Justice in ‘modern’ India

Posted in British Raj, History, India, Media by Anuraag Sanghi on October 3, 2011

Is revenge, punishments the only way of delivering ‘justice’. Is prison and death justice?

Jhansi Fort (image source and courtesy - indianwarhistory.co.in). Click for larger image.

Jhansi Fort (image source and courtesy - indianwarhistory.co.in). Click for larger image.

21 March 1858

The British started the siege of Jhansi. The Rani of Jhansi, explicitly on the side of the British, was no longer trusted by the British. She had not joined the anti-British War on the side of Nana Saheb Peshwa – but maintained a steady relationship with the British.

The British had earlier asked her to come, unarmed and without escort for ‘negotiations’ – which she refused. Before the siege, Jhansi was given the ‘option’ of surrender.

Jhansi on my mind

The people of Jhansi were one – behind the Rani. In a city of 2,50,000, some 14,000 people volunteered to defend the city. Considering that there must have been some 25,000 families in the city, (large joint-families was the norm), nearly every house volunteered a soldier. For 10 days, Jhansi was bombarded by British artillery. Jhansi’s walls were breached on 30th March.

Rafting on the Betwa river in Orchha, Madhya Pradesh. (image source and courtesy - frontlineonnet.com). Click for larger image.

Rafting on the Betwa river in Orchha, Madhya Pradesh. (image source and courtesy - frontlineonnet.com). Click for larger image.

On the banks of Betwa

Even though the Rani was not a part of the War, (at least a major player), the fate of Jhansi occupied the minds of Indian leaders.

On 30th March, a diversionary force under Tatia Tope split the British siege army at Jhansi. General Hugh Rose, fed with information that the relieving force was 20,000 strong, himself led the ‘attack’ on diversionary forces to Betwa. This diversionary force battled the British at Betwa river – east of Jhansi, north of Orchcha.

The British lost around a 100 soldiers – and were ‘victorious’. The Indian military leadership engineered a split in British forces to allow Jhansi’s defenders to attack or escape the siege. An attack or escape party from Jhansi did a probe against a British unit, besieging Jhansi, led by Major Gall.

Every family in Jhansi joined the battle

On 3rd April, General Hugh Rose returned to Jhansi – and British forces stormed Jhansi. Fierce fighting ensued in the streets of Jhansi – door-to-door, street-by-street, with the Rani in the thick of the battle, with her female companions. The next day, the British realized that Lakshmibai was not in Jhansi.

Jhansi and its people paid a heavy price. Jhansi burnt for days. Jhansi’s Halwaipura was put to flame – and the fires could be seen from a distance. Corpses were piled high – and stench of burning and rotting flesh, hung over Jhansi.

Reluctant warrior as a hero

In modern India, Rani Lakshmibai, a reluctant warrior, has been cut out as the most heroic figure(See comment below on parallels) of the 1857 War – whereas the real leaders and generals have been forgotten or faulted. This behaviour is consistent with Indian tradition.
Mandodari and Tara (wife of Ravana and Bali) have been included in the पंच-कन्या panch-kanya pantheon1↓. Ahilya, wife of Rishi Gautama (not the Buddha), cursed for adultery by the rishi, was released from the curse by Vishnu as Raghu Ramchandra himself. Duryodhana’s wife, Bhanumati is almost forgotten – but not cast in negative light. Neither is Duryodhana’s mother, Gandhari.

In a society, where the two most important festivals are dedicated to worship of goddesses, casting women in negative light is an idea, that India is not comfortable with.

Journalists take pictures over Wang Shouxin's body.  (Source and courtesy - telegraph.co.uk; Photo: LI ZHENSHENG). Click for source.

Journalists take pictures over Wang Shouxin's body. (Source and courtesy - telegraph.co.uk; Photo: LI ZHENSHENG). Click for source.

People or Monsters

Meanwhile in ‘modern’ China, pictures of the execution of Wang Shouxin, a woman government official from northern province of Heilongjiang scored more than a million hits. This case was documented in People or Monsters (《人妖之间》), a book by Liu Binyan, in a style of reporting called baogaowenxue, and became famous the world over.

