Saturday, February 16, 2008

Book Review: 1857, V D Savarkar

Ghadar Jari Hai, Vol. 1, No.2, August 15, 2007

Book Review

The legendary history of 1857

Shivanand Kanavi

Vinayak Damodar Savarkar’s book, “The Indian war of independence 1857” is a truly legendary book. In both senses of the word.

The book itself has achieved a legendary status in the last hundred years since its first publication. The book showed up the censors in England for what they were, when they took the unprecedented step of banning it before it was even published. Thus it was a remarkable enterprise, in which many patriots participated, to enable the book to see the light of the day. Lala Hardayal, professor at University of California at Berkeley and founder of the famous Hindusthani Ghadar Party reprinted it in 1912 to make it available to a larger audience and Bhagat Singh and his associates also found it worthwhile to publish it again in India later. It is a pity that no publisher has thought it fit to reprint it in this 150th anniversary year of the Great Ghadar, when old books are being reprinted and new ones being churned out. It is heartening that most booksellers are reporting a lot of interest in books on 1857 among the reading public.

It is intriguing that a nation that groaned under colonial yoke for 200 years and whose pre-colonial past is glorified by some and decried by others but researched and documented in only a fragmentary fashion. We continue to be indifferent to re-discovering ourself even after gaining political independence. Our schoolteachers rarely take students to museums or monuments and do not teach history in a living fashion; our history departments in 200+ Universities remain under-funded and totter on the verge of being declared “non merit” by administrators influenced by market economics. On the other hand we continue to boast of a 5000 year old civilization, but when confronted by foreigners or our own conscience, we find few books that tell our past in a way that can ignite popular imagination and at the same time give leads to future research by showing where the gaps are.

Now that I have vented my frustration as an outsider to the discipline of history, let me address myself to Savarkar’s book. It is one of the best written so far on the subject of the great uprising of 1857. It is truly panoramic and sweeps thousands of kilometers of territory, from Kunwar Singh’s Jagdishpur in Behar to Peer Ali’s Patna, to Nana Saheb, Azimullah Khan and Tatia Tope’s Bithoor and Kanpur, to Laxmibai’s Jhansi, to Begum Hazrat Mahal and Moulvie Ahmed Shah’s Awadh and Lucknow, to Bakht Khan’s Bareilly, to Bahadur Shah Zafar and Feroze Shah’s Dilli. The innumerable heroes mentioned by Savarkar who rose up and led the local uprisings in town after town and kingdoms after kingdom all across the Gangetic plain, central India and even south of the Vindhyas are too long to be listed here. The other--those who fought with great “heroism” and “loyalty” on the side of the British and were mainly responsible for the victory of the British in almost all the battles are also mentioned with great feeling of revulsion by the author. Those who waited to see which side might win and remained neutral and ultimately threw their weight behind the British are also listed at length.

A panoramic view of history is difficult to narrate. In Mahabharata, Vyas used the artifice of “embedded journalist”--Sanjaya and his tele-vision to tell the story of the great battle of Kurukshetra. Here Savarkar uses no such artifice and with remarkable dexterity handles distances, places, times and events that take place over a battlefield of continental proportions, compared to Europe, and spanning several years. If his exclamations over bravery and heroism of patriots and fury over treachery by Indians, sound repetitive and sentimental, one just glides past them because of the wealth of information that he provides about a period about which we have been taught or told so little.

The story itself is very inspiring because it has not been told in this intensely nationalistic fashion in the last 150 years. On the other hand there is increasing evidence that British consciously suppressed all objective historiography much less nationalistic historiography and engaged in calculated character assassination of all the main leaders of uprising, be it Bahadur Shah Zafar, or Nana Saheb, or Tatia Tope or Begum Hazrat Mahal and so on.

The book extensively quotes fragments of truth that slipped through British eyewitness accounts of the uprising. Kaye, Ball, Malleson and others are frequently quoted to buttress author’s argument. However Savarakar hardly gives any kind of references to what he asserts about the extensive nature of preparation of the uprising, the methods of their organization, their statecraft and their vision. He mentions Swaraj and Swadharma as the guiding vision of the uprising but is deliciously vague about what they meant to the rebels.

