Accidental hero or a forgotten martyr

Updated: Apr 8 2007, 07:19am hrs
Scores of couples sit around the park oblivious to the sultry April heat, or to the presence of the others. You cant talk to them, cautions the civilian guard at the gate. When asked to explain why, he says defensively: This is a protected area under the army. But he does not know if the lovers enjoy the armys protection.

Welcome to the Mangal Pandey park in Barrackpore near Kolkata, where, on March 29, 1857, sepoy no 1446 (Mangal Pandey) of the fifth company in the 34 th regiment of the East India company shot at his British officer, Lt Baugh.

According to Indias traditional history, Mangal Pandey became furious when he learnt that the British officers were giving the Indian sepoys cartridges greased with cow and pigs fat, which they had to tear with their teeth.

Mangal Pandey was the first sepoy under the British East India company to protest, as it went against the religion of Hindus and Muslims respectively. He was arrested, put on trial and finally hanged on April 8, 1857. His death sparked off the First war of Independence, earlier termed as the Sepoy Mutiny by British historians. Today, controversies over whether Mangal Pandey was the real martyr of Indias first war of independence or he happened to become a hero by accident with a little bhang, are of no interest for most people in the Cantonment town.

For the chairman of Barrackpore municipality, Bijoli Kanti Mitra, and vice-chairperson of north Barrackpore municipality, Minati Ghosh Roy, it was almost news that this April marks 150 years of that great event. We are so busy with our office and do not get time to look into issues like 150 years of sepoy mutiny. The Police Training College of the West Bengal government and army officers posted here are surely looking into it, says Mitra.

Gaurav Dutta, Inspector General (IG), special and the officer in charge of the college, says that a statue of Mangal Pandey would be installed at the expense of the Public Works Department below the banyan tree from which he was hanged. Some programme will also be held on April 8 to observe the 150th anniversary of the mutiny. But the programmes are still to be finalised.

Todays Police Training College covers the whole area where the native sepoy barrack of the East India Company was situated. The government did not much bother to preserve these places.

However, the non-gazetted police workers association, under the office of the Inspector General of Police (Control), has taken up a year-long programme, which includes sports, essay writing and drawing competition for children, blood donation camp and others to observe 150 years of 1857. But nothing much is being done from the state government level although the Union government has declared grand programmes to commemorate the 150 th year of the mutiny.

Prof Pujan Sen, member of the Indian council for social science, says that Mangal Pandey has not got his due place in the Indian history and so he has not cut a mark to that extent on the minds of the people. Traditional historians have focused more on the movements of the elite class than bringing the common man into perspective, he avers.

Mangal Pandey belonged to the lower strata of the society and Indian history so far has not been that unbiased to give Mangal Pandey his due place, says Sen.

The subaltern studies group, which arose in 1980s influenced by the scholarship of Eric Stakes, has made an attempt to rewrite history keeping the marginal people in perspective but the attempt seems to lose some of its steam, Sen adds.

According to Prof Swapan Bhattacharya, August 15, 1947, is an evident result of the sepoy mutiny that broke out in 1857. Sepoy mutiny achieved the greatest transformationthe governance of India went directly under the British crown from the hands of the East India Companyand from 1861 the Indians got an opportunity to participate in the governance, which later manifested in the concept of swaraj and gradually evolved into a demand for absolute independence.

Whether Mangal Pandeys act was incited by a dose of bhang or by getting religiously frenzied is not important. But the important fact is that he blew off the lid of revolt and the mutiny started spreading like fire, which destabilised the East India companys rule, Bhattacharya says.

He adds: The historians of the elite club and British schools undermined Mangal Pandeys contribution to the Indian freedom movement and so he is not as relevant as Gandhi or Jawaharlal today. Compare the state of Gandhi ghat with the nearby Mangal Pandey Park. While in the Gandhi ghat even talking is restricted, in the Mangal Pandey park couples sitting cosily does not matter.