Friday, November 17, 2006

In response to Mr. Sumir Sharma

Mr. Sumir Sharma is a lecturer from Ludhiana and has posted an extremely detailed comment in my previous post on The Last Mughal. He has a very nice history blog. He has some interesting perspectives on historical research and pedagogy.
This is in response to his comments. I have some more questions for him which arose from his comments on my post.
You say,
“So, when Zafar joined the Sepoys, it was the british that were mutinying against their masters, not the indians. I think it's really ironic that the british should consistently refer to the events as the Mutiny of 1857 :-)”
Well, Well. However, I will suggest that the domination of the East India company should be studied from Allahabad Treaty of 1765 onwards. Under Subsidiary Alliances, it was the elite group of the Indian society, which had surrendered India to them. Hence, by virtue of being the winners, the East India Company was ruling over India. Another best example is annexation of Sindh and Punjab. I hope you know that what the British officer said while annexing Sindh. He claimed that it was the finnest piece of rascality but they had done it. On the other hand, annexation of Punjab can never be justified. But only argument which can be used is that it was the prize won by the winner in Anglo Sikh war.

My comments were made in response to the sanctimony of the British when it comes to talking about or dealing with their imperial past. We lost, they won. To the victor go the spoils. That's the way of the world. What irritates me is how the british act as though they were somehow morally justified in their actions :-)

Only comment that can be made is that there is touch nationalistic urges in your statement. Somewhere, it is your country and your region (the region of Cholas, Pandya and Cheras) which are alive. You may be away from home but your heart is here. You will be surprised to know that it is a recent trend that the rule of Cheras and Cholas are being reinterpreted on a model which had been build around the history of some tribes in South part of Africa. The success of Cholas and the imperialistic activities are being under rated under that new interpretation.
That is an interesting statement. I don't understand it though. What do you mean when you say that Chola and Chera history is being reinterpreted in an African model. Like you have said elsewhere, shouldn't indian history be interepreted in an indian model?

But, I am unable to understand in spite of the teacher and student of history, that how this middle class theory had been build to gain the independence. My reading of history is taking me to a different direction. Middle Class and rise of Nationalism with Middle Class theories never appeal to me. The problem is that we have always picked western model as frame of reference to evaluate the Indian history. Similarly, the Marxist interpretation and the Grimansci model to interpret on the basis of fight for hegemony between the classes have also not cut ice with me.

What are the basic assumptions of these models and why don't you like them? I am not familiar with any of them.

You say,
“The history of the 1857 rebellion is taught very superficially in school.”

You are quite right. I would like to direct your attention to some of posts in my sumir-history blog. Actually there is a need of rewriting the Indian history. Kindly check the following posts wherein I have dilated on this issue in different contexts:
I did read these posts. It is quite interesting. I have thought quite a bit about Jinnah, Gandhi, Nehru and their role in creating Pakistan. We definitely need to reevaluate our near-term history. However, I think that as nations, neither we nor Pakistan is in a level of self-confidence where we can look at the historical basis for our creation dispassionately. I doubt if that will even happen in our lifetimes.
Which rolls me into your post about separating ideology from hitoriography. Again, I can do nothing but agree, with the caveat that what one believes in will color everything that one does. It is quite irritating though, to have to dig through ideology to find a couple of nuggets of truth.

“Apparently, Delhi was undergoing a cultural renaissance under him. He also seems to have been made in the mold of Dara Shikoh rather than Aurangzeb. He was a lover of the arts, a sufi, a pretty good poet himself and treated hindus and muslims equally.”
You have reached an established conclusion. I would like to direct your attention to a book of Muzaffar Alam “The Crisis of Empire in Mughal North India (Awadh and the Punjab 1707-1748) and second book by Ishrat Haq titled “Glimpses of Mughal Culture”. Ishrat Haq had treaded a new path wherein she had tried to study of the cultural changes as taking place through the poetry of the period by five major poets of the 18th century. She had also traced the similar changes in 19th century. You may enjoy reading the British Paramountancy by R. C. Majumdar. He has been able to bring out some more effective conclusions. It is really ironical that he was not given much recognition after the D. D. Kosambi and than later Marxist lot dominated this field.
I will try to track these books down.

You have read,
“The siege of Delhi, as it were, was actually carried out by gujjar tribesmen who looted anyone that entered or left the city, effectively choking the city out.”
Well R. C. Majumdar had never identified them with any particular group. Secondly, if you know, that such conclusions about Mewatis (Jats) had angered the particular community in India recently.
I can imagine that would happen. I don't think it is necessary, though. Different communities in India behaved differently during the rebellion, but it should not be a reason to question their current patriotism. Sikhs, would be one example.

