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Who killed India's 1857 legacy?

By Amaresh Misra
May 10, 2007 17:23 IST
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Human Resources Department Minister Arjun Singh's statement on 1857's 150th anniversary celebrations is a huge letdown -- it has confirmed what scholars and intellectuals working on 1857 feared -- that the so-called 'secular' United Progressive Alliance government will backtrack on its promise of really honouring India's First War of Independence.

By stating that Bahadur Shah Zafar's remains will not be brought to India, Singh has admitted publicly what he has been saying in private -- namely, that there is pressure on him, by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, to 'go slow' on 1857.

Coming from a formation that prides itself on Indian nationalism, this pressure exposes not only the narrow RSS vision of Indian nationhood -- it also reveals how the RSS, to use the old Leftist jargon, is a pro-imperialist force.

This goes down well with the perception that the RSS-Sangh Parivar men avoided participating in the Freedom Struggle. Even the RSS would concede that 1857 presents a shining example of patriotism and Hindu-Muslim solidarity. Why then can the remains of Bahadur Shah Zafar -- the leader of that struggle in which thousands and perhaps millions of Hindus perished fighting for a 'Muslim' king, and the latter, in deference to Hindu sentiments, banned cow slaughter -- not be brought to India?

The answer is complex, though obvious. If brought to India, Zafar's remains would be turned into a memorial, which, it is possible, might turn into a pilgrimage site for millions of Hindus and Muslims.

Harking back to the Sufi Indian tradition, Zafar's mazaar would heal the Hindu-Muslim divide -- for the RSS, this is indeed a nightmare situation. Zafar himself was a Sufi -- he wrote verses, in which he described his visits to a Hindu temple, with qashqa (tilak) on the forehead and zunnar (sacred thread) around his neck.

While writing fiction in the name of history, British authors like William Dalrymple conveniently ignore this piece of information.

In 1857, Zafar did nothing extraordinary -- he merely followed the Indian subcontinent's tradition, where a king, whether Hindu or Muslim, looked upon his praja (people) as belonging to one category, irrespective of religion. In 1857, orthodox Chitpavan Brahmin leaders like Nana Saheb opened their proclamations with Islamic invocations.

Begum Hazrat Mahal and Khan Bahadur Khan issued direct appeals to Hindus in the name of Lord Ram and Krishna -- all this was done without pretension, or a pseudo-secular attitude.

Ahmad Kharral, the leader of the Gugera-Multan-Rawalpindi insurrection, the major anti-British, 1857 rising in present-day Pakistan, had Sikh soldiers as his lieutenants.

New research is revealing astounding facts -- the entire view that Sikhs sided with the British in 1857 is false. Patiala, Nabha, Jind and Kapurthala -- the cis-Sutlej Sikhs -- who sent soldiers against Zafar to Delhi, were even anti-Ranjit Singh. They sided with the British both during Maharaja Ranjit Singh's lifetime, and the two Punjab wars.

After Ranjit Singh's death in 1840, his Khalsa army actually took over the control of the Lahore Durbar -- like Bengal army sepoys, Khalsa army soldiers too were 'peasants in uniform'.

After being disbanded in 1849, they fanned out into the Punjab countryside -- during 1857, Mohar Singh, a Khalsa army veteran, declared openly in Bahadur Shah Zafar's favour, going so far as to declare a Khalsa-Mughal Raj in Ropar.

So, it was only the cis-Sutlej Sikhs that supported the British; but, here too, in 1858, at Dera Ismail Khan, in present-day Pakistan, the 10th Sikh Infantry revolted -- British officers and Patiala, Nabha, Jind rulers state on record that they could not trust their soldiers, and that even cis-Sutlej Sikhs were 'getting excited by news from Awadh and the Hindustani areas.'

