1857 and Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal

dalrymplecover.jpgThere is an obvious point that can be made about contestations over the meaning of 1857’s Ghadr [Rebellion] in history and memory of South Asia by simply listing the various terms attached to that event: Sepoy’s Mutiny or Rebellion, First War for Independence, The War/Rebellion of India, Jihad for Freedom, and most recently, The Uprising. Such labels are reflected in the many personal narratives as well as the multitudes of histories that have proliferated since the 1880s in England or in India. Taken together, these primary and secondary narratives cover a broad spectrum of political belief and address diverse audiences and prejudices: colonial and native memoirs of participants and observers; letters and correspondences; professional histories and amateur histories; pulp fictions and dime novels; pamphlets and pleas; ghazals of the court and songs of the bazaar; historical and literary novels; and State publications, functions and commemorations. From 1857 to 2007, cultural memories and political histories have kept 1857 from receding into distant pasts and it remains a subject pliant to everything from the claims on colonial rulers by our postcolonial selves to the constructions of legendary figures and myths. Not to mention that it is used to explain the very nature of Colonialism in South Asia.

Colonial historiography on the Rebellion quickly cemented around John Kaye’s immense three volume A History of the Sepoy War in India, 1857-1858 (1868) which portrayed the Rebellion as the mutiny of natives who were inherently incapable of civilizing themselves. Writing against that grain were nationalist historians, such as Savarkar or R.C. Majumdar, who inverted the tropes of colonial historiography to make 1857 the first step on the road to Independence. And more recently, empire historians and postcolonial theorists, and even literary scholars, have utilized the Rebellion as rich grounds for exploring topics as diverse as the breakdowns in the imperial machinery, the location of the subaltern, the colonial gaze, and even, the Rupture.

Gearing up for the 150th anniversary of the Rebellion, there has been a predictable flurry of activity. In the last two years, a number of studies have been published – beginning with Rudrangshu Mukherjee’s slim Mangal Pandey: Brave Martyr or Accidental Hero? and Gautam Chakravarty’s The Indian Mutiny and the British Imagination – both of which are well worth reading, by the way, even though I don’t agree with Mukherjee’s reading. The Indian Council of Historical Research has undertaken a series [pdf] of conferences to “mark the 150th year of the First War of Independence, 1857″. Highlighting the meta-ness of the Rebellion, the CPI-M wants to re-enact the fictional cricket match in Lagaan – by pitting the English team against the cricket players from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh (or at least they did before the World Cup). Even the Maulvis of Pakistan – where 1857 evokes differing memories – are getting in on the action and plan to visit the erst-while battlegrounds of that anti-colonial jihad. And, of course, the recent movie, The Rising, may have been a critical flop but it generated lots of ink and money across South Asia and the diaspora.

William Dalrymple enters this potent [mine]field of South Asian history and historiography with his newest book, The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi, 1857 – a literary historical treatment that is equal parts a biography of the last Mughal Bahadur Shah Zafar and of the city of Delhi around the Rebellion. The work has attracted tremendous attention from the popular press across South Asia, the UK and even in the States- thanks mostly to the energy of Dalrymple who must be every publisher’s dream [click here to get to know his musical taste!]. Most of the buzz around this book, however, stems not from Dalrymple’s decision to write the history of the Rebellion, but rather from some of the sensational claims he makes along the way.1 Lost to all of the (English) historiography on 1857, states Dalrymple is a religious reading of 1857 which reveals that there was significant jihadi participation in the Rebellion. This religious angle, Dalrymple stresses, has been deliberately elided by the Nationalist, Marxist, and Postcolonial historians in service of their ‘secular’ understandings [the hyphened, coloned, alliterative titles of the pomo/poco crowd get mirthful scorn – and deservedly so, in the book’s introduction]. But there are absences greater than that. In his research, Dalrymple claims to have found over 20,000 native primary documents about the Rebellion gathering dust in the National Archives of India, utterly unknown to Indian historians. It seems either no one had looked or no one had the scholarly apparatus to read the shikasta Urdu script of these documents. Needless to say, such claims riled up the sedate fields of Indian History [jk!]. The breathless essays in Outlook India and Times of India were soon followed by some indignant responses by prominent historians. All of which made good stormy fodder for email chains and listservs of South Asian scholars around the world.

A while back, I participated in a Radio Open Source program The First Neo-Cons and “The Last Mughal” which featured Dalrymple (you can stream or download the podcast, if you wish from their website. I am in the last 20 minutes or so, though the whole episode is worth your attention). For the discussion, I read through The Last Mughal and what follows is a rather loose review of the book.

The city of Delhi – immediately prior to, during, and after the Rebellion – is the real protagonist of The Last Mughal. In the evocative first few chapters, Dalrymple sketches out the quotidian details of the lives in Delhi of the last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, the colonial administrator, Thomas Metcalf, the princes, and the poets prior to the arrival of the mutinuous sepoys to Delhi in May, 1857. He also widens his gaze to include many of those who populated the city’s vibrant daily life, and in so doing, he is able to present a quasi-social history of Delhi in the mid-nineteenth century:

For the people of Delhi, however, the best part of the day lay ahead. Chandni Chowk only really came alive after sunset, as the pavements swelled with wide-eyed boys from the mofussil or Jat farmers and Gujjar herdsmen in from their villages in Haryana, ogling the gamblers locked in the stocks outside the kotwal or heading off to ask for good luck at the city’s matrix of bustling Sufi shrines. Elsewhere could be seen gentlemen visiting from Lucknow in their distinctive cut of wide-bottomed pyjamas or tall bearded Pathan horse traders fresh in from Peshawar and Ambala, spilling out of the sarais and into Ghantawallahs, the famous sweet shop, whose ladoos were supposed to be the best in Hindustan. The coffee houses- the qahwa khanas- were filling up now too, poets reciting their verses at some tables, scholars locked in debate at others. On the steps of the Jama Masjid, the story tellers would be beginning their recitations which could go on for seven or eight hours with only a short break.

