Duel in the Crown: Charlotte Crow Describes How a Recent Visit to India on the 150th Anniversary of the Indian Mutiny Became a Flashpoint for Indians and Britons over the Commemoration by the Two Nations

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WRITING IN THE TIME OF INDIA on September 28th, the Indian-born British economist and politician Lord Desai observed, 'What a strange country India has become. Even after sixty years of independence, it still lacks self-confidence to feel comfortable in its own skin. It is happy about the welcome "incredible India" receives in the Big Apple. Yet when a few British descendants of those who served and died in India during 1857 come to pay homage to their dead relatives, people behave as if the East India Company were back again. Will some Indians never become truly free of the foreign yoke, never be able to treat a foreigner as an equal? Do we have to be either victims or bullies?'

What prompted Lord Desai's question was the political outburst emanating from Lucknow, capital of Uttar Pradesh, but also manifest in Agra and Gwalior, by members of the rightwing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) towards the visit by two groups of British tourists--one, that I was invited to join, of family historians and academics, the other on a regimental history study trip--travelling in tandem on a 150th anniversary tour called 'Exploring the Indian Mutiny' organized by Palanquin Traveller.

My party comprised a learned group of Mutiny buffs and descendants of leading British officers. Our tour leaders were historians Hugh Purcell and Rosie Llewellyn-Jones, the latter a founder-member of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia (BACSA), started in 1976 to document and preserve European cemeteries wherever the East India Company traded.

The other group, travelling to several of the same sites though not at the same time, consisted of members of the 60th Queen's Royal Rifles, following the actions of their First Battalion, the 60th, the King's Royal Rifle Corps. The Rifles brought with them a commemorative plaque 'to the bravery and distinguished service' of their founder regiment 'at Meerut and Delhi, between 10th May and 20th September 1857'. They hoped to have this quietly erected at St John's, the nineteenth-century English church at Meerut, where the Mutiny broke out. Though the Bishop of Agra had not given his permission to install the plaque, they had arranged a blessing of it and a service of remembrance. But when the plaque came to the attention of the Indian media, it unleashed a controversy. Commemoration became conflated with celebration and for both groups the tours came to a grinding halt.

'At no cost will our party allow the group into the city' a leading BJP member, Lalji Tandon, stated, 'They are after all not normal tourists but family members of the killers of our freedom fighters', Meerut historian K.D. Sharma told the Lucknow Times (Sept 26th) 'Trying to put up this plaque was an insult to Indians', though as former soldier and leader of the Rifles' group Roy Trustram Eve explains:

   The responsible press made clear that they took no
   issue with the wording of the plaque, which had
   been discussed for some time with the Church
   authorities in Meerut, and which stressed the
   commemoration approach. We knew that the Bishop
   had decided against erecting it in St John's church
   but the Vicar had written to say that we would still
   proceed with the short service we had planned to
   commemorate the fallen on both sides, to pray for
   world peace and to bless the plaque. We therefore
   took it, to take it away again. With hindsight it
   would have removed an irritant if we had not done
   so but it was not the root cause of the problems ...

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The Indian Mutiny, or Uprising, marked a bloody juncture in British imperial history. From an Indian perspective 'the First War of Independence' as it is also known, united Hindus and Muslims against the colonial oppressors and is seen as a seminal moment in the evolution of the Indian nation. Triggered by sepoys in the Bengal Army in May 1857, its violence against European civilians and military alike took the British officers of the East India Company army by surprise. …