Monday, 25 February 2008

Indian Express review 24th February 2008

150 Years Later
by Bibek Debroy

This is a book of great courage and perseverance. Authoring a two-volume magnum opus of more than 2,000 pages, on any subject, is not easy. Amaresh Misra’s earlier books on Lucknow and Mangal Pandey establish his interest in events centred on 1857. The first volume is better written than the second.

However, this is more than compensated by extensive research. There is also an interesting experiment in the first two chapters of the first volume (concerning Azimullah Khan and Azeezun Bai) of using the fiction genre to describe events. This works quite well, except that the reader can’t always distinguish fact from fiction. But this isn’t an experiment that is repeated subsequently. The Misra propositions can be segregated into a few strands. Some have been established fairly convincingly, others less so.

First, the Mughal state came close to “establishing a mercantile industrial capitalism”, with the pressure for change emerging from a small town and rural economy that clashed against town capitalism led by big merchants and protected by the bureaucracy. This was a clash between two forms of capitalism. The argument thus turns the conventional approach, influenced by the West, on its head. Novelty is no argument against rejecting a hypothesis. Suffice to say that Misra has marshalled enough evidence to build his case. While the proposition isn’t quite proven, it merits serious consideration.

Second, Mughal India didn’t exhibit rigidities of caste and religion. A composite and secular social structure had emerged. It was the British who created communalism.
Third, 1857 wasn’t a simple sepoy mutiny or a civil rebellion. It was much more broad-based than that and lasted well beyond 1857, all the way into the 20th century. It was a war of civilisations. “The conventional view that Indians lost militarily or politically has to be overhauled… Despite everything, Indians could still have won a conventional victory — it was only internal betrayal that probably skewed this possibility.”
Fourth, the number of Indians killed has been under-estimated. Computed afresh, figures represent almost a mass genocide. The Misra estimates are 10 million killed (7 per cent of the population) in UP, Haryana and Bihar alone. Fifth, several post-1947 developments in India and Pakistan can be traced to 1857. Sixth, outside the subcontinent, the 1857 struggle resonates in the Middle East, Africa and Latin America too.

Misra’s political ideology comes across in these propositions. There is nothing wrong with that, unless it leads to subjective biases. “It was the 1857 fear that forced British and Indian liberals, like Dadbhai (sic) Naoroji, to establish the Congress as a safety valve, capable of deflecting Indian revolutionary energies... It is clear that the British left India for they feared another 1857; the reformist leadership of both the Muslim League and the Congress also feared such a prospect — around 1947, a new 1857, would have meant a new, Hindu-Muslim unity — there would have been no Partition.”

Personally, I find that the first four propositions have been far better established than the last two, though the figures can still be accused of being somewhat back-of-the-envelope. However, there is yet another proposition that transcends all these and this is of 1857 being under-researched, with clichéd perspectives taken for granted. “Despite the instance of the chapters bringing forth hitherto unpublished material and a new look at the available, published, primary and secondary sources, 1857 research is still on a preliminary level; at the end, there are more questions than answers.” Against this background, this monumental work can be described as near-seminal.

Saturday, 2 February 2008

Literary Review, The Hindu, 3rd February, 2008

A work of monumental proportions


A goldmine of information for researchers.

War of Civilisations: India AD 1857 (The Road to Delhi and The Long Revolution); Amaresh Misra, Rupa, Rs.2500.

The year 1857 marked a watershed not only in the history of India but of the subcontinent. Call it Mutiny, Revolt or First War of Independence, its impact cannot be belittled. No wonder there is a plethora of publications on it.

To this recently has been added War of Civilisations : India AD 1857 in two thick volumes — The Road to Delhi and The Long Revolution by Amaresh Misra. For those looking for variety in “Mutiny” literature, here is something that satiates both fact and fancy.

The first volume

First The Road to Delhi:

The Battle of Plassey (1757) followed by the Battle of Buxar (1764) put the English firmly on the road to Delhi. A far cry from 1610 when they posed as poor traders in Jahangir’s court at Agra to seek preferential treatment in trading rights in the Moghul empire. How traders became soldiers with territorial ambitions that culminated in India becoming a Jewel in the British Crown is a story of deceit, intrigue and opportunism that acquires the dimensions of a cloak-and-dagger mystery.

Misra highlights all these points painstakingly with the help of documentary evidence, rare photographs and wide-ranging views from Hindu, Muslim, and British sources. He has also brought out the passions, jealousies and ambitions that formed an intricate pattern in human relations in which characters like Umrao Jaan and Azeezun played an emotive role.

The outbreak of the Mutiny, the course it took, the hiding the British got before the recapture of Delhi and Lucknow and other places in North India, the arrest and trial of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the flight to Nepal of Hazrat Mahal of Awadh and her son Brijis Qadar all this and more is recounted in the two volumes with great detail.

The Long Revolution goes beyond 1857 in discussing the Sanatan Dharma Akhadas and reactions in the Haryana-Doab, Bulandshahr, Ranchi, Bengal, North-east, Rajasthan, Chattisgarh, West Coast, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu in the south and international repercussions in Burma, Russia-Turkey, the U.S. All this goes to show the vast expanse on which the Mutiny repercussions where heard.

There is also a chapter on Islam as undivided India’s freedom struggle ideology. Muslims and Hindus where surely united against the firangis but each had his own narrow interest at heart. One wanted the glories of Moghul rule restored while the other had his eyes fixed on the restoration of Hindu ascendancy (brought down by Ghori after the Second battle of Terain and another big defeat by Abdali at the Third Battle of Panipat).

