July 05, 2020
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A Hanging Twice Over...

Is what we'd do if we hang the story of 1857 by a single thread. The mutiny was a more multi-faceted event.

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A Hanging Twice Over...
A Hanging Twice Over...

They say it was the telegraph and 'native intelligence' (Indian spies) that saved the Company Bahadur in 1857, helping the firangis retake 'their' Indian Empire. But that was in real historical time. In poised retrospect, it was photography—the thousands of takes of ruined remains, strung-up rebels, the dead stripped to skulls and bones that held the Ghadar up as an object lesson for all colonial times to come. Then there were the unrelenting Stones of the Empire: the manicured, bombed-out Residency at Lucknow, the pointed victory memorial on the Delhi Ridge which were meant to monumentalise the mutiny for posterity. And finally, as is its wont, came History. English history, written almost in the manner of the classic accounts of Mughal royal hunts: the hounding of game gone wild into ever-shrinking enclosures for the final, heroic coup de grace.

The challenge of 2007 is how to rescue the centenary-and-a-half of 'san sattavan' from evaporating into fluffy celebrations ad nauseam. Our leaders and copywriters, the media and sarkari commemorators are all set to carry the day. However, the enticement of the thousands of 'mutiny photographs' housed now in the fabulous Alkazi Collection in New Delhi, some of them showcased in a recent exhibition, and of the canonical, colonial histories, is here to stay. And they pose a challenge to historians, who have a professional and not just a national stake in our past: how to read and behold these, not as Past Reality slices (to which we can counter our very own), but as texts and images suffused irrevocably with the spirit of triumphant colonialism. Just as rebels require masters to pit themselves against, similarly most histories of rebellions cannot be written without reference to the accounts of the dominant. Indeed, it would be an unhistorical revenge—a quaint 'magical realism' of sorts—were we to conjure up a history of anti-colonialism in India without once mentioning the British, or the colonial records for that matter.

Of all the tomes that appeared in the aftermath of the great revolt, the most authoritative and influential was, and has been, the massive three-volume History of the Sepoy War in India by Sir John William Kaye. By the time Kaye sat down to writing it soon after the event, he had on his desk personal communications from the main English actors of this high drama and records loaned by a gracious India Office, in which he held a senior position. Kaye produced the three volumes between 1864 and 1876, and died almost immediately afterwards. Till the late 1980s, perched on a pedestal in the India Office Library, London, a bust-size statue of Sir John seemed to keep watch over the 'native' researchers going in and out of that great colonial archive!

A cursory reading of Kaye's prefatory statements may convey the impression that what we have here is a history of the struggle between the colonisers and the colonised: "a multitude of detached and almost contemporaneous incidents, the only connecting link being the universal fact that the Black man had risen against the White."

But Kaye's history is not so much about the Black Man's rising as about the White Man's suppression of that uprising. In Kaye's Sepoy War, the colonial masters are so completely the subject of Indian history that an account of the most important rebellion against them can only be written up as English history, that is, the heroism of the English under fire: "The story of the Indian Rebellion of 1857 is, perhaps, the most single illustration of our national character ever yet recorded in the annals of our country." Contrary to that famous quip in Midnight's Children—What do the English know of their history, for a great deal of it happened elsewhere—Kaye was intent on teaching the English their overseas history: (It was) "because we were too English. ..(in) the over-eager pursuit of Humanity and Civilisation...that the great crisis arose; but it was because we were English that when it arose, it did not utterly overwhelm us."

Our response, by and large, has been to replace the word English with Indian in the above description: as we were colonised, we rebelled; but because we were not yet fully Indian, we failed. This seems to be as true of Subhadra Kumari Chauhan's famous Hindi poem (Khoob ladi mardani...) about the Rani of Jhansi, where 'an old Bharat' is not quite fully rejuvenated, as of the persistent idea, down to the present celebrations, of the Ghadar as the First War of Indian Independence. But History is always messier, more cluttered, than the Museum of a National Past. Recent first-rate historical work by Rudrangshu Mukherjee on Awadh—a core area of the rebellion—has painted a more nuanced picture. True, the injustice of exiling Nawab Wajid Ali Shah was felt generally: 'Angrej Bahadur aien, aur muluk le lihin', as a popular Awadhi dirge has it. But it was only after the mutinies in each and every station had succeeded that the landed chiefs, who had earlier given shelter to the British, marched with their retainers and peasants to besiege and harass the British in and around Lucknow. Paradoxically, while the British sought to sunder the moral and economic ties that bound taluqdars and peasants, it was these very traditional loyalties that asserted themselves in the moment of rebellion. Even when fighting together, the Indians did not constitute an undifferentiated mass.

