Revizualising and Reimagining the Mutiny

1.British Commemorations of the Mutiny in 1907

Evidently in 1907 the focus of the British press and the tone of commemorative publications was still very much reflective of the pride and importance of the victory and analysis of disputes between commanders in the field:

British Newspaper Report, 1907

“On this day 50 years ago the capture of Delhi from the mutinous sepoys, who had made themselves masters of the capital of Hindustan, was completed by the occupation of the Moghul's place …It was a great feat of arms, and it was also the political turning point in the campaign against the mutineers. So long as the last of the Great Moghuls was established in the Imperial capital of his race, defended and upheld by an unconquered army, British rule in the eyes of an immense number of the native population was in abeyance…. The first armed men who reached the outskirts of the city in arms were a native chief, the Raja of Jhind, and his contingent. Every soldier of the garrison of the Punjab that could possibly be spared was soon marching Delhi-ward. Only a few Sikhs were sent at first, for too many of the Sikhs were waiting to see how things would turn out. But numbers of frontier tribesmen were enlisted; and a sagacious native gentleman remarked to an English friend that this was an excellent arrangement, since these ruffians, as he called them, would either kill mutinous Sepoys or get killed themselves, the Government profiting by either result.

….The story of the siege up to the day of the assault must be read in the standard histories of Kaye, Malleson and Forrest, or in the reminiscences of officers who took part in it, and especially in Lord Roberts' memoirs. Even now, fifty years afterwards, there is some difference of opinion as to the validity of the reasons which led General Wilson to hesitate so long before striking a decisive blow.”

 A British Publication Commemorating the Mutiny, 1907

“Now of all the opportunities that have fallen to our share as a nation, there is one our use of which, when the final tale of our work is made up, may, perhaps, of itself redeem our race. The most hostile of our foreign critics is silent before our administration of India .… when we ask, who are the menwho have kept intact, and handed down to us these vast privileges, and these even vaster responsibilities – who are they who have preserved for us the splendid burden which we accept and bear with honour today; the answer is that the last survivors of this great company are amongus still, white-haired and too often infirm, but the very men who saved India from itself in 1857 when the tide of sedition from one end of Hindustan to the other washed round our posts and threatened to wipe away the trace of our rule in India as a wave washes down the sandcastles of a child on the beach and wipes away the last footmarks of those who made them. .. To these survivors, this little book is dedicated. P>

SOURCE: IOLR MSS Eur A 180  Landon, P “1857” In Commemoration of the 50 th Anniversary of the Indian Mutiny, WH Smith and Son, London , 1907

Sacred Spaces & Contested Sites

1. Indian Folk Tales and the Uprising

 Gangu Baba
The story of Gangu Baba, a local hero of the 1857 revolt, is very popular in the villages adjoining Bithoor in UP. Old women narrate it to their grandchildren.

Gangu BabaThe story goes like this:

Gangu Baba was a youth living in a nearby village. It was said that he was so strong that he could change the course of rivers and chop off the heads of mountains. He could fight against two tigers together. Gangu Baba was as kind as he was brave. If he saw a hungry person he would give him his own bread to eat. If he saw someone shivering in the cold he gave his own blanket to wrap. People also say that if he heard a deer crying at night he used to get so upset that he would go to the forest and break the bones of tigers. Although he was born in a low caste poor family, he commanded great respect in the village. Rich and influential landlords used to leave their chairs to embrace him.

Once Gangu Baba was returning from the forest with a dead tiger on his back, which he had killed unarmed single-handed. Just then Nana Saheb Peshwa, the king of Bithoor, passed by with his army. At that time Nana Saheb Peshwa had already blown the bugle of the battle against the British. When he saw the strapping young man walking nonchalantly with a tiger on his back, he stopped him and asked him to join his army. Gangu Baba was very happy to hear this. He joined the army and while there he once alone killed nearly 150 British soldiers with his sword. This enraged the British, who tried their best to catch him dead or alive.
After immense efforts they succeeded in capturing him.

Then the cruel British officers tied him to the back of a horse and dragged him all the way to Kanpur , which was a long way away. There they killed him by hanging him from a neem tree in Chunniganj, Kanpur .

 This is the story of Gangu Baba, the brave youth of Bithoor, whose story is part of the oral history of the region about the 1857 revolt. To make sure that the story remains for posterity, the dalits of the region raised enough money to commission a statue of Gangu Baba. The statue is installed in Chunniganj, where he had been mercilessly killed by the British as a punishment for his brave act of killing so many of their fellowmen.

This story was narrated to Badri Narayan by an old women Bhagwanti Devi of Duari located in the district Kanpur Dehat of North India on 10 th January, 2007 at 12 A.M .

