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Historians and Historiography

The many interpretations of the events of 1857 since the 150 years of its occurrence need to be seen in their historiographical context. This explains the narrow religious focus that contemporary observers bestowed on it as well as the nationalist aspirations that were seen to characterise 1857, as historians in the years immediately following independence in 1947 sought to establish. The important presence of 1857 in the creation of an Indian history and identity explains the many "myths" traced to it by various communities and groups, as well as the abiding interest of historians in the various facets of that special event. These are all aspects of 1857 that this special issue seeks to explore.

1857: Introduction

Historians and Historiography Situating 1857

The many interpretations of the events of 1857 since the 150 years of its occurrence need to be seen in their historiographical context. This explains the narrow religious focus that contemporary observers bestowed on it as well as the nationalist aspirations that were seen to characterise 1857, as historians in the years immediately following independence in 1947 sought to establish. The important presence of 1857 in the creation of an Indian history and identity explains the many “myths” traced to it by various communities and groups, as well as the abiding interest of historians in the various facets of that special event. These are all aspects of 1857 that this special issue seeks to explore.


he “Sepoy Mutiny” (from hereon the mutiny) – as seen by imperialist officials and writers initially – not only challenged colonialism, but also forced it to devise ways of reorienting itself to face a future shrouded with uncertainties and challenges.1 Those who focused on the “mutiny” theme projected it as the work 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 either from the fat of cattle or pigs had serious implications. Thus, whereas cows were considered “sacred” by the Hindus, the Muslims considered pigs to be “polluting”. This created strong animosities and was located as an attack on Hindu and Muslim religious beliefs.2

A Historiographical Survey

Contemporary official thinking was deeply affected by the idea of the Rebellion (hereon the rebellion) being located as a “Muslim conspiracy”. Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-1898) wrote a tract to counter this allegation, wherein he sought to examine the features that determined the nature of 1857.3 Of course, contemporary writings generated political hysteria and racism. Some “eyewitness” accounts in fact inscribed inventions such as the rape of white women during the mutiny4 that reinforced the image of the “barbaric Indian”.

Contemporary newspapers in England were condemnatory towards 1857. Nevertheless, there was a section of English opinion that supported the 1857 movement (to indicate the wider notions of the events of 1857 that went beyond a mutiny or a rebellion and hereafter, the 1857 movement). One can refer to Chartists such as Ernest Jones who hailed the rebellion.5 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 1857.6 Moreover, both Marx and Engels hailed the unity displayed by the Hindus and Muslims who opposed British colonialism during the rebellion.7

By the end of the 19th century, the rebellion attracted and inspired the first generation of the Indian nationalists. In fact, with the development of Indian nationalism, 1857 and the events that occurred as part of the rebellion were soon incorporated and appropriated as a part of nationalist imagery. Thus, V D Savarkar, who was perhaps the first Indian to write about 1857 in 1909, called it the “Indian War of Independence”. His pro-nationalist stance made Savarkar look with contempt and reject the British assertion that attributed the “war” to the greased cartridges. As he put it, if this had been the issue it would be difficult to explain how it could attract Nana Sahib, the Mughal Emperor in Delhi, the rani of Jhansi and Khan Bahadur Khan to join in. Besides, Savarkar harped on the fact that the 1857 movement continued even after the British governor general issued a proclamation to withdraw the offending greased cartridges. Savarkar went ahead and connected the rebellion to the “atrocities” committed by the British.8 This factor of unity about 1857 – that it cut across religious boundaries – makes Savarkar’s argument particularly striking, especially since it goes against the subsequent shift in his position that made him see the Hindu-Muslim divide as the most important component in Indian history.

With the development of the working class movement in India, efforts were made to analyse 1857 from a Marxist position by M N Roy and Rajni Palme Dutt. Roy was dismissive about 1857 and saw in its failure the shattering of the last vestiges of feudal power. He was emphatic about the “revolution of 1857” being a struggle between the worn-out feudal system and the newly introduced commercial capitalism, that sought to achieve political supremacy over the former.9 Palme Dutt also saw 1857 as a major peasant revolt, even though it was led by the decaying feudal forces, fighting to get back their privileges and turn back the tide of foreign domination.10 Consequently, one witnesses the beginnings of a process that interrogated and critiqued the internal feudal order, even while being appreciative of the popular basis of the rebellion.

The access to sources after independence saw interesting developments relating to the debate about the nature of 1857. What developed was a rather sophisticated nationalist historiography that emphasised the complexities of the 1857 movement.

