The Revolt of 1857 goes by many names. Each of them is loaded with some connotation or the other. There is the condescending “revolt”, the similar “rebellion”. The Indian preference is for the “first war of independence.”
We have been fed through history books all about what the Revolt of 1857 was. What would be more interesting and far more revealing, I thought, would be how the Revolt of 1857 has been studied. How, in other words, have we come to understand the event? What are the things that have been said about it? Whose perspective is privileged?
The last becomes a pertinent question especially with regard to naming. The Indian historical perspective looks at it like a full-blown war. British colonial history names it a rebellion – to be regarded as nothing more than an act of subordination to be dismissed or co-opted.
Scholarly perspective looks at the event through the perspective of Indian regal leaders such as Rani Lakshmi Bai or Tatya Tope. Though heroic and subversive of British rule in their own way, this perspective has a limitation – it doesn’t look at how the local peasants, the rebellious soldiers in the army, etc thought and felt about the rule.
Renowned scholars Ranajit Guha and Gayatri Spivak look at the same event but through the perspective of the subaltern. In layman’s terms, they ask how the common people involved in the war felt, thought and acted. This is done by looking at four distinct figures: a maulvi, a poor tribal youth, a small landlord, and a peasant.
What does the view and methodology achieve? It makes a strong case for subaltern communities and puts forth, to put it simplistically, the view that every voice counts even and especially in writing history.