Tuesday, March 23, 2010

[ZESTCaste] Fascinating account of rebellious movements


Fascinating account of rebellious movements


The events in this fascinating book took place in the 1850s and 1860s
across three countries — Britain, the United States, and India.
Rajmohan Gandhi's descriptions of those events are graphic. If the
American civil war centred on the issue of slavery, the Indian sepoy
revolt exposed the class and caste divisions in civil society. In both
cases, the British government, headed by myopic men like Lord
Palmerston, acted ungraciously and undemocratically.

Despite its human rights' rhetoric, Britain refused to support Abraham
Lincoln's anti-slavery stance, hoping for the bifurcation of America
and the monopoly of the southern cotton trade. Without the leadership
of a Lincoln-like figure, the Indian rebels — including Nana Sahib,
Tatya Tope, Firoz Shah, and Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi — lacked focus
on issues of governance. Equally, they were vulnerable to charges
(some true, some fabricated) of massacring British women and children.
Except for Nana Sahib, who escaped to an unknown destination, the
rebel leaders were killed in battle or executed. In the aftermath of
the 1857 revolt, Indians were derisively dubbed 'niggers' by the
colonial British. What is more, alarmed by the Hindu-Muslim unity
displayed during the revolt, the British resorted to the 'divide and
rule' policy by fostering suspicion and rivalry between the two


Extraordinarily, both the 1857 Indian sepoy revolt and the American
civil war (1861-1865) were witnessed and recorded by William Howard
Russell of The Times (in London), a travelling Irish journalist and a
celebrity of sorts having been acquainted with well-known writers such
as Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, and Anthony Trollope.

It was probably because Russell had sympathy for the underdog that he
aroused the ire of some of his more conservative contemporaries. In a
letter, titled 'The Sahib and the Nigger', to The Times on August 28,
1858, Russell noted astutely that "The habit of speaking of all
natives as niggers has recently become quite common … Every man of the
mute, white-turbaned file who with crossed arms, glistening eyes and
quick ears stands motionless along the mess-room table, hears it every
time a native is named, knows it to be an expression of contempt." And
while witnessing the auction of a young African slave in Montgomery,
he wrote in the newspaper: "There is no sophistry which could persuade
me the man was not a man — he was, indeed, by no means my brother, but
assuredly he was a fellow-creature."


Apart from giving Russell's accounts of the two revolts, Gandhi puts
together the views of the American and Indian sides about each other's
rebellions. American commentators started out with expression of
sympathy for the sepoys, but soon sided with Britain, following
reports of the massacres of white women and children. On the Indian
side, pro-abolitionist opinions were voiced by the literate elite, who
were all too conscious of the trials and tribulations of being called

It is observations like these that make for great reading.
Unfortunately, Gandhi includes, in the opening and closing chapters,
tedious interludes on thinkers like Leo Tolstoy, Bankimchandra
Chatterjee, Sayyid Ahmed Khan, Allan Octavian Hume, and Ishwarchandra
Vidyasagar, who had little or nothing to say about the two revolts.
While it is true that Karl Marx and Jotiba Phule followed these events
with great interest, the ideas of both could have easily — and
elegantly — been woven into the main narrative. By tightly editing the
manuscript and weeding out the superfluous portions, Gandhi could have
greatly enhanced the value of his book.


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