Economic and Political Weekly May 12, 2007

It included nationalist historians like R C Majumdar, S B Chaudhuri, S N Sen, and K K Datta, who were not uniformly comfortable with the idea that 1857 was the “First War of Indian Independence”. At the same time one needs to note that S N Sen’s work was sponsored by the state. Consequently, his authoritative “official” postcolonial account of 1857 obviously had a clear agenda – of celebrating Indian nationalism. In fact, the spirit of the Indian national movement influenced these historians. This meant that some of them referred to ideas like nationalism that were supposedly witnessed during the rebellion or saw the very inception of the national movement in the 1857 movement. Nevertheless, they went beyond the simple categorisations that had seen two dominant and opposing narratives – one that lauded the British as the victors who had “won” the war and on the other, the claims of the “rebellious Indians”, who had been “defeated”.

This meant a shift in focus, with efforts being made to locate the internal contradictions (viz, the Indian “rich”, which included the moneylenders and ‘buniyas’) and the popular basis of 1857 and not concentrate merely on the influential classes that hitherto had been the focus of contemporary British officials, or statesmen like Benjamin Disraeli. It is here that nationalist historiography worked on and developed the legacy of the Marxists, even as some nationalist historians inscribed their disapproval of seeing it as the “First War of Independence”. Further, the nationalist historians accorded a space – howsoever limited – to the popular basis of the 1857 movement.11 They highlighted the “mutiny” component of 1857 that shifted and soon assumed the nature of a “civil rebellion”. Consequently, nationalist historiography most certainly opened up new possibilities.

Nationalism and 1857

With the passage of time the development of other historical approaches generated a lot of debate on 1857 among historians. The first exhaustive work on the rebellion was published in 1957 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the event. Edited by P C Joshi, it focused on both the diversities and the specificities of the 1857 movement.12 This included assessing 1857 against the colonial backdrop, examining aspects of participation and focusing on its internal contradictions. This volume also sought to highlight dimensions of popular culture by incorporating folk poems that have survived.

In many ways, this work inspired a serious spell of writings on the rebellion. Scholars examined the background that conditioned 1857.13 Here one can refer to Eric Stokes who wrote two books that focused on the revolt. His research and the sources used by him made him shift some of his earlier positions.14 He began by articulating the elitist nature of the revolt since it had been led by dominant castes and communities, and attributed the 1857 to caste mobilisation.15 Stokes developed his arguments in his next work where he did away with his initial idea that had provided centrality to caste. Consequently, this work went beyond caste and took into account inter and intra-regional variations while examining the nature of 1857. Interestingly, Stokes went beyond strictly economic explanations and wove in factors like ecology, culture and mentalities. This implied that Stokes shifted his focus to the common people and moved towards forms of popular protest seen during the the 1857 movement. In fact, the very title of this book marked a shift in the way Stokes located 1857 as a peasant revolt.16

However, it was left to historians such as Rudrangshu Mukherjee and Tapati Roy who took up specific area studies that brought to light fascinating complexities of popular militancy that had remained ignored thus far.17 It was Rudrangshu Mukherjee who pioneered the attempt to uncover the dimension of popular peasant protest.18 He examined the linkages between the talukdars and the peasants. While doing this, he focused on the leadership of the talukdars in the Awadh region and emphasised that the real strength of the talukdars’ resistance and the 1857 movement was based on the general support of the peasantry and the people in the countryside. He explained this by referring to the agrarian relations in the region, which was marked by an inter-dependence of the talukdars and the peasants. He also referred to the wide scale peasant base of the revolt in the region.

In his effort to explore the popular basis of the movement, where the people of Awadh fought the British, Mukherjee mentioned the number of ordinary and common weapons that were recovered, including firearms from ordinary peasants. On the basis of these sources he contested the dominant picture provided by “mutiny” literature about the nature of “magnate leadership”. As Mukherjee put it, the peasants did not play a mere rear-guard, subaltern role. In fact, the peasants were on the side of the rebellion in areas where the talukdars remained loyal to the British. This perhaps illustrates that the rebellion was not always elitist in character and that in Awadh it had a mass, popular base.

Mukherjee stressed the participation and initiatives of the peasantry in the rebellion which had a clear sipahi component. As explained, the sipahis were peasants in uniform. Trying to explain the motives of the peasants that created the basis of popular protest, Mukherjee mentioned the removal of the talukdars in the new system of agrarian settlements imposed by the British and the problems posed by the new revenue demands, which caused insecurities and anxieties. These were reinforced by the removal of the nawab (Wajid Ali Shah) and the range of fears about religion and caste, together with the imposition of British rule that created fears and anger among the entire agrarian population. It led to apprehensions about the collapse of the traditional order of inter-dependence between the ruler and the peasants and issues related to the moral economy of the peasant.

However, as clarified, the link with the talukdar did not impose a subordinate position for the peasants, who actually played a decisive influence on many occasions. In fact, whereas the talukdars could and did manage to get pardoned, the sipahis and the peasants who rebelled faced the certain risk of being “massacred” in case they surrendered. These features determined the nature of the 1857 rebellion in Awadh, where the opposition to the alien order of the British was universal and assumed the form of a peoples’ resistance.

