Society

Perspectives of the revolt of 1857

In this essay, Sambhavi Ganesh portrays the various aspects of the 1857 revolt.

Let us consider the word ‘revolt’. It means ‘to take violent action against an established government or ruler’. This firmly establishes the imperialist belief that the Indians were indeed inferior to the British. I am using the word anyway because it is easier to comprehend the incidents that way.

The genesis of the rebellion lay in the British policy of conquest and expansion in India. Commercial relations had existed between India and Britain for a good 250 years at the time of the outbreak of the revolt. The relations had become political as well and religious issues arose by the first half of the 19th century. These links tended to create conflict and tension which were difficult and even impossible to reconcile. The very existence of the empire became endangered. It is, thus, no wonder that corresponding echoes of the Revolt were heard in strife-torn India as well as in crisis-ridden Britain.

The revolt was a complex phenomenon which attracted several theories. To many, it was merely a mutiny of pampered sepoys; to a still larger number the restoration of native authority; to others, a highly important episode in a losing battle between the Crescent and the Cross; a few advocated the theory of Russian intrigue designed to expand the Russian influence in Asia; there were even those who insisted that it was inspired by Brahman attempts to restore the influence they had lost due to modernization of India.

The immediate reaction in Britain, however, was that the outbreak was an army mutiny. Lord Canning, the then Governor-General of India, did not want to be an alarmist, or failed to comprehend the gravity of the situation. The East India Company too, in general, underplayed the revolt as it did not want to evoke criticism against its administrative power. The people of Britain also reacted quite calmly keeping in mind the earlier revolts in British India because the year 1857 had started with mutinies. The papers took it even more lightly. The British tried to soothe their fears thinking the Mutiny had only been confined to Delhi. But the next set of mail and the mail for quite some time brought only news of killing and destruction. The affair became so serious that there were criticisms against the British Indian administration and of blind territorial expansion. The anxiety of the British was so great that even the House of Commons, which earlier could hardly produce a quorum for debates on India, not only attracted virtually the entire house but also began crisis meetings which would often run till late night.

The reaction of British officials was that of anger. A large mass of diaries, pamphlets, narratives and letters were published containing personal experiences of British military officials. It was done merely to satisfy the thirst of news of the English public and this changed the whole perspective of mutiny studies. The time taken to travel between Britain and India, the cost of transportation and the restrictive nature of the East India Company made a trip to India beyond the capacity of an average Englishman to undertake. It took more than three months to verify a certain report. Britons had to depend upon their own critical faculty to compare information and sift out the truth. The British writers could not possibly make a critical assessment of the situation in the atmosphere then prevailing. Thus, a majority of the news reports were written by people who had never even visited India, and as a result, their reports were coloured by their own interests. Many news items were entirely invented by their staff. It was only in 1858 that The Times first sent its War correspondent to cover the outbreak. These sources of information on India eventually helped in shaping the majority of public opinion. The ‘mutiny’ thesis thus continued to dominate British accounts.

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan was the first Indian critique regarding the Revolt. His book ‘Asbab e bhagawat e hind’ published in 1859 studied the causes of the Indian Revolt which were largely contradictory to those of British views of the Revolt. He observed “I believe there was but one primary cause of the rebellion, the others being merely incidental and arising out of it… the natives of India blame the Government of having deprived them of their position and dignity and for keeping them down.”

This view was strengthened by the fact that there had been no conspicuous unified movement of Hindus and Muslims against British rule. It was in 1857 that we find a wonderful unified campaign of these communities for the ouster of East India Company from India. The banning of cow-slaughter initiated by Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar supports this conclusion. There are accounts of the Emperor having celebrated Holi in Mehrauli. The Lucknow Proclamation of 5th-17th July and other such proclamations mentioned Hindus and Muslims in the same breath. The Hindu and Muslim kings declared their hatred against the ‘nasara’ (Christians/Britons). Khan Bahadur Khan resolved to put a ‘dhvaj’ for Hindus and ‘jhhanda’ for Muslims and called both communities to come under the same flag. There were cries of “Hindu- Mussalman ek” “Ram Rahim ek”.

G W Forrest had warned that one of the lessons of the rebellion was that Hindus and Muslims could be united against the British. Kaye had argued thus “Mohamedans and Hindus were plainly united against us” and C U Aitchison had remarked “In this instance, we could not play the Mohammedan against the Hindu”. On the basis of these incidents, P C Joshi characterized it “Hindu Muslim joint front”.

A recent writer of the mutiny has observed ‘Of all the interpretations of the uprising, the one that has the most influence is that which sees 1857 as the year when nationalist feelings, long suppressed by British occupation, flared into violence.’ For these writers, 1857 saw the First War of Independence where the groundswell of discontent and hatred found expression. This is to show that the nationalism is not a product of the West and that it is not a product of the early twentieth century. It remains to be a fact that the revolt was a mass uprising; that the sepoy mutiny merged into a general rising of the civil population of all classes; that 1857 was the most formidable revolt that had broken out against a foreign power.

However, in the words of Lester Hutchinson, “the rebellion was against nationalism and modernity: It was an attempt to turn the clock back to feudal isolation and tyranny, to the handloom and spinning wheel, to the primitive method of transport and communication… the miseries and bloodshed of 1857-58 were not the birth pangs of freedom movement, but the dying grounds of an obsolete aristocracy.” The people who revolted wanted to establish the Mughal aristocracy and did not consider a united India. Many historians assert that nationalism in any meaningful sense cannot be found in the struggles of 1857.

The Mutiny took place in the hey-day of British dominance in the East. And when it collapsed, the Englishmen would nurse a triumph with a feeling of contempt for the Indians. The Mutiny was, according to them, ‘not a mere narrative of a military revolt, but a revelation of Asiatic nature.’ It was ignored that the Indians might as well have had a case to represent and a cause to fight for. Only a few people like Disraeli and J W Kaye had recognized its wider context. The British account was put on the defensive by VD Savarkar’s Indian War of Independence which was a major breakthrough in mutiny studies. 1857 should have been a turning point in the attitude of British historians towards India, but it did not happen.

NOTES:

  1. Sashi Bhushan Chaudhuri (1965), Theories of the Indian Mutiny, 1
  2. Anindita Ghoshal, A new perspective of the Revolt of 1857, Excavating the Revolt of 1857, Pg. 165 – 180
  3. Salahuddin Malik (2002), 1857-War of Independence or Clash of civilizations? 1

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