Posted by: chobhi | February 26, 2010

What happened during the Civil War in India?

I am reading a book about the second half of the nineteenth century. Any person growing up in the United States should know that the most important event of that period is the Civil War that broke out between the North and the South over the question of slavery.  Meanwhile, what was happening in India? Again, any person growing up in India must know about the Sepoy Revolt of 1857. It shook the very foundations of the British Empire in India.

Who were the sepoys and what was the revolt about? The sepoys or sipahis were the Indians who were in the Army when the British ruled in India. A low-caste Indian, actually an outcaste who was a Sepoy, asked an upper caste Sepoy for some water.  The upper caste Sepoy refused to share his water, lest he gets polluted.  Then the outcaste lashed out and said, ” You refuse to share your water, but you would refuse to serve in this army if you knew that they use animal fat to clean the cartridges!” This message spread fast to all the Sepoys who refused to use any of the cartridges. This became a symbol for British disrespect and galvanized the Sepoys to organize a rebellion to cast out the British. Initially, the British Empire did not take the revolt seriously, but when it started spreading from city to city in the north of India, it required massive British forces to quell the rebellion.

RajMohan Gandhi, a grandson of the great Mahatma Gandhi, resides in Illinois, USA,right now and is a well-repected historian. His latest book,”A Tale of Two Revolts” chronicles this period in a most unique manner. Using well-known players in England, India and the USA, he weaves and relates this story with such flair and care that I cannot put the book down.  He chronicles the life of a journalist, several writers, social revolutionaries in India as well as the life of Lincoln, generals in the Civil War and makes connections wherever possible between events in both countries. I understand better who Lincoln was and why he tried to put the question of slavery as a secondary issue during the Civil War, even if in his heart he knew it was an unjust system. I understand why, we as Indians could not unite and drive out the British during the Sepoy Revolt because, we as a country were/are deeply divided on the basis of caste, more so than any other factor like religion or language.

The language is simple, but the work is heavily referenced and brings out some clear messages for me. First, all Indians did not want the British out at that time because, the outcasts, or Dalits, as they are called, preferred the benevolence of the British to the ill- treatment of the Indian upper castes. Second, most of the white West blamed the Indian Sepoys for the carnage and did not criticise the British for needless massacres to crush the revolt. Third, the lower caste leaders like Jyotiba Phule, were struck by the parallels between African American struggles for freedom and the Dalit struggles in India. 

Rajmohan Gandhi is not preachy nor flamboyant when he puts out the message that racism and casteism was alive and well at that period. I can add by saying that these’isms’ are still prevalent today. I found many passages in the book moving enough to read again and again.  I shall highlight two that are engraved in my heart. The first is Mr. Gandhi’s comment on Lincoln’s Gettysburg address:

This very human, apparently laid-back and oft-impatient President had arrived at Gettysburg with clear ideas that he wanted engraved on minds.  Looking for a meaning for America’s cumulative killings_ for a purpose for the war and also for America as a nation and a Union_ he had rediscovered the meaning in the Declaration’s proposition,”All Men are created Equal”

Talking about Jyotiba Phule the author says:

Always ugly to him, India’s caste equations seemed more offensive to Phule’s mind once the American Civil War began.He felt there was no difference between the enslavement of blacks in America and the oppression of Shudras and Ati-Shudras in India. Just as the slaves and the Union had joined hands to end slavery in America, he wanted India’s peasant and untouchable castes and the British government to unite and overthrow Brahmin domination.

 

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Responses

  1. Shobha. I very much want to read this book by Gandhi. It has special resonance for me, as a Romni descended from British Romani whose ancestors left India as lower-caste prisoners and refugees, and were themselves sold into slavery from England into the Caribbean and Virginia. How such systems persist and entangle generations after generations is a subject for my next novel. Thank you for bringing this book to my attention

  2. Shobha. I very much want to read this book by Gandhi. It has special resonance for me, as a Romni descended from British Romani whose ancestors left India as lower-caste prisoners and refugees, and were themselves sold into slavery from England into the Caribbean and Virginia. How such systems persist and entangle generations after generations is a subject for my next novel. Thank you for bringing this book to my attention

  3. Dear Glenda, My son Sid has the book and I can bring it for you when I come in October. Just remind me before I leave so I pick it up from him, Shobha


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