Indian History Carnival-81:Purnaiah & Talleyrand, 1857, Indians in World War I

  1. Pavan Srinath compares the lives of Krishnamacharya Purnaiah and Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord and finds similarities.

    Krishnamacharya Purnaiah (also spelled Purnaiya) started managing the finances of Mysore under Hyder Ali, slowly moving to manage much of the state’s administration as well. Helping manage an easy transfer of power to Tipu upon the death of Hyder Ali, Purnaiah continued to be a close confidante and aide to Tipu Sultan. After the defeat of Tipu, he continued on under the British and was then appointed Dewan as the British allowed the Wodeyar family back into power in the early 19th century.

  2. Madhulika Liddle writes about the monuments that were destroyed in the Anglo-Indian war of 1857 in Delhi

    In 1857, Baadli ki Sarai suddenly shot into prominence, because it became the site of a landmark battle: the Battle of Baadli ki Sarai, fought on June 8, 1857, between about 4,000 rebels (who had occupied the sarai and were defending it) and the besieging British forces. The British won, and Baadli ki Sarai became, over the following years, almost a sort of pilgrimage for Empire-loving British tourists who came here to gloat over the wonderful victory.

  3. In the post titled Recruitment and literacy in World War I: Evidence from colonial Punjab, Oliver Vanden Eynde argues that  higher post-war literacy in the recruited areas like Punjab were due to the learning opportunities in the army.

    The analysis confirms that, between 1911 and 1921, literacy rates (as well as the number of literate individuals) increased significantly in heavily recruited communities. This effect is strongest for men of military age, which is consistent with the hypothesis that soldiers learned to read and write on their foreign campaigns. My estimations suggest that for every ten additional soldiers recruited from a community, the number of literates in the community on average increased by three individuals after the war.

  4. A large number of Indian soldiers fought in the First World War, especially in the Middle East and they are largely forgotten, writes Vedica Kant

    However, the most significant campaign of the war for Indian troops took place in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq). The Mesopotamia campaign started off as an entirely Indian Army operation. 588,717 Indians – i.e. nearly 40 per cent of all Indians who were involved in World War I – served in Mesopotamia, more than in any other single campaign during the war. In a parallel with Iraq’s more contemporary history, the decision to expand the conflict to Mesopotamia was driven by the desire for oil. The Government of India decided to deploy an expeditionary force in the region to protect its oil interests there. For a majority of Indians their experience of the war was not that of a bitter European winter but of the dramatic swings between extreme heat and dust and the chilly winters of the Arabian Desert.

The next carnival will be up on Dec 15th. Please send your nominations before that.

In Pragati: The missing prophets of 1857

The ruins of Sikandar Bagh palace showing the skeletal remains of rebels in the foreground, Lucknow, India, 1858
The ruins of Sikandar Bagh palace showing the skeletal remains of rebels in the foreground, Lucknow, India, 1858

From the late eighteenth century to mid-nineteenth century, as the world changed through conquest, colonialism and capitalism, a set of people rose around the world, reacting against such changes. Ironically, global historians – historians who look beyond regional and local causes – call these men prophets in an ode to Abrahamic religions. During this period of encounters and social changes, these charismatic leaders revitalised traditional ways and reorganised societies to challenge foreign institutions and ideas. Garnering support of broad swaths of society, they promised to restore lost harmony, bring in a new moral order, and a bright future. While global historians were able to find leaders for such movements in China, Middle East, United States, Mexico and Europe, they missed the leaders of the First War of Independence in India and fell back on the same old narratives.
As we look at examples from around the world, we get to see some of the qualities and methods of these leaders who influenced fields as diverse as economics, politics and religion. Due to encounters with the Western world, new ideas circulated in the Islamic world and alarmed by the lax religious practices and attempts by rulers in Saudi Arabia and sub-Saharan Africa to model their administration along European lines, leaders arose to return Islam back to its pure form. In Saudi Arabia, this led to the rise of Wahhabism under the leadership of Ibn abd al-Wahhab (1703 – 1792) whose work still influences the modern world. In West Africa, Usman dan Fodio (1754 – 1817) too attacked unbelievers and false religions and his movement led to Islam becoming a majority religion in the Nigerian region.
 Tecumseh portrait