Shot with a bullet in the back of her head, the the execution of Wang Shouxin was widely covered by Chinese and international media. This is now an old story – Wang Shouxin was executed in the 1980.

This killing only increased Chinese appetite for more executions by the State.

In another corner of the world

Neither of the two major US political parties has ever had a woman nominee for the Presidential election. Closer to the Islāmic world in this aspect, the thought of a woman President seems unacceptable to Americans.

India goes ‘modern’

Looking at the way the mainstream media, literatti, chatteratti, bloggeratti, twitteratti are rejoicing over Kanimozhi’s arrest gets India closer to China and US and further India itself. What Kanimozhi deserves is complete contempt, for participation in the family swindling, and the courts ‘had’ to arrest her, did the ‘media’ have to go overboard?(Sentence modified to clarify that Kanimozhi deserves no adulation).

Did it …

Or am I reading too much meaning into an anecdote?

^1↑. [Text of footnote 1]
अहल्या द्रौपदी तारा कुंती मंदोदरी तथा । पंच कन्या स्मरेन्नित्य महापातकनाशनम् ।

Ahalya, Draupadi, Kunti, Tara and Mandodari
Keeping in memory these five maidens will destroy greatest sins

Book Review – Operation Red Lotus

Posted in European History, Gold Reserves, History, India, Media, politics, Religion by Anuraag Sanghi on March 18, 2010

Reverberations – 150 years later

The 1857 war in India, is something that remained an enigma for the last 150 years. For “the public was at the time and for years to come saturated to an astonishing degree with lurid accounts of the uprising, which became the subject of countless sermons, novels, plays and poems, and about which more than eighty novels were written, six appearing in the “peak” year of 1896 alone”.

So, I too was vaguely thrilled to receive a draft copy of the Operation Red Lotus (Red Lotus) by Parag Tope, some 7 months ago. Over the next 2-3 weeks, I went through the book. The first time with more enthusiasm than objectivity. Then came the time to take a 2ndlook look.

This book was an interesting experience. For one it represents yet another attempt to clean up Indian history of colonial detritus.

Answers to some obvious questions

Western /colonial historiography has typically dismissed the Anglo-Indian War of 1857 (Parag Tope’s nomenclature) as a Sepoy Mutiny. Post-colonial Indian historians have been equally guilty of another crime – of dismissing this War as a subaltern war, playing into the hands of Western dismissive-ness. This is something that becomes obvious after reading Red Lotus. Brought on a staple diet of colonial history refurbished as Indian history, to get some bearings was a welcome development.

After all a 18-36 month War that reverberated across the world could not have been a leaderless, cashless, food-less, resource-less war. Red Lotus gives us some vital information on that – which Indian history books don’t! The chapatis and lotus petals insight is unnervingly plausible.

The official account of the Anglo-Indian War of 1857 leaves a number of loose ends. This book takes those loose ends and unravels the official account itself – to leave it in tatters.

How was the 1857 war important

A valuable focus in the book, was how the British backed away from their proselytizing efforts. After and due  to this War.

Not due to any innate goodness in the British hearts, or any ‘religious’ and ideological ‘liberalism’ that the modern-day Western narrative trots out. The triad of freedoms that Parag Tope delineates in Red Lotus, are an important element that defines the Indic polity system – defined as भारत्तंत्र in 2ndlook posts.

Drawing on the correspondence between Hartog and Gandhiji, as pointed out elsewhere, in 2ndlook, Red Lotus also has an excellent section on how the Indian education system was destroyed by British policy and design.

Caste of characters

Apart from the Anglo-Indian War of 1857, there were more than 75 battles, skirmishes, revolts, mutinies, involving thousands, up to lakhs of Indians, across India. And more than double that many conspiracies, plots, hold-ups, explosions, bombings, which were not organized. These more than 200 violent actions have been completely glossed over by post-colonial India’s historians. Obviously, more than 200 incidents of violent opposition to British misrule over 150 years (1800-1947) deserves better treatment by official historians. Especially, the people who were ‘behind’ this.