Tapati Roy explored the popular world of the countryside in the Bundelkhand region and its relationship with the 1857 rebellion.19 Thus, the rebellion began by targeting government officials, bankers and mahajans and the burning of official papers and the “‘plundering’ of neighbouring towns. As emphasised, these symbolised some kind of a selective targeting and the driving out of all visible forms of British power with which the peasants had interacted. As argued, these reflected the more negative forms of political assertion which marked the most obvious and widespread form of rural ‘jacqueries’.20 This perhaps accounted for the involvement of a large number of people, sometimes as many as three to four thousand men of different

EPW owes the publication of this special collection on 1857 to the suggestions and efforts of Dipesh Chakrabarty, Indivar Kamtekar and Biswamoy Pati. To all of them our gratitude. –Editor

Economic and Political Weekly May 12, 2007 areas (viz, Johurpur, Bainda, Simree and Wasilpur) who had assembled at Tindwaree on June 11, 1857.

Roy located a shift after the initial phase of the rebellion in Bundelkhand. Thus, after the anger of the common people was directed against those associated with the colonial power, it moved against those they identified with the internal order of exploitation. This included the auction-purchasers, decreeholders, merchants and bankers. These were the people who were responsible for the disruption and the disorder that set in with the advent of colonialism that affected the common people.21 As mentioned, after taking over the urban centres the sipahis began their “attacks” on the affluent people. After they left, people from the countryside continued to be involved with this trend, on occasions along with the zamindars. Roy located this as a symbolic way of displaying power by challenging the contested order.

While mentioning the intensity of the counter-insurgency operations, Roy wove in the large-scale desertions of people from their villages in an attempt to explain the intensity of popular participation. Besides, she highlighted the way the zamindars and peasants set up their own zones and made some rebel leaders, including some from outside their areas, head them. She emphasised the unity between the peasants and the landed sections against the British who were seen as the common enemy and some sections associated with colonialism. In fact, as suggested, an analysis of the enquiries that were conducted postrebellion to punish the “offenders” can establish, among other things, the level of mass participation. She illustrated this aspect by highlighting the participation of the low castes and the marginal people. Roy explained the high level of solidarity and mass participation by referring to the marginality of agricultural production in the Bundelkhand region which actually worked as a leveller among the different sections in the village. This posed acute problems and united the peasants and the landlords who faced impoverishment. It was this factor that united diverse sections in the countryside and both shaped and expressed rural dissent.

Multiple Narratives of 1857

Over the years historians have also examined other facets of 1857. These relate to the organisation,22 middle level leadership,23 activities in the areas where British authority had been subverted and if it was indeed a restorative rebellion.24 More recently – since the 1990s – historians have focused on the popular dimensions of 1857, including the specificities of the involvement of adivasis,25 low castes and outcastes,26 popular culture27 and questions related to the alternative order that emerged.28 Moreover, scholars working within the paradigms of cultural studies have sought to delineate the way racism emerged as a virtual fall-out of the rebellion. By weaving in the theme of the “rape” of white women during the rebellion, they have focused on the barbaric image of the natives in south Asia.29

Of course, Rajat Ray’s new work explores the popular mentalities of the 1857 rebellion and offers fascinating clues to grasp both its spirit and its collective cosmology.30 As emphasised, the sipahis providing the crucial link between town and country, from where they were recruited. In areas like Bengal and Punjab they failed to ignite the country and the rebellion did not go beyond the cantonments. Race was an integral component of 1857. As pointed out, the rebellion led to sudden reversals in power relations, with the dominated race rising against the white, colonial regime. This was located in terms of Hindus and Muslims jointly asserting their respective religious creeds and not in terms of a nation asserting its independence from colonial rule. This was based in patriotism that was rooted in a spontaneous desire for independence from alien rule. Ray connected this to the people selecting and setting up their kings in some of the storm-centres of the rebellion. This assumed significance in a context wherein the restored chiefs had to accept the position of the sipahi councils which epitomised peoples’ power.

Ray described the alternative order that emerged as one that was curiously republican-democratic and which co-existed with a hierarchical, princely structure. After all, as has been pointed out, the restored feudal chiefships of 1857 were very unlike the old regimes of the 18th century since 1857 had a mass movement behind it. In terms of collective mentality, 1857 marked a “race war” against the white oppressors, who formed the master race. Nevertheless, ideologically this was projected as a struggle between the true religions (viz, Hinduism and Islam) and the false one (viz, Christianity). This did not result due to the efforts to impose the false doctrine of the “trinity”. Instead, it was related to the question of identity of the “Hindus and Muslims of Hindustan” which was threatened by the moral and material aggrandisement of the arrogant imperial power. These features provided the dynamism that gave a new meaning to the reinstated chiefs of the 18th century.