During this period, leaders also provided political leadership and created larger states from tribal clans. As Africa became overpopulated and there was competition for cattle-grazing and farming lands, small family clans found themselves overwhelmed. This traditional structure which had existed for centuries could no longer cope with the changes brought by long distance trade. It was the right moment for a cruel and powerful leader like Shaka (1787 – 1828) to rise up, wipe out other clans and unite the winners into a large monarchy, which in turn led to the creation of the Zulu kingdom. In the United States of America, Native Americans had to compete for land with the European colonisers who forcefully took over their land. As a reaction, groups under leaders like Tenskwatwa (1775 – 1836) and Tecumseh (1768 – 1813) exhorted their followers to renounce European goods and shun the missionaries. They tried to forge unity among native Americans, but were eventually betrayed by the British and left to perish.
In China, after a humiliating defeat in the Opium War that forced the country to open other ports to foreign merchants, there rose a fear of western power. During that period, as the rulers became inefficient, masses of people joined what is known as the Taiping Rebellion, motivated by a Christian leader named Hong Xiuquan (1813 – 1864). Like the Islamic leaders in Saudi Arabia and Nigeria, his goal was to return China to an era before it was corrupted by human conventions. Their war was not against the Europeans, but against the Chinese leaders who they thought were the main obstacle in obtaining God’s kingdom on earth. Hong came up with a radical new system which basically countered all the established Chinese traditions, but in the end it was defeated.
Analysis of these prophetic movements across the world show that whenever there is a structural change – in religion or rebellions – it is triggered by a leader. These revolutions were not accidents, but the result of planned action by certain individuals who inspired the masses through messages, symbols and charisma. In the pantheon of prophets we see leaders like Jacinto Pat and Cecilio Chi who led the Mayans in 1847 by blending Christian rituals with Mayan beliefs, Charles Fourier who had a utopian socialist vision and Karl Marx who inspired many nations and their leaders with this theory of proletarian revolt. While many such movements were defeated, the ideas they created lived longer.
 Tantya Tope,  after his capture in 1859
Wikipedia says this picture is Tantya Tope, after his capture in 1859, but this is a fake(See note 2)

When global historians evaluate the “Rebellion of 1857” in this context, it is mentioned as an uprising which was sparked by the greased cartridge controversy. Compared to the other global revolutions, this one was not triggered by any prophet, but was a spontaneous uprising or mutiny and it was after the uprising happened that leaders came up. But if one asks questions like how thousands of Indian soldiers marched successfully to Delhi without a supply line, it is evident that something is missing from the known narrative.
New, as well as ignored evidence now tell us that the Anglo-Indian war of 1857 was a carefully planned operation. Leaders like Baija Bai Shinde, Nana Saheb and his Diwan Tatya Tope, Begum Hazrat Mahal, and the Nawab of Banda were involved in the planning using red lotus flowers and chappatis to count the number of soldiers and ensure the commitment of the villages along the army path. Letters translated for the first time in Parag Tope’s “Operation Red Lotus” reveal that Tatya Tope was aware of military movements, logistics and provisions.
Global historians alone cannot be blamed for this lapse because Indian historians themselves have not accepted this view. Then, misrepresentation of the war of 1857 is not new. Depending on the bias of historians, it had many interpretations. According to the official version by Surendra Nath Sen, it was a spontaneous uprising. Marxist historians marginalised the leadership and saw it as a peasant revolt. Another Indian historian wondered how it could be a war at a time when India was not a nation. Now we know that the leaders of the war of 1857 used symbols (red lotus) and messages (Azamgarh proclamation) similar to the prophets of China and USA, and promised a new moral order where people would have political, religious and economic freedom.
Thus, the Anglo-Indian war of 1857 doesn’t have to be relegated to a secondary status in the global prophetic narrative as it satisfies the criteria met by the others.

  1. This was adapted from an assignment I did for “A History of the World since 1300”  by Princeton University. It was first published at Pragati
  2. Personal communication with Parag Tope


  1. Tignor, Robert, Jeremy Adelman, Stephen Aron, Stephen Kotkin, Suzanne Marchand, Gyan Prakash, and Michael Tsin. Worlds Together, Worlds Apart: A History of the World: From 1000 CE to the Present (Third Edition).W. W. Norton & Company, 2010.
  2. Tope, Parag. Tatya Tope’s Operation Red Lotus. Rupa & Co., 2010.

