The legendary history of 1857

Shivanand Kanavi reviews Vinayak Savarkar’s “The Indian War of Independence-1857”

Shivanand Kanavi reviews Vinayak Savarkar’s “The Indian War of Independence-1857”

Vinayak Damodar Savarkar’s book, “The Indian War of Independence 1857” is a truly legendary book. The book itself has achieved a legendary status in the last hundred years since its first publication. The book showed up the censors in England for what they were, when they took the unprecedented step of banning it before it was even published. Thus it was a remarkable enterprise, in which many patriots participated, to enable the book to see the light of day. Lala Hardayal, professor at the University of California at Berkeley and founder of the famous Hindustani Ghadar Party, reprinted it in 1912 to make it available to a larger audience, and Bhagat Singh and his associates also found it worthwhile to publish it again in India later. It is a pity that no publisher has thought it fit to reprint it in this 150th anniversary year of the Great Ghadar, when old books are being reprinted and new ones being churned out. It is however heartening that most booksellers are reporting a lot of interest in books on 1857 among the reading public.

It is intriguing that a nation that groaned under the colonial yoke for 200 years and whose pre-colonial past is glorified by some and decried by others but researched and documented in only a fragmentary fashion. We continue to be indifferent to re-discovering ourselves even after gaining political independence. Our schoolteachers rarely take students to museums or monuments and do not teach history in a living fashion; our history departments in 200+ Universities remain under-funded and totter on the verge of being declared “non-merit” by administrators influenced by market economics. On the other hand we continue to boast of a 5000 year old civilisation, but when confronted by foreigners or our own conscience, we find few books that tell our past in a way that can ignite popular imagination and at the same time give leads to future research by showing where the gaps are.

Now that I have vented my frustration as an outsider to the discipline of history, let me address myself to Savarkar’s book. It is one of the best written so far on the subject of the great uprising of 1857. It is truly panoramic and sweeps thousands of kilometers of territory, from Kunwar Singh’s Jagdishpur in Bihar to Peer Ali’s Patna, to Nana Saheb, Azimullah Khan and Tatia Tope’s Bithoor and Kanpur, to Laxmibai’s Jhansi, to Begum Hazrat Mahal and Moulvi Ahmed Shah’s Awadh and Lucknow, to Bakht Khan’s Bareilly, to Bahadur Shah Zafar and Feroze Shah’s Dilli. The innumerable heroes mentioned by Savarkar, who rose up and led the local uprisings in town after town and kingdom after kingdom all across the Gangetic plain, central India and even south of the Vindhyas, are too long to be listed here. The ‘others’–those who fought with great “heroism” and “loyalty” on the side of the British and were mainly responsible for the victory of the British in almost all the battles–are also mentioned with great feeling of revulsion by the author. Those who waited to see which side might win and remained neutral, and ultimately threw their weight behind the British, are also listed at length.

A panoramic view of history is difficult to narrate. In Mahabharata, Vyas used the artifice of “embedded journalist”–Sanjaya and his tele-vision–to tell the story of the great battle of Kurukshetra. Here Savarkar uses no such artifice, and with remarkable dexterity handles distances, places, times and events that take place over a battlefield of continental proportions, compared to Europe, and spanning several years. If his exclamations over bravery and the heroism of patriots and fury over treachery by Indians, sound repetitive and sentimental, one just glides past them because of the wealth of information that he provides about a period about which we have been taught or told so little.

The story itself is very inspiring because it has not been told in this intensely nationalistic fashion in the last 150 years. On the other hand there is increasing evidence that the British consciously suppressed all objective historiography,even more nationalistic historiography, and engaged in calculated character assassination of all the main leaders of the uprising, be it Bahadur Shah Zafar, or Nana Saheb, or Tatia Tope or Begum Hazrat Mahal.

The book extensively quotes fragments of truth that slipped through British eyewitness accounts of the uprising. Kaye, Ball, Malleson and others are frequently quoted to buttress the author’s argument. However Savarkar hardly gives any kind of references to what he asserts about the extensive nature of preparation of the uprising, the methods of their organization, their statecraft and their vision. He mentions Swaraj and Swadharma as the guiding vision of the uprising, but is deliciously vague about what they meant to the rebels.

Thus a historian might call this legendary in another sense of the word—full of legends rather than facts. From circumstantial evidence and logic we could infer that he may be right about many things that he asserts but an academic historian would probably baulk at it. Obviously he worked under very difficult circumstances while researching for the book in London. However there is no excuse for professional historians not following up his leads.

Another aspect of the book is that it was agit-prop at its best. In fact the book was extensively distributed by the Ghadar Party amidst different units of the Indian army in their attempt to organize another widespread mutiny in the army in 1915 to coincide with a civilian uprising, a repeat of 1857 so to say. In fact the Ghadar Party expressly chose the word Ghadar in its title not only to adduce revolutionary attributes to the organization but also to convey that “the Great Ghadar of 1857 could not achieve its aims and hence the task of the revolutionaries now would be to complete it”. When British agents penetrated this attempt, and the leaders were arrested in hundreds in different cantonments, many copies of Savarkar’s book were found with the soldiers involved.

All in all, even 100 years after being written, this incandescent piece of writing brings the events of 1857 to life and makes it worth reading to all interested in the history of colonialism and India’s fight against it.                                     

Shivanand Kanavi is a senior journalist and author of “Sand to Silicon: The amazing story of digital technology”

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