No doubt, it was a strong contention of R. C. Majumdar that the event of 1857 should never be called the first war of independence. He had traced a regular theme in the Sepoy Mutiny of 1764, then inVellore Mutiny in 1806, then in Barrackpore Mutiny in 1824 and finally the 1844 mutiny and Afghan Mutiny during Anglo Afghan War.
I would agree. It was not exactly a national war. But it wasn't exactly a mutiny either.

Basic thing is reinterpretation is required. A set of concepts has to be framed which describe the events in Indian continent on the basis of the facts as they were there. The problem is that we have never been able to shed the edifice which J Mills constructed on the Indian history.
I agree with your concept that we need to reinterpret our history. However, who is J Mills and what did he do?

Now, when as a nation, we are finding our place in the community of nations, we find that we already have that vital force which makes us a nation. Go to America and live among them. You sense and feel that it something American spirit which are their strength. It is not racialism. That is only one shade. But there is totally a different existence and that is American Spirit. Here I would like to direct you attention to the following post.
I read these posts. I can do nothing but agree with your sentiments. Especially the ones at the end of the Bindee Tiwari posts (incidentally, the Last Mughal refers to that incident too). I don't know why we buy into the concept that there was no idea of India till the British came. In our epics and poems (even Tamil poems from the Sangam age), the idea that the peninsula all the way up to the himalayas is one land is expressed. Mind you, political contiguity eluded us unless there were really powerful kings who could bring the land under their sway. There has always been, in my opinion, the idea of a cultural unity across the country.
Your other remark that we should respect the fact that there were violent responses to British rule is also well taken. While I think that non-violent resistance was unique and had a lot of (possibly unintended) good effects on the country as a whole, denying our inherent militant nature will only lead to a sort of national schizophrenia :-) I think that part of the reason why Rang De Basanti was so wildly popular was that it focussed on a chapter of our struggle for Independence that was unabashedly militant. That and it was a good flick :-)

You have read,
“The sepoys violently changed the prevailing order in Delhi by riding in from Meerut and killing every single christian they could find.”
Well, I have not the read the book. It is now in the market. When I will visit my regular book store, I hope that I would get a copy of it there. I have read in the interview of Darlymple as given to BBC that he had located sources from it was learnt that the Indian converts to Christianity were the main target. Well, It is definitely a new finding as far as my knowledge goes. In case of Tribal revolts, we have been studying that when such revolt took place then the immediate oppressors, whether they were money lenders, or Gora Babu or Gumastas of British company, they became their target of their anger. I think that there had never been anti-Christian riots as such. It is something which has been observed in recent times only. But anyhow, I think I should first look into the book. I believe that your present review is immediate reaction after reading the book. I will like to suggest you that History is an Art, a Science and literature; all three combined to make the writing of history. The literature aspect of history writing is a feature which play wonders as well mischief if an artist of words wields the pen. But I am not convinced that this anti-Christian feature was there in 1857.
I was merely reporting what I read in the book. I think it is conceivable though.

Now do not bring in the social reformers in it. I think the criticism of Keshav Chander Sen is wrong. Similarly the aversion to the activities of Pandita Ramabai is also not justified. All these features had to been to re examined.
I just looked them up on wikipedia:-) Why was Keshav Chandra Sen criticized? What is their bearing on what the sepoys might have done?

The Christians activists were here since the days of Portuguese. Even there is a theory that it is here since the days of Saint Peters. But, this feature of killing Christian agenda is something which requires some established proofs. One or two reference and then to declare it a history will turn out to be a Bad history.
Once again, I will do nothing but agree.
“Apparently the extent to which the first-generation british had integrated themselves into indian society is not stressed by the indians or the british”

Well I am also surprised. We have been reading the quotation of Thomas Roe which totally contradicts it. No doubt, there were people like William Jones, Charles Wilkins, H. H. Willson, John Princep, the people at short lived Wellesley School or as they are know are the Orientalists. They were attracted to Indian literature. They were impressed and influenced by it. Macaulay had just given sweeping statements.
Just so I understand, the earlier guys were favorably impressed by Indian literature and the later guys like Macaulay were pretty much of the opinion that Indian literature and culture was trash?

Even there are doubts about the contexts in which he had written those lines. But, absorption in social and cultural tradition – it is something which I would also like to study. Well there is a book by Thompson titled “Other Side of the Medal”, in which he had written some thing similar to it. However, that was about the sympathy and some extent an affinity of some British people with Indian way of life. Well in present day India, there is Ruskin Bond and Tom Alter who will be happy reading such theories. However, English gone native seems to be a new theory.

