This post is part of a series of posts on my Delhi trip last year.
Delhi High Court was bombed on Wednesday, killing 11 and injuring over 70. Deep sympathies to the victims and their families.
Sometime in last August last year, I became well enough and we became settled enough to begin the project for which we had come to India in the first place: research!
My basic idea, in brief, was to study Indian representations and narratives of the 1857 Revolt as they have changed over time, from the 19th century to the anticolonial struggle in the 20th to the postcolonial period. As I wrote in a post last year, I was motivated by the need to contest current ideas about “insurgency” and “counter-insurgency” that act as if they are neutral terms when, in fact. they are quite politically charged. In addition, while many studies exist on the impact of 1857 on the British imagination, I felt there was a gap on studies on the complex associations of 1857 in Indian consciousness.
I was intrigued, one might say, by the process through which an uprising that was loathed by elite founders of the Indian National Congress in 1885 has became heralded, in mainstream nationalism today, as “the first Indian war of Independence.” And this too while embracing the notion that India’s was a non-violent revolution! My aim, even before doing the research, was not simply to point out the tensions in such thinking but to investigate how it had come about.
I quickly located three broad areas where I could investigate Indian voices on 1857. The first, and most obvious and accessible, was what we might call the nationalist archive from the 20th century movements. Newspapers, histories, speeches, plays, novels — all of these were relatively straight-forward to access, many from the Nehru Memorial Library, where Iw as an affiliated scholar. Though limited in my knowledge of Indian languages, I could still find plenty of texts to investigate, both primary and secondary.
Next, and more difficult, was the task of locating 19th century voices. Here, the fact that Indians has been crushed militarily and politically, and were subject to draconian laws after 1857, had everything to do with the lack of sources–not to speak of sources in English! The few texts available turned out to be loyalist Indians, paraded about by the British and made available in India while other perspectives were suppressed. And so one of the key sources for finding 19th century traces of Indian voices were the British colonial archives themselves. Reading against the grain of the documents, I felt, I could try to derive some sense of Indian rebel thought and action. For this I gained admittance to the National Archives of India.
Finally, I wanted to have an experiential component to my research. Between the ongoing TV serial on the Rani of Jhansi, one of the 1857 heroes, the presence of sites in Delhi and surrounding areas relevant to 1857, and the currency of the event in the present moment, I wanted to get an understanding of what it meant to folks today. Road trips and interviews, I thought, would be useful for this aspect of the study.
The research itself was to take me in many new directions. And yet these three basic approaches remained generally the same. I decided to begin with the most unfamiliar work, the National Archives of India.
And so one day, with great trepidation, I set forth to do my first bit of archival work ever, entering the world of historians, sociologists, economists, and other fantastical beings…