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  • Published 29.06.07

The Great Uprising: India, 1857 By Pramod K. Nayar, Penguin, Rs 250

The 150th anniversary of the uprising of 1857 has occasioned a number of publications. Many of these works have been written by non-historians using interdisciplinary research. Pramod K. Nayar, in this book, follows such an approach.

The Great Uprising is Nayar’s second book on 1857 published this year. Although he claims to provide a holistic understanding of the great mutiny, what we have in this book is just a descriptive narrative. Nayar provides a brief background to colonialism and then moves on to a chronological account of the uprising in north India, the subsequent civil rebellion and, finally, the return of the British raj.

Frankly, there is nothing new in his book compared to Christopher Hibbert’s The Great Mutiny: India 1857, which was published 29 years ago. Hibbert made extensive use of private papers unlike Nayar, who uses printed sources, not archival research. Nayar aspires to unveil the Indian side of the story, which is simply not possible without using Urdu sources.

The one original point that Nayar makes is that British barbarity, perpetrated by James Neill and Henry Havelock, was not the reaction to the Bibigarh massacre in Kanpur by the rebels, but rather the other way round. When Neill advanced from Benaras, he started burning villages and killing native civilians indiscriminately. The spread of such news probably encouraged Nana Sahib and his henchmen to organize the massacre of British men and women in Bibigarh. Further, the Satichaura Ghat massacre of General Wheeler’s troops, which preceded the Bibigarh massacre, writes Nayar, was the result of confusion and not of any plan implemented by Nana Sahib and his followers. This cause-effect equation has been overlooked by colonial writers and historians.

The only valuable section in this book is the Appendix, where Nayar analyses the representation of the 1857 rebellion in English fiction. For the British, the experience of 1857 proved to be traumatic. Hence, the ‘mutiny novels’ contrast the peace in the Indian towns before 1857 with the violence that unfolded during the ‘mutiny’. Another feature of this genre of fiction is the emphasis on the sufferings of the British people. However, Gautmam Chakravarty’s The Indian Mutiny and the British Imagination still has the last word on the ‘mutiny novels’.

To sum up, The Great Uprising is an ideal read for the uninitiated. But for the serious historian there is nothing particularly new in this book. The educated, inquisitve readership, at which this book is targeted, would be the best judge of its merits.