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

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.