People's Democracy, India, September 30, 2007
“I am one of the unemployed, but if I was in India, I
would say the same thing that Mr Gandhi is saying.”
--A Lancashire mill worker to Gandhi, 1931
UPON some honest reading in and around the event of 1857, spread over a diverse spectrum of ideological concerns, I just wish to sound the caution that in this celebratory year we may be that little bit guilty of a Saidesque Orientalism in unproblematically denoting the uprising of 1857 as a “nationalist” happening, treating even “the religious factor (as) part of the national factor” (P C Joshi). It may be argued against this caution that after all Marx himself projected a nationalist construction of the uprising, and with him the Chartist ideologue, Ernest Jones: “The revolt turns out to be. . . from the commencement, not a military mutiny but a national insurrection” (August 1, 1857). The question to ask is whether their perspective on national concerns was the same as ours, either in 1857 or indeed now.
Undeniably, many discrete and diverse sources of disaffection with British domination did aggregate into a felt fury against “firangi” rule (Irfan Habib has shown that this sentiment was overtly reflected in vernacular press of the time). Yet, this fury not only remained confined to parts of the Central Provinces, the Gangetic belt, Meerut and Delhi — leaving the whole of the south and Bengal largely untouched, and indeed even in these parts losing out to collaborators like the Scindias and Holkars, and finding the Sikh forces under Nicholson ranged against it, not to speak of the loyal Gorkhas — but seemed informed by motivations that hardly cohered into what Savarkar, interestedly, was to call the “first war of independence.”