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In a Maze of Debates

Purnima Dutta

By Rudrangshu Mukherjee
Social Science Press, New Delhi, 2014, pp. 174, Rs. 550.00


Most secondary school students in India would recognize this couplet as a reference to the greased cartridges that they study as the immediate cause of the Revolt of 1857. However, beyond that, for anyone who has been introduced to the complexities of the causes and nature of the revolt beyond the usually unilinear, simplified narrative learnt at school, Rudrangshu Mukherjee’s The Year of Blood: Essays on the Revolt of 1857, would provide a fascinating telling of the history of 1857. What is even more fascinating however is the manner in which changing perceptions and understanding of the revolt among historians of 1857, including Mukherjee’s own, is captured through the book.   The first essay published in 1976 in Essays in Honour of Professor S.C. Sarkar, titled ‘The Azimgarh Proclamation and Some Questions on the Revolt of 1857 in the Northwestern Provinces’, bears the stamp of Mukherjee’s thoroughness as a researcher even in his days as a student. At the outset, Mukherjee outlines how the largely spontaneous, value-oriented uprising changes into a fractional goaloriented movement which sought to re-establish the traditional, pre-British authority in India, although he immediately proceeds to clarify that this is not to suggest that the masses of rebels were consciously striving to follow the goals of that authority. Added bonus to the section is the Proclamation itself, appended to the essay.   The second essay, and the longest one in the collection, ‘“Satan Let Loose Upon Earth”: The Kanpur Massacres in India in the Revolt of 1857’, was first published in August 1990, in the journal Past and Present. The unprecedented violence by both the Indian rebels and the British, according to Mukherjee, was a display of and a contest for power. This essay analyses how the Kanpur bloodshed was a manifestation of rebel power. He examines the cause and nature of the violence involved in the events at Kanpur and calls attention to the far greater violence inflicted upon the people by the state, even while acknowledging the extensive destruction of life and property by the rebels. Regarding violence in the colonial context, Mukherjee says, ‘…the right to violence is everywhere a privilege that authority enjoys and refuses to share with those under it…’ So it seems but natural that the rebels would challenge what Mukherjee calls the colonial ‘monopoly of violence’ with an attempt to perpetrate an equal, if not greater, measure of violence.   The second point he makes is the ...

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