1957, the centenary year of the Great Revolt, became a turning point for the Indian Communists. The popular sentiment and enthusiasm displayed during the centenary celebrations all over the country was an eye opener to them. Eminent historians like R.C. Majumdar, S.N. Sen, S.B. Chowdhury and others brought out well-researched works on 1857. New documentary material was dug out from the state archives. S.A.A. Rizvi and M.L. Bhargava, at the behest of UP government, brought out a multi-volume compilation of rare documents on 1857. Thus, fifty years after Savarkar'spath-breaking work on 1857 titled Indian War of Independence, 1857 was once again presented from Indian point of view in its myriad colours.
Inaugurating the centenary celebrations on May 10, 1957, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru delivered a long inspiring speech at the Ramlila Maidan. All this made the Communists re-examine their own perspective on 1857. Mohit Sen, a prominent Communist intellectual and activist, lamented, ?Far too long had our national revolution been denied the status of a revolution. It had become fashionable to deride it, especially by Marxist historians who followed the lead of M.N. Roy and Rajni Palme Dutt.? (Mohit Sen, A Traveller and the Road: The Journey of an Indian Communist, Delhi, 2003 p. 154).
The CPI took out the August 1957 special issue of its political monthly New Age, edited by its General Secretary, Ajoy Ghosh with Mohit Sen and P. Govind Pillai as his editorial assistants. At the same time veteran Communist leader P.C. Joshi, who after having led the party as its General Secretary for 13 years (1935-1948) was disgraced and expelled from the party but was rehabilitated in 1956, was requested to organise a collection of articles reflecting various approaches to all the facets of the 1857 Revolt. This collection was officially published by the People'sPublishing House in July 1957 and was titled Rebellion 1857: A Symposium which showed lack of unanimity in the party. Joshi in his preface admitted, ?It remains, unfortunately enough, one of the unresolved controversies of Indian history. This volume, therefore, is in the nature of a symposium and the views of each contributor are his own.? (Preface, p. vii)
A perusal of these two official publications of the CPI is enough to show that Left intellectuals were still divided about the nature of 1857 Revolt or Rebellion. In the New Age special Hiren Mukherji and Baren Ray take positions, which if not directly opposed, radically differ from each other. Prof Mukherji rejecting the earlier Left perspective on 1857, though presenting it under the garb of British views, says, ?This is a view which is wrong and perverse and an unmerited slur on our people.? (ibid p. 2) Further, he says, ?A proposition has been mooted even in quarters known as progressives, namely, that the Indian intelligentsia especially in Bengal? disapproved of and kept deliberately away from the mutiny as a feudal and reactionary phenomenon.? (ibid p. 13)
Baran Ray'sarticle ?Economic Transformation and the Revolt?, couched in abstruse Marxist jargon, sees the Revolt as a handiwork of the Muslims, and justifies the apathy, rather opposition by the Hindu middle class, ?which had received a new education, the benefits of a rule of law as against the former insecurity and employment opportunities to a certain extent (p. 48) and ?it had no inclination to accept a Muslim feudal leadership for opposing the foreigners.? (p.50) Reiterating this view Ray further writes, ?Even achievement of Hindu-Muslim unity was not easy, the past anti-Hindu record of the Muslim rulers and the anti-feudal maturation of society which expressed itself in the form of an opposition to the existing Muslim regime, spread apathy about the rebellion among the Hindus.? (p. 52)
Prof. Sushobhan Sarkar, who under the pseudonym Amit Sen, contributed a review article on S.N. Sen'sEighteen Fifty Seven and R.C. Majumdar'sSepoy Mutiny. He also underlines the fact of Hindu-Muslim divide. Criticising the foreword by the then Education Minister, Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad in S.N. Sen'sEighteen Fifty Seven, for its lack of ?objectivity?, Prof Sarkar writes, ?It proclaims that in 1857 he cannot find a single instance when there was a clash on a communal basis.? This is, of course, belied by the communal fracas at Bijnore, Moradabad, Sirsa etc. (Majumdar, pp. 60, 65)? (New Age Special. p. 69)
P.C. Joshi in his article, ?1857 Heritage?, in unequivocal words presents it as ?the first chapter of the history of Indian national movement against British imperialism? (p. 55) and calls it ?national uprising? (p. 57). Quoting London Times Joshi underlines the all India unity reflected in this uprising. Praising the role of mutinous sepoys, he writes, ?Indian army went against the ?British salt? and proved their loyalty to the ?Indian soil? from which they had risen.? (p. 59)
The other publication Rebellion 1857: A Symposium carries a 103-page-long article with 213 references under the title ?1857 in Our History?, which speaks high of the author P.C. Joshi'serudition. Similarly, a Leftist journalist Satinder Singh, under the pseudonym Talmiz Khaldun, contributed 70-page-long research article based upon his archival studies.
A very seminal article in this volume was contributed by the late Dr K.M. Ashraf, a Leftist historian known for his ideological commitment, under the title ?Muslim Revivalists and the Revolt of 1857?, wherein Dr Ashraf has underlined the active role of Wahabi ideology and organisational network in the 1857 Revolt. Recently, William Dalrymple in his Last Mughal has also marshalled enough contemporary evidence in support of this opinion. But this view is not palatable to Prof Irfan Habib, who seems to have emerged these days as the main spokesman of the CPI(M) on matters of history. In his foreword to the second edition of the Rebellion 1857 (published by the National Book Trust, New Delhi, 2007) Prof. Habib, in a way, rejecting Ashraf'sview says, ?It seems to me that the identification of mujahids or non-sepoy Muslim volunteers, exclusively with Wahabis, lacks convincing substantiation, so also do such statements as that the sepoy general, Bakht Khan, was a conformed and fanatical Wahabi.? (Foreword, p. x). Evidently, Prof Habib and his AMU team are trying on one hand to highlight the Muslim contribution in 1857 as on the other, to delink it with the Wahabi ideology.
This approach of Prof. Habib calls for a critical examination.
(To be concluded)