Facets of the Great Revolt 1857

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Item Code: NAF892
Author: Shireen Moosvi
Publisher: Tulika Books
Language: English
Edition: 2010
ISBN: 9788189487447
Pages: 162
Cover: Paperback
Other Details 9.5 inch X 6.0 inch
Weight 290 gm
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Book Description

About the Book


The Revolt of 1857 is being increasingly recognized as one of the major events of the nineteenth century, a turning point in the history of imperialism. The sheer scale of the uprising and its unique place in the narrative of anti-colonial resistance has prompted it to be interpreted on several occasions in the past by nationalist leaders, historians and officials and the literature on 1857 has grown in volume as the country observed its 150th anniversary.


Recently, there has been an increasing awareness of the need to study, in detail, the ideas of the Rebels regarding their own cause, the varied composition of their ranks and the different understandings of their legacy. The essays in this volume have been written essentially in response to this need, by scholars who have sought to explore much hitherto neglected material on that event. Readers will find much that is refreshing and provocative in this volume, and will get glimpses into the minds of the Rebels who belonged to different areas and classes, as well as their organizational capabilities and the problems they confronted during the Great Revolt.


Shireen Moosvi, the editor of this volume, is Professor of History at Aligarh Muslim University. A well known historian, she has published books and papers on Indian economic and social history of Mughal times and the nineteenth century.




The Revolt of 1857 is being increasingly recognized as one of the major events of the nineteenth century, a turning point in the history of imperialism, an early anticipation of the saga of anti-colonial resistance of the twentieth century. No apology should therefore be necessary to add to the literature on 1857, which has naturally grown in volume as the country observed its 150th anniversary.


Some of the essays collected in this volume are revised versions of those which had previously been printed in Social Scientist, and some have been written especially for this volume. I am grateful to the contributors, and have tried in the Introduction to set their themes in the context of a general understanding of the Revolt.


Thanks are due to the Indian Council of Historical Research for a generous grant for the publication of this volume. Dr Prabhat Shukla, the then Member Secretary of the ICHR, took great interest in making it see the light of day. I am indebted to both Dr Rajendra Prasad of SAHMAT and Mrs Indira Chandrasekhar of Tulika Books for agreeing to publish the volume.


Mr Muniruddin Khan has processed the entire manuscript at the office of the Aligarh Historians Society. Ms Samira Junaid of Tulika Books has copyedited the text. Many thanks are due to both of them.




Shireen Moosvi

The Revolt of 1857 is one of those events which have been interpreted on several occasions by nationalist leaders, historians and officials. For one, here we have an uprising which for its sheer scale alone demands explanation, whatever view of history we may adopt. Then there is its unique place in the narrative of anti-colonial resistance. Irfan Habib, in his opening essay to the present volume, underlines also the fact of its international significance, in being 'the greatest armed challenge to imperialism the world over during the entire course of the nineteenth century'.


The designation 'Mutiny', given by the rulers and accepted by the ruled (who traditionally referred to it as the 'Ghadar'), loses its pejorative and restrictive colour when applied to so great an event. Indeed it was a mutiny not of a small group, but one involving the vast bulk of soldiers of the largest modern army in all of Asia at the time. The Bengal Army comprised 132,000 native sepoys, out of whom barely 8,000 remained loyal to the English. The Mutiny involved troops stationed in the east, from Barrackpore near Calcutta, all the way to Peshawar on the north-west frontier of the subcontinent. The Revolt was nevertheless much more than a mutiny. In a large geographic region, whose population today amounts to nearly a quarter of the population of this country, the Revolt took on the complexion of what Disraeli and Marx pronounced to be a 'national revolt'. In this extensive space, large masses of the civilian population also joined the soldiers' rebellion. Whether the Revolt was 'national' simply in this sense, or 'nationalist' in inspiration and design as well, can always be debated, and, similarly, the absence of ideas of social equality among the rebel leaders can also be legitimately stressed. But what surprised even the English opponents of the Rebellion was the stress laid by the Rebels on the unity between Hindus and Muslims, which has surely been an important, perhaps even the crucial, building block for the modern Indian nation, despite the Partition. There was, also, a fairly strong notion of India ('Hindustan') and the need to free it of foreign rule, which went beyond the immediate local or parochial grievances of the Mutineers, and was given expression to in virtually all the important Rebel proclamations.