In Pragati: Book Review – Felice Beato: A Photographer on the Eastern Road

(This review appeared in Oct 2011 edition of Pragati)

In the 19th century, Britain went on a world wide bloodthirsty rampage: they were involved in the Crimean War (1853 – 1856), Anglo-Indian war of 1857, Second Opium War (1856 – 1860) and the Anglo-Sudan War (1870s) and a photographer named Felice Beato was present to capture all of them on film. Like Ibn Batuta who roamed around Dar al-Islam documenting the customs and traditions of various countries, Beato visited the countries occupied by the British and captured the war, landscapes and local life using the newly invented medium.
Felice Beato: A Photographer on the Eastern Road by Anne Lacoste and Fred Ritchin features a selection of photographs he took in India, China, Burma, Korea and Japan covering significant events in the history of those countries. For people back in Britain, Beato’s photographs gave an early realistic depiction of the cultures they had conquered. His photographs about India during the Anglo-Indian war are important now not just because of their historical significance, but also because they reveal a lot about the colonial attitudes of that period.
Felice Beato was an Italian who had settled in Constantinople as an apprentice to Scottish photographer James Robertson. In 1858, he left Constantinople for Calcutta and spent the next two years photographing the final phases of the Anglo-Indian war of 1857. Beato did not introduce photography to India; British officials were already using for more than a decade and there were photographic societies in Bombay, Calcutta and Madras.
By the time Beato reached Calcutta, the war of 1857, which was planned by leaders like Nana Saheb, Tatya Tope, and Baija Bai Shinde, had shocked the English and they had retaliated using extreme brutality. Citing the murder of women and children at Cawnpore (Kanpur) by Indian soldiers, they discarded their usual pretence to civilized behavior and embarked on a death march to clear the villages which supported the army. At the start of 1858, Delhi and Kanpur were in English hands; Awadh was cut off from Central India and Lucknow’s fate was uncertain. Kalpi was the headquarters of the freedom fighters and Tatya Tope and Rani Laxmibai were still holding out.
Beato went to Cawnpore, Delhi and Lucknow and documented the damage caused by the war. Photographers of that period had severe technological limitations: the equipment was heavy and the photographer also had to carry glass plates and chemicals. Since lengthy exposures were required and the negatives had to be developed within minutes, the photographer could not be in the middle of the battle; he could capture the scene before the battle or after it was done.

(via Wikipedia)

He reached Lucknow a few weeks after the city was captured by British forces under Sir Colin Campbell and one of the gruesome photographs he took in Sikandar Bagh shows a partially destroyed building with skeletons scattered all around with a few locals passively watching them. The skeletons were of the 1,800 Sepoys bayoneted by the British troops and left to the dogs and vultures in November 1857. There is controversy regarding this photograph: Sir Colin Campbell probably not wanting to suggest that the corpses were left to rot in the open wrote that Beato dug up the bones and laid them out for dramatic effect, but a reporter from The Times who visited Sikandar Bagh around the same period remembered many skeletons still lying around. Even if it was staged, there was nothing unusual about it. His contemporaries who were covering other wars too did it for dramatic effect.
Another photograph from the same period shows the hanging of two sepoys: In the picture two people are hanging by their necks watched by a group of turbaned soldiers. The caption claims that the soldiers were from the 31st Native Infantry who were being hanged in Lucknow. Even that is not without controversy. First, the 31st Native Infantry did not participate in the war and second, they were based in Sagar. So it is possible that there is a mistake in documentation or that they simply were villagers hanged by the English as part of their campaign of brutality.
Beato, the lucid strategist, was on the side of the British and showed no compassion for the conquered or the dead. He was quite different from the British soldier named Clive Branson who served in India in 1942. Madhusree Mukherjee’s Churchil’s Secret War mentions Branson who roamed around the countryside visiting villages and socializing with the locals since his unit was not doing anything important. As he traveled, he felt ashamed of his country and the fact that he was one among them. Beato never felt that way. He earned his living by selling photographs like the hangings to soldiers and onlookers as souvenirs as well as by taking flattering portraits of Army officers. He ingratiated himself with British officials and his enthusiastic documentation of their triumphs got him a into prominent locations like Lucknow as soon as it was retaken. He also was an ‘embedded’ war photographer in the Second Opium War and captured the war in all its horror. Each catastrophe thus cemented his reputation.
Another area in which he specialized was architecture. Thus when he went around India, he took pictures of the Taj, Benares, the Golden Temple and various palaces. He also specialized in taking panoramic shots. Currently you can use the stitching feature of photoshop software to generate panoramas from a series of photographs, but during Beato’s time you had to take a series of overlapping photos carefully, develop the negatives quickly to maintain the uniform tone and join the pictures manually. His panoramas in India include those of Delhi, Lucknow, Qutub Minar and the entrance to the Juma Masjid which were around five to seven feet in length.
Beato was not caught up in political correctness and photographed British brutality for commercial benefits. He took photos of drawings of beheadings in Japan and photographs of dead bodies in China; in China one of the military surgeons noted Beato walking with excitement among the dead, photographing them before they were removed. Due to Beato’s photographs, the blurry words of historians become indelible images.
In their commentary on the photographs, the authors write that the hanging photograph brings up questions like “How did the British officers decide to hang the Indian soldiers? Did they hold any trial? What were the responses of the men to their impending execution?”. They don’t offer answers, but the answers can be found in Parag Tope’s Operation Red Lotus which presents a dramatically different version of the war of 1857 based on never before translated letters and eye witness accounts. He argues that the official policy of Britain to suppress the insurrection was to target thousands of civilians including women and children and this policy was one of the reasons why India lost the war. Sepoys of mutinous regiments who could not give a good account of themselves were hanged. From Beato’s images we know that even some from non-mutinous regiments may also have been hanged.
Two important photographs taken by Beato are not there in the book. One shows the Lal Bagh, the place in which General James Neill was shot and the other, the Residency where Sir Henry Lawrence was killed. These photographs don’t depict cadavers or skeletons, but form an important point in the narrative of the war of 1857 where two war criminals met justice. As you flip through the book, you see the conquered locals of India, China and Korea among demolished buildings and their conquerors in flamboyant settings. This contrast explains the story of the East better than many thousand words.

