The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- The 1857 celebrations raise questions Indians must confront

Such are the pulls of appropriating History for the Nation that amidst a busy July schedule ' interim report of the oversight committee, negotiations with the IAEA, keeping the allies and tomato prices from going over the top ' the prime minister will find time on July 13 to chair a 68-member committee to commemorate 150 years of 1857. That's a lot of Indians ' former prime ministers, politicians, satraps, bureaucrats, and some historians to boot. One may be proven wrong, but most of them, including the two historians who have declined, would not be entirely comfortable distinguishing a barkandaz from a tilanga sepoy, or be familiar with say the ballad of Kunwar Singh of Shahabad or the shikasta script of rebel communication. One could even wager that some of them might even falter reciting little more than the refrain 'Khub lari mardani' Jhansi wali rani'' Yet a group of ministers has gone ahead and cleared Rs 150 crore of public money for a major commemoration, beginning, we are told, August 2007. And there lies the rub, for what dreams have propelled the August inauguration' we know.

It is the dream of annexing the events of 1857 to our freedom from Britain almost to the month. But though crucial for 1942 and again 1947, August was not a particularly good month for us Indians in 1857, especially in Delhi, which fell to the vengeful firangis soon afterwards. If true, the August inauguration to the celebrations of 1857 raises an important question that we who people this nation ' historians, politicians, public ' face about our pasts. As elsewhere, so in India, school books, street-names, and jubilee celebrations ' all seek to construct a sense of an uncluttered national past. Opposition to the idea of a national-plural is common to most nationalists, for it disorders a national past which is simultaneously considered historical and singular. Swimming against the tide enables us to ask a different set of questions: is there something inherent in the ways of nation-states that makes it difficult for citizens to relate to history outside a mainstream, accredited version of the past ' the national past' Can we at all remember without commemorating' Can we recollect without celebrating, recall without avenging' Why are national histories thought of invariably as time-resistant capsules buried for ever, and in constant play at the same time'

San-sattavan! In northern India, this incomplete chronological slice, sans the century, encapsulates in its pithiness the many things that went into the making of that Great Event. San-sattavan can only be 1857; it can not be 1957, or even 1757, though in some contemporary prophesies, British rule was to end within a hundred years of the battle of Plassey. Be that as it may, 'san sattavan' stands resplendent in perhaps the most well-known poem on the Ghadar by Subhadra Kumari Chauhan: 'Chamak uthi san sattavan mein, woh talwar purani thi.' The sword unleashed to push out the firangis, had not been moulded in or wrested from colonial armouries; it was the very old sword of an 'aged Bharat' which, rejuvenated, had now stood up to claim this equally old land for itself ('burhe Bharat mein aayi phir-se nai jawani thi').

Let's stay a bit longer with the stirring opening stanza of this epic poem on 1857, on which we will have a surfeit of songs, dramas, marches, exhibitions in the year to come. Let's recall that this great nationalist poem places the 'value of lost independence' and 'the resolve to throw the firangi out' in every Indian heart. And yet the Bharat of 1857 is already old, 90 years before the birth of the Indian nation-state. Let's now cut to a folk song about Jhansi-wali Rani, popular in district Etawah and its environs in Uttar Pradesh before the more famous Chauhan version that has been bequeathed to us as a nation: 'O, the Rani of Jhansi, well fought the brave one/ All the soldiers were fed with sweets; she herself had treacle and rice/' Leaving morcha, she ran to the lashkar, where she searched for but found no water, O! The Rani of Jhansi well fought the brave one.' Here in a local folk song, to be sung in the Dadra vein, we sure find the Rani's sacrifice and valour, but no intimations of a well-entrenched and reactivated sense of Indian nationalism.

To adapt the opening sentence of Anna Karenina: all nations are new, but each claims its antiquity in its own way. This is clearly in evidence in the spirit behind the forthcoming official celebrations of 1857, as it is in that famous nationalist poem on Rani Jhansi by Subhadra Chauhan. It is a feature of nationalist consciousness, that the nation whose 'making' requires large doses of energy, action and sacrifice, that very nation is made available to us fully-formed ' like a mannequin in a shopping window ' merely awaiting a change of (nationalist) attire.

Only an informed public debate can stem the wastage of money and effort on mere window-dressing: the sprucing up of an 1857 structure at one place, the gouging out of a colonial memorial stone at another, ersatz purabiya sipahis knocking at the Rajghat gate of the Red Fort, Big B daring you to go 50-50 or phone a friend on a mega-Ghadar quiz, the launch of a desi fizz-drink with the spirit of 1857 bottled evanescently in it.

The contrast with the centennial of the Ghadar in 1957 is instructive. A lot of us midnight's children were too young to recollect the hoopla, but the long-term gains for historical understanding and democratizing access to the events of 1857 still continue to be felt. Two noted scholars, very different in orientation, produced two different accounts of those times; a considerable amount of primary source material, largely from official records, was published, notably the five volumes of Freedom Struggle in Uttar Pradesh by the indefatigable S.A.A. Rizvi, distributed gratis till the Eighties to bona fide scholars. This has encouraged a whole crop of histories of the Ghadar in different districts and regions written in the medium-sized university towns in North India. Other material connected with the late-19th-century freedom struggle was brought out, for instance, for Maharashtra, or lies unpublished in provincial archives. And all this was made possible by advanced planning, and hard work by those adept, by training, to delve into and narrate the past.

It would be said that commemoration is too serious (or political) a business to be left to historians: poets, publicists, politicians, playwrights all must contribute. It may well be that historians have to cease being just whistle-blowers in such matters, telling others where they have got their facts wrong. They must be concerned not just with what happened in times past, but equally with how memory, indeed state memorialization, plays on the certitude of facts. The new multimedia exhibition at Tees Janvari Marg is an eye opener about how non-official collaboration between historians, Gandhians and IT-savvy graphic and sound artists can infuse excitement into a hoary and usually unimaginative presentation of the ideas and legacy of Mahatma Gandhi.

The prime minister will be well advised to try and get the 1857 committee to bankroll a similar venture for that Great Uprising, hangama, insurgency and effervescence, aggregation and disorder, plebeian anger and state-terror, regional groupings and wider alliances, atavistic proclamations and radical stirrings, all on display for us to make sense, warts and all. To hang the story of the Ghadar by a single thread would amount to hanging its myriad rebels twice over.

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