What happened to these ordinary citizens of Delhi when the Rebellion came? Moinuddin Hassan [d. 1885]’s Khadnag-i Ghadar2 – a constable in the Pahar Ganj police station in Delhi – lists the following trades and tribes as participating in the fight against the Company in May, 1857: Jewellers, Blacksmith, Shepherds, Merchants, Washers, Barbers, Leather Workers, Street Cleaners, Hair-Massagers, Butchers, Snaker Charmers, Shopkeepers, Bakers, Dessert Makers [Halwai], Naan-Makers, Pharmacists, Cobblers, Embroiders [Gota Kinari Karnay Walay]. And these are the voices Dalrymple claims to have found in the 20,000 documents he unearthed – voices that can and should add significantly to our understanding of life in Delhi before, during and after the Rebellion.

But, even though The Last Mughal refers to such accounts of Delhi citizenry (taken from the National Archive of India: Mutiny Papers), it nevertheless feels as though Dalrymple didn’t make sufficient use of them. When it came to fleshing out the narration of Delhi’s inhabited pasts, a far greater weight is given to the accounts and laments of elites, honories and courtiers with long maintained relationships of patronage with the Mughal Court and the Company – poets and authors such as Asadullah Khan Ghalib, Zaheer Dehlavi and Zauq. Their literary voices – taken from memoirs, ghazals and letters – do present a unifying narrative but they perpetuate the nostalgic hue ever-present in Dalrymple’s Delhi. In effect, their accounts of a Delhi fading fast under the onslaught of modernity and terror adds to the “Coming to End of a Golden Age” trope that seems irresistable to writers of Delhi – of any age, really. Such remembrances need a corrective and there are certainly some decent counter-weights available in memoirs, eye-witness accounts, and even songs and ballads about the Rebellion from Bengali, Marathi and Sindhi sources. I would have liked to see Dalrymple utilize those vernacular archives as well.

The Last Mughal‘s almost exclusive focus on the city of Delhi, at the expense of Lucknow, Kanpur, Meerut and other sites, thus leaves Dalrymple open to some legitimate accusations of tunnel vision. Still, what Dalrymple’s narrative lacks in wider scope it makes up for in richness and readability. As the Rebellion reaches Delhi and claims it in the name of the Last Mughal King, the narrative turns from the life of Delhi to a thrilling and layered account of that summer in 1857. Jumping points-of-view from Colonial to Mughal to Rebel, Dalrymple does wonders in presenting a chaotic rebellion from the perspectives of various people engaged in the struggle. This is a terrifically written narration of the seige of Delhi. Dalrymple ably captures the marginal position occupied by Zafar even as he is forced to assert some form of symbolic authority against the sepoys and mutineers. The story of the Rebellion – with all of its actors and agents – never spirals out of control for the reader. I cannot give enough credit to his craftsmanship as a writer in making this history immediate, human and understandable to a popular audience.

However, I do want to raise, briefly, my contentions with Dalrymple’s reading of the Rebellion – the causes, the participants and the legacy. The Rebellion, in Dalrymple’s view, was the end of a more tolerant, culturally and religiously permeable environment that he suggests dominated India during the eighteenth century. In keeping with this postulate, he makes three central assertions about the Rebellion: that the Rebellion was caused largely because of rising evangelical and proselytizing activities of Christian missionaries operating under the protection of the Company; that even though the Rebellion was started by the Hindu-majority Sepoys in the Company, it attracted Wahhabi-inspired jihadis to Delhi who thus converted it into a religious schism against the Christian Company and; that the defeated jihadis went on to form a madrassa at Deoband which, in turn, links the Rebellion directly to the Talibans of the 90s. Both of the first two claims are substantive and well-documented in terms of primary sources and historiography. The last claim, however, is problematic on a number of accounts even though, to be fair, the argument is barely made in the book itself. [Let me bracket, for clarification, here that while Dalrymple’s public comments make much of this last claim, the book itself is far restrained. I am keeping my comments here to what is in the book. I am not reviewing Dalrymple’s selling of his book, here, but it is something worth noting.]

For the sepoys – the vast majority of whom were high-caste Hindus – there were grave religious concerns tied to the very reality of military service – deployment across water being a case in point. The evangelical activity of missionaries and some British restrictions on sepoy’s ability to perform religious acts exacerbated the situation as early as the 1824 mutiny in Barrackpore. Given that history, it comes as no surprise that the very first inquiries conducted into the reasons behind the Rebellion – published in George W. Forrest’s edited Letters, Dispatches and Other State Papers, 1857-58 – heavily focused on matters of evangelical interference into sepoy lives as well as finding out if there was any declaration of official Jihad (also whether Persia was involved in supporting the mutineers). Such were also the concerns from which came the first native ‘explanations’ for the mutiny – Syed Ahmed Khan’s 1858 pamphlet, Asbab Baghwaat-i Hind or Causes of the Indian Rebellion.3 Syed Ahmed Khan, a Company judge in Bijnaur, was alarmed enough by the conclusions being drawn in London about the Rebellion that he had his pamphlet promptly translated and shipped off to the metropole. In it he declared that looking for religious motivations behind the Rebellion was erroneous since there was never a call for universal Jihad uttered in Delhi and that while missionary activity was bothersome, the real reasons behind the mutiny were rising taxation, seizure of land [and states], lack of legislative access and unruliness of the Company’s governance.

Others contest this reading of Syed Ahmed Khan – at least on the religious aspect. Take, for example, the memoir of one of the participants in the purported jihad against the Company in Delhi. Athurath al-Hindia [Indian Rebels] is an Arabic account written by Maulana Fazl-i Haq Khairabadi [d. 1861] while imprisoned in the Andaman Island by the “white-skinned, black-hearted, ill-tempered, ill-reputed, evil-eyed, wheat-haired” farangis. In this recollection, the Rebellion was started by looting and raping bands of sepoys and led by an aged and infirm king. It was only when troops led by Maulvi Abu Saeed Mustafti and others, and dedicated solely to the task of uprooting Colonial rule – joined Delhi that this rag-tag mutiny became a true jihad. Khairabadi is, thus, quite adamant about the religious nature of his participation in the Rebellion.

