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Reactivating the Past

Nondescript memorial stones and small shrines in several regions of Uttar Pradesh commemorate those dalit heroes who played a significant role in the events of 1857. For dalits in the region, these shrines are sacrosanct structures where their heroes are worshipped, while stories and legends relating to them are used to fashion a new history for the marginalised, one that glorifies the role dalit rebels played in 1857.

The Margins

Reactivating the Past Dalits and Memories of 1857

Nondescript memorial stones and small shrines in several regions of Uttar Pradesh commemorate those dalit heroes who played a significant role in the events of 1857. For dalits in the region, these shrines are sacrosanct structures where their heroes are worshipped, while stories and legends relating to them are used to fashion a new history for the marginalised, one that glorifies the role dalit rebels played in 1857.


I Dieties, Histories and Daily Life

n the Azamgarh district of Uttar Pradesh there is a village called Majhauwa which is predominantly inhabited by dalit castes like chamar, pasi, dhobi, mali and so on. Next to a narrow footpath inside a field in this village lie four cemented stones. These are called Shahid Baba by the villagers. The dalits of this village worship these stones with red powder; they pour water on them and offer home-made sweets like ‘thekua’, etc, as a form of worship, regularly. All newly married brides from these castes visit these stones to offer prayers for their future happiness. On enquiring about the history of these stones, the village schoolmaster who is a chamar by caste said that four chamars of this village laid down their lives during the 1857 rebellion. These four men started appearing in the dreams of the villagers, conveying messages that if they prayers were offered these four martyrs they would all prosper. Since then they have been incarnated as gods in the eyes of the villagers, who constructed shrines in their memories and began to pray there for happiness and prosperity.1

Around the village Shahapur in Arrah district of Bihar, a deity called Rajit Baba is worshipped by some lower caste communities of that region. His ‘thaans’ (memorial stones) are usually found under ‘peepal’ trees which are decorated with red loin cloths, red flag, red powder marks, incense sticks, home-made sweets and so on. People of the villages pray for the fulfilment of their wishes at the thaans and after they are fulfilled, offer ‘prasad’ there. It is said that Rajit Baba became a martyr while fighting against the British during the 1857 rebellion. He was then regarded as an incarnation of god.2

These are only two examples which show how, in various regions of north India, martyrs of the 1857 rebellion belonging to lower castes have become integral components of the lives of the dalits living there. The question arises why dalits, whose role is not even acknowledged in academic history, have given god-like status to their own heroes of the 1857 rebellion. Does this not reveal the wide gap between academic history writing and people’s history? Or is the reincarnation of their heroes of the 1857 rebellion as gods an existential need envinced by the lower castes for their own survival because of the refusal of so-called the Indian mainstream to acknowledge their very existence? Or is it because the memory of the 1857 rebellion has become deeply ingrained in the collective psyche at the grassroots level even though it is claimed that the rebellion was confined to kings and feudal lords and the only contribution of the lower castes in the struggle was as their soldiers, guards and stick wielders?

Who was Rajit Baba who is worshipped with so much devotion in the Shahabad region, now in Arrah district of Bihar? When this question raised itself in my mind I sought the help of historical archives. I found that there is a mention of a certain Rajit Ram in the mail of Allen, dated February 7, 1859 [Vidrohi 1989: 36]. The narrative of Rajit Ram is as follows:

My name is Rajit Ram. By caste I am a ‘gwala’ (milkman). I wasa hawildar in the first company of the 40th Platoon whose jobwas to distribute salaries to the soldiers. My father’s name isParasanram. I am a resident of village Shahpur, paragana Shahpur,district Shahabad. At this moment my age is 56 years. Since anearly age I have been working with the East India Company. OnJuly 25, 1857 I participated in the revolt in Danapur. Our firstattempt was to capture Coilver Ghat and then move towards Arrah.I stayed in Arrah for two hours. After that I told Sitaram Subedarthat I wanted to go home and that I should be granted leave. Iwas granted leave for six days which I spent in Shahpur. I thenwent to the jungles of Jagdishpur. The very day that I reachedwe had to leave for Dullepur to combat the British army. Unfortunately we lost, because of which a few of us stayed on in thejungles, a few went to Baraun and the rest went to Piro. The nextmorning we all gathered together. At that time Babu Kuber Singhand Babu Amar Singh were our leaders. Under their leadershipwe all went to Nokha. From there we went to Sasaram, then on to Tilaubhu in Pahariya and finally to the fort in Rohtashgarh.We kept up our efforts to defeat the British. Negotiating themountainous road we marched towards Riwa via Rapatganj(Robertsganj) and Daramadganj. But we were neither allowed tostay in Riwa nor allowed to leave. That was why we decided togo to Banda where we spent nearly one and a half months. AtBanda rebel soldiers from other regions also gathered. The groupincluded those soldiers as well who had come down from Fatehpuralong the Grand Trunk road. There was also one company madeup of Indian soldiers belonging to the 52nd Platoon.