Indian History Carnival – 44:Āgamaḍambara, Kokila Sandeśa, 1857, de Havilland

Palace of Nawab Shuja-ud-Daula at Lucknow (wikipedia)
  1. Complete Review has a review of Jayánta Bhaṭṭa’s Sanskrit play Āgamaḍambara
  2. Much Ado about Religion, written about 900, is a didactic play that takes on (some) religion in a mix of satire and call for tolerance. Relating directly to conditions in Kashmir of the time, and the local ruler, King Shánkara·varman, and his policies and rule, the arcane specifics remain — despite a brief Introduction and quite extensive textual notes — difficult to fully grasp. Much, however, is also more universal, and so the play is certainly more than of merely historical interest.

  3. In Uddaṇḍa Ṥāstrī’s Kokila Sandeśa, written in the 15th century, the unnamed hero in Kanchipuram sends a message with koel or cuckoo to his wife who is near Kochi. This is interesting to historians because it provides social, cultural and historical details of that period. Venetia Ansell has a three part post (1,2, 3) on this.
  4. More recently, one of the Kulaśekhara kings of Mahodayapuram (the koel’s penultimate stop), Kulaśekhara Āḷwār, who after gaining power over all of southern India turned to Vaishnavism in a big way and is said to have died en route to Tirupati, is also supposed to have founded the temple. There is no consensus on his dates but he was probably pre-10th century AD. Two copper plate inscriptions – which seem to link the temple to the rulers of northern Koṭṭayam, the koel’s next but one stop – and various other archaeological evidence suggests that the temple was indeed well established by the 10th century.

  5. Fëanor translates a French newspaper report on an exhibition about the Royal Court of Lucknow.
  6. The golden age of the city was short, the British having ended it in ambush. It started with the accession to power of the ruler Shuja al-Daula in 1754, who made Lucknow his permanent residence. The Nawab attempted to curb the growing power of the British East India Company militarily, which earned him a stinging defeat in 1764. He then signed a treaty with the British in which he recovered his powers of Awadh in exchange for trade concessions and large payments of money.

  7. Sriram has a post about Thomas Fiott de Havilland who was responsible for the construction of the Madras Bulwark among many other things.
  8. When this was done, de Havilland submitted a proposal to build a bridge across the Cauvery in Mysore with just five arches. To demonstrate his skill in building it, de Havilland erected a great arch in his garden, with a hundred-foot span. The structure became a local landmark and stood till 1937 when it collapsed. The remains of the de Havilland arch are a tourist attraction in Seringapatam even now. The brick bridge over the Cauvery was completed in 1810 in which year de Havilland joined a group of officers who mutinied, protesting against the appalling conditions of the army in Mysore. He was dismissed and returned to Guersney where he was commissioned to construct a barracks. Reinstated in service in 1812, he returned to Madras and became civil engineer and architect of the Presidency in 1814.

  9. Interior of the Secundra Bagh After the Slaughter of 2,000 Rebels, Lucknow, 1858 and Chutter Manzil Palace are two pictures taken by Felice Beato who was in India shortly after the Anglo-Indian war of 1857.