Even though Dalrymple correctly highlights the involvement of jihadis in the Rebellion, he misreads the nature of this involvement. For Khairabadi, this jihad was against Company rule – and was therefore, in my reading at least, anti-colonial and anti-statist rather than anti-Christian. It was this anti-statist nature of the resistance that attracted people across a wide swath of believers and practitioners. But, unfortunately, the jihadis depicted in The Last Mughal remain a rather unspecified and uniform collective.4 Dalrymple fails to note, for example, that not all the jihadis emerged exclusively from any particular institutional, educational, or organizational background, whether it be Shah Waliullah’s compounds or those of the Wahabbis. Even reading these names from Jang-i Azadi key Namvar Mujahiddin [The Notable Mujahiddin of the War of Independence] by Ishrat Rahmani, will give you a sense that the jihadis belonged to shi’a, sunni and even sufi backgrounds and came from ethnicities and geographies: Maulana Syed Ahmad Ali Shah, Bakht Khan, Maulana Ghulam Imam Shahid, Mufti Inam Ali, Maulana Karim Allah Khan, Basit Ali, Mufti Riazuddin, Momin Ali, Mufti Abdul Wahab Gupamatvi, Bilkar Shah, etc.

There are more significant problems with making religion the over-determinant cause behind the Rebellion – even as a corrective to historiography. This mono-causal view may help Dalrymple’s argument that there was a transition from a more tolerant epoch of Colonialism to a religiously contentious one [with Zafar, the sad patriarch overseeing the demise of tolerance]. But this comes at the expense of various other, equally significant factors that went into the Rebellion. What about the rising – and rampant – militarism of the Company which led to territorial claims and annexations made in Afghanistan, Punjab, Sindh, Awadh in the first half of nineteenth century? [Peccavi!]. !]. These annexations never went uncontested, and in nearly every case provoked continuing resentment. Or what about the land-reform sentiments behind 1855’s Santhal Rebellion, in Jharkhand? Or Lakshmibai? Or the anti-State declarations of Raishmi Roomal Tehrik? It is fruitful to remember that the participants in the Rebellion of 1857 had motivations [and actions] as diverse as the application of Colonial power across India [to tweak our Cambridge Studies friends, who seem to find such multiplicity only at the top]. And it is not as if this has not been pointed out before. Some excellent work has been done on these themes, for instance, Tapti Roy’s The Politics of a Popular Uprising: Bundlekhand in 1857, 1994, which provides a nuanced and deftly calibrated reading of the Rebellion as seen from another specific locale.

Finally, on Dalrymple’s last point – the “direct connection” between the jihadis of 1857 and the Taliban of today – I will direct you to the radio show. The summary version is that this claim is a pointedly presentist reading of history and one that ignores and elides a great swath of history and politics of the last 150 years – a great swath of anti-colonial history, I must stress. Yes, things are complex.

All that said, Dalrymple’s wide-eyed excitement and his love for the history of Delhi is contagious. The Last Mughal is a significant contribution to the historiography of 1857 (forget about his triumphal claims of new-ness, which really only distract from the book itself). Lucidly written, extensively footnoted, opinionated and sharp, it would make a perfect text for any seminar on colonial Indian history – one sure to generate fervent debate. I am delighted, also, by the wide-release and attention being afforded to this book. When was the last time that anything “Mughal” got a historian onto NPR? Yeah, never.

Indeed, my sense is that some of the negative hyperbole in reviews of Dalrymple’s work by South Asian historians is somewhat misplaced. For example, Gyan Prakash’s review Inevitable Revolutions, The Nation, 04/30/2007, calls Dalrymple a Niall Ferguson-style “revisionist”/apologist for Colonialism. Quite unfair and, also, wrong. Dalrymple may seek to rectify a silence in historiography pertaining to interactions between a particular class of the colonial and the native in the eighteenth century, but I have yet to see him excuse the violence or inequity of Colonialism in any of his writings. It is a funny thing – this business of giving voice to silences in history. Maybe we can discuss that further, some other day.

In any event, I would like to see a pukka historian of 1857 review the book, though. Paging Shahid Amin.

update:Also see Dalrymple’s response to these comments.
see related: Trial of Mangal Pandey I and Trial of Mangal Pandey II

———
  1. I will leave aside the cheeky claim that this is the first history of the Rebellion from “a properly Indian perspective”. []
  2. I am not sure if Dalrymple consulted this text in its original form – though he does make heavy use of the highly redacted translation included in Metcalf, Two Native Narratives of the Mutiny in Delhi, 1898. []
  3. Strangely, Dalrymple does not seem to have used this text – at least he makes no reference to it. As one of the first Indian response to the Rebellion, this remains a seminal text. []
  4. I do appreciate his pointing out the role of women in the Rebellion. It reminded me of this dedication: To that unknown woman who on 16 November 1857, after a bloodthirsty battle in Sikandar Bagh Lucknow, climbed a Pipal tree and shot 6 British officers with her gun. And gave up her life. from 1857 – Tarikh-i Jang-e Azadi Hind [1857 – History of the War for Independence of India] by Khurshid Mustafa Rizvi. []

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sepoy

what is the vertiginous chapati saying to me?

50 thoughts on “1857 and Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal”

  1. I would like to point out that neither Shah Waliullah nor the Deobandis were of “Wahhabi persuasion”. Shah Waliullah was a Sunni Sufi from the Naqshbandi order, and the scholars of Deoband have always been adherents of the Hanafi school of law and the Maturidi Aqeedah. The Wahhabis/Salafis are ghair-muqallideen and bitterly opposed to the Maturidi Aqeedah and Sufism.

  2. Fantastic stuff: sounds like the kind of book I like to use in my classes. Lots of social detail, dense description, a little historiography.

    By the way, want to host an Asian History Carnival?

  3. Very interesting…precisely the reason why CM must go on..

    I have been meaning to read TLS for a while now; this is sure to expedite my attendance.

    Any books in Urdu about Delhi at the time, BSZ and the Mughal Court, that are worth checking out? I’m mostly interested in the scenery and the pathis.