This is sensational stuff, for the entire 10th Sikh Infantry revolt news has been suppressed -- students of history are simply unaware of the major, pro-Bahadur Shah Zafar role, which included the Benaras-Jaunpur centred revolt of the Ludhiana regiment, Sikhs played during the Independence war. Zafar's proclamations and the 1857 'national song' mentions Sikhs naturally, along with Hindus and Muslims, as patriotic Indians.

No less revealing is the Bombay army role, and the Maharashtra-Gujarat-Karnataka risings -- Bombay army infantry and cavalry units revolted in Kolhapur, Satara, Karachi, Bombay, Aurangabad, Nasirabad, and Ahmedabad. No one knows that Bombay infantry sepoys, one Hindu and one Muslim, were blown apart from a cannon's mouth, in what today, stands as Mumbai's Azad Maidan.

During the 1858 Konkan-West Coast guerrilla fight, which stretched from Raigad and Ratnagiri to Savantwadi, and then onto Udupi and Mangalore, Mahar, Maratha, Kannada and Tulu warriors fought shoulder to shoulder. Nearly every Indian district, whether in the UP-Bihar-MP belt, or Orissa, or Assam-Bengal, or West India, showcases an amazing pattern of 'one Hindu, one Muslim' martyr.

In Jharkhand, a plaque in Chatra even today, commemorates Jaimangal Pandey and Sheikh Nadir Ali.

In Maharashtra, Pathans and Arabs figure prominently in the 1857 Khandesh (Nasik-Jalgaon-Dhule) struggles launched by Bhils and Kolis. In Karnataka, the Gulbarga, Dharwar, Raichur risings saw Lingayat-Ramoshi-Maratha-Muslim participation.

Above all, in Ayodhya, at the site where the Babri Masjid was demolished, Mahant Ramdas and Maulavi Amir Ali, as well as Shambhu Prasad Shukla and Achchan Khan, two religious Hindus and two religious Muslims, were hanged side by side.

It is commonly believed and propagated that the Madras army and the Madras Presidency was bereft of risings -- yet in Madras, at a place called Vaniyambadi, full of Labbai Muslims, the 8th Madras Cavalry rose -- elsewhere, led by Thevar-Vellala sepoys, several the 37th Madras infantry men deserted. Then in Vellore, in 1858, Madras army sepoys killed their British officers.

In the Andhra-Telangana country, Girijan tribes of the coastal-Godavery belt rose under a Reddi leader and a Muslim-Pathan ex-soldier; in Adibalad and Warangal, and Cuddapah and Nellore in Rayalseema, Pathans and Sheikhs formed a small army with Gond and Kapu help.

In Kerala, Moplah agitators, helped by Ezhavas, the Kerala scheduled castes, and Namboodri Brahmins, staged risings in the Malabar region.

The India that 1857 represents is not the India where a Hindu police officer from Gujarat kills a Muslim in a fake, fascist, communal encounter. To confirm this, one only has to hark back to the May 12, 1857, speech given by Henry Lawrence, the Chief Commissioner of Oudh (Awadh) in Lucknow. Lawrence enumerated all the false, communal arguments, including that of 'Hindu persecution under Muslim hands', used even today by the RSS.

The similarity is striking and sickening -- only one conclusion is possible --that, before 1857, India was a different land with a different culture. Plainly and simply, 'modern' caste and community differences are all British creations.

In the post-1857 period, it was not just the RSS that killed the 1857 legacy. A large Parsi-Marwari-Bania section, which supported the British in 1857, and dominated the Congress led Freedom Struggle, ensured the rollback of the 1857 Kshatriya-Pathan peasant-warrior India. It was this very Bania mentality that allowed India's Partition.

India's Bania secularism also failed to prevent the Babri mosque's demolition, and India's arm-twisting on the nuclear deal, and Muslim persecution, in effect, the maltreatment of the very forces that fought against the British in 1857. It is this India that refuses to honour its national heroes.

This article is based on the book War of Civilizations: India, South Asia, Europe and the World -- 1857-1857, by Amaresh Misra, to be published soon by Rupa & Co.

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