Autobiography of the Old Banyan Tree

banyan treeI am an old banyan tree. I am the living history of the 1857 revolt. I have seen the entire revolt unfolding before my eyes. Now I am old and frail. My branches are bowed down with the weight of age. They are no longer covered with fresh green leaves, but look more like arms of skeletons. Thousands of people pass by me everyday but no one spares me a second glance. Birds don't make nests in my branches any more. Squirrels don't scurry up and down my trunk with nuts, looking for holes to hide them in. But although I have no strength in my branches today, once they were so strong that 137 Indians were hanged from them during the 1857 revolt. Under orders from the British officers, their soldiers used to drag the Indian revolutionaries by horses up to me.
But sadly, no one sheds a tear at the memory of those dead dalits. I have not become a memorial like other trees where Indian revolutionaries were hanged. No one prays at my roots like they do at other trees. There are no sounds of bells near me and no incense sticks are stuck in my roots. No flower garlands are hung on my branches. Today thick bushes have grown around me and I am overrun with weeds. Everything is still and quiet and there is an aura of sorrow surrounding me. But even today I can hear the sounds of horses galloping, the screams of revolutionaries and the firing of canons. I am an old banyan tree, relegated to the margins of history.

They used to then tie ropes around the necks of the prisoners and throw the other end like lassoes on my branches. The ropes were then pulled till the necks of the prisoners broke. After they were sure that the men were dead, they dragged the bodies to the river Ganga and threw them into the water. Most of the men who were killed in this manner were dalits or belonged to other downtrodden castes and were mostly poor daily wage earners. They were all burning with the fire of the revolution to see their country free from the British, but I am sorry to say, their names are not mentioned anywhere in the history of the revolution.
 I am telling you all this because I want you to understand that I am not merely a banyan with branches and roots. I am a witness to the history of our country. I still remember the day of 4 June 1857 when the spark of revolution that was ignited in Meerut burst into fire in Kanpur . I have seen the bravery of Tatya Tope, the sacrifice of Rani Laxmibai and the martyrdom of Azimullah Khan. I remember the day in Barrackpore Cantonment when the harbinger of the revolution Mangal Pandey was brutally hanged from the branches of my relative, another banyan tree. When I remember the cruelty of the British while punishing the revolutionaries I still get shivers up my spine.
 But I was really broken that day when 137 poor dalits were hanged as a group from my branches. Their necks were tied to the branches and the other ends of the ropes were pulled mercilessly by the British army officers till all of them had died. That day I wept so loudly that my throat became parched. I cried and cried till all my tears had dried. Even today when I recall that agonising incident I break down in a flood of tears.

This story was narrated to Badri Narayan by famous Dalit writer Shri K. Nath from Arya Nagar, Kanpur located in North India on 24 th January,2007 and the same story is also found inscribed on the memorial stone, placed below this famous tree in Nana Rao Peshwa Park , Kanpur.

2. A request for the restoration of religious spaces from the Mahommedan Society of Delhi

To His Excellency the Viceroy and Governor General of India

The Mohamedan Society [Anjoman Rifah Hind Delhi] most humbly and respectfully showeth

That since the last 20 months the Mohamedans of Delhi have established a society having the following objects in view viz improvement in the national ceremonies and morals and to guard against endowments and all property in general situated in the city.

The society is made up of the respectable men of Delhi and though it has not been fully successful in its endeavours and attempts but whatever steps have hitherto been taken to carry out its objects it would be out of place to detail them.

As HE is about to hold an Imperial Darbar in this city to proclaim that Her Majesty has been pleased to take the title of Empress of India which news has so overjoyed the Mohamedens that they could not contain within themselves and are delightfully waiting for the arrival of that auspicious day. It has generally been reported that the Govt of India in order to immortalize this day intends taking such measures and doing such act of generosity that the people of India whether of any sect may remember for generations to come. This noble and beneficent intention on the part of Govt emboldens us to lay before H E this humble application that certain religious endowments places of worship or building sintended for charitable purposes, which were confiscated during the mutinies of 1857, and were either used for Govt purposes, or made over to persons who differ from us in creed, as well as in their method of worship, may be restored to us. The Society need not state that the above religious institutions were confiscated on account of the disloyalty of the Superintendents who were in their charge. Now in our humble opinion such institutions as the above can not with justice be called the property of any one individual they a re intended for the people of that religion at large, and to confiscate them for the misdeeds of men who, by chance, were placed in charge of them, cannot with strict propriety and a rigid application of the rules of justice, be called fair to the mohamedens in general. Besides the tolerant principles in religious matter which are observed by the officers of Her Imperial Majesty in India in the management of this most important part of Her dominions should not justify the confiscation of the property mentioned above. 

SOURCE: IOLR Mss Eur C643 Mahommedan Society of Delhi , Petition for restoration of religious endowments and places of worship confiscated after Mutiny.