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Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Besieged -- Book review

The Rebellion of 1857, considered by many as the First War of Independence, did not merely mark the end of a way of life; it also, in a sense, marked a departure in a way of seeing things. Given the close relationship between social reality and the written word, it is important to re-visit and re-examine the writings produced during times of great social upheaval. Doing so can provide a far more nuanced understanding of historical events than an ‘official’ rendering of history. Mahmood Farooqui’s compilation of a fascinating collection of documents – culled from the Mutiny Papers housed at the National Archives of India – provides a much-needed alternate view of the turbulence of 1857. Some of these documents, originally written in Persian or Shikastah Urdu, give us another way of understanding the history of 1857 which is still, unfortynately, largely being constructed from English-language accounts.
Besieged: Voices from Delhi, 1857 brings to the fore countless voices that would remained forever buried in the dusty stacks of the archives were it not for the industry and talent of Farooqui. At a time when few young scholars can read Shikastah, let alone Persian, Farooqui has not merely translated with flair; he has also put together a remarkably eclectic collection. From random lists of elopements, evictions, burglaries, bail proceedings, arrests for gambling, seizure of counterfeit currency, and other minor transgressions to the presence of large numbers of soldiers in the city of Delhi, the proceedings of an impromptu court called the Court of Mutineers (CoM), records of risaldars, jamadars, thanedars and other officials. In short, besieged brings a collage of subaltern voices. The Great Revolt or the Uprising (the ghadar as it is called in Urdu) is referred to sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly; taken together Besieged not only opens a window into the life of Delhiwallahs during its annus horribilis but also gives us a glimpse into the ways of governance in the pre-modern period
The Mutiny Papers, running into thousands of assorted documents, were culled from a variety of sources by the colonial administrators —from kotwali records, secretariat, personal letters and diaries as well as an efficient and hyperactive network of spies. The great many of these were in Shikastah, some in Persian and a few in English translations. Their initial impulse might have been simple and random information gathering, though they were later catalogued and arranged primarily with the intention of being used as ‘evidence’ to prosecute the exiled emperor, Bahadurshah Zafar. As Farooqui puts it: ‘For all the colonial intentionality motivating this extensive, meticulous and arduous classification, they provide…one of the densest descriptions of a city at war and at work, of administration and anarchy, and of deceit and desperation. These papers provide a street-side view, a microscopic vision of the ghadar of 1857 in Delhi.’

A circular letter written unanimously by both Hindus and Muslims, published in Bareilly, sent to all the ‘Kings of Hindustan’ reads:
‘Hindus must take oath on Ganga Tulsi Saligram and Muslims must swear on God and the Quran and we say that the English are enemies of both, that it would be wise for the Hindus and Muslims to kill them because that way they would be able to protect their faith and religion.’

Then there are the several eyewitness accounts of the murder, loot and mayhem unleashed upon the hapless citizens of Delhi by the mutineering soldiers. The newsletter of the sahib Bahadur Agent Commissioner of Shahjehanabad, naturally enough, played up these accounts of the atrocities committed by the Tilangas and the horsemen from Meerut. For instance, on the first day of their arrival, on Monday, 11 May itself: ‘Whatever goods were there in the Delhi Treasury were looted by the Tilangas of the Rajpura platoon and the loot was distributed among them. They also set fire to the civil and military courts and to the Rajpura camp.’ From a reluctant player, the emperor emerged as an unlikely hero and a within a few days had begun to command the respect and allegiance of a wide circle of rebels. Soon, the emperor was exhorting his motley bunch of subjects: ‘Make it so that not a single person of the gora community should escape without meeting death. So that we should make sure that this kind of tribulation is not repeated.’ The emperor’s orders are supplemented by many others from officers commanding troops, daily diaries from the thanas and chowkies.

Perhaps the most interesting of these many different accounts, pleadings, and petitions are the ones belonging to the ordinary people. A certain Banda Ali, writing to the emperor on 17 July, begs that he may be allowed to retrieve his clothes lying with the washer man. Or, the Thanedar of Turkman Gate urging the residents to maintain vigil in their mohallas and guard against the marauding rioters. Or, the widow of a certain Qasim Khan protesting against the horsemen and Tilangas who have forcibly occupied her house in Kashmiri Gate. Or, a subedar reporting to his senior regarding a certain grocer, who has been arrested for spying, to be an innocent destitute. The documents chosen for translation here correct the mistaken picture of chaos and anarchy that the very mention of the Uprising evokes. Farooqui notes:
‘The administration put together by the rebels and the royal government was a combination of pre-existing institutions, such as the police establishment, and some improvisations, like the CoM, but it was surprisingly effective. By the end of May, a skeletal administrative structure was in place. When fighting resumed with the British forces in the first week of June, it was able to provide for and manage that war to a surprising degree of efficiency. Administrative reforms were bureaucratized, everything was committed to paper and rules of hierarchy and accountability were insisted upon, and enforced.’

Farooqui devotes an entire section to the women in the city who, inevitably, are the worst affected. As in times of dislocation and upheaval, there were large numbers of missing or abducted women. Farooqui has trawled through copious reports of missing wives, daughters and sisters, or those who have simply run away with soldiers or, taking advantage of the troubled times, eloped with forbidden lovers. He presents the piquant case of Bilasia, who was sold by her husband to a sweeper, bought back by her father and sold to someone else. Bilasia, who would have remained unknown and unheard of, emerges from the mists of history to briefly occupy centre-stage as we read the histrionics surrounding her ‘case’ and that of her still-born child. What is significant in the case of this woman who is called upon to prove the paternity of her child, is that the system allowed a woman to have choices and give testimony. It is in the telling of these stories that Besieged rises above the scores of recent books on 1857. It is in its unequivocal advocacy of the ordinary and the everyday that makes this a valuable new addition to the burgeoning study of the subaltern.

Besieged: Voices from Delhi, 1857, compiled and translated by Mahmood Farooqui, Penguin/Viking, New Delhi, 2010, pp. 458.


  1. I had heared Farooqui as for bureaucracy is concerned we had traditions from last 3000 years (Chanakya) to Raja Birbal to Raja Todarmal(land revenue system is still based on Raja Todarmal system. Than diff between civil and millitary (this is also Moughal) Perhaps some credit also to Shershah suri for Highway when compared to achievement of PWD ( I know as Civil engineer gov of India had not even constructed 1000Km new road in 50 years (NHAI git boosted by Vajapai) and he had constructed more than that in his lifetime.

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