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Incorrect Teleology

incorrect Teleology Kaushik Roy the supremacy of the white men would be shaken if the Indian soldiers were deployed in Crimea to fight an army consisting of white men. Again, on page 21, Habib says that over 1,20,000 soldiers revolted out of The volume under review edited by the Communist Party of India (Marxist)

BOOK REVIEWEconomic & Political Weekly EPW september 27, 200839Incorrect TeleologyKaushik RoyThe Great Revolt: A Left Appraisal edited by Sitaram Yechury;People’s Democracy Publication, New Delhi, 2008; pp xxiv+304, Rs 300 (paperback).The volume under review edited by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) – CPI(M) politburo member Sitaram Yechury is not an academic work but has a definite political slant. The principal aim of this volume, Yechury writes, is to fight the communal forces represented by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Yechury continues that the anti- colonial struggle represented Hindu-Muslim unity and this unity was reflected at its best during the 1857 uprising. After crushing the uprising, the British played the “divide and rule” game and that thecommunal tendencies are further fuelled by the chauvinist Hindu outlook of the BJP, he says. Pre-colonial India was evolving a syncretic culture based on Hindu-Muslim unity and the British de-liberately destroyed this culture after suppressing the 1857 uprising, he men-tions. At present, if India has to become a powerful nation, it has to do away with narrow sectarian outlook of the BJP (a legacy of the British raj’s divisive policy) and has to pick up the threads of syncre-tism under the leadership of the Left par-ties, so goes his understanding. To this reviewer, the necessity of Hindu-Muslim unity in the present circumstances and to trace its roots back to pre-colonial India is an example of wrong teleology. Blaming the British for all the ills of pre-1947 south Asia (it is doubtful if there was an India then), is methodologically nothing new but a continuation of the nationalist historiography. Further, to blame communalism only on the British and then theBJP is ahistorical. Yechury tells us that about half a century ago, rather than historians, great communist intellectuals like E M S Namboodiripad, B T Ranadive, Ajoy Ghosh and P C Joshi laid down the frameworks for historical inquiry. And historians even today are operating within the framework laid down by those communists. Yechury’s assertion has some truth as regards Joshi. However, the other three communists are not taken seriously by the historians. Again, during the 100th anniversary of the 1857 uprising, historians like R C Majumdar and Surendranath Sen did pioneering work. Further, Yechury isunawareofthe works done by historians likeGautam Bhadra and Tapti Roy in the 1980s and the 1990s, which emphasise the popular dimension of the 1857 uprising. The editor informs us that the objec-tive of the volume is to bring out hitherto unknown aspects of the uprising. This volume has 36 articles by politicians (like Jyoti Basu), Marxist economists (like Prabhat Patnaik and Utsa Patnaik) and leftist historians (like Irfan Habib, S Moosvi, and others). The editor tells us that these articles were originally pub-lished inPeople’s Democracy, the weekly newspaper of theCPI(M). Most of the articles have no endnotes or footnotes. Some of the essays have very skimpy references to the sources. Due to con-straint of space, we can discuss only some of the important contributors.Habib’s ContributionIrfan Habib, in his essay rightly points out the importance of the sepoy army for ana-lysing 1857. Since Eric Stokes (in his last unfinished work), he is the only historian to note the central plank occupied by the sepoys and sowars as the 1857 uprising unfolded. Whether one accepts the British-Indian empire as an oppressive centralised bureaucratic machine or as a hollow struc-ture with limited reach, one thing is certain. When the sepoy army, the raj’s ultimate line of defence disintegrated, all hell broke loose for the ‘sahibs’. However, Habib has got some of his facts wrong. On page 18, he mentions that in 1854, contingents of the Bengal army was sent to Crimea to fight the Russians. Actually, not a single sepoy or sowar was sent to Crimea. The reason was that the British were afraid that the image created about the supremacy of the white men would be shaken if the Indian soldiers were deployed in Crimea to fight an army consisting of white men. Again, on page 21, Habibsays that over 1,20,000 soldiers revolted out of a grand total of 1,35,000. Actually, the strength of the Bengal army was 2,13,000 and of them 70,000 rebelled, 30,000 went home and sat tight during the rebellion and 20,000 were fence sitters. Of these fence sitters, some joined the rebels under duress and the rest joined the raj when the military balance shifted in favour of the British after the fall of Delhi in September 1857. The objective is not tonitpick at Habib’s essay but to show that documentary evidence is important before making assertions about the scope and strength of the rebellion. Finally, Habib says that due to continuous deploy-ments during the first decade of the 19th century, the Bengal army was tired and this was a factor behind their rebellion. Any campaign list would show that the British army and the French army were more frequently and intensely deployed than the Bengal army. Then, why those two metropolitan armies did not rebel during the mid-19th century? One disturbing feature of the under-standing of 1857 which emerges from most of the essays of the volume under review is that the uprising was not con-fined to north India but extended from the Himalayas in the north up to Cape Comorin in the south and from Assam in the east up to Sindh in the west. Again, the architects of the 1857 upheaval was not only the high castes from north India but lower castes, women, tribals, etc, who joined the anti-colonial rebellion spontaneously. This trend is also evident in the papers presented in the various seminars organised under the auspices of ICHR at different parts of India in 2007. And many contributors of those seminars have also contributed papers in Yechury’s edited volume.Sikhs and 1857K C Yadav’s essay in this edited volume argues that the perception that the Sikhs were loyal to the British regime is erroneous and the East India Company had great difficulties in recruiting the Sikhs. In fact, Yadav mentions that there were
