It is generally assumed that Bengal, and eastern and north-eastern India generally, remained unaffected by the anti-colonial struggle of 1857-58. Recent research on the subject has indicated that such an assumption is erroneous. The struggle had an all-India spread and Bengal was no exception. Ananda Bhattacharya has compiled some useful source material by way of introducing and attracting, one supposes, prospective researchers to what is by and large an unexplored field. This slim volume contains an assortment of documents and research papers, most of them published earlier, which tell us something about the situation in the region at the time of the revolt.
The editor’s introduction looks at the manner in which different parts of Bengal responded to the events that had unfolded following the mutiny of sipahis of the Bengal Army at Meerut on 10 May 1857. It is well known that by the middle of June great alarm was caused by reports that plans were afoot for an uprising in the province. The situation in Calcutta was so tense on ‘Panic Sunday’ (14 June) that a large number of inhabitants left the city or else sought refuge in Fort William. The panic was triggered by rumours that a mutiny had taken place at the cantonment of Barrackpore and that the sipahis were marching towards Calcutta. Though the news was eventually found to be untrue, one of the consequences of the panic was that the exiled ruler of Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah, was confined to Fort William and continued to be a prisoner throughout the revolt. Other precautionary measures taken by the British heightened fears of an uprising in Bengal. The late Basudeb Chattopadhyay had published a detailed account of ‘Panic Sunday’ and its aftermath. Bhattacharya covers more or less the same ground, though he also looks at developments in other parts of eastern India. Europeans in the region continued to live in a state of anxiety till at least the end of the year, while several sections of Indians in Calcutta rushed to assure the government of their support in case malcontents attempted any mischief.
Over one-third of the volume consists of a lengthy extract from George Dodd’s History of the Indian Revolt (1859). Dodd’s chapter on events in ‘Bengal and the Lower Ganges’ is reproduced, along with material from some other chapters. Unfortunately we are not told anything about Dodd or his History. Dodd (1808-1881) was, according to the Dictionary of National Biography, a ‘miscellaneous writer’ who contributed to various ‘cyclopaedias’. He was more of a journalist who wrote on a variety of subjects ranging from London food to the Crimean War, but the working of contemporary British industrial factories seems to have been his main area of interest. In 1859 he published a detailed compendium of occurrences in India, China and Persia between 1856 and 1858 to depict the progress of empire in these lands. Most of the compendium is devoted to developments in India upto 1858. Dodd’s massive 700-page History of the Indian Revolt is extremely reader-friendly. The material is methodically arranged and adequate background information is provided for those unfamiliar with the Asian context; and there are a large number of illustrations. As an experienced journalist Dodd was able to present a coherent description of the uprising and its suppression. This was based entirely upon what had become, by the end of 1858, the authorized official colonial version of the Indian ‘mutiny’. All the stereotypes of the colonial narrative, and unsubstantiated stories about the circulation of ‘chupatties’, are reproduced by Dodd. Supposed discontent over the ‘greased’ cartridges of the Enfield P53 rifle is seen by him as the starting point of the mutiny in the Bengal Army. Moreover, the revolt is regarded as the outcome of a Muslim conspiracy. The following quotation (not included in the extract selected by Bhattacharya) would suffice:
Little did the authorities in India suspect, in the early weeks of 1857, that a mighty CENTENARY was about to be observed—a movement intended to mark the completion of one hundred years of British rule in the East; and to mark it not by festivities, and congratulations, but by rebellion and slaughter. … [I]t is now clear that the Mohammedans in India had thought much of these things, and that the year 1857 had been marked out by them as a centenary to be observed in a special way—by no less an achievement, indeed, than the expulsion of the British, and the revival of Moslem power.
It is within this framework that Dodd placed the hostility exhibited in early 1857 by Indian troops stationed in Bengal, at Dum Dum, Barrackpore and Berhampore, and subsequent encounters in eastern India. For all that the account is useful as it shows how the common sense about Bengal having remained free of turmoil during 1857 has made it easy to overlook evidence to the contrary available in fairly well known colonial texts.
Two chapters of the book reproduce almost identical versions of a ‘deposition’ by Shaik Hedayut Ali (Sheikh Hidayat Ali) concerning the causes of the uprising. Hedayut Ali was a ‘native’ officer in the Bengal Sikh Police Battalion commanded by Captain Thomas Rattray. Rattray’s contingent gained notoriety for its operations in Bihar against the legendary Kunwar Singh. The first ‘deposition’, dated 30 January 1858, was recorded at Arrah. The more dubious second ‘deposition’ was recorded in August 1858. The depositions are relevant only because they demonstrate the extent to which the colonial narrative of the revolt had been internalized, or was mimicked, by Indian soldiers recruited into rogue military outfits such as that of Rattray. Hedayut Ali adhered scrupulously to the official viewpoint that the revolt was the handiwork of a few disgruntled elements who played upon the irrational religious sentiments of Indian sipahis, which is obviously why Rattray considered it worth recording. It is pertinent that while the original statement was made in Urdu, we only possess Rattray’s English translation (or else a translation attributed to Rattray).
The indefatigable R.C. Majumdar had gathered some hitherto unpublished documents on the revolt, including material from the J.W. Kaye’s mutiny collection at the India Office Library in London, and published these along with his comments in Bengal Past and Present (Jubilee Number, 1957). This paper has been reproduced by Bhattacharya. One set of documents tends to belittle the role of Rani Lakshmibai in the uprising at Jhansi, while another suggests that Bahadur Shah Zafar was constantly in touch with the British and betrayed the rebels. Majumdar’s opinion that the revolt ‘was neither first, nor national, nor a war of independence’ has been quoted endlessly by undergraduate students of modern Indian history. The material that he presented in this paper was intended to reinforce his overall understanding of the revolt, which he dilated upon in his The Sepoy Mutiny and the War of 1857 (1957). Majumdar’s views on Bahadur Shah, which he initially put forth in a letter to the editor published in Amrita Bazar Patrika in November 1956, are summed up in the statement that ‘the only epithet applicable to Bahadur Shah is traitor’. Such a harsh judgement prompted Syed Mahdi Husain to write his Bahadur Shah Zafar and the War of 1857 in Dehli (1957; Mahdi Husain insisted on using the spelling ‘Dehli’) in which he attempted to highlight—using a wide range of sources in English, Persian, Urdu and Arabic—Zafar’s commitment to the struggle against the rule of the East India Company. In his preface to the book Mahdi Husain made a brief reference to Majumdar’s article observing, in the context of the valiant Lakshmibai, that ‘she acquitted herself as best as she could, but she was never unpatriotic’. Subsequent research has confirmed this assessment.
Bhattacharya has placed at our disposal useful primary source material that is not easily accessible. Besides, there is an article by M.K.U. Molla on Dinajpur (1977); and another by Manmatha Nath Das on ‘Western Innovations and the Rising of 1857’ (1957). The volume would have served its purpose if it stimulates more interest in the history of the revolt with reference to eastern India.
Amar Farooqui is with the Department of History, University of Delhi, Delhi.