1857 is commemorated as the ‘First War of Indian Independence’ and is treated in school history textbooks as a brief shining moment when everything seemed possible, including expelling the phirangee from this land.
It is often recalled as a glorious bonding of Hindus and Muslims, who fought together against the British to regain their independence. All this is not an entirely imagined past, but it does seem a bit of an exaggeration to use the prefix ‘first’ or glorify it as the ‘War of Indian Independence.’
What began as a sepoy mutiny soon snowballed into an uprising of myriad disgruntled elements – all of them motivated by different grievances, hurt pride, or both. The months that followed were full of mayhem and lawlessness, a period of violent tumult.
It did seem for a while that the British were losing control in the province of Oudh. Delhi was also captured by the rebels. However, at no time did the revolt spread to all parts of the country.
Peninsular India and Punjab remained untouched by the wave of seditious sentiment. As a matter of fact, it was the Sikh soldiers whose loyalty turned the tide in favour of the Company Bahadur. I also am open to question that those who took up arms against foreign rulers were fighting for Indian Independence.
All this should not be misconstrued as denigrating the martyrdom of hundreds of Indians cutting across gender and community.
How can we let memories fade of Begum Hazrat Mahal, Rani Laxmi Bai of Jhansi, Tantia Tope, and their countless unknown followers who were blown to smithereens tied to the mouth of a cannon, or summarily executed by other less gruesome means?
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But, more than 150 years after the events, isn’t it time to review and reassess the impact of what was once commonly referred to as Gadar (chaos)?
Myth-Making and the Nationalist Narrative
Myth-making is a common feature of the nationalist narrative chronicling anti-colonial struggles.
Subhadra Kumari Chauhan’s poem eulogising the ‘queen who fought bravely like a man’ has evergreen stirring lines - Sinhasan hil uthe rajvanshon ne bhrikuti tani thee, burhe Bharat main phi ayi pair se nayi jawani thee! Chamak uthi sun sattavan mein wah talwar purani thi. Khoob larhi mardani wo Jhansi wali Rani thi!
Then there is the lament of the octogenarian poet emperor in pathetic exile: Kitna hai budnaseeb Zafar Dafn ke liye-Do gaz jameen bhi na miles kooye yaar mein!
As one feels a lump rising in the throat, it is easy to forget that Bahadur Shah was a reluctant (and almost useless) leader of the mutineers from Meerut.
Horrible atrocities were committed by both sides that are usually glossed over. Who has the time to pore over archival records and contemporary accounts of anarchy, blind rage, brigandage, and brutal revenge? What moulds popular perceptions is images and dialogue from movies like Mangal Pandey.
What can’t be denied is that the dying embers of this conflagration continued to ignite flames for a long time. The founders of the Gadar Party acknowledged their inspirational debt explicitly, and Netaji Subhash Bose formed a Rani Jhansi Regiment in the Indian National Army.
At the same time, we can’t overlook that the unity forged between people belonging to different creeds and castes proved to be extremely fragile.
Shaken by the experience, the British adopted a policy of divide and rule. Indians failed to see through the devious games. The members of Muslim nobility, who the British believed had raised the banner of revolt most stridently, were punished most severely, and humiliated.
Their jaagirs were confiscated. Many of the impoverished dependants and retainers felt that the Hindu survivors had fared better.
The Muslims were slow to learn English, or follow a course of English education. This made it difficult, with the passage of time, to compete with Hindus in professions like medicine, law, and civil service. Many felt that they, the members of the ruling class, had been reduced to penury.
1857, thus, was not a sublime failure, but a deeply frustrating flounder that created deep fissures in society. The seeds of the Two Nation Theory were sown not much later in the ground, irrigated by the bloodshed.
Different perspectives on 1857, from Karl Marx to VD Savarkar, will continue to trigger contentious debate about class struggle and the rise of communalism in modern India. However, the generation born in the 21st century will have to wrestle with the demons on their own.
(Padma Shri awardee Professor Pushpesh Pant is a noted Indian academic, food critic and historian. He tweets @PushpeshPant. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them)
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