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Tatya: A legendary hero
Reviewed by
V. N. Datta

Tatya Tope’s Operation Red Lotus
by Prag Tope.
Pages 893. Rs 595.

THIS is an extraordinary book, an unusual and different one in tone and method from the general run of studies published on what the historians have called the Sepoy Mutiny, revolt, rebellion, or the War of Indian Independence. From a different angle, the 1857 revolt has been interpreted as the last bid of the ill-organised, disorderly and degenerate Indian forces to challenge the rising tide of new civilisation that was emerging in the country. The author of the present study, Prag Tope, describes the 1857 revolt as the Anglo Indian War of 1857. The main focus of the study is on the heroic role of Tatya Tope in the revolt of 1857. Tatya Tope waged a war against the British government from the middle of 1857 to 1858, especially at Jhansi and Gwalior. A man of great courage and reckless energy, he was determined to defy the necessities of the situation that confronted him.

From the study of this work, it is evident that a team of researchers were engaged in collecting and compiling the source-material on the subject, which was interpreted and chiselled into shape finally by Prag Tope, "the main architect of the book" who was assisted by his wife Manisha, and other members of the family. A vast array of literature, including the Marathi, English, Persian, Urdu, and Bundeli sources, has been used to construct the traumatic events of 1857-58. A special feature of the book is the inclusion of several short and neat maps, illustrating precisely the Indian and British military encounters of various places of conflict.

The author of this study asserts that an authoritative and important historical work on 1857 has still to be written because the books published on the subject are written from the British perspective, and regrettably, the Indian historians too follow the British line by using the English sources.

Prag Tope makes a strenuous effort to wrestle with two issues: firstly, to rehabilitate the reputation of Tatya Tope which has been sullied in British histography of 1857, and secondly, to challenge eminent historians like RC Majumdar and Surendranath Sen who have berated the national character of 1857. Denouncing the Emperor Bahadur Shah, as a feeble and inert dotard, a small potato, RC Majumdar declared that the 1857 struggle was "purely a mutiny of the sepoys joined last by some discontented elements as well as of the riff raff and other disorderly elements". In his official history of 1857, Surendranath Sen emphasised that the 1857 upheaval was essentially a military revolt, though later, in Oudh and Central India, it exhibited among some people the signs of strong patriotic feelings of national upsurge.

The author emphasised that Tatya Tope was not the Maratha Peshwa Nana Sahib’s aid-e-camp or the superintendent of his kitchen, but his Dewan, a mentor and guide and an undaunted military genius. From his several military encounters with some of the top-ranking British military officers, it is clear that in his battle with them, he took no rest himself and gave none to others. His military operations were secret, prudent and rapid. Surendrath Sen acknowledged that Tatya Tope inherited the natural instinct of his Maratha race for guerrilla tactics. His lightning speed, his daring and tactical skills formed the essence of his military genius. He knew the terrain—the hills, the forests, the valleys, and the rivers—and made the best use of them in his battles with the adversary. Even when he retreated, he drew new resources from adversity.

Tatya Tope fought some of the most competent and veteran British military officers, who regarded his campaign at Gwalior as the "most extraordinary feat of the uprising". General Sir Hugh Rose wrote that "of all the rebel chiefs who acted a part in the rebellion, Tatya Tope possessed the greatest enterprise". The distinguished historian, GB Malleson observed that Tatya Tope "has acted as a training master for the Indian armies", while WH Russell wrote: "His (Tatya Tope’s) mutinies have been like forked lightning; for days he marched 30/40 miles a day".

It must be acknowledged that the fight between the Indian rebels and the British government was unequal in terms of military and financial resources. The question is: how could the Indian rebels, despite their meagre resources, managed to fight the strong adversary, and put them in a precarious situation? The present study attempts to answer the question ably by showing how the rebels, including Tatya Tope, were given wide civil support by way of the circulation of chapatis and red lotuses which aroused strong public support among the populace. Some of the leading historians such as Eric Stokes, SB Chaudhuri, PC Joshi and KC Yadav, too have highlighted in their studies the sound basis of public support in the 1857 upsurge.

The present study is an impressive work of scholarship written in a clear and lucid style. It challenges the conventional view of the interpretation of the 1857 uprising, and is an invaluable contribution to the understanding of one of the most controversial themes of Indian history.