Mar 312014

I went to the Oxford Literary Festival last week and gave my talk. Thanks to everyone that made it possible, especially Sally Dunsmore and Gill Metcalfe.

Apart from the talk itself, the highlight was eating breakfast in Christchurch great hall, better known as the venue of Harry Potter’s encounter with the sorting hat. No elves or pumpkin juice, but the experience was nonetheless impressive and memorable. Bacon in Hogwarts; one for the grandchildren.

I met some very interesting people, and with the small amount of time you get when signing books for a queue, I managed to have several interesting conversations. I was speaking about 1857, and trying to put across a new view, which is that the whole affair was a disaster all round. It was not the birth of a constructive national consciousness, but was instead the moment that denied India the chance of determining her own agenda of modernisation. In other words, a tragedy with no hint of triumph. This requires several adjustments to the standard views of both imperial and nationalist historians, and I do not expect it to be popular.

But I do think there are useful things to be said, mainly that all of us, especially Indians, would do well to look into the middle of the nineteenth century to pick out different strands. Instead of trying to find proto-Congressmen and proto-nationalists in the ranks of the insurgents, or trying to turn the sepoys into the vanguard of a people’s revolution, researchers would do better to look into the movement(s) that created the exceptional generation(s) of leaders that actually brought the struggle for independence to its conclusion.

Why, if 1857 was such a peak of national achievement, did a) it fail, and b) the next generation of ‘freedom fighters’ reject its memory and its methods? If Jyotirao Phule is to be remembered with reverence, why did he support the British and pray for their success? He wouldn’t have joined the rebels, neither would Ranade, Gokhale or Gandhi. And despite her personal qualities of courage and determination, is the Rani ki Jhansi really a role model for Indians, any more than Boudicca is for the British? And how does Tilak fit into this? His great hero was Shivaji, who spent a lifetime fighting a Mughal emperor. Would he have supported a restored Timurid dynasty in Delhi?

Jawaharlal Nehru was conflicted about this topic, as his Discovery of India clearly shows. He always took the Indian side against the British, but he had little good to say of the rebels of 1857, and he would not have agreed with them on any point of their programme for future governance, such as we have it from the hands of the aristocratic leaders of the movement.

I am not taking sides here on a crude basis of nationality. But a rebel victory in 1857 would have been a disaster for India, and the failure of the rebellion was a disaster too. It handed an agenda to the British, who imposed their own vision of how a modern India should be, i.e. very like the ‘ancient’ India they had come to see all around them. This was not the vision that Dalhousie had been working towards, which included Indian representation in senior government. India got the railways and the legal reforms anyway; the political element was lost.



 Posted by at 6:23 am