Saturday, May 4, 2013

Mythmaking poses challenge to historiography: Reinterpreting the events of 1857


Randeep Wadehra

Mutiny at the margins; Editors: Crispin Bates, Andrea Major, and Marina Carter et al.
SAGE. Seven volumes. Price: Rs. 850/- each.

“Anything but history, for history must be false,” observed the late British Statesman, Robert Walpole. His skepticism is not completely unjustified. Mythmaking, in whatever form and measure, poses a constant challenge to the process of historiography, because personal, ideological and other biases creep into it. In the introduction to the first volume of this series, it is pointed out how it suited the British to depict the “greased cartridge issue” as the prime cause for the 1857 War of Independence a.k.a. the Sepoy Mutiny or the Indian Uprising. This is because “it posited an entirely irrational religious cause for the insurrection, which obviated the need to enquire too deeply into the malpractices, maladministration and exploitative practices of the East India Company’s rule…” Thus, by reducing the event to, essentially, a “clash of civilizations” the pro-British historians successfully kept the focus away from more complex issues, which would have shown the imperialists in none too flattering hues. Similarly, Marxist narratives focus essentially on the uprising’s peasant component, which does not present the complete picture.

In the seven volumes of this series, the writings systematically investigate various aspects of the uprising. However, along with the traditional sources, the writers have also taken into account all that had remained undiscovered or ignored so far. This broadens the scope to include “the margins”, which comprise the experiences of subaltern British communities in the areas that were “peripheral to the revolts,” as well as the Dalits, the Adivasis and the Muslims. Therefore, on the one hand this series explores minority (including Dalits) perceptions of the uprising, and on the other hand, it examines the response and involvement of assorted Muslim social groups comprising civil servants, philosophers, logicians and the mujahidin. While taking into account the “long history of resistance to the colonial rule prior to 1857” the writers examine the uprising’s impact upon “diverse localities in India.” There are also records of varied responses of British missionaries, colonial leaders and working class voices that reveal the array of reactions to the 1857 happenings. While covering diverse responses to the uprising the writers also look at the variety of ways in which historians and the wider public in India have sought to understand or exaggerate various events related to the uprising.

The uprising was of subcontinental dimensions – even if traditional historians have tried to limit it to North India. However, this series broadens the perspective by taking into account the “global dissemination and portrayal of the events… in the international press and literature,” while taking a close look at the 1857 events’ socio-economic impact, and displaced mutineers’ experiences in the broader colonial world. The various writings in this series also try to define the 1857 events in their attempt to understand whether these were merely of local/regional import or had wider ramifications.

Indeed, this series is “most comprehensive collection to date of historical writings on the Indian Uprising of 1857.” Since it also reinterprets and re-imagines the various events, it becomes invaluable to historians and research scholars as well as all those interested in understanding the events leading to the 1857 uprising, not to forget their impact on the molding of the evolving “colonial world”; and, perhaps, subsequent events around the world, too.

Published in The FinancialWorld on May 4, 2013

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