Political history of India is full of uprisings, revolts, controversies, acquiescence and what not. This book under review is a compilation of articles brought out 50 years ago to commemorate the first centenary of 1857. Now that the country is observing the 150th anniversary of the revolt of 1857, this collection of essays by P.C. Joshi, former general secretary of the Communist Party of India (from 1935 to 1946), reveals that while the British historians dismissed the revolt as a ?sepoy mutiny? that was ?wholly unpatriotic and selfish?with no native leadership and no popular support?, the uprising was hailed in most nations of the world as a national uprising of the Indians for liberation from British yoke, stirring feelings of solidarity in the democratic circles.
As we in India know, the primary cause of the revolt was the imperialist exploitation of the Indian masses. The stories of the fabulous profits made by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the French trading companies prompted the British ?merchants and adventurers? to form in 1600 a leading company called the East India Company which in 1765 acquired the ?Diwanee? of Bengal.
Then followed the Company'spolicy of territorial aggrandisement and annexation with the demand for Indian goods disappearing from the Indian scene to be replaced by British manufactured goods. The Indian industry was totally destroyed leading to transformation in the Indian social structure. The old system of agriculture was replaced by a new system of land revenue, with the village usually falling in debt from the zamindar downwards.
It is here that the book becomes very interesting when it details how Christianity was enforced in India. In 1850, an Act was passed permitting converts to Christianity to retain their patrimony. This created a furore among the Indians and further aggravated their anger when a circular was passed that as the entire subcontinent was under the control of a Christian power, it was but right to convert the Indian people to Christian faith. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan had written, ?It is no metaphor to say that the Indian people were blinded with fear at learning of the circular. It was rumoured that the Indian servants of the Company would be the first to be converted to Christianity and after that the mass of the people.?
One important reason cited for the rebellion was that there was no communication between the rulers and ruled ?as had been the custom among conquerors who came from the north-west. The English rulers always looked forward to retirement and returning ?home?. They seldom came to settle in India.? The question that arises here is: ?What kind of organisation was it that organised, canalised and later led to the rebellion??
The rebels worked illegally and therefore kept no records about the nature, the functions and the structure of their secret organisation. Stories are many about a man handing a lotus flower to the chief of the regiment and who in turn handed it to another, and so on till it reached the last person who would disappear to the next station. Another story is that chappatis were circulated on the eve of the outbreak and it was probably a signal to prepare the people for the coming upheaval. It was generally believed by the British that the rebellion was principally organised by the Moslems. Major F.J. Harrot, Deputy Advocate General had said, ?It is a most significant fact these proceedings that though we have come upon traces of Mussalman intrigue wherever our investigation has carried us, yet not one paper has been found to show that the Hindus, as a body, had been conspiring against us, nor that the Brahmins and priests had been preaching a crusade against the Christians?Hinduism, I may say, is nowhere either reflected or represented; if it is brought forward at all, it is only in subservience to its ever aggressive neighbour.?
K.M. Ashraf in his paper on Muslim revivalists explains why they and the Wahabis in particular had a leading role to play in the revolt of 1857.
Benoy Ghose in his paper talks of the Bengali intelligentsia whose apathetic attitude to the rebellion was because ?the Bengalees never aspired to the glory of leading armies to battle?, but saw hopes in the middle-classes of Europe and England and thought it more prudent to follow them in their own class interest.
P.C. Joshi in his paper shows how Rabindra Nath Tagore underwent a change of heart who initially ?linked the early generation of the Indian intelligentsia with the modern and symbolised the transition in their ideological position occupied by the intelligentsia then and later.? Tagore in an address on his 80th birthday (May 1941) had said, ?As I look back on the vast stretch of years that lie behind me and see in clear perspective the history of my early development, I am shocked by the change that have taken place both in my own attitude?a change that carries with it a cause of profound tragedy.?
The articles are a deep study and on reading which one gets transported to that era when the nationalists combined together to take on the mighty British before succumbing.
(National Book Trust, (India), A-5 Green Park, New Delhi-110 016.)