A Clash on the idea of Progress

Financial Express 28th January 2008

As the massively underplayed, almost invisible 150th anniversary celebrations of 1857 wind down, one may well wonder why a movement that gave India’s erstwhile colonial masters their biggest scare ever, defined almost all their following policies, had such a long memory in oral history been so downplayed? Irrespective of the search for nomenclature defining its nature — mutiny/ revolt/ uprising/ petty bourgeois/ jacquerie — similar movements in other nations have had state-driven, passionate searches to unearth the smallest detail. What was its exact extent — geographically and in its scope? What were its socio-economic underpinnings? Who participated, who reaped the benefits by siding with the British? How many people died in the events of 1857? Why have we as a nation so bought into the British opinion that it was a mutiny? Fortunately most recent studies have debunked that it was just a soldiers’ revolt, but the knowledge has largely been confined to rarefied academic echelons. Amaresh Misra, author of Lucknow: Fire of Grace and Mangal Pandey: The True Story of an Indian Revolutionary, has written War of Civilisations: India AD 1857, a massive 3,000+-page, two-volume tome in which he has claims to make that would at least lead to further debate — 10 million dead, pan-Indian spread, longer-lasting reverberations than usually suspected. Suman Tarafdar summarises conversations with the author. Excerpts:

You do call your book a War of Civilisations?

I want to allude to the current clash of civilisations and go beyond it. The conflict is real, and its contours need to be defined. 1857 saw the British idea of progress clashing with the Indian one.

Did the British fail to gauge the nature of Indian capitalism?

We need to look at 1857 from an indigenous perspective. For India, the elements of capitalist progress were inside its rural infrastructure. While in the West, the city led the villages, it was the peasant-led pattadari system — by which 15-20 gotrabhais held land, in which the peasant and the artisan were integral to the system. The British failed to gauge the nature of Indian systems, and by the Permanent Settlement, destroyed them by reversing the direction of Indian capitalism, converting the talukdars into landowners, making the peasant a tenant and rupturing his links withthe artisan.

How did you arrive at a figure of 10 million dead, a massive jump from previous estimates?


Besides accessing sources not previously accessed, and relying on the labour and road survey reports of the time. A large reason for UP-Bihar belt remaining backward for long was that there was no labour, and the then intelligentsia was killed off. I provide the sources, it is up to others to agree or dispute them.

And the extent is wider than the Hindi belt?

Absolutely. The Hazara gazetteers mention the 55th BNI revolting in Nowshera and proceeding to meet Bahadurshah Zafar’s troops, while Gilgit ruler Gohar Aman was also coming to unite with them. In Gujarat areas the Mehsana and Borada gazetteers also mention vast sections of the state, especially Dahod, Godhra and central Gujarat revolting. The Okha Vaghelas revolted too, and the rare naval battles against the British are here. Then there is the Bhil-Koli uprising in the Nashik belt. Ratnagiri and Aurangabad areas are affected. Areas in north Karnataka, like Raichur and Bijapur had the Ramoshis, later dubbed ‘criminal’ castes by the British, in revolt. The Gond Rajas were Mughalised, and the tribes also sided with the Mughals. The Godavari delta saw Reddi landlords and Gurjar tribals fight together, while the 8th Madras Cavalry revolted too. The four big states that did not revolt were those of the Nizam, the Cis-Sutlej states, Kashmir and Nepal, and they were rewarded.

You see a conscious divide post 1857?


Instead of policies of modernisation followed by the likes of Bentinck, the British went on a conscious mode of orientalising — bringing back old faultlines, which by mid-18th century had vanished. Henry Lawrence gave a Hindu-Muslim-divide speech on May 12, the logic of which is still followed. The process was complex. They created new landlords, consuming classes and castes. They couldn’t do to India what they had done in the Americas, Africa and Australia, wiping out memory. More than a political war, bitter and racially contested, it was also a war to preserve memory.

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