A story of 1857

In many ways the book is a diary of what different people in Delhi were feeling and expressing during the eventful months of the uprising.

Published : Jun 01, 2007 00:00 IST

WILLIAM DALRYMPLE'S book has caught the media's attention for a number of reasons. It is among the first books to come out on 1857 when India is gearing up to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the uprising. It deals with a series of events that form part of popular historical memory, which people like to read about. It is also by a writer well known for writing on historical themes in a way that makes their reading interesting not just for historians and other academics but for all those who love a tale told well. There are many people who say they read it from cover to cover at a stretch even though they do not usually read history books. It does read like a story and that is the main reason for its popularity. Interestingly, that is also the source of its weakness as history writing because history is what the book is meant to be.

The book is not a work of fiction based on historical events; it is said to be a breakthrough in the historiography of 1857, not only for the new, untapped sources used but also for its point of view. The events that form the subject matter of Dalrymple's book are part of the larger 1857 uprisings being celebrated by the Indian government to mark what it sees as the `first war of Indian Independence', in which all sections of the Indian people fought unitedly against British rule. Progressive groups and political parties on their part see 1857 as part of the history of popular struggles against colonial exploitation, led in 1857 by the rajahs, nawabs and the zamindars who had a conflict of interest with the British but who were motivated essentially by their own aspirations as peasants, artisans or soldiers.

Dalrymple's book dismisses both these premises in favour of narratives focussed on what people as individuals thought and did during the uprising in Delhi and projects the motivating thoughts and actions of these individuals as representing the collective life and soul of popular initiatives in 1857.

Although the title suggests that the subject of the book is primarily Bahadur Shah Zafar and the fall of the Mughal dynasty in 1857, the events in Delhi form not just the larger background but are crucial to what the author has to say on the nature of the 1857 rebellions. The book describes the events in Delhi on a day-to-day basis, sometimes even hourly basis, and the manner in which the narrative develops has an almost movielike quality, so that the events seem to be taking place before our eyes.

The entry of soldiers from Meerut and Bareilly is described in detail, and the motivations of the rebels are discussed on the basis of rich archival material other than British documents and the well-known contemporary accounts of the period.

The later studies used are also those that describe rather than analyse the events in Delhi as the author is keen to walk off the beaten path to offer "new" perspectives from the point of view of those who peopled the city at that time. He would like the participants themselves, and for that matter the non-participants and the opponents of the rebellion, to speak for themselves. In many ways the book is a diary of what different sections of people in the city were feeling and expressing, verbally as well as through their actions, during the eventful months of the capture and siege of Delhi.

Zafar himself does not appear as some distant monarch - he comes through as an individual with his strengths and frailties, his talent and love for poetry, his hesitations and helplessness, his love for the country and distance from the causes of the rebels, his sense of a world lost and inability to understand change. We sympathise with him as we read through the book. The rebel soldiers, artisans, courtiers and members of the royal household are shown as both victims and actors in the changes that took place during those decades.

The book begins with a short biographical note on those whom Dalrymple calls the "dramatic personae", among them members of the Mug hal imperial family, the emperor's household, the leaders of the rebel army, many Dilliwallahs and various Britishers. Later in the book, we are introduced to them in some detail: the Mir Munshi, Munshi Jiwan Lal; Mufti Sadruddin Khan; the Thanedar, Muin ud-Din Husain Khan; the Metcalfes; Reverend Midgely John Jennings; William Hodson; General Bakht Khan; Maulvi Sarfaraz Ali; General Sudhari Singh; Begum Zeenat Mahal; and many others. They play their roles in accordance with their designations and the positions they held during those fateful events.

Ghalib and Zauq also make their appearance in the book, both in their rivalry and as poets of consequence in their own right. Ghalib, happily, is not presented in the usual caricature as a stooge of the British. We see him as a crusader for new ideas and modern sensibility and as a man of great self-respect in his dealings with all and sundry, including the British.

Dalrymple tells us how Zafar was reduced to a puppet presiding over little more than his household, with even that control diminishing as 1857 drew near. The last emperor appears as a benign old man, suddenly thrust into the "chaos" of the great rebellion. He was not a natural insurgent, we are told. "It was with severe misgivings and little choice that he found himself made the nominal leader of an Uprising that he strongly suspected from the start was doomed... " (page 3).

