Every hero is a villain! Love and hate for historic characters

“F*** Gandhi. Long Live Bhagat Singh”, says an Internet headline. ‘Bhagat Singh was nothing but a terrorist’, contends another group of Indians. Freedom-lovers insist, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan was a ‘traitor, a British tout’. There are those who maintain that fighters of the war of independence in 1857 were ‘in gratuitous, unfaithful, disloyal, brutes that murdered their superiors in the army and did not spare women and children’.

A common argument for one preference over the other claims truthfulness based on information, knowledge and wisdom. Those who believe that British occupation of India was the best for social-uplifting and economic progress, argue that the warriors of 1857 were ignorant mutineers seeking to maintain the outdated, medieval status-quo.

George Washington’s struggle to free America from the British rulers commands praise from the same folks who describe British occupation of India as a positive factor in history. Nana Saheb, Bakht Khan and Jhansi ki Rani were no comparison to the leadership of Washington, Adams or Jefferson, they contend. Freedom-struggle without a clear-thinking leadership cannot produce a positive outcome.

Rebellion of 1857 showed “man at his worst” wrote Nehru, but the free souls who perished fighting to wrest their land from foreign occupiers, can not be traitors. Misery of a decaying Indian society and the changes East India Company imposed, stirred a resistance. “Company India moved from a huge measure of racial intermixing in the late 18th century to a position of complete racial apartheid by the 1850s” –William Dalrymple, http://www.newstatesman.com/200610160035.

Some analysts of the US war against terrorism elicit a Muslim/Jihadi aspect of the events in 1857. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan is a contradiction to the notion that war against the British was predominantly a clash between Muslims and the West. Sir Syed, a Mughal aristocrat accepted a job with East India Company. He was the founder of Scientific Society of Aligarh and advocated modern education for Muslims. Though he expressed prejudice against Hindus and Hindi, Sir Syed pleaded before the education commission for building more schools and colleges all over India. He supported Surendranath Banerjeee and Dadabhai Nauroji in obtaining representation for Indians in the government and civil services.

24 year old Bhagat Singh was executed by the British rulers in 1931. Inspired by Indian Congress, this young man joined the struggle for freedom at the age of 13. He was not satisfied with the pace of the movement and chose methods of protest that Mahatma Gandhi did not approve. Though violence got him a death sentence, Bhagat Singh’s fast-unto-death in jail demanding humane treatment for Indian prisoners was an exceptional feat.

Mahatma Gandhi is revered the world over for his non-violent, peaceful resistance against British rule in India. Admirers of Bhagat Singh complain that Gandhi did not influence the Viceroy for pardon of Bhagat Singh’s death sentence. Mahatma Gandhi’s principle of non-violence stands in complete contrast to his appeal for enlisting Indian volunteers in combat positions during World War1. Despite all criticism one may hurl at him, almost a decade after Gandhi’s death, Martin Luther King said, “Christ gave us the goals and Mahatma Gandhi the tactics.”

The British left India after World War11. Bhagat Singh, Gandhi, Sir Syed and the freedom warriors of 1857, all hold their respectable position as hero in Indian history but one set of admirers diminish the other’s hero into worst villain.

Christopher Columbus, the discoverer of America was a celebrated hero but controversy has arisen in recent years. Columbus is seen as a greedy, ruthless murderer who enslaved the local population and usurped land that was not individually owned but shared by all. His adventurous sail across the Atlantic Ocean did change the world. Private ownership of land and resources delivered a state of capitalist excellence in USA. Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, the author of ‘1492-The year the world began’ wrote, “Every hero is somebody else’s villain”.

Hegel gave a central role to ‘Hero’ in his philosophy. Carlyle considers history to be centered on important individuals. Karl Marx argues that history is not determined by individuals. Herbert Spencer wrote “Before he (hero) can remake his society, his society must make him.” Civilization, geography, economics and demography have a considerably larger role in history but heroes have an eternal life in posterity.

Roma Chatterji’s ‘Hero-as-self’ explains the relation between admirer and the ‘hero’. She argues that humans can view the world from a personal perspective only. Relevance of hero to the admirer relies on the similarities between the two. Chatterji explores the variation of narratives with reference to Indian mythological figures. But her theory on hero-admirer connection provides some explanation to all that love and hate for historic characters

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