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Friday , February 4 , 2011
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BAREILLY RISING OF 1857-1859 AND THE BENGALI BABU By Aniruddha Ray, Progressive, Rs 700

During the British raj, Rohilkhand was a triangular tract of land which had the Himalayas to its north and the Ganges to its south-west. The powerful Awadh kings ruled it. The name of the place originated from the Rohilla clan, which settled there in the early 18th century. Before the advent of the Rohillas, Rajput chiefs dominated the tract that was part of the Mughal province of Katehr.

After Aurangzeb’s death, the Mughal hold on the provinces weakened and the Rajput chiefs became victims of infighting. This was the time when the Rajputs started inducting the Rohillas in military service. In 1744, the Rohilla chief, Ali Muhammad Khan, defeated the Rajputs in a series of battles and gained complete control. The land passed on to the hands of the Nawab of Awadh after the Rohillas, and then to the British. Bareilly was Rohilkhand’s capital.

Ray’s book is divided into three parts. It covers the story of the revolt in Bareilly that started on the morning of May 31, 1857, and culminated with the reoccupation of Bareilly by the English on May 7, 1858. Ray argues that certain factors responsible for the Bareilly uprising have not been adequately highlighted in the general accounts of the Mutiny. The author believes that the Bareilly uprising was a result of the economic depredations by the British. Ray contends that British economic policy created a mercantile class of mahajans and rich zamindars in Rohilkhand who acted as British agents and oppressed the masses, thereby precipitating anti-British public sentiments.

The three main sources that the author uses to reconstruct the story of the Bareilly insurgency are as follows: Durgadas Bandyopadhyay’s Vidrohe Bangali; publications of contemporary English documents on the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 in modern UP by S.A.A. Rizvi; and the published papers on intelligence by William Muir, the private secretary of the lieutenant-governor of Agra and the chief of the intelligence cell set up by the English during the Mutiny. All these sources throw light on the uprising from different angles. But the most interesting account, at least from the Indian point of view, is certainly Durgadas’s. The reason for this is that it is a very personal account reflecting the history of a particular time. Another reason is that in many aspects, Durgadas’s narrative differs radically from other contemporary accounts.

Durgadas was a clerk in the British army. In Burma, he put up at the residence of another Bengali clerk and managed to save some money. He lent money to the sepoys and officials at a high interest rate and gradually made a fortune. But he lost everything during the Mutiny.

For obvious reasons, Durgadas was pro-British, anti-rebel as well as anti-Muslim. But his memoir, despite some factual errors, documents the workings of the rebel government in Bareilly effectively. It is replete with many sensational incidents from Durgadas’s life. However, quotes from the memoir, which would have certainly made the narration livelier, are conspicuous by their absence. In the chapter, “Denouement”, the author tries to dispel certain general notions regarding the Mutiny, one of which concerns the alleged communal and racial antagonism of the rebels.

The book is worth reading, but it is not without glaring lapses. There are phrases like “such a possibility would be impossible” (p.185), as well as errors in editing. “Fornudable adversary” (p.390) is a good example of this.

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