Revisiting 1857

Print edition : November 29, 2013
The articles enrich the understanding of the diverse aspects of the great uprising .

EVER since the cataclysmic events of 1857, historians and political leaders have been discussing and debating the true nature of the uprising that was described as the “Sepoy Mutiny” by the British, “a national revolt reminiscent of the French Revolution” by Karl Marx and “the Indian War of Independence” by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. During the days of the freedom struggle, it was Savarkar’s inspiring treatise, proscribed by the British in 1909 soon after it was published, that held sway as Marx’s writing was published for the first time in 1959, over a 100 years after the event.

However, it was remarkable that writing as a journalist on contemporary events and relying mainly on the sketchy accounts of the British colonialists, Marx could grasp the historical essence and epochal significance of the revolt. For him, it was not merely an armed uprising but the biggest anti-colonial national revolt of the 19th century in which nearly 125,000 soldiers of the Bengal Army took part.

Drawing a parallel with the French Revolution, Marx drew attention to the fact that in France, too, it was not the peasants but the landed gentry that dealt the first blow in favour of the revolution. Similarly, it was not the ryots in India but the well-fed, well-paid and well-looked-after soldiers who raised the banner of revolt against their British masters. When the centenary of the uprising was celebrated in 1957, an important study done by S.N. Sen was published, bringing many hitherto unknown documents to light. S.A.A. Rizvi edited historical documents relating to the event in a six-volume series. P.C. Joshi, former general secretary of the Communist Party of India, too edited a volume that contained many valuable contributions on the phenomenon called 1857.

In 2007, when the 150th anniversary of the great revolt was observed, many more such scholarly studies were brought out or planned. This seven-volume series, of which four volumes are discussed here, is one such attempt. As the title suggests, the series places a special emphasis on “marginality”, perhaps another term for the familiar and over-used “subaltern”, and aims at offering “new perspectives” on the events of 1857. The first volume, Anticipations and Experiences in the Locality, has been edited by the series editor, Crispin Bates, who tells us in a longish Introduction about the ambitious research project at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland that was meant “to provide new insights into the Indian Uprising of 1857-1858 through thematic and collaborative research, a network of scholars centred in Edinburgh, and international conferences”. Its purpose was to offer an alternative narrative and to “challenge conventional nationalist and imperialist perspectives and to dispel some of the myths that often still dominate popular and academic accounts”. Therefore, an attempt has been made to tell those tales that fall outside the mainstream historiography of the period and are really on the margins of the main narrative. It has also been the endeavour of the editors and contributors to situate the events of 1857 in a broader historical context than is usually done and explore its progenitors as well as consequences. What kind of global impact the historic uprising had is one of the concerns of these volumes.

Socially marginal groups—the “subalterns” ranging from criminals to tribal peoples to whites —have been accorded a special focus as also those areas that have been on the periphery of the main theatre of the revolt. The idea seems to be to revisit the historiography of 1857 and challenge some of the prevailing notions embedded in it. The second volume, Britain and the Indian Uprising, has been edited by Andrea Major and Crispin Bates; the third, Global Perspectives, by Marina Carter and Crispin Bates; and the fourth, Military Aspects of the Indian Uprising, by Gavin Rand and Crispin Bates.

However, in the zeal to accomplish these objectives, due attention has not been paid to avoid esoteric topics that do not really enhance our understanding of the key elements involved in the events to any appreciable extent. For instance, the first article in the first volume tries to make a point that fails to impress the reader as a very original one. “Bandits, Bureaucrats and Bahadur Shah Zafar” by Tom Lloyd tries to show that the legal, juristic and bureaucratic structure of the British Raj that followed the trial, deposition and banishment of the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar was in fact already more or less in place as a consequence of the Anti-Thugee Campaign of the Company Raj.

Thus, Lloyd argues, the switchover from the rule of the East India Company to the sovereign rule of the British crown did not really alter the situation on the ground very much. The process of state formation had begun during, and as a consequence of, the Anti-Thugee Campaign and the officials of the Thugee Department, as it were, laid its foundations. It also contributed to the marginalisation of the Thugs themselves. However, one is not very sure if this “new” understanding of the process of formation of a nascent, largely amorphous state will really enhance our comprehension of the historic event in any significant manner, howsoever interesting a read the article may be.