Ray underlined the peculiarity of 1857. Thus, it was a war of races, without being a race war, since the subject race conceived it as a war of religion. It was a religious war that really cannot be located in this way, since the rebellion was not directed at the religion of the master race, but its political domination. It was a patriotic war of Hindu-Muslim brotherhood, which he called the “inchoate social nationality” of Hindustan, but was not a national war. Conceptually, it was rooted in the past, but groped for an alternative to the technologically advanced British rule. In this sense it was not traditional, but was neither modern. The people involved in the 1857 rebellion located it as a “war of the Hindoostanis” to protect their ‘dharma’ and ‘deen’ and to “save the country”. As explained, it did not form a part of the national movement nor can it be seen as the dying “throes of the old order”.

As argued by Ray, the 1857 movement was a patriotic war of the people who expressed their sense of national identity through the brotherhood of the two principal religions of a common land. Ideologically it reflected a foetal national community that was opposed to the civil society, which had outposts in the enclaves of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras. Factors of racial subjugation created a sense of oneness that was, however, untainted by ideas of national sovereignty. The 1857 rebellion could express itself only through the political vocabulary of restoration that the people were accustomed to. It was marked by a disjunction from the past in the way people’s power expressed itself through the sipahi councils. Consequently, even while the rebellion failed to generate a new order it was unrecognisable to the prevailing tradition itself. The white man – and not the rebellion – had turned the world upside down. What was attempted during the rebellion was to turn the world back. However, as articulated by Ray, since the old order had been transformed it could never be restored.

Some Conclusions

As can be seen, the 1857 rebellion was the first anti-colonial mass movement directed against the aggression of imperialist policies demonstrated in course of the first-half of the 19th century. It was the first major armed movement faced by the British in India. It was a political struggle and not based only

Economic and Political Weekly May 12, 2007

on what can be narrowly defined as “economic” factors. Besides shaking the foundations of colonial rule in large parts of northern India, its political fall-out was felt elsewhere, in the sense that it stirred up anti-colonial imagination.

Some nationalist historians like S B Chaudhuri argue that 1857 had two distinct strands – the military rising and the mass rebellion.31 The problem is that this position does not view historical processes holistically. In fact, it would be difficult to sustain it, if the background of 1857, that is, the popular movements seen against colonialism, is kept in mind. Besides, it needs to be stressed that the sipahi provided the crucial link between these two components, given his close proximity both to the peasantry and the countryside. This issue can be resolved in a serious manner in case more research is directed towards local studies that explore popular participation and protest.

A point that needs some elaboration is the emphasis given to the religious angle and the so-called “clash of cultures” during the rebellion. Strangely enough, echoes of this are heard even today that un-historically connect 1857 – where we encounter references to terms such as ‘jehad’, ‘jehadis’, etc – to September 11, 2001 (more popularly called 9/11).32 It is perhaps here that one needs to examine the role of the Wahabis, who have been located mono-dimensionally as opponents of the British.33 In fact, in a recent unpublished paper Iqtidar Alam Khan has shown that many of the people clubbed together as Wahabis included Sufis. Secondly, he has demonstrated the complexities involved in the interactions between the Wahabis and the British over the firsthalf of the 19th century, which oscillated between collaboration and confrontation and was not based on opposition alone. Finally, Khan shows how the meaning of jehad – viz, “religious war”

– has been misunderstood, since in the context of the rebellion it meant a “just war” against imperialism, which included non-Muslims.34

Talking of popular participation, historians like Ranajit Guha argue that peasants remained confined to their local boundaries.35 As discussed, Tapati Roy’s work contradicts this assertion. As demonstrated by her, the peasants not only moved to urban centres but also welcomed rebels from outside their immediate areas as their leaders. This feature is also applicable to the adivasi tracts and, in fact, K S Singh has referred to the unity of the tribals and non-tribals.

We have seen how the basic thrust of the 1857 movement was directed against the colonial regime and the sections that emerged after its entry into northern India. Thus, it was not only against the planters and colonial officials, but also the buniyas and moneylenders who represented the internal order of exploitation. Moreover, one needs to bear in mind the world of the adivasis that had a history of major movements prior to 1857. Besides, there is a need to unveil the problems related to the ill-treatment and sexual exploitation of adivasi women, which seem to have links with some of these rebellions.36 Similarly, the overemphasis on sipahis like Mangal Pandey veils the role of the outcastes and low castes in the cantonments as well as outside.

Very recently a spell of research has been undertaken to focus on hitherto untouched dimensions under the aegis of the Indian History Congress.37 For example, it has been shown that the colonial remained terrified of the Mughals – even after Bahadur Shah Zafar who was exiled to Rangoon – till as late as the 1880s. As a result, the colonial government feared that their continued presence in north India would serve in delegitimising colonial rule and lead to the rise of anti-colonial sentiments.38 Scholars have also tapped Urdu newspapers that tell us about 1857.39 Similarly, historians have worked on “mutiny narratives” of white women to weave in the way the event was located by the white women.40

Taken together, all these efforts would enable us to bring to light some relatively unknown facets of the 1857 rebellion.

