India's Secret 1857
Cawnpore (Kanpur) Holocaust where millions disappeared / killed
A controversial new history of the Indian Mutiny, which broke out 150 years ago and is acknowledged to have been the greatest challenge to any European power in the 19th century, claims that the British pursued a murderous decade-long campaign to wipe out millions of people who dared rise up against them.
In War of Civilisations: India AD 1857, Amaresh Misra, a writer and historian based in Mumbai, argues that there was an “untold holocaust” which caused the deaths of almost 10 million people over 10 years beginning in 1857. Britain was then the world’s superpower but, says Misra, came perilously close to losing its most prized possession: India.
Conventional histories have counted only 100,000 Indian soldiers who were slaughtered in savage reprisals, but none have tallied the number of rebels and civilians killed by British forces desperate to impose order, claims Misra.
The author says he was surprised to find that the “balance book of history” could not say how many Indians were killed in the aftermath of 1857. This is remarkable, he says, given that in an age of empires, nothing less than the fate of the world hung in the balance.
“It was a holocaust, one where millions disappeared. It was a necessary holocaust in the British view because they thought the only way to win was to destroy entire populations in towns and villages. It was simple and brutal. Indians who stood in their way were killed. But its scale has been kept a secret,” Misra told the Guardian.
His calculations rest on three principal sources. Two are records pertaining to the number of religious resistance fighters killed – either Islamic mujahideen or Hindu warrior ascetics committed to driving out the British.
The third source involves British labour force records, which show a drop in manpower of between a fifth and a third across vast swaths of India, which as one British official records was “on account of the undisputed display of British power, necessary during those terrible and wretched days – millions of wretches seemed to have died.”
There is a macabre undercurrent in much of the correspondence. In one incident Misra recounts how 2m letters lay unopened in government warehouses, which, according to civil servants, showed “the kind of vengeance our boys must have wreaked on the abject Hindoos and Mohammadens, who killed our women and children.”
Misra’s casualty claims have been challenged in India and Britain. “It is very difficult to assess the extent of the reprisals simply because we cannot say for sure if some of these populations did not just leave a conflict zone rather than being killed,” said Shabi Ahmad, head of the 1857 project at the Indian Council of Historical Research. “It could have been migration rather than murder that depopulated areas.”
Many view exaggeration rather than deceit in Misra’s calculations. A British historian, Saul David, author of The Indian Mutiny, said it was valid to count the death toll but reckoned that it ran into “hundreds of thousands”.
“It looks like an overestimate. There were definitely famines that cost millions of lives, which were exacerbated by British ruthlessness. You don’t need these figures or talk of holocausts to hammer imperialism. It has a pretty bad track record.”
Others say Misra has done well to unearth anything in that period, when the British assiduously snuffed out Indian versions of history. “There appears a prolonged silence between 1860 and the end of the century where no native voices are heard. It is only now that these stories are being found and there is another side to the story,” said Amar Farooqui, history professor at Delhi University. “In many ways books like Misra’s and those of [William] Dalrymple show there is lots of material around. But you have to look for it.”
What is not in doubt is that in 1857 Britain ruled much of the subcontinent in the name of the Bahadur Shah Zafar, the powerless poet-king improbably descended from Genghis Khan.
Neither is there much dispute over how events began: on May 10 Indian soldiers, both Muslim and Hindu, who were stationed in the central Indian town of Meerut revolted and killed their British officers before marching south to Delhi. The rebels proclaimed Zafar, then 82, emperor of Hindustan and hoisted a saffron flag above the Red Fort.
What follows in Misra’s view was nothing short of the first war of Indian independence, a story of a people rising to throw off the imperial yoke. Critics say the intentions and motives were more muddled: a few sepoys misled into thinking the officers were threatening their religious traditions. In the end British rule prevailed for another 90 years.
Misra’s analysis breaks new ground by claiming the fighting stretched across India rather than accepting it was localised around northern India. Misra says there were outbreaks of anti-British violence in southern Tamil Nadu, near the Himalayas, and bordering Burma. “It was a pan-Indian thing. No doubt.”
