1857: A riot of turbulence

Updated: Dec 31 2006, 05:30am hrs
1857 has salience for us as the first war of Indian independence but for those who fought that year, it was memorable as the centenary of anotherthe Battle of Plassey (1757). Throughout the momentous events of the year, especially at its storm centre, Delhi, there was an unprecedented gathering of ideologues and soothsayers, as the participants harked back to battle that had first ceded sovereignty to the East India Company. As we celebrate the 150th anniversary of that resistance, we need to remember that anti imperialism is not just about getting rid of foreign rulers and that sovereignty implies far more than nominal independence.

Turbulence = Shor, Shorish, Ghadar

Shor ghul, ghapara, aashob, fitna, fasad, hangama, balwa, fatoor, turbulence, pandemonium, disorder, riot, commotion

Shorish shor-o ghogha, balwa, ghadar, fasad-o fitna, afratafri, hangama, khalbali, outburst, mayhem, rebellion, riot/disturbance, helter-skelter, turbulence

Ghadar Perfidy, faithlessness, ingratitude; fraud, villainy; mutiny, rebellion, sedition, riot, confusion, tumult, noise, bustle

Shor surrounds the Ghadar, event and is course, equally. There is the shor of the very word ghadar, the shorish of the mutineers, the triumphant shor of the colonial master- narrative and the feeble shorish of the nationalist histories. Amid this noise and commotion, what I acutely miss is the shor-angezi (tumult-exciting) of the modern, contemporary voice.

The Ghadar invites few onlookers, fewer revisionists and absolutely no trespassers. The shorish that surrounds it, therefore, is old, dusty and hoary. This essay is an infiltrators voice, a sneak preview of some voices submerged in turbulence. This is a preface, but one with a very tenuous connection to the material that follows. The immense turbulence of 1857 continues to beg for adequately avid readers.

The Ghadar compels us to think of it counterfactually, while at the same time the impossibility of doing so is self-evident. To treat the Ghadar as a failure, which in very superficial terms it was, is to imagine in an underhand way the possibility of its success, which, alas, would be the greatest counterfactual of Indian history. Would the Europeanisation of the earth have been hampered, had the sepoys been more tactically astute while attacking the besieging

The Ghadar thus suffers twin, equally debilitating blows. Even as it is indicted on purely counterfactual grounds, the very moment of its occurrence is stymied by the fact of the aftermath. Another more civilised and far more familiar kind of anti-colonial movement is about to rise on the horizonwithin five years of the restoration of the Jama Masjid to the Muslims of the city in 1864, Mahatma Gandhi would be born; in less than 20 years the Congress would be formed; in less than 30 years, the Muslim League would be formed. In the midst of this shor, the shorish of the Ghadar appears at best, stultified; at worst, a terrible utopia.

This greatest show of Hindu-Muslim unity, a utopian stage, if there was one, for the forthcoming scenes in the long act of Indian nationalism, disturbs and intimidates us. Hindu soldiers and Muslim civilians; fanatic jehadis and pundits; maulvis and rajasthis togetherness is not of the kind which attracts us; this is not the darkened light, the night-scarred morrow we have in mind as a redemptive unfolding of Indian history. It is difficult to think passionately about the Ghadar, that most passionate and protracted of battles on Indian soil.

It is impossible, then, to study the Ghadar and escape colonial triumphalismanother reason why it takes particular gumption to research it. To delight in the killing of one Englishman is to overlook the burning of thousands of villagers, the decimation of entire populations and habitations. For each Rani Jhansi there is a Scindia, for each Kunwar Singh a Patiala, for each Zafar a Ghalib

So if there is no progress, nor progressivism, if there is neither modernity nor colonial discourse, if there is no unity and only a partial agency, if there is no vision and only a makeshift strategythen what can we invoke when we think of the Ghadar After the heat of Independence and the dust of the Mutiny settles down, we are left, to study rumour; or to probe the climate of fear, distrust, apprehension and expectations.

But where is the subaltern in the mutiny The camp followers, perhaps, or the potter, the baker, the grass-cutter, the coolie, the carpenter; but it appears that despite his ubiquitous presence on the scene, the subaltern is wholly absent in the discussion. For the colonials, he is there as an attestation to the fact that the colonial has still, despite the imminent threat to his life and status, not lost the superiority, and its sense, that makes him a colonial. On the Indian side, the subalterns are the badmash, the badkhwaah who, disguised as sepoys, were looting shops in Delhi, these subalterns were ruffians, settling private scores when the world turned upside down. For each soldier, ten camp followers on either side. Who are they, why are they there in this unpaid war, how do they resist, who do they resist

There was turbulence, there was rumour, there was a threat to, and dissolution of, established authority; there were over 70,000 professional soldiers; there were about 30,000 volunteers, joined by thousands of ordinary people, maulvis, pandits, zamindars, servicemen, poets, scholars, gamblers, sellers of bhang, all involved in the war for Delhi. Mobs were looting houses on the charge, or pretext, that the inhabitants were supporting the English. Crowds were resisting soldiers on a rampage. Princes were rediscovering power; paupers were aggrandising themselves; the price of gold was touching the sky; rumours abounded everywhere; the Englishmen were dressing like Indians; women were eloping with lovers; courtesans and prostitutes were thrivingand all this in Delhi itself.

Research on the Ghadar remains far from complete. There are enough unopened pages of Indian history to keep us going for a duration far beyond the shore(s) of the impending 150th anniversary of the Ghadar in 2007.

The author is an actor and writer working on the medieval tradition of dastangoi.