Special Issue

This special issue on 1857 presents to the reader the diverse concerns among historians, social scientists and those associated with cultural studies. The first four articles deal with areas such as the perceptions of the Rebellion; its impact on British society; its influence on aspects of British policy in India as well as its location by the early nationalists, who were charged with Hindu nationalism. Thus, Peter Robb’s ‘A Brief History of an Idea: On the Indian Rebellion of 1857’, focuses on the characterisation of the revolt in an effort to highlight the impact of the rebellion on perceptions and terminology. He situates the rebellion against a broad canvas. This includes a wave of revolts from Europe in 1848 to the Taiping and the Nien movements (both in China) after 1858 in the ex-colonial world, pointing to their failure as a common element. As Robb argues, the Indian uprising mattered greatly because British rule was restored, but would have mattered much more if the British had been thrown out of India. Robb’s contribution emphasises the way 1857 had an impact on the mind more than on the “material world”, and in this sense directs our attention to an area that is normally ignored.

Michael H Fisher’s ‘The Multiple Meanings of 1857 for Indians in Britain’, points to the diversities as well as the shifts associated with 1857 that had an influence on the way in which Indians within British society related themselves to 1857. At the same time, Fischer notes certain specificites that involved shifts and changes in the attitudes of British women towards Indians over the 1850s, during the rebellion and after it ended.

Anu Kumar’s ‘New Lamps for Old: Colonial Experiments with Vernacular Education, pre and post 1857’, focuses on the vital subject of colonial educational policy. Kumar delineates some of the issues and experiments associated with the colonial educational interventions prior to 1857. As elaborated, the imprints of 1857 left their mark on this sector, which was decisively affected by it.

Jyotirmaya Sharma’s, ‘History as Revenge and Retaliation: Rereading Savarkar’s The War of Independence of 1857’, while analysing Savarkar’s position on the Rebellion, highlights the importance of looking at the range of his writings and his world view holistically. For Savarkar the most important aspect involved having an “enemy”. In this sense, his work is charged with aggressive Hindu nationalism. As Sharma puts it, the celebratory descriptions of the massacres of the British in India introduced a new vocabulary into Indian politics. In fact, we can perhaps add that in many ways it outlined Savarkar’s position about the “future” fate of the Muslims, clearly “otherised” by him.

The next three contributions take up issues related to the aspects of technology and war, including the “sepoy” component, during 1857. Kaushik Roy’s ‘1857: The Beginning of People’s War in India’, examines aspects related to warfare. According to Roy, this underwent a shift from the “limited war” of the 18th century to what he calls a “people’s war” by the mid-19th century. The European wars of the 18th century were of limited liability and fought without any moral or ideological issues. European warfare in the 18th century comprised conflicts between the armies raised, equipped and fed by bureaucratised monarchies. While waging warfare, such armies made clear distinctions between the armed forces and the civilians. However, Roy argues these “were wiped away” in the era of the people’s war from the mid-19th century. Conducted by the people’s armies, citizens became soldiers and the home front was also mobilised to support the war effort. Consequently, the watertight compartmentalisation between the

Economic and Political Weekly May 12, 2007 home front and the battlefront “vanished”. Public opinion was an important component that shaped the conduct of such wars. As Roy feels, the 1857 rebellion contained in it the elements that can be characteristic of a “people’s war”. The English East India Company’s (hereafter EEIC) wars with the indigenous powers between 1770 and 1849 were similar to the European 18th century wars. Kaushik Roy sees a shift in the nature of the combat during 1857, with a lethal increase in the scope, intensity and impact on society, with both sides aiming to eliminate the enemy.

Sabyasachi Dasgupta’s ‘The Rebel Army in 1857: Vanguard of the War of Independence or a Tyranny of Arms’, argues that the mutiny by the sepoys was an act of repudiation against the EEIC and also the traditional ruling class of India. It was an assertion of autonomous power, a force which threatened to sweep away the symbols of colonial power in northern India. It also threatened to alter the traditional power equations in indigenous society. The nature of the outbreak and the rapidly evolving political dynamics during the course of the mutiny represented a severe threat to established hierarchies in indigenous society. The sepoys sought to rapidly carve out an autonomous space for themselves within the power hierarchy. Dasgupta argues that the sepoy assertion was not synonymous with people’s power. The autonomy of the sepoys did not represent the autonomy of the people. Despite their strong links with peasant society, the sepoys possessed a distinct identity and considered themselves to be distinct from indigenous society. Company service which they violently repudiated in 1857 gave them a sense of empowerment. In such a context, they aspired to be the new elite and were ready to take on the old elite and the common peasantry. Dasgupta’s effort takes into account the Bengal sepoy. Though from high castes, they came from a middle farmer background and hardly belonged to the elite of indigenous society.

