About the Book
The revolt of 1857 will never cease to arouse interest and debate. This book, now in paperback for the first time and with a new Introduction, remains one of the best studies of popular resistance and peasant rebellion.
In his Introduction, which provides an update on the historiography of peasant revolt, the author charts some of these changes and their relevance to a deeper understanding of the uprising of 1857.
About the Author
RUDRANGSHU MUKHERJEE was educated at Presidency College, Calcutta; Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi; and St Edmund Hall, Oxford. He has taught in Calcutta University and held visiting appointments at Princeton University, Manchester University, and the University of California, Santa Cruz.
This book was born under a cusp. It was published in 1984 but the text was completed in early 1983. It thus missed the full impact of the most important intervention in modern Indian historiography, the shift in thinking initiated by Subaltern Studies and Ranajit Guha's Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India (1983). My text could do no more than include passing reference to the first volume of Subaltern Studies, published in 1982. There were themes in my book which could have been enriched from the perspective opened up by Guha and his colleagues, and most of the recent writing on 1857 as neglected a field now as it was in the late 1970s and early 1980s have followed lined suggested in the writings of Guha and others in the Subaltern Studies collective. This introduction will look at some of these developments.
There were two formative intellectual influences on my text. One was immediate and obvious. This came directly from the writings of Eric Stokes on the revolt of 1857. These marked, as the preface to the first edition indicated, the starting points of my enquiry, and some of Stokes's conclusions were also the targets of my critique. The other influence was the history-from-below approach of E.P. Thompson, Christopher Hill, George Rude and Rodney Hilton. I drew inspiration from the writings of these historians and tried to use some of their methods. This seemed valid at the time. But as I read more of the writings of some of scholars of the Subaltern Studies collective and reflected on the implications of their work, I recognized that they were pushing me to think beyond history-from-below and some of the other accepted shibboleths of radical historiography.
Soon after the appearance of Awadh in Revolt came the publication of Eric Stokes's posthumous book The Peasant Armed. This was not a finished work and it did not have the section that Stokes wanted to write on Awadh. The general thrust of Stokes's analysis as revealed in his earlier articles was strengthened by the pi8eces Bayly had put together in The Peasant Armed. Stokes urged that it was more important to look at local differentiae in the revolt than seek linkages and connections. Until the local differences were set out district by district, historians would be 'striking matches in the dark'. This was based on an overall skepticism about the possibilities of generalizations in history. 'Historical truth 'Stokes averred, 'marches only briefly to tunes of sounding generality. My book tried to show the inadequacies of such a disaggregated view of the rebellion. There is no need here to rehearse those arguments. But it is important to recall the fact that Stokes's book gave a pivotal role to the peasantry.
All the great issues of interpretation of 1857, Stokes said, turned on the assessment of peasant action. The peasantry formed the vital link 'the revolt was essentially the revolt of a peasant army breaking loose from its foreign masters.' But this assignation of a central role to peasants was not matched by any gesture towards making peasants masters of their own destiny. Peasants were invariably the objects of one thing or the other land-revenue policy or some other policy on the part of the colonial state or the local landlord or usurer. The actions of peasants in the great rebellion were not informed by any consciousness: their actions were determined by local magnates, dominant peasants, or worse by designing men, all of whom turned instinctively against their 'natural enemies' once the structure of the colonial state had collapsed under the onslaughts of the native soldiery.
It was precisely here that Guha's Elementary Aspects taught us to look and to think anew about peasants in revolt. Guha located the peasantry in colonial India within a relationship of power, in a relationship of domination and subordination. On one side were the dominators the triumvirate of Sarkar, sahukar and zamindar and on the other the subordinated peasantry. Implicit in this pairing or opposition of power was the autonomous subjectivity of the dominated, the peasants. For if the peasants were not autonomous and undominated, the dominators, in the very exercise of their domination, would suppress and obliterate the dominated. Domination would this be left without its other. The peasantry thus had to be given its own autonomous domain. Guha argued that this domain could be located in what was opposed to domination, i.e. resistance. It was in resistance that the peasantry became conscious of the dominator and of its own autonomous identity.
When peasants revolted, the dominators were forced to recognize them. Insurgent peasants forced their way into the historical archives created and preserved by dominators. By reading this archive against its grain, the historian would gain access not only to the actions of peasants but also to the consciousness that informed those actions. Peasants had too much at stake to take to arms in a fit of absentmindedness. The archive of the dominator preserved, in a mirror image, the consciousness of the dominated who were powerless to record their own actions, perceptions and knowledge. Guha's aim was not to depict the struggle of peasants as a series of specific encounters but in its general form. He sought to isolate the ideological invariants of peasant consciousness: he called them 'elementary aspects'. There were six such: negation, ambiguity, modality, solidarity, transmission and territorial-historical material, which inevitably meant from the events of 1857, in which the peasants had played such a crucial and important part.