A common sight after Delhi’s fall,photo courtesy: Alkazi Foundation for the Arts

Not so in Kaye's Sepoy War. Here king, nawab, taluqdars, sipahsalar, sipahi are all flattened out so that the triumphant march of 'English heroes' may continue—interrupted, yet unabated: "Over the Indian Dead Level which that system had created, the English heroes marched triumphantly to victory." Whether it is Mangal Pandey, the purabiya sipahi running amok in the Barrackpore Quarter Guard in March 1857, only to attempt suicide at the sight of the advancing General, or the young Wajid Ali Shah, face to face with Lord Hardinge in 1847, it is the English gaze that transfixes native prince and peasant alike. "Lord Hardinge lifted up his voice in earnest remonstrance and solemn warning; and the young King (of Awadh) cowered beneath the keen glance of the clear blue eyes that were turned upon him."

It's not that Kaye's History has no place for the natives; the Indians of his narrative are fixed into their appointed places. This comes across nicely in Kaye's description of the 'Treatment of the Natives' on Delhi's northern ridge. For it was here, abutting the cantonment, that the British driven out of the city in the summer of 1857 encamped, a large number huddled into the Flagstaff tower, awaiting the siege train from the Punjab. By July, there were 10 natives for every European on the Ridge. The demands of humanity suggested that the English be slightly more considerate towards their Indian camp-followers, without whom the project of the reconquest of Delhi would have been quite impossible. But the distance between the native and the sahib on the Ridge, implies Kaye, could not be reduced in the process of the bloody assault on Delhi, meant to re-establish the lost supremacy of the Company Bahadur. In the moment of the crisis of the civilising mission of the English in India, 'humanity' had to make way for the successful march of 'history'—the victory of the English in the 'Sepoy War'.

In contrast to Kaye's "stern, hard and immovable" Englishmen, standing tall "in the midst of disasters and humiliations", a contemporary satire in a Delhi akhbar had lampooned the harassed 'English Gathering at the Flagstaff': 'Jamiyat-i-Angrezi-az-Baunta'. Here 'Angrez ki aqal ki topi aur khirad ka patloon', the thinking cap of the English and the pantaloons of their wisdom, had slipped all the way down to their 'moza-i-ghabrahat' (sockful of worries). And it went on to poke fun at the inability of the Ridge force to raise the wherewithal from Delhi's hostile villages for an immediate frontal attack on the city.

The barrenness of that place which in the mid-1950s was associated with keekar jungle and wildness is remarkably portrayed in war photographer Felice Beato's shots of the Delhi Ridge taken soon after the recapture of the city. The Flagstaff of today is very much as it was in late 1857, except that it had then only a solitary midgety tree where the road forked right towards the Chauburja Mosque picket, another of the hallowed sites of the English heroism in the summer and autumn of 1857.

Felice Beato’s photograph of the Chauburja mosque

Akin to Kaye's victorious prose, Felice Beato's photographs of the Flagstaff and the Chauburja are celebrations of the English ability to withstand the sustained artillery pounding from the city of Delhi. In Beato's frame, this 'Mosque Picket' looms large in a desolate nowhere, its 400-year history as an outlying Tughlaq-era masjid standing testimony solely to British resolve in the year of the mutiny. Three of the four domes that gave the mosque its chauburja name had withstood the pounding of 1857.

It was from this mosque-picket and other batteries on the northern ridge that the British had made their decisive assault on Kashmiri Gate in mid-September 1857, and then onwards to the city, the Fort and Humayun's Tomb, halfway to where Hudson captured Bahadur Shah Zafar and brought him back to trial and eventual exile in Rangoon.

