‘The elite today are the ones who supported the British in 1857’

Amaresh Misra’s book on 1857 offers startling hypotheses. LAKSHMI INDRASIMAN talks to him about his findings

Your book is massive. What new information have you unearthed?
An all-India picture of 1857, the first war of Independence, I will not call it the mutiny. Its pan-India scale has not been examined in any book so far, everything that happened from north to south and west to east. I wanted to cover the entire nation in one work, including small incidents that happened in Manipur and Nagaland.

What is each volume about?
The two volumes have a timeline. The first three chapters give a background of what was happening in India and in England. The first chapter, ‘A Pathan in London’, speaks about Azimullah Khan going to London to lobby for -- pension. He emerges as a major 1857 leader later. He’s interacting with the top personalities of his age. So I’ve drawn a portrait of Victorian London in 1854 -- Victorian morality, fashion, England’s technological prowess. I've tried to evoke the atmosphere, the way people were living there. And I have contrasted it with the way they were living in India.I have tried to show in the first chapter the growing alienation between India and England after the late-18th century when there were still white Mughals. In India we have Wajid Ali Shah exploring the depths of sensuality, laying the foundation for kathak and the whole school of Lucknow poetry is emerging. A lot is happening in the Indian cultural scene. At the same time in England we have a culture where women are not allowed to eat mangoes in public, where even the legs of the piano are covered lest their sight leads to immoral thoughts. The British didn’t understand Indian culture. They were coming from a very rigorous culture and here we had a sensual, subversive culture that was playing a game of subterfuge against the British.

When Awadh was annexed, Wajid Ali Shah was asked to sign the treaty that would have formalised the annexation but he refused. He didn’t refuse aggressively, but he said he couldn’t sign because he said a treaty should be between equals, because after being deposed I am a nobody. The British were stuck, they were expecting him to accept the treaty and the 12 lakh-rupee annual pension. But the polite refusal sent a very different message to an Indian audience, who realised it as a slight. These are subtle codes of behaviour that the British completely missed but the Indians used to deadly effect. A small example of how Indians were combating the might of British technology and their superior arms -- I have unearthed evidence that Mangal Pandey’s regiment, the 34th BNI, was posted in Awadh in 1856, at the time of the annexation. Pandey pulled the trigger in March 1857. There is evidence that 34th BNI sepoys -- one account says Mangal himself went to Wajid Ali Shah -- wept, kept their weapons at his feet and they told him they were ready to fight for him. He said the time was not right but hinted that he was going to travel to Calcutta, and he was going to use this entire route from Lucknow to Calcutta, meeting Indian soldiers and princes. It is very uncanny because he reached Calcutta just before 1857 happened and he had started in March 1856. He stopped in Kanpur, in Farrokhabad, in Patna -- all these places that later emerged as major centres.

So he was setting some sort of plan.
Yes, three major Indian princely houses were involved -- the Mughal house, the Awadh house, and then Nana Sahib Dipeshwar. There were attempts to reach out to others. There is evidence that others had promised support but later it came out differently.

Is this different from what was previously believed?
It is radically different because no one has ever accepted that there was a plan. And no one has actually researched deeply into the state of the various regiments which actually revolted in 1857. Why is it that the Mangal Pandey incident happened in the same regiment that had gone and wept before Wajid Ali Shah? This for me is a very important connection. But no one has pointed this out. There this other fact, that Bahadur Shah Zafar in Delhi was a sufi. Akbar had started this tradition, and he used to collect a body of disciples, who later turned out to be the nine gems of the court. After Aurangzeb’s death this had fallen into disrepair, but Zafar revived it. He became the pir but who was the murid in 1854-55? The sepoys posted in Delhi. There are letters being exchanged between British officers expressing concern about Zafar’s intention. Why is he making sepoys murids? I think there is a connection between this revival of the pir-murid tradition and the sepoys marching later to restore him as India’s emperor. Azimullah Khan is sent to London and doesn’t return by the traditional route. He goes to Balaclava to watch the Crimean War. Howard Russell of the London Times, the world’s first war correspondent, meets him and wonders why he is studying British tactics. Russell mentions this in his diary.

Your book is suggesting that the idea of a concerted effort on the part of the Indian rulers has been suppressed?
Absolutely. Their whole idea was to establish a kind of new Indian constitutional monarchy because there was no chance of restoring the old Mughal Empire. It is clear that these princes were trying to win the sepoys over. The sepoys were basically peasants in uniform. There was a democratic spirit in Zafar. As a sufi, he saw himself merely as a symbol of India. After he was restored as the emperor on 11 May, 1857, there are speeches where he says it is the rule of the people that should reign. If a capable leader comes forward I am ready to relinquish my privileges. Now we have a court of administration where the middleclass and the peasants have representation.

