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Mainstream, Vol XLV No 22

P.C. Joshi and 1857

Saturday 19 May 2007, by V N Datta


It is gratifying that Mainstream has published a few interesting and instructive articles as a mark of respect to the memory of the distinguished Communist leader, P.C. Joshi, on his birth centenary (April 14, 2007). The article ‘Remem-bering Puranda’ written by his cousin and namesake, a leading intellectual, captures with sensitivity the anguish and sorrows which P.C. Joshi bore stoically before he died. Until the last moment of his life, there was burning within him a passionate love for his country and countrymen, whose lot he was ever anxious to ameliorate.

I did not know P.C. Joshi nor was I drawn to the ideology of Marixt thought to which he was firmly committed, though, like many others, I benefited from it for understanding the social and economic forces operating in the vicissitudes of human affairs.

In early 1968 I was consulting the archival records in the research room of the old National Archives of India building when my eyes fell on a person bearing a dignified carriage, clad in short pant and shirt, wearing thick glasses, and peering into the Hansard volumes (the British Parliamentary debates), and taking copious notes in his old notebook. As he was leaving after an hour or so, I saw in his hand a book edited by Horst Kruger on K.M. Ashraf, and that aroused my interest. After some hesitation, I asked him whether I could see the volume for a while to which he said, ‘How are you interested in it?’ I said that ‘I had the privilege of being Dr Ashraf’s colleague in Delhi University, teaching history, and written an article for this volume’. Seeing the contents of the volume he said, ‘Well, the volume is yours. You are the author.’ I hesitated to accept his kind gift (Ashraf had died in Berlin and Kruger had brought out a volume in his honour). Joshi’s gift still occupies a prominent place in my bookshelf.

As a part of the celebration of 150th anniversary of the Revolt of 1857, the National Book Trust under the chairmanship of Professor Bipan Chandra organised a symposium on the new edition of Joshi’s book ‘Rebellion 1857’ which was published fifty years ago to commemorate the centenary of 1857. At the symposium Professor Irfan Habib, the eminent historian who had written a succinct foreword to the book, presided. A large number of people attended the seminar held in the Auditorium of India International Centre, New Delhi.

Appreciating the significance of Joshi’s book, Irfan Habib maintained that Joshi took a view of the events of 1857 completely different from those existing then and included elements that were new. Habib emphasised that being a confirmed Marxist, Joshi tried to look at Indian history on its own terms. ‘He stuck to this position in coming out with the book,’ he said. Professor K.C. Yadav, a well-known historian, pointed out that generally historians have neglected the regional dimensions of the mutinies that had challenged the British forces in different parts of the of the country. He supported Joshi’s contention that the Rebellion of 1857 was national, and not a military or sepoy.

In his Preface Joshi was modest enough to write:

I am not a professional historian and had to resort to the old fashioned method of speaking through lengthy quotations. If I annoy the modern stylist my only defence is that I am supplying the younger readers with documentation from older books, etc. which are not easily available.

Joshi’s own essay ‘1857 In Our History’, which covers less than one-third of his book, provides ample evidence of his wide scholarship, analytical skills, and lucidity of expression. In support of his views, he cites 217 sources drawn from first-class primary sources including even the Parliamentary Papers. At times he casts a dice in favour of even those historians whose views he contests while maintaining the tenor of his arguments.

Of course, Joshi was right in saying that he was not a specialist in history in the sense that he was not a professional historian nor was he trained in the austerities of historical discipline. But why should he be so modest in saying so? In fact, in many ways, non-specialists have written better history than professional historians who tend to produce their works within a narrow framework, circumscribed by the well-regulated canons of conventional research methodology that is followed with rules of the thumb.

The greatest work on the history of the Roman Empire was written by a non-professional historian. Lord Macaulay, a prominent public figure in British politics, wrote the History of England, which established him as a pioneer in the reconstruction of British social history. In our times, Michael Foot, a leader of the Labour Party, published some of the finest essays on British public life and institutions. As part of his father Winston Churchill’s biography, his son Randolph Churchill, a member of the British Conservative Party, wrote the first two brilliant volumes, which have become authoritative works of reference. In our country, Jawaharlal Nehru showed a pro-found historical sense in his books, especially in his Discovery of India, which is a testimony to India’s cultural unity in its diversity. And I have yet to find a more candid and brilliant review of the range of India’s’ history than K.M. Panikkar’s A Survey of Indian History, which, with some excisions and editing, would perhaps have served as a far better textbook for schools and colleges in the country than the kind of stuff doled out in a scissor-and-paste manner by the so-called panel of expert professional historians.


