1857 – The Real Story of the Great Uprising A review by Kannan Kasturi

In war, the victors usually get to write history. There are numerous accounts of 1857 by Englishmen who were witness to it – Bonham, Forbes-Mitchell, Grant, Gubbins, Lowe – the list goes on. Even the odd English memsahib penned her recollections. The historians of the British Empire had their task cut out bringing out multi-volume tomes on the “Sepoy Mutiny”.

In war, the victors usually get to write history. There are numerous accounts of 1857 by Englishmen who were witness to it – Bonham, Forbes-Mitchell, Grant, Gubbins, Lowe – the list goes on. Even the odd English memsahib penned her recollections. The historians of the British Empire had their task cut out bringing out multi-volume tomes on the “Sepoy Mutiny”.

The defeated rarely live to tell their tale. Little is known about the last days of the Rani of Jhansi, Nana Sahib or Tantya Tope. The “mutineers” were methodically hunted down, the towns that sheltered them destroyed and the residents slaughtered. Publication of any account of the rebellion that differed from the official history was suppressed. Veer Savarkar’s work on 1857 – ‘The Indian war of independence’ – was declared seditious, and could not be ublished within the country even 50 years after the events.

Given the paucity of records of Indians from that period, the unearthing of Vishnu Bhatt Godshe Versaikar’s eyewitness account of the rebellion is of tremendous interest. Noted journalist and writer Mrinal Pande has performed a valuable service by making Bhatt’s Marathi work, ‘Maajha Pravas – 1857 Chya Bandachi Hakikat’ (My travels – The facts of the 1857 revolt) available to a wider readership across India through an extremely readable English translation.

The publication history of Bhatt’s work, traced by Mrinal Pande, is itself testimony to the effective censorship that remained in place after 1857. Bhatt was initially content with orally recounting his experiences of travel through the war-torn countryside within his close circle. Yielding to persuasion by Chintamani Vaidya, a practitioner of traditional medicine, he penned his work many years later, but refrained from publishing it, fearing the wrath of the British. The same fear prompted Vaidya who was in possession of Bhatt’s manuscript after his death in 1903, to publish Bhatt’s story modified to appear as a work of fiction. A version that adhered to the original manuscript appeared in print in modern Marathi only in 1948 and in Hindi only as recently as 2007. That 60 years elapsed before the availability of Hindi and English translations of this important work is testimony to the lack of interest of the Indian State in the project of reclaiming history from its colonial moorings.

As Vishnu Bhatt tells us, he is a poor Brahmin from Versai, a village that falls in the Kolaba district of present day Maharashtra. With his family in deep debt, and few prospects of earning a living locally, he decides to travel to distant ‘Hindustan’ – the land of Mathura, Gwalior, Jhansi and Kanpur – to seek a livelihood. Many of the rulers and noblemen in these principalities are of Maratha origin and he hopes to find employment with them conducting religious rituals and ceremonies.

Bhatt and his elderly uncle set out for Mathura carrying little else other than a few religious texts. At the outskirts of the cantonment of Mhow, they meet deserting soldiers and learn that a revolt is imminent in the British military units. Reasoning that as penniless itinerants, they have nothing to fear, they continue with their journey towards Gwalior. Then begins a period of high adventure, when the two get caught up in the thick of the revolt in Bundelkhand, live through the ferocious siege of Jhansi, and wander for months in Central India, then in a state of ferment. In the dying days of the rebellion, they head east on a pilgrimage to Ayodhya & Kashi before making their way back home.

Bhatt records his experiences in the form of a travelogue. However, he sees his work to be ‘a factual account of the 1857 mutiny’, as is made clear by the subtitle of his manuscript. Bhatt intersperses his travelogue with accounts of the rebellion unfolding in other places that he has heard about. These accounts concern the principal characters – Nana Sahib, Rao Sahib, Tantya Tope, Hazrat Mahal, the Rani of Jhansi – and the main cities – Gwalior, Jhansi, Kanpur, Kalpi, Lucknow – that Bhatt becomes familiar with in the course of his travels. With clever juxtaposition of first hand experience and the retelling of stories he has heard, Bhatt produces a coherent account of the rebellion as it progresses.

Bhatt’s story encompasses the history that we know – the choice made by the different rulers to align with or fight the British, the victories and defeats of the rebels and the terrible destruction wrought on their cities – but also provides insights into popular perceptions and the reactions of the different strata of people to the unfolding events. Bhatt is a keen observer and a fine storyteller. His stories, such as the one about Nana Sahib’s battles in Kanpur, have great feeling and pathos, and make it obvious where his sympathies lie. Bhatt is aware while writing of the British rendering of the events of 1857, and takes pains to correct what he believes are untruths. Describing, for instance, the well-known incident of the killing of British women and children held hostage between the two battles at Kanpur (for which Nana Saheb has been much castigated by colonial historians), Bhatt defends Nana Saheb, laying the blame on over enthusiastic soldiers who act contrary to his instructions.