Thus a historian might call this legendary in another sense of the word—full of legends rather than facts. From circumstantial evidence and logic we could infer that he may be right about many things that he asserts but an academic historian would probably baulk at it. Obviously he worked under very difficult circumstances while researching for the book in London. However there is no excuse for professional historians not following his leads up.

Another aspect of the book is that it was agit-prop at its best. In fact the book was extensively distributed by Ghadar Party amidst different units of the Indian army in their attempt to organize another widespread mutiny in the army in 1915 to coincide with a civilian uprising, a repeat of 1857 so to say. In fact Ghadar Party expressly chose the word Ghadar in its title not only to adduce revolutionary attributes to the organization but also to convey that “the Great Ghadar of 1857 could not achieve its aims and hence the task of the revolutionaries now, would be to complete it”. When British agents penetrated this attempt, and the leaders were arrested in hundreds in different cantonments, many copies of Savarkar’s book were found with the soldiers involved.

All in all even 100 years after being written, this incandescent piece of writing brings the events of 1857 to life and makes it worth reading to all interested in history of colonialism and India’s fight against it.

(Ghadar Jari Hai is a quarterly magazine produced from New Delhi, India. For more information write to S Raghavan, Editor,

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Ghadar of 1857

Ghadar Jari Hai, Vol.1, No. 2, Aug 15, 2007

Peepul ke neeche

Conversation with Amaresh Misra

This time we meet Amaresh Misra, to converse about the Great Ghadar of 1857. Amaresh Misra is a well known historian, free-lance journalist, civil rights activist and a script writer. In all his works, the effort has been to dispel stereotypes of western ‘Orientalism’, and invoke the diverse influences of Indian cultures and nationalities. His new book on 1857, War of Civilisations: 1857 AD (Rupa & Co) is to be published in September in two volumes. His other works include ‘Lucknow: Fire of Grace’, a city biography, ‘The Minister’s Wife’, a novel, and ‘Mangal Pandey: The true story of an Indian Revolutionary’. He has been contributing profusely on the subject in mass media. Shivanand Kanavi participated in this conversation with Amaresh.

Shivanand: The absence of well researched books on 1857 authored by Indians, prior to 1947 can be understood by the colonial censorship, (Savarkar's being an exception), but why is that there are so few post-independence? What are the real difficulties a historian faces while writing on 1857?

Amaresh: 1857 is a bugbear and an obsession. Many Indian and European writers have lost their focus and minds while studying the event. It is a very Asiatic, indigenous event. Its true study requires the explosion of Eurocentic and hitherto established Anglo-Indian perspectives. It also requires an insight into the Urdu-Persian-Awadhi-Islam-Sanatan Dharma-Mughal-Maratha-Sikh peasant world. The task simply, is too overwhelming. It is beyond the grasp of most of our city bred and English-speaking historians. For me too, a hardened scholar and political activist schooled in being unsentimental, it was very difficult maintaining the necessary distance from the material. I wrote the book, literally with a lump in my throat. I was drained emotionally.

In fact, most of the books on 1857, by Indian authors, lack even a rudimentary sense of nationalist, pro-people consciousness, or a passion for objective fact finding. Interestingly, sincere work on 1857 has only four examples--VD Savarkar's pioneering effort, Sunder Lal'a ‘Bharat men Angrezi Raj’ in Hindi, Ram Vilas Sharma's ‘San Sattavan ki Rajya Kranti aur Marxvaad’ again in Hindi, and PC Joshi's ‘1857: a symposium’. Savarkar today is a symbol of the Right. Ram Vilas Sharma and PC Joshi belonged to the Left.

Shivanand: What sources have you looked at to get the panoramic story of 1857?

Amaresh: Original manuscripts, British primary and secondary accounts, Urdu, Persian, Awadhi, and even Arabic records--you name it--from London to Patna. Gazetteers gathering dust in various Government departments were of particulalr help. I also included unpublished material, especially accounts in Hindi and Urdu. Another source was oral history, which I tried using to give a subjective perspective of participants in 1857 wars. A lot of work in English has been done by regional intellectuals and academicians, people concerned with bringing out what happened in 1857 in e.g. Orissa, Gujarat, Assam and the North East. These works were very helpful.

Shivanand: It has been a matter of great speculation, whether the Ghadar was planned before the mutinies started breaking out in the Bengal Army, what has been your conclusion?