Thanks: Sandeep V & Fëanor
If you find interesting blog posts on Indian history, please send it to @gmail or as a tweet to @varnam_blog. The next carnival will be up on Sep 15th.

In Pragati: Book Review – Operation Red Lotus by Parag Tope

In late 1856, some strange practices began to surface in parts of north India. Red lotus flowers were circulated in garrisons which housed the Native Infantry. The subedar would line up the troops and then hand a flower to the first soldier, who would hold it and pass it down the line. The last one would leave the station with the flower. Elsewhere, a runner took a bundle of chapatis to a village and handed it to the chief or sentry, with instructions to send the chapatis on to the next village under English rule. In the midst of these lotus and chapati incidents, the soldiers’ slogan would change from “everything will become red” to “everything has become red.” Other unusual events included the announcement of an important yagya in Mathura (which never took place), and the habit begun by many women of offering their rolling pins to the river Ganga.
These signs were noticed by the British—Benjamin Disraeli even raised the question of the travelling chapatis in Parliament—but were dismissed as Indian superstitions.
These abnormal occurrences, ignored by almost every historical narrative on the 1857 uprising, assume significance when seen in the light of an important question: How did the Indian troops travel over a million miles, in the early months of the war, without a supply line? In a regular war, there were three camp followers for each soldier, but once the soldiers mutinied in 1857, who fed them? Case in point: How did the 17th Native Infantry march 140km from Azamgarh to Faizabad in just five days?
The answer may seem straightforward: The villagers fed the soldiers. However, there was an intricate strategy underlying the initiative. To feed thousands of soldiers, each village (comprising of a few hundred people) needed an approximate count. The count was provided by the lotus flowers, while the chapatis and the rolling pins were the means used to confirm the commitment of the villagers. The Mathura yagya was a ruse to facilitate the travel of priests who doubled as spies.
Thus, the Anglo-Indian War of 1857 was initiated by leaders who planned the war, conducted internal and external reconnaissance, and recruited soldiers—with the help of civilians.
Parag Tope’s Operation Red Lotus—through the analysis of instances such as the use of red lotuses and chapatis—fills the gaps and corrects the myths about the events of 1857. Relying on eyewitness accounts written in Marathi and letters in Urdu and Bundeli, Mr Tope, a fourth-generation descendent of Tatya Tope, sheds new light on the momentous event. Add to it his analysis of troop movements, supply lines, and logistics—and the tale of the 1857 Anglo-Indian War comes to life in hitherto untold, dramatic fashion.
The triad of freedoms
The leaders who spearheaded the 1857 operation included Nana Saheb, his Diwan, Tatya Tope, Begum Hazrat Mahal, and the Nawab of Banda. In 1858, Sitaram Baba, a priest in Nana Saheb’s court was arrested by the British. Baba confessed that the conspiracy had been initiated by Baija Bai Shinde two decades earlier, and that the real planning had started three years before. He also revealed information about the runners who had gone to each regiment, and the connection between the lotuses and chapatis. Letters, translated for the first time in this book, reveal that Tatya Tope was aware of military movements, logistics and provisions.
“It is important to note that the rising was neither planned nor stimulated by any patriotic move”, wrote Gregory Fremont-Barnes in Indian Mutiny 1857-58 (2007). What Fremont-Barnes and many other Indian historians often fail to mention is that the leaders of the 1857 revolt had a clear vision for the future. After the uprising’s initial success, Bahadur Shah Zafar made a proclamation, read by his grandson in Azamgarh. The proclamation promised a triad of invaluable freedoms: Political, personal and economic.
The crony-capitalist state run by the British East India Company had destroyed the free market system in India. Heavy taxation was the norm, while prices were enforced with the threat of punishment. Manufacturing capabilities were crippled, and the agricultural sector lost the ability to shield the country from the threat of famines. Due to India’s asymmetrical role in the global network, even as the country’s share in the world’s GDP fell from 25 percent to 12, Britain’s share doubled.
On the social front, William Bentinck’s educational policy, based on Macaulay’s Minute, destroyed the private education system that had previously created a society more literate than that of Britain. In a letter to his father, Macaulay claimed that if the new education policy was implemented, there would not be a single idolater left in Bengal.
Even the legal framework was skewed—Indians wanted freedom from missionaries who were working with the Government, and laws which favoured Christians.
By promising the triad of freedoms, the leaders were not advocating a novel or revolutionary idea. They were reverting to the foundations of the Indian polity, which not only guaranteed political, social and economic freedom, but kept them separate as well. In other words, the ruler did not act as a trader, but created an environment suitable for trade.
