Social Scientist. v 26, no. 296-99 (Jan-April 1998) p. 3.


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Introduction

The Revolt of 1857 is one of those events which have been interpreted again and again by officials, nationalists and historians.

Here we have an uprising which for its scale alone demands explanation, whatever view of history we may adopt. In the words of a contributor to the present collection of essays, there is no gainsaying the fact that it was "the greatest armed challenge to imperialism the world over during the entire course of the nineteenth century".

The designation "Mutiny", so long given by the rulers, and accepted by the ruled (who called it "Ghadar"), loses its perjorative and restrictive colour, when applied to that great event. If it was a mutiny, it was not of this or that group of soldiers, but of the bulk of soldiers of the largest modern army in all Asia, the Bengal Army, of about 130,000 men (excluding British officers). The Mutiny involved soldiers stationed from Barrackpore near Calcutta to the Northwest frontier. But in a large region whose population today amounts to nearly a quarter of the population of this country, the revolt took the complexion of what Disraeli pronounced to be a "national revolt". For in this extensive space large masses of civil population joined the soldiers' rebellion. Whether the revolt was not simply "national" in this sense, but also "nationalist" can always be debated, and the absence of ideas of equality and democracy among the rebel leaders can be legitimately stressed. But what surprised even the English opponents of the Rebellion, was the stress laid by rebels on the unity of Hindus and Muslims, which is surely an important, perhaps crucial, building block for the nation that is India. There was also a fairly strong concept of India ("Hindustan") and the need to free it of foreign rule that animated the rebels, beyond their immediate, local or parochial grievances.

From these generalities, one must pass to the specific problem of reconstructing the revolt on the basis of the massive information that exists, much of it still unexplored.



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