India & two revolts

Published : Aug 27, 2010 00:00 IST

On how two 19th century revolts influenced Indian history.

RAJMOHAN GANDHI'S A Tale of Two Revolts is an account of back-to-back events of India's First War of Independence (or Sepoy Mutiny, as the British referred to it) in 1857 and the American Civil War in 1861. During one of the discussions on his book held in New Delhi in May, the historian and biographer said his objective was not to obtain new material or probe any kind of thesis. On the contrary, he was curious because of certain unique characteristics of these events. A large number of people were killed during both the events. The American Civil War took many more American lives than the two World Wars put together. More than one lakh Indians were killed in 1857. The author draws interesting parallels. Before the Civil War, the Union was referred to as these United States. After the war, the concept of one nation emerged and the term the United States came into common usage. Similarly, the idea of Indian nationalism was nearly non-existent before 1857. In the aftermath of the 1857 rebellion, India emerged as a nation.

Rajmohan Gandhi seeks to understand both the events better through the biographies of several personalities who lived during those periods. Of them, four are Indian intellectuals, Sayyid Ahmed Khan, Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar, Jotiba Phule and Bankimchandra Chatterjee, and the fifth, Allan Octavian Hume. Excerpts from the e-mail interview he gave Frontline:

You said during the discussion on your book in New Delhi that in 1857, American readers just grabbed the newspapers to read the accounts of the mutiny and that a vast majority of American newspapers then accepted the British interpretation of the event as the eruption of oriental barbarism. If Americans in 1857 disliked the Indian revolt, India in 1861 was largely indifferent to the American Civil War, with the exception of Jotiba Phule. Is it correct to say that an average American today knows nothing about the 1857 Revolt whereas an average Indian is aware of the Civil War?

This is entirely true. India 1857 does not enter American minds today. When Americans now think of India, the economy comes up, or the India-China equation, or India's role vis-a-vis Afghanistan. Those who follow Indian history are no doubt aware of 1857, but even with them the 1857 Revolt does not loom very large.

By contrast, the informed or educated Indian is well aware of the American Civil War, in part because of Abraham Lincoln's ageless appeal and also because the Civil War was tied to race, a question that continues to interest Indians. We witnessed this during [Barack] Obama's election. However, it is also true that the interest that Indians take in the politics of race does not always produce sustained curiosity about the life today of blacks in the U.S.

You had observed that causes of historical events cannot always be grasped by our intelligence. Yet, scholars have been able to identify the causes of the 1857 revolt and the American Civil War. The Revolt is seen as a backlash to social reform measures initiated by the British, whereas the American Civil War is seen as a consequence of the Supreme Court's regressive judgment in the Dred Scott case in 1857. [In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court, by a majority decision, declared that no black person could be an American citizen or sue in an American court, and also that a slave was but property, bought and sold and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise.] Therefore, is it fair to characterise both these events as reactionary?

In the discussion (and in the book), I quoted Leo Tolstoy on problems that arise if we give a single or simple explanation for the start of a war. I think Tolstoy's caution is worth respecting. Certainly, slavery was a major reason for the Civil War far more so than the single, though important, Dred Scott judgment cited by you and studied in my book.

The South's defence of slavery was reactionary, but I cannot pronounce India's Revolt as merely reactionary. That Revolt reflected a deep and widespread discontent with alien rule even though it also reflected resistance to social reform.

Why should we seek to understand the past through a simple modern binary (reaction versus revolutionary reform)? I thank you for remembering that my purpose with the study was, above all, to journey to a fascinating if also painful past. It was an effort to capture the past rather than to explain it or pronounce a judgment on it.

In your explanation on why the Indian Revolt failed, you have said that Abraham Lincoln spoke to all Americans, whereas there was no such leader in India to go beyond polarisation. How do you explain the absence of a Lincoln-like leader in 1857 India? Among Lincoln's leadership qualities, you mentioned his ability to reach out to every party after the Civil War ended. Could any of the five intellectuals you studied have displayed a similar quality? All the five intellectuals disapproved of the Revolt (except perhaps Vidyasagar, who was apolitical) and supported the British. Why did they not identify with all of India? According to you, only Bankim Chandra Chatterjee was sympathetic to the Rani of Jhansi and that he probably believed that the revolt might succeed. What explains his optimism? Phule too thought British rule was better. But you also say that there was sympathy for the revolt across India. Did these leaders miss the undercurrent then?

Your questions bring out the complexity and ambivalence of the time. Admiration for aspects of British rule by Indian intellectuals of the 19th century was joined to a sense of bitter humiliation at being ruled by aliens from a remote land. Phule too felt humiliated at white rule but he was also acutely conscious of the indignities that Indian high castes were heaping on the mass of lowly Indians.

Most Indian intellectuals, including the five I studied, solved their internal conflict by saying to themselves that British rule should be opposed but not yet. This was Bankim's explicit position, and remember he also had to protect the job of a deputy judge the British gave him.

These men have to be understood, not judged. We may find much in them also to love and appreciate.

Kolkata's Hindoo Patriot published every Thursday in the 1850s and 1860s and edited by a remarkable man called Harish Chunder Mukherjee articulated the dilemma of the Indian intellectuals who did not trust the 1857 rebels and saw them as both disparate and desperate and also inexperienced and often violent. Yet they identified with the nationalist feeling that the rebels had stoked. What I quote in the book from the Hindoo Patriot reveals this.