THE question is: why did P.C.Joshi hold a symposium on the 1857 Rebellion, and bring out a volume on it, a corporate work to which several well-known writers made contributions? What gave an impulse to his thought of making the 1857 a theme of his historical enquiry? I think that Joshi was completely disenchanted with the kind of historical works that were being produced to mark the first centenary celebrations of the 1857 Rebellion.

Joshi felt that the most widely quoted British historians, Sir John William Kaye and Lt.Col. G.B. Malleson, the authors of the History of the Indian Mutiny (in six volumes), were primarily the historians of the British Empire who ascribed the British victory over the Indian rebels to the British character of masculinity.

According to Joshi, Kaye and Malleson had provided largely a British perspective to the Rebellion of 1857. But Joshi acknowledges that Kaye did underline the disastrous effects of the British land settlement policy which brought untold misery to the peasantry in Oudh, causing unrest and rebellion against the British authority, the viewpoint which Joshi and Eric Stokes elaborated later. Joshi thought that V.D. Savarkar’s The Indian War of Independence lauded, glorified and romanticised the role of the Indian rebels, and ignored the part the people played in the rebellion. Joshi held the view that Savarkar’s study, though inspired by a spirit of patriotism, lacked a critical rigour. Savarkar wrote in an ornate style, and modelled his history on the historical novels of Sir Walter Scott, which had evoked the memory of the historic struggles of his Scottish forebears and Scottish Highland society.

Joshi felt completely dissatisfied with Jawaharlal Nehru’s presentation of the Rebellion of 1857 as a ‘feudal outburst’ headed by feudal chiefs, and their followers, and aided by the widespread anti-British sentiments. Joshi’s main complaint was that, curiously enough, Nehru called the 1857 Rebellion the Indian war of Independence but he did not call it ‘national’. Obviously, there was some ambivalence in Nehru’s views on the Revolt of 1857. On the one hand, Nehru felt deeply moved by the patriotic spirit of a large number of people during the Revolt, but, on the other, he found an utter lack of coordination and unity among the Indian rebels. It seems that Nehru was largely influenced in his understanding of the revolt by S.N. Sen’s interpretation of the Rebellion. However, there was no ambiguity in the views of R.C. Majumdar on the Revolt of 1857. With a rhetorical flourish, he proclaimed that the Revolt was neither national, nor a war, nor of indepen-dence. Majumdar wrote:

The miseries and bloodshed of 1857-8 were not the birth-pangs of freedom movement in India, but the dying groans of an obsolete aristocracy and centrifugal feudalism of the medieval age.

I think that the immediate provocation for Joshi to produce his book was the publication of Eighteen Fiftyseven by Surendranath Sen whom the Government of India had commissioned to write for celebrating the 1857 centenary. Sen was a highly respected and reputed historian of long standing who had made a definite contribution to Maratha History. He also used some new archival material in the British libraries in England. It took nearly two years for Sen to complete his work. Sen’s story of the 1857 Revolt shows his profound scholarship, a wide perspective and analytical insights. He unfolds the 1857 Rebellion region-wise with meticulous care. Sen’s main argument is that originally the Indian sepoys, provoked by the sight of the greased cartridges, revolted at one swoop, but, as the Rebellion gained a wider base, it assumed especially in Oudh some form of a national dimension where, along with the sepoys, the peasantry and others, joined together to fight the British forces.

Sen has no sympathy for the rebel leaders whom he thought were a fusty musty lot, the reactionaries, and old liners; and he argues that if the leaders of such a medieval outlook had succeeded, then the progress of Indian’s social and educational development, which the British Government had initiated, would have ended. Amazed at Sen’s view that the British rule was a blessing for the people of India, Joshi draws the inference from Sen’s contention that under the circumstances, the right thing for the country is that the British rule should continue till eternity so that the task they had undertaken may be completed.


