The image of 1857 in Indian history is marked with great hope, desire, aspiration, rebel violence as well as despair, agony and horror. What was hope and desire to the rebels was a veritable horror and agony to the Europeans. Europeans, because the revolt happened although against the British Indian colonial state but far from remaining confined as a struggle only against the British, the revolt demonstrated itself as a struggle against Europeans in India as whole. On their part the Europeans as a whole identified themselves with the British Indian colonial state. At one stage in Calcutta not only the British, but the French, German and other Europeans were ready to assist Governor-General Canning's administration against the revolt. In Europe Pope IX, the French government were eager to help the British Indian state to get rid of the rebels. On the other hand during the rebellion in India the courtiers of the king of Burma were urging him get rid of the newly introduced British colonial rule by seizing the opportunity. Thus what was revolt to the Indians was lawlessness and disorder to the British, rather Europeans. When Indians were killing the British, a Zamindar, not Indian, a German Zamindar Cohen sheltered and saved the British fugitives because Cohen was an European, the British were also European.
The morning of 10th May started of Meerut just like other Sunday mornings. In the military cantonment also naturally it was a holiday. Hugh Gough, (later General Hugh Gough) wearing frock-coat and white overall visited the church with his friend Macnabb. Gough told Macnabb that he was wearing a wrong lace of an alpaca. In church they met and chatted with Mr. and Mrs. Greathed, the Commissioner of Meerut. Colonel A.R.D. Mackenzie decided not to go out and so he was spending the holiday in home and was reading a book. In Delhi, in the morning of 11th May Colonel Edward Vibart other officers laughed and chatted after their Chhota Haziri (breakfast) and then returned home. Not only the early days of May 1857 but the preceding months in Delhi or Kanpur were witnessing usual routines. In Delhi aged Bahadur Shah, the descendant of the great Mughals spending the last day of his life in writing poetry. In Kanpur military cantonment a frequent visitor was a Maharaja who used to play nice Billiards ad used to enjoy it with his European companions. This was Nana Saheb, the adopted on the Baji Rao, the Peshwa. While pursuing the routine course of life none of these people had foreseen a tempest where Europeans will tremble and cry in despair. Men like Bahadur Shah or Nana Saheb became habituated in passing the days in colonial present only with the memory of glorious ancestors and were far away from conceiving a plan to end the colonial rule.
It was of course a different routine for numerous peasants, adibasi peasants, poorer section and other have-nots among whom ordinary soldiers or sepoys who themselves were peasants in soldier's uniform constituted a significant proportions. They were compelled to confront a market where they regularly used to see that price of rice and wheat were increasing. In fact in Bengal prices of rice in 1857 was 18.7 seers per rupee which was 42 seers per rupee in 1757. They were also compelled to face omnipotent mahajans, planers and the white sahibs who were administrators, businessmen, government officers, army officers who were filled dup with contempt for "natives". The object of contempt were the native peasants adibasis, native sepoys who always found that the sahibs never failed to identify them as badmash (ruffian) and to get rid of the scourge of the badmashes the sahibs established law, court, police and jails. For this reason, for several decades preceding 1857, to the peasants, adibasis and other have-nots the "Saheb rule is trouble full/ "shall we go or shall we stay", as the Santals expressed it very aptly. The peasants, adibasis, sepoys and other have-nots not on felt no attachment for the colonial rule but several times tried to get rid of it, like the Kols and lower Bengal peasants in 1831, Santals in 1855 and many others.
In the first century of colonial rule every advance of the colonial state on the social life of the indigenous population regularly and systematically marginalized local traditions and customs. This ultimately resulted in an all embracing attack on Hindu and Muslims as a religious community. Religion arrived in the picture because indigenous traditions and customs were deeply embedded in, and received legitimacy from religion. Thus the colonial state has been identified as a Christian state ready to infiltrate and wipe out every indigenous tradition and custom which were non-Christian. In 1857 the indigenous population was not in a position to formulate a secular programme to resist the colonial state. Naturally under that circumstance it became imperative to resist a Christian colonial state by invoking the idea of defending the non-Christian indigenous traditions.