Dalrymple shows us how the city, a seat of "remarkable cultural flowering", was overnight turned into a "battleground". The siege of Delhi was "the Raj's Stalingrad", he says, a "fight to death between two powers, neither of whom could retreat". Finally, the rebels lost because they had limited ammunition, no money and few supplies, and soon both the people of Delhi and the sepoys were on the verge of starvation. From the momentous entry of the rebel army into Delhi to the sack of Delhi by the British, to the unimaginable cruelties that the British heaped on the defeated rebels and the entire population of Delhi, everything appears in stark detail.

On his part, Dalrymple himself perceives his book not as "a biography of Zafar so much as a portrait of the Delhi he personified, a narrative of the last days of the Mughal capital and its final destruction in the catastrophe of 1857". There are many references also to what was happening elsewhere in 1857.

The account is written with sympathy for the rebels and from the point of view of the Indians, as the author claims in his introduction. At the heart of the book, he says, is the question of "how and why the easy relationship of Indian and Briton, so evident in the time of [William] Fraser [and until the early 19th century], gave way to the hatreds and racism of the high-nineteenth-century Raj". For him, the "Uprising, it is clear, was the result of that change, not its cause" (page 9). Two things in particular seem to have put paid put to this easy coexistence, he says. One was the rapid success of British power, which bred "undisguised imperial arrogance", and the other was the ascendancy of evangelical Christianity and the activities of the missionaries.

This conclusion is both sweeping and erroneous. Nobody has suggested that hatreds and racism were caused by the 1857 rebellions, but at the same time, there is a need to understand that much changed after 1857 in terms of policies and administration. On the other side, one needs also to question his thesis that all was well in the early years of the Company Raj. From the beginning, through to 1757 (Battle of Plassey) and the land settlements, the Indian people were subjected to unending hardship, poverty and famine resulting from the land revenue settlements and destruction of livelihoods as British-made cotton textiles replaced Indian production. The drain of wealth from India to Britain and its implications for the people were very much a factor of discontent and anger against the British, a factor that Dalrymple, in his eagerness to break out of "old" moulds of historiography, gives little consequence in his narrative of 1857. There is a need to dwell on this in some detail.

For Dalrymple, "imperial arrogance" reflected primarily in the great activism on the part of evangelicals was a decisive factor in alienating and creating a distance between Indians and the British. Colonialism and its lived reality is merely a footnote, an abstraction, to other important factors like imperial arrogance and evangelical Christianity.

"Many historians blithely use the word `colonialism' as if it has some kind of clearly locatable meaning, yet it is increasingly apparent that at this period there were multiple modes and very distinct phases of colonialism; there were also many very different ways of inhabiting, performing and transgressing the still fluid notion of Britishness." He says that "it was not the British per se, so much as specific groups with a specific imperial agenda - namely the Evangelicals and Utilitarians - who ushered in the most obnoxious phase of colonialism... " (page 10). The scale of loot so plain to see from contemporary accounts, and well documented by many modern scholars, does not strike him as immoral and worthy of being a sufficient cause for rebellion. And it is not as if he were taking colonialism for granted and therefore highlighting other important factors. The overarching presence of colonialism is simply not factored in.

"By early 1850s many British officials were nursing plans finally to abolish the Mughal court," he says, "and to impose not just British laws and technology on India, but also Christianity. The reaction to this steady crescendo of insensitivity came in 1857 with the Great Mutiny... Delhi was the principal centre of the uprising... .it was clear from the outset that the British had to recapture Delhi or lose their Indian empire for ever. Equally, the sepoys rallying to the throne of Bahadur Shah, whom they believed to be the legitimate ruler of Hindustan, realised that if they lost Delhi they lost everything."

The flowering of culture and the mixing that he is talking about was an upper-class phenomenon, its benefits and expressions hardly available to the soldiers and peasants who formed the backbone of the rebellion everywhere. The Dalits among the peasants, who no doubt constituted a significant proportion of the population, had little to fear from Christianity, preoccupied as they must have been in their daily lives with caste oppression in its various forms.

Religion became an incendiary factor with Indian soldiers only with the greasing of cartridges and the forcing of sepoys to cross the seas for battle. The people who rebelled had lived through imperial arrogance and rulers of different religions before the coming of the British. Hindus and Muslims had lived together under Muslim and Hindu rulers in the different regions and kingdoms, and it would be unrealistic to suppose that they were not acquainted with the arrogance of princes, nawabs, rajas and "maharajadhirajs" and to ruling classes, in general, before British rule. Ultimately, these provocations, religion and the imperial arrogance that he underlines, became unbearable only in the context of what was perceived as "foreign rule" and the rapacious policies of loot and extraction of surplus in various forms.

