Sabyasachi Bhattacharya

Half a century ago D. D. Kosambi — whose birth centenary merits celebration at the national level — characterised the great uprising as ‘feudal’ and yet the final verdict on its significance was positive and it was perceived as a glorious struggle. 1857 was a rare moment in the development of the common people’s political consciousness. Unsurprisingly, it has become the metaphor for the freedom struggle.

When one reflects on the various interpretations, the various meanings read in the uprising of 1857 in course of the next 150 years, one is reminded of an anecdote about Mao Zedong. A famous French journalist, during an interview with Mao, asked him: what in his opinion was the global impact of the French Revolution of 1789? Reportedly Mao smiled and said: “It is too early to say!” That was a philosophical joke on the ever-changing meaning of history and perhaps it is relevant to the changing approach to the meanings of the events of 1857.

Many layers of meaning in the history of 1857 have been exposed in the last century and a half. A monotonic representation of the great uprising is obviously untenable today. In part, this is because the uprising of 1857 meant different things to different men at that time, except that it was to all the rebellious natives a battle against the ‘feringhee.’ As historical research has progressed, it has been demonstrated that different casus belli brought in different regions to the point of participation in the uprising. Regional studies suggest that although the uprising was directed at a common enemy, different causalities were at work in mobilisation in different places in the wide swathe of the sub-continent up in arms in 1857.

In part, interpretations of 1857 have changed owing to a shift of historical research away from an exclusive focus on the narrative of the great, the political elite, towards a focus on the lesser folk. This trend began with the exploration of the economic basis of the rebellion, the grievances of that section of the north Indian peasantry who formed the recruiting base of the Bengal Army. The search has extended to the civilian population who joined the ‘disturbances.’ And now the role of marginalised social groups, particularly the tribals on the edge of the peasant community, is being thoroughly investigated. Current interest in gender issues has also brought women into the line of vision of historians of the uprising. A different narrative than what was available to us before is slowly emerging. As Leo Tolstoy observed while chronicling the Napoleonic War in War and Peace, the story of the generals and other officers is always different from that of the subalterns and both are different from what the common soldiers see, although they are all in the same battle. A totally new angle of vision opens up when we look at the experience and perceptions of the commonality in 1857, although it is no doubt extremely difficult to recover the latter’s voice in the sources commonly available.

A third source of diversity and change in the interpretation of the uprising of 1857 is perhaps a change in our perspective with the passage of time. Different generations have looked upon the historical experience of 1857 in different ways, since each generation interrogated history in terms of concerns shaped by the history of its own times.

D.D. Kosambi, whose birth centenary in 2007 merits celebration at the national level, wrote at the age of 17 at Harvard an essay on the uprising of 1857; he expanded and published it in 1939, a now forgotten article titled ‘The Road to Kanpur’ in the Fergusson and Willingdon College Magazine of Pune. He wrote admiringly of the “proletarian heroes” who shed their blood in 1857 but he did not fail to note the “fratricidal loyalty” to the British displayed by some Indian sepoys whose “sword opened the first secure path for the grimy civilisation of Birmingham, Manchester and Sheffield in many an unhappy corner of the world.” Kosambi’s characterisation of the uprising of 1857 was shaped by his understanding of its class character. In 1954 he held the view that “Indian feudalism tried its strength against the British bourgeoisie for the last time in the unsuccessful rebellion of 1857” (Monthly Review, vol. VI, New York).

In the meanwhile a classic nationalist evaluation of 1857 came from Jawaharlal Nehru, incarcerated in the Ahmednagar Fort Jail, in 1944: “it was much more than a military mutiny and it spread rapidly and assumed the character of a popular rebellion and a war of independence.” (This text was later published in The Discovery of India, London, 1947). However, in some ways Nehru agreed with Kosambi on the significance of 1857 when he added: “essentially it was a feudal outburst, headed by feudal chiefs and their followers and aided by the wide-spread anti-foreign sentiments.” Perhaps a notion of the arrow of Time pointing in a certain direction, the idea of Progress through history, was inherent in both perspectives. There is a sort of family resemblance in the interpretative stance of Nehru and Kosambi, even though a Whiggish idea of progress, qualified by the nationalist thought tradition, was more in evidence in one and the Marxist influence in the other.

