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  • Metadata

    • Document type
      Review (monograph)
      Author (Review)
      • Das Gupta, Amit
      Language (Review)
      Language (Monograph)
      Editor (Monograph)
      • Bhattacharya, Ananda
      Bengal and 1857 (Selections)
      Year of publication
      Place of publication
      K.P. Bagchi & Company
      Number of pages
      XXXI, 186
      Subject classification
      Political History, Social and Cultural History
      Time classification
      Modern age until 1900 → 19th century
      Regional classification
      Asia → Southern Asia and India
      Subject headings
      Aufstand <1857-1858>
      Original source URL
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Ananda Bhattacharya (ed.): Bengal and 1857 (Selections) (reviewed by Amit Das Gupta)

sehepunkte 15 (2015), Nr. 7

Ananda Bhattacharya (ed.): Bengal and 1857 (Selections)

Only a few events in Indian history have made it into European memory. The exception to the rule is what is either termed the 'Mutiny', 'The Sepoy Uprising' or the 'Indian War of Liberation' of 1857. For the first time European domination of non-European people was fundamentally challenged and Great Britain was in serious danger to lose what was considered the 'Jewel in Crown', the most profitable and valuable of all colonies. The shock sat so deep that, what in European eyes was nothing but a mutiny of disloyal indigenous soldiers, came to play a role in two bestsellers of European literature. While it is only a side-story in Jules Verne's 'Around the World in 80 Days', in the case of Arthur Conan Doyle's 'Sign of the Four' the whole plot is based on the siege of Agra, where Europeans had found refuge. Nana Sahib and above all the Rani of Jhansi as India's warrior heroine since then have become popular figures.

The choice of location seems typical. Both in Western and Indian memory the areas affected by warfare were located in the North of the Subcontinent, mostly Agra, Delhi, and Lucknow, whereas the South and the East remained calm. This made sense as the core demand of the revolting soldiers was to re-establish the Moghul dynasty. Surprisingly until recently the Indian debate has not been focussing on the question if and if so why other parts of India had not been affected. The debate instead has rather been whether 1857 was merely the uprising of disgruntled soldiers or if historians are justified to term it a national movement. Given the fact that there was hardly any national consciousness let alone any nationalism in India in the middle of the 19th century, this discussion can only be understood in the context of nationalist forces claiming all and everything for themselves in their attempt to rewrite India's history.

Ananda Bhattacharya has been wise enough avoiding to become part of this futile debate. He has a reputation for being both a distinguished historian for the 18th and the 19th century and - as Vice-Director of the West Bengal State Archives - to be among the most knowledgeable and helpful archivists regarding Indian sources. Bhattacharya's main concern is to create awareness for the fact that Bengal was by no means completely unaffected by the events of 1857. In his well-researched introduction he emphasises that Barrackpur, Berhampur and Dum Dum (all in close range to Calcutta) were among the first places where signs of the soldiers' discontent became visible. It was there that Indian soldiers protested against the use of new cartridges which allegedly had been greased with the fat of cows and pigs, a taboo for Hindus and Muslims respectively. Because there were hardly any European troops in the vicinity of the capital, the authorities considered the situation as most critical and ordered military units from Burma. Nevertheless, Calcutta experienced the 'Panic Sunday' on June 14 when it was believed indigenous soldiers would attack the capital. Though nothing happened, later on there was some unrest in Dhaka in the East of Bengal Province and Jaipalguri in the North. Unlike in Northern India, however, the British were able to crush any military resistance nearly immediately.

Among the various chapters forming the volume George Dodd's long narrative from 1859 about 'The Revolt in Bengal and Lower Ganges' describes the British views of the events in Bengal Province, proving Bhattacharya's point that the East of India in 1857 was not at all considered quiet and peaceful. The following collection of formerly unknown documents, published on the occasion of the anniversary in 1957, shifts the focus back to more widely discussed issues, namely the disputed role of the last Mughal Bahadur Shah and the Rani of Jhansi, who - contrary to nationalist mystification - were both initially cooperating with the British. The latter only became a warrior heroine when she saw her only chance to uphold her claim to the princely state of Jhansi was to join the revolting soldiers. Manmnatha Nath Das' interesting contribution about the role of western innovations in the outbreak of the revolution proves that it has been grossly overstated by the historiography of the victors which was strongly coloured by Orientalism. On the contrary, if electric telegraphs, railways and a new focus on female education had come to the knowledge of Indians at all, they were welcomed with remarkable enthusiasm. Their effects on life could be seen after 1857 only. The alleged confrontation of an innovative West versus a conservative and inflexible Orient is nothing but a myth. K.U. Molla with his analysis of the district of Dinajpur in 1857 once again brings the reader back to (East) Bengal. He attempts to link the rather late rebellion of the 14th Native Infantry, taking place only in the middle of November while the main events took place far away in the west. The volume ends with another relevant document, the deposition of Hedayut Ali from the Bengal Sikh Police Battalion. He adds the voice of an Indian who has taken part in the 1857 events, even though Hedayut Ali counts among those who remained loyal to his British superiors.

The volume edited by Bhattacharya is most valuable because by laying the focus on Bengal it supports recent research about the involvement of other parts of India in the uprising. This is even more welcome as both the East and the South of India lead a somewhat shadowy existence not only in Indian historiography and not only in regards to 1857. The volume shows there is sufficient archival material to continue the process Bhattacharya has restarted and demonstrates at the same time how little has been done in recent decades. Apart from the introduction, the most recent chapter of the volume dates back to 1977.