Tuesday, 20 January, 2009

Your grandpa spat on my grandpa

While googling about the 'siege of Lucknow' I came across this entry. My comments in blue.

"Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold" - W.B. Yeats. "We're doomed !" - Private Frazer. "Like scrolling through a decade's worth of Daily Mail editorials in 20 minutes" - TheLoonyFromCatford

Tuesday, September 25, 2007
Siege of Lucknow 2007 
Once again, 150 years after the previous unpleasantness, a gallant band of Brits again defend themselves against violent racists.

A group of British veterans are barricaded inside an Indian hotel this evening after they were attacked by a violent group of Indian nationalists during a trip to pay homage to British soldiers killed during the 1857 Indian Mutiny. Indian authorities have told Britons in India to stay away from the historic site due to protests.

Dozens of retired British soldiers and civilians were holed up in a hotel behind a police cordon today in Lucknow. They had had planned to visit the site of a siege that was a key event of what is known in India as the First War of Independence and in Britain as the Sepoy Mutiny. During the siege, hundreds of British soldiers and their families defended the Residency of Lucknow against thousands of Indian soldiers - or sepoys - rebelling against the colonial occupiers. Hundreds died in the fighting.

Small but vocal protests have been led by local members of India's Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) party. Some protesters pelted the visitors' bus with rubbish and a bottle filled with dirty water when they arrived in the city on yesterday. "A thick security net around them saved the situation from taking any ugly turn," said district magistrate Chandra Bhanu. "Though we have no objection to their visit as ordinary tourists, we cannot take any chances and expose them to any kind of risk under the prevailing volatile circumstances" he said. 

May they show the same courage and unity as their forebears, and may their country succour them as it did then.

The 1857 mutiny was commemorated a month or two back in India with much ceremony as a "shining example of national unity". As the BBC put it : "It is known in India as the first war of India's independence, while in the UK it is usually called a mutiny. So we'll call it an uprising."

Now you can't really blame the Indian government for playing the national unity card for all it's worth. After all, theirs is what the BBCs Jim Muir would call an ethnic and confessional patchwork, with all the potential for lack of unity that implies. Not only that, but before the Raj there was no nation of India, although the Mughal Empire had at one stage encompassed almost the whole subcontinent. You get your national myths where you find them and as you need them - and India, always struggling to keep a vastly diverse nation intact (and succeeding remarkably well) - needs a national narrative more than most. 

There was no India before the Raj, in the sense that there was no single administration from Kashmir to Kanya Kumari. Very true. 

But which modern nation was born in its present state. Was there a USA before the 13 initial states broke off from British rule? What was Germany after WW2? Or China during the first half of the 20th century? Is UK the founder of USA, the Allies of Germany and Japan of China?

Ideas have often come long before boundaries, and administrative unity does not always translate into nationhood (see Yugoslavia, USSR, the former Japanese Empire). It's high time apologists for the Raj took off their blinkers, and stopped apologising. The Raj is over. Dead. Gone. Let's move on.

In Britain however we can take a more clear eyed view of the Mutiny, which was an uprising not solely against the forces of the British Empire, the soldiers and administrators, but a vast racist pogrom against all Europeans, the 'Feringhees' or 'gora log', without distinction of age, sex or employment, although Indian Christians were also killed. While for obvious reasons it was necessary to strike down British military resistance where found, the wholesale slaughter of unarmed men, women and children took place wherever the mutineers had gained control, although there are many instances of Indians saving lives at the risk of their own. The testimonies of massacre from Meerut, Delhi, Lucknow, Cawnpore are many and vivid.

"Gough came in. He is a pensioner. He was in the 19th Regiment and directly after landing in England after the Crimea War volunteered to go to India at the time of the Indian Mutiny. He landed in Calcutta and his regiment marched through Cawnpore 48 hours after the Massacre. He said the scene was horrible, so horrible, shocking and disgusting that it could not be explained or described. Women's breasts had been chopped and sliced off and were still lying about with their other parts. Women had been cut to pieces and mutilated in a vile and shocking manner. The most devilish and beastly ingenuity had been at work in mutilating the persons and violating and dishonouring the parts of the poor creatures. A child's head had been cut off and was lying on the ground with the lips placed by a devilish jest as if sucking the breast of a woman which had also been chopped off. Numbers of the poor women had jumped down the great well with their children to avoid the horrors which were being perpetrated on the bodies of women all over the place.

The soldiers were furious, almost ungovernable, as they marched through Cawnpore and saw those shameful sights." Francis Kilvert's Diary, Wednesday, 22nd January 1873 

"Captain Orr, before allowing the sepoys to accompany them, as well as himself and his family, first made them swear on the head of a Brahmin jemadar, or native officer, the most sacred oath a Hindoo can take, that they would not touch a hair of their heads. They had scarcely set out a short distance, however, when the sepoys obliged the ladies and children to leave their carriages and to walk. The gentlemen, fourteen in number, were murdered one by one, near Mithowly, and the whole of the ladies and children, certain of their coming fate, assembling together in one body, were shot down while kneeling and singing a hymn."
- A personal narrative of the siege of Lucknow By L E Ruutz Rees (1858)

"They knew that stabbing was inefficient, that hacking at their victim's necks would be the quickest way of accomplishing their mission. If the ladies protected their necks with their arms, then their arms would simply be severed as well; the effect was the same, they would bleed to death. Slashing right and left at all who were standing, chopping downward at the fallen with their heavy blades, the five proceeded methodically, spreading a pool of blood ... The few defiant boys were cut down quickly, as was every child who tried to make a run for it through the phalanx of swordsmen. Mothers kept pulling their children close to them and pushing them back into the corners of the building, and in the sweltering heat and the crush of bodies, children suffocated to death under their dying mothers' skirts." Andrew Ward - Our Bones Are Scattered - Cawnpore Massacres and the Indian Mutiny of 1857.

