If the 1857 War Had Not Been Lost
By Ali Hasan Cemendtaur
Amresh Misra appears to be a young man, but he is actually over 200 years old — not quite, but talk to Misra about South Asian history and his scholarship would convince you that he has seen the events of the last 200 years through his own eyes.
On the sesquicentennial anniversary of 1857 two noticeable books on that war were published. One came out from the land of the past major colonizers of South Asia, the other from the land of the past colony.
Amaresh Misra is the author of the latter work titled “In War of Civilizations: India AD 1857.”
Misra is currently in the US, on a promotional tour of his book. This scribe talked to Misra at a private gathering and later interviewed him on the phone.
At the dinner meeting with Misra a relevant Punjabi documentary film ‘Taropa’, produced by Lahore-based filmmaker Huma Safdar, was also screened. Taropa convinced the audience that though fading with time oral accounts of the 1857 war are still present in parts of South Asia, and invariably in places of low human mobility. The telephone interview with Misra is being produced below:
C: Why did you write this book?
Misra: Around 2003 I realized that the 150th anniversary of 1857 was approaching.
On the 100th anniversary, in 1957, a lot of books had come out. I thought it (2007) was a great occasion to write an analysis of 1857 from an Indian perspective.
C: Were there many other books written on the sesquicentennial anniversary of 1857?
Misra: Yes, there were, but besides Dalrymple’s and this one (Misra’s) no other book covers the entire event.
C: What primary sources you heavily relied upon during your research of the 1857 war?
Misra: Primary sources were basically the immense amount of material preserved in the National Archive in New Delhi -- also the state archives in Lucknow, Patna, Bhopal, Bombay, and Ahmadabad. Apart from that I also went to the old pre-British libraries: the Raza Library in Rampur, Shibli Numani Library in Azamgarh, Khuda Baksh Library in Patna, and also to the Deoband Library.
Historians are inclined towards looking (only) at English sources. But I checked Urdu, Persian, and Arabic sources as well. And you have to do that because a lot of Indian perspective comes from material in Urdu, Persian, and Arabic; also in Hindi, Awadhi, and Marathi. Many primary sources (that I looked at) were actual narratives written by the actors in 1857-- the reports (that were) compiled and sent. The gazetteers were very important sources.
C: But these records have been around all this time. Why other historians did not bother to look at them as thoroughly as you have?
Misra: I am really surprised because no other Indian researcher has bothered to look at the gazetteers. The British published new gazetteers every fifteen or twenty years. I went to the oldest gazetteers, those published in 1858 and 1859.
I think (most) historians are too structured. My background as a journalist helped. My training is to question structures, not to work in a structured way. This really helped in being eclectic in approach, reaching out to sources, and working on intuition.
C: British declassify material after a few decades. So 1857 material was declassified a long time ago. Then what’s new?
Misra: Yes, that material has been declassified for a long time. What recently got declassified was the material concerning British opinion about 1857, after 1947. It was under the MI6 files and others: how they perceived the memory of 1857 and how they perceived 1857 as still politically explosive, even in the 20th century.
C: Who translated the regional language material for you?
Misra: I know Urdu so Urdu was easy, but still I needed an assistant who knew Persian and Urdu. So I contacted some friends in Allahabad and they were kind to translate Persian material. Most of the Arabic books written on 1857 had been translated in Urdu so it was easy for me to access those. The Bengali and Marathi literature was translated for me by friends and assistants, so it (the whole project) was a team effort.
C: In essence you found most of the material in India. Or did you go to the UK too?
Misra: No, I did not go to the UK. There was a plan but it did not work out. But I knew certain (British) families whose members had participated in 1857, and they had written family papers. And those papers were not even given to the British library. I was very lucky because some of the papers revealed, like say, uprising in the Madras Army which has totally been suppressed (from media exposure). You don’t even hear (about it). From the official British stand point there was no mutiny in the Madras Army. But I found this material from a family whose ancestor was posted in Madras and he was writing back.
C: Which indigenous language had the most material available on the 1857 war?
Misra: Of course Urdu because in that era people wrote in Urdu. Also Persian, for example the court of administration established by the sepoys when they overthrew the British and put Bahadur Shah Zafar on the throne, had its proceedings in Persian and those proceedings are preserved in the National Archive in Delhi.
C: So, after winning the war, the British did not destroy those local records?
Misra: No, they did. For example they suppressed this entire story of how many Indians were killed. They never let anyone tabulate the numbers. The figure I have brought up, that out of the population of 150 million, 10 million Indians were killed, (that is) seven percent of the entire population. That is the highest death toll figure in proportion to the overall population (in modern history).
