| Ravaged by the present
The revolt of 1857 has been stalked by silly controversies ever since it began. British officers in 1857 got misled into the controversy about the greased cartridges, which many of them believed in their delusion had caused the huge conflagration. One hundred years later, historians became embroiled in a needless debate about nomenclature, what to call the rebellion: mutiny, war of independence, what have you. Nearing the 150th anniversary, a controversy has been sparked off by the restoration of the grave in Delhi of John Nicholson, who led the British attack in 1857 to recover Delhi from the rebels.
The grave has been renovated by the British government, and this has provoked a public outcry because it has been seen as an affront to nationalist sentiments since Nicholson was responsible for the death of many Indians, some of whom were innocent of defying British authority.
Those familiar with the events of 1857 and its history will find nothing new in this kind of controversy. Kanpur was the site of three of the worst bloodbaths of the rebellion — on the river at Satichaura Ghat, where the rebels massacred the Britons who had been promised safe passage by boat to Allahabad, the killing of the survivors from Satichaura Ghat in an enclosed room called Bibighur and the subsequent vengeance of James Neill after the British recovered Kanpur. To commemorate the Britons who had been killed in the two massacres, the British erected a statue — Angel of Mercy — near the well into which the dead bodies had been thrown after the Bibighur killing. In the remembrance of the victors, the Indians who had been butchered by Neill needed no commemoration. Indians and non-Christians were not allowed to go into the enclosed area containing the well and the statue. On August 15, 1947, people broke into the enclosed area and damaged the nose of the Angel of Mercy. The statue had to be removed and in its place now stands a bust of Nana Sahib, one of the leaders of the revolt in Kanpur. There took place a substitution of icons.
The removal of the statue in Kanpur had a bizarre prequel in 1927 in Madras, a city that had been left totally untouched by the revolt. On Mount Road, there was a statue of James Neill, and in August 1927, a Hindu and a Muslim youth tried to disfigure the statue. When arrested they admitted that they had actually wanted to destroy it after they had learnt of the atrocities perpetrated by Neill as he had led the counter insurgency operations between Allahabad and Kanpur. The matter would have ended there had not a man called Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi entered the proceedings. He wrote in his journal Young India that “there seems to be no doubt that as national consciousness grows, the resentment over the insolent reminders, which statues are, of abused British prowess and British barbarity will grow in strength.” Gandhi considered the statue to be an “insult to the nation” because it was an emblem of India’s slavery. His objection was based on what he had read of Neill’s activities. He was unwilling to accept that Neill was a hero because he had only successfully instituted a reign of terror in countering an insurgency. Gandhi said for reasons of national self-respect, the statue should be removed. But a resolution proposing the removal was defeated in the Madras Legislative Council.
What Gandhi, and many other Indians failed to recognize and admit was the fact that 1857 saw a level of violence on both sides that was quite unprecedented in the history of British rule in India. The rebels and the British had carried out acts of unbelievable cruelty. Following Gandhi’s criterion of non-violence, it is difficult to remember any one, Briton or Indian, as a hero in 1857. Nationalist myth-making has not always followed Gandhi’s high moral standards. Thus the Angel of Mercy in Kanpur could be replaced by a statue of Nana Sahib who has to bear the moral, if not direct, responsibility for the killings that took place at Satichaura Ghat and the Bibighur.
One hundred and fifty years after the event, it is important for both Britons and Indians to accept that both sides had perpetrated terrible acts of violence. One side used violence to protect their possessions in India from a real and violent threat from those who had been conquered and dominated by the British. The other side used violence to defy the dominance and to break it. 1857 is not a moment of which either India or Britain can be proud. The year represents a common legacy of violence. Remembrance should thus be bereft of revenge.
The renovation of Nicholson’s tomb highlights another aspect of the way we, as Indians, treat our heritage. All over India there are remains of the raj: graves, houses in which the former white rulers lived, monuments they built to commemorate their triumphs and even cities that they established. These sites cannot be ignored and left to the ravages of nature on the pretext that they are not part of our history. British rule in India, for good or for bad, is part of India’s history and culture. We cannot deny or refuse to own the colonial heritage. Thus those who fought to preserve British rule in India are also part of India’s history. If we neglect Nicholson’s tomb by extending the same logic, we should ignore all of Lutyens’ Delhi since it was built to represent the triumph of the British raj in India. But we have made New Delhi the capital of the republic. Nicholson’s grave and other similar remains of the raj should be seen as part of India’s rich and variegated past.
There is another associated problem. As a people, Indians are not very respectful towards historical monuments. My friend, Toby Sinclair, a London-born Scot who has made India his home, is a tireless traveller across India. Recently, he discovered in Ghazipur, in eastern Uttar Pradesh, a memorial to Lord Cornwallis. It is an exquisite marble monument set in manicured lawns that are fenced by well-clipped hedges. It is a little piece of England in eastern UP. Toby’s surprise gave way to despair when he noticed a portion of the marble disfigured by a visitor who had found no other better place to express his feelings for the woman in his life (see picture). Such disfigurement of historical monuments is not an uncommon occurrence in India. In this context, both the Archaeological Survey of India and INTACH — two bodies engaged in the preservation and restoration of historical sites and monuments — perform a thankless task.
A historical site, be it an archaeological excavation, a monument, a grave, a cluster of temples and so on, is something more than its physical shape and presence. They are all repository of memories. Sometimes these memories are not kind and pleasant, yet they have to be preserved if India is to be mature and sensitive in the remembrance of things past. History-writing cannot perhaps ever be free of politics and ideology, but remembrance and commemoration can be, or should be.