After the tamasha enacted by the UPA Government on May 10, what Veer Savarkar described as India'sfirst war of Independence has been largely forgotten for reasons best known only to the leading party in power in Delhi. It is not that the publishing world has forgotten 1857. Of late there have been quite a few books like Julian Spilsbury'sThe Indian Mutiny (Orion Books) and Pramod K. Nayar'sIndia 1857: The Great Uprising and The Penguin 1857 Reader. To top them all is Rudrangshu Mukherjee's Spectre of Violence which is a welcome addition to William Dalrymple'sThe Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty Delhi 1857.
In the past, especially during the days of British rule, little was known of British tyranny in India. The tendency was to dismiss the effort of Indians at self-assertion as just a ?mutiny?. These days, with more and more well-researched works coming out, truth is emerging at last. As Mukherjee sees it, ?The revolt of 1857 was the most violent episode in the history of British rule in India?, but then he adds: ?The rebels when they took to arms and killed the British, broke the monopoly of violence that the British thought they enjoyed as the ruling power.? It was not the rebel who first took to violence. That charge should be strictly laid at the doorsteps of the British whose hatred and contempt of Indians who were often described as ?niggers?, was to set the country on fire.
The British had behaved atrociously prior to the so-called Mutiny. They had humiliated the Indians calling them ?a confounded sensual lazy set of niggers? and names even worse. Nana Saheb was called ?treacherous?, wicked, infamous and the people he led ?semi-barbarous?.
Mukherjee provides the background to the rebellion and why Nana Saheb and Bahadur Shah Zafar accepted the leadership thrust into their hands by the angry sepoys, who had proclaimed: Khalk khode ki, mulk badshab ka, hukum subahdar sipahi Bahadur ka (The world is God?s, the country is the Emperor?s, the rule or order is that of the soldiers). The sepoys had had enough of British terrorism; they wanted to go back to the Mughal Empire of the 18th century and, in words of Mukherjee ?invert the structure of (British) domination and subordination?. But the rebels had in mind not just the British, but also their Indian supporters and allies, the elite of the land. The sepoys wanted to avenge the insults heaped upon them and their fellow countrymen.
As one resident Englishman recorded and which Mukherjee freely quotes, ?The sepoy is regarded as an inferior creature, he is sworn at, he is spoken to as a ?nigger; he is addressed as suar or pig? with young British officers dismissing such epithets ?as an excellent joke?. The reaction of the sepoys was therefore understandable. As Mukherjee says: ?The aim of the rebels was the destruction of all things British? The revolt of 1857 visualised itself as a war of religion, a struggle to preserve the purity of caste and religion against a perceived hostile attempt by the British to interfere with the social customs and the beliefs of the people.? The sepoy rebellion, in the circumstances, was inevitable. But what happened, afterwards is a permanent blot not only on Britain'sname as a democracy but against all Europeans.
The British indulged in violence such as had not been seen even in the days of Chenghiz Khan. The Governor of Punjab, John Lawrence, laid down priorities. ?Our object is to make an example and terrify others.? All pretense of the rule of law were abandoned. All men on the road to Allahabad were slaughtered. The town of Fatehpur was destroyed, with all its inhabitants. In two days, 42 men were hanged on the roadside.
Col. Neill, one of the most vicious officers had ?every native that appeared in sight shot down without question?. Villages were ruthlessly burnt. Those employed by the British were spared but ?any man found without a pass? was strung up by the neck in the nearest tree. One report said: ??.capital punishment was inflicted for trivial offences.?
This book limits its observations not to the rebellion all over India but to a specific area. In that sense what happened in Kanpur is just a sample of what happened elsewhere in various degrees. British arrogance and insults invited action. That action resulted in British counter reaction?and so it went on. In the end the British remained as conquerors?a master race. Who started it all? Nana Saheb? Hardly. He was forced by the sepoys to serve as their leader. The Kanpur (Cawnpore) massacres have been glossed over by three distinguished Indian historians, R.C. Majumdar, P.C. Gupta and S.N. Sen. Why? One answer is that it was an example of ?settling accounts between the two races (British and Indian) extending over a hundred years?.
The White man who came to do business with India sought to master India politically and culturally. He paid the price for his overbearing arrogance. Perhaps it was all inevitable, considering that the Mughal feudal system was on its last legs. There was no way for the system to last. But it took British domination to help dismantle it.
(Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110 017.)