Then we have three contributions that direct our attention towards the fascinating possibilities that exist in the “margins” that are beginning to attract the attention of social historians negotiating 1857. Three essays take us into the world of the adivasi women, dalits and dalit women. Shashank S Sinha, ‘In Search of Alternative Histories of 1857: Witch-hunts, Adivasis, and the Uprising in Chhotanagpur’ (published in the ‘Commentary’ section of this issue), focuses on a predominantly tribal tract, outside the mainstream belt that was shaken by 1857. Sinha explores the gender angle that has hardly attracted any historian. His exploration draws upon women who were involved in the uprising more as victims than as active participants. Working on a canvas of social history he investigates the “occasioning of perhaps the first mass witch-hunts” among tribal communities of Singhbhum and the Santhal parganas. As argued, these witchhunts formed a conscious contour of resistance that reflect gender and also anti-colonial tensions in the Chhotanagpur tract.

Badri Narayan’s ‘Reactivating the Past: Dalits and Memories of 1857’, explores a relatively new dimension by focusing on the way the dalit communities in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh relate to and identify with the 1857 movement. Their perceptions are reflected in the contemporary representation of their desires, aspirations and identity. As Narayan puts it, for these communities, the histories and heroes associated with 1857 is not merely an issue of academic interest but is also an intimate part of their everyday life in the form of memories of their heroes and deities they worship. Thus, they worship, pray and remember the freedom fighters of 1857 and are inspired by them in their daily struggle against continued social, economic and political exclusion and discrimination.

Charu Gupta’s ‘Dalit Virangas and the Re-invention of 1857’, examines the representations of 1857 revolt in contemporary popular Hindi dalit literature of north India, focusing on the portrayal of dalit heroic women in it. This literature represents the historical consciousness of 1857 in the public memory of the dalits, with the focus no longer on the sepoys or the greased cartridges, but on dalits groaning under foreign oppression. These popular histories are littered with dalit female heroic icons – some constructed, some exaggerated, some discovered – who have become the symbols of bravery for particular dalit castes and ultimately for all dalits. Thus, they symbolise counter-histories of 1857.

Through these, Gupta interrogates both conventional and historical writings on 1857 and mainstream portrayals of dalit women and dalit writings on the subject. She examines ways in which contemporary popular Hindi dalit literature of north India has dealt with the role of dalits in the freedom struggles of the colonial period, particularly the revolt of 1857. Alongside, she focuses on the role and representation of dalit women in it. Gupta interrogates both conventional and historical writings on 1857 as well as mainstream portrayals of dalit women and dalit writings on the subject.

Finally we have a set of papers that look into the world of cultural representations. These range from examining “mutiny novels” and the ideas about nationhood and the way 1857 had an impact on them to the efforts to negotiate the “destabilising” figure of the ‘tawaif’ (courtesan) and read the film Mangal Pandey: The Rising from a post-colonial position. Aishwarya Lakshmi’s ‘The Mutiny Novel: Creating the Domestic Body of the Empire’, focuses on the virtual emergence of a literary genre – often referred to as the “mutiny novels” – as a fall-out of 1857. Mutiny novels began to create the empire as a domestic space. Lakshmi examines two mutiny novels, Meadows Taylor’s Seeta (1872) and Flora A Steel’s On the Face of the Waters (1896), to illustrate that this domestic body of the empire was gendered and deterministic. While noting the shifts and changes from the earlier period, she emphasises the re-alignment and re-reading of the late 19th century “adventure novel” within the post-mutiny domestic ideology and figuration of the empire.

Indrani Sen’s ‘Inscribing the Rani of Jhansi in Colonial ‘Mutiny’ Fiction’ studies the construction of the Rani of Jhansi in four colonial novels written between the 1870s and 1900s, which touch upon the subject of the rani and the theme of the Rebellion of 1857. She probes the diversities of representations and the shifts in these fictional works, varying from licentious to heroic projections. As argued by Sen, the strategic importance of this literary genre and its enormous popularity can be traced to post-‘Mutiny’ insecurities and anxieties and the need to present epic narratives of British heroics and the solidarity of colonisers.

Swarupa Gupta’s ‘1857 and Ideas about Nationhood in Bengal: Nuances and Themes’, points to the uniqueness of the Bengali (regional) representation of an iconic “national” event. As emphasised, in the grounding of nationhood, the location of 1857 in history was crucial. Gupta argues that the urge for progress emphasised the inculcation of a “proper” code of conduct and self-improvement, which found expression in cultural nationalism and the agenda of ‘jatipratishtha’. Thus the national element in the literati’s discourse was couched in a ‘samajik’ and not a religious rhetoric. The utopic and inclusive space of the continually-incorporating ‘samaj’ moved beyond Hindustan toward a ‘Bharatbarsha’, transcending and marginalising the localised nature of the revolt. Though there were inherent limitations (such as contextual dilution of the all-India Hindu-Muslim unity) in such conceptualisations, the discourse has left legacies for contemporary representations of 1857 as a symbol and well-spring of nationhood.

