No matter how horrendous the atrocities or massacres, humans have the stark ability to rationalise their actions using a mixture of pseudoscience and ideological narratives. It is only decades or centuries later, when the annals of history are reopened, that those ‘rationalised’ actions are questioned. Because of poor records, historians are not always lucky enough to have access to primary sources or details of events. At times there are just a few artefacts — broken pieces — from which the historian has to reconstruct the past.
As the title of his book suggests, Kim A. Wagner begins his research on this marvellous piece of subaltern prosopography with the skull of Alum Bheg, hawaldaar [sergeant] of the 46th Bengal Native Infantry (BNI) stationed at Sialkot in service of the British East India Company (EIC). In 1963, this skull was discovered in Kent, England, in the unlikeliest of places — a pub. With it was a brief note vilifying Bheg as a principle ‘mutineer’ during the ‘revolt’ of 1857 and ‘murderer of Europeans’. In 2014, the skull came in the possession of the author and, as he writes, “I felt an immediate urge to recover something of the life story of the man who once looked out through those eye-sockets.”
Wagner details that though he struggled to find historical references for Bheg, he managed to unearth numerous accounts of Europeans working in some capacity with Bheg and the 46th BNI. During the 18th and 19th centuries, by utilising existing networks of patronage, the EIC recruited high caste peasant regiments directly from the zamindaars [landholders] of Awadh and Bihar in north India. In return, the EIC promised a decent salary and the prestige of serving as a soldier. As such, the sepoy [infantry] army was a homogenous unit composed largely of high caste Hindus, while the sowar [cavalry] regiments were often Muslims. The revolt at Sialkot — or broadly, in India — didn’t happen overnight; it occurred because of a number of policy measures taken by the EIC that resulted in the alienation of sepoy regiments.
Even before the Battle of Plassey in 1757, the EIC’s sepoys had served with unflinching loyalty. They had died, guarded and conquered India for the British. So much so that the high castes, who were forbidden to leave India, even fought in the First Anglo-Afghan War of 1839-42. All they asked in return was respect for their traditions. Instead, the sepoys were commanded to use new Lee-Enfield rifles which required them to bite cartridges covered with either pig or cow fat — an act synonymous with blasphemy for Muslims and Hindus alike. The Bengal Sati Regulation of 1829, wider caste recruitment of sepoys in 1834, increasing missionary activities, the General Service Enlistment Act of 1856 to serve overseas when commanded, the annexation of Awadh in 1856 and other British actions were viewed by the sepoys as deliberate British efforts to pollute their religion, history, tradition and castes.
Moreover, it didn’t help that many British officers and missionaries had racial and fanatical attitudes. Thomas Hunter, a Scottish missionary in Sialkot, writes (the book doesn’t specify where, but seemingly it is in a letter), “There are such obstacles to the preaching and teaching of Christ crucified as the people of Scotland cannot have much idea of. Verily ‘Satan’s seat’ appears to be in this place. Sialkot is a stronghold in which his followers stand garrisoned.” All of this provoked a desire for resistance amongst the Indian army.
In 1857, when the sepoys at Meerut refused to use the cartridges, they were flogged and sentenced to 10 years of hard labour. Wagner writes, “the prisoners, seeing their hands and feet manacled, looked at their medals and wept … Then the rest of the troops felt they would be complied to bite the cartridges, or they would suffer a similar fate.” On May 10, 1857, the ‘revolt’ began and quickly spread to major cities of north India. Sialkot was far away from this turmoil. Bheg and his 46th BNI were watching the events unfold, but they showed no sign of rebellion. To punish the ‘mutineers’, the British regiments, along with the 35th BNI and half of the 9th Bengal Light Cavalry (BLC) left Sialkot, leaving behind the 46th BNI and the rest of the 9th BLC.
Fearing further mutiny, the British started to disarm the Indian army in Punjab. When the 35th BNI was disarmed in Lahore, some of its sepoys went to Sialkot to warn Bheg’s regiment that the British were coming to disarm them next, and if they showed any resistance, harsh punishment would follow. The 46th BNI was torn; if the British could not trust them, then what option did they have apart from mutiny?
