Muslim, Dalit and Subaltern Narratives is the fifth and latest volume published in the series Mutiny at the Margins: New Perspectives on the Indian Uprising of 1857. Continuing with the series aim of querying traditional nationalist and imperialist perspectives, this volume is focussed on the question of identities and subject positions rendered marginal vis-à-vis conventional and mainstream narratives of the rebellion.
Badri Narayan Tiwari and Charu Gupta in their respective articles provide valuable information and observations on contemporary dalit accounts of 1857, focussing on their complicated relationship with nationalist narratives, past and present. Tiwari’s ‘Identity and Narratives: Dalits and Memories of 1857’ reproduces dalit stories of local heroes (such as Raghu Chamar and Gangu Baba), and alternative accounts of mainstream narratives that shift heroic focus and initiative from high caste leaders to dalit characters on the margins (for instance from Mangal Pandey to Matadin Bhangi, and from Rani Lakshmibai to Jhalkaribai). He suggests that the stories of dalit contributions are directed towards providing identifiable heroes for themselves, as well as a validation for demands for affirmative action in the postcolonial nation. Tiwari argues that the historical divergence of Ambedkar from Gandhi rendered it difficult for dalits to seek accommodation within mainstream narratives of twentieth century Indian nationalism, and therefore 1857 emerges as a favoured site for the staking of nationalist claims. At the same time, both Tiwari and Gupta point to a conflicted negotiation by dalits of the reputed elite and feudal character of 1857. According to Gupta, this conflict manifests itself either in a repudiation of the revolt and a dissociation of nineteenth century dalit concerns from those of the upper castes, or the staking of representational claims to a nationalist narrative from which dalit contributions have allegedly been erased—with sometimes an emergence of ‘tension’ ridden reflection of both in a single narrative. Gupta goes on to document the dalit celebration of viranganas such as Jhalkaribai and Uda Devi and queries the implications of the intersection of caste and gender politics in the creation of idealized and chaste dalit heroines, and its potential endorsement of patriarchal values by a largely male authorship. While they employ the resources of oral and popular history, both Tiwari and Gupta express concern about the authenticity of such narratives, and hence seem to be methodologically constrained to make their observations primarily with reference to the instrumentalities of recent caste identity politics. Though this does enable a number of valuable political observations, it appears to leave somewhat diffuse the question of a paradigm shift in historiographical terms.
Avril Powell’s ‘Questionable Loyalties: Muslim Government Servants and Rebellion’ uses statistical figures for the North-Western provinces, to complicate the idea of homogenous and large-scale animosity towards Muslims for government employment in the decade following the revolt. Simultaneously, through particular life histories, Powell suggests the intractability of individual careers and motivations within the categories of ‘rebel’ and ‘loyal’. There are two interesting directions in which the biographical examples of Powell radiate. The first is illustrated by her reading of the career of Dr Muhammad Wazir Khan, a sub-assistant surgeon of ‘excellent professional standing’ at Agra, also strongly engaged in the significant pre-revolt debates and disagreements in Agra with Christian missionaries who had taken a publicly antagonistic position to Islam. This example amongst others illustrates the many strands that went into making mid-century Muslim publicness, reflecting its incommensurability within the categories of loyalty or rebellion. In the second instance, narrating the post-revolt fortunes of four teachers in the Arabic, Persian and Urdu department of Agra College, Powell recounts how one of these teachers however, had seemingly withdrawn from Agra not to join the rebels but to resolve a spiritual crisis that had emanated from the missionary debates, and eventually converted to Christianity. This points to yet another way in which categories of loyalty and rebellion get complicated, through relatively ineluctable matters of interiority and spirit.
Mushirul Hasan’s contribution, ‘The Legacies of 1857 among the Muslim Intelligentsia of North India’ presents the views of his significant 2005 book A Moral Reckoning: Muslim Intellectuals in Nineteenth Century Delhi. Contesting conventional representations of post-1857 Muslims as resentful towards and against western learning and institutions, and their association with images of decay and decline, Hasan proposes the lives and ideas of certain later nineteenth literary and intellectual figures such as Nazir Ahmad, Zakaullah, Hali and Mohammad Husain Azad as pointing to an embracement of new ideas and systems, and indeed an openness to reinventing self and community in accordance with the demands of changing times. While useful as a refutation of conventional historical stereotypes, Hasan’s analysis stops short of querying the constitutive dichotomy of ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’, and acknowledging the complicated cultural negotiations and simplifications involved in some colonial modernizing projects, for instance in the call for a new Urdu poetics by Azad. In this account of the experiences of trauma and social change, one wonders whether a productive line of enquiry linking (rather than delinking) radical change with intellectual and literary energy may have been overlooked by Hasan.