Zafar suggested that they abolish the post of the emperor and that the Commander-in- Chief should be the head of the court. But his proposal was struck down and he was asked to continue as emperor. We see signs of Indians trying in wartime conditions to establish a democratic structure that is in tune with the times. The major problem is that British and Indians scholars see 1857 as a feudal reaction. That the British represented modernity and that 1857 was a traditional feudal reaction. I have taken this apart and shown that 1857 was not a struggle between the old and new, but rather one between the colonial new and the indigenous new, two alternative conceptions of modernity. A European modernity and an Asiatic modernity.

The book jacket says, “1857 was an attempt to establish a nationalist path of capitalist development.” What do you mean by that?
A nationalist peasant path is what it should be. There was the landlord path (England and Germany) and the peasant path (France, because of the revolution). So the patidars were the motor of dynamism, of progress and change, and they were suited to the peasant form. But the British saw that their interest lay in extraction of maximum land revenue. They invented European feudalism in India as the Permanent Settlement in Bengal. But they failed when they tried to implement this in present day Uttar Pradesh (UP). That is why present day UP, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh were so turbulent. That is where they challenged the British till the end.

You say ten million Indians were killed during 1857. Most scholars say it is in hundreds of thousands. How did you arrive at this figure?
I was intrigued that, in any history book, you won’t even find the question how many Indians were killed in 1857. Why hasn’t there been an attempt in independent India to find out? Bipin Chandra, in the NCERT textbooks, says about 1.5 lakh. We can’t ask what the sources are. And he only mentions Awadh. There is no attempt to arrive at an all-India figure. This has bugged me. Sources on this are extremely rare. But then I thought how did they find out how many Jews were killed by the Nazis, how many by Stalin, how many in China by Mao? I saw that western scholars had developed a very interesting methodology where they are looking at the labour reports. So they compare the labour reports from pre and post-Great Leap Forward. I did the same and then I went on to the road survey reports. Every road building report in UP complains that there is lack of labour and the percentage which they give is very interesting. In Awadh, there is 16 reports that say there is a shortfall of more than 25 percent.
At the conclusion of my second volume, I have quoted an officer’s letter who says, I think we have polished off about 25 percent of these black devils. The population of Awadh in 1857 was one crore. In the 1872-census there is a 15-20 percent drop. It is only in the 1902 census that the population returns to one crore. At the GPO in Lucknow, I discovered a godown where I bribed my way in and found a huge number of letters. They were reports by British GPO officers. One report that an officer was writing around early 1870s said that, between 1857 and 67, 20 lakh letters have been returned from Awadh addresses. He says that these people might have perished in the mutiny, because there is no account of them. He is enquiring into what to do with these, whether they should be addressed. I looked for a few letters and they were written in kheti, an early form of Devnagiri. I showed them to a scholar of kheti, and he was shocked because the dates they mention. One was 1859, sent by someone from abroad, writing because he has heard about the gadar. It is a very short letter. And they are sent by gotra-bhais abroad who couldn’t come back when 1857 started. These are major sources. These are the kind of sources that any western country would have jumped at.

Why have these been ignored?
India in 1947, the India that emerged, followed the landlord path of capitalist development. Basically, the peasant path was killed in 1857. It’s a political thing. Every time the question of 1857 comes up, the elites of present-day India become very nervous. The English speaking intelligentsia are very ambiguous. The Guardian of London was ready to acknowledge it, but elite Indians, knowing very well that this story is there, have not even bothered to be inquisitive about it.

Is this because of class?
Exactly. Basically, the elite that gained power, privilege and wealth in 1947, were those who sided with the British in 1857. Make a list of the richest Indians and tell me if there is one guy from UP or Bihar or any of the 1857 regions or any of the communities or castes which fought in 1857. You will not find a Yadav, a Rajput, a Brahmin or a Dalit. You will always find Marwaris, Parsis and Banias. These are the same forces that supported the British in 1857. I come to a very important part of my book where I say it is not only a war of independence, it is a civil war. There was an alliance between the landed and commercial elite against the peasantry. Of course, there are exceptions. There were many landlords that fought against the British, but they are limited to areas where the code of honour was very strong, like Awadh. But again, apart from 2-3 major talukdars that were anti-British from the beginning, they are all under tremendous pressure from their patidars to fight the British. When 1857 erupted, you have an interesting letter from a talukdar, Man Singh of Ayodhya. He fought against the British. But you see his earlier letters, he is writing to them and saying he is their loyal servant and that this is a very dangerous mutiny because, and he uses these words, “peasants have become kings” and that this will ultimately lead to the ruin of the landed class. It exposes the class biases and explains why when the British capture Lucknow, people like Man Singh switched sides immediately.

You talk about how the fighting occurred all over India and over ten years after 1857.
The information is not new but the perspective is. For example, the information that there were major uprisings in Gujarat, Maharashtra and Karnataka is generally neglected in 1857 studies. But it was in the old gazettes and regional literature, which was not part of the mainstream national historical discourse. And the reason was this concerted attempt by the British who didn’t want to accept that it was a national war of independence. Till date, they call it the sepoy mutiny. How could they accept that it was a national movement? So they drew this picture that it was only the Hindu-Urdu belt and other areas stayed quiet.