Right. You should read the other book by William Dalrymple called White Mughals. I haven't read it myself, but I believe it focusses on the Englishmen-gone-native.

You have read,
“At this point, the East India Company had made the move of invading and occupying Avadh, a rich indian state that was also home to many of its sepoys. Avadh was a friendly state to the British. This sent out a loud message to other states in India that your disposition towards the british didn't matter to them, they would take you over anyway.”

Well this is an established theory. However, I will like to draw your attention to my one of my another post. I hope you can read Hindi. It is given below.
My hindi reading speed is quite slow, but I will be sure to plough through these.

You have read,
“In others, like Delhi, it was certainly a religious war.”

Well, it is a sweeping statement. Was there “Manifest Destiny theory” more in operation than other urges. I will suggest that you must read the following post by Prof. R. K. Khanna.

You have commented that
“The british response took on an extremely religious overtone.”

It is a new theory. It requires further examination.

Anyhow, finally, you have done a great job. The book in question has been released in India also. I will definitely read it at the earliest. However, the interview of the author to BBC had definitely biased the judgement. Secondly, it is again the same old story that a foreigner comes to India, finds some untouched paper, picks them and write a book out of them and then we Indians start reacting to it. We in India, do not have it in us to do it first. We wait others to come and make us to react against him. Then the contents of our reaction are then projected as our statement. If any of us try to take initiative, first comes the discouragement and the second problem is always the funding which can be obtained only if you have the right networking.

I picked up the book in Chennai, actually. I agree that I would like to see more Indian writers of Indian history come forward. As for the book, it is not as dry as my review might have made it seem. It actually reads like a novel with a lot f discussion and descriptions of characters that played a role and the bystanders. I look forward to your opinions after you read the book.

I also just read your post on the sources for 1857, I will follow up on those.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Sunday, November 12, 2006

The Last Mughal - 2- The Sepoys and the British

Continuing from the previous post..

So, we have a weak, ineffectual, but a rather nice king, a population representing a rather interesting hindu-muslim culture..

The sepoys violently changed the prevailing order in Delhi by riding in from Meerut and killing every single christian they could find. It is interesting that none of the europeans who had converted to islam (of which there were many) were touched. To properly understand the sepoys' motivations, we must see what the british, their employers had been doing.

When we say 'The British', we of course, mean The British East India Company, which was one of the earliest MNCs. Imagine, if you will, Pepsico, or Microsoft, running a country with the only motive being their bottomline. That's essentially what the BEC was doing to India (and Sri Lanka and Burma) with the marked lack of empathy that is the defining characteristic of a Corporation(then, as now).

The British East India Company had got their foothold in hindustan (bengal, bihar, UP and MP) by obtaining the mughal's permission to collect taxes on their behalf. As the mughal power waned, and it had been waning for a while now, two other kingdoms had become powerful, the Marathas and the Sikhs. As 1857 rolled by, the british had defeated both, and were on the path towards ruling India. Their main tool was the native army, which was recruited from hindus and muslims (especially from the groups that the british considered 'martial races) and trained in the european way. The initial group of the british interacted with the indians on quite convival terms. The officers fraternized with the troops, became quite fluent in local languages and aware of local customs. Many of them acquired indian wives and lived rather indian lives (complete with separate harems for their hindu and muslim wives :-) ). Many of these british were fluent in indian languages and some were actually accomplished poets in those languages. This was news to me. Apparently the extent to which the first-generation british had integrated themselves into indian society is not stressed by the indians or the british :-) When the revolt exploded, this would save some of their sons and daughters as former servants and soldiers of these men saved their children from certain death. The sepoys of the old-style officers also permitted their officers and their families to escape, out of loyalty.

As more and more british started coming in, this stopped and a divide grew between the british and the men they commanded. They looked upon the older group who had 'gone native' with horror and derision. The new class of british that came in were also quite religious and saw in India a vast opportunity to 'reform' the 'natives' of their superstitions and convert the country to the 'One True Faith' of christianity. The 'natives' who had their own 'One True Faith's didn't take very kindly to it and this was to become one of the biggest reasons for the revolt. This extreme religiousity also ensured that the British were particularly insensitive to the sepoys' concerns about the greased cartridges which became the proximate cause of the revolt.

At this point, the East India Company had made the move of invading and occupying Avadh, a rich indian state that was also home to many of its sepoys. Avadh was a friendly state to the British. This sent out a loud message to other states in India that your disposition towards the british didn't matter to them, they would take you over anyway. It also inflamed the sepoys who had to aid in the takeover of their own state by the foreigner.