Also, the composite culture in the 19th century was composite in many more ways than he envisages. Its components did not simply comprise the kind of interactions he is referring to between the `White Mughals' and the literary and educated people of Delhi but also encompassed the pluralistic culture of Awadh (Ayodhya with its Buddhist, Sikh, Sufi, Islamic and Vaishnavite elements and Lucknow with its Hindustani culture of performing arts and literature emerging out of a strong Persian and Central Asian influence) and ways of life generated through centuries of living together in cooperation and conflict in all the regions of the subcontinent. These made for a sense of shared culture of immense diversity between Hindus and Muslims, which was stronger at the street level and among the populace, even in Delhi, than anything that interactions between the `White Mughals' and the literary and educated classes produced.

The British were always foreigners even in relationships of extreme cordiality, while Muslims were not referred to as such until the consolidation of Hindu communalism in the late 19th century and certainly not perceived so by anyone until the early 20th century. And the intermarriages and harems and the like of the `White Mughals' was a very one-way phenomenon, as Gyan Prakash has pointed out in a review of the same book. It is for this reason that a united looking up to Bahadur Shah Zafar in Delhi was possible by so many disparate elements throughout central and northern India, as Dalrymple himself shows. It seems to have surprised him as much as it did the British in those times!

Rebels are seen by him as being motivated primarily by a jehadi spirit, out to fight the "Christian" foreigners. He has obviously understood the term jehad in the way that it is being understood after 9/11 and not in reference to its semantic development over time or to the wider connotations that it assumed in the 19th century. Both jehad and jang have had much broader connotations in different periods of history and often could mean hungama, shorghul or uncompromising war against anything perceived to be unjust.

Moreover, it is important to remember that we are talking of a period before modern ideologies took root in India, when the fight for what was perceived to be right was largely articulated in the language of religion or a variety of religious and quasi-religious discourse. It was the only moral language available in the 19th century to people at large and through which a call for justice and freedom could be communicated at a mass level.

The ideological world of the rebels was no doubt shaped by traditional intellectuals, but they were very conscious of who they defined as the enemy and why, and they knew they were challenging British authority and power. Their actions in every way challenged the colonial order backed by feudal interests. Dalrymple does not recognise this not-so-hidden transcript and goes on to insist: "Even if one accepts that the word `religion' (for Muslims din) is often being used in a very general and non-sectarian sense of dharma... it is still highly significant that the Urdu sources refer to the British not as angrez (the English) or as goras (whites) or even firangis, but instead almost always as kafirs (infidels) and nasrani (Christians)."

But then he needed to look at more than what people had to say for themselves; to understand 1857 he needed to give significance to more than just the Mutiny papers. Instead, he has obviously gone completely by how people sought to legitimise rebellion rather than looking at the underlying sources of rebellion as the Marxists, whom he takes very lightly, did. Had he looked at some of the traditional sources he so blithely dismisses, he would have found many elements of thought and organisation that contradict his views on 1857, which are as sweeping as those he critiques. Had he sought to analyse why peasants, tribal people, soldiers and artisans, or even rulers, rebelled against the British every year in some part of the country or the other before 1857 and attempted a connection between these earlier rebellions and 1857 and constructed a history of them, he would not have so strongly argued for religion as the leitmotif for rebel actions.

All armies had been mixed for a long time. Dalrymple's own narrative, in any case, shows that Hindus too formed a good number of the rebels on the Delhi front. His descriptions of people and events scattered through the book show that many of those whose shops were looted or who were killed as "Christians" were informers of the British, part of their police or administration or moneylenders, or had come out against the rebels. Even as those who were killed were being abused as "Christians", the justification for the killings was their acts. Many were looted simply because they were rich. The jewellers, moneylending baniyas and the famous cloth merchants of the area bore the brunt of the violence.

Alternatively, in the same Urdu and Persian documents referred to above, he found an appeal by Pandit Harichand, citing the Mahabharata to appeal to traders to shut shop and plunge into the revolt. Often it is clear that the term Christian was used synonymously with "foreigner" and that the jehad was against a particular government and rulers and those identified with supporting it: it was not a blanket jehad against all kafirs; after all, Hindus were also kafirs. Rajat Kanta Ray's wonderful book (The Felt Community: Commonality and Mentality before the Emergence of Indian Nationalism) refers to a "felt community" that was certainly not nationalist then but could easily assume proto-nationalist elements in the future.