JOSHI’S essay on ‘1857 In Our History’ in his book is an antidote to the orthodox British and Indian historiography. Joshi had made use of Karl Marx’s writings on the Rebellion which had appeared in the New York Daily Tribune. In Marx’s view, the Rebellion of 1857 was a ‘national revolt’. Joshi has offered a Marxist interpretation of the Rebellion. Joshi maintains that originally the 1857 Rebellion was led by Indian feudals (not of them alone) but there were ‘other social forces of the common people in action during the struggle’. Joshi adds:

the popular forces are active enough, healthy in their aspirations, clear-headed in their ideas to prevent feudal restoration in India.

To substantiate his view that the rebels had devised a plan to subvert the British rule, Joshi refers to the activities of the ‘Court of Mutineers’ set up by the rebels. According to Joshi, the ‘Court of Mutineers’ represented the institution of the soldier-peasant democracy within the framework of constitutional monarchy. (p. 207) It is true that the Court acted at times like a Panchayat, but especially in Delhi there were strong dissensions among its members which adversely affected the unity of action at critical moments. The Court forced the King Bahadur Shah to sign proclama-tions, even though he was averse to the idea of doing so.

I think that Joshi has made too much of the role of the peasantry during the Rebellion, though he is absolutely right that the Rebellion took its most intense form in Oudh, where the peasantry was most adversely affected by the British land settlement policy. The Bengal Army that fought the British Army fiercely was largely drawn from Oudh, but in the Army there were also a large number of high-caste Brahmans. According to Joshi, the rebels offered the biggest challenge to the British in Delhi, the North-Western Provinces, Bundelkhand, Rohilkhand, Oudh, and in a large part of Bihar. I think that this aspect has generally been ignored that the Rebellion took its most violent turn in the areas where no British military regiments were stationed.

Joshi repudiates Talmiz Khaldun’s thesis which he had presented in his essay ‘The Great Rebellion’. He does not agree with Khaldun’s view that the Rebellion ended as ‘a peasant war against indigenous landlordism and foreign imperialism’. Joshi found no evidence to suggest that the Indian peasantry had freed itself from the feudal bonds politically and economically. Joshi throws light on the network of Indian spies who were operating in Delhi and from whom the British were obtaining secret information about the activities of the rebels, and of what was happening in the Mughal Court in the Red Fort. There is a need for the study of Indian espionage during 1857 like the high level work produced by F.H. Hinsley on the Intelligence Service in the Second World War.

Joshi tells us how the Mughal Princes, Nawabs, Zinat Mahal Begum and the King Bahadur Shah were playing a duplicitious role during the 1857 Rebellion, while supporting the rebels on one side, and negotiating with the British for a settlement when the weather is rough on the other. Here Joshi comes closer to R.C. Majumdar’s view that the only epithet which fitted Bahadur Shah’s role was that he was a traitor, no more no less.

I do not think that Bahadur Shah was a traitor. He was a mock-king; a puppet turned this way or that by the British and the rebels. He had no heart in the rebellion. He was dragged into it. He abhorred violence. He was a poet and a mystic who revered all religions. He was a humanist who bore no ill will to anyone. He was one of the finest representatives of Indo-Muslim culture and a true descendant of his great forebear, Akbar the Great, whose cardinal principle of statecraft was Suleh-e-Kul (peace to all). A full-scale biography on Bahadur Shah has been written by Aslam Parvez, which has been translated by Azra Kidwai.I Joshi is highly critical of the role of the greedy and selfish Mughal Princes who indulged in fleshy carnal adventures with prostitutes at night, and pillaged the Hindu and Jain moneylenders in day time in Chandni Chowk.

I think that the disagreement among historians regarding the character of the Rebellion has arisen due to a lack of adequate explanation on the concept of a ‘Nation’ and ‘Nationalism’. The question arises whether there was cooperation or coordination of action among the rebels in different parts of the country. Did the rebels and their leaders devise a well-prepared plan or scheme and prepare a military strategy to fight the British authority? Did they possess adequate economic and military resources to sustain their struggle? The ideals were noble, but there was a wide gap between ideology and action. Did the rebels know what they were replacing, and whom they were setting up as their rulers in the country? What were their dreams? And what was their perspective? The poet Ghalib, a witness to the uprising, called the Revolt ‘Baija rastkhez (unnecessary resurrection)’. To put it differently, for Ghalib, the Revolt was a thoughtless venture. When I started this awhile, I mentioned Dr K.M. Ashraf’s association with Joshi. I cannot resist referring to Ashraf’s article on ‘Ghalib in the Revolt of 1857’. I will just focus on one point relating to Ghalib’s role in the Rebellion of 1857. Ghalib was, indeed, the greatest Urdu poet of his times, the last outstanding classical Persian poet, and the father of modern Urdu prose. When the mutiny burst forth in Delhi on May 11, 1857 he was living in Billimoran. Ashraf has presented in his article the anguish, despair and suffering of the poet, who confined himself to his room, and did not stir out. He had no water to drink. He felt chagrined at the death of his near and dear ones.