Now a World Heritage Site and one of the best maintained of Delhi's monuments, Humayun's Tomb in Beato's sepia composition stands testimony to an Indian past lodged firmly in its own ruins. The long shot catches a relatively small tomb in the distance with an oversized, pockmarked dome; the majestic gateway of today appears detached and almost unnecessary. Bits of low walls, a solitary keekar tree and two small puddles from a late September shower, all combine to give the place a sense of oblivious vulnerability. What a sad and ludicrous place for Bahadur Shah to have repaired to after the fall of Delhi, Beato's photograph seems to be telling us; what a waste of time and effort before the march of colonial history.

Applauded as the lung of Delhi, the Ridge now exists in a non-historical present. The historic Flagstaff is an unprotected mutiny building in a state of disrepair, in virtual possession of a 'Baunta Royal Club (Regd.)' of yoga practitioners and morning walkers. Its circular ground-floor hall is used to house durries and mattresses in king-size trunks. No notice about the past of the narrow strip of this Ridge to which the British were confined between early May and mid-September 1857 greets the energetic early morning walkers in tracksuits, as they expertly sidestep the audacious Delhi monkeys, feeding them bananas as they go along.

Even the Flagstaff Road, winding up the Ridge to that undisputed mutiny structure, has lost its name to the idiosyncrasies of a high-level street name-changing decision: it is now called Bhimrao Ambedkar Memorial Marg! Dr Ambedkar indeed lived on an adjacent street during his Delhi sojourn, but as that (already renamed) road was then closed due to the construction of the metro, three years ago our previous prime minister was counselled to go ahead and perform a surgical name-change on the adjacent Flagstaff Road! The Chauburja Marg leading up to that bombed-out mosque-picket has been renamed Acharya Sushil Muni Marg, and this even without the benefit of a prime ministerial visit.

It is nobody's case that distinguished persons from our recent or distant pasts should not have roads, towns, even districts named after them. There are sundry pasts that tend to remain, each laying its own claim to our collective present. However, the exigencies of both municipal and national politics—the reworking of histories and memories by sarkari fiat—require that past events be cobbled shoddily into 'national histories': history be damned. But to rechristen place names connected with the rebellion of 1857, while going about commemorating it doesn't quite make sense. It is like countering the colonialist history of Kaye's Sepoy War with a pucca nationalist version, but with the names of all the sites of action changed unrecognisably in deference to the wishes of a provincial satrap or a municipal councillor.

As the search for heroes and martyrs goes into top gear, we are bound to witness an excessive focus on acts of valour and chivalry; the spotlight would be on manly acts, or on women who acted like real men. And we would tend to miss out on the way 1857 has been sung, indeed feminised, in some North Indian folksongs: 'Meerut ka Sadr Bazar hai, mera saiyan lute na jaane': the bazaar of Meerut is up for grabs after the mutiny in the barracks, and my love does not even know how to plunder properly! And in a similar vein: Others looted shawls, large and small, my love brought home a small kerchief; others looted gold coins, big and small, my lover, a novice in such matters and much else, could manage only a copper paisa! How striking in its sensuousness is this ditty to the mock celebration of the anari, nadaan—untrained in the arts of love—balma or lover, who is the object of desire precisely because he has to be taught the finer points of love-making: mora nadaan balma, na jaane dil ki baat re, to cite that filmi hit of yesteryears.

Should we forget these folk products of the events of 1857, simply because they inconvenience a neatly ordered, male-centric understanding of the Rebellion as the first great stirrings of our long-existent sense of nationalism? Must we be content with the gouging out of a colonial memorial stone at one place, or with mock sepoys knocking at the Rajghat gate of the Red Fort on the morning of May 11, 2007? To orchestrate a unified commemoration in 2007 would be to bleach that multifaceted occurrence of its true colours. To hang the story of the Ghadar by a single thread would amount to hanging its myriad rebels twice over.

(Shahid Amin is the author of Event, Metaphor and Memory, and professor of history at the Delhi University.)

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