Amaresh: Yes it was planned. It was a mass movement. But there seems to have been no fixed date, though the March-April-May months seem to have been fixed. Initially efforts were made to rouse the Bengal based Regiments. Meerut came to the fore, after the Mangal Pandey incident and the failure of the Behrampore-Barrackpore rising. Bahadur Shah Zafar, Wajid Ali Shah, Nana Saheb, Maulavi Ahmadullah Shah, Kunwar Singh and all other principal actors were active even before 1856 and Awadh's annexation. Waliullahites, revolutionary followers of Shah Waliullah, the 18th century Muslim cleric and social scientist--India's Rousseau and Adam Smith combined into one--were following the Dar-ul-Harb fatwa issued by Shah Abdul Aziz (Shah Waliullah's son) in 1803. The Fatwa made it imperative for every religious Muslim to make India's Independence his or her religious duty. The Fatwa was a watershed. It started a jihad, with anti-British, peasant revolution as its focus in Punjab and Bengal in the 1820s and 30s. Waliullahites, whom the British erroneously called Wahabis, were active in the 1840s. They were committed anti-Imperialist activists, a bit like Marxists of today. They had a network running from Hazara to Barrackpore. They were the ones who established a concord of Islam with Sanatan Dharma Hindus, in order to foment a rising against the British.

Shivanand: Was there a conscious attempt to spread the flames of the uprising all over India?

Amaresh: Yes--Bahadur Shah Zafar had established study circles, on the pattern of old Mughal Pir-Murid structure. Nana Saheb and Azimullah Khan had visited all major stations of North India in some guise or the other. Sadhus and Maulavis were found preaching ‘sedition’ from Gilgit in Kashmir to Madurai in Tamil Nadu. Right through May and June 1857, leaflets appeared in all the centres of Bombay Army and Madras Army, saying specifically that Bahadur Shah Zafar has been reinstated as ‘The Emperor of India’ and the British Raj is over. Then during the 1857 war, mass actions in North and West India exhibited amazing coordination. The Neemuch Brigade was moving from Neemuch to Agra, where a large British garrison was stationed. The British Persian Expedition Force landed in Bombay. Under Colonel Woodburn, a British field force set forth from Bombay via Marathwada to intercept the Neemuch force. But the June 1857, risings in Aurangabad, Nagpur and several other Marathwada-Vidarbha regions, delayed Woodburn's advance. The Neemuch Brigade was able to reach Agra on 5th July and defeat the British.

Shivanand: Often the leaders of Ghadar have been painted with the broad brush of decadent feudalism, what was the vision of the leaders of the Ghadar, for an India freed from colonial yoke, in political, social and economic terms?

Amaresh: The 1857 programme offered: State aid for trade, State protection to indigenous industries, land to the tiller, substantial salaries to middle class professionals, irrigation to agriculture, economic and socio-political patronage and economic incentives to intellectuals, power to the peasant and the village panchayat, self respect to every Indian, freedom of faith and expression, equality to castes, and the aggressive revival of Indian nationalism based on Ganga-Yamuna Tehzeeb. Therefore, the 1857 programme was one of, in Marxist terms, a progressive, nationalist, bourgeois-democratic revolution. To say that they, 1857 leaders, were feudal and decadent is a cruel, Eurocentric joke.

Shivanand: India of the 18th century has been painted as dark, full of superstition, customs like sati, no development of science and technology, no visionary political and military leadership, no feeling of patriotism, various princes and nawabs wallowing in petty self interest and so on. Hence it is said the East India Company could intervene and take over territory easily. How true is that picture?

Amaresh: Nothing can be further from the truth. Sawai Jai Singh of Jaipur built his observatory in the 18th century. The circulation of blood theory, originally discovered by Bhava Misra in the 16th century, acquired further development. It was in this period that Indian entrepreneurship flourished. The Mughal State itself was a military-entrepreneur State. In the Indian context, the army always represented ‘peasants in uniform’. Mughal capitalism was peasant, and not burgher driven. The class basis of Mughal capitalism was different fundamentally from European capitalism. In the 18th century, Mysore, Maratha and the Sikh powers were all competitive, modernized, bourgeois princedoms, as much as England was a bourgeois State. In fact, the East India Company was attracted by Indian development and not underdevelopment. In the 18th century not one but two Industrial revolutions were proceeding apace--one in India and one in Europe. The Indian revolution was killed to finance the European one.