The british were also the de facto power in Delhi and had a say in who would be the next mughal emperor. They were also plotting to eliminate the Mughal line and move the survivors out of Delhi. In this, they had the collusion of Bahadur Shah's favorite wife and other courtiers.

The revolt, thus, had different complexions in different parts of the country. In some places (like in Jhansi), it was against the attempted land-grabs of the british. In others, like Delhi, it was certainly a religious war.

Once the revolt started, the sepoys killed their officers and promptly marched on Delhi. They went to Bahadur Shah and asked him to lead them. He was not willing in the beginning, but as he began to see the possibility of maintaining his line, he agreed. So, now, you had a group of sepoys, predomninantly hindu, not just accepting, but demanding that the mughal emperor lead them.

Though he was the titular head, there was no one who could actually provide leadership. None of the sepoys had an experience of leading more than hundred, since the officer class had all been european. As mentioned previously, the court was working against itself. If there had been a strong leader, he(or she) would have been able to weld the sepoy regiments into an army. That was not to be. For a long time, the sepoys outnumbered and outgunned the british but couldn't defeat them just because they had no one who could maneuver them like an army. Instead, they charged the british in battalions and were promptly crushed. What they lacked was not courage or weaponry, but leadership. The first shot at some kind of unified leadership came when Bakht Khan of the Bareilly Brigade marched in and tried to bring some kind of leadership and order. But ego-clashes amongst other leaders of the sepoys quickly put paid to that hope.

The fact that the sepoys had killed all europeans had the effect of making the british bloodthirsty for revenge. Breathless tales of how the women had been raped and killed spread. The fact of the matter was that not one woman had been raped (they had all been killed though, so I guess it is small comfort). They saw their role as 'delivering God's justice on the heathens'. The british response took on an extremely religious overtone. The british felt that they had been betrayed by the indians to whom they were trying to bring culture and civilization and by God, they were going to shed some blood to show who was boss. This essentially made it a religious war. With christianity on one side and the hindus and muslims on the other.

Of all the conquering peoples, the british must be truly unique for their consistent stand that all of it was done for the benefit of the conquered. I am sure that when Genghis Khan was building his tower of skulls, or the Romans, were destroying Carthage, selling its inhabitants to slavery and sowing salt in the land (so nothing would grow there) weren't saying to their victims 'But why did you resist us? All we were trying to do was bring you culture!'. The british on the other hand, saw it as their God given duty to 'civilize' their colonies. It permitted them to do really horrific things self-righteously.

For instance, when the british re-took Delhi, they killed indiscriminately, men, women and children. On the march to Delhi, locals were randomly executed. Thousands of the citizens of delhi were killed out-of-hand, regardless of whether they had helped the sepoys or the english. The british used short-ropes for hanging the indians (if you hang someone with a long-rope, it is the fall and neck-snap that kills. A short rope kills slowly by strangulation.). Remember the ones who collaborated with the british? They didn't get much of a better deal. The city was looted, and about eighty percent of Red Fort destroyed. All this, of course, to civilize the heathens. But, I digress.

To get back to the story, once the british got their wits together, they disarmed all native troops that seemed rebellious, and hired auxiliaries from amongst the sikhs and the pathans and marched on Delhi. The british also had a superb spy system which they used to great effect. It is in this time that characters like Hodson and Nicholson made their name (for great brutality and courage). The actions of some (like Theo Metcalfe who was known for his indiscriminate hanging of indians) disgusted even the british.

The looting, the mismanagement and the choking of Delhi by the gujjar tribesmen caused severe supply problems for the sepoy army and they started slipping out of the city. When the british finally stormed the city, there were not many left (Bakht Khan had slipped away with his army to Lucknow). Once in Delhi, the british wreaked a tremendous revenge, extinguished the line of the Mughals and sent Zafar into exile to Rangoon. The only reason his life was spared was because Hodson had promised Zinat Mahal, his wife that his life would be spared in exchange for her cooperation during the rebellion. After the rebellion, the muslims were treated much worse than the hindus were (since the british saw this as an attempt by the muslim mughals to reassert themselves) which laid the foundation for their alienation from the hindus and the eventual partition. This also comprehensively destroyed the Delhi Renaissance that was occurring under Zafar.

Dalrymple details all this, and brings to life all these characters and more. Like I mentioned previously, this gives great insight into the causes of the revolt. Was it a religious war? Was it a war waged by hindus and muslims to restore the mughals to power? Was it a mutiny? Was it a war by the indians against an encroaching foreign power? The answer is all of the above. It was not exactly a war of independence as claimed by V.D. Savarkar. It was not exactly the matter of a mutiny, as claimed by the british.

