«In the Azamgarh district of UP there is a village called Majhauwa, which is predominantly inhabited by Dalit castes like Chamar, Pasi, Dhobi, Mali ...»
The Sepoy Mutiny is hailed today universally as the first war of Indian Independence when the mutineers unfurled the banner of revolt against a mighty Empire. The contemporary literature, however, gives a very different, rather baffling, picture, the sepoys have been held therein as seditious, perfidious, evil and wrong doers.etc. They were condemned in strongest terms by Indian journalists who are held as pioneers and doyen. The feudal class, on the other hand lent strong moral and material support to the imperial forces which crushed the uprising. The glaring contradiction does not find any mention in the textbooks of history of our times for reasons not far to seek, nor is it known to the generation of the day.’ These narratives of the past are being used by the Dalits to acquire power in the ongoing social struggle. They are also attempting to reshape the fractured and competing pasts from the present and acquire a position of authority for all the Dalit castes. This process of remaking the past is based on their contemporary socio-political and cultural experience of discrimination which they face in their everyday lives. They link their experiences of recent times with their remote past and authenticate the latter by establishing their historicity. Invention of history for the Dalits is thus a process of acquiring legitimacy for their identity by establishing the oldness of the tradition of sacrifice of their community for the nation and society.
Reconstructing Histories and Politics of Future Why is it important for the Dalits to link themselves with the 1857 war of independence and why are the icons related with this incident more important than those of other incidents? Why is 1857 so important for them? The reason may be that the events around this period are not well documented, so the Dalits find plenty of space to invent their history and posit their leaders in them. To the common people especially the dalits, the 1857 Revolt is highly romantic with a number of local heroic characters who fought valiantly against the British using indigeneous weapons. This notion provides the opportunity to create heroes belonging to their community with whom they can identify. The authenticity of these heroes is debatable but they have the power to stir the imagination of people. The events that took place in the twentieth century on the other hand are very well documented since the leaders of that period tried to build up a unified homogeneous story of India’s independence. This gave little space to the Dalits since the story is dominated by upper-caste leaders whom they had to follow. It is true that many lower castes lost their lives in the Non-cooperation, Quit India and other such movements but the glory went to the upper-caste leaders who had organised them.
The 1857 movement was mainly confined to the northern part of India, which made it easier for the Dalits of this region in search of heroes, to invent and situate their heroes in places with heavy concentration of lower castes like Awadh, Bundelkhand and Bhojpur. The memory of these events are not just part of Dalit memory but also a part of the broader collective memory of the region that is reflected in the songs, plays and other mediums of popular culture. This fact enabled the Dalits to invent their heroes and histories who could become both local heroes and identity markers for the entire community in its everyday struggle for dignity and self-respect. The Dalit leaders had understood that it was of paramount importance to link themselves with the nationalist narrative and assert their role in the freedom struggle.
However they found it difficult to find space in the main phase of the freedom movement since in the period when the struggle for dalit uplift had picked up momentum, their leader Dr. Ambedkar had developed a rift with Mahatma Gandhi, the most important leader of this phase. Thus there was no option but to search for their heroes in the 1857 revolution so as not to antagonise the state, which legitimized the nationalist narrative. Since one of the catalysts for the emergence of a Dalit nationalist narrative was the dialogue with the state, they could not afford to ignore it. They could neither negate Ambedkar and his narrative of the nationalist movement nor the dominant nationalist narrative which is projected as the foundation of the present state. The need to strike a balance between the two led the Dalits to search for their own heroes within the nationalist narrative. And the event which provided them the space to do so was the 1857 struggle.
Another reason why the Dalits found it crucial to link themselves with the 1857 struggle was to counter the allegations made by some intellectuals associated with the BJP that the Dalits were antinational. According to these intellectuals, Ambedkar was against the mainstream nationalist movement led by Mahatma Gandhi and often supported the British. These idealogues try to belittle the untouchables by stating that they conquered India for the British- the Dusadhs and Baheliyas fought for Lord Clive in the Battle of Plassey in 1757. 10 In a bid to oppose the efforts of the Dalits to write their own history and rupture the mainstream nationalist narrative, the All India History Compilation Project, formed by the RSS for propagating history based on the RSS idealogy held a convention between 17 and 19 July 1999 in Allahabad. In this convention the custodian Moreshwar Neelkanth Pingale opined that writing the history of Shudras, gwalas and tribals created hatred among sections of society and caused problems for an Indianised social life.11 In reaction to statements like these the dalits were compelled to assert their role in the 1857 Revolt. They stated that their association with the first war gave them an exalted position in the history of India’s nation building of the country. That there was a difference in opinion among the members of the BJP-RSS was obvious when the Governor of UP Suraj Bhan, in the same convention rebuked those attempting to deny the role of Dalits in the freedom struggle and said that they contributed to their greatest possible extent in the movement for independence. He added that but for Valmiki, the writer of Ramayana who belonged to a dalit community, no one would have known about Rama and Sita. He also mentioned the name of Jhalkaribai who in the guise of Rani of Jhansi, fought valiantly against the British in the first war of independence. 12 Multiple Locations and Competing Politics From a study of the scattered information and narratives that appear in the folk tales and folk lore of the lower castes it is evident that many people of these castes were actively involved in the 1857 rebellion. In fact the massive scale on which the rebellion was launched could not have been possible without the participation of these castes, but is disheartening to note that their contribution has neither been documented nor acknowledged in the Indian history writing. Whatever little mention there is of the role of the lower castes, it is only as servants of kings, feudal landlords and zamindars, which has either negated their contribution or marginalized them from the history of the rebellion (Rai 2005). It is true that the story of Jhalkaribai is linked with that of Rani Laxmibai and Udadevi’s with that of Begum Hazrat Mahal, but at a time when most of the kings and landlords were joining forces with the British to seek benefits from them, it is imperative to evaluate the roles of these brave lower caste warriors in the right historical context.