Peasants, Guha wrote, could recognize themselves and form the4ir own identity through an act of negation of their superiors. This negative consciousness was expressed first through discrimination peasants selected the targets of their violence and then extension peasants extended their violence to all that was associated with their enemies. In 1857, banias and mahajans were the victims of attacks and were ousted from land. Guha cited examples from Muzaffarnagar and Hamirpur. In 1857 peasants destroyed and plundered the properties of Europeans and did relatively less damage to those of natives. The violence was extended by the logic of association, in the words of one British official, to everything 'with which we are connected', prisons, record rooms, factories, the telegraph, railways stations, the courts and so on were all targets of attack. The other form of the expression of negation was inversion. Peasants asserted their resistance by appropriating for themselves the signs of authority that belonged to the dominator. They sought to invert the terms of domination and subordination. Rebellion violated the stabled codes of deference. In 1857 the sepoys, in station after station, became mor3e and more insolent towards their superior white officers before they finally took to arms. British women taken as prisoners after the massacre at Satichaura Ghat in Kanpur were made to grind corn. Mahomed Ali Khan, an influential person in Kanpur known as the Nunneh Nawab and as a friend of the British, had his horse taken away and was given a mule belonging to a servant. Dominators became the objects of humiliation and abuse which were normally directed towards the dominated.
This inversion of the codes of dominance and subordination during insurgency often meant that rulers were liable to misread the signs of second of the aspects rebellion as crime. This gave to insurgency a degree of ambiguity, the second of the aspects Guha analyzed. But crime and insurgency 'derive from two different codes of violence': 'unlike crime, peasant rebellions are necessarily and invariably public and communal events the criminal may be said to stand in the same relation to the insurgent as does what is conspiratorial (or secretive) to what is public (or open) or what is individualistic (or small-group) to what is communal (or mass) in character. Unable to recognize the distinction between crime and rebellion and the moment when the former becomes the latter, officials in 1857 labeled all rebels as dacoits as if the two words were synonymous. Guha gave examples of this confusion and ambiguity. There was a warning in Guha's text to stop the historian from thinking like a daroga.
Destruction was the principal modality or form of peasant insurgency. Guha identified four forms of destruction: wrecking, burning, eating and looting; the violence was also public, collective and total. The public and collective character of the revolt of 1857 is obvious from the reports available of Panchayats and discussions that preceded the call to arms. In Kanpur, the rebels met before the uprising to discuss things, and General Wheeler in the entrenchment was actually informed that the attack on the entrenchment was about to begin. Even the decision to massacre the British on the river was taken collectively. Wrecking, burning and looting were extensive in 1857. The British and those seen as their friends had their property and their insignias of authority destroyed and plundered. A representative description was cited by Guha from Mark Thornhill's account of the sack of Mathura: 'The plunder of the revenue office was followed by that of the English houses. In this amusement the villagers spent what remained of the day. The houses contained little that they valued; that little they carried off, the rest they broke to pieces. In the morning they returned and continued the work of destruction. Fire was the principal instrument of destruction. Recalling a series of fires that destroyed a cantonment, a bungalow and a telegraph office, at Ranigunj and Barrackpore, W.H. Carey wrote in retrospect, 'the Fire King began to demonstrate an inkling of what was in store for almost every station in the North Western Provinces.' In the summer of 1857, across the plains of north India, it was arson that destroyed record rooms, session courts, bungalows, post offices, and so on. The public character of the insurgency was also expressed in the setting up of a rebel authority with power to impose laws, sanctions and punishments. In 1857, as is well know, this meant harking back to the pre-British order.
Solidarity, Guha Wrote, was the categorical imprint of rebel consciousness. Its quality could vary but no rebellion was without it. Solidarity to the rebel cause in 1857 showed itself in the steadfast refusal of common people to collaborate with British authorities. When the magistrate of Saharanpur entered the village of Manuckpur to arrest its headman, he found the village 'all but deserted' despite a large reward for the apprehension of the headman. In Awadh, as I had shown, villagers withheld supplies to the advancing British army. Even after their victory the British, in the course of their enquiry into the events, found it difficult to establish facts and find names of rebels because the people refused to come forward with evidence.
