May 10, 2009 passed without any official or unofficial event in Pakistan to remember that historic day of May 10, 1857 when a last, ill-planned, and fatal attempt was made to get rid of the overweening English traders who were becoming de facto rulers of the vast subcontinent. What began on that Sunday morning in the town of Meerut would be later called "Ghadar" (Mutiny), "the Great Rebellion", "the Indian Mutiny", "the Revolt of 1857", "the Uprising of 1857", the "Sepoy Mutiny" by those who wrote its history for the colonized people of India and inserted this appellation in the textbooks which were to be used for generations.
When we went to school, we read about the "Ghadar" and Sayyid Ahmad Khan's account of the "Reasons for Ghadar". The appellation may have now changed to "India's First War of Independence", but there is certainly very little public discourse on the larger and long-term changes which followed that historic day.
Crushed with brutal force, this last armed resistance against the occupation of India came to an end on June 20, 1858, when Gwalior fell. A reign of terror followed. Men were tied to the mouths of cannons and blown to pieces, as Richard Holmes has vividly described in his 2005 book, Sahib: The British Soldier in India 1750-1914. A note from General Montgomery to Captain Hudson, "the butcher of Delhi" exposes how the British military high command approved cold-blooded massacre of general populace of Delhi, reminiscent of Halagu Khan's massacre of the residents of Baghdad in 1258: "All honour to you for catching the king and slaying his sons. I hope you will bag many more!"
A policy of "no prisoners" was adopted, whole villages were wiped out on the flimsiest rumours of sympathy for the local soldiers.
An estimated ten million Indians lost their lives, as Amaresh Misra describes in his two volume work, War of Civilisations: India AD 1857, published in 2008. Back in England, the accounts of atrocities of the British "Army of Retribution" were generally considered justified in the wake of exaggerated press accounts of Indian "savagery" against the "Europeans and Christians". During a year of terror that followed the events of May 1857, and for a long time to come, India went through a gigantic transformation which must be considered as one of the largest and most cruel experiment in social reengineering in modern history.
First the Company and later the British Crown, through its representative in India, the Viceroy, attempted to remake India in their own image. A society that had lived in a certain manner for centuries was remodelled from ground up. Memoirs, chronicles, letters, and personal accounts of the time describe cataclysmic events. "My dear sir," wrote Mirza Ghalib to Nawab Anwar al-Dawla, "what shall I say about the destruction of houses and mosques! The builder of the city might not have exerted so much planned effort for building them as the owners of the country [meaning the English] have for their destruction. My! my! Almost all buildings from the times of Shah Jahan within the walls of the fort and most of these in the city were demolished painstakingly and where picks and shovels and other tools did not suffice, tunnels were made and explosives were used to demolish them."
Aristocratic families of old were ruined, thousands were killed, imprisoned, or sent into exile, a whole new administrative was imposed, and new institutions were implanted which changed everything in the vast subcontinent--from the judiciary to education. The ill-fated effort also led to the insertion of the Jewel that India was, into the Crown of the British monarch, thus conveniently shifting the exploitation of Indian resources and people from the control a trading company that had come begging for concessions from the then mighty Mughals to the British monarch.
Ninety years later, when the British finally left the Indian subcontinent, they had produced so many brown sahibs that there was no further need for their physical presence; now they could achieve what they wanted remotely, although now they had to share their profits with a newly emerged tyrannical power. This shift would be so drastic that all previous history will be quickly obliterated to make room for an entirely different public discourse.
People who lose their history, simultaneously lose their future. We are such a people. Any attempt to reclaim history is simultaneously an attempt to reclaim future. Yet, it is neither the details the armed resistance against the occupiers nor the heart-wrenching accounts of those who were blown to pieces which make this attempt meaningful; it is in understanding the present in the light of the past that makes this act of recall a meaningful process of reconstruction and reassertion. Those who refuse to see their present in the light of their past, have no understanding of the extent of transformation Pakistan is now undergoing. They cannot imagine the new history of our people which will be written fifty years from now. That history will transfigure not only the May 1857, but also May 2009.
The writer is a freelance columnist.
Friday, May 15, 2009
by Dr Muzaffar Iqbal