And, as Dalrymple himself corroborates, the capture of Delhi was the great transforming master stroke for the uprising. "The fact that Zafar gave the sepoys his tacit support instantly turned an army mutiny into the major political challenge to the British dominance of India, and sparked off what would swiftly escalate into the most serious armed challenge to imperialism the world over during the course of the nineteenth century" (pages 20-21). The participation of Rohillas, Bundels, Jats, Gujjars, Pasis, Mughals, Rajputs, Brahmans, Pathans, Satnamis, Wahabis and Kols and other tribal people in the 1857 uprising cannot be explained within a framework of jehad. The zamindars who opposed or supported the British in 1857 cut across religious lines, as did rulers, depending on how colonial policies impacted on them. Utsa Patnaik, in a recent essay, has shown why the Bengal zamindars supported the British while the Awadhi talukdars fought them.

Dalrymple's perspective arises, partly, from the form he has adopted - that of "telling it as it is" - the storytelling form that lulls rather than provokes thought, so that the non-vigilant reader is left looking at much of the violence of the rebel actions as common criminality and at people as numerous individual actors rather than as representatives of social protest. A reader would approve of rebel actions as little as he/she would of the sacking of Delhi, which followed British reprisals. This neutrality could well defeat the purpose of a good book on 1857. Or, alternatively, religious hysteria: there are sweeping passages like the rebels "massacred every Christian man, woman and child they could find in the city..." (page 3).

While no simple parallels can be drawn, we know today that we cannot look at behaviour and actions of crowds in history at the turn of modern periods of history through the prism of law-and-order situations.

This is not to say that common criminality and looting did not occur at all or that individuals in 1857 did not have their own personal motivations for the stands that they took. But the task of the historian is to define the larger picture, and unfortunately the larger picture that emerges from Dalrymple's book is not that of a people with their backs to the wall fighting an imperial power.

Unwittingly, and even while upholding the values of a composite culture and togetherness reflected in Hindu-Muslim unity, Dalrymple falls prey to the "clash of civilisations" paradigm in his analysis of 1857. In rejecting so categorically the idea of historical interpretations characterised by `meta narratives' and in his hurried brushing aside of both nationalist and Marxist viewpoints as being too simplistic, he has created his own meta narrative, and one which is far from credible. Despite his criticism of V.D. Savarkar and his like in interviews to the press, he falls prey to the same "civilisational clash" theory that Savarkar upheld, though of course not as its promoter, which Savarkar was. This is a book coloured deeply by 9/11.

Dalrymple's characterisation of the Wahabis is quite unfair: there are many books on the penal settlements in the Andamans that refer to the many Wahabis who were jailed for being freedom fighters. Despite recognising the role of many Muslim rebels, which a section of historiography does not, in seeing them as fighting primarily for their religion, he feeds into the prejudices that abound in our times.

Finally, despite the fact that he has looked at numerous new collections of documents, he might have appreciated that there are many more that even he has not looked at, and many that he has not looked at but others have. He need not have claimed that this was the first book written from "a properly Indian perspective" (page 11). This is simply not true even of the uprising in Delhi, leave alone at the countrywide level - there are many others, some not even listed in the bibliography, including Iqbal Husain's essays on Delhi and several other districts of north India; the volume edited by P.C. Joshi, first brought out in 1957, which remains unsurpassed for the variety of themes taken up including the study of literature and intelligentsia; and folk songs of the various regions and perceptions of 1857 in many other countries; and so on, not to mention the works of Azizuddin, Rudrangshu Mukherjee and Tapti Roy.

And then there is some sloppiness: G halib's name is given wrongly below his picture (Ahsanullah Khan instead of Asadullah Khan); Brahman is defined as a pandit in the glossary; bibi as an Indian wife or mistress; laddu as a milk-based sweet; Chamars as untouchables often of the sweeper caste; Hindustan as just North India (the Hindi belt); ghazal as a love poem; baniya as a moneylender; and so on.

All this is not by way of writing off the book - only its tall claims. The book makes for good, enjoyable reading and fills in many gaps and details that may not be available in other books on the subject.

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