One indicator of the strength of this solidarity was the speed with which the message of rebellion was transmitted, leaving the rulers bewildered. This touches upon the two best-known features of the revolt of 1857: the circulation of the chapatti, and rumours. Nobody has been able to explain the significance of the circulating chapatti. There is no trace left in the records of the meaning attached to it by the peasants of 1857. The British did not know what to make of it, but after the event some bureaucrats and scholars used it as a convenient peg on which to hang their conspiracy theory. T. Rice Holmes, in fact, compared the chapattis to the 'fiery cross that summoned the clans-men of Roderick to battle.' They misread, as Guha points out, a symbol as an index and the chapatti became the transmitter of the message of conspiracy and revolt. But there were local administrators in 1857 who were not willing to endow the chapati any such significance. For them, in the words of Guha, 'the chapatti was more of a red herring than a fiery cross.' Guha, however, brought to the chapatti phenomenon a new angle. He showed, via William Crooke's observations of rural life in northern India, that during an epidemic some ritually consecrated object was circulated to push the disease outside the boundaries of a village or a locality. This technique was called chalawa which means, according to Crooke, 'passing on the malady'. North India had witnessed a cholera epidemic and the chapatti could have been the traditional chalawa. But the chapatti could have meant different things to different people. Guha summed up thus:
The symbolic agent of an epidemic in the countryside it [the chapatti] took on an added meaning as the carrier of an imminent but undefined political holocaust. As an omen it looked ahead of events, and in an atmosphere charged with growing unrest in agrarian communities and army barracks it transmitted the rebellion in anticipation by sounding a tocsin for all to hear but none to understand why.
Guha analyzed rumours as both a 'universal and necessary carrier of insurgency in any pre-literate society'. The power of rumours is acknowledged in the efforts the authorities put in to suppress and control their circulation. But rumours had more to them than the alarm engendered among those who had most to lose from a popular uprising. It helped spread the message of rebellion: it was a trigger and a mobiliser, a necessary instrument of rebel transmission. Rumours, by definition, are anonymous and verbal. The latter feature gives to rumours functional immediacy which allows it to seize upon important issues in periods of social tension. Rumours have a socializing process embedded in them since the passing on of a rumour, in the words of one authority, 'involves a desire on the part of the transmitter to affect other people's behavior, to bring their perspectives in line with his own or, at the very minimum, to share a valuable piece of information.' It is to this 'Characteristically, rumours originate and circulate where people assemble in large numbers. Kaye, in the context of 1857, described rumours as 'the lies of the Bazaar'. As any student of the great rebellion knows, Kaye drew on material linking the rumours in circulation in the bazaars with the spreading disaffection among the sepoys. Rumours can never be pinned down, they are by nature ambiguous. Kaye mentioned the vernacular saying 'It is in the air'. This, according to Guha, is what makes rumours 'a mobile and explosive agent of insurgency'. Rumours are open because they are anonymous and unverifiable; they are transitive and free; their circulation is unpremeditated and therefore liable to improvisation. In 1857, rumours about greased cartridges soon spread to include edible items like flour and ghee, and then to a general conspiracy to defile and convert the entire population of India. Thus rumours brought sepoys and civilians together by a common suspicion.
The events of 1857 aroused passions both among participants and observers to a level unsurpassed before or since in the relations between Britain and India. For historians the revolt of 1857 has been a cornucopia. Ever since the days of Kaye, whose work still commands magisterial authority, through the jingoism of V.D. Savarkar and the space of scholarly monographs in the centenary year, the rebellion has been popular subject for general accounts. However, such accounts have been constricted in their scope in the sense that they have been concerned mainly with characterizing the events of 1857: mutiny, war of independence, feudal uprising, what have you. There has been very little effort to move away from such a concern with labels to questions of social composition and material background. Perhaps the only exception is the work of S.B. Chaudhuri who analyses the areas of 'civil' rebellion in 1857. But in the battle of books that ensued in the centenary year, even that author was drawn into the rather sterile debate on nomenclature. This concern with the character of the revolt, wherein the terms of reference are always 'mutiny', 'first freedom struggle' or 'feudal uprising', has led to a kind of mental cramp: a great deal has been written but the significant questions have neither been asked nor answered.
The first major break with this historiographic tradition came with three seminal essays by the late Eric Stokes. In these essays Stokes focused on the upper and central Doab and showed how the impact of British land revenue policy was connected with rural political affiliation in the hour of crisis'. The basic approach of this book is essentially similar: it is a detailed study of an area to explore the interaction between the material environment affected by colonial policy and the events of the revolt. In a way, Awadh was the most obvious area for such a study: all historians agree that the revolt was most fierce and lasted longest in Awadh. Yet no one, Stokes included, has investigated the rising in this area along the lines mentioned above. Awadh seemed a remarkably fertile and virgin territory for any historian of the 1857 uprising.