This is another area where Red Lotus scores. Its cast of characters are real people and have been treated objectively. Of course to readers of the 2ndlook, Parag Tope’s views are not new or strange. But to anyone else, like me initially, it was an intellectual challenge. Because Red Lotus does not spoon feed.

For instance, Baijabai Shinde and Vishnubhat Godse (his account in Marathi strangely is hardly known, and usually ignored). My favourite though is Azimullah Khan, a ‘secret agent’ who ‘devoured’ English ladies, hob-nobbed with the enemy’s-enemy and surveyed the enemy’s war operations in Crimea. Azimullah Khan, other sources say, bought a French printing press and confirmed the viability of the Anglo-Indian War!

Interestingly, the one character dealt with rather tersely (balanced, if you will) is Tatya Tope himself. Tatya Tope seems, in comparison, to be cut from a normal revolutionary cloth in Red Lotus. No mean achievement, this.

To Indians raised on an official narrative of caste-religion matrix, this cast of characters is refreshing. Unlike other texts and narratives that have given a brief or a cursory mention of these characters. How could a caste-ridden, divided and oppressive society mount more than 200 actions – against British ‘deliverance’ and ‘enlightenment’.

Red Lotus does not, for instance, get defensive about the ‘rape’ and killing of English women. Most narratives do not even question the rape and murder of British women stories. In fact,

there was no evidence that British women were raped… (but) this was the immediate and lasting assumption, and a great many of the novelizations of the event, were “essentially pornographic” as they detailed the lascivious thoughts of Indians preparing to “tear and mangle” the white limbs of English women “in unspeakable tortures”.(from WTC, September 11; Indian “Mutiny,” 1857:  Two Studies in the Psychology of Embattled Superpower By Diane Simmons; ellipsis and text in parenthesis supplied).

The international context

The book also brings out some parts of the international context. For instance how the 1857 financial crisis in the US was possibly triggered by mass redemptions from UK, to fight this war! Or how troops meant for China were diverted to India. Or the huge amounts of drug trade that fuelled the ‘Rise of Britain’. In comparison, the Cali cartel seems like small change, Tope points out. Or the official licensing of piracy by England – and other European powers.

Too often , Indian history is boxed into a small context, which makes it difficult to understand the bigger questions. One question which this book does not completely answer – at least directly, is why did India have to struggle financially to fight a just war, and Britain has money pouring out of its ears, to impose its tyranny on India.

The missing links

So, why did India lose the war? Tope in Red Lotus has marshalled excellent research to show it was British brutality on the hapless Indians that disarmed the leaders of the Anglo-Indian War! The drug trade and piracy are another part of the answer.

The bigger answer is (as per 2ndlook) slavery, genocide in Americas and Australia. And the capture of land, wealth and gold from these lands that fuelled the rise of the West – and why India could not match those resources. So to say, the Country Model itself. But then, that would have unfairly expanded the scope of the book – claim the writers!


This was the other disappointment. I had expected (unrealistically and in a lighter vein), that after all, who better than the Tope family to tell us what ‘actually’ happened to the missing leaders – though Red Lotus does give an eye-witness account about the end of Tatya Tope.

As the Anglo-Indian War of 1857, continued and wound down, the three leaders, Nana Sahib, Tatya Tope, and Feroz Shah disappeared. No one knew what happened to them.

It is usually accepted (in Red Lotus also) that the man who was ‘executed’ by the Colonial Raj, as Tatya Tope, was a straw figure. Unlike Red Lotus, it is difficult to believe that Tatya Tope died in battle – without being recognized, by eager Britishers or thousands of his loyal lieutenants. Like other leaders of the War, Tatya Tope’s life has many endings.

The fate of the leaders – Nana Sahib, Azimullah Khan, Tatya Tope, Feroz Shah et al.

Enduring mystery this!

%d bloggers like this: