



Tilak, a torch-bearer of ‘Swa’, stated: “Religion and practical life are not different. To take Sanyas (renunciation) is not to abandon life. The real spirit is to make the country your family work together instead of working only on your own. The step beyond is to serve humanity and the next step is to serve God." Tilak’s pioneering vision in the field of national education included the foundation of schools throughout the country to impart a genuinely national education. He sketched out the four components which were key for comprising an arrangement of national education. Tilak stressed religious education for building character as well as inculcating cultural pride among Bharatiyas.

He set up the Deccan Education Society in the 1880s along with Gopal Ganesh Agarkar, Mahadev Ballal Namjoshi, and Vishnushastri Chiplunkar. The life members of the society were expected to follow an ideal of selfless service.

He awakened the political consciousness (‘Swa’) of the people through two weekly newspapers he owned and edited: Kesari, published in Marathi, and The Mahratta, published in English.

Dayanand Saraswati and Swami Shradhanand

Dayananda Saraswati’s vision of Bharat included a classless and casteless society, a united Bharat (religiously, socially, and nationally), and a Bharat free from foreign rule. He considered the Vedas to be ‘Bharat’s Rock of Ages’, infallible and the original seed of Hinduism. He gave the slogan “Back to the Vedas”. The Dayananda Anglo-Vedic (DAV) College was established in 1886 in Lahore. In 1900, Swami Shraddhanand opened the Gurukul at Gujaranwala (in West Punjab, now in Pakistan), later moving to Kangri near Haridwar, hence the name, GurukulKangri. The Gurukul aimed at providing an indigenous alternative to Lord Macaulay’s education policy by offering education in the areas of Vedic literature, Bharatiya philosophy, Bharatiya culture as well as modern sciences and research. Swami Shraddhanand was interested in introducing the study of Sanskrit and Vedic philosophy in the tradition of ancient gurukuls. The gurukul believed in radical social reform. It founded the KanyaMahavidyalaya at Jalandhar in 1896 and sponsored education for widows. Even artists were developing a unique idiom of art that reflected the spirituality of Bharat (‘Swa’). Bharatiya art was illuminated by those like Ananda Coomaraswamy, Sister Nivedita, and Abanindranath Tagore, reawakening the ‘Swa’ in Art.

Partition: The Tragic End

In this dilution of Swa after the Swadeshi movement, there was an equal contribution of the Muslim League (formed in 1906), the British, and a section of the Congress. Frightened by the united efforts of the people against colonial rule, the British took refuge in divide-and-rule tactics where they made all-out efforts to divide our country based on caste, creed, and religion. A manifestation of this practice is the separate electorates from 1909. Another is the KhilafatMovement of 1919, launched to restore the Caliph of the Ottoman Caliphate in Turkey. The revival of Muslim League politics in the 1930s under the leadership of Mohammad Ali Jinnah further diluted our ‘Swa’ and culminated in the tragedy of partition, when we had to give up territories for which we had fought so long and hard during the Swadeshi movement. Partition displaced 10 to 12 million people and killed over one million. Most damaging were the opinions of the Communists before and during the partition, especially those within the Indian National Congress allied with Nehru, who bolstered his pro-partition approach since they would have had greater power with the Congress rather than the Muslim League.


Birsa Munda (1875-1900)

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Birsa Munda was a tribal freedom fighter from the Munda Tribe. He was a spearhead behind the Millenarian movement that arose in the Bengal Presidency. His spirit of activism is remembered as a strong mark of protest against British rule in India. Munda spent his childhood surrounded by Christian missionaries, whose main mission was to convert as many tribal people as possible. He was advised by his teacher to enroll in the German Mission school, but to get admitted, Munda was forced to convert to Christianity. After a few years of studying at the school, he left and went on to become a missionary himself. Birsa Munda was arrested by the British police on March 3, 1900, and died in Ranchi a month later. He had been involved in anti-missionary and anti-establishment activities between 1886 – 1890 in Chaibasa, and started a movement called 'Ulgulan', or 'The Great Tumult'.Khansahib during his career.


