The Great Rebellion of 1857 in India: Exploring Transgressions, Contests and Diversities

The Great Rebellion of 1857 in India: Exploring Transgressions, Contests and Diversities

The Great Rebellion of 1857 in India: Exploring Transgressions, Contests and Diversities

The Great Rebellion of 1857 in India: Exploring Transgressions, Contests and Diversities

Synopsis

The Great Rebellion of 1857 in India was much more than a 'sepoy mutiny'. It was a major event in South Asian and British colonial history that significantly challenged imperialism in India.

This fascinating collection explores hitherto ignored diversities of the Great Rebellion such as gender and colonial fiction, courtesans, white 'marginals', penal laws and colonial anxieties about the Mughals, even in exile. Also studied are popular struggles involving tribals and outcastes, and the way outcastes in the south of India locate the Rebellion. Interdisciplinary in focus and based on a range of untapped source materials and rare, printed tracts, this book questions conventional wisdom.

The comprehensive introduction traces the different historiographical approaches to the Great Rebellion, including the imperialist, nationalist, marxist and subaltern scholarship. While questioning typical assumptions associated with the Great Rebellion, it argues that the Rebellion neither began nor ended in 1857-58.

Clearly informed by the 'Subaltern Studies' scholarship, this book is post-subalternist as it moves far beyond narrow subalternist concerns. It will be of interest to students of Colonial and South Asian History, Social History, Cultural and Political Studies.

Excerpt

Biswamoy Pati

The Great Rebellion of 1857 or what was supposed to be a ‘sepoy mutiny’ has undoubtedly been a major landmark in colonial South Asian history. Besides posing what was undoubtedly the most serious military challenge to the might of British colonialism over the nineteenth century, its vibrations and memories lasted much longer than had been expected by those carrying out the colonial counter-insurgency operations. The early accounts and testimonies, including contemporary accounts, saw the Great Rebellion from a typically colonial perspective. The most common among these was to locate it as a ‘sepoy mutiny’. This projection was aimed at erasing the problems posed by colonial expansion and exploitation and provide comfort to the colonial bureaucracy and those at ‘home’. In fact, colonial sources depict the Great Rebellion as a ‘sepoy mutiny’ that developed into a ‘rebellion’ – a theme that has, as we shall see, haunted the imagination of generations of historians, including nationalist historians and the ‘subalterns’.

This interpretation related to the ‘sepoy mutiny’ drew upon the ‘anxiety’ of the sepoys that was related to the use of Enfield rifles. Thus, the introduction of the new Enfield rifle in 1857 meant that the bullets were coated with grease made from the fat of cows (sacred to Hindus) and of pigs (abhorred by the Muslim). As the cartridges had to be bitten before being used, the Hindu and Muslim sepoys interpreted it as part of a plot to convert them to Christianity, by defiling their caste and their religion.

As was to be expected, these features formed the basis of the construct that saw 1857 as a religious conflict. Thus, initially, it was seen as a plot of the Dharma Sabha of Calcutta, which aimed to preserve Hinduism from the onslaughts of the English. What is striking is the way this idea of a ‘religious plot’ soon shifted and came to be identified as a ‘Muslim conspiracy’ – a point that seems to have a remarkable continuity even today. Thus, one can see its imprints even on present-day scholars. And, if considered holistically, one can easily see how these components were incorporated into imperialist historiography and served to reinforce the dominant idea of a ‘clash of cultures’ or a ‘clash of civilisations’. This was an idea that, occasioned by such ‘encounters’, developed over the nineteenth century. The power of imperialist historiography needs to be stressed when it comes to making this idea . . .

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