Alex Padamsee’s article ‘Ideology and Paradox in British Civil Service Accounts of Muslim “Conspiracy” in 1857-1859′ is an impressive revisionary study of official discourses of Muslim conspiracy in the wake of the revolt. Disengaging these discourses from generalized ideas of a pre-existent and easily accessed ‘Musalamanophobia’, Padamsee identifies through his nuanced reading of letters, official reports and published mutiny narratives, a complex set of aspects contributing to the making of Muslim Conspiracy accounts. He draws attention to the imbrication of these accounts with a constitutive conflict in the ideological self-image of the civil servant, his publicly secular claims to colonial governance occluding a tacitly acknowledged private allegiance to Anglican Christianity. Further, he makes a case for drawing a distinction between pre-revolt representations of Muslim fanaticism as operating within a context of localized negotiations of criminality, and those in the years following the revolt wherein Muslim conspiracy was to be cast as a transhistorical and universal tendency, effectively extending the scope of such criminal outcasting to the category ‘Muslim’ as a whole. Also, through a close reading of these accounts, the article analyses how ‘Muslim conspiracy’ provided a narrative frame for colonial secular neutrality, so that such conspiracy forms a defining horizon, though interestingly never a documentable ‘event’ within such a narrative.
In other articles, Peter Jan Hartung attempts to query the ‘integrative’ potential ascribed to maaqulat (rational) scholarship in the Islamic tradition, following the careers of rebellious figures coming from such a scholarly tradition; Farhat Nasreen produces a narrative of a pro-British Sufi leader, Ahmad Ali Shah from Gorakhpur; and Ruby Lal makes a case for the gendered configuration of ‘sharafat’ in Nazir Ahmad’s novels. Nupur Chaudhuri and Rajat Kanta Ray in the article ‘“We” and “They” in an Altered Ecumene: The Mutiny from the Mutineers’ Mouths’, while rightly drawing attention to the fluid and unsettled terms of the rebels’ identification of their enemy through categories both religious (‘Christian’) and racial (‘White’), gesture towards an emotional history of the revolt through the problematic suggestion of an irreducible and essentialized racial antagonism (‘At the very base lies a stark instinct: the surfacing of the mutual antagonism of Black and White’).
Clare Anderson in her fascinating article explores the role and place of colonial prison practices and prisoners who were released and coopted in large numbers by rebel sepoys. She points to shared concerns about infringement of religious customs through disciplinary practices such as common messes linking the soldiery with the prisoners, as well as reveals how such common cause was undermined by factors such as the use of prisoners as accessible labour by the rebels. Released prisoners returning to their native places also became transmitters of information about the revolt and thus aided its spread, and eventually, the continuing concern about housing those convicted for their role in the revolt led to the establishment, in 1858 of the penal colony in Port Blair. Satadru Sen in his piece focussing on asylums and orphanages for European and Eurasian orphans of the mutiny, especially the Lawrence Asylum at Sanawar, places them alongside other colonial incarceratory practices. He analyses them as projects of recuperating Europeanness, and hence colonial prestige from the disruptive potential of the revolt as manifestable in the very persons of these young people.
Finally, Marcus Daechsel’s ‘Introduction’ to the volume, while rightly pointing out that in most of the contributions ‘the distinctions between “modernist” and “traditional”, “old and new” elites, “loyalism” and “anti-imperialism” often break down’, itself shows a surprising tendency towards an unselfconscious use of simplifying labels such as ‘collaborator’, ‘self-serving’, and indeed ‘loyalist’. Suggesting a residual continuance of a singular narrative and reminiscent of certain exponents of conventional Cambridge school historiography, this aspect of the introduction sits uneasily with the series profile of ‘new perspectives’. On the whole however, this volume is valuable for bringing together a wide range of enquiries pertaining to processes of identity formation both in the immediate context and under the long shadow of 1857.
Soofia Siddique is Assistant Professor in the Department of English, St. Stephen’s College, University of Delhi, Delhi.