The work of Rajmohan Gandhi, one of India’s premier historians, offers one of the most comprehensive and variegated views generated by any writer of the political landscape and major thought currents of nineteenth- and twentieth-century India. Gandhi is the author of biographies of Mahatma Gandhi, Vallabhbhai Patel, Ghaffar Khan, and C. Rajagopalachari, of a study of the ideas of revenge and forgiveness in South Asian history, and a book on the intellectual world and existential dilemmas of Indian Muslims.
Gandhi’s new book, A Tale of Two Revolts, is set both home and away. It is a comparative study of the Indian Mutiny of 1857 (sometimes termed India’s first independence movement) and the American Civil War of the 1860s, in which the southern states attempted to secede from the north over the question of slavery. One of its attractions is that, because of this double perspective, it teems with personalities as widely disparate as Abraham Lincoln and Mangal Pandey, Frederick Douglass and Sayyid Ahmed Khan, Tolstoy and Karl Marx. Gandhi agreed to explore a number of questions over email about the book, about Indian history, and about the art and craft of the historian.
Your new book is a comparative study of two outbursts of revolutionary energy in the nineteenth century. By doing so you are able to appraise the strengths and weaknesses of each movement more critically. Could you briefly throw some light on why the Indian Mutiny of 1857 faltered? And do we, because of nationalist passions, assign to it a position of exaggerated importance in our history?
Let me point out right away that my intent was to portray or recover the past, not to judge it. I wished to paint the protagonists, not to grade them. True, the process of studying in order to depict did produce “conclusions”, but arriving at findings was not my aim.
Before I offer my understanding of why the Revolt of 1857 faltered, let me state that I was intrigued by some of its principal figures, including the Mughal prince Firoz Shah, Lakshmibai of Jhansi, Hazrat Mahal of Lucknow, Kunwar Singh of Bihar, the Maharashtrian Brahmin Tatya Tope, and Khan Bahadur Khan of Bareilly. And I was struck too by the involvement of so many “ordinary” Indians, a very large number of whom were killed, causing immense unrecorded sorrow, while the British, as I show in the book, offered much more vivid personal accounts of their troubles and bereavements.
As I see it, the rebellion’s failure was inevitable because, firstly, independence was not the consistent aim of its leaders, and, secondly, these leaders were unable to mobilize the bulk of the Indian people, with whom they did not identify themselves. True, in some areas of northern and central India, especially in Avadh, the masses supported the Revolt for a while, but this support did not last long and did not extend to large parts of the country. Though pride was temporarily stirred in many hearts, the Revolt’s failure, within four months of Bahadurshah Zafar’s restoration as Hindustan’s ruler by the rebels, actually seemed to relieve the common Indian in most parts of the country.
The uprising merits an important place in our history. The British were profoundly shaken by it and a great number of Indians lost their lives. But we should also recognize that across the country influential Indians of the time either welcomed the Revolt’s failure or said nothing in its favour. Knowledge of this widespread contemporary disapproval should join our awareness of the Revolt’s significance.
Like many of your other books, this one too has a sprawling compass. Although you appear strongly critical of the way the Mutiny was organised, you nevertheless find many other deep currents of resistance and progress in nineteenth-century India – wars, one might say, not of arms but of ideas. Please tell us a little more about the structure of the book and about the relative weight given to its many protagonists like Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Allan Octavian Hume, and Mahatma Phule, some of whom are quite distant from the main action.
These three, and two others I followed, Sayyid Ahmed Khan and Bankimchandra Chatterjee, were contemporaries of the Revolt’s leaders. Two of them, Khan and Hume, dealt directly with the Revolt. All five were gifted intellectuals from very different backgrounds. I wanted to discover their reaction to the Revolt. Also, by following their lives, which extended to the end of the 19th century, I wanted to see how the India of 1857 evolved into an India closer to our times. So my retelling of the Revolt and the American Civil War is accompanied by a look at the lives of these five, plus some others.
In their different ways, these five activated India’s social or national or intellectual conscience in the 19th century. Vidyasagar and Phule brought to daylight the harshness with which widows of all castes and all persons belonging to “low” castes and “untouchables” were being treated. Hume, whose fame as a scholar of India’s birds is little known to those aware of him as a founder of the Indian National Congress, toiled successfully to bring an all-India outlook at least to elite groups across the land.
I found that the decades-long battles for equality, compassion, knowledge and an all-India feeling in which some of these individuals (and others of their ilk) were engaged were not less stirring than the Revolt’s struggle against alien rule.
Then I felt I could not ignore Tolstoy or Karl Marx, each of whom followed from distant perches the 1857 Revolt and the American Civil War as well. Writing from London for the New York Tribune, Marx provided almost the only counter to the American media’s uniform depiction of the Indian Revolt as an eruption of oriental barbarism [See here his articles "The British Rule In India" and "The Future Results of British Rule in India"]. As for Tolstoy, despite his aristocratic birth he stood for equality; despite his love of guns and hunting he hated war; despite the imperial thrust of the Russia of his time he honoured Asia and its truths. What a story it would have been had the India of 1857 possessed, either on the British or the Indian side, a person like Tolstoy.
Or one like Abraham Lincoln, who knew to struggle but also to reconcile, whose political compass was always joined by a moral compass, and whose soul (like that of the much younger Tolstoy) wanted to wring meanings deeper than “victory” or “defeat” from great bloodshed.
Finally, there is William Howard Russell, the Irishman who as the correspondent of the Times of London covered both Revolts and provided word portraits of individuals, scenes and battles that are as rich, revealing and riveting as what a movie camera, had one existed at the time, might have captured.