Misra also claims that the uprisings did not die out until years after the original mutiny had fizzled away, countering the widely held view that the recapture of Delhi was the last important battle.
For many the fact that Indian historians debate 1857 from all angles is in itself a sign of a historical maturity. “You have to see this in the context of a new, more confident India,” said Jon E Wilson, lecturer in south Asian history at King’s College London. “India has a new relationship with 1857. In the 40s and 50s the rebellions were seen as an embarrassment. All that fighting, when Nehru and Gandhi preached nonviolence. But today 1857 is becoming part of the Indian national story. That is a big change.”
War of Civilisations
The year 1857 marked a watershed not only in the history of India but of the subcontinent. Call it Mutiny, Revolt or First War of Independence, its impact cannot be belittled. No wonder there is a plethora of publications on it.
To this recently has been added War of Civilisations : India AD 1857 in two thick volumes — The Road to Delhi and The Long Revolution by Amaresh Misra. For those looking for variety in “Mutiny” literature, here is something that satiates both fact and fancy.
First The Road to Delhi:The Battle of Plassey (1757) followed by the Battle of Buxar (1764) put the English firmly on the road to Delhi. A far cry from 1610 when they posed as poor traders in Jahangir’s court at Agra to seek preferential treatment in trading rights in the Moghul empire. How traders became soldiers with territorial ambitions that culminated in India becoming a Jewel in the British Crown is a story of deceit, intrigue and opportunism that acquires the dimensions of a cloak-and-dagger mystery.Misra highlights all these points painstakingly with the help of documentary evidence, rare photographs and wide-ranging views from Hindu, Muslim, and British sources. He has also brought out the passions, jealousies and ambitions that formed an intricate pattern in human relations in which characters like Umrao Jaan and Azeezun played an emotive role.The outbreak of the Mutiny, the course it took, the hiding the British got before the recapture of Delhi and Lucknow and other places in North India, the arrest and trial of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the flight to Nepal of Hazrat Mahal of Awadh and her son Brijis Qadar all this and more is recounted in the two volumes with great detail.The Long Revolution goes beyond 1857 in discussing the Sanatan Dharma Akhadas and reactions in the Haryana-Doab, Bulandshahr, Ranchi, Bengal, North-east, Rajasthan, Chattisgarh, West Coast, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu in the south and international repercussions in Burma, Russia-Turkey, the U.S. All this goes to show the vast expanse on which the Mutiny repercussions where heard.There is also a chapter on Islam as undivided India’s freedom struggle ideology. Muslims and Hindus where surely united against the firangis but each had his own narrow interest at heart. One wanted the glories of Moghul rule restored while the other had his eyes fixed on the restoration of Hindu ascendancy (brought down by Ghori after the Second battle of Terain and another big defeat by Abdali at the Third Battle of Panipat).The “coquettish” Rani wanted her Jhansi back while the peasants and tribals had their own agenda. Turkey, with its ruler as the Khalifa of Islam, and Russia as the Big Bear confronting British hegemony in the Big Game all point to multifarious interests.And to talk of a Shia-Sunni-Sanatani Republican State in Ayodhya Land was at best an illusion of the Begum of Lucknow. The British tightened their grip and continued to rule India for another 90 years after the uprising.
Medley of SkirmishesInstead of being a War of Civilisations, it was a medley of skirmishes in which the Wahabis wanted a Talibanised State and the Hindus the reinstatement of the Peshwa. The Mutiny was great on promises and short on achievements.Pious intentions alone do not make a revolution. The whole surmise does not stand scrutiny. It was naïve to expect the firangis to be driven away from the country since they controlled the main ports and the coastline with a powerful navy.The resultant chaos would have helped them to come back and pursue their policy of divide and rule with a vengeance. However this monumental work is a goldmine of information for which generations of researchers will be grateful.