While Bhatt’s narrative provides a different and refreshing perspective to the colonial telling of history, it is with his first person accounts that one gets a feel for what the people were going through during the rebellion. The account of the battle of Jhansi is perhaps the most dramatic and poignant part of the travelogue.

The siege and fall of Jhansi
The past association of Bhatt’s uncle with the Rani of Jhansi’s father, who was also a Brahmin priest from Maharashtra, enables the two to gain access to the palace at Jhansi. Bhatt becomes a part of the Rani’s entourage, lives within the fort in the royal quarters, and is able to observe the preparations and conduct of the war from up close.

News reaches Jhansi of an army under General Rose – soldiers who have newly arrived from Britain, cavalrymen of the Nizam of Hyderabad and troops from other smaller rulers supporting the British – advancing on the city. Bhatt records the atmosphere in the fort and the preparations to withstand a long siege. “Within the fort, Rani sat pouring over the papers with her chiefs of staff. I too was there. Even at midnight, it felt like daytime because of the restless goings-on”.

The Rani of Jhansi rejects the British ‘invitation’ to surrender. The British then put up posters in the surrounding villages warning the people that once they have annexed the fort, they will raid the city and kill all males above the age of five and below the age of eighty. Understanding the need to shore up the spirits of the people for the hard battle ahead, the Rani hosts a grand ‘haldi kumkum’ ceremony in the palace for the women of the town. “From two in the afternoon till late at night, streams of women dressed in all their finery kept arriving at the palace”, writes Bhatt. “Close to a hundred women stood in lines to receive the guests on behalf of the palace”. “I have never witnessed such a spectacular celebration anywhere and do not think I ever will”, he avers.

As the time for the attack draws near, enemy campfires are visible on clear evenings from the fort. “One such evening, when we climbed to the rooftop to take a look at the city, we saw that it was surrounded on all sides by armed British troops”, records Bhatt.

The bombardment of the Jhansi Fort day after day – relived in graphic detail by Bhatt – begins to take its toll. Hope lights up briefly when Tantya Tope arrives with an army to relieve the pressure on Jhansi. “For the people of Jhansi”, writes Bhatt, “this was the final standoff with the enemy and they flocked to the ramparts of the fort to witness the battle”. The defeat of Tantya’s army seals the fate of Jhansi. The British forces enter the city and the arson, killing and looting begins. That night the Rani, riding with a small detachment, breaks through the British cordon around the city under cover of darkness and rides away to join Tantya Tope and continue the fight.

Trapped in the city that has now fallen to the British Army, Bhatt discovers that there is some order in the plunder that follows. The first claim on the loot is that of white soldiers who go after gold, silver, and precious ornaments for three days. They destroy the library of Jhansi, with its rich collection of books on religion, astrology, astronomy, and medicine in the bargain. After the white soldiers, it is the turn of the native soldiers from the south to loot copper and brass articles and clothes and textiles. Last come the soldiers from the smaller principalities who take away grains and pulses and even the fruit from the trees. In a week of looting, Jhansi is stripped bare.

Looting complete, the British step in to restore law and order and promptly auction the properties of the palace. “The Gaekwads, the Holkars and the Shindes bought the royal elephants, camels and horses. The Shindes also bought various heirlooms,” Bhatt notes.

Barely managing to escape alive from Jhansi, Bhatt and his uncle wander around Bundelkhand and, miraculously, meet the Rani of Jhansi once more before she dies in battle. Reaching Chitrakoot, Bhatt is witness to another facet of the 1857 revolt, the tame surrender of the local ruler to the British without a fight. “I felt saddened by the sight, which contrasted so sharply with images from the day when the brave woman, the Rani of Jhansi, had broken the cordon and stormed out of the fort to fight the enemy sword in hand.”, Bhatt records. “This vast unarmed royal procession was going to face nothing but certain defeat and humiliation in the hands of the British.”

Vishnu Bhatt’s story not only provides an honest and intimate account of the rebellion, but also presents a window into mid-nineteenth century India, its warts and prejudices, the splendor of royal ceremonies and the touching hospitality of the poor. Mrinal Pande deserves to be congratulated on her labor of love.

Kannan Kasturi is an independent researcher and writer on law, policy and governance



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