BOOK REVIEWseptember 27, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly40several Sikh uprisings in various parts of Punjab. Only some of the princely Sikh states remained loyal to the alien regime. And this shows that contrary to the dominant historiographical view, the people of Punjab also participated in the 1857 uprising.Yadav does not provide any sources for his claims. The Punjab Irregular Force (PIF) recruited the Sikhs of central Punjab (Manjha and Malwa regions) and pathans from Indus region. Not only did these per-sonnel remain loyal but during May and September 1857, the size of the PIF rose from 15,000 to approximately 24,000. John Lawrence, the chief commissioner of Punjab, also took the step of recruiting 30,000 Sikhs and pathans in place of the purbiyas (brahmins and rajputs of north India who had rebelled) in the Bengal army. The PIF and the newly organised Bengal army were to a large extent re-sponsible for recapturing Delhi from the “rebels”. In June 1857, Lawrence took the decision to send most of the British troops deployed in Punjab to north India in order to re-establish the colonial order. In the absence of the British troops, Lawrence recruited the tribal ‘maliks’ of theIndusregion and the zamindars of central Punjab with their retainers in the irregular force and in the military police. When the British troops were engaged in a life and death struggle against the purbi-yas in Delhi and in Lucknow, the Sikh and pathan irregular force remained loyal to the colonial regime. It is to be noted that between May 1857 and September 1858, the British recruited about 1,42,000 Indians in the army and in the military police. And of these recruits, 82,000 came from Punjab. Many of these recruits were the demobilised ex-Dal Khalsa soldiers. The detailed lists in the military department proceedings and in the foreign department proceedings avail-able in the National Archives of India show that most of these recruits were not mobi-lised from the princely states. The private papers of Lawrence and other British gen-erals available in the India Office Records, British Library, tell us that the British ruling class realised that without spontaneous recruitment from Punjab, the East India Company would never have been able to suppress the mutineers. Except some localised minor disturbances, there was no large-scale anti-colonial uprising along the Indus frontier and in Punjab. In Punjab and along the Indus frontier, 12,000 purbiyas who were deployed rebelled. However, with the aid of local support, the British easily decimated them. Civil War among IndiansThe Punjab and the PIF were not the only ones who remained loyal. There were no large-scale uprising against the British in the Bombay and Madras presidencies. Both the Bombay and the Madras armies (each numbering about 40,000 Indian soldiers) remained loyal and actively sup-ported the British against the purbiyas. Those who argue that the 1857 uprising was a pan-Indian anti-colonial movement which comprised all castes and classes, have to tackle the question how come 150 million Indians were defeated by a small number of British soldiers. We are told that contrary to the estab-lished opinion, the 1857 uprising also touched Bengal and north-east India. The late Basudeb Chattopadhyay in numerous seminars had declared that voluminous archival documents exist in the West Bengal State Archives (hereafterWBSA), Calcutta, which show that a massive up-rising occurred in Bengal during 1857 and 1858. However, he did not provide any source. In his essay included in this volume, Chattopadhyay repeats his claim without giving an iota of empirical evidence. From his essay what comes out is that rumours were floating among the white community that the ‘pandies’ were coming. However, the British did not anticipate any uprising among the inhabitants of Bengal. Rumour about the probable coming of the pandies in Calcutta and consequent anxiety among the British civilians in the metropolitan city had already been charted in detail by John Kaye and also by C E Buckland in hisBengal under the Lieutenant-Governors (1901). Again, this reviewer has seen some of the files in theWBSA. They deal with mobilisation of the police and ‘sebundies’ in the countryside and in Calcutta for meeting the probable inva-sion of the pandies from upper India. It is one thing to say that Bengal was rocked by an uprising during 1857 and another thing to show that the British were wrecked by anxiety about the probability of an invasion by the outsiders (pandies) in Bengal. I am not sure what new infor-mation and interpretation Chattopadhyay is offering us.Similarly David R Syiemlieh’s essay in this edited volume shows that there was no uprising by the inhabitants of north-east India against the British. Besides the machinations of a disgruntled princely state official (Maniram Dewan), the muti-ny by two purbiya regiments stationed in the Bengal presidency posed the greatest threat to the colonial regime. The British directed military police (again consisting of Indians) with the local support of the Nagas and the Manipuris were able to hunt down the rebel purbiyas. Besides Habib’s essay, the three excep-tional essays are by Iqtidar Alam Khan, Shireen Moosvi and Shashank Sinha. Khan’s masterly piece shows that 1857 was no jihad directed by the fanatical Wahabis. Email:

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