People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 05

February 04, 2007

The Revolt And Its Historiography: An Overview



Biswamoy Pati


THE Revolt of 1857 was born out of various features ranging from the British policy of conquest and expansion to the colonial exploitation of India. Geographically speaking, it affected north-western, north and central India. The ‘Sepoy Mutiny’– as it was labelled initially by the colonial official writings, focused on the ‘Mutiny’ theme. To colonial officials and writers it was the handiwork of a set of discontented sipahis who were unhappy with the introduction, in 1857, of the new Enfield rifle, with its distinct ammunition, which required the bullet to be bitten before loading. Rumours that the grease used on the bullets was either from the fat of cattle or pigs had symbolic implications. Thus, whereas cows were considered ‘sacred’ by the Hindus, the Muslims considered pigs to be ‘polluting’. This created strong animosities and was located as an attack on Hindu and Muslim religious beliefs. As can be expected, this understanding gave primacy to the religious factor and reinforced a line of thinking which saw the Revolt as a ‘Muslim conspiracy’, that gained acceptance among contemporary officials. Syed Ahmad Khan (1817 - 1898) wrote a tract (Asbab-e-Baghawat-e-Hind viz. ‘The Causes of the Indian Revolt’) to counter this allegation, where he sought to examine the underlying features that determined the nature of 1857. And taken together these seem to be the basis for formulations like the ‘clash of civilisations’, echoes of which are heard even today in the post-9/11 context.


Contemporary writings in the mid-nineteenth century generated political hysteria and racism, which legitimised the barbaric image of the ‘Indian’. Nevertheless, the 1857 Revolt demonstrated the way English opinion itself was divided at home. Thus, Chartists like Ernest Jones hailed the Revolt and unmasked the colonial exploitation of India (The Revolt of Hindoostan; or, The New World, London, 1857). Of course the most serious dissenting voice was that of Karl Marx who linked the colonial exploitation of India to the anger that was displayed by the people during the Revolt. Marx and Engels hailed the unity displayed by the different religious communities who opposed British colonialism (Marx and Engels, The First War of Independence, 1857-1859, Moscow,1975). 


Interestingly, the Indian National Congress after its formation (1885) actually denounced the 1857 Revolt, given the social background of most of the leaders who were pro-British in their thinking. However, by the end of the nineteenth century the Revolt attracted and inspired the first generation of the Indian nationalists. Thus, V.D.Savarkar, who was perhaps the first Indian to write about the Revolt in 1909, called it The Indian War of Independence of 1857. His pro-nationalist stance made Savarkar reject the colonial assertion that linked the Revolt with the greased cartridges. As he put it, if this had been the issue it would be difficult to explain how it could attract Nana Sahib, the Emperor of Delhi, the Queen of Jhansi and Khan Bahadur Khan to join it. Besides, he also focused on the fact that the Revolt continued even after the English Governor General had issued a proclamation to withdraw the offending greased bullets. Savarkar went ahead and connected the Revolt to the ‘atrocities’ committed by the British. At the same time, the importance he gave to religion illustrates the influence of the imperialist writers on him. 


From the 1920s, efforts were made to analyse the Revolt from a Marxist position by pioneers like M.N. Roy (M.N. Roy in collaboration with Abani Mukherji, India in Transition, 1922) and Rajni Palme Dutt (India Today, 1940). Roy was rather dismissive about 1857 and saw in its failure the shattering of the last vestiges of feudal power. He was emphatic about the ‘revolution of 1857’ being a struggle between the worn out feudal system and the newly introduced commercial capitalism, that aimed to achieve political supremacy. In contrast, Palme Dutt saw 1857 as a major peasant revolt, even though it had been led by the decaying feudal forces, fighting to get back their privileges and turn back the tide of foreign domination. Consequently, one witnesses the beginnings of a process that interrogated and critiqued the internal feudal order, even while lauding the popular basis of the Revolt. 


The access to sources after the independence of India saw interesting developments related to the studies on the 1857 Revolt. What developed was a rather sophisticated Nationalist historiography that harped on the complexities of the Revolt. It included Nationalist historians like R.C. Majumdar, S.B. Chaudhuri, S.N. Sen, and K.K. Datta, (viz. R.C. Majumdar, The Sepoy Mutiny and the Revolt of 1857, 1957; S.B.Chaudhuri, Civil Revolt in the Indian Mutinies, 1857-59, 1957 and Theories of the Indian Mutiny, 1965; S.N. Sen, Eighteen Fifty-Seven, 1957; and, K.K. Datta, Reflections on the Mutiny, 1967). These historians were not uniformly comfortable with the idea that the 1857 Revolt was the ‘First War of Indian Independence’. Moreover, they referred to ideas like nationalism that were supposedly witnessed during 1857 or saw the very inception of the national movement contained in the Revolt. Nevertheless, they went very clearly beyond the simple categorisations that had seen two dominant and opposing narratives – lauding the British, the victors who had ‘won’ the war and the claims of the ‘rebellious Indians’, who had been ‘defeated’. 


This meant a shift in focus, with efforts being made to locate the internal contradictions (viz. the Indian ‘rich’, which included the moneylenders and buniyas) and the popular basis of 1857 and not concentrate merely on the influential classes which had been the focus of contemporary British officials. It is here that Nationalist historiography worked on and developed the legacy of the Marxists, even as some Nationalist historians inscribed their disapproval of seeing it as the ‘First War of Independence’. In this sense at least, the Nationalist historians accorded a space – howsoever limited – to the popular basis of the Revolt. 