Shivanand: Based on the treachery of a few Sikh princes it has been said that Sikh's did not participate in the uprising, what does your research show?

Amaresh: It was only the Sikh Princes of the cis-Sutlej area--Patiala, Kapurthala, Nabha, Jind--who sided with the British. But they had opposed even Ranjit Singh--in fact remnants of Ranjit Singh's Khalsa army, fought for Bahadur Shah Zafar at Sialkot, Ferozepur, Amritsar, Gurdaspur, Lahore, right uptill Ambala. At Ropar, Mohar Singh declared a Khalsa Raj under Bahadur Shah Zafar. Then even the cis-Sutlej Sikh soldiers revolted in Benaras, Jaunpur and Mhow in 1857, and then again at Dera Ismail Khan in 1858.

Shivanand: What role did Hindu, Muslim and Sikh religious organizations and individuals play during the uprising?

Amaresh: Swami Vrijanand, Swami Omnanand, Swami Purnanand, Dayanand Saraswati, Shirdi Saibaba, the Dwarika-Badrinath-Puri-Sringeri Shankaracharyas all played crucial roles. The religious Shaiv, Vaishnav and Naga akhadas played a major role. Lalpuri Gosain, the descendant of Anupgiri, a major 18th century leader of an entrepreneur/ascetic order, fought in Nana Saheb's army. From Delhi, to Hyderabad, via Deoband, and West UP, the Muslim Ulema and Waliullahites, played a memorable role. They acted as propagandists and fighters. Then Sikh leaders of the later Namdhari-Kuka movement supported the revolution.

Shivanand: You have made the startling claim that over 10 million people were killed by the British in revenge for the uprising. Can you substantiate the claim?

Amaresh: It seems that fearing defeat, the British initiated a policy of mass killings. Indians, especially of UP, have grown up with tales of British atrocities during the Ghadar. But till date, no historian has ever tried to put a figure on how many Indians died. Whole cities were looted, innocents were massacred, villages razed to the ground. The killings were so massive that Awadh and Bhojpur faced a labor slump till the 1890s. More than 20,00,000 letters returned back from Awadh addresses. British labor surveys and road department reports state clearly that more than 25,00,000 died in Awadh alone. Records of the Muslim Ulema, and Hindu akhadas also show that more than 50,00,000 of their people and followers died. In Bhojpur and Bihar, labor records show a 25% slump. Calculating backwards I reached the first approximate figure of 10 million.

Shivanand: the destruction of the economy of Indo-Gangetic plain especially what is called Bi-Ma-R-U, (Bihar-Madhya Pradesh-Rajasthan-Uttar Pradesh) seems to be linked to 1857.

Amaresh: Dr. Ram Manohar Lohia, spoke about the ‘forced’ backwardness of the Hindi-Urdu belt, or BI-MA-R-U (Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh) area, specifically due to 1857. I too have mentioned the fact that it was because of the massive killings in the region, details of which are there in the answers sent, that labor was not available for even the kind of meagre development colonial authorities were prepared for. This is apart from the fact that fearing Hindi-Urdu belt's radical potentialities, the British deliberately refrained from developing it. In fact, colonial development was restricted to Calcutta and Bombay, mainly because the colonial middle classes there supported the British during 1857. Nearly all intellectuals of the Bengal renaissance supported the British. This should not be taken as an outright condemnation of the 19th century Bengal impulse, though it was definitely not a renaissance. The real Indian renaissance started during Akbar’s time and was continuing until the 18th when the British cut it short. The pre-British Indian renaissance was in fact more ‘modern’ than the Bengal one. It was indigenous. In Europe, Martin Luther’s act of translating the bible from Latin into German is considered the revolutionary turning point of European quest for renaissance and enlightened progress. In India Tulsidas translated and reinterpreted the Sanskrit Ramayana into Awadhi in the 16th century. Shah Waliullah translated the Koran from Arabic into Persian in the 18th century and later his son Shah Abdul Aziz (author of the famous patriotic fatwa) published the Koran in Urdu. So even going by the European yardstick, renaissance had already occurred in India before the British came. It is only the tendency of Indian English speaking intellectuals to look down upon our indigenous languages and tradition that we see ‘renaissance’ in the efforts of 19th century conservative, metropolitan elites to effect a minimum of reform, and that too in a pro-colonial framework. The Bengal-Bombay renaissance in fact laid the basis of colonial modernity with all its attendant problems of communalism and fascism.

