ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

Comparing Conflict

Discussion Comparing Conflict The Indian War of 1857 and Civil Wars in Europe This article responds to


Comparing Conflict

The Indian War of 1857 and Civil Wars in Europe

This article responds to ‘The Beginning of ‘People’s War’ in India’ (May 12) and examines the possibilities and problems of analysing wars and conflicts by analogies with other such wars in different historical and cultural contexts. Too easy an analogy may lead to a “telescoped historical perspective”.


aushik Roy’s interesting article ‘The Beginning of ‘People’s War’ in India’ (May 12), draws an extended analogy with the civil war of 1861-65 in the United States (US) and suggests that the two conflicts (together with the Franco-Prussian war of 1871) represented a newly emergent form of warfare that he dubs “people’s war”. In this he follows various American scholars, who contrast the two European wars with 18th century (and for reasons unexplained exclusively 18th century) conflicts that preceded them. Unfortunately, the theory holds good only on the basis of this curiously telescoped historical perspective, since it is in many ways the European wars of the 18th century that are exceptional in their lack of ideological motivation and the various other contingent features emphasised by Roy (and his sources). The theory is very much less convincing as soon as one expands the historical perspective to include the highly ideological and frequently very brutal conflicts that characterised the previous two centuries – the French “Wars of Religion” (1562-1598), the “Thirty Years War” in Germany (1620-1650) or the “English Civil War” (1642-1660).

The sort of telescoped perspective employed, or rather accepted by Roy, is not untypical of historiography in the US and the causes and motives are not hard to find. Even serious scholars in the US have a tendency to locate “the beginning of history” in the mid-18th century (contemporaneous that is with the formation of the US itself) and use this not infrequently as a strategy for giving events in North American history a centrality and significance they might not otherwise have. Roy, for his own reasons, has chosen to adopt the same telescoped per spective and to pursue the same strategy with regard to the events of 1857 in India.

There are very good reasons for according the American civil war a prominent place in the history of warfare but they are not those that Roy adduces. The fearsome new importance of “modern” artillery (already prefigured in the Crimea and ruthlessly underlined a decade later in the Franco-Prussian war), the para llel developments of trench-warfare and costly reckless sallies by infantry and cavalry (prefiguring the horrors of the first world war), the first use of barbed wire (prefiguring the concentration camps of the Boer war and the second world war and (perhaps the longest-lasting of all) the increasingly pervasive influence of media coverage (and its subsequent manipulation). All of these features place the American civil war in the context of later 20th century developments not where Roy would wish to locate it in a special (and specially pleaded) category of “people’s war”.

The “innovations” that Roy supposes the American civil war and the “Indian mutiny” of 1857 to evince are, it is true, singularly lacking in 18th century European wars, but these limited territorial wars were not by any means typical of earlier warfare. In 16th and 17th century European wars, virtually all the characteristics, point by point, of Roy’s people’s war can already be discerned. According to Roy, following his US sources, the revolutionary wars in France and in the US at the very end of the 18th century “marked the beginning of ideological wars that reached its apogee in the two world wars of the 20th century”. Yet the religious wars that tore Europe apart in the 16th and 17th centuries had already been such “ideological wars”.

The names given to all these conflicts are purely those that convention and tradition have imposed. The “English civil war”, like the “Mutiny”, has frequently been rebaptised by historians in an attempt to describe it more accurately. The conflict did not only involve England but also raged in Wales (an important source of military recruitment), Scotland (still at that time an entirely separate nation) and Ireland (colonised by the English during medieval times). Did the conflict constitute a rebellion, a civil war or a revolution? The academic arguments rage and will no doubt do so indefinitely because wars, like the humans involved in them, rarely have a single unique identity and the conflict and its aftermath (1642-60) share aspects of all three phenomena (rebellion, civil war and revolution) as well, thinking of Ireland, as others (anti-colonial struggle) that one might reasonably add to the list.

Complex English Civil War

Like the Indian war of 1857, to quote Swarup Gupta’s more nuanced account of the latter, a few pages on from Roy’s in the same edition, the English civil war “was not a simple movement but a complex one…[whose] ideological ramifications and reactions varied across regions” while “within regions too, there were internal shifts and variations”. There is however no doubt about the ideological issues that motivated many, if not all, of its participants, which deepened and developed as the conflict continued. The ideology, or rather those ideologies, were most commonly expressed in religious terms but unavoidably raised constitutional issues and issues of national identity, as well as giving rise to the radically democratic ideas of groups such as the Levellers and the Diggers.

For years after the Restoration (of the British monarchy) in 1660, the “parliamentarianism” of those years (a term which covered the whole range of oppositional ideological positions) continued to be referred to as “The Good Old Cause” precisely in recognition of this all-important ideological component. It was in fact the English civil war that had brought the word “cause” in this new ideological sense into the English language. Unlike

Economic and Political Weekly October 13, 2007

the US civil war but very like the Indian war of 1857 (in Roy’s own words this time), the “military manpower mobilisation” during the English civil war was “minuscule (both in absolute numbers as in percentage terms vis-à-vis the population base)” and, unlike the US civil war but again like the Indian war (still in Roy’s own words), the “participation of marginal groups” was less intense. Nevertheless the conflict ranged, sporadically and intermittently, over the entire British Isles and progressively obviated the normal distinctions between combatants and non-combatants. Communities were shattered with neighbour frequently pitted against neighbour and families divided amongst themselves; women found themselves active combatants on several occasions, typically defending the family house from besieging armies in the absence of their menfolk.

