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Updated: September 4, 2010 16:05 IST

Revisionism at its best

SHELLEY WALIA
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Tatya Tope's Operation Red Lotus by Parag Tope
Tatya Tope's Operation Red Lotus by Parag Tope

The book sheds new light on one of Indian history's most important events: the 1857 rebellion.

It has often been argued by the early post-independence generation that the Anglo-Indian War of 1857 was the precursor of the nationalist movement, though many Western historians regard it as scattered revolts by peasant landowners with no sense of solidarity against a common enemy. On the other hand, the Marxist historian sees it as a class war against the landlords and the colonial state. Whatever the school of thought may be, the Indian Rebellion was certainly, in the words of C.A. Bayly, Professor of History at Cambridge, “the First War of Independence that some scholars of the 1950s incautiously proclaimed.” He goes on to write: ‘The mental distance between the rebels of 1857 and the nationalists of the twentieth century was not perhaps as great as we once thought. The crowds who gathered in 1947 at the gates of the Lucknow Residency and the Bibighar at Cawnpore may have had a more profound sense of history than the professional historians and politicians.'

It is not easy to come to grips with the peaceful exit of the British when one considers the horrors, the fanaticism, the rage that is so visible in the bloodiest drama of colonial history: the siege and massacre of the European garrison stationed at Kanpur during the great rebellion of 1857. This resulted in a heartless massacre of thousands of Indians who were either hanged or tied to guns and blown to smithereens. Tatya Tope's Operation Red Lotus gives a brilliant account of this historic event, emphasising the true significance of this war as well as a sustained interest in the dramatic battle manoeuvres of Tantya Tope who is the ancestor of the family that has, with sustained interest in the 1857 insurrection, skilfully put together a work of historical significance.

This cycle of massacre and retribution is integral to the imperial strategy of advancing the empire and silencing the critics. Similar to Custer's debacle at Little Bighorn that presaged the slaughter at Wounded Knee, or the Zullus' triumph at Isandhlwana that led to the gruesome massacre at Ulundi, or the plundering of Khartoum which brought in its wake the carnage at Omdurman, the Indian uprising in Kanpur provoked a similar reaction from the colonizers who justified their action by showing to their skeptical countrymen the moral depravity of natives who were capable of raping and killing their ‘benefactors'. Such skirmishes legitimised colonial foreign acquisitions, as, back in England, a lobby continuously held colonisation to be immoral but, when rebellions occurred and English men, women and children were killed, the cause of the invader was upheld and harsh steps taken to punish the natives applauded and approved. Within imperial discourse, enslavement, expropriation and extermination had to be justified in a series of rhetorical formulations that depended on categories trumpeted as fundamental and universal.

The 19th century is full of such examples; which demonstrate that European political thinkers and strategists consciously evoked a Hegelian philosophy that bestowed on the coloniser the right to engage in the historical process of the colonies. in the name of progress and modernisation, slaughter, treachery, plunder, destruction and invasion into unknown cultures were justified with the argument that the empire, in the words of Seamus Deane, “was performing its world-historical obligation to its destiny”.

Apart from the subterranean imperial strategies of dominance, the British rule in India subverted the dreams and hopes of a people who longed for freedom. This cannot be grasped without the true nature of the war which has been variously called rebellion, uprising, insurrection, revolt or more famously ‘the Sepoy mutiny'. From an unbiased picture that emerges from various historical accounts along with this study of Tatya Tope's role in the war and his military acumen, which was behind the strategic movements of the troops,it is possible to clearly view it as a war of independence.

Interestingly, Parag Tope, the scholar behind this monumental effort at writing revisionary history, shows how the Marathas and the Mughals joined hands to begin the process of independence that would finally culminate in the end of colonialism in India. This Hindu-Muslim collaboration deeply disturbed the English rulers who then tried to put a wedge between the two.

The Indic way of life had to be preserved and this formed the impetus behind the war. It goes without saying that very intelligent military planning lay behind (fashioned/energized) this endeavour in which the forces of patriotism and sentiments of motherland became the emotional driving force behind the campaign. Added to this was the significance of troop movements and management of finance that became vital for any hope of success.

The book, for the first time, brings out the translations of letters written by Tatya Tope that amply indicate the efforts of Tatya and Nana Sahib in setting up a parallel government, a tangible oppositional stance that would go a long way in asserting the drive for independence. Corroborated with maps and diagrams, this book gives concrete proof of the many wars won against the British, which have been erroneously misrepresented by English historians. Innumerable campaigns led by Tatya Tope finally forced the English to realise that certain concession had to be given, a move that would finally bring the freedom struggle closer to its dreams.

The recognition is not given only to the soldiers; the involvement of the civilians is also substantially represented here. This is a book that goes a long way in deconstructing western histories and demonstrating how a family of descendents can come together to set right the record of one of Indian history's most important events. Though the book is written by the decedents of Tatya Tope, it goes beyond mere prejudice or exaltation of their valiant ancestor. Indeed, it gives ample credit to the contribution made by both the soldiers and the civilians who unreservedly fought and opposed British administration in India.

Tatya Tope's Operation Red Lotus; Parag Tope, Rupa, Rs. 595

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