“The blood of innocents flowed freely like a river swollen with injustice,” and “for days the city endured terror, misdeeds darker than night itself descended.”
That was the renowned Urdu poet Ghalib describing the devastation of his beloved Delhi after the British had brutally put down the ‘Sepoy Mutiny’ of 1857, which saw much of northern India rising up against its foreign rulers.
Ghalib could equally have been describing the situation in Gaza today, where the ongoing violence– both the brutal attack by Hamas on Israeli communities and the genocidal response by Israel – have strong parallels to this dark chapter from the colonial past.
What began as a mutiny by Hindu and Muslim soldiers of the East India Company over cartridges greased with cow and pig fat, which hurt their religious sentiments, soon erupted into extreme violence. Indian civilians and sepoys vented their rage on indignities suffered under exploitative Company Raj by targeting British settlements and garrisons.
From Kanpur to Jhansi and Delhi, rebels enacted horrific slaughter of British civilians and prisoners, including women and children, throughout the summer of 1857. Tales of rebels gang-raping English governesses and violating high-born British ladies dominated the British press.
In the Times, a letter stated that “our ladies have been dragged naked through the streets by the rabble of Delhi. Quiet ministers of the gospel have been murdered. Their daughters have been cut into snippets and sold piecemeal about the bazaar”. The Illustrated London News painted “a ghastly picture of rapine, murder, and loathsome cruelty worse than death”.
Britain reacted in May 1857 towards its colonized Indians much as Israel has done in October 2023 to the Palestinians– with fury and extreme overreaction. After the British put down the rebellion, soldiers and officers were allowed days of reprisals and retribution against any Indians suspected of collaboration.
Eyewitness accounts and historians estimate thousands were shot dead in bazaars, civilians used for target practice, and villages were burnt to the ground. No mercy was shown to innocent Indian commoners for the uprising as they were slaughtered in their homes regardless of age or gender. Bodies lay rotting for days in the streets of the ruined cities.
“Delhi meant the Fort, the Chandni Chowk, the daily bazaar near Jama Masjid, the weekly trip to the Jamuna bridge, the annual Fair of the Flower-sellers. These five things are no more. Where is Delhi now? Yes, there used to be a city of this name in the land of India”, wrote Ghalib. Today, after relentless Israeli bombing, one can say in similar vein – ‘Yes, there used to be once a place called Gaza in the land of Palestine’.
Apart from quenching a thirst for revenge, the larger aim of the British colonial rulers was to render entire populations too terrified to ever rebel again. However, if the aftermath of 1857 in India offers any lessons, it is that such brutal retaliation almost always fails in fully breaking the resistance.
By all accounts, the ferocity of the British crackdown on Indian cities left smouldering hatred against the foreign rulers. Within a generation, Indians were gearing up for the rise of the Indian Independence movement under Gandhi and others.
Similarly, Israel’s vengeful attempt to ‘eliminate’ Hamas is only bound to fail as the latter is less an organization and more the expression of desperation of the Palestinian population. Until Palestinian demands are addressed meaningfully, future rounds of violence remain almost inevitable.
If this potentially endless war without any winners is to be resolved, there will have to be a shift in paradigms on both sides of the divide. Israel, for example, will have to realize it can never live in peace and protect its citizens as long as the Palestinians are not given a full state of their own to run and live in as a free people.
On the Palestinian side too, it is time to recognize that they cannot win as long as they consider military means as the only way to liberation. After seven decades of armed struggle they have little to show in terms of gains in territory, freedom, resources, or power, while losing thousands of their own to brutal Israeli reprisals.
The extreme asymmetry in power makes it impossible for Hamas or any other militant group to outright defeat Israel through violent attacks. Israel possesses one of the most powerful professional militaries globally, equipped with cutting-edge weapons, sophisticated defence systems, and clear battlefield dominance.
What the experience of the Indian struggle for independence from British rule after 1857 indicates is that perhaps the Palestinians too need their own Gandhi today. While Gandhi described the rebels of 1857 as ‘true patriots’ he also correctly recognized that, when faced with a vastly superior military power, the moral authority of non-violent movements can successfully challenge oppressive regimes.
Gandhi demonstrated how mass non-cooperation, civil disobedience and willingness to abstain from violent retaliation can build enormous global opinion and internal pressure for change.
While adopting Gandhian methods looks incredibly difficult under the harsh apartheid-like reality of Israeli rule, organized non-violent protests perhaps offer Palestinians their best hope to erode the foundations of Israeli occupation in the longer term. It denies the occupier any ethical grounds or political/national security justifications to continue subjugation, while mobilising worldwide support for the struggle.
Given its different historical trajectory as well as cultural and political milieu obviously it is very unlikely that a Gandhi-like figure will emerge in Gaza any time soon. However – at a minimum – it is certainly possible to reimagine the Palestinian freedom movement.
Into one that that is far less dependent on support from countries like Iran or Qatar with their own geo-political axes to grind and more in sync with millions of nameless people worldwide, who passionately support the Palestinian cause for reasons of justice and anti-colonialism.
And into a movement that harnesses a much wider range of Palestinian skills and political processes than those required for digging tunnels or using hostages to win small concessions. And surely one that is far more democratic and inclusive and not so dominated by conservative, hot-headed, bearded men obsessed with the cult of martyrdom.
Who knows? Maybe someday the women and children of Palestine – who have suffered the most all these decades from the violence- could collectively turn out to be the ‘Gandhi’ that the Palestinian movement needs? Imagine that, an all-female leadership – with solidarity action from across the globe – winning freedom for Palestine!
Wishful thinking? Perhaps yes, but in the nightmare that Gaza is today, a dream – even the wildest one – could be the spark for meaningful change.
As Ghalib himself would have said:
“ham ko maalūm hai jannat kī haqīqat lekin
dil ke ḳhush rakhne ko ‘ġhālib’ ye ḳhayāl achchhā hai”
“I know very well the reality of heaven, but Ghalib,
The very thought keeps the heart content”
Satya Sagar is a journalist and public health worker. He can be reached at [email protected]