Commemorating a tumultuous era
Three books that provide a fresh look into the events of 1857.
SOME refer to it as a mutiny by disaffected soldiers; others insist that it was the first war for independence from British rule; still others point out that large portions of the country were relatively unaffected by the violence of the times —
; but what is perhaps undisputed is that the uprising of 1857 continues to loom large over our historical horizon.
In this, the 150th year of the uprising, there are a host of books and seminars to commemorate those tumultuous events.
Pramod K. Nayar’s The Great Uprising and The Penguin 1857 Reader focus on what was a defining moment for both British and Indian history. The Great Uprising begins with the arrival of the
Europeans in India and the establishment of British rule. The overall theme will be familiar to those who have not forgotten the history learnt in school.
He then moves on to the main action — the causes of discontent among the Indians, both soldiers and other; the various scattered uprisings and how the British re-established control.
The narrative is broken by details on the key players like John Nicholson, Wajid Ali Shah, Henry Lawrence, Nana Saheb, Rani Lakshmibai and others. The book gives the feel of a story being told and does not let the reader’s attention flag.
There was, however, no need to link the events of 1857 with the later national movement under Gandhi, though there will be many who will disagree.
The Penguin 1857 Reader, on the other hand, is a collection of documents from that era giving the reader a feel of the moment. Broadly divided into two sections, Narratives and Responses, there are excerpts from letters, official docum
ents, diaries and newspaper articles.
Though the sources are largely European, the book shows that responses to the events were not always uniform. There was criticism of the British response in Europe and America.
The chapter on “Indian Responses” is the slimmest but there are translations of folks songs and extracts from The Mutinies and the People giving a table of the rewards given to “Native fidelity”.
The most interesting in this section are Syed Ahmad Khan’s analysis of the uprising and Amrita Lal Roy’s “English Rule in India” published in The North American Review (1886).
Focus on Kanpur
Different from these two, is Rudrangshu Mukhejee’s Spectre of Violence: The 1857 Kanpur Massacres first published in 1998. Mukherjee focuses on the killings at Kanpur. On June 27, 1857, a group of 300 British (including women
and children) were killed by rebels at Satichaura Ghat.
On July 15, the survivors of Satichaura were killed at Bibighur. Once the British reclaimed Kanpur, there were reprisals against Indians, which led to the large-scale killings.
Mukherjee points out that the only texts for the events in Kanpur are exclusively British and that relying on the accounts of one side do not make for a rounded story.
Mukherjee shows how the British account was fashioned through a complex mix of the events, memories and memorialising.
The Great Uprising; Pramod K. Nayar, Penguin, Rs. 250.
The Penguin 1857 Reader; Pramod K. Nayar, Penguin, Rs. 295.
Spectre of Violence: The 1857 Kanpur Massacres; Rudrangshu Mukherjee, Penguin, Rs. 250.
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