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Home > India > News > Columnists > Amaresh Misra

Why did the 1857 celebration fizzle out?

May 09, 2008

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On May 10, the 150th anniversary celebrations of 1857 will draw to a close. What has been done is a moot point -- people are more interested in what was not done. More so, because the government pledged big things -- last year a grand committee of more than 50 leading Indian personalities was constituted. This committee was supposed to sponsor films, television serials, books even a giant memorial to commemorate the martyrs of 1857.

Most importantly, the year was supposed to commemorate India's diverse but essentially secular character as shown in the widespread Hindu-Muslim unity of 1857.

But almost nothing was done -- reneging on its promise, the UPA government did not bring Bahadur Shah Zafar's ashes back to India from Myanmar. No film or television serial was commissioned.

A film financed by the National Film Development Corporation got mired in such a controversy that it is doubtful whether it will ever be made. The information and broadcasting ministry remains clueless about declarations made by its own minister. The grand committee was allowed to lapse into inertia. No one knows what happened to the Rs 100 crores to Rs 500 crores that the committee was supposed to spend. Was the money ever sanctioned?

Political parties too largely remained apathetic -- after conducting some token programmes, the Congress preferred to sit back. Other regional parties did not plan even a seminar. The BJP started by expressing its intent of organising a parallel show -- but that too fizzled out.

It is the apathy of the Left that is most puzzling. If anything, the anti-Imperialist and anti-communal plank of 1857 was tailor made for their kind of politics. The People's Democracy, the CPI-M weekly, did carry a series of articles in the beginning. But suddenly there was slackening of interest.

The West Bengal and Kerala [Images] governments did not organise shows even of the 'sound and light variety.' Only the National School of Drama commissioned a play -- 1857 Ek Safarnaama -- which was shown at the Purana Qila site from April 18 to 25, 2008. Directed by Nadira Babbar, it was based on War of Civilisations: India 1857 AD, written by this author.

The play included the new interpretation of the infamous Bibighar massacre of British women and children in Kanpur. Till date this has been shown by British and Indian historians as the handiwork of Nana Saheb. But taking the material and analysis of War of Civilisations, the play showed that the British might themselves have killed their own women and children to demoralise Indians, demonise Nana Saheb and marshal world opinion to their cause, which till the Bibighar massacre was vague and facing setbacks.

Inner fights in the NSD, especially opposition put forward by a section of the RSS lobby nearly sabotaged the play -- the objections came also from sections of the pro-American English speaking intelligentsia and historians -- they objected to the 'nationalist' interpretation of the Bibighar massacre.

Within the electronic and print media, barring honourable exceptions, the English section exhibited an amazing lack of sensitivity towards the subject. By contrast, the Hindi and Urdu media carried year long series on 1857 and its various aspects. Compared to the metro cities and big towns, small towns and village, especially of UP, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan saw several programmes being organised at the grassroots.

In fact, the city versus countryside chasm was unbelievably wide on the 1857 issue. In UP, for example, several gram pradhans and panchayat committees made trips to Delhi to get some amount approved for building of shaheed minars. Not a single paisa was sanctioned.

By contrast, universities and academic institutions played an important role, thanks mainly to the Indian Council for Historical Research and the University Grants Commission, as well as the efforts of various heads of departments of history, political science and English.

Delhi University's history department organised two seminars, which saw new material coming out in the form of Indian accounts especially of Tantya Tope. The School of Modern Languages at Delhi University also held a seminar on 1857 and literary imagination. The Yamuna Nagar (Haryana) DAV Girl's College and Hamidia Girl's College (Allahabad) hosted one of the best International seminars on 1857.

Gujarat Vidyapeeth held a day-long session on 1857 in Gujarat; Allahabad University's history department gave a platform to fresh insights on the subject; the Lucknow University's history and English departments were forthcoming with lectures; the Indian History Congress displayed some new works prominently; and the Shivaji University, Kolhapur structured a major seminar, with a specific 'Western India in 1857' bent.

But perhaps the most important was the seminar held at Jamia Milia University, in collaboration with Crispin Bates, a leading British scholar of the University of Edinburgh. Bates heads the 'Mutiny at the Margins' project in England [Images]. This seminar saw several interesting papers -- Crispin Bates in his paper highlighted certain astonishing facts related to the 100 year celebrations of 1857 in 1957 in India.

The most stunning statement was how the MI6 (the British counterpart of the CIA)  trailed S N Sen, the historian commissioned officially by the Government of India and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru to write a history of 1857, when the scholar was in England for his research work.

According to Bates, the British government was jittery about 1857 in 1957 -- they sanctioned a certain amount for the British embassies in Pakistan and India to lobby for downplaying the 1857 100 year celebrations. Based on confidential MI6 and British government files opened recently for the public, Bates' papers proves that the ghost of 1857, and its plebian, peasant character haunted the British even 10 years after 1947.

Is it possible that this time too, the British or the American embassies, in alliance with certain Indian corporate houses, had a role to play in downplaying 1857? The American/corporate India angle is possible; this author received calls from the American embassy and a leading corporate house regarding the linkage of the British role in the Bibighar massacre to 9/11 in the conclusion of War of Civilisations.

The calls were polite but the male American speaker in one instance did hint at the fact that such comparisons would imply that some American or Israeli lobby within America allowed 9/11 to happen so that a 'war on terror' can be unleashed on the Muslim world and Asia.

There seems to be something amiss, maybe some mysterious foreign/Indian corporate hand in the way 1857 was suppressed in 2007 and 2008. The Indian liberal elites of the metro do not like to entertain any such thought. But then are they not, with their ultra-Westernised lifestyle as uncomfortable with the desi (indigenous), rugged, peasant character of 1857?

Amaresh Misra is a historian and author of War of Civilisations: India 1857 AD.

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