British did destroy all records on the genocide. What they preserved was the story of the battles because the British had to report to their superiors. They had to present the real situation on the ground. A lot of letters went from the junior officers to senior officers, and seniors to juniors, giving instructions, so they give a lot of information.
The figure of the genocide I reached, I tabulated from land, railway and labor survey reports. For example when a British officer is trying to build a road in a town in Awadh in 1870s he is finding there is not enough labor; he is trying to understand the cause and he understands that most of the men here were killed. And this is a general practice when you are trying to reach a figure for genocide -- obviously records are not there. So you compare the labor records and operation records and you reach a figure. It (this indirect method of reaching a genocide figure) is called the (method) triangulated analysis.
C: Many of the families that were instrumental in the 1857 war are presently not in India. Some are in Pakistan and others in Bangladesh. Did you also consult with those families too (to check their historical family records)?
Misra: I sought the help of Sang-e-Meel Publications in Lahore. They were generous to supply me a whole list of gazetteers of districts of Punjab, Sind, and NWFP. Similarly I was able to get gazetteers from Bangladesh of Dhaka, Chittagong, and Fareed Pur.
So, I did not talk to the families but I was able to dig up a lot about who sided with the British and who sided with Bahadur Shah Zafar, because British rewarded those families (who sided with them) after 1857. I have a rare book with me called “Princes of Punjab” and there are British records too in which they published lists of allottees and from there you can see the elite that emerged in what today is Pakistan and Bangladesh.
C: Would you consider feudalism coming out of the event of 1857, or was it that the land that was given to the favorites of the old regime was taken from them and given to the new favorites?
Misra: It is too simplistic to say this. What British did in India is what I would call major socio-economic engineering which means that during the Mughal period land was held by peasant communities, and these communities paid revenue to the state. And in the European sense there was no private property in land. In Ain-e-Akbari everywhere Abu Fazal mentions that the state is not engaged with individuals, the state is engaged with the communities. When British came they overturn this whole structure and introduced (the idea of) private property in land. In Europe, feudalism was based on individual ownership of land. So they (British) had no conceptual tool to analyze this (South Asian) phenomenon. Also, this whole idea of communities holding lands went against their interests which was to squeeze the maximum land revenue and the maximum revenue could only be squeezed out if the land was held by private individuals. So land was taken from peasant communities and was given to individuals. In Bengal the land was given to a new generation of Brahmins. In UP it was given to the Banyas. This way the British were able to isolate themselves from the communities.
The British invented feudalism in India and through this process killed the possibility of an indigenous industrial revolution and indigenous modernity which was evolving through the peasant communities. When the peasant communities had to pay in cash they were also into entrepreneurship, they were finding new ways to generate money. There was a lot of dynamism in those communities which came to an end once feudalism was re-invented (introduced). The peasant became a serf, in the European sense. And (today) this is a major cause of poverty in (many areas of) South Asia. In those times this change in land (holding) structure resulted in severe famine, because the earlier food security and sovereignty (of communities) was shattered.
C: Do you think reading your book the present warring South Asian communities would unite against a past enemy, the British colonizers?
Misra: Present day communities, seemed locked in communal conflict, are not the original peasant communities. The communities we see today are invented communities. For example, the pan-Indian identity was invented after 1857. The pan-Hindu identity was invented when a new middle class started emerging and started competing. And in competing it constructed its identity, which the British encouraged because they thought this kind of community formation would help them. So that is how modern communalism emerged in India. Communitarianism was an old phenomenon and was progressive, but communalism is regressive. In modern India the whole idea of community was distorted (by the British). The idea of a community based on soil, based on loyalty was replaced by a community based on vested interests.
C: You say that the 1857 war was not confined to a few parts of South Asia, that it happened through the length and breadth of the region. In those days of limited means of communications how did the news of revolt reach from one place to another?
Misra: This is one question that even the British failed to answer at that time. My research tells me there was a whole network of spies and messengers that was created. Obviously there was a lot of planning. Indians were planning something like this since at least the annexation of Avadh, if not before that. So within ten days of Meerut the news reached Andhra Pardesh. British had telegraph, but the Indians did not. This (local) network was based on old linkages of peasant communities.
C: If the 1857 would have been won by the locals, how it would have changed the history of our region?
Misra: Entirely! First, there would have been no partition. The kind of political structure that the Mughal had in which there was a lot of regional autonomy would have evolved (further). India would have taken its own peasant past towards the industrial revolution, towards modernity, instead of the half-baked European (modeled) modernity that we now have, we would have genuine modernity. Had 1857 succeeded we would have seen a strain of (South Asian) Islam very different (than what we see today).