Ghalib started his Diary which he called Dastambu, a tendentious work, in which he tried to assure the British authorities that during the Revolt his loyalty to them remained firm. When thousands of his countrymen were dying, and, as he put it, only a thousand Muslims were left in Delhi while others had fled to save their lives, he was begging Queen Victoria to restore his pension, recognise him as a poet-laureate, and give him a due place in the Durbar to be held shortly for awarding honours to those who had stood by the British. I think Ghalib’s position in 1857 has to be explained as also Syed Ahmed Khan’s; Sir Syed’s house in Delhi had been ransacked, and his mother suffered a great deal, but for protecting several British lives, he was awarded a robe costing Rs 1000, and a pension for him and two of his succeeding generations.


HOW are we going to celebrate the 150th anniversary of 1857? Let us not make a ritual of the historic occasion only to laud the heroism of the rebels, and mourn the victims. History is serious business, a ruthless discipline which has no heroes. It is a rigorous mode of rational thinking. The best part of Joshi’s essay relates to the impact of the Revolt on the subsequent history of India. The Revolt is a turning point in the history of India. It led to the growth of a fervent spirit of India nationalism. It brought a parting of the ways between the Indians and the British. In about two decades of its occurrence, the Indian National Congress was founded which took it as a sacred mission to free India from the shackles of British rule.

I think that for the academics, there is a need for the evaluation of the historical works published on the 1857 Revolt. S.B. Chaudhuri had done a wonderful work on the historiography of British writings (1857-1858). I think a sequel to the volume is necessary to bring the story up to the present time. An anthology of folk songs and other poems and writings on 1857 in a single volume will be valuable for the general reader. Research on British espionage during 1857 still remains an open field for study.

Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, delivered a speech on the occasion of the first centenary of the Revolt at Ram Lila Grounds in Delhi on May 10, 1957. Nehru’s speech is one of the finest and most instructive documents on the 1857 Revolt. He derived some lessons from the events of 1857 as a historian, and warned the nation to rise above the evils of caste, religion and region and make the country a strong, vibrant and secular nation. I should like the text of this speech to be translated into Indian languages and distributed in the schools and colleges of the country, as also among the Members of Parliament, our rulers, who are expected to use their authority for the good and well-being of the people living in the country.


I. William Dalrymple in his book ‘The Last Mughal: The Fall of the Dynasty, Delhi (2007) calls Islam Parvez’s biography of Bahadur Shah Zafar, ‘a wonderful work of secondary scholarship’. Why should Dalrymple call Parvez’s study a work of secondary scholarship? Parvez has used in his biography extensive primary materials of first-class importance including the Mutiny Papers with meticulous care worthy of a sound scholar. On page 498, footnote 20 of his book, Dalrymple concedes that some scholars have used the Mutiny Papers but he is the first person to have made a properly systematic use of the material.

Dalrymple has made all sorts of wild claims in his work; for example in his book on pp. 11-14, he wrote, ‘Discovering in the sheer scale of the treasures held by the National Archives was one of the highlights of the whole project.’ Surely, he is not the sole discoverer of the material. He wrote further that ‘one of the principal aims of the book (The Last Mughal) is to bring the voluminous Persian and Urdu primary and secondary sources on Delhi in 1857 before an English readership for the first time’. This claim also proves false because for his own study of the poet Ghalib and his life in 1857-1858, Dalrymple relies not on Ghalib’s own Persian and Urdu literature, but on the English translation of his works by Ralph Russell and Frau Pritchett.

The author is a Professor Emeritus of Modem History, Kurukshetra university, Kurukshetra

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