The Uprising of 1857 may be termed as a watershed moment in the history of modern India. Dismissed by most British historians as a mere “Sappy Mutiny”, it was viewed as a mass uprising in many parts of the world. British writings that followed the events of 1857-58 marginalized it as only a chapter in military history of Britain while Indian writers glorified it as a War of Independence.
This book brought out to mark the 150th year of the uprising of 1857; attempts to offer an analysis of the events that changed the course of Indian history. Through extensive references, first hand accounts and other historical documents it endeavors to document the eventful saga of rebellion in a fresh perspective thus bringing vividly alive the events of 1857 that navigated India to its eventual freedom from British yoke in 1947.
The author Gautam Gupta’s life long interest in various aspects of 1857 finds a brilliant manifestation in this volume and provides the reader a lot to think about.
No military revolt/rebellion, anywhere in the world has produced as much literature as the Great Indian Uprising of 1857. Referred to as the First War of Independence by some, the literature of this period includes specialized work of historians, reminiscences, memoirs, diaries and an immense volume of private correspondence. In other words, the bibliography of the period is legion. The late Peter Taylor in his book that happened During the Mutiny listed eight hundred and seventy five publications in English language alone and Dr S B Chaudhuri in his English Historical Writings on the Mutiny, listed seventy eight works in Indian languages, not including the large number of pamphlets, many written anonymously to conceal the identity of their authors. However, almost all available writing on the subject is by British authors and these generally present the British point of view. Therefore anyone attempting to write objectively and dispassionately about the events of 1857 is faced with innumerable complexities. For instance, while the “glorious” achievements of the British army and the “heroic” deeds of their officers and other ranks are gloated over ad infinitum, one rarely comes across any mention of equally, if not more, heroic acts of their adversaries. Therefore the task before the author is to sift chaff from the grain, read between the lines and marshal his critical faculty and tranquil judgment to come to a balanced analysis of the events that shaped the final outcome of this titanic struggle, which “changed India’s destiny like no other event.”
Distortion of history is a powerful weapon of propaganda and has been used, the world over, to brainwash people. My father used to narrate how as students in the early 1920s, they were made to read about the Bibighur massacre and the treachery” of that “fiend”, Nana Sahib but not a word was mentioned about the mindless brutalities perpetrated by Colonel Neill, Major Read, Frederick Cooper and many other officers on the hapless unarmed civilians and how mercilessly village after village was burnt by the marauding columns of the British army, roasting alive the inhabitants. It is not my intention to revive the racial antagonism, but the fact remains that on the orders of Col Neill, men, who had nothing to do with the massacres, were made to crawl on all the fours and lick off the mess of clotted blood, urine and faces from the floor of the Bibighur! Hanging or blowing from the gun was not considered a sufficient enough punishment, the religion of the condemned men had to be defiled by unspeakable acts of degradation.
The events of 1857 generated such extreme passions that only a handful of
Englishmen could write about it with a sense of equanimity.
The great Indian revolutionary, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, was perhaps the first person to attempt a history of 1857 from the Indian perspective. His book The First War of Independence was secretly published in Holland in 1909. The British government came to know of it and proscribed it. However, it was smuggled to France from where it was distributed in India wrapped in artistic covers specially printed with labels such as Pickwick Papers, Scott c Works and Don Quixote Though it is peppered with quotations from prominent “Mutiny” historians like Sir J W Kaye, G B Malleson and Rice Holmes etc, it nevertheless brings out the valour and patriotic spirit of the leaders of the rebellion, so long condemned by the British authors as badmashes, riff-raff and rabble. They are projected as true fighters for the liberation of India. And the author, in spite of his many emotional and subjective statements, is eminently successful in his effort of writing one of the major ‘other histories’ and showed a new path to the historiographers of 1857.
In writing this book, I have consulted both primary and secondary source materials and have tried to be as objective as possible. The critical direction of the book has been to narrate the activities of the principal actors of the revolt on the Indian side and therefore details of day to day life either in the Wheeler’s entrenchment or inside the Lucknow Residency have been mentioned only in passing. There are specialized books by British authors who have covered these aspects in extensor. I have used the words “Indians’ or “Spays” and sometimes “nationalists” to describe the Indian fighters of 1857. The word “mutiny” wherever it appears is in inverted commas as it was a “mutiny” in the eyes of the Englishmen but many Indians do not view it as such. No doubt it started off as a “mutiny” of the soldiers but it took the shape of a mass upsurge in many areas particularly Avadh which even many British scholars have admitted. One point which baffles me is how notwithstanding their oppression, mass shootings, hangings and torture they still found Indians to bat for their cause — and we must remember that they were in majority. As Lord Roberts has most candidly admitted in his autobiography “Delhi could not have been taken without Sikhs and Gurkhas; Lucknow could not have been defended without the Hindustani soldiers— and nothing that Sir John Lawrence might have done could have prevented our losing— the whole of the country north of Calcutta had not the men of the Punjab and the tracts beyond the Indus remained true to our cause.” Without the army of camp- followers, who were all Indians, the British could not have won a single battle. Undoubtedly the English leadership had character and charisma which resulted in their having some sort of mesmeric hold on the people. At no stage in the history of the Raj there were more than a 1,00,000 Englishmen, all told, in India.
Wherever BNI appears the same is with reference to the Bengal Native Infantry. Bombay and Madras armies have been so indicated wherever they appear in the text. Original names of the cities like Bombay, Calcutta and Madras have been retained—names by which they were known in 1857.
I wish to express my appreciation to my editor, Naveen Joshi but for whom this book would not have seen the light of the day.
I am grateful to my wife Rupa for devoting her valuable time and assistance in bringing the book to its present form. And my thanks to Tanya, my daughter, herself a poet of some distinction. I am indeed touched by her numerous middle- of-the-night calls from Washington DC to enquire anxiously about the progress of the book. I dedicate this book to her.
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