The attack on the Europeans was targeted; the night before July 9, the sowars of the 9th BLC stationed at Sialkot had made a list of officers against whom they held a vendetta. In addition, the next day they released prisoners who incited pillaging of the cantonment, markets and buildings that symbolised colonial rule. During the rioting and confusion that followed and despite the fact that the 46th BNI had chosen to serve the Mughal emperor at Delhi, Bheg and his men stood guard over the homes of the British officers and families. Wagner writes, “Although the power dynamics of the colonial state were rapidly collapsing, some bonds evidently remained intact.”
Wagner continues, “Truth is that the outbreak at Sialkot was a highly contingent and confused event, and one that in many ways differed from places [such as] Meerut, Delhi and elsewhere. At Sialkot there was … no lynching of isolated sahibs, no sexual attack on memsahibs and no mutilation of their corpses. Though many opportunities presented [themselves], sepoys did not take part in any such thing.”
On the road to Delhi, the 46th BNI and 9th BLC were intercepted by the decorated 52nd Oxfordshire Regiment of Foot Light Infantry — which had fought at the Battle of Waterloo against Napoleon Bonaparte — supported by Sikh levies and Pakhtun riders. The brave sepoys made their last stand on the lonely island of Trimmu Ghat in the river Ravi. A contemporary observer noted, “It was butchery, no doubt, and the 46th Native Infantry, who had protected their officers, hardly deserved annihilation, but the holocaust was necessary.” Of the 1200, few — including Bheg — survived and fled to Kashmir. Inevitably, they were caught.
Being a ranking officer, Bheg was thought of as a ringleader. After a court martial on July 8, 1858, he was condemned to be blown by cannon — the ultimate symbol of power, colonial retribution and reestablishment of British supremacy. What remained of the body could neither be buried nor burned — the fear of being denied funeral rites petrified both Muslims and Hindus. Wagner then details numerous instances where similar, if not worse, forms of summary executions of the sepoys were carried out and skulls and various body parts were collected by the British officers as trophies.
Learning from the EIC’s error of interfering in local culture and practices, the British Crown abolished the EIC and enforced a strict policy of non-interference. Moreover, the British explicitly denied the reports of rape and atrocities ostensibly carried out by sepoys. Wagner writes, “once the dust had settled, and peace supposedly restored, they [reports] proved merely to be painful and disruptive.”
In the last chapter, Wagner argues that there exist no mechanisms through which this skull and other remains currently in the British Museum can be returned to India. He hopes to increase awareness with this book. Finally, he proposes that, “I think the peaceful site of the Battle of Trimmu Ghat, on the island in the Ravi River, which today marks the border between India and Pakistan, would be a fitting place to bury him. Ultimately, that is not for me to decide, but whatever happens, the final chapter of Alum Bheg’s story has yet to be written.”
Here I am not being critical of Wagner’s research, but it is at times frustrating that there are so few primary accounts of the sepoys themselves — not many probably exist. But the absence of these narratives results in a black hole that can only be circumvented by relying on the accounts of the Europeans. The only problem is that it is some spaces, interpolation of what the sepoys went through — or subaltern history — and might be subject to imagination. However, despite the many challenges, Wagner has been able to navigate through these treacherous waters and provide us a different perspective.
With this book Wagner casts off the crimes — mutiny and murder — for which the men of the 46th BNI were massacred. And by doing so, Wagner does something truly magical: nearly 160 years after Bheg’s brutal execution, Wagner returns him and his comrades their rightful and due honour. These were loyal men who chose to ‘rebel’ only because the British didn’t have faith in them. Even then, they safeguarded the families of the very officers who later carried out their execution. What a paradox!g
The reviewer is a pre-Partition South Asian history enthusiast, currently pursuing graduate studies at Maxwell School, Syracuse University
The Skull of Alum Bheg: The Life and Death of a Rebel of 1857
By Kim A. Wagner
Hurst and Co., UK
INDESCRIBABLE JOHN ELI
By Shabbir Aariz
This indeed is proverbially a herculean task to describe or define John Elia in any particular frame. Whosoever while mentioning him, is either trapped in contradictions of one’s own opinion or is able to confine to a few verses of John Elia to judge him. But the more one tries to understand John, the more confused one is and I believe that you need another John Elia to explain him. He is a phenomenon, a thing like a live fish to hold in your hand or an elephant amongst blinds to be described. Wusatullah Khan, a noted broadcaster, holds that knowing John is as good as dating with a liberated lady. And it is quite obvious that a man who in him is a philosopher, a scholar, a biographer, a linguist with command over Urdu, Arabic, English, Persian, Sanskrit and Hebrew and needless to say that the Ismaili sect of the subcontinent could not find anyone other than John to translate Ismaili treatises from Hebrew, it becomes a tedious affair to be conclusive about John. Common perception though with an element of truth is that John is a progressive Marxist, an unconventional poet and always in denial of everything including himself while himself saying in three line verse,
“KISKO FUSAT K MUJSAY BAHAS KARAY…..