The “coquettish” Rani wanted her Jhansi back while the peasants and tribals had their own agenda. Turkey, with its ruler as the Khalifa of Islam, and Russia as the Big Bear confronting British hegemony in the Big Game all point to multifarious interests.

And to talk of a Shia-Sunni-Sanatani Republican State in Ayodhya Land was at best an illusion of the Begum of Lucknow. The British tightened their grip and continued to rule India for another 90 years after the uprising.

Medley of skirmishes

Instead of being a War of Civilisations, it was a medley of skirmishes in which the Wahabis wanted a Talibanised State and the Hindus the reinstatement of the Peshwa. The Mutiny was great on promises and short on achievements.

Pious intentions alone do not make a revolution. The whole surmise does not stand scrutiny. It was naïve to expect the firangis to be driven away from the country since they controlled the main ports and the coastline with a powerful navy.

The resultant chaos would have helped them to come back and pursue their policy of divide and rule with a vengeance. However this monumental work is a goldmine of information for which generations of researchers will be grateful.

The Hindu, Sunday February 3rd, 2008

Indian perspective

Amaresh Misra’s book shed new light on the 1857 Revolt

Amaresh Misra is a film critic turned war analyst. The guy who acquitted himself creditably writing about films most read about, and only a few saw, is busy showing another facet of his personality. He has just authored an unexpected tome on the Revolt of 1857 or, as some call it, the First War of Independence. Amaresh calls it “the world’s first holocaust”. Brought out by Rupa, War of Civilisations: The Road to Delhi and India AD 1857 is not the first time Amaresh is walking down the history lane though.

Interest in history

Having already penned a biography of Lucknow in Lucknow: Fire of Grace and a biography of Mangal Pandey, Amaresh is well equipped. “My first book was on history. My interest in history run parallel to my love for films,” says the Mumbai-based Amaresh, adding, “I always admired the work of historians like Professor Irfan Habib and others, but they don’t ask new questions. My stint as a journalist came in handy. Since 1957, no Indian has written a comprehensive account of the Revolt. Indian historians have done a limited work. In the West Christopher Hubert wrote The Great Rebellion. William Dalrymple has also written. But I always felt the need to write of 1857 from the Indian perspective.”

He speaks like an academic when he speaks about 1857. For fleeting moments though, the cineaste in him comes to the fore. Then he shows the insight of a seasoned media man.

“1857 was the world’s first holocaust, resulting in the loss of an estimated 10 million Indians. The Revolt cannot be confined to just North India. There were widespread risings in Gujarat, the modern-day Pakistan, North Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Orissa, Chhattisgarh, Bengal, Assam, even modern-day Bangladesh. I don’t know why nobody talks of regional uprisings. No one attempted to put together a pan Indian picture. This book tells the reader that from Gilgit to Madurai, from Manipur to Maharashtra, not one area was unaffected. It was amazingly well coordinated.”

He is not through with surprises. “Contrary to common perception, important roles were played by the likes of Azimullah. In Ayodhya, at the site where the Babri Masjid was demolished, Mahant Ramdas and Maulavi Amir Ali, as well as Shambhu Prasad Shukla and Achchan Khan, two religious Hindus and two religious Muslims, were hanged side by side.”

He reveals that Zafar looked at his subjects as one, irrespective of religion. And in 1857, orthodox Chitpavan Brahmin leaders like Nana Saheb opened their proclamations with Islamic invocations while Begum Hazrat Mahal and Khan Bahadur Khan issued direct appeals to Hindus in the name of Lord Ram and Krishna.

Southern ripples

Similarly, Amaresh reveals that the Revolt had more than a ripple across the Vindhayas. “In Madras, at a place called Vaniyambadi, the 8th Madras Cavalry rose. Elsewhere, led by Thevar-Vellala sepoys, several 37th Madras infantry men deserted. I have discovered that 8th Madras Cavalry revolted in October 1857. It was disbanded but the British suppressed the news. There were desertions from Madras Infantry in Hong Kong, Singapore, Rangoon.”

Through with the unheard? Wait, there is more to come from Amaresh. “Bahadur Shah Zafar was sent to Rangoon and the Burmese king was deported to Satara in Maharashtra!”

He continues, “Western authors have tended to see Indian characters as caricatures. Stereotypes abound. They don’t care to say that Azimullah was like James Bond. He was sleeping with the enemy but getting information out. He was the mastermind behind 1857.”

Open subject

He believes earlier historians often just reproduced the existing works. “No chapter had been written from the Indian perspective. They did not find the Revolt interesting or challenging. But it is still an open subject.”

So, why did he dare to tread where others had feared to walk?

“Now there is a wealth of information available in Urdu books, Persian records. Then some new British sources have been revealed, confidential files have been opened. It is a historian’s job to look at unconventional data, go beyond the labour report, the road survey report, etc. He has to see the links.

“If a British official was building a road in 1857 in Awadh, he faced a labour crunch. He researched into the labour conditions, made an estimate of the number of people missing resulting in shortage. It was based on his own impromptu immediate census. Everywhere different officials mentioned the same figures.

“I found an interesting document in a general post office go-down in Lucknow where a British officer wrote to his colleague saying he had 20 lakh unopened envelopes addressed to people belonging to Awadh. These people could not be found.”

Painstaking effort

It took Amaresh five years of work to put together this painstaking work.

“I shifted base to Mumbai in 2003 and was involved with a couple of film projects. Around 2004 I realised that 2007 would mark 150 years of the Revolt, so I increased my pace and the film projects went to the backburner. Originally I had a 600-page book in mind. But it kept growing.” And how!