The archival material I have used induced considerable modification in my approach. The hitherto unused data on the actual cou7rse of events and the extent of mass participation were both voluminous and significant. In the li8ght of this material I have often found it necessary to fall back on the narrative method before interpreting the events I have described. Today when historians who had once stressed the3 study of structures are emphasizing the relevance of narrative history, perhaps this ways of presenting facts and arguments requires no apology.
The choice of the word 'popular' in the title and in the text is deliberate. The revolt in Awadh pertained to the people as a whole and was carried on by the people; hence the adjective is appropriate. If one were to accept J.H. Hexter's division of historians into 'lumpers' and 'splitters', then the present book is an exercise in 'lumping' rather than 'splitting'. I have emphasized linkages and connections rather than divisions. Yet the fractures in the rebellion have not been altogether ignored. In my narrative I have often let the sources speak for themselves; hence the preponderance of citations and quotations. This is meant to forestall any accusation that I have read too much into my sources in order to prove my case.
In exploring the popular character of the uprising I have tried to draw attention to certain hitherto unnoticed aspects of the rising. Certain features of the immediately pre-annexation agrarian scene are shown to be casually linked to the specific characteristics of the revolt in this area the fact that the general populace, especially talukdars and peasants, fought together against a common foe. I have argued that forms of practical co-operation between various strata of rural society were in built within the functioning of Awadh rural society. This is not to gloss over conflict and exploitation in a society dominated by aristocratic clan heads. It is to emphasize a certain 'commonality' of interests and mutual dependence which might not only have acted as instruments of legitimation in an essentially paternalistic world but also provided the basis for common and united action at this tumultuous conjuncture. This world was disrupted by the first British revenue prescriptions which dispossessed the talukdars and exposed the peasants to over assessment. The dispossession of talukdars meant not only the loss of power and status but also the loss of control over surplus from which such power and status grew. It also meant a threat to a certain life style that held together, however loosely and tenuously, talukdar retainer and peasant. I have tried to emphasize this amalgam as being at the root of the rural disaffection, instead of trying to seed an ever elusive 'prime' or 'paramount' motive.
A word is in order here about my treatment of the first British revenue settlement, commonly known as the Summary Settlement of 1856-7. This particular revenue settlement and the revolt have been studied in a recent work by T.R. Metcalf. His account is also based on some of the sources used here. But neither the revolt (nor the 'mutiny' as Metcalf prefers to call it) nor the 1856-7 settlement are his chief concern; consequently even when the same sources are used he asks very different questions and does not find it necessary to delve into as much detail as I do. For example my treatment of the Summary Settlement of 1856-7 in chapter Two, while using the same sources as Metcalf's section on the topic, reveals the facts of extensive dispossession and overassessment, virtually ignored by Metcalf. These facts are central to my argument, for it was through these that the traditional rural world of Awadh was disrupted and the foundations laid for extensive disaffection.
Again, Metcalf is concerned with the revolt in so far as it affected British policy towards the talukdars and the latters subsequent history. Hence sepoys, peasants and the general populace are not of any major relevance to his study whereas my primary aim is to exp0lore the popular character of the revolt. It was a remarkable feature of the uprising in Awadh that the people as a whole rose in arms against the British raj. It would have been easier for a more sophisticated history if there were instances of a talukdar peasant tension within the folds of the rebellion. Such instance are rare in Awadh; rather the combined fighting of talukdar, peasant and sepoy elements demands and perhaps unprecedented unity in Awadh in the shared traditions of commonality in rural Awadh as well as in the commonly perceived threat from the raj to that traditional world. The sepoys form a crucial copula in the rebellion. I have tied to show the links the sepoys had with Awadh and how their mutinies had an underlying unity in terms of motives as well as in types of action. The sepoy mutinies quickly demolished British authority in Awadh epitomized in the cantonments strewn over the province and made possible a more general uprising where it became wellnigh impossible and unnecessary to distinguish between sepoy and peasant.
In discussing the transformation of a 'mutiny' into a general uprising I attempt to shed some new light on how the talukdars and peasants took up arms, on the ways in which the rebels sought to fight the British, and on question of leadership and social composition. I propose a new understanding about the organization of the rebellion and its aims. The revolt may have been sparked off by mutinies in the sepoy lines but a considerable degre3e of organization and administration went into maintaining the struggle. Propaganda and rumour cleverly circulated and, buttressed by an appeal to religious feelings, spurred men on to fight an alien order. Prince, talukdar, peasant and sepoy, their many worlds and their many histories were brought together in 1857. This made for a certain complexity in the history of the revolt. I try to study the many overlapping strands, the emotive intensity, and the interconnections underlying the struggle.
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