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Religious Shade of a Rebellion

Religious Shade of a Rebellion The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty Delhi, 1857 by William Dalrymple; Penguin, New Delhi, 2006; FARHAT HASAN William Dalrymple is one of those rare scholars who combines literature with history, attentive as much to literary style and expression, as the evidence in historical sources. His work has a much wider reach than the more successful among professional historians. This is, I believe, his third book, and like the other two, reads like a work of fiction, except that there is scarcely any detail that is not supported by historical evidence. Events are described based on the veracity of sources, and interpretations are offered only after their critical scrutiny.

Reviews

clothes, had six or seven Indian wives, and was known among Europeans for “consorting with the gray beards of Delhi –

Religious Shade of a Rebellion

The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty Delhi, 1857

by William Dalrymple; Penguin, New Delhi, 2006; pp 352, Rs 695.

FARHAT HASAN

W
illiam Dalrymple is one of those rare scholars who combines literature with history, attentive as much to literary style and expression, as the evidence in historical sources. His work has a much wider reach than the more successful among professional historians. This is, I believe, his third book, and like the other two, reads like a work of fiction, except that there is scarcely any detail that is not supported by historical evidence. Events are described based on the veracity of sources, and interpretations are offered only after their critical scrutiny.

The book under review is a history of the fortunes of the city of Delhi, and its ruler, the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah, during the rebellion of 1857. The rebellion is an extensively researched topic, and by the size of the available literature, one would have thought that this was an exhausted subject. If Dalrymple still manages to tell a refreshing story, it is because he relies on the neglected vernacular sources, particularly those found in Urdu and Persian languages. In the existing literature on the rebellion, there is an overwhelming, if not exclusive, dependence on the official English sources. It is usually believed that this dependence is by force, not choice; there are just not enough “native”/“local” sources to go by. Dalrymple’s book proves beyond doubt how erroneous this view is, and if one makes the effort there are enough “native” sources to help us rewrite the history of the rebellion from an indigenous perspective.

The extant Urdu and Persian sources on the rebellion are abundant, and, by way of clarification, it should be added that Dalrymple is not the first scholar to have noticed and used them. Several scholars in Urdu literature have examined these sources for the insights they offer on the social and cultural set-up of the period. In his book on the history of Urdu journalism, Nadir Ali Khan has extensively discussed the Urdu newspapers of the mutiny period [Khan 1957 ]. Ateeq Ahmad Siddiqui edited and published, way back in 1963, the following Mutiny newspapers written in Urdu: Siraj-ul-Akhbar, Sadiq-ul-Akhbar and Dehli Urdu Akhbar. Since these works were written in Urdu, they were scarcely noticed by historians. In a way, Dalrymple’s work underlines the insularity of the Anglophile world of south Asian historians, and brings them closer to the wide ranging scholarship found in vernacular languages.

In view of the immense significance of these sources for Dalrymple’s work, certain errors in their description become inexcusable. Siraj-ul-Akhbar is not an Urdu newspaper (p 14); it is a Persian newspaper. The Dehli Urdu Akhbar was not merely concerned with “local political and religious matters” (p 86), but included, at least in its early issues, several national and international news, such as a cabinet reshuffle in Britain, a failed assassination attempt on the king of France, etc.

Clash of Rival Fundamentalisms

Dalrymple describes the rebellion of 1857 as “a clash of rival fundamentalisms” (p 83). On the imperial British side, this fundamentalism was represented by the evangelical missionaries and the utilitarians, who were replacing, in growing numbers, the early British, whom Dalrymple, following from his earlier work, calls the White Mughals. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, the British were attracted to the Mughal courtly culture, and quite many among them had, as one British woman, said, in dismay, “turned native”. They were sympathetic to Indian susceptibilities, and had some measure of appreciation for the beliefs and practices of the people they had conquered. There was this William Fraser who wore Mughal almost all of them Musalmans of Mughal extraction” (p 65). Then there was Sir David Ochterlony who wore Hindustani pyjamas and turban, and was fond of ‘huqqas’ and dancing girls (p 66).

By the 1830s, under utilitarian influences, and the pressure of the evangelical missionaries, all this was beginning to change. The Indians were now regarded as degenerate, corrupt and contemptible people, who needed to be rescued from the forces of darkness by their British rulers. In demonstrating this shift in attitude, Dalrymple is clearly at his best. The “White Mughals”, as he says, were now replaced with the likes of such persons as John Jennings, the chaplain of the Christians in Delhi, who believed that the British were in India by divine providence to convert “the vile heathens” to the fold of Christianity. Or, a person like Charles Grant for whom all Indians were as “universally and wholly corrupt – depraved as they are blind, and wretched as they are depraved” (p 62).

