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Analysis: Legacy of 1857 continues unabated

Analysis: Legacy of 1857 continues unabated

NEW DELHI: The brave and fractious anti-British uprising of 1857 was put down with a heavy hand. It took another 90 eventful years for Hindus and Muslims who claimed to have jointly led the anti-colonial showdown to part ways. Anger, acrimony, violence visited both communities and tore up large swathes of their habitats across the subcontinent .

As the year 2017 marks the 160th anniversary of the uprising, let’s examine the role played by the two groups at a defining moment in history.




If there were Hindu, Muslim or Sikh participants in the rebellion, there were Hindu, Muslim and Sikhs allies of the British as well. The Shia Nawab of Oudh rebelled and the Shia Nawab of Rampur sided with the British.

If Sunni purists joined the mutiny, then Bhopal, under the influence of the ultra conservative Ahl-i-Hadees, remained loyal to the East India Company. Many Sikhs, Pathans, and a whole host of Hindu chieftains joined the British against the rebellion.

Many of us celebrate Hindu-Muslim unity of 1857, but we ignore the disunity both between and within the communities. Both premises — of 1857 and 1947 — were therefore suspect. There was no monolithic Muslim identity in either case. There was no monolithic Hindu identity either. This was proved in 1857, but overlooked in 1947, possibly to address new exigencies of electoral politics.

Everyone wanted to show their popular prowess at the ballots so they gathered everyone that was not traditionally in either camp as one of theirs.

Had both sides heeded B.R. Ambedkar, they would have analysed the defeat in 1857 more rationally and approached the division of 1947 with far more circumspection than they provisioned for. The role of the backward castes, including the erstwhile Untouchables (today’s Dalits), continues to be underplayed in the popular imagination.

In the popular imagination, 1857 is touted for Hindu-Muslim unity and 1947 is remembered for their disunity. Ambedkar had a different view of both. Consider his typically cutting passage from The Annihilation of Caste: “The first and foremost thing that must be recognised is that Hindu society is a myth,” says the book Dalits regard as their bible.

“The name Hindu is itself a foreign name. It was given by the Mahomedans to the natives for the purpose of distinguishing themselves. It does not occur in any Sanskrit work prior to the Mahomedan invasion. They did not feel the necessity of a common name, because they had no conception of their having constituted a community.

“Hindu society as such does not exist. It is only a collection of castes. Each caste is conscious of its existence. Its survival is the be-all and end-all of its existence. Castes do not even form a federation. A caste has no feeling that is affiliated to other castes, except when there is a Hindu-Moslem riot. On all other occasions each caste endeavours to segregate itself and to distinguish itself from other castes.”

How did the caste tangle feature in 1857?

Consider the airbrushing of certain embarrassing traits from historical discourse. Whose exploits are we more familiar with between Ramabai Pandita and Begum Hazrat Mahal? Ramabai was born to a progressive Brahmin family of Maharashtra. She suffered for her association with the Untouchables in her neighbourhood, one of whom she married during a visit to Bengal.

After converting to Christianity following a study tour in England, she intensified her mission to improve the condition of low caste Indians, primarily their children, including child widows. This early public intellectual was born in 1858, the same year that Begum Hazrat Mahal, Ramabai’s antithesis, issued an ‘ishtehaarnama’, or a proclamation, from her exile.

We are reminded over and over again with Vedic monotony that Begum Hazrat Mahal played a most heroic role in India’s battle against British rule, which she evidently did. But there’s a less discussed dimension of her personality and that of her other notable contemporaries who waged battle against British rule in 1857. You can be sanguine that the queen of Awadh and her fellow rebel rulers, if they shared her social views, would not pass muster in any comity of worthy rulers.

The Indian Council of Historical Research released a collection of proclamations issued by the rebel leaders a few years ago. Documented by Dr Iqbal Hussain of Aligarh Muslim University, they throw a different light on the social history of 1857.

Hazrat Mahal, speaking on behalf of her son Birjis Qadar (Wali of Awadh), urges her subjects in a proclamation dated June 25, 1858, to not heed the siren call of Queen Victoria. Why? Because Awadh had respected the right of religion, honour, life and property, in that order, something the British ostensibly didn’t. The regina of Awadh explains her son’s claim on their subjects’ loyalty.

“Everyone follows his own religion (in my domain). And enjoys respect according to their worth and status. Men of high extraction, be they Syed, Sheikh, Mughal or Pathan among the Mohammedans, or Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaish or Kayasth among the Hindus, all these retain the respectability according to their respective ranks. And all persons of a lower order such as a Sweeper, Chamar, Dhanook, or Pasi cannot claim equality with them.”

The proclamation twists the knife further in its lament:

“The honour and respectability of every person of high extraction are considered by (the British) equal to the honour and respectability of the lower orders.

“Nay, compared with the latter, they treat the former with contempt and disrespect. Wherever they go they hang the respectable persons to death, and at the instance of the Chamar, force the attendance of a Nawab or a Rajah, and subject him to indignity.”

Clearly, the pervasive legacy of Vedic Brahminism, which would rile Ambedkar six decades later, was at work in 19th century northern India through a Muslim ruler. The syndrome has not quite abated even today.

Published in Dawn, March 4th, 2017

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