Fractional Freedom
Mr Tope argues that although the initial uprising was brilliantly planned and co-ordinated, the war was lost due to two reasons. Firstly, the British used their women and children as human shields, which resulted in gory incidents such as the Siege of Cawnpore. Secondly, they resorted to the use of extreme brutality—leaving aside their usual pretences to civilised behaviour—citing the case of Cawnpore (Kanpur).
Recognising the supply lines for the soldiers, British officials attacked those villages through which the chapatis were passed. A law was passed to allow the hanging of even those whose guilt was doubtful. British troops under Havelock and Neill did a death march, killing women, children, infants and the elderly. Sepoys were ritually stripped of their caste by having pork and beef stuffed down their throats before execution.
In books such as The Great Indian Mutiny (1964) by Richard Collier, or The Last Mughal (2008) by William Dalrymple, the British officials’ use of violence is regarded as a reaction to the carnage that took place in Kanpur. However, Mr Tope points out that the government’s brutality was unleashed even before that. British historians recorded that “guilty” villages were “cleared” so that India could be saved from anarchy.
In 1857, the strategy of violent repression was used by the British to secure time to redeploy troops from other countries to India. It was during this time that Tatya’s tenacity became evident. After establishing a command centre in Kalpi, he set up factories for producing ammunition, guns and cannons.
Despite the prospect of imminent defeat, Tatya worked to raise an army, and inspire civilians. When the British took over Delhi, the battle ground was moved to central India. When Rani Laxmibai, who grew up with Tatya, was held under siege, he created a diversion to help the Rani escape. Following the Jhansi massacre, the Indian chieftains who supported Tatya backed down, but he came up with a new strategy—to raise rebellions in regions where the spirit of freedom was strong.
The battles are explained with numerous maps, painstakingly plotted with English and Indian troop movements—a useful tool to interpret the events, and grasp the thinking behind the strategy. The maps, coupled with the detailed narrative and critical analysis, provide a valuable resource to better appreciate the holistic nature of the 1857 uprising.
Upon realising that the 1857 war had ignited the desire for total freedom, Queen Victoria dissolved the East India Company and transferred all powers to the Crown. In her proclamation, she did not give India political or economic freedom, but made an important concession: The English would no longer interfere with the native religions. Even Fremont-Barnes’ apologia acknowledges that successive viceroys took greater heed of India’s religious sensitivities. It was an important victory, writes Mr Tope, for it prevented large scale British settlement in India, and stemmed the destruction of Indian traditions.
The fight continues
Nevertheless, the signature elements of the 1857 uprising—secret messages, planning, and mass murders—were repeated again. In 1932, freedom fighters were warned of danger by Hindu women, who blew on conch shells when they spotted a policeman—the sound was relayed for miles by a network of women.
Madhusree Mukerjee records instances of a different nature in her Churchill’s Secret War (2010). During World War II, when the Japanese army reached Indian borders, Leopold Amery, secretary of state for India, wondered if it was necessary to revive ruthless punishments of 1857 to prevent a possible uprising. Winston Churchill’s policies, argues Ms Mukerjee, resulted in a famine in which three million Indians perished. Mr Tope describes the events of February 19, 1946, when 78 ships, going from Karachi to Chittagong, changed their name from HMIS (His Majesty’s Indian Ships) to INNS (Indian National Naval Ships) in a co-ordinated move.
Coming back to 1857: Why is it that Baija Bai Shinde’s 20-year conspiracy, Nana Saheb’s planning or Tatya’s Tope’s contribution do not feature prominently in our history books? This probably has to do with the historiography of the event. In the official version written a century later by Surendra Nath Sen, the 1857 War was seen as a spontaneous uprising by “conspirators”. Historian R C Majumdar questioned if it could even be called a “war” since India was not a nation, while Marxist historians connected the revolt to peasant uprisings in Bengal.
This reluctance to deviate from the colonial narrative 150 years after the war and 60 years after obtaining political freedom is a telling sign about the state of historical study in India.
India’s proclamation of independence six decades ago has to be contrasted with the triad of freedoms promised in the Azamgarh proclamation. To the leaders of the newly independent polity, Indian traditions of the past did not guide the future. Their socialist mindset led to state control over education and restricted economic freedom, with the state itself becoming a trader—all of which had disastrous consequences.
Looking back, we know what our leaders tried to build and failed, but as well, what they knocked down.
(This version appeared in the February 2011 edition of Pragati)