Wahabi Movement

If it were the evangelical Christian missionaries and their advocates in the Company administration who represented the imperial British-side of fundamentalism, on the side of the vanquished Indians, it was the Wahabi Muslims, believers in puritan and orthodox Islam. The rebellion of 1857 was, according to Dalrymple, a clash between these rival fundamentalisms, between the arrogant, aggressive evangelical Christians and the bigoted, intolerant Wahabis. The lessons he draws from the conflict have contemporary relevance, and are certainly quite valid: power leads to arrogance, arrogance leads to intolerance, which, in turn, is the source of most discords and conflicts in the world.

To what extent is he correct in viewing the rebellion as a religious war. It is, indeed, true that the rebels, not infrequently, described their resistance as ‘jihad’, and in the motley crowds that were fighting the British in Delhi, there was a force of fighters who prided in calling themselves the ‘ghazis’ or the ‘jihadis’. Meanings of words change with contexts, and while jihad

Economic and Political Weekly May 12, 2007 would today mean a religious war, it does not seem to carry that connotation during the rebellion. It simply meant a fight against injustices and a struggle for the restoration of the shared moral world. This world was again described in terms that we know today to mean religion: ‘din’ or ‘dharma’. During the rebellion, they meant what Thompson describes as “the moral economy”, and jihad was the resistance against its infringement by the state. One reason why I say that jihad did not mean a religious war, in the way we understand it today, is that the term was indiscriminately used by both the Hindu and Muslim rebels to describe their resistance against the British.

Dalrymple is presumably simplifying the picture when he equates the ghazis and jihadis with the Wahabi movement. The Wahabis were, on the issue of the rebellion, a divided lot. There were some among them who joined the rank and file of the jihadis, but there were others who maintained an attitude of stoic indifference. More importantly, not all the ghazis and the jihadis in the rebellion were followers of the Wahabi movement. It seems those based in Allahabad, Lucknow and Gwalior largely identified themselves not with the Wahabi leadership, but various mystic orders. Ahmadullah Shah, for example, who was the leader of the ghazis and the jihadis at Lucknow was not a Wahabi, but a sufi saint of the Qadiri order. The Qadiri saints were averse to all forms of intolerance, and were firm believers in religious eclecticism; Wahabi puritanism was repugnant to them.

Dalrymple is certainly right in pointing out that religious sentiments are assigned considerable prominence in the documents that emerged from the side of the rebels. However, in most of their proclamations, particularly those coming from the political leadership, religious grievances are quickly followed by other grievances, of political and economic import. Prince Mirza Feroze Shah’s proclamation, dated August 25, 1857, tells us that those fighting the British were doing so for “the preservation of their religion”, but then in the subsequent passages, he cites exorbitant revenue demands, imperial monopolies in the purchase and sale of particular commodities, low pay in Company service, and growing unemployment as factors that have alienated the ‘zamindars’, merchants, soldiers, artisans, weavers, etc, from the British in India. It is true that there are several orders and notices by the ghazis and the jihadis portray the conflict with the British exclusively in religious terms, but there too, the agenda is scarcely fundamentalist, for there is an equal emphasis on Hindu-Muslim unity.

Religion did play an important role in the rebellion, but it would be naïve to reduce its multifaceted dimensions to a single causal factor. Dalrymple does well to emphasise the role of religion, for that has certainly not received the attention it deserves. At the same time, we need to bear in mind that religion is not isolated from the larger socio-economic realities, and if we wish to interrogate its role, we have to work through its tangled interconnections with the profane world.

Dalrymple has written about the rebellion in a language that is simple but gripping, objective but moving. I have come across no other work that brings out so well the pain and anguish of the hapless victims of one of the most brutal engagements known to mankind, between the ascendant British power and the vanquished Indians. It is hard not to be moved by the story that is so skilfully narrated by Dalrymple, with such richness of detail, feelings and sensitivity.

EPW

Email: fhasan15@hotmail.com

Reference

Khan, Nadir Ali (1957): ‘A History of Urdu Literature, 1822-57’, Aligarh.

Economic and Political Weekly May 12, 2007

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