  4. Very measured and balanced review. I say, who are these people using the Rebellion to talk about The Rupture? !

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  6. I heard the Open Source show on TLM last month. What a surprise, driving in my car that evening, to hear the avuncular Mr. Lydon say that someone I know would be joining Dalrymple on the show. A rare radio treat! I enjoyed the program, and especially appreciated that you didn’t let Dalrymple scoot through the broadcast without a little contestation re the linkages between the jihadis of 1857 and the modern day Taliban (i.e., your last point in the above review). More CM on the radio!

  7. This is quite a glowing review, and I am now all the more keen to read the book. I agree with you that Dalrymple truly has a gift for narrative history, and it is great to see someone going through these ‘lost’ materials on 1857. You are, however, quite right in taking Dalrymple to task for stoking the already raging flames of Islamophobia with his genealogy of jihadism. If this is the core argument of the book as you suggest, I think this would certainly change the book’s utility as a teaching tool (a lot of serious baggage to unpack with students). The second major issue with Dalrymple’s work, of course, is his utterly brazen and only partially informed critique of the work of professional historians of South Asia actually do. Instead of intervening into debates, he sits atop his publicity and publication machine and behaves as if his work is above the trifling debates in which academics are immersed. As I felt Prakash showed clearly in his piece (whether one agrees with his claim or not), Dalrymple is very much a part of scholarly and public discourse on South Asian history. I tend to feel that his engagement with this fact is a great weakness, and wish he would leave out the snarky overtures that form a staple of his introductions and conclusions, press conferences and magazine articles.

  8. dacoit: I struggled with commenting on Dalrymple’s public pronoucements/opeds/magazine interviews here. I share all of your concerns on this matter – but the stark reality is that his text inside the book is far more judicious than his text outside. In the end, I decided to go with what was in the book.

    On the jihadi/Taliban claim, like I mentioned above, it is not an argument fleshed out in the book – merely hinted at. It is in his post-book writings that he has been making this claim.

    Lastly, I think we need to talk a lot more about Dalrymple and the professional writers of South Asian history. We shall, inshallah.

  9. Great piece sepoy, and interesting comment thread too. I should note that Rajat Kanta Ray’s “The Felt Community”, published in 2002/03, also stressed the religious nature of the conflict (on the part of both Hindus and Muslims), which ties into Ray’s thesis about “communities of sentiment” in the subcontinent, in interesting and sometimes ambiguous ways. My long ass review is at:

    http://qalandari.blogspot.com/2007/03/book-review-felt-community-2002_25.html

  10. PS– I haven’t read “The Last Mughal” yet, but from “City of Djinns” I am grateful to Dalrymple for painting a rather vivid picture of the suppression of the 1857 revolt, specifically of the indiscriminate massacres and looting, and the near-wholesale expulsion of Muslims from the city. I think there is a real “gap” in at least “popular” works on that, and it is good to see Dalrymple bring it to a wider audience (though, like Gyan Prakash, I must confess to some irritation at Dalrymple’s repeated citations to English “gone native” sorts, with harems/hookahs/nautch girls et al., seen through the prism of “cultural exchange” almost to the exclusion of all else; I’d like to see more engagement on Dalrymple’s part with the scholarship on colonialism, its practices, and its forms of knowledge and privileges, from the last few decades)…

  11. qalandar: thanks for that link. I will have to check Ray out very soon.

    hoopoe: sorry for the delayed response but check out Bahādur Shāh Ẓafar ke shab o roz by Ziauddin Lahauri.

  12. I was curious as well (to chime in with Dacoit’s concerns) about why you (sepoy) chose not to talk about Darlymple, outside of TLM, as a public figure in discourse over South Asia. I am ill-informed on the issue hence I will refrrain from further comment (suffice it to say, the few times I remember Darlymple being evoked, it was done so in a far more negative light, precisely as an apologist for empires and an obscurantist–which, needless to say, are claims that demand qualification, I am sure)–in any case further comment on this issue should be very helpful. :-)

  13. Since the question of Dalrymple as a public figure in India has come up, I should point out that Dalrymple has figured large in English-language debates in India also (in addition to the issues discussed in this thread) on the Hindutva/secularism question. i.e. Dalrymple’s obvious sympathies for both Urdu and the elegiac mode almost pre-ordain his focus on the Mughal twilight, and make him one of the logical candidates for “countering” saffronized historiography. Simultaneously (and this is vis-a-vis his critics in what for want of a better word I’ll call the “postcolonial” school, a critique I have sympathy with), I do agree with Gyan Prakash that he does have a certain disadain for “theory” that I do see as characteristic of a number of English scholars, and I cannot say that his engagement with his “postcolonial” interlocutors has been a meaningful one. Though there is no doubt that the fact that he is one of the few who writes credible history in a mode that is accessible to a wide reading public gives his work a visibility that (e.g.) the Gyan Prakash-es of the world cannot match. Anecdotally, when I was last in Hyderabad, The White Mughals was in virtually every bookshop selling English-language books…

    I think it’s pretty clear where I’m coming from here, but I think it is really quite unfair to dismiss him as an “apologist” for imperial atrocities or as an obscurantist. I think it might be better to say that one of the tropes most dear to Dalrymple’s thought is the notion of the “sympathetic outsider”, and he is quite resistant to suggestions that this tie might always already be “sullied” in a certain sense by the political context of the encounter. It is certainly useful to highlight the role of Christian missionaries in contributing to the colonial “problem”, but Dalrymple’s repeated stress on this in his interviews, articles, and other works of his that I have read (I haven’t yet read TLM) smacks a bit too easily of the distaste of the fabulously learned cosmopolitan for those he views as religious fanatics — whether Christian or Muslim or Hindu.

  14. The comments of Sepoy and Qalandar above underscore the point that there are two very different sides to Dalrymple. On the one hand, there is the truly gifted narrative historian who has a nose for provocative and exciting subject matter (and some extraordinarily adept research assistants to read texts for him and report back – for all his ballast about the difficulty of the Shikastah script, does the man read Urdu at all?). On the other, there is the arrogant, self-promoting, kurta-pajama wearing (all the better for ‘going native’), and all in all insufferable public historian who these days has been reserving his choicest bile for ‘postcolonialist’ scholars (as Qalandar dubbed them, one could just as easily use the tag ‘subalternist’ or ‘postorientalist’). It all makes me miss the days when he wielded his hatchet against V.S. Naipual’s Hindu nationalism. Somehow it was far more bearable when his rhetorical smackdowns were directed in this direction.