The economic and administrative pressure and socio-cultural marginalization of the indigenous population further aggravated due to the application of a course of annexation of principalities by the colonial state. Ever since the Battle of Buxar in 1764 the history of the sub-continent was regular and systematic annexation and subjugation of independent kingdoms and imposition of colonial economy and administration over them. Mysore was subjugated after Tipu Sultan's death in 1799, the imperial capital Delhi in 1803, then gradually Marathas, Sikhs etc. The decades preceding 1857 witnessed the subjugation of Martha states of Satara, then Jhansi, all total 15 independent principalities and this finally culminated in the annexation of Awadh in 1856. All the annexations resulted in immediate unemployment for civil and military officials of former rulers. Annexation resulted not only in unemployment but poverty for several types of dependents of former rulers, religious mendicants, artisans, servants and others.
Thus in the decades before 1857 there existed widespread discontent beneath the surface of apparent peace. Even the apparent peace was not a continuous peace since it was regularly interrupted by adibasi peasant and peasant resistances like Kols, Bhils, Santals and there was a steady increase in gang robbery and dacoity. By 1857 both the number and type of the aggrieved population increased. This included peasants, adibasi peasants, artisans, jobless or marginalized nobles and aristocrats, religious mendicants and all the other have-nots. There required no exclusive group of conspirators to instigate the aforementioned type of people to rise against the colonial state since thee already existed a situation awaiting the spark.
When the torrent came in the months of May-June 1857 which Thomas Lowe termed more aptly as "moral cyclone", the colonial administrators became spellbound. That the sepoys can revolt was informed to Hugh Gough, Chaplain Edward Rotton, Charles Griffiths and probably to some other army or civil officers. But the army and the civil administration preferred to treat the warnings as mere rumours and gossips because their understanding of the situation and their intelligence inputs never warned them about any planed conspiracy against the Raj. On the other hand men like Nana Saheb, Kunwar Singh, Bahadur Saha Jafar, Wajid Ali Shah or a woman like Rani Lakshmi Bai all preferred to accept the legal entity of the colonial state. For this reason Nana Saheb sent Azimullah to London to convince the Court of Directors about hi demand of pension; Rani Lakshmi Bai wrote many letters to convince the state about her demand and this was the position of all others. But although these people either grudgingly or due to compulsion accepted the authority of the colonial state, the general people had a different view. Despite the overbearing presence of the colonial state the peasants, adibasis, artisans, nobles, sepoys and other have nots still used to regard their headmen as the actual leaders and legitimate authorities of the country and society. When Kunwar Singh used to go out for a walk, people used to stand up in his presence, used to remain silent and courteous. People used to give similar treatment to Nana Saheb, Khan Bahadur Khan, Rani Lakshmi Bai and above all obviously to Bahadur Shah Jafar, the last Mughal emperor.
When the "moral cyclone" came in 1857 people could not think of anybody else but of Bahadur Shah Jafar, Nana Saheb, Kunwar Singh, Khan Bahadur Khan, Prince Firoz Shah, Rana Beni Madho of Shankarpur, Raja Jaylal Singh, Rani Lakshmi Bai as their leaders and virtually persuaded and compelled them to accept leadership. After accepting the mantle of leadership after some initial hesitations most of these leaders gave committed leadership, formed national governments and tried to give a maturity to the movement.
The present study is a reassessment of the history of 1857 keeping in mind the aforementioned issues. From contemporary historiography down to the historiography after nearly 150 years the revolt of 1857 is generally treated as result of a hatched out conspiracy. The Indian nationalists, later the Marxists and Subaltern School tried to combat the conspiracy theory. But methodological problem and sometimes constitutionalist approach from their part resulted in misinterpretation. For this reason the second chapter discusses in detail the problems and perspectives of the historiography of 1857. This helped to understand the major questions like whether the revolt of 1857 was really a conspiracy? If not, then was it a spontaneous outburst? This discussion thus guided us to locate the possible causes of the rebellion. This discussion also guided us to formulate a framework about the nature and character or more appropriately the vision of the movement which is discussed in a subsequent chapter. The revolt exhibited a lot of passion, desire and boundless hope. So, what the rebels were trying to get? What was their vision? The discussion on this crucial question ranges from military mutiny to national revolt, peasant revolt and restoration. But there can be other possibilities also if the effort is given to understand the rebel perception.