From these examples it appears that in the rebellion against the British the Dalits played sterling roles along with the upper caste kings, queens and landlords. In addition Dalit historians cite many examples of lower caste heroes who were not associated with any upper caste king or queen but fought against the British in their own capacity (see Dinkar op cit). Many extreme Ambedkarite and leftist journalists and scholars who are trying to link the rebellion with dissatisfied feudal lords, kings, soldiers and peasants are trying to negate the role of Dalits in it (Mishra and Kumar 2002: 12).
Dalit intellectuals supported by BSP, which is trying to mobilise grassroot Dalits using local heroes, histories, myths and legends found a wealth of resources in the oral history of the regions of UP centering around the 1857 rebellion ( see Narayan 2006). The political strategy of the party is to tell and retell the stories of these heroes, build memorials and organize celebrations around their stories repeatedly to build a collective memory in the psyche of the people. The stories are narrated in such a manner that the Dalits imagine the story of the making of this nation in which they played a significant role. Several books like Swatantrata Sangram Mein Achhuton Ka Yogdan, (Dinkar 1990), Jhoothi Azadi (Madan 1987), Pasi Samaj ka Swatantrata mein Yogdan (Pasi 1998), Dalit DastaveJ (Vidrohi 1989) and so on, document the contributions of various Dalit heroes in the 1857 rebellion. The sacrifices made by their ancestors are reinforced by saying that despite their sacrifices, the desires, dreams and aspirations for the nation state are yet to be fulfilled. These narratives help them to claim a respectable place in the contemporary process of nation building and a lion’s share in State-sponsored development projects and other democratic benefits. By repeatedly narrating their role in the nation making process the marginalized communities put forward a moral logic in favour of reservations and social justice for themselves. They contend that though they had shed their blood and sweat for the building of this nation and in spite of their historical role in its development, the State has not helped them to recover from their social, cultural and economic losses. Through these narratives they assert that their role in the recorded history of nation making has not been sufficiently acknowledged and their contribution in the freedom struggle has been completely ignored (Dinkar op cit: 23). The narratives of the 1857 Revolution helped them to not only establish their own heroes, but also to dethrone the existing high-caste heroes from the mainstream narratives. In their narratives they presented the high castes as traitors, conspirators, and communities which were dishonest to their motherland. The Dalits also want to prove that these traitors, by capturing history, now appear as the most nationalist communities. They have become the most influential sections after independence (Vidrohi 1989: 86).
The Dalits thus feel that there are sufficient grounds to explore their contribution to the freedom struggle and gain compensation in the present for it.
Dalit politicians and Dalit intellectuals are using history, memories and icons of 1857 in their discourses in various ways. First, when caste conferences are organised as an urge for identity construction, they publish posters and handbills in which the contribution of their caste heroes in the 1857 struggle is mentioned.13 Second, they justify their demands from the State as reward for their role in the 1857 movement. Third, during election campaigns the BSP leaders highlight the contribution of those heroes of the 1857 movement who belong to the caste which they are addressing. Fourth, many castes, in their mass struggle against the prejudices harboured by the state publish posters and pamphlets in which they mention their role in the 1857 freedom struggle. Many castes are still considered criminal tribes on the basis of old colonial acts that continue to be followed by the police although they have now been abolished. Such castes say that when the upper castes were busy collaborating with the British to earn titles of Rai Bahadur and grabbing land that belonged to Dalit ancestors, they (the Dalits) were fighting against the British. In anger, the British branded them as criminal tribes under the Criminal Tribe Acts of 1871, 1896, 1901-2, 1909, 1911, 1913-4, 1919 and 1924. Although these tribes have now been denotified, whenever a criminal activity takes place, the police, acting on preconceived notions, first arrests members of these tribes (Dinkar, op. cit.). As a protest against this kind of State atrocity, these communities organise protests and publish posters and handbills in which they mention their role in the 1857 movement.
The Dalits of northern India have an emotional link with the 1857 War of Independence for they believe that it was initiated by them. They claim that the Soldier Revolt by the mostly Dalit Indian soldiers in the British Army that took place in Barrackpore in 1857, snowballed into the War of Independence. Although mainstream history credits Mangal Pandey with leading the revolt, they believe that it was actually a Dalit Matadin Bhangi who inspired him to revolt.
The Dalit narratives of the first freedom struggle are filled with stories about brave martyrs belonging to suppressed communities who fought bravely against the British for the sake of the freedom of their motherland. These heroes are now being used by Dalit communities for proving their spirit of nationalism and their role in the freedom of the country.
Through this process they are also demanding an appropriate share in the power structure of state and society.
Since the 1857 rebellion was mainly a revolt of peasants and sepoys at the people’s level, most of which was undocumented and unrecorded, it provided them ample space to search for their own local heroes of this revolt and posit them alongside mainstream nationalist heroes. In some places in UP and Bihar where the revolt was mainly confined and where the lower castes still lead a marginalized existence, these heroes have been reincarnated as deities who are considered to have godly powers. These deities are worshipped by the Dalits of these regions, who pray to them to fulfill their wishes and inundate their families with prosperity. Thus the memory of the 1857 revolt is still being kept alive in the collective psyche of the Dalits which is helping to inspire them in their struggle against the social, economic and political exclusion and discrimination in their daily lives.
1. Field diary, Bidesia project, GBPSSI, 2005
2. Field diary, Bidesia Project,ibid.
3. Based on the oral interview from Deomun, age 25yrs Sipahi, Age 60yrs of Janidih Village, Bhojpur, Bihar, North India, May 5, 2004.