Lata Singh’s ‘Visibilising the ‘Other’ in History: Courtesans and 1857 Revolt’ (also published in the ‘Commentary’ section of this issue) brings to life the performing community of courtesans.

Economic and Political Weekly May 12, 2007

As she argues, they acquire in their ordinariness and everydayness a stereotypical image. Thus ‘tawaif’, the term used for the courtesan has value-loaded connotations and is often equated to a whore, marginalising these women performers into silence. When they did speak, they had to reinvent themselves through polite myths to reinforce their self-esteem. By negotiating the courtesan through a play Azizun Nisa San Sattavan Ka Kissa (‘A courtesan and 1857 Revolt’) written by the contemporary playwright Tripurari Sharma, Singh touches upon a dimension that has been left untouched by social historians and feminist scholars. Sharma’s play attempts to rewrite dominant versions of historical truth and relocate and establish the “loose” subjects of colonial history to their rightful roles in the anti-colonial struggles too. As Singh puts it, what makes the play particularly significant is not just retrieving the courtesans who were denied agency or a presence by the colonialist project of mis-representations, but also to bring them back into the creative domain. And Rochona Majumdar and Dipesh Chakrabarty’s paper, ‘Mangal Pandey: Film and History’, engages in a theoretical discussion weaving in reel life and history. It explores the diversities and pluralities associated with a postcolonial ‘reading’ of the film Mangal Pandey: The Rising.




1 In fact, the taking over of India by the British Crown in 1858 symbolised this shift.

2 A classic example would be Charles Ball, The History of the IndianMutiny: Giving a Detailed Account of the Sepoy Insurrection in India;and a Concise History of the Great Military Events which have tendedto Consolidate British Empire in Hindostan, London: The London Printing and Publishing Co, 1858-59.

3 See Syed Ahmad Khan, The Causes of the Indian Revolt, Oxford University Press, Karachi, 2000.

4 Although these charges had been investigated after the collapse of 1857, nothing clear seems to have emerged to suggest that such occurrences did take place.

5 Ernest Jones, The Revolt of Hindoostan; or, The New World, Effingham Wilson, Royal Exchange, London, 1857.

6 As Marx put it: “The profound hypocrisy and inherent barbarism ofbourgeois civilisation lies unveiled before our eyes, turning from its home, where it assumes respectable forms, to the colonies, where it goes naked. Did they not, in India, to borrow an expression of that great robber, Lord Clive himself, resort to atrocious extortion, when simple corruption could not keep pace with their rapacity? While they prated in Europe about the inviolable sanctity of the national debt, did they not confiscatein India the dividends of the rajahs, who had invested their private savings in the Company’s own funds?…These are the men of ‘Property, Order, Family, and Religion’.” Karl Marx, The New-York Daily Tribune, July 22, 1853, in Marx and Engels, The First War of Independence, 1857-1859, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 34, 1975.

7 For details see Marx and Engels, The First War. 8 An Indian Nationalist (V D Savarkar), The Indian War of Independenceof 1857, London, 1909. 9 M N Roy with the collaboration of Abani Mukherji, India in Transition, J B Target, Geneva, 1922, 1-2. 10 R P Dutt, India Today, Manisha, Calcutta 1970 (originally published by Victor Golancs, 1940), 195, 306.

11 R C Majumdar, The Sepoy Mutiny and the Revolt of 1857, Firma K L Mukhopadhyay, Calcutta, 1957; S B Chaudhuri, Civil Rebellion in the Indian Mutinies, 1857-59, The World Press, Calcutta, 1957 and Theories of the Indian Mutiny, The World Press, Calcutta, 1965; SNSen, Eighteen Fifty-Seven, Publication Division, New Delhi, 1957; and, K K Datta, Reflections on the Mutiny.

12 P C Joshi ed, 1857: A Symposium, People’s Publishing House, Delhi, 1957.

13 C A Bayly, Rulers, Townsmen and Bazaars: North Indian Society inthe Age of British Expansion, 1770-1870, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1983, Amar Farooqui, ‘From Baiza Bai to Lakshmi Bai: The Scindia State in the Early Nineteenth Century and the Roots of 1857’, in Biswamoy Pati ed, Issues in Modern Indian History: For Sumit Sarkar, Popular Prakashan, Mumbai, 2000.

14 Eric Stokes, Peasant and the Raj: Studies in Peasant Society andAgrarian Rebellion in Colonial India, Vikas, New Delhi, 1978; and his The Peasant Armed: The India Revolt of 1857 (with an editorial note by C A Bayly), Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1986.

