Peepul ke neeche
Ghadar of 1857
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, email@example.com)