The colonial rule established a distinct system, an order. The colonial order necessitated to order the resource use strategy of society and state. The resource use strategy gave birth to new classes, groups as well as responses from the part of the indigenous society. The third chapter initially surveyed the elementary aspect of the pre-colonial order followed by a detailed survey of the economy, administration and the resistances of the first century of colonial rule. Since this study subscribes to the view that a theory of conspiracy fails to explain why the revolt originated, specially because a large number of peasant, and adibasi peasant also participated in the revolt so it is necessary to have a survey of the alltagsgeschicte of the general society.
The revolt was an act of sudden change from colonial order to disorder. The very act of revolt resulted in a complete breakdown of the colonial order. The fourth chapter narrates how the colonial order turned into a disorder through the very act of revolt. A detailed narrative of the revolt in Bengal Presidency is given after a narrative of the situation in other parts of India.
The rebel disorder was not a permanent feature. Rebel disorder was followed by rebel order. Rebel violence eliminated effective presence of Europeans because rebel violence created rebellious terror for the Europeans. Absence of Europeans paved the way to establish rebel governments and rebellious terror and thus rebel government gave birth to a distinct rebel order. The fifth chapter discussed about the violence and order of the rebels. The rebels established national governments and issued many proclamations. This indicates that along with a destructive programme the rebels also had a constructive vision after abolishing the vestiges of the colonial state. This chapter tried to locate the nature of rebel violence and rebel order.
To combat rebellious terror and rebel order the colonial state initiated domination and state terror. The sixth chapter discusses the mode of suppression of the revolt by the colonial state. This chapter tried to answer why the colonial state took recourse to state terror. The chapter ended with the discussion on whether ultimately state domination in 1857 was successful in completely dominating the rebellious zeal.
When the revolt broke out at that time Calcutta, as Kolkata was known, was not only capital of British India, it was also a centre of learning. But, the Bengali intelligentsia of Kolkata instead of supporting the rebellion generally opposed it. Although under colonial curricula the Bengali intelligentsia learnt about liberalism, ideals of French revolution etc. but all of this became bookish learning. This could happen because the introduction of Shakespearean tradition under colonial rule resulted in the growth of a new Weltanschauung of indigenous society and history. The seventh chapter seeks to explain why a considerable proportion of the Bengali intelligentsia opposed the revolt and wanted restoration of the Raj although many of them had no financial tie or vested interest in the colonial state.
The eighth chapter attempts to define the vision of the revolt. Colonial historiography tried to establish the revolt as a religious or racial war. Subsequently the nationalists and Marxists after terming it a restorative movement generally never recognized any progressive content in the rebellion. In general the nationalists and Marxists always agreed with imperialist historiography that pre-colonial India implies Oriental despotism and this created to greatest dilemma to characterize the revolt despite the best effort to get rid of the imperialist historiography. This chapter discusses whether restoration implies reaction and if not then what the rebels thought ad how we will characterize it.
The lat chapter summarizes the study and tried to emphasise the significant findings of the study.
Kaushik Chakraborty was an I.C.H.R. Junior Research Fellow in the Department of History at Jadavpur University and has completed his doctoral research in the economic, political, socio-cultural and administrative history of Bengal between 1700 and 1857. Apart from this his research and study (including presentations and some publications) includes The Environmental History of India. The Book History of India, History of Bengal, History of Agriculture and Irrigation in India, Maoist Naxalite movement, Development Studies, The Origins of the first world War (1914), Historiography of India Time, History, Human Development.
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