Thursday, February 18, 2010

1857: Battle for self-esteem, lost yet won

Tatya Tope's Operation Red Lotus
By Parag Tope
Rs 595/-

By Rajesh Singh

Several books have been written on the 1857 Uprising, variously referred to as the Revolt, Mutiny and India's first War of Independence. These titles reflect the tone of the books; for instance, the word 'mutiny' is used when the book emphasises that the event was a mere military (mis)adventure by a group of disgruntled Indian soldiers in the British pay, and 'revolt' when an author has extended the development to include disenchantment at least in some sections of civil society with the foreign rule. Some writers further enlarged the historic act to conclude it was indeed orchestrated as a freedom struggle against the British rule in the country. Tatya Tope's remarkable work falls in the latter category.

The cynical minded may be justified in believing that the book is a glorified account of the `Sepoy Mutiny' since it has been authored by a member of the Tope family. Tatya Tope, after all, was a key figure in the event and his family member cannot but be expected to extoll virtues, some of which may not exist.

To some extent that may be true, since the book does glorify the characters of this first War of Independence while keeping out the savage and gory acts of the 'mutineers' against women and children that other books have spoken about. There is of course no reason to be overly sensitive -- with thousands of people involved in the uprising, brutalities will have happened. But to simply harp on this perhaps deliberate oversight and dismiss the book altogether would be a grave error.

'Operation Red Lotus' is a first-of-its kind expose on how the 1857 incident was a major offensive against the British rule that could well have succeeded. It demolishes the myths that the revolt was the mere result of frustations of individual rulers who failed to get their due from the foreign rule, that it was bereft of leadership, that the vast majority of the population even in the region where it happened was a passive observer unwilling to involve in the fight. Finally, Parag Tope demonstrates the intricate planning that went into the revolt and the alarm of the British over the coming together of the Hindus and the Muslims to oust them.

While a large part of the book details the operational planning and networking of troops in various parts of north India, there is sufficient material to indicate that it was not just a revolt by soldiers; civilians were involved in taking care of the troops as they moved from place to place securing the 'liberated' areas. Villagers rose to the task by caring for their food and lodging, and there is no evidence that they did so out of coercion. The mysterious but logical movement of chappatis and red lotus petals -- that is the high point of the book since no other before this could crack the code -- would not have been possible without the voluntary involvement of the civilians.

The book has a very scientific approach; it uses maps and diagrams to detail the offensive, and falls back upon a host of primary and secondary sources to consolidate its claims. This should not be surprising since the US-based author has a Master's degree in engineering and an MBA in strategy. What adds to the sytematic approach is the active involvement of a number of other family members with varied and distinguished backgrounds: for instance, Rupa Tope-Joshi has a Master's degree in psychology while Nandita Saini-Tope is a software professional.

Contrary to claims by some historians that the uprising eventually failed because it had no leadership, this book shows the strong leadership of Tatya Tope at the behest of Nana Saheb. Of course the titular head of the event was Bahadur Shah of Delhi, but everyone knew he had a symbolic though crucial role of perform -- that of projecting a Hindu-Muslim alignment in the fight against the British. Modern day historians agree that the British were rattled by this convergence and decided never to allow the alliance to happen again. The 1857 incident also hastened London's political class 's resolve to handle India directly.

Many historians have contended that `mutineers' like the Rani of Jhansi -- unfortunately consigned to the fringes of our history -- fought a purely personal battle because her adopted son was not recognized by the British, but that is only half-truth. Even a cursory reading of the Declaration of the 1857 uprising, produced in the book, shows that leaders ranging from the Jhansi queen to Bahadur Shah to Begum Hazrat Mahal of Lucknow were united in getting the British out because the foreign rulers had enslaved the Indian on his own soil, ruined his economic status and attacked his religio-cultural identity. Parag Tope also demonstrates how the greased cartridge issue became a trigger for the uprising; the plan to topple the foreign yoke had been put into motion by the resentful Indians even earlier.

Finally, the book also dwells on the reasons why the revolt/mutiny/uprising/war eventually failed. The brutal suppression by the British who left behind a trail of unimaginable atrocities proved too much for a military campaign to sustain against the rulers. Moreover, the eventual death of the Jhansi queen and Tatya Tope himself
ended what should be considered by nationalist-minded people India's first War of Independence.

One major factor that the book does not mention for the unstaintability of the uprising was the near complete absence of support of key Indian intellectuals of the time. People in the East like Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar kept aloof while in the West social reformers like Jyotiba Phule refused to have anything to do with what he must considered 'upper caste' dealings. They may have had justifiable reasons, but the fact remains that their involvement could have made a difference. Perhaps that is a topic that another book should explore.

1 comment:

  1. From Rajesh Singh: Parag Tope send me this email:

    Thanks for reviewing Tatya's Tope's Operation Red Lotus on your blog.

    You effectively captured most of the key points of the book in your review.

    Your critique of the book was also fair.

    Your comment about the lack of intellectuals who supported 1857 is a little difficult to ascertain because of the post 1857 narrative... England's eventual victory meant that the narrative of 1857 was written by the English... and any support of intellectuals does not fit into any mutiny narrative.