    This is what I want to know: Since when does the old guard of South Asian historians need to enlist a ringer like Willy D. to fling mud at the rabble-rousing postcolonial theoreticians?

  15. Sorry, dacoit, but when did the subalterinsts became our sacred cows? And would it be better if Dalrymple wore a Scottish kilt while making fun of alliterative titles of poco/pomo crowd? And do we really need to have a discussion on self-promotion in our beloved academia?

    There is plenty to call Dalrymple on –
    1. The selling of 1857 in the media as an “Jihad”.
    2. The linkage – spurious, at best – between the Deobandis/Taliban in the 90s to some proto-jihad resistance groups in 1857.

    And I did engage with him on those issue during the radio broadcast, but the overwhelming tendency to make this “personal” fails to impress me.

    As for your query, I will email Irfan Habib.

    For the record, here is the entirety of Dalrymple’s statement on the Subaltern School from the book’s Introduction:

    For at a time when ten thousand dissertations and whole shelves of Subaltern Studies have carefully and ingeniously theorised about Orientalism and Colonialism and the imagining of the Other (all invariably given titles with a present participle and a vaguely hip noun of obscure meaning-Gendering the Colonial Paradigm, Constructing the Imagined Other, Othering the Imagined Construction, and so on) not one PhD at Delhi University or JNU has ever been written from the Mutiny papers, no major study has ever systematically explored its contents.


    This, even as he praises a Subaltern Studies essay in a footnote:

    “To understand why see the excellent account of how the hated banias of Mathura were attacked, looted and tortured at the outbreak of the uprising in Gautam Bhadra’s essay Four Rebels of 1857 in Subaltern Studies, IV, edited R Guha, Delhi 1985, p254″

    Of course, you may be referring to his review of Nicholas Dirks’ book in the NYRB as ‘choicest bile’. No? Well, here is the bile that I saw in that review.

    His barb that Dirks does not know any northern languages was cheap and unnecessary. Even worse was his jibe that “Dirks makes little reference to primary manuscript sources”- um, except for all the primary testimonies and newspaper accounts?

    His point about Dirks ignoring the larger imperial concerns of the 18th century was valid.

    His characterization of 18th c. Colonialism is contentious, sure, but not dissmissable.

    He states that Dirks “polemic” is “a somewhat reductionist picture of simple binary opposition” and that the book has a “slightly old-fashioned feel, recalling the work produced by Dirks’s Chicago teacher, Bernard Cohn, and his late Columbia colleague, Edward Said, in the late Seventies and early Eighties.”

    Eh. Said has been called worse.

  16. Sepoy: Completely agree that subalternists (or any other -ists) shouldn’t be our sacred cows (taking oneself oh-so-seriously perhaps is an unforgivable sin in itself). But the problem with Dalrymple’s (and others’) barbs at the pomo/poco crowd as you put it is that it is merely that — a clever and witty barb — and not much else. (I might add that there is something unseemly about painting (e.g.) subalternists in such broad strokes in the body of one’s book but burying in a footnote references to subalternist works one is favorably citing; it’s seems cynical to play to the galleries in this way in my book. Surely it isn’t too much to ask for a more thorough engagement with the scholarship he seems to dismiss out of hand?

  17. Dalrymple’s sympathies and bibliographies lie with the Cambridge School stalwarts [David Saul and Linda Colley] and newer members [Maya Jasnoff] – and as a result, perhaps, one-liners are all the engagement he will ever make with the Subalternists.

  18. Pity the Poor Pocos, Pomos and Sub-A’s: I can’t even fathom this aspect of the discussion going on here. The Pocos, Pomos and Sub-A’s hold dominion over South Asian historical studies in the US. They have all the most plummy appointments and the most prestigious publications. They have crowds of admiring graduate students and they are amply rewarded for their efforts. Outside their discipline everyone else bows down to them, engages in their debates, references their works with deference and otherwise recognizes their ascendancy. One would be hard-pressed to find the scholarly bookshelf of a literary critic, religious studies scholar, or anthropologist that did not include a foot or two of works by prominent exponents of pomo/poco/sub-a-ism. All that, AND they speak for the oppressed, write history from the bottom up, challenge imperialist knowledge systems and liberate neglected populations from a state of scholarly inattention. Fame, riches, altruism: the only thing better than that is being a heart surgeon.

    But you will not find these eminent works on the coffee tables of fashionable hostesses, the bedside tables of learned physicians and engineers or the backpacks of travelers. Why? Because they are impossible to read. WD is not impossible to read. It’s as simple as that. Personally I count myself as among the unlucky number who has read plentifully of the former catagory and nothing whatsoever in the latter. But I fully sympathize with those who would choose Dalrymple over a shelf-full of Subaltern Studies. I wish I had done the same.

    If the poor beknighted pomo/poco crowd wishes to add significant income to their bank accounts from hefty royalty-generated revenues, then they would be well advised to learn how to write in such a way that anyone besides their colleagues and graduate students might understand what it is they have to say. The era of subverting the dominant paradigm through incomprehensible prose is over. Even Judith Butler is writing clearly now. My guess is that that will never happen. You can either be a high priest of specialized knowledge or you can be a popular author, but you can’t be both. The moment a scholar starts writing for a popular audience, his community will turn on him with accusations of essentialism, simplification, sensationalism, etc.

    Finally, the concern that WD does not engage with his ‘interlocutors.’ Why should he? Are they really his interlocutors? It doesn’t seem to me that either side is interested in a conversation. At best, they are his contemporaries. It is doubtful that they have anything nice to say about him, why should he be saying nice things about them? They are not writing for the same audience in the slightest. The learned engineer is not reclining on his deck chair reading his Dalrymple and wondering why there are no references to Dirks or Chakrabarty. Similarly, graduate students aren’t sitting around coffee shops reading their poco and asking one another why Chatterjee fails to reference Dalrymple. In terms of the academic establishment, WD, as a popular historian, is the subaltern. He is not welcome in seminar rooms, he’s not invited to do guest lecturer stints at US universities, at least not if there are any historians of South Asia around, his works will not be referenced by other scholars, they will not be assigned in graduate courses; in short, he is a pariah. If you think about it that way, a throwaway snide comment about the Subalterns here and there is actually a very mild reaction to the kind of treatment he undoubtedly receives at the hands of the Academy. All this, and his writing is consumed in great quantities by the general reading public. He’s the one who has the ear of the non-specialists, and if the specialists have a problem with that, they should step up to the plate and show us what they’ve got.

