india1857.jpgIf we had a tradition of open threads here, I would just open one here today and ask all of y’all to share your thoughts on the Sepoy Mutiny, a.k.a. Rebellion, a.k.a. First War of Independence, a.k.a. perhaps some other name, depending on your viewpoint and the importance you assign to nomenclature in history. I know shamefully little about this fundamental event in the history of the Indian Subcontinent, and even less about the debates that it has spurred among historians, except that I know that these have been complicated and sometimes heated.

But today marks the official sesquicentennial commemoration of the start of the Mutiny/Rebellion/War, and by way of launching the conversation, I present three different takes that are in the news today. First we have Mani Shankar Aiyar, India’s Minister of Youth Affairs and Sports, who gave the official start to a youth march from Meerut to Delhi a couple of days ago. His remarks to a RediffNews correspondent emphasized the secular nature of the uprising; he observed that India today can learn from the uprising the importance of pluralism, secularism and religious understanding:

The significance of 1857 for today’s youth is that it makes you realise that we all are one people in spite of our diversity.

The freedom-fighters who revolted against the British in 1857 were mostly Hindus in Meerut. After disobeying their British superiors they went straight to the Mughal king, Bahadur Shah Zafar, and made him their king.

They had no ill-feeling for the Mughal king though he was a Muslim. This is the kind of secular bonding these soldiers had in them.

Our young generation must remember that united we stand, and though we are a diverse people we have to maintain our unity. That is what the message of 1857 was to all Indians. …

This is another message that Bahadur Shah Zafar and the freedom-fighters of 1857 wanted to pass on to the future generations. No matter what your religion and region be, respect all religion and maintain harmony. …

We have to remember the fact that India has the second largest Muslim population in the world. We have more Muslims than in Pakistan and Bangladesh but we Indians live together peacefully and I am proud to say all Muslims are my brothers.

Next up is the White Mughal himself, William Dalrymple Saheb. You knew he’d turn up somewhere! In an opinion piece today in the Guardian he argues that 1857 bears lessons for certain other interventions and occupations that Britain might happen to be involved in today. Here’s one of the similarities he points out:

The British progressed from removing threatening Muslim rulers to annexing even the most pliant Islamic states. In February 1856 they marched into Avadh, also known by the British as Oudh. To support the annexation, a “dodgy dossier” was produced before parliament, so full of distortions and exaggerations that one British official who had been involved in the operation described the parliamentary blue book (or paper) on Oudh as “a fiction of official penmanship, [an] Oriental romance” that was refuted “by one simple and obstinate fact”, that the conquered people of Avadh clearly “preferred the slandered regime” of the Nawab “to the grasping but rose-coloured government of the company”.

Dalrymple concludes:

Yet the lessons of 1857 are very clear. No one likes people of a different faith conquering them, or force-feeding them improving ideas at the point of a bayonet. The British in 1857 discovered what the US and Israel are learning now, that nothing so easily radicalises a people against them, or so undermines the moderate aspect of Islam, as aggressive western intrusion in the east. The histories of Islamic fundamentalism and western imperialism have, after all, long been closely and dangerously intertwined. In a curious but very concrete way, the fundamentalists of all three Abrahamic faiths have always needed each other to reinforce each other’s prejudices and hatreds. The venom of one provides the lifeblood of the others.

Before we go too far down that track, here’s a third perspective, from Rudrangshu Mukherjee in the Telegraph:

[I am] surprise[d] at the sudden burst of enthusiasm among historians about the great uprising. There is nothing like a state-sponsored anniversary to stoke the interests of historians in a subject. The adjective, state-sponsored, is used advisedly. In a country with as rich and as diverse a history as India’s, every year is an anniversary of something or the other. In June will come the 250th anniversary of the battle of Plassey. Is the Indian state celebrating that anniversary? The answer is no. The decision to celebrate the revolt of 1857 with some fanfare is based on the conclusion — put forward by some historians and accepted by the government of India — that the rebellion is worth celebrating because it represented India’s first war of independence.