Since peasants did not/do not write their histories, they did not document their interaction with the 1857 Revolt. But, is it possible to ignore the folklore and traditions of resistance associated with the 1857 Revolt? Moreover, can one afford to ignore the connections between 1857 and the peasant revolts of the preceding phase, or those outside the northern region of India? One can for example refer here to the Revolts of the Bhills in 1852 (in Khandesh, Dhar and Malwa), the Santals in 1855-6 (in Rajmahal, Bhagalpur, Birbhum), the Mapillas over the 1836-1854 period in Malabar, the Kandhas in Ghumsar and Baudh (1855-60), the Savaras of Parliakhemedi (1856-57), or, for that matter, the Indigo Revolt in Bengal (that began in 1859 and was directed against white planters) – inspite of being told repeatedly about the role of the Permanent Settlement and the bhadraloks, that supposedly left Bengal as a ‘zone of peace’ in this phase. 


Unless one locates historical processes in a narrow, factual manner, it would be indeed almost impossible to assume that peasants cannot think or incorporate components from the past while struggling against colonial rule as well as their immediate oppressors. In this sense at least, it is difficult to study the Revolt unless one takes into account the social history of peasant protest prior to 1857 and in the phase after it. This would show the peasants in a bitter anti-imperialist political struggle, where the internal exploiter in the form of the sahukar or buniya was not spared. It would also undermine a point that has almost got frozen as common sense – viz. that the impact of the 1857 Revolt was not felt outside the Indo-Gangetic plain. 


With the passage of time the development of other historical approaches generated a lot of debates on the nature of 1857 among historians. The first exhaustive work on the Revolt was published in 1957 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the event. Edited by P.C.Joshi (1857: A Symposium, 1957), it focused on both the diversities and the specificities of the 1857 Revolt . This included assessing 1857 against the colonial backdrop, examining aspects of participation and focusing in a major way on the internal contradictions. This volume also sought to highlight dimensions of popular culture by incorporating folk poems that have survived. One has in mind here the contributions especially of P.C.Joshi and Talmiz Khaldun. 


In many ways this work inspired a serious spell of writings on the Revolt. Here mention must be made of Eric Stokes who examined issues ranging from the way the nature of 1857 was conditioned by the background, the demographic and ecological features to the social composition and the role of the peasants, especially the ‘rich’ peasants’ (viz. Peasant and the Raj: Studies in Peasant Society and Agrarian Revolt in Colonial India, 1978; and his The Peasant Armed: The India Revolt of 1857, 1986). Interestingly, his research guided Stokes to reassess his position. Thus, whereas in his first work he had focused on the ‘rich’ peasant leadership and mobilisation, in Peasant Armed Stokes enlarged the social basis of peasant participation in the Revolt.


However, it was left to historians like Rudrangshu Mukherjee (Awadh in Revolt, 1857-58: A Study of Popular Resistance,1984) and Tapti Roy (The Politics of a Popular Uprising: Bundelkhand in 1857, 1994) to enrich our understanding of the Revolt by their focus on the popular level of the Revolt. Their effort was based on specific area studies – viz. Awadh and Bundelkhand – that brought to light fascinating complexities of popular militancy that had remained ignored. 


Alongside, historians likes Iqtidar Alam Khan have studied questions related to organisation (‘The Gwalior Contingent in 1857-58: A Study of the Organisation and Ideology of the Sepoy Rebels,’ Social Scientist, January-April 1998, pgs. 53-75; hereafter S.Sct.), Gautam Bhadra and Saiyid Zaheer Husain Jafri have focused on the middle level leadership (‘Four Rebels of Eighteen Fifty Seven’, in Ranajit Guha, ed. Subaltern Studies IV, 1985, pgs. 229-75; and ‘Profile of a Saintly Rebel - Maulavi Ahmadullah Shah’ in S.Sct., respectively). Scholars like Khaldun (in P.C.Joshi, pgs. 1-70) and E.I.Brodkin (‘The Struggle for Succession: Rebels and Loyalists in the Indian Mutiny of 1857’, in Modern Asian Studies, 1972, pages 277-90) have focused on activities in the areas where British authority had been subverted, and if 1857 was indeed a restorative Revolt. 


More recently – since the 1990s – historians have focused on the popular dimensions of 1857. Here one can refer to scholars like K.S.Singh who have highlighted the participation of adivasis (“The ‘Tribals’ and the 1857 Uprising”, S.Sct. pgs. 76-85); Badri Narayan who has focused on low and outcastes and popular culture (‘Dalits and Memories of 1857’, ICHR Conference Proceedings, December 2006, unpublished; and ‘Popular Culture and 1857: Memory Against Forgetting’, S.Sct. pgs. 86-94); and Rajat Ray who has studied the mentalities of 1857 (The Felt Community: Commonality and Mentality before the Emergence of Indian Nationalism, 2003, pgs. 353-534). Moreover, working within the paradigms of cultural studies scholars like Jenny Sharpe (Allegories of Empire: The Figure of Woman in the Colonial Text, 1993) and Nancy Paxton (Writing Under the Raj: Gender, Race and Rape in the British Colonial Imagination, 1830-1947, 1999) have delineated the way the theme of the ‘rape’ of white women that was virtually created to fuel racism, which emerged as a major fall-out of the Revolt. 


What needs to be emphasised is that the 1857 Revolt represents possibly one of the most powerful and dramatic anti-colonial movements which united the peasants and the landed sections against the ruthless imperialist onslaught over the first half of the nineteenth century. At the same time, it also questioned the internal exploiters like the moneylenders and buniyas. What has been delineated illustrates the evolution of the historiography on the 1857 Revolt. As seen, historians have shifted their focus from the mutinous ‘sepoys’, and seeing in it the origins of Indian nationalism to studying the diversities of the Revolt both in terms of popular participation and regions affected by it as also highlighting the internal contradictions. Presently some historians are engaged in resarching gender-related issues, which would undoubtedly enrich our understanding of the Revolt of 1857.