Execution of prisoners of war occurred on several occasions and in Ireland, where the conflict was further complicated not only by bitter differences of religion but also by differences of race and culture, atrocities were commonplace on all sides of the conflict. The exigencies of the war also led to forced billeting of soldiers on the civilian population and looting of the countryside through which the soldiery passed. Such irregularities and atrocities were amplified, as in India in 1857, by the effects of rumour, by the newspapers that flourished freely at this time as never before and by the constant propaganda and pamphleteering in which all parties to the conflict engaged, except the most marginalised and voiceless.

Vast Devastation

The conflict in England, Scotland and Ireland is not exceptional but entirely typical of its time. The religious wars in France had been just as strongly marked by bitter ideological conflict and accompanied by the same brutality, punctuated by similar massacres and atrocities. In terms of the havoc wrought upon the civilian population it is the Thirty Years war in Germany that bears the palm, with complete devastation caused throughout the regions traversed by the various warring armies. Defeat in these conflicts frequently brought punitive retribution for those who had favoured the losing side (whether actively or merely passively). The period in England that follows the Restoration in 1660 is characterised by fierce persecution of religious groups associated with the “rebellion” and, in the colonial context of Ireland, by a renewed repression that would keep the Irish subservient for nearly three centuries.

From almost every point of view (except with regard to the use of the yet-tobe-invented telegraph) the ideological wars of 16th and 17th century Europe resemble the Indian war of 1857 quite as strongly, if not more strongly than either the US civil war or the Franco-Prussian war. Although Roy nominally includes the latter in his suspiciously brief catalogue of people’s wars, he makes virtually no further reference to it for the very good reason that points of comparison with India in 1857 are, in this case, practically non-existent. What one is left with therefore from Roy’s account is the rather perverse conclusion that in all the past history of warfare, the Indian war of 1857 most resembles civil wars, wherever and whenever they occurred.

Nevertheless an analogy could be drawn with an ideological European war even more remote in time, the 13th century crusade against the Albigensians of southwestern France (1209-29). The Albigensian Crusade was not a civil war. The county of Toulouse was invaded by a foreign force (principally French), who spoke a different language, belonged to a different culture and, in many cases at least, professed a different religion. In the 13th century, Toulouse (lying between France and Spain) was an independent territory. The language of the region was Occitan (closer to the northern Spanish language, Catalan, than to French); the increasingly dominant religion in the region (and the excuse for the crusade), was a distinctive form of Christianity nowadays generally referred to as “Catharism”. Uses and customs of the region regarding landholding and inheritance were largely free from the rigid feudalism that prevailed in northern Europe; a flourishing culture had provided the region with distinctive forms of literature, poetry and music. Although the defenders of Occitania (an entity that never as such existed except in the hearts of its people) were often divided in their allegiance, giving the conflict some semblance of a civil war, the element of unsympathetic alien invasion was crucial to its nature and determinant in the manner in which it was carried out.

Even more than later ideological wars, the Albigensian Crusade was distinguished by its extreme brutality, the full force of which fell upon combatants and noncombatants alike. The entire town of Béziers, one of the largest in the region, was put to the sword; the invading armies laid waste systematically to the countryside around the towns they were besieging; there were fre quent punitive executions of prisoners and even mutilation of captured civilians to serve as a warning to those who still resi sted. Those convicted of religious heresy were burned alive. Local landowners who joined the resistance were dispossessed and their lands confiscated by the invaders.

The aftermath of the crusade was in many respects harsher than India was to experience after 1857. In Occitania, the loss of territorial and political independence proved permanent and irreversible. The crusade was the occasion of the founding in 1229 of the Inquisition (the modern police-state in embryo) and the religion of the Cathars was totally extirpated as a result of the meticulous process of investigation, repression, torture and punishment that extended over a hundred years. A culture is not so easily destroyed but Occitan culture inevitably lost much of its distinctive voice by losing the wider social and political structure that had supported it. The attempts to marginalise the Occitan language, continuing right up to the present century, weakened it fatally but did not succeed in entirely destroying it. Ironically its greatest decline has been in our own century of mobility, tourism and global communications.

Every conflict is sui generis, its form determined by the particular conjuncture of events, the particular nature of the oppo sing forces and the particular nature of their relationship to the region where the war is fought. Attempting to understand conflicts by analogy is of doubtful value, and the wider one casts one’s eye, the more one is disinclined to give significance to superficial similarities. Ideological wars have existed since at least the time of the crusades and all ideological wars by their very nature share certain qualities. They all feature a blurring of the distinction between combatants; they all tend to mobilise (voluntarily or involuntarily) the ordinary inhabitants of the regions where they are fought. They all make use of rumour expanded, as far as the available technology allows, into propaganda; they are all fought with brutality and a disregard for traditional military conventions. Where or insofar as they are civil conflicts, they are harsh and brutal enough. When, as in 12th century Occitania, 17th century Ireland or 19th century India, they also involve a clash of two different antagonistic cultures, uncomprehending of each other’s difference, that harshness and brutality characteristically produces otherwise unimaginable massacres and atrocities.


Economic and Political Weekly October 13, 2007

Dear Reader,

To continue reading, become a subscriber.

Explore our attractive subscription offers.

Click here

Back to Top