From these generalities, one must pass to the specific problem of reconstructing the story of the Revolt on the basis of the mass of information that exists, much of it still waiting to be explored. J.W. Kaye's History of the Sepoy War and G.B. Malleson's History of the Indian Mutiny, 1857-58, written in the immediate aftermath of the Mutiny, deserve credit for extracting information from materials of this kind for a reconstruction of events, even when full allowance is made for their obvious bias. The authors would have been the last to claim that they had exhausted all the possible sources, or that they had been called upon to see the events from the Rebel point of view as well, though, to be fair, sometimes Kaye does attempt even this. Much new information has since been published, and the series of collections of documents on the History of the Freedom Movement, commissioned after Independence by the various state governments, especially the set of five volumes edited by S.A.A. Rizvi, issued by the Government of Uttar Pradesh, deserve special mention. The National Archives of India as well as the State Archives contain much material, still unpublished, that needs to be utilized. In particular, attention must be given to the large amount of material in Urdu, then the language universally used in the lower levels of administration and in the newspapers of upper India, and so also in the Rebel orders and papers. The unfortunate decline in the study of that language in India, and still more in the decipherment of the cursive (shikasta) script, has greatly handicapped a thorough exploration of this rich set of sources. If the inner history of the Rebellion, with an emphasis on what the Rebels thought, did or aimed for, is to be reconstructed (a task in which S.N. Sen's Eighteen Fifty-Seven, the officially sponsored account in Independent India, unfortunately fails us so very lamentably), then this obstacle needs first to be overcome.


The first essay in this collection, by Irfan Habib, gives an overview of the factors that led to the Rebellion of 1857, as well as the ideas that motivated the Rebels. Here, it is important to understand both the goals the Rebels set for themselves, including unexpected elements of modernity seen among the Sepoys and the educated, and the limitations from which their outlook and strategy suffered. Irfan Habib's essay seeks to bring to life this complex picture and helps us understand what moved so many people to sacrifice their all for the cause, as they saw it, of their faith and their country.


Delhi was the city from where the flames of the Revolt spread the most powerfully and for which the first bitter battles were fought. But it was Awadh where the true strength of the Rebellion was ultimately displayed and resistance to the British proved to be the most stubborn. For this there were certain specific local reasons. The historical setting of the Rebellion in Awadh was framed by the British annexation of the kingdom in 1856. Lucknow, the capital of Awadh, was the largest city in India at the time, with over 650,000 inhabitants. Its court and revenues sustained numerous traditional arts and crafts and a rich culture, aided by the printing press. The annexation destroyed the basis of this prosperity. Moreover, the taluqdars and peasants were threatened with a heavy increase in revenue demands. There was, therefore, a surge of popular sympathy for the fallen regime. One could see the glimmerings of resentment against the English based on these grounds much before the actual outbreak of the Rebellion. Of the extant Urdu news weeklies, the Tilism of Lucknow began publication on 25 July 1856 and continued till 8 May 1857. Another contemporary Lucknow weekly, Sabar Samri, started five months after the Tilism, on 17 November 1856, and the last issue came out on 18 May 1857. Faruqi Anjum Taban, in her paper in this volume, uses mainly Tilism and two Delhi-based news weeklies, Dehli Urdu Akhbar and Sadiqul Akhbar, to establish how civilian unrest was preparing the ground for the Revolt in Awadh.


The two Delhi-based weeklies mentioned above are of extraordinary importance since they continued to be issued right through the period of the Rebels' control over Delhi. My own paper is based on a study of their files and I hope to bring out the fact that these rebel Urdu journalists are entitled to a special niche in the history of Indian journalism, which has so far been inadvertently denied to them.