We need more such looks at indian history that focus on the facts and not on the political, social or religious leanings of the historian. Also, we tend to idolize leaders and events. It is understandable because we are emotionally invested in it. Unfortunately that prevents us from cold-bloodedly examining our history and learning from it. This book, perhaps because it is not written by an Indian, steers clear of that, and we get to see what everyone does. Actually, it is not completely fair to say that Dalrymple is emotionally disconnected. He obviously loves Delhi and this book is in a way an elegy to the Delhi that was. A cosmopolitan, polished place where hindus, muslims and christians, indians and europeans hung out, went shopping in bazaars, wrote and listened to poetry, watched courtesans dance, ate at roadisde fastfood joints and had a generally wonderful time. Until History intervened.

Friday, November 10, 2006

The Last Mughal - By William Dalrymple

This book covers the events of 1857 from the persepective of the decaying Mughal court, the citizens of Delhi and the englishmen who used to live in pre-revolt Delhi and those that 'took' the city. The old Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, is the focal point of the book.

When William Dalrymple was researching this book, he discovered a veritable treasure trove of documents dating from this period. He has used them to reconstruct the events in Delhi prior to, during and after the 1857 Rebellion. The history of the 1857 rebellion is taught very superficially in school. There's mangal pandey, a passing mention made of Bahadur Shah and the rest of the list is devoted to the The Rani of Jhansi, Tatya Tope and Nana Sahib. This book focusses only on Delhi and the events there and brings to light some very interesting facts. The siege of delhi really had five parties to it, The Mughal court, the citizens of Delhi, the sepoys, the English and the oppurtunists, like the gujjar tribesmen.

Here's one thing we should get out of the way first. The British had started by getting the permission of the Mughals to levy tax on their behalf in Bengal, which made them vassals of the Mughals. So, when Zafar joined the Sepoys, it was the british that were mutinying against their masters, not the indians. I think it's really ironic that the british should consistently refer to the events as the Mutiny of 1857 :-)

The book really gave me some insight into Zafar. Apparently, Delhi was undergoing a cultural renaissance under him. He also seems to have been made in the mold of Dara Shikoh rather than Aurangzeb. He was a lover of the arts, a sufi, a pretty good poet himself and treated hindus and muslims equally. In fact, at the risk of alienating the extremist muslims, he forbade the killing of cows in Delhi. Unfortunately, by the time the revolt rolled around, he was eighty two years old and not in very good shape to provide strong leadership. His court was divided and in effect, there was no one in Mughal Delhi who could weld this group of sepoys into a single coherent force. If there had been someone in Delhi who actually knew how to lead an army and understood logistics, it was one of Bahadur Shah's sons, Mirwaiz Mughal, but he was being constantly undermined by other courtiers and Zafar's own wife and minister who were in touch with the british. One faction backed the sepoys and their rebellion while another was in touch with the British with the fond hope that when the rebellion was crushed they would be put in power. They acted as spies and effectively undermined Bahadur Shah's already enfeebled leadership. One of them, Hakim Ahsanallah Khan even convinced him not to prevent the killing of the british women and men who were under his protection, which was later to become the excuse for the wholesale reprisal by the british. This particularly egregious traitor was also responsible for convincing the emperor not to leave Delhi with Bakht Khan when all seemed lost, and then later guiding the British to him,

The siege of Delhi, as it were, was actually carried out by gujjar tribesmen who looted anyone that entered or left the city, effectively choking the city out. Once the sepoys entered and all civic control was lost, the criminal element in the city promptly went on a looting spree, and caused quite a lot of damage before some measure of control was reasserted.

The citizens of Delhi were the hapless group stuck in the middle. Life in Delhi before the revolt was a syncretic mix of hindu and muslim culture. Ghalib, when asked, responded that he was half-muslim. Asked to explain, he said 'I don't eat pork, but I drink wine.'. That about epitmoizes the Delhiites of that time. They were unflinching in their faith that theirs was the best city, their language the most cultured, their food the tastiest, their culture the finest. I guess little has changed :-) There was a regular newspaper in town, which reported right through the rebellion, of which, all copies have survived. There were courtesans' mansions, places where poets could gather and all-night mushairas (poetry symposium) were held, fast-food joints, bazaars and quite a nice night-life.

When the rebellion started, the delhiites were mostly pro-sepoy. But mismanagement of the sepoys and the subsequent looting caused them great suffering. They complained to Bahadur Shah, but there was little that he could do. There was a faction in the city (just like in the palace) that was pro-british, which helped them by spying and reporting on the activities. But none of this helped the populace when the British finally took the city.

The Sepoys and the British, next..