What other areas were involved?
Gujarat is an amazing case, because from 1857-67 there is ten-year guerrilla warfare in Saurashtra against the British, led by the waghers. They led the uprising which was joined in by the lower classes in Gujarat. It is very strange that the same social forces in Gujarat later became the basis of the Kshatriya-Harijan-Adivasi-Muslim coalition. , the subaltern classes were these that were revolting gin 1857. in Gujarat. Behind the rise of the bjp in Gujarat, the early financers were the same states that sided with the British. There was major fighting in 1857 in and around Godhra. The Muslims there led the kolis and the bhils against the British. And in 2002, you see the kolis and bhils being asked to attack the Muslims. In central Gujarat there were Rajpital, Lonawala, Soondh, Chota Udaipur -- four states, all with the British and their scions were the ones that financed the BJP and the erstwhile Jan Sangh.

What is their common interest?
It is a class interest. To me, the BJP represents the forces of British feudalism -- a kind of feudalism the British invented. BJP’s fascism emerges from there. A class driven fascism which uses the communal ideology to effect a divide in the Hindu-Muslim unity which actually played a revolutionary role in Gujarat.
Godhra was one of the two major centres of Gujarati rebellion in 1857. Koli-Bhil-Muslim alliance, with some Patels against the princely states that were mostly Jadeja Rajputs. All these areas where the princes sided with the British became BJP areas. It is uncanny. And the Muslims houses, such as the Muslim house of Junagadh -- he was one of the strongest supporters of Jinnah. These two ideologies that have played a divisive role in India – the Muslim League and the BJP – they have their roots among the Indian elites who supported the British in 1857.

The skirmishes continued for years after the supposed end.
There are some accounts that the last bullets were still being fired in 1885. Gujarat, Orissa, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh -- all these areas kept on fighting. This is a grey area. Nana Sahib vanishes from history in 1859. No one knows what became of him, but the last letter which he wrote to the British -- which I have reproduced in my conclusion -- mentions specifically two things. It denies all responsibility for the Kanpur massacre, for the deaths of women and children, which was blamed on him. In Chapter 12, I prove that the British might have done the job themselves and put the blame on Nana Sahib. Because I have discovered a diary by a British spy that speaks of a British conspiracy.

Returning to Nana Sahib’s letter, he says he did not commit those murders -- it was your people who did that. And he also says that I have the honour of fighting a power like you and I will go on fighting, I will not surrender. And this is where the letter ends. This is where the saga of Nana Sahib disappears from the pages of history. But you have Nana Sahib’s emissaries touring India till the late 1860s. And you have this record of what the British call the post-1857 conspiracy in Marathwada in central India, and that there is a Nana Sahib hand in all these things. Also the Madras army regiment was posted in Singapore, Hong Kong and Burma. The British have denied that there were any disturbances in the Madras regiment. I have shown that there was a mutiny in the 38th Madras Cavalry, there were widespread disturbances in other Madras regiments, especially in Singapore, Hong Kong and Burma where the 12th and 37th Madras Infantry were stationed. There were major desertions and skirmishes there. I just wanted to capture the scale of the whole thing.

What new find surprised you the most?
The ten million figure. And this ten million figure is not just a figure that warrants the term Indian Holocaust, I also pose the question were we ever defeated? When you commit a massacre of this scale and then you obscure it, this is not a conventional battle. There are so many conventional battles that the Indians won. But there was a holocaust, a massive massacre of Indian civilians by British troops and Indian troops working for the British. When Indian sepoys saw this was going on, they changed tactics. There was a major fight between the Manipur Raj and the British in 1891, and there are British sources that say that there were some sepoys from 1857 in the Manipur army in 1891. So a large section of the sepoys after the massacre just dispersed and were present in various post-1857 peasant uprisings, like the Deccan rising of 1875. I am just an individual, so I can’t research everything, but despite writing such a voluminous work, I am still left with questions.

What has been missing from 1857 accounts till now?
They haven’t freshened and updated their perspective. They are still talking about the same old things. They say readers are not interested , but I have produced this big work and I am patient enough to wait for people to read it. I didn’t want to repeat Christopher Hibbert or Saul David who summed up 1857 in 500 pages.

What is the most important thing to remember from 1857?
The most important thing is the way the British colonised India and the way we threw up this great anti-imperialist struggle. This is still relevant because what we are seeing after the collapse of the Soviet Union is an attempt by America to recolonise the world in a way. For me 1857 offers a good understanding of the way the western colonial mind works. And the Indian moneyed elite is still colluding with these forces. I have also warned that the Indian peasantry has memories of 1857, and it is still an emotional issue in the current scenario where in an alliance with foreign capital, Indian corporate capital is trying to take over our national resources in a manner reminiscent of the 19th century. The forces which resist that takeover are still there and still active. I see a kind of backlash, similar to 1857, building up. To me there is more than a little coincidence that the forces that are supporting the Maoists in central India, are the Gonds, the premier fighting force in 1857.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 4, Issue 50, Dated Dec 29 , 2007

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