  19. I disagree completely with your statement that … “Fame, riches, altruism: the only thing better than that is being a heart surgeon.” I would submit: Fame, riches, altruism: the only thing better than that is being Angelina Jolie.

    The rest, I agree with wholeheartedly.

    I ask myself, what have I been trained for, as a specialist: Write a dissertation intended mainly for my committee and the hiring committee. Write books that are intended mainly for my tenure review. Produce graduate students who are intended mainly to propogate my intellectual heritage.

    When was I taught to write for the non-specialist? Or give a two-damn about them?

  20. I don’t defend unreadable prose, although I do note that this demand for reader-friendliness is always made of literary criticism and history but not, e.g. of economics. Personally I can’t say that I find medical articles very readable as a lay person either, and it’s not self-evident why it’s OK for complex econometrics to be incomprehensible to the “layperson” but somehow illegitimate for Lacan. At bottom I guess what is implicated is the notion of “liberal art” versus “technical knowledge” — we continue to believe in the former, but is it not inconsistent with the notion of an academy, and a “discipline” to begin with? And is the problem really the pomo/poco sorts? What about literature — let’s face it, most significant poetry that I can think of in English 1900-up is just too darn difficult? Abstract art, or any other kind of non-representational painting? And let’s not even get started on the “high” modernist novel. Is not the problem, if there is one, more general than some subalternists writing turgid prose?

    OK, now that I am done with playing devil’s advocate: Judith Butler (or Spivak) are not representative examples, though they appear are popular ones: since we are on history, what is jargon-laden or reader UNfriendly about Nicholas Dirks? As someone who has never taken a history course after high school, but consider myself a generally reasonably well read lay person, I don’t think there is anything forbidding or academia-bound about Dirks. Personally would say the same about Edward Said’s Orientalism too, though not about all of the acolytes. Turning to philosophy or critical theory, Foucault, Giorgio Agamben, Zizek are in fact all terrific writers; even as to Derrida, I note that the later works are superbly written even in translation, and in general note that one can raise a question about what % of the difficulty is caused by the fact that psychoanalysts have tended to translate a large % of Derrida’s work (Of Grammatology was of course famously translated by Gayatri Spivak, who is an awful writer). My point is this: the likes of Butler or x or y are held up to discredit even the likes of Dirks, which I do not think is fair.

    PS– and just so I am clear, I really abhor jargon-laden prose. And I do agree that Dalrymple is not accorded “respect” by the academy. But, and I’m sorry, to write page after page (based on White Mughals and City of Djinns) in a rather uncritical manner about the “white mughals” of the late-18th and early 19th centuries, and not even consider the vast scholarship that complicates these issues, is — there’s no other word for it — superficial. You write that Dalrymple is similarly ignored by the pomo/poco crowd, but that is only superficially true: one of the “points” of that crowd is to critique the paradigm/worldview that Dalrymple also partakes of — I consider that a serious engagement indeed (on the “other side”, we typically either get: (i) insults and cheap shots; or (ii) pretense that the paradigm can simply be ignored or dismissed as polemical/anti-western so-and-so). Especially in the post-9/11 world, and the (for me, galling) career of Niall Ferguson as a pundit and apologist for empire, I think we should be careful before dismissing the so-called pomo/poco crowd out of hand. Where I do agree is that some soul searching is absolutely called for (e.g. how can those outside the academy be made part of the conversation?), but let’s not pretend that it was any difficulty that precluded Said from getting as wide an airing as Niall Ferguson: I would think the fact that the former’s views were less consistent with “official” stories, and were simply more discomfiting to the mainstream, had something to do with it.

    PPS– I stress that I actually enjoy reading Dalrymple in spite of various issues that I have, and that Dalrymple is not — and this can’t be stressed enough — an advocate of the sort of naked imperialism that Ferguson has championed (as sepoy has noted earlier in this thread). I’m glad he’s part of what I can read and draw upon — but I guess I (vainly?) hope for more of a dialogue…

  21. I must weigh in on “good writing” by academics of the sub-alternists brand by suggesting Partha Chatterjee’s “The Princely Impostor.” Its a must read. Like Dirks’ “Scandal” this one is also about a sensational trial, but written beautifully, as if it were a detective story. (Not that I think Dirks’ writes badly, in fact “Scandal” was meant to traffic outside of academe.) I am no fan of the SA school in general, however, Chatterjee’s writing in general and especially in “The Princely Impostor” is super elegant. -Sheetal

  22. Qalandar has eloquently made many of the points I wished to make about

    a) the need for academics to engage the world outside more seriously, especially in the way they write,

    b) the lack of engagement with serious historical scholarship in much “popular history.”

    I haven’t finished Dalrymple’s latest book so I won’t say anything about it, but I do think calling him “a pariah” is way over the top and laughable. The reason that his book, and not the hundreds of historical novels and popular histories churned out in different languages in the subcontinent by small presses, is being discussed here is because of the reach, publicity and position of authority he has and is increasingly getting in the global media. I know at least one graduate seminar in the US in which his book on 1857 has been discussed and another in which it will be taught, and academics in India and elsewhere have praised his work. It is important to engage his kind of history and I thank him for forcing academics in the ivory tower to learn about how to market their ideas better. But to point out the historical problems and gross generalizations inherent in such marketing is hardly sour grapes, is it?

    Surely it is legitimate for scholars to ask why NPR is interested in things Mughal all of a sudden: would it have been had this been yet another examination, no matter how lyrically written, of the intricacies of land revenue, doctrine of lapse or the structural reasons for the collapse of the Mughal state? While it is critical for us to learn how to write better and write for a popular audience (I totally take the point that when faced with tenure or reputation, many people baulk at the idea of writing popular stuff, even biography) we should definitely question what this does to the question of historical complexity. I think it completely misses the point to say that the only reason he isn’t taken seriously in the academy is simply because others can’t write like him.