OOR SABIT KARAY K MERA WAJOOD….
ZINDZGI K LIYAY ZARORI HAY
(Anyone prepared to argue and prove that my existence is imperative for life). His poetry is admittedly very close to life and his verses in the words of a legendry poet, Majrooh Sultanpuri, are like a dialogue which no other poet has the distinction to be capable of. John has an extra-ordinary craft of connecting with his audience that has created an unprecedented fan following which no other contemporary poet can claim to have. So magical is his poetry and its rendition that it has created a cult of his admirers with such an obsession and longing for the life of melancholy lead by John Elia himself. It is no secret that he was never a happy man with defiance and protest against everything and anything around. Loudly a nonconformist when he says
“unjaman main mayri khamooshi…..
burdabari nahin hay wehshat hay”.
His style made him famous and popular. He appears to be disgusted even with creation when he says … “HASILE KUN HAY YEH JAHANE KHARAAB….
YAHI MUMKIN THA AYSI UJLAT MAIN”.
His admirers strangely wish to pass through the same pain and despair that is hallmark of John’s poetry besides satire and the disdain for the system which contributed to his sadness in life. He has so glorified and romanticized the pain and sadness that it leaves his audience in frenzied ecstasy.
John Elia was born in the year 1931 and died in 2002. He originally belonged to Amroha in the state of Uttar Pradesh, younger brother of Rayees Amrohi, a known journalist and writer. John migrated to Pakistan in the year 1957 and settled in Karachi where he is buried now. But Amroha never left his heart and mind. He never felt comfortable after leaving Amroha partly because his stay in Karachi brought him in conflict with the system too. Many other things have also contributed to his sadness in life. He was married to a well-known writer of Pakistan, Zahida Hina but in mid-80’s , the relation between the two became bumpy and ended up in divorce which left John devastated and for ten long years thereafter went in depression without writing a word.
As is true about many in the history of literature, John earned his name and fame more after his death than in his life time while he was not received well and felt a strange type of suffocation when he says,
“AAP APNAY SAY HUMSUKHAN REHNA…..
HUMNISHEEN SAANS PHOOL JATI HAY”.
Thanks to the electronic boom and You Tube that brought him to the lime light and enabled audience to reach him and his works. As if this was not enough that his first poetic collection only came to be published when he reached the age of 60. It is worthwhile mention that he has as many as seven poetic collections to his credit namely SHAYAD, YANI, LEKIN, GUMAAN, GOYA, FARMOD and RAMOOZ. Except one, all other are published posthumously. This is besides his scholarly works in prose which may require greater insight to go into.
John all his life remained honest, direct and straightforward in expressing his views on matters of public interest. He also never demonstrated any pretentions or reservations while expressing the truth of his personal life. He never made any secret of his fantasies, love affairs or drinking habits. Yet he was never at peace either with the times or with himself. John Elia, in my humble opinion lived ahead of times and even the desire of dying young without being bed ridden was not granted to him except that he strangely enough wanted to die of tuberculosis and which he did.
(The author, a senior lawyers, is a well known poet and writer. Feedback at: [email protected])
Manto: Why I wanted to read a ‘lewd’ writer
By Naveed Hussain
I first read Saadat Hasan Manto as a teenager and the spirit of what I’m writing now was etched on my memory in those years.
I was too young to understand the intricacies of his stories but I enjoyed what I read and craved for more. Back then, Manto wasn’t available in the small town of Haripur where I lived. A friend introduced me to a schoolteacher, a bibliophile who had a modest collection of Manto in his personal library.
“Why do you want to read Manto, he’s a ribald, lewd writer,” he quipped. “This is exactly why I want to read him,” I replied, almost impulsively. He smiled and agreed to lend me Manto’s books. Thus began my journey to explore Manto. The more I read, the deeper my love for him became.