In contrast, Mahmood Farooqui has written a very informative and well-researched article on the role played by the police during the occupation of Delhi by the rebels. “The Police in Delhi in 1857” informs us that while all other systems of governance had collapsed, the police somehow functioned well during May-September when Delhi was in the hands of the rebels. In addition to the usual policing work, it had to provide rations, provisions and protection, find missing women and children, and perform a host of other duties for the city’s populace as well as the rebel soldiers as it was widely viewed as the representative of the authority of Bahadur Shah Zafar, who the rebels had declared, was the real ruler of the country. Farooqui points out that this was the first time that the ancien regime was called upon to perform tasks and functions of a modern government. The rebels, too, were vigilant enough to keep the police in check by constant inspection of the entries in police diaries. And, mind you, even in the 1830s, police reforms were in the air as they are today.

The 1857 upheaval changed life in Delhi irreversibly. This was a city where right from the ruler to the man on the street, everybody was smitten by poetry. The rebellion and its brutal suppression drove Urdu poets into two opposing camps—those for it, and those against. Rakshanda Jalil has written an interesting article on the way the revolt impacted contemporary Urdu literature. She draws attention to the curious phenomenon of Urdu poets contradicting one another as well as themselves. Some were for the rebels during the revolt but soon after turned pro-British. Thus a staunch “royalist” Dagh held the coming of the Purabiyas (soldiers from eastern Uttar Pradesh) responsible for the calamity that had befallen the city, while Azurdah blamed the people of the Fort. Many an Urdu poet were imprisoned and sent to the Andamans. Ghalib in his Persian work Dastambu chronicles a period of 15 months from May 11, 1857, to August 1, 1858. Convinced that the British could not be defeated, he has no sympathy for the rebels who have created nothing but chaos. Ghalib was a self-confessed admirer of the British and he openly expressed his indebtedness to them. The old order was crumbling before his eyes while the new was yet to be born. It pained both the sympathisers and the opponents of the revolt that Muslims were discriminated against and two sets of rules were being applied to Hindus and Muslims. Ghalib has faithfully chronicled the chaos created by the unruly hordes of rebels and the brutal suppression unleashed by the triumphant British army. It was going to be a life of hardship for Muslims for several decades after the uprising.

Chhanda Chatterjee in “Contextualizing Truth” offers an absorbing account of Khazan Singh’s poetic work Atha Jangnama Dilli and deconstructs it to get to the core of its real meaning. Writing a loyalist tract focussing on Maharaja of Patiala Narinder Singh’s service to the British Raj in 1857 in crushing the revolt, his text transcends its immediate purpose, thus showing a clear divergence between its poetic intention and ultimate implications as it is an authentic record of contemporary events. To justify the Sikh army’s role in the destruction of Delhi, he invents a story about Guru Tegh Bahadur who is supposed to have cursed Aurangzeb that Sikhs would one day return to despoil Delhi.

Grievances against the British

Kama Maclean has written a fascinating account of the role of the Prayagwal Brahmins of Allahabad in the events leading up to the great uprising as they were sore with the British for imposing tax on the users of “Sangam” (the confluence of three rivers in Allahabad) and with the Christian missionaries for using the Kumbh Mela and other big fairs and congregations for the purpose of proselytising. They spread in the villages and made effective anti-British propaganda among their residents. Their grievances against the British were both religious and economic as their economic status was directly linked to their exclusive rights over performing rituals for the pilgrims. They had been enjoying these rights from the days of Akbar. While the issue of greased cartridges is generally cited as having incited both Hindu and Muslim soldiers, thus introducing the religious motive behind the mutiny, the role of the Prayagwals in fanning out into the countryside and carrying out anti-British propaganda brings out a new aspect of the situation and lends credence to the view that the uprising was after all not all that spontaneous and some serious planning had gone into it.

Gautam Bhadra, one of the founders of the Subaltern Studies Collective, has contributed an article that probes what constitutes a margin or margins? He discusses these issues in the context of the insurrection in the Chotanagpore Division, in Kolhan or the land of the Kols, that is, Singhbhum. He shows how the concept of a margin is a relational one and can only be understood in the context of a centre. Both exist mediated by tensions and tend to stabilise each other while facing the possibility of “occasional skirmishes and incongruities”.