    And instead of personalizing this as being between

    a) Dalrymple’s or Subalternists’ salaries (not all academics are Subalternist or Poco or Pomo or any of the tags used here and I believe strongly that this is a wider problem in various historical fields, not only about these particular perspectives), or

    b) writers who can write and others who cannot, we could look at this as one of the tensions between doing analytical history and narrative history. The former places some burdens on scholars, informing the language and method they choose, that the latter does not. I don’t wish to simplify this large debate here, but even Simon Schama, master narrative historian, has been criticized for many glossing over of details, or the simplification he makes of many other analytical historians’ arguments. Rather than dismiss either perspective, it’s a challenge for scholars, especially those of us who work on controversial pasts, to think about how to do narrative history without abandoning subtlety or contingency. Also, about the dangers of falling prey to the temptation of being overly and cynically presentist (OMG, Jihadis!!!), or clearing the field rather hastily of existing, dense scholarship (NOBODY has worked on this until I suddenly stumbled upon this!!) even as we depend in our footnotes on it. This is not only about Dalrymple or this particular book, but a much deeper one, I feel.

  23. After saying I won’t say anything about Dalrymple’s latest book I went on to say lots of stuff about it! What I meant is the actual content of the book about 1857 rather than the way he positions it in the introduction… am sort of midway through the tome right now.

  24. All I can glean from the many words above is that it is Dalrymple-the-salesman that everyone is objecting to. I am not sure that these calls to have him engage w/ the subalternists or have him tackle historical complexity are entirely sincere.

    Last I noticed, Amartya Sen’s Argumentative Indian made a bunch of hooey from a mish-mash reading of history and politics but no historian of South Asia called him on doing presentist work without subtlety. And he was writing for a popular audience, too. And he had footnotes, too. And he didn’t engage with the Subalterns either.

    Either that, or it is the fact that Dalrymple is a Gora.

  25. Come on, Sepoy, that is unfair! His gora-ness doesn’t come into it at all; I am the first one to fight against this whole nativism thing, and I’ve said above that this is not personal or to do with subalternists per se, but a deeper question to do with method and the requirements of scholarly and popular history.

    And by all means let’s talk about Amartya Sen too. Vinay Lal had quite a scathing review of his take on Indian history recently in the EPW and I agree, his kind of politically correct, but sweeping, popular history also needs the same kind of scrutiny. But I didn’t wish to, and still don’t want to make this about personalities or race.

  26. dk: Of course, I appreciate your perspective and the comment was not at all meant to suggest that you are making it personal.

    And, yes, lets look at the requirements of popular history in the works of Amartya Sens and the Pankaj Mishras.

    His gora-ness, I submit, does come into it but maybe not in the way you took it [nativism] but in the sense of an interlocutor.

  27. What an amazing discussion! I don’t suppose there is much left to be said; but if I may budge in between your shoulders…

    1)Lapata: I am sympathetic to all your concerns. As you so correctly point out, ‘religius studies’, departments often produce some very interesting scholarship (in discourse) that is often ignored.

    2. Qalandar: I am also in agreement with you: underpinning the debate, is indeed the tension between the “liberal arts” and a division of disciplines–there is nothing a “Dictionary of Critical Theory” can’t explain; just like you would refer to Black’s Law or a Dictionary of Philosophy or any other reference text to get the definition for a specialized language, I don’t see why poco/pomo/subaltern scholars are singled out for their purported “intellectual pageantry”? In an undergraduate English class, I was assigned to present on “Can the Subaltern Speak?”. Despite initial problems, I was eventually able to make head and tail of the piece (able to impress people at cocktail parties) by using external reference texts…I agree that such criticism is a little unfair. As far as the question of being too abstruse and specialized (I suppose some areas are more incitive than othes), you correctly analogize with high modernist writing, avant-garde art and film and I would say music as well; their cerebral quality eschews a wider, more universal apprehension and therefore raises questions about their utility. But then again, the seemingly futile avant-garde endeavors have become staple in the contemporary arts. So….

    3)With that being said, I do feel like poco/pomo/subalterns have served their purpose; these academics have left a mark on academia and need not take themselves “so seriously” anymore…no? (I can’t buttress this claim with any authority; I am a perfect layman and I love being corrected)

    4)the real hardcre poco/pomo/subaltern types are just so goddamn disdainful! kinda like hipsters…also, a lot of them are trust fund kids.

    5)Whire rabbits are not to be confused with White Mughals.

    That’s it. I was encouraged by Qalandar’s and lapata’s revelation of their laity to post here–which is also a great, great, great provision of CM…non poco/pomo/subaltern/laypeeps is playas too.

  28. Two more comments, I promise:

    1.I had been meaning to ask our eminent host sepoy, what genus of a history work is Hourani’s A History Of The Arab Peoples?

    2.Prakash was a great read. Seems like Willy D. is a Fielding wannabe…but the horses have neighed as ordained by the naked punkah-wallah god.

  29. hoopoe: the “laity” rocks (since we read Dirks AND Willy D! AND Foucault and Abhishek Bachchan’s latest (ummm, but the latter first) :-)

    Abstruse-ness (help me guys, what’s the noun here): I think we cannot overlook the ideological subtext of criticism that something is too obscure (sometimes it is; Bhabha is a human rights violation). i.e. not that the criticism is ALWAYS unfair, but there is more than a little strain of “when I say you are too difficult I really don’t like what you are saying.” If a story is not very palatable to “official” discourses, don’t expect it to show up on MSNBC, and if it doesn’t don’t say it was simply because no one outside the academy could relate to it.

