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Updated: March 23, 2010 11:02 IST

Fascinating account of rebellious movements

NALINI RAJAN
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The events in this fascinating book took place in the 1850s and 1860s across three countries — Britain, the United States, and India. Rajmohan Gandhi's descriptions of those events are graphic. If the American civil war centred on the issue of slavery, the Indian sepoy revolt exposed the class and caste divisions in civil society. In both cases, the British government, headed by myopic men like Lord Palmerston, acted ungraciously and undemocratically.

Despite its human rights' rhetoric, Britain refused to support Abraham Lincoln's anti-slavery stance, hoping for the bifurcation of America and the monopoly of the southern cotton trade. Without the leadership of a Lincoln-like figure, the Indian rebels — including Nana Sahib, Tatya Tope, Firoz Shah, and Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi — lacked focus on issues of governance. Equally, they were vulnerable to charges (some true, some fabricated) of massacring British women and children. Except for Nana Sahib, who escaped to an unknown destination, the rebel leaders were killed in battle or executed. In the aftermath of the 1857 revolt, Indians were derisively dubbed ‘niggers' by the colonial British. What is more, alarmed by the Hindu-Muslim unity displayed during the revolt, the British resorted to the ‘divide and rule' policy by fostering suspicion and rivalry between the two communities.

Record

Extraordinarily, both the 1857 Indian sepoy revolt and the American civil war (1861-1865) were witnessed and recorded by William Howard Russell of The Times (in London), a travelling Irish journalist and a celebrity of sorts having been acquainted with well-known writers such as Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, and Anthony Trollope.

It was probably because Russell had sympathy for the underdog that he aroused the ire of some of his more conservative contemporaries. In a letter, titled ‘The Sahib and the Nigger', to The Times on August 28, 1858, Russell noted astutely that “The habit of speaking of all natives as niggers has recently become quite common … Every man of the mute, white-turbaned file who with crossed arms, glistening eyes and quick ears stands motionless along the mess-room table, hears it every time a native is named, knows it to be an expression of contempt.” And while witnessing the auction of a young African slave in Montgomery, he wrote in the newspaper: “There is no sophistry which could persuade me the man was not a man — he was, indeed, by no means my brother, but assuredly he was a fellow-creature.”

Views

Apart from giving Russell's accounts of the two revolts, Gandhi puts together the views of the American and Indian sides about each other's rebellions. American commentators started out with expression of sympathy for the sepoys, but soon sided with Britain, following reports of the massacres of white women and children. On the Indian side, pro-abolitionist opinions were voiced by the literate elite, who were all too conscious of the trials and tribulations of being called ‘niggers'.

It is observations like these that make for great reading. Unfortunately, Gandhi includes, in the opening and closing chapters, tedious interludes on thinkers like Leo Tolstoy, Bankimchandra Chatterjee, Sayyid Ahmed Khan, Allan Octavian Hume, and Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar, who had little or nothing to say about the two revolts. While it is true that Karl Marx and Jotiba Phule followed these events with great interest, the ideas of both could have easily — and elegantly — been woven into the main narrative. By tightly editing the manuscript and weeding out the superfluous portions, Gandhi could have greatly enhanced the value of his book.

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