Book Review: 1857: The first war of independence of the Subcontinent

REVIEW: Why 1857 is still relevant
By I. A. Rehman, Dawn, March 2, 2008

1857: The first war of independence of the Subcontinent
Edited by P.C. Joshi; Ushba Publishing International, Karachi

The small community of scholars and students of history in Pakistan was not a little unhappy that the 150th anniversary (2007) of the subcontinent’s war of independence in 1857 did not receive due attention in this country. The lack of interest in the subject displayed by the managers of national affairs did not surprise anyone; it was in keeping with their disdainful attitude towards history. What was more disturbing was the indifference of the students of history themselves to the possibilities of fresh research offered by the record of 1857 lying in poorly maintained archives in Lahore. In this situation a couple of seminars that were organised came as reminders of what could have been attempted on a higher plane and to greater profit.

We did, however, get a series of reprints of the chronicles of 1857, most of them by Englishmen, and one of them, 1857: The first war of independence of the Subcontinent, that came perhaps last of all, deserves specially to be noted. The volume is a collection of papers put together by the Left on the centenary of 1857 and offers a handsome sample of the quality of the intellectual effort that had made the progressive writers eminent and the disappearance of which caused their decline. We have here, in addition to a narration of what happened in 1857 and why, an extremely stimulating discussion on the role of writers in the 1857 events and their treatment in contemporary literature, as well as a useful account of the international response to those events. The papers included in the volume remain as valuable as they were when written 50 years ago.

The first part of the book contains two longish studies of the 1857 revolt. Talmiz Khaldun deals with the myths created by the colonial chroniclers, analyses the East India Company’s exploitation of the subcontinent’s resources, explains the role of different classes in the uprising and tries to trace the impact of 1857 on the course of history. This is a ponderous theme and the author deserves credit for deftly trying to ‘rescue the story of the rebellion from the morass in which special pleading and interested accounts have pushed it.’ The second, and the longest paper in the collection, is a detailed survey of 1857 by P.C. Joshi, an Urdu version of which was made available to Pakistani readers in 2007 in the two-volume special issue of Quarterly Tarikh put together by Dr Mubarik Ali. Joshi puts 1857 in a broad prospective. K. M. Ashraf addresses the work of the 19th-century Muslim revivalists, especially the Wahabis, and makes a valuable addition to our knowledge about the scholarly and heroic figure of Allama Fazl-i-Haq Khairabadi. Binoy Ghose throws light on a little known aspect of the 1857 upheaval, that is ‘the apathetic attitude of the Bengali intelligentsia to the rebellion.’ It is a good introduction to the colonisation of a subject people’s mind.

P.C. Gupta’s short note ‘1857 and Hindi literature’ and Professor Ehtesham Hussain’s equally brief essay ‘Urdu Literature and the Revolt’ look like hurriedly executed commissions and leave the reader thirsting for more detailed accounts. K. M. Ashraf discusses Ghalib’s account of 1857, mainly as it appears in the poet’s Dastambu, and Gopal Haldar quickly runs through Bengali literature written before and after 1857, that is, between 1856 and 1885.

An interesting piece in this section is P.C. Joshi’s recollection of the folk songs of 1857, which in a larger publication in Urdu was perhaps his most valuable contribution to the literature on 1857.

Finally, we are offered some idea of how 1857 was treated by the British, French, Italian, Russian and Chinese journals. These pieces are sheer information. They also reflect on some key weaknesses of 19th-century Indian society, especially its failure to match the West in intellectual pursuits and the development of political theories. In a sense the reader gets a fair assessment of the cost paid in 1857 for wallowing in feudalism for an inordinately long time. It is a pity that the lesson remains unlearnt; which makes the book relevant to Pakistanis today and that is why one should be grateful to Ushba Publishing International for issuing this reprint. It should find a prominent place in any collection of history books on the subcontinent.


sanjana said…
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