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Commemorating the Indian Uprising of 1857

The 10th of May – the occasion when Indian soldiers (or sepoys) in the service of the East Indian Company at Meerut attacked and killed their commanding officers and ransacked the European bungalows in the town before marching to Delhi - has been widely celebrated across India in 2007 as marking the beginning of the great Indian uprising of 1857-58.   The march was even re-enacted by thousands of volunteers following in the footsteps of the mutinous sepoys. However, Meerut was not the only beginning nor the end of the uprising, and events to commemorate the 150th anniversary of 1857 are continuing throughout 2007-08, with most state governments in India taking their own initiatives, in addition to a succession of local conferences and events in the capital New Delhi being organised by the Indian Council of Historical Research. In the UK as well efforts are underway to commemorate the 150 th anniversary of 1857, being co-ordinated by the University of Edinburgh in collaboration with the Royal Asiatic Society and other institutions.   Being the city where so many Indian civil servants were educated and still home to the private papers of Scotsmen such as Lord Dalhousie (the governor-general whom many hold responsible for the uprising) and Lord Linlithgow (one of the last Viceroys), Edinburgh has obvious long-standing connections with India. However, the commemoration of 1857   in Edinburgh has most of all to do with the efforts of the University's Centre for South Asian Studies (one of the largest in the UK) and the University's School of History (SHCA), which is host to research and networking grants from various UK academic bodies, including the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the British Academy, all of them focussed on promoting research and inter-continental academic exchanges relating to the Great Indian Uprising, or 'Mutiny' as it is sometimes called.

1857 not only saw the destruction of the Timurid dynasty of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal emperor. It also brought about the end of the East India Company and entirely transformed Britain's relationship with India, as well as with much of the rest of the British empire. It is widely seen therefore as an event of equal importance in British as it is in modern Indian history. The concept of 'shared histories' thus lies at the centre of Edinburgh's initiative, whilst more specific avenues of research have been commissioned which aim to highlight the marginal aspects of the event and its legacies that have not been addressed in conventional histories. A major highlight is an international conference to be held in Edinburgh on July 23 rd -26 th 2007, which will be organised in parallel with a series of exhibitions, workshops and public events aimed at commemorating not only 1857 but also the 60th anniversary of Indian and Pakistani independence.   The theme of the Edinburgh conference is 'Mutiny at the Margins' and will involve the expertise of academics from around the world who will meet to exchange ideas and new source materials – ultimately to be published – which will shed fresh light on the Uprising. The culmination of these activities will be a learned workshop and a public lecture (given by Professor Mushirul Hasan of Jamia Milia Islamia, New Delhi) to be held at the Royal Asiatic Society in London, where the historiography and novel approaches to the teaching (ie pedagogy) of 1857 will be addressed. Not long after the Edinburgh conference there will then be a parallel conference held at Jamia Milia Islamia in New Delhi in early September, at which British and Indian academics will again meet to discuss the legacies on the event and to (hopefully) agree on new perspectives and directions for future research.

One of the great dilemmas of historians faced by historians studying 1857 is how to escape from the prevailing orthodoxies of both nationalist and colonial historians on this subject.   Such original departures have been made possible in other areas, such as the history of Partition, the nationalist movement, and of the eighteenth century in India, due to the pioneering efforts of so-called 'subaltern' historians in India and many others.   Up until now, however, 1857 has remained stubbornly resistant to re-appraisal. For the British (the 'victors', if they can be so described) 1857 has long featured in British school textbooks as 'the Mutiny' – an essentially illegal act in which there was little or no civilian participation worth serious consideration. Even during the uprising itself the British often tried to convince themselves, even as their houses burned and their women and children were slaughtered, that the majority of Indians were still 'loyal' and that it was solely the rebelliousness of a few thousand (actually 139,000) Indian sepoys that was the cause of the problem. This idea made the restoration of British rule post-1857 a far simpler matter than might otherwise have been, but it flew in the face of the reality that was experienced, with the army of General Neil having to fight almost hand-to-hand and from village to village across Awadh from the autumn of 1857 into 1858. Peace was not finally restored here until a general amnesty was declared by Governor-General Canning in January 1859.   Many British accounts of 1857 therefore ignore or dismiss non-military or civilian aspects of 1857 as simple 'lawlessness', effectively suppressed by violent and arbitrary retaliation from the British military, when in reality there was a far wider disaffection than anyone cared to admit.

