Posted by: bazmewafa | 05/01/2013

Commemorating 1857: Will People Succeed Where Government Failed? Saeed Naqvi


Friday, April 26, 2013

Commemorating 1857: Will People Succeed Where Government Failed? Saeed Naqvi

                                                                                                  As the anniversary of 1857 approaches on May 11, my mind goes back in time. In 2006, within two years of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) rule, a high level meeting was held at 7, Race Course Road, residence of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, to chalk out a plan of action to celebrate on a national scale, the 150th anniversary of 1857, India’s first war of Independence, which would fall the next year, 2007. In my four decades of journalism I have not seen such a galaxy of national and state level leaders, representing every political shade, endorse an extensive agenda without demur. Among those present were Sonia Gandhi, L.K. Advani, Nitish Kumar, Lalu Prasad Yadav, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Prakash Karat, A.B. Bardhan and a host of others – academics, poets, artists, senior journalists. The Prime Minister in his concluding remarks said the occasion be used to celebrate “our diversity, our liberalism, our civilizational inheritance and the values of integrity and service to man that defined the national movement.” The Prime Minister made special mention of the role played by the “Rani of Jhansi who fought against British attempts to implement gender biased laws of inheritance.” The official briefing dwelt on the suggestion that Pakistan and Bangladesh should be included in celebrating 1857. Noted Gandhian, Nirmala Deshpande’s idea was particularly well received. She suggested that soil should be brought from Bahadur Shah Zafar’s “mazaar” in Yangon for a memorial in Delhi’s Mehrauli where the poet-King had marked the “two yards of land” for his grave near the shrine of Sufi Saint Khwaja Bakhtiar Kaki, disciple of Moinuddin Chishti of Ajmer. With so much bipartisan support, implementation of ideas appeared to be feasible. But as I embarked on a script for TV, taking up the Rani of Jhansi trail at the very outset, I received the first big shock. Her flag or Insignia, with Hanuman embroidered on it, came into British hands after the valiant Rani fell in battle. The British Army High Command placed the priceless tapestry in the custody of Rajputana Rifles. As I pursued the story I found that this, most valuable of trophies kept at the Raj-Rif Centre had been “stolen” some years ago. The Insignia of Rani Lakshmi Bai stolen from the Indian Army? The next stop in pursuit of this script was equally disturbing. My village, Mustafabad, happens to be in Rae Bareli, where I had, in my childhood, been shown a large tamarind tree within the premises of the magistrate’s office as the symbol of local participation in 1857. Rebellion in this famous district was led by Rana Beni Madho Baksh Singh, the zamindar of nearby Shankarpur. He escorted Begum Hazrat Mahal to Nepal where he was killed fighting the Gurkhas. Clandestine crucial help in men and material to Beni Madho was provided by Mir Baqar who, along with his 22 supporters, were eventually captured and hanged from the tamarind tree. The bodies were left in this state for three days. My jaw dropped when I reached the location. There was no memorial. The tree had made way for a common electric transformer, next to a gutter. There was no point pursuing other ideas that had been accepted at the Prime Minister’s meeting because nothing worthwhile was ever implemented. For example: the entire route from Meerut to Delhi’s Red Fort taken by the Indian soldiers, and civilians in their support, be named “Kranti Path” or “Revolution Path”. Among those present at the meeting, Shashi Bhushan, wrote a stinging letter to the Prime Minister: “It is regrettable that there exist memorials for those who fought for the British, including India Gate at Delhi, but there is no monument for hundreds of thousands killed fighting for freedom.” After the painful inability of the government and all political formations to be able to make anything of the spirit of 1857, I am heartened by an episode or two recently. The other day, after a packed hall at the India International Center, had been regaled to an evening of poetry by Nida Fazli the popular Urdu/Hindi poet, I found that most of audience that lingered after the recitation for a conversation with him were mostly from the world of Hindi media. Whatever critics may say of Nida’s poetry, he has emerged as a firm bridge between Urdu and Hindi audiences. “A common language, Hindustani, divided by two scripts” Nida says. An idea tossed up that evening and endorsed by Nida, harmonized with the mood set by his verse. It focused on May 11 as a day to be commemorated this year. This would kickstart a process that should then be taken up each year. On this date in 1857 soldiers of the British Indian army, after having captured the Meerut cantonment a day earlier, reached Delhi and proclaimed Bahadur Shah Zafar as their leader and Emperor. This was the first pan India uprising of the people – the first war of Indian Independence. Groups of journalists here and there, some political formations, publishers of a new Urdu daily, activist figures like Kuldip Nayar and Justice Rajinder Sachar are on board to commemorate May 11. What has to be devised is an agenda which discards the cliché that secularism has become – a system of merely “tolerating” or “accommodating” each other. This has to be replaced by a secularism of shared aspirations which is what India’s First War of Independence was.


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