Mukherjee argues that “1857 should be remembered but not commemorated,” because of the extreme violence of both the insurrection and the counter-insurrection.

The events of 1857 churned around a vicious cycle of violence. The rebels killed mercilessly without considerations of gender and age. Witness the massacre on the river in Kanpur where nearly the entire British population was killed in a spectacular show of rebel power. The British killed indiscriminately to punish a population that had transgressed the monopoly of violence that rulers have over the ruled.

He concludes:

Today, as the celebrations begin to mark the 150th anniversary of the rebellion, some questions need to be asked: is 1857 an occasion to celebrate? Can the Indian state uphold the violence that is inextricably linked to that year? Can the Indian state say that it is loyal to the ideals of Mahatma Gandhi, the apostle of non-violence, and in the same breath celebrate 1857 when so many innocent people, on both sides, were brutally killed?

The questions are important because in India, there is no mode of remembering without celebrating. We commemorate to remember, sometimes even to forget. Eighteen fifty-seven is an event to remember, as all events of the past are; it is an event to comprehend and analyse because, as Jawaharlal Nehru wrote, it showed “man at his worst”. That comprehension and analysis is best done outside the aegis of the State.

I present these three perspectives somewhat arbitrarily. I imagine there are many others and I hope people will share them, honest in their opinions and generous with their explanations.

214 thoughts on “1857

  1. soory about that chaps..I did try and link it last week, but It was wiped off, which is why i thought I was not allowed an opinion. In fact almost all of it is sourced from apnaorg.com forum

    Did not intend any of it, apart from the last paragraph to depict my view point, which in short is an agreement with the rest

  2. re #198, Shankar are you still interested, or now so disappoimted you don’t care?

  3. After reading all this discussion I feel like taking a break and mention some poetry linked to the “rising”. I think I read this at the beginning of Savarkar’s book about 1857.

    When Bahadurshah “Zafar” was in prison, a British loyalist said to him: “Damdamiya dam nahi ab khair maango jaan ki aye Zafar thandi hui shamsher Hindustan ki”

    Rough translation: (not sure about the first part of the first line)…The warriors (of India) have lost their courage. O’ Zafar… beg for your life… the sword of Hindustan has turned cold.

    and Bahadurshah replied: “Gaaziyon mein boo rahegi jab talak imaan ki takht’e London tak chalegi teg Hindustan ki”

    Rough translation: So long as there is a whiff of patriotism in the warriors (of India).. the sword of India will reach the British throne.

  4. Likhari if you were around I would have embraced you. all the info you gave is absolutely new inspite of my having read about 50 books not exclusively about the mutiny but giving info about that period. I may add here that it is a totally new idea you gave here that British capitalized upon the feeling of hatred the Sikhs developed for Purbias. The sikhs were instrumental in defeat of revolutionary forces in Lucknow and afterwards lucknow was almost stripped to the bone by the British but the thing is the Sikhs more than made up for it by wholeheartedly taking part in the freedom movement. I do not belive in casts or religions or regions but no one should hold it against the sikhs they bore the brunt of british atrocities at least in 20th Century.

    Also I am saying this for all Indians now whether you like the Muslims or not whether you like Hindus or not whether you think they are dirty or their religion is all wrong or their customs are dirty but you have to live together you just cannot change it no power on this earth can change it so it is better to live together peacefully and let not the outsiders ever ever ever again take advantage of our diversity. Same applies to regionalism incidentally it was regionalism and not communalism that led to our defeat so the next time someone from your own community or religion criticizes the other community and religion please check the person violently do not allow seeds of discord to grow.

  5. My novel is ready as per my comment above but alas publishers are taking so long to respond. I will get it published but if does not get published before May 2008 which is the end of 150th anniversary of the so called mutiny I will be heartbroken.

