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When I first was introduced to Indian history, the events of 1857 were still described as the Sepoy Mutiny. For long years after India attained independence, history was taught thus. Mangal Pandey, Tantia Tope, the Rani of Jhansi were all applauded for their patriotism and bravery, but the central act of Mangal Pandey was still called the “Sepoy Mutiny”. It was not yet “The Rising” or the “First war of Independence” as it has come to be known now and whose one hundred and fiftieth anniversary we are now observing. Obsessed as we are rewriting and re interpreting history in every generation, I wonder what would have happened if we had continued to refer to the “Sepoy Mutiny” by its older and original name? Would the patriotism of its protagonists have dimmed? Incidentally if the events of 1857 constituted the first war of independence, which was the second? We do not find any reference to a second war of independence in any of our history books. 


Why do we try to obliterate history instead of understanding it in its context? In military vocabulary he word mutiny connotes organized acts of insubordination and frowned upon and therefore the word mutiny was sought to be disassociated from what Mangal Pandey and his colleagues initiated. However, it might have been better to retain the word “mutiny” and examine the context in which such an act of disobedience was carried out and draw lessons from it.  If the British understanding of history painted the Indian soldiers as all black, the Indian understanding of it has also stood history on its head by calling a series of regional skirmishes, which had little in common except to install a hedonist Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar at the head of a largely ceremonial throne by the grandiose title of “war”. 


Strictly speaking, the events of 1857, if at all a war, was not so much a war for independence of any kind as an attempt by petty feudal lords, both Hindu and Muslim to put a dummy emperor on the Delhi throne to whom they would give token allegiance and shake off the British hegemony which was oppressive all right, but still provided some order of governance compared to the no holds barred exploitation of most Rajas and Nawabs. 

Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi was one of the important leaders of the uprising of 1857 against the British. The uprising, despite its nationalistic overtones, was in its essence, a fight of the Indian feudal classes of kings and princes, against the new incoming imperial power of the British. The mass participation that characterized the freedom movement was to come in much later with Lokmanya Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi. To take the case of Jhansi, the Raja of Jhansi had maintained a pro-British stance throughout his reign. Jhansi had been pro-British ever since his grandfather had signed a treaty with the British in 1817 granting Jhansi to his heirs and successors in perpetuity. Gangadhar Rao, Laxmibai’s husband made explicit reference to his loyalty and that of his predecessors in his will. The British had a policy of ‘lapse’ whereby when an Indian ruler died without an heir the principality would be annexed and come under direct British administration. Under Dalhousie adopted children were not considered as heirs. When, the Rani of Jhansi made the oft quoted statement “”Mera Jhansi nahin dengee”, she was effectively underlining her feudal underpinning and ownership of the Jhansi state and its revenue.

Taking several such examples and putting them together , it becomes very clear that the first war of independence whose anniversary we are celebrating today was nothing more than a glorified property dispute of petty kings whose source of revenue and income was being annexed and it could even be argued that the post 1857 events were the ones that effectively brought the whole country under British administration , directly or through the British Resident and eventually laid the foundation for some form of unified governance. Sure the British were exploitative and imperialistic and all that ; but 50 years after independence , which Indian can stand up and say that our leaders today are any less exploitative. So, were the events of 1857 a war at all, or an attempt by a bunch of rich idlers to protect the family silver

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