Mrs Captain McDonald, Mrs Captain Chambers, Mrs Dawson and two children, Mrs Courtenay and two children, Mr. V. Tregear, Pensioners McKinley and Blanco, Corporals Mortimer (Rifles), Edwards and Fitzpatrick and wives, Mr Newland (Photographer), Overseers Segeants Law and two children, McPhee, Binglee, Grant, Brooks and wives, Gunners Donohoe, Connolly, Benson and Cairns (Horse Artillery), Riding Master Langdale's child - some of the dead from the first day at Meerut - Robert Dunlop - Service and Adventure with the Meerut Volunteer Horse (1858)

You can also see why this kind of stuff gets passed by in India. No nation likes to be reminded of its bad deeds, England excepted, but in India stuff about massacring innocents strikes a bit too close to home. The slaughter of defenceless people isn't exactly something that stopped in 1857. While 1947 set a standard that (God willing) is unlikely to be surpassed in the immediate future, the events of 1984 and 2002 remind us that it hasn't gone away. And those are only the ones we hear about. I was surprised when googling 'Meerut Massacre' to find that it's the '87 rather than the '57 massacre at the top. That's 1987.

Of course Delhi could never have been recaptured and the Mutiny suppressed without the soldiers from the Punjab and elsewhere who remained loyal. The force which retook Delhi contained Punjabis of all faiths, Baluchis, Gurkhas, Pashtuns - something else that the Indian Government and nationalist historians would rather forget. And while the rebel defenders of Delhi were killed to a man, the reactions of the British forces, memories of the dead innocents fresh in their minds, to their orders stand in stark contrast to the shameful barbarities of the rebels. 

"By the light of a lantern the orders for the assault were then read to the men. They were to the following purport: any man who might be wounded was to be left where he fell; no one was to step from the ranks to help him, as there were no men to spare... no prisoners were to be made, as we had no one to guard them, and care was to be taken that no women or children were injured. To this the men answered at once, by 'No fear, Sir'. The officers now pledged their honours on their swords to abide by these orders and the men then promised to follow their example." 

Would this idiot please read his history before he writes! And he doesn’t have to read Indians’ history. White men’s writing will do. Every account I have come across lists instances of beasts on both sides, of whole villages being torched for no reason, of natives hung for just being there, of revenge visiting the innocent, during and after the mutiny. He completely neglects to mention any of that. 

He has no idea of what really happened in Delhi, the massacre of the princes, the exile of the Muslims, the digging for gold, the raging of the Red Fort – all of which are available in any standard history. 

He picks one unsubstantiated quote instead. And creates a criminally false picture.

He nicely forgets concentration camps during the Boer War, Jallianwala Bag, incendiary bombs during WW2, and the criminal haste and irresponsibility of the last days of the Raj. If he has a problem with bad history – and all of us do – he should plead guilty first.  

Equally bad, he condemns Indian historians without reading any, because his nonsense would not have been possible had he read even one. Surely there are Indian propagandists who write garbage like our friend here does. But not even we ignorant Indians think of them as historians.

What I find perhaps more shocking are the comments to his article. Except for a few, they are all anti-Indian in the most disgusting way. The lay Englishman just can't distinguish between fairy tale and religion, propaganda and history, illiterate Indians and Indian intellectuals. He only sees Indians. (Reminds you of 'A good Indian is a dead Indian.') 

(One chap says, "My knowledge about the Mutity comes from the well-researched Flashman novels. Well, I picked up one ages ago. It had Rani Laxmibai seducing Flashman to her bed! I couldn't read any more after that. Where did Flashman's author research that from!)

Now, governments, with all their limitations, are expected to tell and uphold the truth as objectively as possible, more so when the truth is old. Indians who want their country’s good want their government to defend the truth. A shameful past is made more shameful by lying. 

Yet, it can be no government’s duty to allow slander. Did soldiers from regiments who fought at Lucknow come here to slander India’s past or to remember the dead? On the face of it, they came for the latter, though reminding Indians of their ancestors’ barbarism would be an inescapable consequence of such remembrance. Obviously, that is not slander, even if the definition is stretched.

Nonetheless, anyone who has access to data and can write, even if he is not a certified intellectual, has the responsibility of explaining – to the soldiers, that their predecessors were not the only ones wronged; and to us silly Indians – that while our forefathers suffered, they were quite mahatmas either.

To get a bit lofty here, while lies and half-truths will keep us entrapped in bitterness for ever, a joint search for what really happened can help ensure it doesn’t happen again. It’s for us to decide whether we want to fight yesterday’s battles or tomorrow’s. 

No comments: