Wednesday, May 22, 2013
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2 December 2012
The collection sheds new light on certain aspects of the Mutiny — and of the Bengal Renaissance... A review by sudeshna chakravorti
THE Sepoy Mutiny or the First War of Independence, as it is variously called, interacted violently with the Bengal Renaissance and was rejected completely by the latter. Or was it? Later research has somewhat qualified and moderated this generally true picture. A number of Bengali writers of the 19th and early 20th centuries showed a certain sympathy for the rebels. Bankim Chandra once declared that he had considered writing a novel about the Rani of Jhansi, but feared to offered the British Government, already incensed by Anandamath. Presumably the novel would have favoured the rebel Rani, or why fear British displeasure? Rabindranath, in his short story Durasha (“Forlorn Hope”) draws an unforgettable picture of one of the fictitious rebel leaders.
The present book, edited and introduced by the historian Ananda Bhattacharya, brings together a series of extracts from various journals — the Dacca News, Bengal Hurkara, the Indian Gazette, the Friend of India, the Hindoo Patriot, as well as the parliamentary papers in the period of the mutiny. The voice is almost always that of the British. Only the Hindoo Patriot was represented by Harish Mookerjee of whom more later.
These documents bring out a fact which, though not exactly unknown, has not received much attention. Bengal was not untouched by the Mutiny. The revolt had spread outward from Dacca, concentrating on the peripheral regions of undivided Bengal, Jalpaiguri, Sylhet, Chittagong, the borders of Assam, Manipur and Bhutan. There were attacks on some of the notoriously exploitative tea plantations. The British were clearly afraid that the disaffected military would joins hands with the local tribals. The old policy of divide and rule accordingly took a new turn. Not only were the “milder” Hindus warned against their Muslim brothers, but it was also asserted that there was “little sympathy between them (the hill tribes) and the Hindus and Mohammedans of the plains”. It was hoped that the rebel soldiers who had taken refuge in Bhutan would meet their doom at the hands of the “savage Raja”. Who can tell if the seeds of insurgency in the “Seven Sisters” was shown at this time!
The British attitude reflected in these papers reflects total arrogance and savagery. They refused to accept any responsibility for the revolt, except perhaps having “pampered” the soldiers too much and having encouraged “idolatory" that is, the Hindu religion. The journals demanded that every rebel should be shot like a “mad dog” and hoped gleefully that the birds and beasts of prey would soon feast on the “uncooked subedars”. The maximum concession was offered by Brougham, a radical politician and journalist. He conceded that once the Mutiny had been crushed, “the generous” Englishman might find the native not wholly evil. All “Asiatics” not just Indians, were labelled cowards, who possessed only “Dutch” courage, that is, they were brave only when intoxicated. Thus it was asserted that the soldier Mangal Pandey, whose act of defiance at Barrackpore had triggered the mutiny, had acted under the influence of bhang.
The European background also appears in these papers. The German press showed racial solidarity supporting Britain as a representative of European civilisation in India and also a counterweight to Russia which was, after all, a half Asiatic country. There was also a gratuitous reference to the “degenerate”, who had apparently burst the Turkish bonds only with British help. The North European contempt for Southern Europe, which the global crisis today has brought to the fore, is apparent here. The French community in Calcutta, forgetting their past defeat at the hand of British, also supported the latter.
If the middle class Bengal stood by the British, they received little trust or gratitude in return. This is made clear by the journals referred to, as well as other sources. The British ruling classes, as a whole, rather despised the babus (according to some socialists, the term was at first used by the bosses sarcastically), even while finding them useful. The upstart who flaunted their English scholarship and demanded political rights because they can “misquote Milton and misunderstand Shakespeare” was probably lower in British eyes than a little educated Sikh or Pathan, with his unquestioning loyalty or open enmity. The passivity of the Bengali middle classes in the face of the rebellion was attributed to secret sympathy with the rebels or sheer cowardice and contrasted with British heroism. There was the famous the day of panic in Calcutta, when the British feared that the natives would rise and slaughter them. “The rascals are all traitors at heart and would rebel openly, if they were not cowards as well”.
This seems to have been the general attitude. Nor did the Bengali rank high for veracity in British eyes. Mangal Panday, it was alleged, had expressed remorse for his rebellion in his last moment. The numerous Bengalis who surrounded the gallows denied this, but what was their word beside that of a British officer?
The loyal Hindoo Patriot deplored this lack of trust. The Bengalis, Harish Mookerjee assured the British, were wholly unwarlike, unfit even to form a mlitia, let alone take on the might of the British Empire. They (the Bengalis) were interested only in “quiet and intellectual pursuits” as well as economic welfare and hope of gradually gaining political rights, all of which flourished best in the shadow of the British rule. However, as we have seen, a minority among the Bengali middle classes did not entirely share this view.
Finally, not all the British residents in India liked the then ruling East India Company. The Dacca News regrets the fact that the British in India appears a “divided house” and thinks that this might have encouraged the rebels.
The collection sheds new light on certain aspects of the Mutiny — and of the Bengal Renaissance.
The reviewer is Professor, Department of English, University of Calcutta