The British believed that Tsarist Russia had played a role in instigating the mutiny as it wanted to further its own imperial ambitions in Asia. Elena Karatchkova informs us on the basis of documents available in Russian archives that in the beginning of the 19th century, Russian Emperor Paul was inclined to accept the proposal of Napoleon Bonaparte to form a joint Franco-Russian army to expel the British from India. However, after Paul’s assassination, his successor Alexander I rejected the idea. By 1857, Russian generals viewed British India as a serious threat to Russian interests in Asia and had a plan ready to invade India. However, it did not find favour with many and the reality was that Russia had no inkling of the great upheaval that the 1857 revolt proved to be. However, as the talk of a possible Russian intervention was in the air, Karatchkova asserts that the mutineers’ belief based on astrologers’ prediction of an imminent Russian invasion to help their cause was one of the factors that ignited the fuse, leading to the outbreak of the uprising.

Russell's dispatches

Not many would know much about W.H. Russell who had earned an enviable reputation as a journalist because of his reporting of the Crimean War. So influential was he, as Chandrika Kaul illustrates in her very readable article “You Cannot Govern by Force Alone”, that even Lord Canning who had general distrust for both Indian and English journalists, provided Russell with privileged information about military movements. Russell’s dispatches for TheTimes, London, played an important role in moulding pubic opinion in Britain. He spent a year in India and was appalled at the wanton brutality on both sides of the conflict. He found the idea of British superiority distasteful and even raised the question if India would not be better off without the rule of the East India Company. His dispatches convinced many in Britain about the need to adopt a conciliatory approach towards Indians after the British government took over the administration in India. Quite a few of the articles collected in Volume 3 concern themselves with the role of rumours and how these were disseminated through the communication technologies in the mid-19th century—the telegraph as well as non-Western networks. The great uprising also inspired literary output in Europe, this giving rise to the genre of mutiny novels or the “contemporary historical-political novel”. As Kim Wagner discusses in an article, the Prussian writer Hermann Goedsche’s Nana Sahib, oder: Die Empoerung in Indien (Nana Sahib, or: The Uprising in India) was the progenitor of the emerging genre of the Anglo-Indian mutiny novel. Although it was never translated into English, it was very popular in the continent and went a long way in shaping German attitude towards the mutiny as well as to Indians who were portrayed as heroes in the novel.

Seema Alavi’s article “Mutiny, Deportation and the Nation” on Maulana Jafer Thanesri, who spent 18 years as a convict in the penal colony in the Andamans as he was described as a Wahabi by the British administration and was charged with helping the Afghans in their war with the British and playing a role in the 1857 rebellion. In the Andamans, Thanesri learnt English and was torn between the two world orders—the Islamic and the Western. This is a problem that still remains unresolved if one looks at present-day jehadists who use everything offered by Western science and technology to further their cause and, at the same time, look at the West as a corrupting influence. Thanesri wrote three treatises and presented Syed Ahmad Shahid, a leading Wahabi of his day, as a global Islamic personality. He underplayed his Wahabi and anti-British stances and placed him within the discursive fold of global Islam. Syed Ahmad as well as Thanesri had played an important role in the rebellion of 1857. In fact, as Crispin Bates and Marina Carter have shown in “Holy Warriors”, Pakistani writers such as Ghulam Rasul Mihr, whose book on 1857 was published in Lahore to mark the centenary of the uprising, extol the exploits of the mujahideen.

Gautam Chakravarty demonstrates conclusively that the policies of the East India Company were responsible for the great revolt of 1857. He quotes Colonel George Bruce Malleson, who wrote a slim book on the mutiny of the Bengal army in 1858 squarely blaming the Company and described Lord Dalhousie as “the real author of the mutiny”. Chakravarty also quotes from a 1922 article of Prof. Francis W. Buckler who makes the startling claim that “if there was any mutineer in 1857, it was the East India Company” because it had reneged on every legal commitment to the Mughal Emperor and thus was guilty of treason. Drawing a parallel with the insurgencies going on at present in various parts of the country, Chakravarty places his narrative in the insurgency/counter-insurgency framework.

It is not possible to do justice or even discuss here all the articles collected in these volumes although each one of them merits serious attention. It is natural that they are of varying significance and relevance, but they do contribute to enriching our understanding of the diverse aspects of the great uprising of 1857.

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