15 Stokes, Peasant and the Raj.

16 Stokes, The Peasant Armed.

17 See for example, Rudrangshu Mukherjee, Awadh in Revolt, 1857-58: A Study of Popular Resistance, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1984 and Tapti Roy, The Politics of a Popular Uprising: Bundelkhand in1857, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1994.

18 Based on Mukherjee, Awadh in Revolt, 157-70.

19 Roy, The Politics, 218-47.

20 Jacquerie refers to popular peasant revolts in France; here Roy uses the term to indicate the popular basis of the peasant movements in the Bundelkhand region during the 1857 movement.

21 The auctioneers and decree holders refer to the people who had emergedas landholders through auctioning of land when the owners who held them failed to pay their taxes and the courts were involved in settling disputes by issuing decrees. The anger against the merchants was related to money-lending, with high interest rates.

22 Iqtidar Alam Khan, ‘The Gwalior Contingent in 1857-58: A Study of the Organisation and Ideology of the Sepoy Rebels,’ Social Scientist,

26: 1-4, January-April 1998 (hereafter Social Scientist), 53-75.

23 Gautam Bhadra, ‘Four Rebels of Eighteen Fifty Seven’ in Ranajit Guha, (ed), Subaltern Studies IV, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1985, 22975, he also discussed the Kol participation in the Rebellion; and Saiyid Zaheer Husain Jafri, ‘Profile of a Saintly Rebel – Maulavi Ahmadullah Shah’ in Social Scientist, 39-52.

24 Talmiz Khaldun, ‘The Great Rebellion’ in Joshi ed, 1857, 1-70 and E I Brodkin, ‘The Struggle for Succession: Rebels and Loyalists in the Indian Mutiny of 1857’ in Modern Asian Studies, 1972, 6, 3, 277-290.

25 K S Singh, ‘The ‘Tribals’ and the 1857 Uprising’, Social Scientist, 76-85; one can also cite Shashank Shekhar Sinha, ‘Dynamics of 1857 in a Region: Chhotanagpur Revisited’, proceedings of an Indian Council ofHistorical Research Conference on ‘Historiography of 1857: Debates in the Past and the Present State of Knowledge’, New Delhi, December 9-10, 2006 (unpublished; hereafter ICHR Proceedings).

26 One can cite here Badri Narayan, ‘Dalits and Memories of 1857’, ICHR Proceedings.

27 Badri Narayan, Social Scientist, 86-94.

28 The pioneer here was E I Brodkin, ‘The Struggle for Succession: Rebels and Loyalists in the Indian Mutiny of 1857’, Modern Asian Studies, 6, 3, 277-90, 1972; Iqbal Hussain, ‘The Rebel Administration in Delhi’ and Iqtidar Alam Khan, ‘The Gwalior Contingent in 1857-58: A Study of the Organisation and Ideology of the Sepoy Rebels,’ Social Scientist, 25-38 and 53-75, respectively, also focus on this dimension.

29 Here one can specifically refer to Jenny Sharpe, Allegories of Empire:The Figure of Woman in the Colonial Text, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993 and Nancy Paxton, Writing Under the Raj:Gender, Race and Rape in the British Colonial Imagination, 1830-1947, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1999.

30 Rajat Kanta Ray, The Felt Community: Commonality and Mentalitybefore the Emergence of Indian Nationalism, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2003; see chapter 4, ‘The Mentality of the Mutiny: Conceptions of the Alternative Order in 1857’, especially, 353-60.

31 See for example S B Chaudhuri, Civil Rebellion, 258-59.

32 One has in mind here bestsellers like William Dalrymple, The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty, Viking, New Delhi, 2006, who harpson this theme.

33 K M Ashraf, ‘Muslim Revivalists and the Revolt of 1857’ in P C Joshi, ed, 1857, 71-118, locates the Wahabis in this manner.

34 Iqtidar Alam Khan, ‘The Wahabis in 1857 Revolt: Brief Appraisal oftheir Role’, ICHR Proceedings.

35 Ranajit Guha, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in ColonialIndia, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1983, 308.

36 I have in mind here Shashank S Sinha, ‘Dynamics of 1857 in a Region’,ICHR proceedings, and his piece in this Special Issue of the EPW togetherthrow new light on 1857 in terms of its interactions with the adivasipopulation.

37 In fact, the 67th Session of the Indian History Congress (Calicut, March10-12) had a special session for two days on ‘Indigenous Discourse of1857’; hereafter IHC, Calicut.

38 Amar Farooqui, ‘Sanitising Indigenous Memory: 1857 and MughalExile’, IHC Calicut. 39 Shireen Moosvi, ‘Rallying the Rebels: Exploring the Files of the Delhi Urdu Akhbar’, IHC, Calicut. 40 Preeta Nilesh, ‘Colonial Historiography Revisited: Perceptions of theMemsahib on the “Mutiny” of 1857’, IHC, Calicut.

Economic and Political Weekly May 12, 2007

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