Manto was a nonconformist, an unorthodox and ruthlessly bold writer. He didn’t believe in the so-called literary norms of ‘decency’ and ‘civility’ set by didactic writers of his time. For him, truth is truth. No matter how bitter and despicable the reality, Manto never dilutes the truth. Like a muckraker, he pokes his nose into the muck, rakes it, and then holds it up to the reader – in all its profound ugliness and twisted beauty. “If you don’t know your society, read my stories. If you find a defect, it’s the defect of your society, not my stories,” he says.
Manto wrote on socially taboo topics like sex, incest and prostitution, which earned him the wrath of contemporary traditionalists, conservatives and even progressives. For some of his ‘lewd’ and ‘obscene’ stories he had to face lawsuits – among them were great stories such as Thanda Gosht, Bu, Khol Do, Dhuan and Kali Shalwar.
But it is to miss the point to simply say that Manto wrote about sex. He wrote about the sexual debauchery of men and the sexual exploitation of women; about our patriarchal society where women are often treated as a ‘sex toy’, not a human being. Unlike many, I don’t compare Manto with DH Lawrence, because Manto is not lustful, even though he explicitly writes about the female anatomy. He’s more like Guy de Maupassant, who sees the throbbing heart, not the sensuous body, of the prostitute.
Manto blames the ‘diseased mind’ for reading ‘ribaldry’ into his stories. If a sex maniac derives morbid gratification from Venus De Milo, should we blame Alexandros of Antioch for chiselling such a ‘graphic’ sculpture? No, certainly not.
For contemporary literary pundits, Manto was also unacceptable because he wrote ‘indecent’ language. “They [the critics] criticise me when my characters verbally abuse one another – but why don’t they criticise their society instead where hundreds of thousands of profanities are hurled on the streets, every day,” he wonders.
I also love Manto because he was honest. He was an unflinchingly true writer who believed in calling a spade a spade. Sketch-writing was introduced as a genre in Urdu literature much earlier, but Manto created his own peculiar tell-all style. He didn’t write only the good qualities of his characters. “In my bathroom, everyone is naked. I don’t clothe them because it’s the tailor’s job,” he writes.
Manto’s sketches, which he initially wrote for the Lahore-based Daily Afaq newspaper, were later collected and published as Ganjay Farishtay. Manto wasn’t a hypocrite. He minced no words while writing about his dead friends. “I curse a thousand times a so-called civilised society where a man’s character is cleansed of all its ills and tagged as ‘May-God-Bless Him’,” Manto wrote in Ganjay Farishtay. Manto wrote sketches of filmstars Ashok Kumar, Shyam, Noor Jahan, literary figures such as Meera Ji, Agha Hashar and Ismat Chughtai and some politicians. “I have no camera that could have washed smallpox marks off the face of Agha Hashar or change obscenities uttered by him in his flowery style.”
Before embarking on his literary career, Manto had read Russian, French and English masters like Chekhov, Gorky, Victor Hugo, de Maupassant and Oscar Wilde and translated some of their works into Urdu. Surprisingly enough, despite his love for revolutionaries, Manto was not a Marxist ideologue. He was a humanist who was pained to see social injustices, economic disparities and exploitation of the underprivileged. He hated the obscurantist clergy and parasitic elites alike.
Although Manto had migrated to Pakistan after 1947, he couldn’t understand the rationale of partitioning a land along religious lines. His stories of bloodshed and cross-border migration, such as Teetwaal Ka Kutta and Toba Tek Singh, made him unpopular with ‘patriotic’ Pakistanis. To this day he remains a shadowy figure on the official literary lists of Pakistan: our school curricula, our national awards, our drawing room conversations.
Manto was acknowledged as a creative genius even by his detractors. And he knew this, which is perhaps why he wanted these words to mark his grave: “Here lies Saadat Hasan Manto and with him lie all the secrets and mysteries of the art of short story writing. Under tons of earth he lies, still wondering who among the two is the greater short story writer: he or God.”
Manto’s family feared his self-written epitaph would attract the unwanted attention of the ignorantly religious, so on his grave one finds a Ghalib couplet. He faced censorship all his life and even now has chunks of his stories taken out by the authorities. But as we mark his centenary year, I can say this with the instant certainty I felt as a young man in Haripur: the words and stories of Saadat Hasan Manto will outlive us all.
