There 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:
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.
- I will leave aside the cheeky claim that this is the first history of the Rebellion from “a properly Indian perspective”. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- 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. [↩]