It is difficult to say whether the Rajit Baba who is worshipped in many parts of Bihar is the same Rajit Ram or not but it is clear that a soldier belonging to the backward caste with this name has documented his personal experiences of the 1857

Economic and Political Weekly May 12, 2007

rebellion. Another mail of Allen describes the roles of four bhangi rebels belonging to the Arrah and Shahabad region. This fact about the presence of the four bhangis also emerges from the narrative of one Barkandaj, a lower caste British informer, whose evidence dated May 31, 1858 is recorded in the Dumrao police station. His evidence states that four bhangis were active during the rebellion whose names caused panic among the British [Vidrohi 1989: 37].

II Rural North India and the Story of 1857

It is interesting to know that the 1857 episode is still popular in northern India’s predominantly dalit villages. The rebellion was concentrated in the north Indian Gangetic belt beginning from Delhi to Bengal. It began in Meerut on May 10 after news spread that the garrisons in Delhi had revolted and expelled the British. This acted as a catalyst that saw a great deal of activity on the part of the civil population. It soon spread to other parts of UP. On May 20 it started in Aligarh, on May 23 in Etawah and Mainpuri and May 27 in Etah [Mukherjee 2001: 65]. In this way it moved to other parts of UP and Bihar like Kanpur, Awadh, Benaras, Azamgarh, Gorakhpur, Gonda, Bahraich, Sitapur, Ghazipur, Sultanpur, western Bihar and finally to Bengal. In upper India it was more in the form of a turbulent agrarian upheaval gathering together a wide variety of discontents. The rebellion had not yet taken the form of an organised movement against the British but it commanded extensive popular support, especially in Awadh, throughout the North-Western Provinces and western Bihar. Sepoy discontent was an essential ingredient of the rebellion but the mutiny derived its strength from the civil population [Metcalf 1990: 60]. Peasants, political sadhus [Pinch 1996: 9], local kings and most importantly the conservative sections of society, who had suffered greatly under the British rule, mere united in fighting colonialism. The British government put up a stiff resistance to the rebellion. Their retribution was harsh and deadly. Village after village were burnt or felled with cannon balls to squash the rebellion. Thousands of rebels were hanged from the gallows and an equally large number were hanged from trees as instant punishment. Although, the rebellion ultimately failed but it helped develop a consciousness about colonialism within the people, especially of the Awadh region of UP where the rebellion was most intense. It could also be said to be the beginning of a rennaissance in the Hindi-speaking region of India. The rebellion left a deep imprint in the minds of the common people that was very different from the scanty recorded history of that period. Recorded history only told the stories of rich feudal landlords, and kings and queens like Rani Laxmibai and Tatya Tope. The stories of unsung heroes who played their role behind the curtains of written history were circulated only in oral history in rural north India. This fact gave a lot of freedom to dalit intellectuals to pick out their own heroes of the rebellion and build up their images as dalit icons. These icons were then used to construct the identity of grassroots dalits who had no heroes or icons to identify with. The image building of these heroes of the rebellion later led to their deification by the dalits living in regions to which the heroes belonged.