In the next essay, Iqbal Husain uses the Dehli Urdu Akhbar as well as other archival material to reconstruct a picture of the Rebel administration at Delhi. It is remarkable how the Sepoys took to the British methods of holding consultations and constituting committees and councils. The constitution (dasturulamal) of the Court of Administration in Delhi (its original text in cursive hand is preserved in the National Archives of India) was reproduced by S.N. Sen in his Eighteen Fifty-Seven, but still needs to be closely studied. It was established not by an order of the Mughal king, but by a decision taken by the Sepoys themselves in July 1857. There is a hint here of Sepoy 'republicanism', which Percival Spear had also noted in his very fair-minded account of Delhi, Twilight of the Mughals. Both the Delhi newspapers and the archives strongly bring out the Sepoy General Bakht Khan's no-nonsense attitude towards any attempt to provoke Hindu-Muslim differences.


S.Z.H. Jafri reconstructs the biography of Ahmadullah Shah, a saintly (though not a Wahabi) rebel who was already in prison at Faizabad on the charge of sedition when the Revolt broke out. It is debatable how far his own querulous attitude, bringing about a duality of leadership (the court's and Ahmadullah Shah's own), at Lucknow proved to be detrimental to the Rebel cause.


Iqtidar Alam Khan traces the history of the Gwalior Contingent, which, although betrayed by the Scindia, nevertheless marched on and occupied Kanpur on 28 November 1857, inflicting on General Windham one of the few defeats in an open engagement ever suffered by the British in India. The resistance offered by the men of the Gwalior Contingent remained stout-hearted to the very end. As late as 27 February, exactly two months before the capture of Tatya Tope, a telegraphic report (of 3 March 1859) reads: ' . during the night 6 hundred of the rebel Gwalior Contingent went in the Bhilsa camp [near Agra] announcing themselves as a British force. They poured in several vollies captured and killed about two hundred and burnt the camp so the enemy now have four guns.'! This adherence to the cause and persistence makes the memory of the Gwalior Contingent particularly sacred for us.


The late K. Suresh Singh describes the role of the tribals of Jharkhand in 1857 an oft-forgotten chapter of its history. We may remember that K. Suresh Singh, the distinguished Director General of the Anthropological Survey of India and the editor of the People of India volumes, was especially dedicated to reconstructing tribal history.


Four other essays deal with the impact of 1857 in different ways: Badri Narayan explores local folklore for its perception of Kunwar Singh and his brother Amar Singh, the famous Rebel zamindars of Jagdishpur who conducted a march of epic proportions from the neighbourhood of Arrah to Rewa, Kanpur, Lucknow, Azamgarh and then back to their home territory, challenging the British all along and combining with the rebelling Sepoy regiments with remarkable success. Amar Singh, it should be noted, gets a special word of praise from Engels for his readiness to move and conduct mobile warfare.


Pankaj Rag, advocating an approach 'from below', explores the Revolt of 1857 as it survives in folk memory. How folk memory is influenced by later events makes for an interesting theme on its own. S.P. Verma studies the work of British artists, usually done in conformity with the textual accounts of events of 1857, but also drawing on the imagination and perception of artists themselves. While many of these drawings depict the brutalities alleged to have been committed by the Sepoys, at least a few of them also portray the English acts of terror, such as the blowing away of rebellious Sepoys from the mouths of guns, a practice already perfected by the English in Afghanistan, as a reader of the works of the famous traveller Masson would find. Ramesh Rawat takes issue with the alleged connection between 1857 and the 'Hindi Renaissance', a view widely held amongst today's Hindi litterateurs. The debate on the role of religion in 1857 in the historiography of the Rebellion has been analysed by Farhat Hasan.


It is hoped that all those who are interested in the role of imperialism in India and the history of the nation's resistance will find these studies of some use and interest.






Elegy: 1857




The Coming of 1857


The Coming of the Revolt in Awadh: The Evidence of Urdu Newspapers


Rebel Press, Delhi 1857


The Rebel Administration of Delhi


The Profile of a Saintly Rebel: Maulavi Ahmadullah Shah


The Gwalior Contingent in 1857-58: The Organization and Ideology of the Sepoy Rebels


The Tribals and the 1857 Uprising


Popular Culture and 1857: A Memory against Forgetting


1857: The Need for Alternative Sources


Contemporary Drawings of the Events of the Rebellion of 1857


1857 and the 'Renaissance' in Hindi Literature


Religion in the History of 1857




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