Last November I attended a seminar on the events of 1857, at Ruley House in Oxford. This coming March I am due to speak at the Financial Times Weekend Literary Festival, again in Oxford, on the subject of the events of 1857. I believe there are new things to be said about the period 1857-59 and its significance in Indian history, and over the next few weeks I will be sketching out some of them here, as a sort of notepad.
The first thing to say is that the whole ‘First War of Independence’ debate should now be laid to rest. It dates from around 1910 and was originally the idea of one man – Veer D Savarkar (1883-1966), the inventor of ‘Hindutva’ philosophy. As a name it was deliberately contentious, and as history it was tenuous at best. R C Majumdar disposed of the whole notion a long time ago, by declaring that 1857 was not the first, not a war, and not for independence.
As a short authoritative statement that would be hard to beat, but the name has always retained its popularity among some Indians, initially because the idea of a war for independence served as a counterweight to imperial accounts that treated the events as nothing more than a problem within the mercenary sepoys of the EIC. For nationalists of Savarkar’s geneation it also did service as a rebuttal to the general title awarded to the events by the British – the Indian Mutiny, the name by which I first heard of the whole episode (or episodes). The word mutiny conveyed the idea that the Uprisisng was somehow illegitimate, because mutiny is a defiance of lawful authority, and Indians considered that the insurgents had a great deal of legitimacy on their side. I concur, and have no problem in using the word Uprising. As a term it is more neutral, and it also hints at the movement’s ultimate failure.
But I also want to set out a number of new or parallel descriptions of the 1857 Uprising, which I will explain in forthcoming articles here. I think we can usefully look at the whole debacle under a number of different headings, as:
1. A Crisis of Legitimacy.
2. A First Partition of India.
3. A Second Conquest.
3. A Disaster for the Indigenous Project of Modernization.
None of these approaches involve giving the Indian actors of 1857 any false sense of nationalism, or social consciousness, or revolutionary fervour, or irrationality, which various schools of history have been keen to impose on them.
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