III Dalits and Memories of 1857

The dalits have an emotional link with the 1857 war of independence for they believe that it was initiated by them. They claim that the soldier’s revolt by the mostly dalit Indian soldiers in the British army that took place in Jhansi in 1857, snowballed into the war of independence. It was a war of independence since the dalits were fighting for their motherland rather than seeking power. The war was led by Bhau Bakshi and Puran Kori and with them was Jhalkaribai who fought bravely against the British for the sake of her motherland [Dinkar 1990: 62]. The dalit narrative of the “first” freedom struggle is filled with stories about brave women martyrs belonging to suppressed communities like Jhalkaribai, Avantibai, Pannadhai, Udadevi and Mahaviridevi [Ibid: 27]. According to them, the 1857 war of independence, which the elites claim was started by Mangal Pandey, was actually inspired by Matadin Bhangi. The story is narrated in such a manner that Matadin Bhangi emerges as the source of inspiration for the revolt. Their narrative is as follows:

There was a factory in Barrackpore where cartridges were manufactured. Many of the workers of this factory belonged to theuntouchable communities. One day one of the workers felt thirsty.He asked a soldier for a mug of water. That soldier was MangalPandey. Mangal Pandey, a brahmin, refused him water becausethe worker was an untouchable. This was very humiliating for theworker. He retaliated to the brahmin soldier saying,“Bara awa hai brahaman ka beta. Jin kartuson ka tum upayog karat ho, unpargaaye or suar ki charbi lagawal jaat hai, jinhe tum apan daatunse torkar banduk mein bharat ho. O samay tomhar jati aur dharamkahan jawat. Dhikkar tumhare is brahmanatwa ka” [You claimto be a highly respectable brahmin, but the cartridges which youbite with your teeth and insert in your guns, are all rubbed withthe fat of cows and pigs. What happens to your caste and religionthen? Curse on your brahminism]Hearing this soldier was taken by surprise. That untouchable wasnone other than Matadin Bhangi, who opened the eyes of the Indiansoldier and ignited the first spark of India’s independence in thecantonment. The words of Matadin Bhangi spread like wildfirethrough the cantonment. Very soon the torch of independence waslighted. On the morning of March 1, 1857, Mangal Pandey brokethe line during the parade. Accusing the British of spoiling theirreligious sentiments, he started firing indiscriminately at them.This was the moment when the first battle lines against the Britishwere drawn. Mangal Pandey was arrested in an injured condition.He was court-martialed, and in 1857 hanged from the gallows beforeall the soldiers. Mangal Pandey’s sacrifice became an inspirationfor all the soldiers. On May 10, 1857, the floodgates of theindependence movement burst in Barrackpore in which many bravesons of India became martyrs. In the chargesheet that was made,the first name was that of Matadin Bhangi, who was later arrested.All the arrested revolutionaries were court-martialed. Matadin was charged for treason against the British [Dinkar op cit: 37].

Nath (1998) in his book 1857 Ki Kranti Ka Janak: Nagvanshi Bhangi Matadin Hela also narrates a similar story in which Matadin Bhangi has been claimed to be the father (‘janak’) of the 1857 rebellion. In these narratives, Matadin Bhangi is presented as the moving force behind the 1857 revolt. They show how the forward classes refused to hand a glass of water to the untouchables although they bit cartridges greased with beef fat. Thus, these narratives, along with a description of the nationalist movement, questions the hierarchical structure of the Indian society. The rigid structure in which the untouchables are not allowed to go near the forward castes because of their low birth and ritual “dirtiness” has been strongly criticised. To prove the historicity of this event, a book written by one Shri Acharya Bhagwan Deb called The Immortal Revolutionaries of India, has been quoted by Dinkar [Dinkar op cit: 38].

The memory of Matadin Bhangi and his contribution to the nationalist movement is celebrated in a number of ways by the dalits. Many songs have been composed in his honour that are sung in rallies and functions, both cultural and political. Plays

Economic and Political Weekly May 12, 2007 are staged at commemorative functions held in his honour in towns and villages. Special issues of magazines are brought out with articles by eminent writers highlighting his contributions. A fortnightly newspaper Dalit Kesri published a special issue on the 1857 revolt3 in which the lead article was on Matadin Bhangi. Anarya Bharat, another dalit newspaper that is published from Mainpuri in UP, brought out a special feature on the contribution of dalits to the 1857 revolt. In all these publications they projected Matadin Bhangi as a pioneer of the “First War of Indian Independence”. Himayati, a dalit literary magazine, in its May 1996 issue celebrating the memory of 1857 published a special feature and lead article on the contribution of Matadin Bhangi. Sohanpal Sumanakshar wrote very strongly in the same issue that the first person who sowed the seed of the 1857 revolution was Matadin Bhangi but unfortunately historians have forgotten his contribution.4

