The 1857 Jihad
The impression fostered about events during the 1857 Uprising may well need drastic overhaul if one considers the thesis presented by Prof. Sheshrao More in his book The 1857 Jihad (Manas Publications, Delhi). It is a translation into English of the author’s original in Marathi, 1857cha Jihad.
We are told how Hindus and Muslims came together in unprecedented camaraderie, mutual understanding and co-operation in 1857 in a joint attempt to free India from the British yoke. Mere mention of names like Bahadur Shah Zafar, Nanasahib Peshwa, Mangal Pandey, Tatya Tope or Rani Laxmibai electrify us with patriotic fervour even now, a century and a half since their passing. Indeed, they and others like them who led a series of struggles against the British at that time, had become beacons of nationalistic inspiration for freedom fighters of a later era.
However, citing the scholarly opinion of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, as expressed in his book Pakistan (1940), Prof. More contends, with an impressive array of other impeccable references to substantiate his view, that the popularly known ‘1857 War of Independence’ was merely an intermediate stage of a movement with the entirely different objective of converting India into a Dar-ul-Islam (land ruled according to Islamic Law) (p. 7). That movement had really commenced with the activism of Shah Waliullah after the Battle of Plassey in 1757, to be rejuvenated with the jihad undertaken by Sayyid Ahmad. The next stage was achieved when India became independent at the cost of partition and the creation of Pakistan in 1947. Both struggles were ostensibly against the British as all of us know. But the author says, ominously perhaps, that the next in the series is hardly likely to be a struggle against them (p. 12), leaving readers’ logic more than imagination or emotion to ascertain by and against whom it is most likely to be waged.
‘1857’ was, according to the author, essentially a jihad with the sole aim of re-establishing Islamic rule, which had seen progressive decay since Aurangzeb’ s death in 1707. It was not a freedom struggle at all in the sense we normally use the term.
He recounts in the first two chapters, details of a movement initiated by a certain Shah Waliullah (1703-62) who preached a return to pristine Islam after ridding it of the accretion of non-Islamic customs. The movement was embellished by his successors – his son Shah Abdul Azeez and Sayyid Ahmed Barelvi (1786-1831), which accomplished unprecedented churning of religious sentiment among Muslims ofNorth India.
No history of the 1857 uprising taught in schools even mentions these persons. But, according to evidence presented by the author, they were most responsible for the creation of an anti-British sentiment that eventually led to the Uprising.
The author’s contention is perhaps borne out by the curious fact that, barring those territories that had in the 19th century remained under Muslim control, nominal though it may have been, no other region in India witnessed anything that could justly be called an ‘uprising’.
Commonly proffered reasons for the uprising are analytically debated by the author in a separate chapter to show how only few of them might be called primary and fundamental while all the otherswere only secondary, subsidiary or incidental. That the revolt remained restricted to only certain areas of North India is explained by the author as a result of the primary cause – the compromising of Muslim power (p.104). The economic deprivation suffered by mainly Muslim tradesmen through the new policies of the British government is identified by him as another main cause (p. 96). Weavers, ship builders and maritime traders were predominantly Muslim and suffered the most with British takeover of their businesses. Annexation of native states or the enactment of laws prohibiting evil social customs like sati, are regarded by the author only as secondary or incidental causes. In actual fact, not a small section of Hindu society had actually welcomed those reforms! The author makes a comparison of public reaction to the dissolution of Satara, Jhansi and Avadh. While the first two were tame, individual protests made by the respective deposed rulers with no part being taken by their subjects, the third was met with massive public outrage. He claims that this marked difference strengthens his argument that loss of Muslim power had been a primary cause. The issue of fat-smeared cartridges, in fact, he dismisses as “absurd” (p.103)! He further points out (p.100) that it was “abnormal, illogical and astonishing” that Hindus had taken part in the uprising for reasons as trivial as these.
The instigators, leaders and beneficiaries of the uprising who are identified in three chapters were Muslim almost to a man and subscribed to the Waliullahi philosophy. Nanasahib, Laxmibai and not least of all, Mangal Pandey who is credited as being the ‘first freedom fighter’, had all been enticed, coerced, beguiled or befuddled into the fray, says the author. Unknown to or ignored by most of us, Laxmibai was essentially a British loyalist and had been appointed by them to rule Jhansi on their behalf for a full ten months from July 2, 1857, even after the Uprising had broken out in that principality. They would hardly have done so if they had even a faint suspicion about her loyalty! Her ultimate undoing, says the author, was due to a conspiracy engineered by Nathhe Khan of nearby Orchha who waylaid every conciliatory or explanatory communication sent by her to the British, thus precipitating the fatal confrontation between them. (p.306) Likewise, Mangal Pandey too was the victim of machinations of his trusted friend Nakki Khan (p.174-76). Nanasahib, in fact, was threatened with death by rebel sepoys if he declined to lead them. (p.237-38)
As further evidence in support of his view, the author presents in a subsequent chapter numerous appeals, declarations, proclamations and fatwas issued by the various players of 1857, explaining their content and intent. It includes such documents issued, among others, by Nanasahib and Laxmibai which the author shows were jihadi in essence. He claims that internal evidence of their contents establishes beyond any doubt that they were actually drafted by Muslim clerics and passed off in the names of influential persons like Nanasahib and Laxmibai, who had no choice but to sanction them.
The last chapter narrates the innumerable grievous clashes that took place between Hindus and Muslims during the period of the uprising, completely belying an impression that communal harmonyprevailed, which eulogists would have their readers to receive. The author states, “It is … a parody of truth to claim that a golden age of Hindu-Muslim amity had dawned during the Uprising”, and records his amazement at the ease with which Moulana Azad, when he was Central Minister for Education, could pervert history with the observation that he had not come across a single incident of communal strife or conflict during the entire period of the uprising. (p. 439)
The book presents a disturbingly new angle to events of the 1857 Uprising and is certain to make very interesting reading.
The 1857 JIHAD