Gauhar Raza: Giving Poetry the Power to Protest
By Asheesh Mamgain
If things were different his poems would have been different, or maybe he would not have been a poet at all. But things are what they are. And that is why Gauhar Raza, the poet is writing, and it is why he writes his poetry of protest.
“Maybe I would have written about love, the beauty of nature and science. But as things stand my poetry is predominantly about resistance and protest,” said Raza, who is faithful to the tradition of resistance poetry to the extent that he has throttled, without much difficulty, the romantic and the scientist in him. “The need to write poetry always arose when something happened around me which affected me, to the core. I have never written and will never write poetry just for the sake of it.”
“The murder of Safdar Hashmi, the breaking up of the Soviet Union, the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the killing of an activist in Afghanistan, the death of Rohith Vemula are some of those things,” he said.
Raza’s second published collection of ghazals and nazms (71 in all) came out in November 2017 and is titled Khamoshi, or Silence.
Is there a lot of anger in his poems? Yes, there is definitely a lot of anger. But then there is also hope. That is where Raza becomes special.
“For me, a poem that merely complains or rants about the injustice, violence and persecution happening all around is not enough. A poet has to go beyond this; he has to give a vision. The vision of an alternative world, of a better world. Only then will his poetry be successful and meaningful. A poet has to show the consciousness he wants to bring into society.”
So how does he define good poetry? “Well, a good poem should be able to raise the level of the reader at least one notch higher, and also give him a fresh perspective about the aspect being dealt in the poem. Something new to dwell upon,” said Raza.
The influences that shaped his poetic thought came pretty early, at home and at the Aligarh Muslim University where he studied. Raza’s father, Wizarat Hussain, worked in the education department there and was a second-generation Leftist.
“The question about the existence of God came up very early in my life and soon I became an atheist for life,” said Raza. Literature was read with passion at home and by the time he was 15 he had read all the Urdu literature available at the AMU library as well as a solid portion of Russian literature.
“During my growing years, Leftist thought had a major presence in the university. On the other hand, the fundamental forces were also steadily getting stronger. I was smitten by the leftist idea. I was part of a literary study circle, we served tea at the secret meetings of leftist groups and listened to discussions at home between my father and other intellectuals such as Irfan Habib and Iqtidar Alam Khan.”
There was a lot of churning in his mind and soon he started pouring the remnants of all that into his poems. When it comes to poetry some of Raza’s major influences have been Ghalib, Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Sahir Ludhianvi. He is often seen reciting their work at length during his various lectures, with Sahir Ludhianvi’s long poem ‘Parchhaiyan’ or Shadows one of his favourites.
“Writing the kind of poetry I do is not easy. Each time a write a poem I must relive all the pain and emotion I went through when the particular incident happened that forced me to write. All those disturbing images come rushing back to me. It is a difficult thing to undergo.”
Nor is poetry Raza’s only means of reaching the people. He recently retired as chief scientist from the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research. He is also into documentary filmmaking, his documentaries on Bhagat Singh and the 2002 Gujarat genocide being very well known.
Where does poetry stand today, as a means of communication with the reader? According to Raza, “for one, social media has helped. It has helped poets reach a wider audience. Also, the tradition of musharias and kavi sammelans (poetry meets) is still very strong in India. So even if a poet is competing with the multimedia world, it is easy to reach one’s audience with one’s poetry, provided you have something pertinent to say.”
More broadly speaking, however, “I have to say that things have progressed in a disturbing direction. A poem I wrote 20 years ago, I could rededicate it to Rohith Vemula and then to Gauri Lankesh. This disturbing trend is seen all over the world. I believe that the fall of the USSR has been a major turning point in the way our World has evolved.”
A few lines from one of his poems brings out his concern and struggle.
Mein phool khilata hoon jab bhi,
Woh baad e khizan le aate hain,
Mein geet sunata hoon jab bhi,
Yeh aag se ji bahlate hain.
Whenever I make a flower blossom
They bring the autumn wind
Whenever I sing a song
They give the soul succour with flame.
But Raza is still hopeful. “There has been a resurgence of resistance poetry in Urdu in the recent past. The trend of religious poetry in Urdu has also reduced in recent times. The youth today has become more involved in this attempt to bring a positive change. I have seen young people reading protest poetry and reacting to it. Once again universities have become a place of resistance and struggle for change.”