How do you think about the work of the historian? To make the past present, through a rich and complex depiction of it? To pressure the present into accommodating difficult truths and realities it would rather ignore? To function as a counterweight to the simplifications of politics, ideology, and popular culture?
These are useful ways of thinking about a historian’s task. But more often than not, think, it is through accident or good fortune rather than deliberate design that a work of history produces the outcomes you describe. Any historian consciously setting out to portray history for the purposes you mention is likely, I suspect, to produce something forced and unconvincing. But if a writer loves a period or is captured by it and by some of its protagonists, if the writer is aware of his or her biases and tries not to be governed by them, if, rather than resenting layers, paradoxes and comparisons, the writer welcomes them, if the writer is willing to pursue unexpected leads into unmapped spaces, then she or he may produce something of the sort you have in mind.
You have questioned, in your earlier work, the widely held belief "in the essentially pacific nature of the Indian subcontinent". For all that we adopt the rhetoric of non-violence, you wrote ten years ago in your book Revenge and Reconciliation, it is violence that dominates, "not merely violence in self-defence but violence in revenge, or for power, or for a thrill, or in the name of justice." Is violence somehow natural to the human condition, and non-violence in history merely an interlude of great self-discipline and rational reflection?
Violence has always made news. And the impulse towards violence is not foreign to our human nature. Yet violence does not describe the essence or the totality of the human condition. Peace is less sensational, yet after all 1857 in India and the Civil War in America were followed by long decades of relative peace. Whether non-violence is an interruption in history or the norm is perhaps hard – I should say impossible – to say, yet we in India ought to admit that ever since (and possibly even before) the Mahabharata time, revenge has been a powerful pull for many of India’s inhabitants. The notion of “My group is superior and has the right to dominate” has also commanded passionate adherents.
Having said his, I cannot but again recall that after 1857 violence was rejected in India by large masses, and also that following 1915 non-violence was consciously accepted by large masses for over thirty years. On the other hand, the Partition-related 1947 killings, the 1984 Delhi killings, the 1992-93 Mumbai violence, and the 2002 cruelties in Gujarat form part of another – sadder, grimmer and equally true – story.
The present day again tempts many in India, Pakistan and elsewhere in South Asia towards the “final” solution of war or killing. The blaze and sound of terrorism make it easy for some to be cast as Ravanas or Kauravas, meriting instant and non-judicial deaths, and the list of those who can be cast as such – who should be “done away with” – seems to expand by the day. The Lincolns, Tolstoys and Gandhis of history are needed afresh.
You are unusual, among historians, for having actually stepped into the cauldron of politics. In 1989 you contested the Lok Sabha elections in Amethi against Rajiv Gandhi. Tell us a little about what you took away from this experience, and what Indian democracy seen up close is like. What are the main faults of Indian democracy today, and its strengths?
My life in politics – the end-1989 Amethi election and a Rajya Sabha spell as a Janata Dal MP – lasted less than three years. I found that politicians were not another breed, they did not descend down a special shaft, they were rather like the rest of us and often possessed an attractive side. Yet I did not find that as an MP I could make a real difference. I think I had too thin a skin to promote myself, which one needs to do to reach a place from where you can perhaps make a solid difference.I also missed an adviser or two who could have helped me maximize my strengths and minimize my weaknesses in order to advance larger, non-personal objectives.
India’s democracy has allowed ministers only limited scope to address real issues: survival in office takes a great amount of energy and time. Then there is the difference between passing a law and getting it implemented. We have been very poor at the latter, which requires enlisting the participation of citizens. Usually our law-makers are out of touch with the realities of getting things done on the ground, though some are pretty good at using money – obtained God knows where – to get results.Sadly, gold and the gun are often seen as more likely to secure change than the enforcement of law.
But much that is helpful also occurs. Our governments are replaced through elections. Although great numbers are left out, many of the weak and the disabled do get assistance. Although danda power and gun-power intimidate many neighbourhoods, elsewhere it is possible to criticize persons in office. Our media are not always wise or calm, they do not always show good taste or judgment, but thank God they are not chained. Pluralism receives lip service at least, and sometimes a good deal more than that.
Three of your books are biographies of Indian politicians who were also writers and intellectuals. Who, to you, are the most interesting examples of this tradition in Indian politics today if any?
My subjects belonged to another age. As for recent times, Narasimha Rao is dead and Atal Behari Vajpayee is no longer active either as a politician or as a poet or intellectual. V.P. Singh also painted and wrote verses but he too is gone. Not that it was always possible to agree with even these three. Right now there must be some fine and sensitive intellects in Indian politics but clearly they are too prudent to write candidly or spontaneously.
Please name two classic books on Indian history and two current ones that the lay reader might read for both pleasure and instruction.
My research and teaching having narrowed my reading, I fear my answers may not help much. But I must pick the ever-new Mahabharata, even if it is not history in a conventional sense, and Jawaharlal Nehru’s The Discovery of India. William Dalrymple’s evocation in The Last Mughal of the streets, birds, crafts and trades of the Delhi of 1857 was wonderful, and I think Ramachandra Guha’s India After Gandhi is a splendid read.
A review of Rajmohan Gandhi's Gandhi: The Man, His People and The Empire is here.
And here are some other Middle Stage interviews with writers: Ramachandra Guha, Pico Iyer, Ramin Jahanbegloo, Altaf Tyrewala, Samrat Upadhyay, and Christopher Kremmer.