In this manner, the elite nationalist history has been subverted by the dalits in their favour. Kuar Singh, Tatya Tope and Nana Saheb do not figure in the dalit narrative of the 1857 freedom struggle. The people who figure are Jhalkaribai, Udadevi, Avantibai, Mahaviridevi, Pannadhai, Chetram Jatav, Ballu Mehtar, Banke Chamar and Vira Pasi, who were born in the lower stratas of society. Although the elite nationalist heroes are not negated, they are completely ignored. Their emphasis is on the sacrifice of the dalit martyrs for the nation in spite of their low birth and poor socio-economic status. Their brave confrontation with the British has also been highlighted. The story of Balluram Mehtar and Chetram Jatav has been described in the following manner:

Although the dalits were born in the lowest caste of the Indiancaste hierarchy and suffered great hardship because of their poorsocio-economic status, they never sold themselves for their country. No one can accuse a single dalit of doing so. Whenever theneed arose, they sacrificed their lives for their motherland. Amongthe brave sons of the country, the names of Balluram Mehtar andChetram Jatav are written in shining letters. As soon as the newsof the Barrackpore revolution reached the people, a mob of revolutionaries took to the streets. Phillips, who was an officer of theEta district, tried to control the mob. On May 26, 1857, in theSoro region of Eta district, Chetram Jatav and Balluram Mehtarjoined into the Barrackpore revolution without caring for theirlives. In this revolution, Sadashiv Mehre, Chaturbhuj Vaish, etc,were also present. Chetram Jatav and Balluram, who were the movingforces behind the revolution, were tied to trees and shot. The rest were hanged from trees in the Kasganj area [Dinkar op cit: 56].

The bravery of the martyr Banke Chamar is also described. He lived in village Kuarpur, Macchli Shahar, district Jaunpur. When the revolution failed, the British declared Banke Chamar and 18 of his associates as ‘baghi’ (revolutionaries). Banke Chamar was ordered to be hanged after being arrested. Thus this brave revolutionary laid down his life for the country [Dinkar op cit: 59].

Amar Shaheed Vira Pasi is another dalit who is remembered as a brave warrior in the dalit narrative. He was a security guard of Raja Beni Madhav Singh of Murar Mau, in Rae Bareli, Uttar Pradesh. Raja Beni Madhav Singh was arrested for taking part in the revolt. One night, Vira Pasi entered the prison and helped the king escape. This was a big insult to the British administration. They decided to capture Vira Pasi dead or alive, and placed a reward of Rs 50,000 on his head. However, they were unable to capture him [Dinkar op cit: 64].

Another story narrated about their role in the 1857 movement is situated in the village Magarwara, about 10 kilometres from Unnao on the Lucknow highway. They claim that on July 20, 1857 a small battalion of the British army under the leadership of Henry Havelock was passing through Magarwara to help another battalion that had got stuck in the residency. Nearly 2,000 pasis came out of their hamlets and pelted the battalion with stones, which forced them to return to Kanpur cantonment. On August 4, 1857 the same battalion came to the village, this time with a lot of preparations. When the pasis of Magarwara tried to stop them from moving forward a battle ensued and nearly 2,000 pasis were killed [Pasi 1998: 34].

Yet another story narrated by the pasis is situated in village Bani on the banks of the river Sai, close to Magarwara. This region consisted of many small pasi hamlets. When the British army passed by this highway it faced a stiff resistance from the pasis. Angered by this, the British officers asked the pasis to vacate the area within five minutes. When they refused, the British announced that they would blow up the hamlets with cannons. This caused great alarm, they did try to escape but in spite of this many pasis were killed in the cannon firing. The British found this region very salubrious and decided to build a fort where their soldiers, who had faced stiff resistance by the pasis after leaving Kanpur cantonment, could rest and restore their vigour. This story is a part of the collective memory and oral tradition of the pasis of that region and is often presented in plays and songs. The song is:

Bani bani kati bani, ban ke bigri bani

Angrezon ke tope se urhi, phir bani rahi bani.

(The village Bani was made, then destroyed,

again made and again destroyed;

the cannon balls of the British blew it apart,

then Bani was once again made and remained Bani.)

The story is further narrated that the next day the general Havelock once again moved forward with his troops to free the soldiers trapped in the residency. Once again he had to face the wrath of Indian freedom fighters, this time at the Alambagh Bhavya Bhawan. Many soldiers, both Indian and British lost their lives in this battle. When the general reached Dilkushabagh, he again had to fight against the Indian rebels. These incidents took a toll of British soldiers and drained the energy of Havelock. He fell ill and finally succumbed to his illness on November 24, 1857. He was buried at the British Cemetary in Alambagh [Pasi op cit: 36]. This story is recorded in a documentation of the contributions of the pasis in the freedom struggle of the country, from where it is once again transmitted to the oral memory of the dalits.

Another story that is narrated in glowing terms is about the husband of Udadevi, Makka Pasi who, like his wife, laid down his life in the revolt. The incident took place on June 10, 1857, when a small battalion of British soldiers under the leadership of Henry Lawrence was passing through Barabanki on their way to Chinhat from Awadh. At village Chinhat, Makka Pasi gathered an army of 200 pasis and killed many British soldiers. Seeing a danger in him, Lawrence shot Makka Pasi to stop him from killing more soldiers. In Pasi hagiography it is claimed that Udadevi and Makka Pasi are the only couple in world history where both the partners have become martyrs. This couple elevated the glory of not just the pasi community but the entire country [Pasi 2005: 90-91].

IV Narrative, Identity and Search of Location

The dalits, through their narratives of 1857, have not only tried to establish their own heroes, but also tried to dethrone the existing high-caste heroes from the mainstream narratives. The narratives portray the high castes as traitors, conspirators, and dishonest to their motherland. Through these narratives, they also want to prove that the upper castes, by capturing history and the political scene now appear as the most nationalist of communities.

Economic and Political Weekly May 12, 2007

Through the story of Jhalkaribai also, who was said to have fought alongside (Rani) Laxmi Bai, the dalits want to prove that the queen was hungry for power. She did not want to revolt against the British. It was only under the influence of Jhalkaribai that she agreed to do so. At the end of the 1857 struggle, she did not become a martyr but hid herself in the estate of Pratapgarh.5

The historicity of these narratives is questionable but the politics behind the creation and narration of these stories is to dethrone the established heroes of the mainstream narratives. A three-dimensional discursive strategy was adopted to achieve this aim. The first is to make allegations about the distortion of mainstream writings about the events of 1857. The second is to establish their own heroes as freedom fighters. The third is to prove that zamindars, feudal lords, and the wealthy classes of the society were conspirators aiding the British. The educated Indian intelligentsia is also claimed to be conspirators aiding the British. In the preface of his booklet Sepoy Mutiny 1857-58: An Indian Perfidy, A K Biswas (1997:22), a dalit from West Bengal who later became an IAS officer, wrote:

The Indian history has been subjected to calculated distortionat the hands of educated Indians. Instances are galore in manywalks of life. The Sepoy Mutiny (1857-58) though not even twocenturies old and though there is vast mass of contemporaryliterature, has suffered the same mindless perversion, truth hasbeen swept under the carpet. In other words, it has not beenallowed to come to the light. The Sepoy Mutiny is hailed todayuniversally as the first war of Indian independence when themutineers unfurled the banner of revolt against a mighty empire.The contemporary literature, however, gives a very different,rather baffling, picture, the sepoys have been held therein asseditious, perfidious, evil and wrong doers, etc. They werecondemned in strongest terms by Indian journalists...The feudalclass, on the other hand lent strong moral and material supportto the imperial forces which crushed the uprising. The glaringcontradiction does not find any mention in the textbooks of historyof our times for reasons not far to seek, nor is it known to the generation of the day.

These narratives of the past are being used by the dalits to acquire power in the ongoing social struggle. They are also attempting to reshape the fractured and competing pasts from the present and acquire a position of authority for all the dalit castes. This process of remaking the past is based on their contemporary socio-political and cultural experience of discrimination which they face in their everyday lives. They link their experiences of recent times with their remote past and authenticate the latter by establishing their historicity. Invention of history for the dalits is thus a process of acquiring legitimacy for their identity by establishing the oldness of the tradition of sacrifice by their community for the nation and society. In this sense one can propose that the past can be an authority but the nature of this authority is seen as shifting, amorphous and amenable to intervention.

V Reconstructing Histories and Politics of Future

Why is it important for the dalits to link themselves with the 1857 war of independence and why are the icons related with this incident more important than those of other incidents? Why is 1857 so important for them? The reason may be that the events around this period are not well documented, so the dalits find plenty of space to invent their history and posit their leaders in them. To the common people especially the dalits, the 1857 revolt is highly romantic with a number of local heroic characters who fought valiantly against the British using indigeneous weapons.

