The legacy of 1857

Note: This article on legacy of 1857 first appeared in the Time of India on 10th of May, 2020.

On 10th of May, 1857 the Ghadar started. A group of Indian sepoys in employment of the ‘honourable’ British East India Company revolted in Meerut, killed its English officers and marched on Delhi. They reached Delhi next morning, killed and expelled English from Delhi and proclaimed the weak and aging Bahadurshah Zafar as Emperor. The revolt had now got some sort of legitimacy. Soon, there was a series of revolts by sepoys in almost the whole north India, except Punjab and Bengal, and this was followed by a general revolt of civilians. The story is too well known. The liberation and capture of Delhi, Lucknow, Jhansi etc. are part of our lore. The heroics of Rani Laxmi Bai, Kunwar Singh, Tantya Tope and Ahmedullah are stuff of legends. With the death of Rani Laxmi Bai in June 1858, the revolt was over. The rebels failed; or did they?

Inspiring raditions of resistance

You visit any district in the Indian plains, you will find each one of them has preserved the memories of 1857. There are countless heroes, from every caste and both major religions, that fought against the English. These traditions of resistance inspired the freedom fighters, the revolutionaries and continue to inspire us even today. A few years ago, I was surprised, and delighted, to find that an MP from Andhra was named Botsa Jhansi Lakshmi. Seldom do we find such events in Indian history that unify people in such a manner across geographies and social divisions.

Inspiration by shame

The shame of not participating in 1857 inspired Punjab and Bengal. The Ghadar movement acknowledged it openly. They were ashamed that Punjab had sided with British during 1857. So, the immigrant Punjabis in US and Canada tried to overthrow British government during World War I. 1857 and Ghadar inspired the later revolutionary movement in Punjab. Revolutionary movement was most active in Bengal during freedom struggle. Their range of activities was very wide : from individual assassinations, cooperation with Germans during WWI, storming public offices to full-fledged revolt and parallel govt in Chittogong{1931} and Tamluk{1942-44}. It is worthy to mention that military leader of Punjab’s Ghadar was a charismatic Bengali, Rash Bihari Bose.

Preservation efforts

How have we preserved the memory of 1857? There are colonies, statues, streets etc. in name of leaders. Some movies have also been made on the heroes and heroines. However, general public still believes in myths than true history. For example, many people seem to believe that Mangal Pandey revolted in Meerut, when he revolted more than 1500 KMs away at Barrackpore in Bengal. The sites related to 1857 are poorly preserved. Fortunately, in recent years many steps have been taken by the government. Recently govt has announced a museum for 1857. There are very few contemporary Indian books and records of 1857. If available, these are mostly in native languages. William Dalrymple has mentioned how most of records of Delhi during 1857 have not even been translated. Two books, Majha Pravas from Marathi and Ramkahani Sitaram from Awadhi, have been translated a few years back and throw important light on 1857 from Indian eyes. We need to translate and preserve more such records.

What can we learn from 1857?

We can learn a lot from 1857. The communal amity as shown in prohibition of cow slaughter by some Muslim leaders is much needed in today’s India. The consequences of choosing weak and incompetent leaders, the importance of indigenous defence production etc. are important lessons we can draw from 1857. Of course, knowing about the life of heroes is a rewarding experience in itself. One way of doing this could be to organise regular heritage walks. This can be done in many cities, like Lucknow, Delhi, Kanpur, Jhansi etc. Apart from generating local employment, it will also make the younger generation aware about what Veer Savarkar called ‘First War of India’s independence’.

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