In the euphoria of the centenary celebrations of the uprising, Nehru’s assessment changed a little. By 1957 the focus was more on the question, how national was the rebellion? That question was central to the official history of the uprising commissioned by the Government of India as well as the research of contemporary critics of that history. Nehru claimed the uprising as a part of the nationalist heritage. So did Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, the Minister of Education, in the long Introduction he wrote for the official history.

If the narrative of progress and nation formation were dominant in the 20th century, what are the changes we notice in the meanings we look for or inscribe on 1857 today? Some new questions are being raised, from the perspective of gender history, the role of Dalit and tribal communities, and the response of the oppressed peasantry to 1857. But possibly the most prominent of the issues debated now is the role of religiosity. In part, this concern has been coloured by the recent recrudescence of religious fundamentalism and the instrumentalisation of religious issues for political purposes. In part, it stems from the colonial historiographic tradition that constructed the image of Pax Britannica holding together India in spite of the disunity of communities driven by religious sentiments. From that point of view, the uprising was triggered by the offence caused by animal fat in the composition of the grease of the new Enfield rifle. An extension of this line of interpretation has been that the mutiny inspired by religious sentiments was also in a broad sense a reaction to Christian evangelical activities, that it was actually a ‘jihad,’ and that its genealogy extends backwards and forward to Shah Waliullah, Wahabism, the Deobandis, the Talibans, and even Islamic fundamentalism in our times. The evidence for this interpretative trend is rather thin.

Religious rhetoric was undoubtedly used in the proclamations, that is, the public pronouncements of the leaders of the uprising, but that is not sufficient reason to characterise the rebellion as one motivated by religious sentiments. It is also true that words like ‘jihad’ and ‘deen’ occur frequently in the rebel discourse as reflected in the leaders’ public pronouncements, in the form of ‘proclamations’. However, language experts point to the fact that ‘religious war’ was only one of several meanings of the term jihad in contemporary usage. Moreover, religious identity was one of several identities that figured in the rebel discourse — there were identities defined in terms of region and language, caste, occupation and place in the economic strata, solidarity due to traditional loyalty to ruling houses or princely families, and so forth. In this situation of a multiplicity of identities, different identities came to the surface in different conjunctures in course of mobilisation and conflict. It will be a mistake to privilege the religious identity above all others as the key to understand 1857.

There is another reason why the tendency of some recent interpretations to highlight religious identities and motivations appears questionable. If indeed it was a jihad, there would have been few takers for the idea of Hindu-Muslim unity in the uprising against the British. That unity was given a centrality by the leaders of the uprising. You see this in proclamations of Bahadur Shah, General Bakht Khan in Delhi, the Imams of Lucknow and Allahabad as much as in the proclamations of Nana Saheb or Lakshmibai Rani of Jhansi. Among the common masses, the same spirit was reflected in the declarations of the Meerut rebels on May 11, 1857 when they captured Delhi, and the actions of the sipahis who fought side by side. Muslim sipahis fought under the command of Nana Sahib or Tantiya Tope, and Hindu sipahis under General Bakht Khan in Delhi or Dilwar Khan, the lieutenant of Kunwer Singh. Kings and commoners paid no heed to communal boundaries in a common endeavour.

Half a century ago, Kosambi, and some like-minded historians, characterised the uprising of 1857 as ‘feudal’ and yet the final verdict on its significance was positive and it was perceived as a glorious struggle. Apart from the obvious fact that it was part of the struggle against imperialism, we may surmise another reason. 1857 was an unusual moment in the development of the common people’s political consciousness. Consider the significance of the Meerut rebels declaring Bahadur Shah the Emperor, and the same declaration later by numerous regional potentates. It was an act of political choice made by common people as well as the traditional political elite, who till then had conquerors and their successors for their rulers. Likewise, the act of mutiny in the army or defiance of state authority by civilian population were acts of political choice. Such deliberate choices of a political kind were made by the common people in rare moments in our history. 1857 was such a moment and that is why it is memorable to our people. That may be the reason why 1857 has become the metaphor for the freedom struggle.

(This article is based on the D. D. Kosambi Birth Centenary Memorial Lecture at Pune by Professor Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, Chairman, Indian Council of Historical Research.)