From the 1930s, the CPI was considerate towards the aspirations of the Muslim League, and SomnathLahiri went so far as to ‘regroup’ Bharat into ‘National Units’ (SomnathLahiri, Constituent Assembly). This multi-national theory would have splintered Bharat into many groups had it come to fruition. "Every section of the Bharatiya people which has its contiguous territory as its homeland, common historical tradition, common language, culture, psychological make-up, and common economic life would be recognised as a distinct nationality with the right to exist as an autonomous state within the free Bharatiya Union or federation and will have the right to secede from it if it may so desire"(Selected Works of M N Roy 1932-1936, Volume IV).

Not only this, the CPI sent its own cadre to work for the Muslim League. The collusion is shocking.

"The most grotesque decision was to send its (CPI) Muslim members to enter the ranks of Muslim League” (Pakistan: Military Rule or People's Power by Tariq Ali, London 1970, page 31)."The CPI had entered the Muslim League to strengthen the bourgeois faction in the League against the feudal landlords, a plan perfectly in keeping with Stalin's theory of revolution by stages."(Ibid. Page 32). "The manifesto of the Punjab Muslim League was written by a well-known Bharatiya Communist lawyer, DaniyalLatifi."(Ibid.).

The evidence is clear. The Communists in the 1940s were at least as damaging, if not more, to National Unity as the Muslim League, by indirectly and directly encouraging the tragic partition of this nation. They were a significant internal force oppressing the power of ‘Swa’, which had just begun to the flame.


Madan Lal Dhingra (1883-1909)

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Madan Lal Dhingra was perhaps the first Indian freedom fighter to be executed on British soil on August 17, 1909. He was pained over the partition of Bengal in 1905 and came in contact with other revolutionaries Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, Shyam Ji Krishna Varma. While he was studying in England, he assassinated William Hutt Curzon Wyllie who was a British official. This assassination is considered to be one of the first actions of the armed revolution during the Indian freedom struggle. He was hanged on August 17, 1909 at Pentonville Prison. The British authorities also refused to hand over the body to Veer Savarkar. 


It is crucial to see Nehru’s views on Communism and the role of the Communists in Partition, which were revealed to the world by CIA documents and in the words of his biographer. We have to expedite this opportunity to study and analyze our multifaceted struggle for Independence; it was not only just a political movement but also a collective moment where resistance was coming from all aspects of life for which we need to have the following objectives:

  1. We need to view this entire struggle comprehensively and holistically;
  2. We have to analyse the nature of the colonial rule, structures, and processes;
  3. We should evaluate the response of the Bharatiya people at various levels to counter this great project of Colonisation, as described earlier.
  4. We should examine the real inspiration or provocation for the Independence struggle based on original sources. Aurobindo had analysed this succinctly: “The task we set before ourselves is not mechanical but moral and spiritual. We aim not at the alteration of a form of Government but the building up of a nation”.
  5. We should recontexualise the guiding force behind the struggle for Swaraj. How was Swarāj as a concept a guiding force behind this struggle not just against the British but right from the time of Greek and Islamic aggressions and how should we see this entire struggle are some of the critical questions we need to ask while celebrating this landmark moment?
  6. We should re-narrate the historical journey was re-establishing ‘Swa’ while renegotiating with the colonial and imposed modernity.

Political and economic exploitation or, religious conversion and, most important of all, the partition of Bharat were all attempts by the colonial rulers.There were concerted attempts to dilute the idea of Swa. The aim of the freedom struggle was not merely to attain freedom from political and economic exploitation of colonial masters but to rediscover the lost Swatva(essence of Selfhood) in its real sense.

The seventy-five years of independence is an occasion to reignite that Swatva and assess whether we have pursued the same idea of selfhood after independence. 

(The writer is national convenor of the Prajna Pravah)





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