But Chauri Chaura had, and has, very different meanings for different people. For the defenders of the Empire, the burning down of a thana and its 23 policemen on February 4, 1922, was an event to be avoided at all costs. A strikingly similar notion of irresponsible madness was held by Mahatma Gandhi and his apostles, who urged the guilty to surrender before the law. Disappointed by the violence, the Mahatma withdrew the Non-Cooperation Movement. Shahid Amin takes us beyond these two versions.
The confrontation of peasants and police is now a well-worked theme in Indian history with evidence that shows how the former were anything but a 'mob' waiting to be led. What is compelling about this narrative is the way in which it shows us how many layers there are to a story. For the Otiyars, as the Congress volunteers in Gorakhpur were known, the message of Gandhi was re-interpreted. We have to deal "with the Mahatma of the peasants not as he really was but as they thought him up". Many volunteers departed from the leader's injunctions: they wore gerua, or safflower clothes of mill-made cloth, not white hand-spun and woven khadi. Most strikingly, they equated militant action with his teachings.
Yet, how does one set out to discover the sensibilities of the common folk decades after the event. In sheer detective terms, the task has taken nearly a decade and a half. The story draws on interviews with survivors and their relatives, as well as cameos that are unforgettable: the chaukidars, who threw their turbans into the crowd and joined it, to escape with their lives. There is the shadowy presence of Komal, the dacoit, absent in official records but existing in local lore. The only figure who provides the kind of evidence that makes the average historian's heart beat faster is long dead: the approver, Mir Shikari, whose testimony enabled the government to clinch the case against the rioters.
Amin is unrelenting in his criticism of the wider movement. Shikari's betrayal of the people was nothing compared to the silence of the Congress, post-Independence governments, and generations of historians. For most of them, Chauri Chaura became a metaphor and the event itself lost all its meaning. As late as April 1938, one of those indicted, Dwarka Gosain, languishing in jail, wrote to the Congress chief minister seeking the release of all political prisoners. The chief minister, Govind Vallabh Pant, simply noted on the file that his release 'may follow later'.
Why history as we have largely known it should be so close to Pant's views is not so difficult to explain. The past became a weapon to defend and legitimise the new order that emerged in the aftermath of freedom. Those who spoke in discordant voices were inconvenient in the creation of a new trinity of Gandhi, the Congress and the Nehru family. More so, the actors of Chauri Chaura and other such places were often from among those who were to 'be led': so many among them are from precisely those disadvantaged social groups who are now convulsing politics across the Gangetic belt, threatening not only the Congress but the values at the core of a social order. The power and poetry of the work draw from their sense of history. Far from being ahis-torical, it is a sense of the future and past that is rich in hope.
Shahid Amin may not comment on the present, but he shows us how diverse and culturally heterogeneous Hindi-speaking India really is. To bind it into a core of a new Hindutva will be very difficult. This very heterogeneity lies at the heart of this book's appeal: it is in Bhojpuri and not Sanskritised sarkari Hindi that the discordant voices speak. It is here in the cultural sub-regions that much of our legend and memory is rooted.
How all this will influence the writing of history is difficult to say. At the risk of sounding trite, history will lose its distinctive charm and appeal if it is rendered inaccessible by jargon. After all, the very notion of a story is rooted in literature, written or oral. There is no escape from conceptual notions, but it is possible to explore them without being simplistic. The great thing about this book is the ease with which the story is told. In the Braudelian sense, Amin is a truffle-hunter. But Chauri Chaura is a work no 'eagle' can afford to ignore.