As for the absence in India of a Lincoln counterpart, such a person was absent in much of the world at the time. Who today remembers Palmerston, the British Prime Minister during the Indian Revolt and the American Civil War? When Palmerston died (around the time that Lincoln was shot), many British were convinced that he was the age's hero, but posterity gave Lincoln that title.

It is sadly true that Indian intellectuals of the 1860s did not see all Indians as their people. Class, caste, religion and language circumscribed their sympathies.

Yet, here too we should not offer harsh judgments. How many of us today with all our advantages of the news we get from all corners are wholly liberated from the smallness of our worlds?

We also see a remarkable transformation of A.O. Hume. In 1858 as the district officer in Etawah, he was responsible for crushing the revolt. By 1885, he was instrumental in launching the Indian National Congress, and became its first president. How was it that his bona fides were not suspected by other nationalists? Also, is the question whether it is only foreigners who can instil patriotism among Indians relevant? Your answer to this is that rather than foreigners, it is non-Indians who brought Indians together, and that we need to detach from alien viewpoint. Could you elaborate?

Hume was born a Scot but in course of time he managed to acquire a very Indian heart. Even while suppressing the revolt in his area (Etawah) he was a young officer at the time he displayed a sense of justice that was lacking in other white civilians.

The other nationalists who later collaborated with Hume in starting the INC were stirred by Hume's concern for India and by his exertions to create a linked community of Indian intellectuals from north to south and east to west. He was doing what they would have loved to do, so they joined him. His being a non-Indian may have helped Hume to appreciate the numerous and varied Indian viewpoints, but we certainly do not need to become denationalised in order to find this empathy for all fellow Indians.

You said that the 1857 Revolt was inspiring, but a flawed attempt, that many Indian Christians were also killed, and that Hindu-Muslim unity was not based on strong and sound foundations. Do you see yourself as a revisionist historian who questions the general inclination to seek inspiration from the mutiny to bolster communal harmony?

I do not seek a label. Nor do I seek to correct others. My only desire is to be read and my hope is that others too will be interested in what gripped me. As for the fact that many Indian Christians were killed by Hindus and Muslims during the 1857 Revolt, it is only right to acknowledge that as a flaw. I think it should be possible to welcome the Hindu-Muslim partnership of 1857 without condoning the mistakes, which included the killing of Christians.

You have chosen to characterise 1857 as a revolt, or rebellion, rather than as a war of independence. But with reference to the American context you have also chosen to use the expressions revolt and Civil War. Indian historiography on 1857 has often had to grapple with the issue of characterisation. Can you explain your choice of these expressions? Did the historiography of the American Civil War, too, suffer from the issue of characterisation of the event?

The sepoys and some Indian princes led the Indian Revolt in 1857. The revolt in the American Civil War was led by the southern states that rebelled against Lincoln and the Union. Hence, the study is of two revolts, both of which failed. The chief problem in the historiography of the Civil War is the need to separate the struggle to preserve the Union from the struggle to abolish slavery.

The Civil War was produced by both impulses, and also by opposite impulses to break the Union and preserve slavery. But not everyone in the U.S. shared the two aims (or counter-aims) in equal degree.

Lincoln too had his dilemmas on this score but with time he found a single passion to both end slavery and keep the Union.

Why did the only journalist who covered both the revolts William Howard Russell of The Times of London not meet your five prominent Indians? You mention that he came close to meeting Phule, but there is no record of their meeting. Did Russell consider them not influential enough? According to you, if journalism is history written in a hurry, Russell's reports show that history is journalism savoured at leisure. Can you compare Russell's reports with today's reportage? Have they changed for the better? During the Indian Revolt, you mention that Russell was opposed to violence, but in favour of looting of property. Are they not inconsistent attributes?

In 1858, when Russell was in India, he probably did not know of the future importance of the five. This is where a historian is more fortunate than a reporter! Not being aware of their significance, Russell did not make the effort to find them. Russell painted incredibly detailed pictures with his reporting he needed to, for newspapers of his time were yet to print pictures. He was also remarkable for his sympathy for Indians.

Above all, he wrote superbly, and as truthfully as he could, and at great speed. Looting a defeated army or the wealth of defeated rebels was not illegal under British laws at the time, which is why Russell (half-heartedly) defended the practice.

During the discussion on your book, you made a passing reference to the ongoing violence between Maoists and the Indian state. The Indian Revolt, you said, was a deception and characterised by sheer vengeance, and that it was not a straight fight. The participants in the revolt believed that it was right to take the blood of innocents. From the British side, there was ruthless suppression of the revolt. You also said that in the U.S., Lincoln found a humane answer, without ruling out the use of force. What lessons can the Indian state, the Maoists and civil society draw from your book?

This is a very tough question. Lincoln never ran away from a ruler's responsibility, but neither did he ever forget the humanness of the ruled individual. A cruel Maoist whom the state must punish is also, in another part of him or her, a human being, and the poor tribal or peasant in whose name the Maoist fights certainly merits the attention of an oft-indifferent state and an oft-indifferent middle class. I did not write the book to provide lessons, but the Indian state and the Indian public (including the Maoists) can only profit from knowing how Lincoln addressed hard issues involving the security of a state and the self-respect of humiliated individuals.

The influence of the 1857 Revolt on India's subsequent history has been written about extensively. How did the American Civil War, if at all it did, shape India's future?

I believe it affected India's story in the following ways. One, it helped some Indians (not enough, sadly) to reflect on slavery's great and tragic counterpart in India: untouchability. Two, it engendered a strong desire in some (again, not enough) for India's unity and integrity. Three, taking attention away from Europe, the Civil War established the United States in some 19th-century Indian minds as a country to study and follow.

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