Ironically, many of the same aspects ignored by British colonial historians are absent also in Indian nationalist accounts of 1857, which focus especially on heroic leaders such as Tatia Tope, Nana Saheb and the Rani of Jhansi, but pay little attention to the activities of ordinary sepoy rebels (the majority of whom marched to Delhi and fought at the side of aged Mughal emperor) or the many smaller and local level revolts, which threw up their own leaders and did not rely upon the established (or recently deposed) aristocracy of the country for leadership. So dominant have been both the colonialist and nationalist accounts of 1857, that until now most historians have been reluctant to embark upon new and inevitably controversial research in this area. The 150 th anniversary has, however, provided the necessary stimulus for such research to begin and has already produced some spectacular results, beginning with the publication early in 2007 of William Dalrymple's The Last Mughal – which sheds fresh light on the Uprising in Delhi by drawing upon (amongst other things) the vast collection of little used Urdu documents from the Mughal court itself, which are held in the National Archives in New Delhi. Similar treasure troves of under-used material are being highlighted elsewhere. One of the largest is the collection of mutiny papers held in the UP government's historical archives in Allahabad, which amounts to tens of thousands of local level reports, written in Urdu and Persian, describing the revolt in towns and villages all across the Indo-Gangetic plain. New work is slowly being commissioned from this resource, although a great deal will remain here for a very long time to be done.

The Madhya Pradesh government has been quicker than most to respond to the anniversary (thanks to the efforts of Drs. Pankaj Rag and Gita Saberwal), by publishing a series of four volumes of material relating to 1857 from the Bhopal archives, the first a collection of English papers, the second a collection of Urdu and Persian papers (transliterated into Devanagri), and the third, an extremely rare collection of papers in Bundeli script, which have been transliterated for the very first time. These all relate to the activities of the 'rebel' general Tatia Tope as he marched south from Kanpur in 1858 in an effort to raise the peoples Maharashtra and central India into revolt. These documents reveal how widespread were the involvement of local people to the immediate south of the Indo-gangetic plain, including the tribals or adivasis of the Satpura hills: an aspect revealed also in a wonderful exhibition of adivasi paintings of revolt (including but not exclusively concerning1857) displayed at the Swaraj Bhavan in Bhopal. The fourth volume (although possibly not the last) is to be a collection of folk tales concerning 1857. These are proving to be one of the most interesting and previously under-utilised resources, telling us not only more about 1857 itself, but its place in the imagination of a wide variety of peoples. Badri Narayan Tiwari, for example, has published in this anniversary year a path-breaking study of dalit involvement in 1857 and of the ways in which activists and others make use of folk memories of the event to raise dalit consciousness in the present day ( Women Heroes and Dalit Assertion in North India: Culture, Identity and Politics , New Delhi: Sage). There is more work of this sort going on in elsewhere in UP and Bihar.

In the UK, researchers are inquiring into under-explored issues such as the immediately post-1857 Indian migration and diaspora. Unusual sources such as cartoons, novels and ballads are also being examined and new research is highlighting the involvement of women, missionaries and the ordinary British soldier, as well as the impact upon the media, literature and press, and the longer-term political and cultural legacies in the UK of events in India.   An over-arching concern of all those involved in both Britain and India is to ask not only what happened, but what is the meaning of 1857 today, what new questions we should be asking, what new lessons can be learned from these events, and how we should be describing them to future generations of students. In the process, most academics are cautiously expressing a long-felt desire to escape from the old dichotomy of 1950s historiography – was it a 'Mutiny' or the 'First National War of Independence' – and to explore new and original areas of enquiry which bring the involvement of the ordinary citizen and both social and cultural aspects much more to the fore. For this reason 1857 is becoming a effective platform upon which British and Indian historians can share ideas and attempt to arrive at common perspectives. It is also providing a tremendous stimulation to a younger generation of history students to embark upon innovative research using under-exploited resources in areas where their predecessors were reluctant to tread and, it is to be hoped, cannot yet begin to imagine.

 
Dr. Crispin Bates
School of History & Classics and

Centre for South Asian Studies
University of Edinburgh
For further information please see www.csas.ac.uk 

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