Agra, Aug 9 : Unfazed by the possibility that her assertions could open up a Pandora’s Box of controversies and trigger a north-versus-south India debate, historian S. Chandni Bi says there is need for a thorough review and rewriting of history of pre-independence India, objectively assessing the role of each region and community.
“Time and again we are told that the 1857 rebellion of sepoys against the British East India Company was the First War of Independence. The sentiment found an echo in the movie ‘Mangal Pandey – The Rising’ which depicts the hero as the first man to rise against the British.
“True, the 1857 rebellion of the sepoys against the East India Company was a major move in the process of evolution of the Indian freedom movement. But, can that be called India’s First War of Independence? If it were to be, were there not similar and much more organised and violent uprisings in different parts of the country against the company rule much earlier?” asks Chandni Bi from Salem in Tamil Nadu, who teaches South Indian History at the Department of History, Centre of Advanced Study, Aligarh Muslim University (AMU).
As far as the 1857 mutiny is concerned “there seemed to be as many motives for the resistance as the number of people involved in the mutiny. The soldiers of the East India Company refused to use the cartridges and the animal (cow or pig) fat to grease them. The anger was borne out of their religious sentiments. There is nothing to concretely suggest antipathy to alien rule,” she says.
Chandni Bi notes that Indian historians have clear parameters to judge which events qualify for “national status” and which do not. According to her, “The incident should involve a significantly large number of people (a mass movement); the goal should be inspired by a single motive and, finally, (there should be) a feeling of oneness among all sections/stretch of people involved against their common enemy.”
Applying these yardsticks, incidents, revolts or rebellions that occurred before the Swadeshi Movement of the 1920s cannot be described as national. “Hence, to call the 1857 revolt the first war of India’s Independence is wide off the mark and unacceptable,” says Chandni Bi.
On the freedom movement in southern India, she says there were many revolts against the East India Company and the British on either side of the Vindhyas that reflected aversion to alien rule. “There are incidents that took place in Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu a half century or more before the 1857 revolt of Mangal Pandey. Veer Savarkar had noted that the Vellore Mutiny of 1806 was similar to the 1857 revolt. Vellore has a fort where the Company kept the successors of Tipu Sultan under arrest. The sepoys and soldiers who were kept under arrest in this fort revolted overnight and freed themselves,” she says.
When a committee headed by Dr S Radhakrishnan was appointed by the Union government to write the history of the freedom movement, the Tamil Arasu Kazhagam, a Tamil nationalist movement in Tamil Nadu, had protested saying that the history of the freedom movement should start with the revolt of Veerapandiya Kattabomman from the land of Panchalankurichi in Tamil Nadu.
“This personality, Veerapandiya Kattabomman was the Palayankarar (ruler) of the Palayam (a political division) Panchalankurichi, who agitated against the Company’s overlordship and refused to pay taxes. He questioned their right over the land. Finally, he was betrayed by a friend and arrested by the Company. There was an open trial for not paying the dues and he was sentenced to death. He dared to kiss the noose of death by himself and refused the touch of the Company’s servants,” says Chandni Bi.
This was the first case involving an Indian who challenged the empire and refused to obey the diktats of the British and the reasons were political, relating to freedom and dignity, says Chandni Bi. Apart from the 1806 Vellore mutiny, similar acts of defiance were reported from Mysore and Kerala, as early as the 1790s. There is a need for rewriting the earlier history of resistance and freedom struggle with all the inputs now being provided by south Indian historians, she says.