This notion provides the opportunity to create heroes belonging to their community with whom they can identify. The authenticity of these heroes is debatable but they have the power to stir the imagination of people. The events that took place in the 20th century on the other hand are very well documented since the leaders of that period tried to build up a unified homogeneous story of India’s independence. This gave little space to the dalits since the story is dominated by upper-caste leaders whom they had to follow. It is true that many lower castes lost their lives in the non-cooperation, Quit India and other such movements but the glory went to the upper-caste leaders who had organised them.

The 1857 movement was mainly confined to the northern part of India, which made it easier for the dalits of this region in search for heroes, to invent and situate their heroes in places with heavy concentration of lower castes like Awadh, Bundelkhand and Bhojpur. The memory of these events are not just part of dalit memory but also a part of the broader collective memory of the region that is reflected in the songs, plays and other mediums of popular culture. This fact enabled the dalits to invent their heroes and histories who could become both local heroes and identity markers for the entire community in its everyday struggle for dignity and self-respect. The dalit leaders understood that it was of paramount importance to link themselves with the nationalist narrative and assert their role in the freedom struggle. However they found it difficult to find space in the main phase of the freedom movement since in the period when the struggle for dalit uplift picked up momentum, their leader B R Ambedkar had developed a rift with Gandhi, the most important leader of this phase. Thus there was no option but to search for their heroes in the 1857 revolution so as not to antagonise the state, which legitimised the nationalist narrative. Since one of the catalysts for the emergence of a dalit nationalist narrative was the dialogue with the state, they could not afford to ignore it. They could neither negate Ambedkar and his narrative of the nationalist movement nor the dominant nationalist narrative which is projected as the foundation of the present state. The need to strike a balance between the two led the dalits to search for their own heroes within the nationalist narrative. And the event which provided them the space to do so was the 1857 struggle.

Another reason why dalits found it crucial to link themselves with the 1857 struggle was to counter the allegations made by some intellectuals associated with the BJP that the dalits were anti-national. According to these intellectuals, Ambedkar was against the mainstream nationalist movement led by Gandhi and often supported the British. These ideologues try to belittle dalits by stating that they conquered India for the British – the dusadhs and baheliyas fought for Lord Clive in the Battle of Plassey in 1757.6 In a bid to oppose the efforts of the dalits to write their own history and rupture the mainstream nationalist narrative, the All India History Compilation Project, formed by the RSS for propagating history based on the RSS ideology held a convention between July 17 and 19, 1999 in Allahabad. In this convention the custodian Moreshwar Neelkanth Pingale opined that writing the history of sudras, ‘gwalas’ and tribals created hatred among sections of society and caused problems for an Indianised social life.7 In reaction to statements like these, the dalits were compelled to assert their role in the 1857 revolt. They stated that their association with 1857 gave them an exalted position in the history of India’s nation-building. That there was a difference in opinion among the members of the BJP-RSS was obvious when the governor of UP Suraj Bhan, in the same convention rebuked those attempting to deny the role of dalits in the freedom struggle and said that they had contributed to the greatest possible extent in the movement for independence. He added that but for Valmiki,

Economic and Political Weekly May 12, 2007 the writer of Ramayana who belonged to a dalit community, no one would have known about Rama and Sita. He also mentioned the name of Jhalkaribai who in the guise of Rani of Jhansi, fought valiantly against the British in the first war of independence.8

VI Multiple Locations and Competing Politics

From a study of the scattered information available and narratives that appear in the folk tales and folk lore of the lower castes it is evident that many people of these castes were actively involved in 1857. In fact the massive scale on which the rebellion was launched could not have been possible without the participation of these castes, but is disheartening to note that their contribution has neither been documented nor acknowledged in Indian history writing.

