Revisiting a revolt

Print edition : February 03, 2017

M.F. Husain's painting on the 1857 revolt. Photo: V.V. Krishnan

The book attempts to focus on bourgeoisation as a factor that precipitated the Great Revolt of 1857.

THE nature of the Great Indian Revolt of 1857 has been debated from the time it originated. While the logic of retaining the monopoly of the English East India Company (EEIC) was behind the definition of 1857 as a “Sepoy Mutiny” (viz. sipahi, as the company’s “native” soldier was called), the idea of wiping out its monopoly gave thrust to the effort to uncover deeper problems that needed immediate attention. What needs to be highlighted is the sheer diversity of interpretations of the nature of the revolt even among contemporaries.

Those who harped on the “Mutiny” theme saw it as the handiwork of a set of discontented sipahis who were unhappy with the introduction, in 1857, of the new Enfield rifle with its distinct ammunition, which required the bullet to be bitten before loading. Rumours that the grease used on the bullets was made of either the fat of cattle or pigs had symbolic implications. Cows were considered “sacred” by Hindus, and Muslims considered pigs to be “polluting”. The introduction of such bullets was seen as an attack on Hindu and Muslim religious beliefs. Another feature influencing contemporary official thinking was that it was the handiwork of upper castes who wanted to fan a rebellion through Brahminical institutions such as the Dharma Sabha of Calcutta. Subsequently, it came to be located as a “Muslim conspiracy”, and this got stabilised as a part of the “commonsense” of the colonial officialdom.

Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-1898) wrote Asbab-e-Baghawat-e-Hind (1858), in which he sought to examine the underlying features that determined the nature of the 1857 revolt. Interestingly, some historians have made an effort to show that Khan countered the argument that projected 1857 as a “Muslim conspiracy”. However, what is not projected properly is that Khan’s was perhaps the first Indian viewpoint that located 1857 as a “Rebellion” (viz. Baghawat) and critiqued imperialism and its policies in order to explain its causes.

The power of the 1857 revolt divided English opinion at “home”. Thus, Chartists like Ernest Jones hailed the rebellion and unmasked the colonial exploitation of India. Of course, the most serious dissenting voice was that of Karl Marx, who linked the colonial exploitation of India to the anger that was displayed by the people during the revolt.

Post-Independence resources

Better access to sources after Independence saw interesting developments related to exploring the nature of the revolt and the emergence of a sophisticated nationalist historiography with serious possibilities. Nevertheless, it did not document the role of the common people in the 1857 revolt. Despite this, as subsequent historians show, it complicated issues and questioned many commonly held positions associated with the revolt such as the overemphasis given to “economic” factors or its impact in the areas outside the Indo-Gangetic plain.

The development of other historical approaches generated a lot of debate on the nature of the revolt. The first exhaustive work on it was published in 1957 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the event. Edited by P.C. Joshi, it focussed both on its diversities and its specificities. This included assessing 1857 against the colonial backdrop, examining aspects of participation and focussing on the internal contradictions. Its significance lay in the fact that the contributors worked with Urdu sources. This volume also sought to highlight the dimensions of popular culture by incorporating folk poems that have survived. In many ways, this work inspired a serious spell of writings on the revolt that focussed on a diverse range of issues and regions. More recently—since the 1990s—historians have focussed on the popular dimensions of 1857, including the specificities of the involvement of Adivasis, “lower castes” and outcastes, popular culture and mentalities, and questions relating to the alternative order that emerged. Working within the paradigms of cultural studies, present-day scholars foreground the way racism and gender emerged as a virtual fallout of the revolt.

Development of capitalism

Amit Kumar Gupta’s Nineteenth-Century Colonialism and the Great Indian Revolt needs to be situated in the context of this diverse historiographical tradition. It is a welcome addition to the growing interest in and the debates related to the Great Revolt. Gupta focusses on colonial north India, and his central argument relates to the EEIC’s efforts at India’s bourgeoisification which precipitated the 1857 revolt. Some of the seminal ideas of the author are contained in his essay “Bourgeoisation and the Great Revolt of 1857” (in Sitaram Yechury, ed. The Great Revolt: A Left Appraisal, Delhi, 2008). The way in which Gupta develops his ideas illustrates not only his interest in the subject but also the continuing curiosity that the revolt inspires.

Gupta crafts his arguments relating to bourgeoisification in six chapters. The first chapter, aptly titled, “For Bourgeoisation”, discusses the broad parameters of what the author sees as the basic mission of the colonialist. It provides the logic of the interactive processes between the “home” and the colony and delineates some of the basic features of the development of capitalism in India. Drawing upon a diverse range of sources, the author demonstrates that this bourgeoisification was a predominant feature that led to the revolt. Here he weaves in the impact generated by the Industrial Revolution and the intellectual climate in England and Europe. Rooted in a distinct anti-monarchical ideology, this influenced leading thinkers classified as Utilitarians and politicians—Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill et al.—in England. As argued rather convincingly, this environment at “home” influenced colonial policy in a significant manner. Alongside it, a host of policies in India over the first half of the 19th century—which included the land revenue policy and the commercialisation of agriculture, the wars/conquests and annexations directed against the feudal sections, coupled with the early efforts to develop communication links—marked a shift in the relationship between the metropolis and the colony. Here we are also told about the social reform efforts of the EEIC, which included its attempt to stop practices like “sati” and “thugee”. Together, these aimed at the bourgeoisation of Indian society and were intrinsically connected with the “civilising mission”.

Another significant aspect that implied an opposition to feudalism is elaborated in the second chapter, “Against Feudalism”. This vital dimension drew upon an ideological support base that was provided by the “Rent Theory”, which is delineated in the third chapter (“For Rent Theory”). The themes that are explored in these chapters complement one another. Thus, whereas the idea of depending on the anti-feudal thrust of an emergent bourgeois order in the metropolitan world of Europe implied depending on the capitalist class to develop capitalism, the idea of tapping agrarian resources in colonial India gained momentum and formed the basis of the “Rent Theory”. The project was complicated and contradictory. After all, in colonial eastern India, for example, it meant a dependence on the feudal sections to develop capitalism through Permanent Settlement (1796).

Contradictory order of things

The fourth chapter, “Against Peasantry”, outlines the complexities generated through this attempt at bourgeoisification that hit the peasantry. Gupta clearly explains the intricate connection between ideas and some of the typical or practical problems that this “mission” faced while being implemented. Here he stresses over-assessment as a major factor that affected a large section of the population, including the peasantry. What also comes out is the largely pre-capitalist, feudal order that dominated, and how the EEIC’s endeavour remained largely constrained and resulted in reinforcing the problems posed by them. Another point relates to the problem of low productivity (in some areas), which was seen in a dismissive manner. This particular point has serious significance if viewed in the broader context of the mission of bourgeoisation and colonial parasitism. Together, these meant putting in place higher levels of assessment in order to “stimulate production” and it can be traced to the contradictory order of things that is a central theme Gupta that develops.

The resulting problems are discussed in the next chapter, aptly entitled “Confrontation”, where Gupta explores the factors that precipitated the revolt. The author argues about a “common cause” that held together the mutinous sepoys, a large section of the landed elements and the peasants. Here the author highlights some key features of bourgeoisification that alienated these sections. He also discusses missionary activities and some of the educational initiatives that caused a level of anxiety.

The last chapter focusses on the revolt being opposed to sudden change and is entitled “Against Qualitative Change”. Here the author explains why the Great Revolt needs to be seen as an attempt to resist the EEIC’s mission of bourgeoisation of India.

It was undoubtedly the most powerful challenge faced by imperialism in the 19th century. Its postscript contained the footprints of an alliance between colonialism and the feudal order of princes and zamindars that lasted for about a century. The author emphasises the contradictory world of colonialism that sought to develop capitalism but cradled the feudal princes and the zamindars. This implied the coexistence of a status quo-oriented society dominated by the metropolitan capitalists in a “joint venture” with the feudal elements by the 1860s.

One would of course differ with the author’s formulation about the revolt being an “anti-imperialist feudal upsurge” (page 152). After all, the feudal order had been substantially altered by the 1850s. One can also cite here the author’s argument about bourgeoisification hurting the peasants, and those who “were in uniform” (viz. the sepoys), and the depth of their involvement and participation perhaps need to be kept in mind if one were to disagree with the author.

The significance of this book lies in the fact that it examines and develops a phenomenon that has hitherto not attracted much attention. In this sense, Amit Kumar Gupta’s effort to focus on bourgeoisation as a factor that precipitated the Great Revolt of 1857 enriches our understanding of it.

Biswamoy Pati is Senior Fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi.

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