    I was thinking about the high modernist avant garde in relation to greater or lesser “difficulty”, and I started thinking about “the professions”. To illustrate how some of what we have been talking about is a wider problem, consider the financial services industry: a hundred years ago if someone said he was a”banker” I think people would have a fairly clear idea what that entailed. Today, can we say the same if someone speaks of their job as “hedge fund manager”; “hedge funds of funds specialist”; “credit default swap structurer”; “I’m in event arbitrage”? The strange and somewhat (to me) discomfiting thing is that it’s not about people from a very different cultural/socio-economic background who might have difficulty here as they lack the requisite exposure; what we have is that even people from the same “backgrounds”, the same socio-economic “demographics” would most likely not have the faintest clue what any of this actually means! Same thing re: other disciplines: the imagined “Renaissance man” of centuries past was by definition inter-disciplinary (a Samuel Johnson would have had no difficulty understanding many of the scientific, and certainly all of the economic texts of his day)– today even Leonardo couldn’t be Leonardo.

  30. I apologize…I had misread lapata’s comments about religious studies scholars (perhaps my sympathy for my rel. studies professors, who remain cloistered in their dingy offices is to blame)…an edit button is desperately needed.

  31. My first reaction on reading few chapters of the book was :

    I went thru bibliography and could not find reference to “Panipat 1761″ by T S Shejwalkar -one of the few great books available in both English and Marathi. It is a great pity that some of the best historical work in Marathi is not translated in English. (e.g. Sardesai, Vasudevshastri Khare, Shejwalkar’s other work, Rajwade etc.)

    I read and re-read that book. Panipat 1761 is still so relevant in many of its aspects. In the context of your book, the most important reason that battle was fought was to save Mughal dynasty. At some level, it was a great sacrifice by Marathas for the cause of Taimur’s successors. Shejwalkar argues that if Nehru had shown willingness for such a sacrifice, India may not have been divided.

    According to Shejwalkar, perhaps it was a mistake-fighting for Muslim leadership of India – dilution of principles on which Shivaji’s kingdom was found. But I think it was first great POLITICAL act to lay the foundation of modern, secular India.

    By the way- Abdali was impressed and shaken by Maratha’s valour in the battle. That valour was mainly due to Ibrahim Gardi’s division. It was manned by ‘Telangi’. (page 17 of your book) who according to Shejwalkar were forerunners of modern British/ Indian army

  32. True, William Dalrymple adopts a ‘tunnel vision’ as you rightly call it, but his emphasis from the begnning (which he mentions in his preface as well) is to document the story of the mughals at their story-telling best. He is writing a triology is he not? First the White Mughals, now The Last Mughal, and I am awaiting his third with bated breath…
    He mentions Kanpur, Meerut, Lucknow in passing, but never extrapolates. But he focusses on Delhi completely. Even after Bahadur Shah Zafar is deposed, there are mentions of small revolutions in the country. Dalrymple just chose not to talk about that.
    Which means we read with a ‘tunnel vision’ as well. And try and understand Delhi and its confinement behind the great walls, rather than the mutiny as a whole. And most importantly, The Last Mughal.

  33. Of primary importance is Dalrymple’s explicit description of the brutality of the British “retaliation”,the extirmination of
    the Mughals and the existing aristocracy and the hideous vandalism in which 80% of Shahjahanabad was destroyed.This is
    what colonialism is all about.
    And 911 was an inside job.

  34. Dalrymple’s view is a tunnel vision. 1857 was more a story of Lucknow than Delhi. Lucknow was never captured by English there were two relief columns, but even then Colin Campbell fresh from Crimean campaign and his highlanders succeeded in only evacuating English column beseiged in residency. The resistance of Oudh melted away after May 1858. In case our Wesern trained pseudo historians do not know,the Oudh Nawab’s elite troops were Hindus the Gosains and the musketeers who were his shock troops.Shujauddaula participated in Panipat 1761 and among indian muslim potentates his army came out in flying colours.More so the East India company’s best troops were recruited from Oudh.The motivation for these troops and Taluqdars of Oudh was not Jehad but a genuine feeling for their country and religion which was being trampled upon by East India Company.Dalrymple can be left to his devices, but this can not controvert the fact that 1857 was a genuine response of the Bashindas of Hindustan against the hated Feringhee,whose rapacity, cunning, and meanness knew no bounds.Read any book by an English man written between 1858 to 1880. they had nothing good to say about Indians.What a travesty, by what right they possessed India, was it law, my foot from 1757 to 1857,hired baynotes of Oudh infantry men conquered Bengal, /bihar Orissa,South especially Haider and Tipu and Marathas and in 1842 entire punjab by defeating Sikh armies. In 1857 they used hired baynotes of Sikhs and Gurkhas to reduce Delhi and than Lucknow.Both Sikhs and Gurkhas were in recent past defeated by East India company’s army comprising the Sepoys of oudh.Sikhs were merely seeking revenge for their defeat in Ferozepore and Gujaranwala. Shamshere Rana, Rana of Nepal upto the end acted as a hired gun and gave shelter to Nana Saheb after accepting Peshwa’s family jewels as a bribe.Sorry Dalrymple, you are very much of the mark.If you care for truth, do some research on Oudh portion of 1857, it was the bed-rock of a secular regime in India.

  35. Have you read Recalcitrance a novel by Anurag Kumar based almost entirely on the events of 1857 in Lucknow?

  36. This statement that the only mass rapes were by british soldiers is absolutely false, as these statements are fabricated by an imature biased british historian giving his own narrow-minded opinion and twisting the facts of history- most british historians just want to cover over things that happened to the british, and even the sources these authors use were written by biased british eyewitnesses/soldiers etc. in India, so obviously they didn’t want to admit to the rapes of the british women and state whatever suits them; but the fact is that there were mass rapes and then murders of british women by the mutineed indian troops and the Junglee. Unfortunately, in the dark days of the past, the armies of all countries had a habit of raping female captives prior to their execution. Why would the troops just murder and torture the female captives without raping them?, I find that hard to believe, especially since they had an interest in the british ladies at the time; also, if you read non-british and indian historians’ accounts on this, they all indicate that the brit women were raped on a massive scale as evidenced by the article: The Rani of Jhansi by Saurav Basu, in which it is clearly stated that indian soldiers and others engaged in mass abuse toward british women and that “the rapes (of British women by Indian men)…took place..”; here is the website with the information (derived from a text source):

    url:http://www.india-forum.com/indian_history/The-Rani-of-Jhansi-063.html

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