Whatever little mention there is of the role of the lower castes, it is only as servants of kings, feudal landlords and zamindars, which has either negated their contribution or marginalised them from the history of the rebellion [Rai 2005]. It is true that the story of Jhalkaribai is linked with that of Laxmibai and Udadevi’s with that of Begum Hazrat Mahal, but at a time when most of the kings and landlords were joining forces with the British to seek benefits from them, it is imperative to evaluate the roles of these brave lower caste warriors in the right historical context. From these examples it appears that in the rebellion against the British the dalits played a sterling role along with the upper caste kings, queens and landlords. In addition dalit historians cite many examples of lower caste heroes who were not associated with any upper caste king or queen but fought against the British in their own capacity [Dinkar op cit]. Many extreme Ambedkarite and leftist journalists and scholars who are trying to link the rebellion with dissatisfied feudal lords, kings, soldiers and peasants are trying to negate the role of dalits in it [Kumar 2002: 12]. Dalit intellectuals supported by BSP, which is trying to mobilise grassroot dalits using local heroes, histories, myths and legends found a wealth of resources in the oral history of the regions of UP where several events of the 1857 occurred [Narayan 2006]. The political strategy of the party is to tell and retell the stories of these heroes, build memorials and organise celebrations around their stories repeatedly to build a collective memory in the psyche of the people. The stories are narrated in such a manner that the dalits play the more significant role. Several books like Swatantrata Sangram Mein Achhuton Ka Yogdan [Dinkar 1990], Jhoothi Azadi [Madan 1987], Pasi Samaj ka Swatantrata mein Yogdan [Pasi 1998], Dalit Dastavej [Vidrohi 1989] and so on, document the contributions of various dalit heroes in the 1857 rebellion. These narratives help them to claim a respectable place in the contemporary process of nation-building and a lion’s share in state-sponsored development projects and other democratic benefits. By repeatedly narrating their role in the nation-making process the marginalised communities put forward a moral logic in favour of reservations and social justice for themselves. They contend that though they had shed their blood and sweat for building of this nation and in spite of their historical role in its development, the state has not helped them to recover from their social, cultural and economic losses. Through these narratives they assert that their role in the recorded history of nation-making has not been sufficiently acknowledged and their contribution in the freedom struggle has been completely ignored [Dinkar op cit: 23].

Dalit politicians and dalit intellectuals are using history, memories and icons of 1857 in their discourses in various ways. First, when caste conferences are organised as a step towards identity construction, they publish posters and handbills in which the contribution of their caste heroes in the 1857 struggle the mentioned.9 Second, they justify their demands from the state as reward for their role in the 1857 movement.10 Third, during election campaigns the BSP leaders highlight the contribution of those heroes of the 1857 movement who belong to the caste which they are addressing. Fourth, many castes, in their mass struggle against the prejudices harboured by the state publish posters and pamphlets in which they mention their role in the 1857 freedom struggle. Many castes are still considered criminal tribes on the basis of old colonial acts that continue to be followed by the police although they have now been abolished. Such castes say that, when the upper castes were busy collaborating with the British to earn titles of Rai Bahadur and grabbing land that belonged to dalit ancestors, they (the dalits) were fighting against the British. In anger, the British branded them as criminal tribes under the Criminal Tribe Acts of 1871, 1896, 1901-02, 1909, 1911, 1913-14, 1919 and 1924. Although these tribes have now been denotified, whenever a criminal activity takes place, the police, acting on preconceived notions, first arrests members of these tribes [Dinkar op cit]. As a protest against this kind of state atrocities, these communities continue to organise protests and publish posters and handbills in which they mention their role in the 1857 movement.

Thus in very many ways the memory of 1857 is still alive in the collective psyche of the dalits which inspires them in their struggle against the everyday social, economic and political exclusion and discrimination that they face.




1 Field diary, Bidesia project, Gobind Ballabh Pant Social Sciences Institute,

2005. 2 Field diary, Bidesia, ibid.3 Dalit Kesari, Allahabad, June 14-30, 1990. 4 Sumanshankar, Himayati, May 1996 issue.5 S L Bauddh Majhi Janata, November 1-8, 2001, Kanpur, pp 3-4.6 Asian Age, Calcutta, December 24-31, 1995 and January 7, 1996.7 Hindustan, Lucknow, July 18, p 3.8 Hindustan, Lucknow, July 18, p 3.9 Pamphlets published on the occasion of Nishad, Bind, Kashyap, Lodh

Ekta Sammelan, February 23, 1997, Allahabad.10 Pamphlets of nishad caste published during its conference for demandingtheir traditional rights on water and sand, November 10-11, 1979.


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Economic and Political Weekly May 12, 2007

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