(Ghadar Jari Hai is a quarterly magazine produced from New Delhi, India. For more information write to S Raghavan, Editor,

Indian Science: Challenges

Business India, January 2001
Mofussil science

Science in India has echoed the developments in the West with hardly any conceptual or experimental breakthroughs. The current state of science education is alarming

Shivanand Kanavi

“In India, we let existing institutions die and meanwhile plan to build new ones," is the bitter comment made by M.M. Sharma, a Fellow of Royal Society (FRS). Sharma was referring to the plight of our universi­ties, of which he has first-hand experience, having worked in UDCT (of the Bombay University) all his professional life. Today, we have 280 universities but cannot compare any of them to what BHU or Allahabad or Calcutta or Aligarh were in the 1940s and 1950s as centres of science. It will look prepos­terous to even consider comparing them to Harvard, MIT, Caltech, Stanford, Cornell, Berkeley or Cambridge, which are some of the main centres of frontline science in the world today.

While the number of universities have prolifer­ated, they have become hotbeds of politics for state governments. "Universities have basically become examining bodies. Ninety nine per cent of the time is spent in organising examinations and results and convocation," adds Sharma. Today, even top universities have no research budget and wait for grants to come from CSIR or various government ministries like Department of Science & Technology, Department of Bio-Tech­nology, etc. Libraries are languishing as they have no money to buy research journals and Internet infrastructure is primitive. The interest of students in basic sciences too is waning as more and more look for some kind of professional education and those that finally take to science are mostly reluctant ones.

Some of the best equipped institutions and laboratories in India are outside the university system and they take no part in science education except for some of them registering students for PhD. Industrial funding for science is not forth­coming. The days of Tatas establishing the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai, two of our finest science institutions - seem to have vanished. Neither is industry taking up reju­venation of a few of our universities. In this regard, the interest shown by IIT alumni in contributing to their rejuvenation is commendable though ironical; after all in India, the IITs are supposed to be the rich cousins of universities.

Today, we have very few FRS - just about 17 ­who are alive and working in India,, leave alone Nobel laureates. Only one of them is in his forties and the rest obviously did their work in 1960s and early 1970s. Clearly they were products of university education in the 1950s and 1960s. Are we going to see some more added to this list in the first decade of the 21st century? If there is no serious thinking and action on this front by acad­emics, scientists, industry and government right now, all talk of India becoming a global knowledge player, etc, will prove to be undiluted bombast.

A few bright spots in this dark scenario are the govern­ment's Swarna Jayanthi Fellowships. Sixteen of them have been awarded to young bright scientists in their thirties. They will get packages equal to directors and secretaries of the government and handsome grants for books and equip­ment. Besides the Science Talent Search fellowships of NCERT given to school and college students, CSIR has just started a scheme for selecting the top 50 school children from each state and giving them various incentives like scholarships, visits to top laboratories and interaction with scientists, etc.

The fact that the scientific community realises the urgency of stemming the rot from whatever meagre resources it has - mainly constituting ideas - was apparent in the first Indian Science Congress of the new millennium held in Pune in the first week of January. Normally, a gerontocracy of Indian science, gives all the keynote lectures, Millennium lectures, evening lectures etc. and the delegates go sight­seeing with their families. However, this science congress presided over by R.A. Mashelkar tried to be different. All lectures were given by 22 bright scientists in their forties. There were special sessions for children and students as well.
The result overwhelmed not only the scientists gathered in the Pune University campus but all civic and police authorities of Pune. Lakhs of school and college students poured in not only from Pune but from Jalgaon, Dhuliya, Akola, Malegaon, Sangli, etc - the mofussil towns of Maharashtra. It led to long traffic jams and even mild stampedes as the infra­structure at Pune University creaked to accommodate the nearly half a million visitors over four days of the congress. Children and their parents packed water bottles and picnic hampers and rushed to the venue in the early morning chill to stand in the queue.

So if Indian science has been characterised as imitating the western metropolises then today it appears that kids from mofussil India will save the day for science while the Indian city slickers dream of Silicon Valley and derivatives trading on Wall Street or Dalal Street.