Nationalistic uprising
Vijay Saihgal

The Untold Story of 1857: A War of Civilisations
Rupa. Pages 2057(2 volumes). Rs 2,500.

Some may call it a civil rebellion or ‘sepoy mutiny’, the eventful year of 1857 was no less than First War of Independence. History speaks for itself. The recently concluded 150th anniversary of 1857 has seen a spate of researched articles and books on the subject. Till now, very few books were available on the topic by Indian authors, especially those which depicted the Indian point of view or put the events in right perspective. Some British authors have tried to explain 1857 ethos through their writings. But a difference of opinion remains whether uprising of Indian sepoys against the British in 1857 was in reality a mutiny or a misnomer? Some of the writers have even misinterpreted or distorted facts so as to malign the revolutionaries and their cause.

Amresh Misra, a well-known historian and a journalist, in this recent book (in two volumes) has dealt with the subject with a clear vision and in depth. In his opinion, "1857 was not just a war of Independence; it was a patriotic and a civil war, in which the pro-British princes and merchants actually lost". This paved the way for Independence in 1947. Misra has highlighted the fact that "1857 was an armed mass movement and a planned political revolution of the Indian people; as a whole, at one and the same time".

As stressed by the author, India could have been independent much before if the then Indian rulers and the rich had come to the rescue of freedom fighters, the so-called ‘mutineers’. In his voluminous work Amresh Misra totally disapproves the western theory that 1857 was only a sepoy mutiny and had the blessings of few disgruntled Indian soldiers of the British army besides the rajas and rewards unseated by firangis.

He has also underlined the fact that the first war of independence was not limited to certain areas only but was widely spread to other parts of the county as well. At some centres it was a silent movement like a lull before the storm. Peasantry was a leading force behind it.

Some of the British historians have aberrations in their writings so as to under estimate the movement and its leaders. However, Misra is very candid in his conclusions. First, that 1857 was first war of Independence. Second that it had the support of masses who rose above class and creed.

The Hindus and the Muslims, along with other communities stood with each other in their effort to dislodge the British rule. The British tried to create a gulf among them, but failed.

Misra is of the opinion at that time: "The British, in fact, were aware that in India, on 1857 eve, a separate class or group of warriors, called ‘armed population of India’ still existed —estimated at three million in numbers. This force stretched from Kashmir to Tamil Nadu and Manipur to Maharashtra. The Awadhi population was in fact, entirely armed. British officers ascribed much of 1857 turbulence to these three million people."

The British rulers tried to spread communal hatred and disharmony in the society through there treacherous means. However, they could not succeed.

The introduction of ‘greased cartridges’ in the forces and its refusal by Indian sepoys has been mentioned as the main cause of revolt by some of the British authors. But the fact remains that it was not the only reason for revolt.

The sense of patriotism had the major role behind it, a fact that has been underplayed by most of the British authors. Amresh Misra has given many documentary and historical facts to affirm this view. In fact, the British had massacred thousands of freedom fighters so as to crush the movement which amounted to genocide for which the British can never be forgiven.

The British had also discriminated against the Indian sepoys who were poorly paid and given lesser facilities than the foreigners. This also added to the resentment among the Indian soldiers. Lack of land reforms had alienated the peasants.

The author has stressed that disunity and lack of leadership and poor military acumen were the major reasons for the collapse of first war of Independence. The hurried decision to predate ‘mutiny’ at some centres also attributed to its collapse. It is in such conditions that the last Mughal Bahadur Shah Zafar was forced to lead the rebels. Some of the writers have accepted him as a hero, while some have described him as ‘a prisoner in the hands of rebels’ Amresh agrees with the first.

Amresh Misra is known for his earlier works, Lucknow: Fire of Grace and Mangal Pandey: The True Story of an Indian Revolutionary. His recent book uncovers many unique aspects of Indian history which are essential to understand the 1857 era. There were many more Mangal Pandeys who had contributed to the Independence of the country through their struggle and sacrifice. Misra has tried to do justice with such unsung heroes and their heroic deeds.

He has left no efforts to bring all available facts and events to light. He has gone once step further and rightly called 1857 ‘a War of Civilisation’ may be that William Darrymple had called it a great cultural renaissance of India.

The author is visionary and has also cautioned the repeat of 1857 in modern context if the aspirations of independent Indians are ignored. The well-researched book War of Civilisation: India and 1857 has two volumes The Road to Delhi and The Long Revolution. This book will help the scholars and serious students of history to understand the pathos of Indian history in a better way.