Jubilees in various multiples of the years of their occurrence seem to be the only public occasions when stirring events, or great people, attract popular historical interest. This is a pity. For instance, students should be taught in any year, and not just 250 years later, that it was not Plassey where British colonialists established their exploitative bridgeheads on the Bay of Bengal; that had begun either ten years before, by the close of the First Anglo-French War in the Carnatic, or a few years later at the battles of Porto Novo, Wandewash and Buxar. There is no need to give a skirmish in an anarchic transition era more importance in the history of Indian subjection to alien exploitation than events that were far more significant in this story.
The same applies to thinking about Indian history a century after Plassey. The bravery of the Indian Uprising deserves recall. But this should be tempered with clarity about the way which, and the reasons for which, the common cause of many Hindu and Muslim rebels, the grievances of large segments of the common people suffering from foreign capitalist incursion into the countryside, were picked off piecemeal by the ruling class, and how cities and towns were raped and looted through the end of 1857 and throughout 1858. The brutality of the British Highland regiments and the cold ferocity of the extra-constitutional ordinances of the British Indian government, which superseded its own “rule of law” and increased imperial despotism in the next half-century after 1858, require more analysis.
No doubt historians will search for more details about neglected plebeian elements, such as the people of Jharkhand, Chhatisgarh, or inland Orissa, or about the role of Dalits in many of the revolts. Yet, it is high time to look beyond the repetition of historical chronicles to a more composite version of the circumstances of the first century of British Indian colonialism. It bred its own peasant, agrarian and urban armed revolts and finally culminated in 1857-8. We also need an updated and Indian version of the old idea of the “aftermath of revolt”, which led to the second century of British imperialism and the sudden transfer of power after World War II. A connected account awaits a competent historian. But above and beyond more and more books on the same theme, a more constructive dimension of development may be given to the commemoration of events in an old revolt.
Let us consider an event in the autumn of 1857. The British sack of Delhi appears, by contemporary accounts, to have equalled that of Nadir Shah more than a century before. Narayani Gupta has the best description of how much of Shahjahanabad was destroyed, leaving the shells of the Red Fort and the Jama Masjid. Its emperor, a British puppet, and later dominated by the mutineers, with those members of his immediate family whom Hodson had not murdered, was taken in palki carts, surrounded by frontiersmen of the Guides, commanded by a young British lieutenant, Ommanney.
They went through country where rebel fortresses were still being reduced, up to Mirzapur past Kanpur. Ommanney’s letters to the Delhi commissioner, Saunders — in the latter’s papers in the old India Office Library in London — described how they were put on a steamer, the Thames, moved down the Ganga, past Benaras to Buxar within the old Bengal Presidency. At Rampur they changed boats after the Thames had engine trouble, to the Koyle, which steamed along the river past Patna, Rajmahal and Farakka, turning into the Bhagirathi and coming down by Murshidabad, Berhampur (where the first mutiny had taken place in February), Krishnagar, and the then flourishing riverside towns of Bandel and Halisahar, Serampur and Barrackpur (where Mangal Pandey and his havildar, Issuree Pandey, had been hanged). Presumably at dead of night, they were sneaked past Calcutta, still recovering from its panics of the summer, to anchor at Diamond Harbour. Here they transferred to the H.M.S. Magara for transport in December to exile in Rangoon.
Bahadur Shah’s misery there is poignantly captured in verse. The commemoration of his last resting place, begun by the Azad Hind Fauj after 1943, is being revived. But we have no memory of this furtive, autumn journey — through West Bengal’s verdant countryside — of the pathetic symbols of the last great War of Independence, fought by Indians on their own soil against foreigners. To counter the craze to emulate the culture, more than the economics and the political freedom, of globalizers, we need to commemorate also our own earlier encounter with Late Mughal culture. It had created a unifying synthesis rooted in Indian soil, far more than its British successors who partitioned that soil.
One way of re-establishing contacts with the roots of that traditional culture would be to regard the Bhagirathi-Hooghly river, on its way from the Ganga to the sea past Diamond Harbour, as a life-giving heritage for our riverside towns. These were fabled from medieval times in the Mangalkavya literature for their merchants, anchorages and ghats, their embanked steps leading down from the strand to the river’s edge. There are many accounts of the views that Zafar would have seen as he reclined on the cushions set up by his last attendants on the steamer. He himself does not seem to have been touched by these views. But surely victuals were brought to Ommanney at the ghats during the brief halts. The Last Mughal must have partaken of Bengal’s nourishment before he left India forever. Is this not reason enough to recall the sorry state of the ghats, particularly if the West Bengal Tourism Development Corporation plans to develop steamer routes all the way to Murshidabad'
Remembering only deeds of revolt can hardly create something more permanent than ephemeral “froth and bubble”. These will have evaporated by the time the next centenary comes round — and that is waiting in 2009, of the Neel Bidroha. Rather than being bogged down in one-year junkets, politically appropriating one revolt after another, can we not also use these opportunities of inevitable public expenditure for something constructive, something that builds on the firm foundations laid by the traditions of Bengal and India'
A comprehensive mofussil survey and urban renewal plan is one way to do this. It could start from the edges of our own central river down which Bahadur Shah Zafar was taken, along the route down which Behula is said to have floated centuries before with her stricken Lakhindar’s body. One has only to read passages in a little known travel diary by Rabindranath called “Sarojini-Prayaan”, in the last volume of the Rabindra Rachanabali to sense the fleeting beauty of the ghats in their mid-19th-century luminosity. This was where the zamindars of the Permanent Settlement built their temples along the banks — not least Rani Rashmoni’s place of worship.
This is where in Bhoot Bagan, the oldest part of Howrah, the Naga sanyasin, Puran Gir Gosain, a friend of Warren Hastings as well as the Tashi Lama of Tibet, built a monastery; where Wajid Ali Shah, exiled from Awadh, built his palace in Garden Reach. The riverside towns — Champdany, Panihati, Titagarh, Uttarpara, Konnagar, Kankinarah — all faced the river, all had histories of their own. They were all thriving urban cellular organisms, as much as the more well known Chandernagor or Belur.
Can the occasion of recalling Zafar’s first and last Indian long river journey not be used by the state of West Bengal to seek funds from the Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission to revive our riverside towns from the somnolence into which they have sunk since the decline, 50 years ago, of their once-proud industrialization'