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War Correspondence

Comparing 1857 and the American Civil War is admirable,but the end result is far from satisfactory....

Far too often histories of India remain too narrowly focused on the subcontinent. Medieval histories could certainly benefit from comparisons with Turko-Persian kingdoms in other parts of the world. 1857 too has been reduced to an Indian story,presented either as an account of Indian valour or of Indian failure whereas it was at once neither of these things as well as much more than them. As such,Rajmohan Gandhi’s attempt to compare the uprising of 1857 with the American Civil War (1861-65) is highly laudable.

Britain,of course,was a common link between the two events,as were invocations to religion,race and notions of governance. While the Indian uprising aroused significant interest in America where both sides read it as a confirmation of Indian perfidy,the “leading Indians” (Gandhi’s phrase) of the time unequivocally supported Abraham Lincoln’s Unionists and the abolition of slavery.

Biography is Gandhi’s favourite mode and he uses the life and travels of William Howard Russell,the first modern war correspondent who covered both events for The Times,London,to connect the three continents. In addition,there are biographies of five Indians — Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay,Sir Syed Ahmad Khan,Jyotiba Phule,Ishwarchand Vidyasagar and A.O. Hume — through which he traces the events of the 1857 uprising and the wider Indian reactions to British rule,the revolt and the nature of social and intellectual exchange between the British and the Indians. For good measure,there are biographies of Karl Marx and Leo Tolstoy that allow a panoramic sweep of the nineteenth century and show how events of the time continue to impact our lives.

Gandhi is of a rare breed in India,an independent scholar and historian who writes for the general public. His writings also show the strengths and limitations of such an endeavour. One must try to understand his philosophy of history. This history writing takes directly off Jawaharlal Nehru,vide his famous speech,“the soul of a nation,long suppressed,now finds utterance”. Nations have souls,or essences,which are discovered by its great scions and they then proceed to enlighten,educate,guide the rest of the sleeping masses. It was,of course,Thomas Carlyle,with his Great Lives,who started this healthy liberal trend and in our times it is another liberal,Ramachandra Guha,who continues to keep the flame of this sort of historiography alive.

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In Gandhi’s majestic sweep,the accounts of the two events allow for no examination of categories such as “people”,“crowds”,“mobs”,or even “violence”. Studies of modern British history,French history,or indeed the subaltern studies in India have long made it impossible for serious historians to use these categories unselfconsciously. There are struggles within; domination and resistance take place not along fabricated national lines but along people living side by side. No wonder Edward Said is dismissed in two paragraphs in the present book.

While the enterprise to compare 1857 and the American Civil War is admirable,the end result is far from satisfactory. We might have learnt more about 1857 by comparing it with anti-colonial uprisings in different parts of the world. The greatest benefit of the American Civil War to India,in the end analysis,was the gift of cotton. Lack of access to cheap,abundant American cotton,allowed Indian cotton manufacturing to take off in a big way. It was the 1860s and the ’70s when Ahmedabad and Bombay became major mill cities. Their entropy today finally suggests a closure to the long nineteenth century,freedom and independence notwithstanding.

First published on: 19-12-2009 at 12:31:38 am
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