Savitri Era of those who adore, Om Sri Aurobindo and The Mother.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Sayyid Ahmed Khan, Vidyasagar, Phule, Hume, and Bankimchandra

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 GandhiVallabhbhai PatelGhaffar 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 1960s, 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 PandeyFrederick Douglass and Sayyid Ahmed KhanTolstoy 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.

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.

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