  6. I just went through the discussions above once again and I am really really surprised by the quality – it is just awesome and coming from mainly non professionals. If I may be allowed to sum up some major points and humbly offer my own views ( which may be wrong ). To the best of my knowledge the very firt person to raise voice against British rule was indeed a tamil ruler as mentioned above and I am ashamed to say that I just got to know this recently. There were so called mutinies in almost the whole of south India before 1857 but they were sporadic and easily suppressed. There were people like Alluri Sitaram Raju and must be many more. But truly 1857 deserves to be called the first war in the real sense because there was a degree of unity amongst diverse people. As for the Sikhs they fought very bravely against the British along with the Marathas but problem is that the people who were largely involved in the so called Mutiny were the very ones that helped suppress at least the Sikhs that is Brahmins from UP and Bihar mainly eastern UP like Baiswara and the present day purvanchal. then the British gave the Sikhs to understand during the mutiny that they will be avenging their defeat and humiliation if they helped suppress the so called mutiny, so there! A study in divide and rule something like Newton’s laws and a very handy example to teach in a university assuming there is a university which still teaches how to colonise the brown people. That the british gave us India and English is a pure accident like you are going to shoot someone and another guy comes and shoots him. You know what I mean they never intended it this way so why give them any credit. We should give credit to ourselves rather- the British were in so many countries but did they all learn such good English as we did and are all those countries having such a vibrant democracy as ours? My novel brings out the full horror of the mutiny and also shows how easily we could have uprooted the British if we had just stayed together. I could have written a non fiction work too but a novel gives you something rare- artistic license!

    I believe education was not a gift to us it was the biggest curse. It has put us on a train which is full of so called educated people who are causing environmental pollution, threat of a nuclear holocaust, international terrorism, neo colonialsim, uncontrolled materialism and erosion of moral values of the whole world by cable TV. Why the hell cable TV does not support a discussion of a kind that is on this blog.Why are those guys interested in the most trifling news of a celebrity. Well all this makes me think that Indian education was the best it educated oneself to be closer to God, to bring the change inside him rather than going about disturbing the peace of the whole world. I would rather we were tribals then to be educated and bring humanity closer to total annihilation in a matter of minutes.

    I believe western civilization has corrupted the whole world and its salvation lies in embracing the values of the east particularly India which has throughout more than 5000 years of its history never waged wars against weaker neighbours and never sought to colonise any country for materialistic gains and does not have any such plans for the future too. It is the spiritual guru of the whole world. Mutiny of 1857 also proved that the bravest men ever were born in India because they had spiritual strength , they were fighting for spiritual issues they did not need votes or notes.Do you think Mangal Pandey for even a moment doubted that he would be hanged , I do not think so, but he thought that perhaps- mind you perhaps he thought his martyrdom would awaken his countrymen from their sleep, he took the most slender chance and in doing so he was being a bad businessman but it worked! Remember colonialism is alive and kicking it is somewhere out there hiding behind feigned smiles and handshakes, you do not need another mutiny for it, you just need to be united and be the best in whatever you are and I am happy to note that Indians are excelling everywhere only thing is we should absolutely get rid of sikhism, gujratism, tamilism, upism, biharism, and all the other bad isms and should cultivate Indianism. Recently I met a guy who has become a self proclaimed leader of a community to which I belong, he has eshtablished a society for it and once he got to know what community I belonged to he came upto me and shook hands and invited me to join the society- well he was in his sixties or I would have been very rude to him – but I declined his invitation and said if you ever come up with a society for Indians do let me know but otherwise I am not interested in your current endeavour. Jai Bharat Jai India Hindustan Zindabad Jai Vishwa

  7. The fact is that the British used Indian troops by and large to put down the “Mutiny”.

    In fact, at Ajnala, the troops doing the actual execution were Sikhs.

    So it goes. The British used a simple, elegant formula: divide and rule. And it did work very well.

  8. The fact is that the British used Indian troops by and large to put down the “Mutiny”.

    In fact, at Ajnala, the troops doing the actual execution were Sikhs.

    So it goes. The British used a simple, elegant formula: divide and rule. And it did work very well.