The Mutiny Papers

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Rare and largely unseen documents on the 1857 uprising make a surprise visit out of the National Archives of India.

Archival material shapes collective memory and articulates historical discourse. Both are sadly afterthoughts in an India rushing towards its date with modernity. The outstanding collection of the National Archives of India is often confined to the odd scholar who takes the effort of trudging down to its magnificent building at Janpath, New Delhi. To the rest of us, the archives remain obscure, in some ways forbidding, and generally out of reach. To access them brings to mind an exercise akin to mining: God knows how many volumes you would have to sift through before you find what you really want. 

It is, therefore, a superb initiative by the India International Centre (IIC) in New Delhi to collaborate with the National Archives in bringing some of these priceless documents into the larger public realm. These were showcased at a recent exhibition on the 1857 uprising on the forecourt of the IIC. 

The ‘mutiny’ was the big bang that accelerated India’s tryst with destiny. It evokes fascination in almost everyone who has some interest in what it means to be an Indian. It is of significance not only for those who seek to know what happened, but also to those who want to explore the ‘what-could-have-been’ alternative history that’s all the rage these days. 

The show was neatly curated and attractively presented. The most poignant of the papers on display was an open letter, dated April 1857, written in Gadar Ka Akhbar, the newspaper of the uprising. It is a disturbing open letter to the telegraph pole. When the rebels reached Delhi, they didn’t think of snapping the telegraph wires, although it was situated right next to the bank in Chandni Chowk that they had plundered. The wire operated long enough for Calcutta to get wind of the arrival of sepoys in Delhi, and reinforcement was sent within 12 hours. 

What would have happened had that wire been snapped forthwith? Was the humble telegraph the deciding factor in 1857, or would other technology and the overwhelming might of the Empire have throttled the movement anyway? This is just one of the thoughts this superb exhibition inspires. 

There is lots more here, from the  original copy of the trial of the last Mughal, Bahadur Shah Zafar, on charges of treason, to an excellent lithograph of the siege of Kashmiri Gate, where three British officers died from sniper fire even as they lit the fuse that blew off the bastion. Another lithograph captures the sadness of the events after the rebellion failed. It features the capture of Bahadur Shah, an enfeebled king surrounded by the British infantry sporting the very rifle that had triggered the ‘mutiny’. 

The original seal of the Rani of Jhansi, all aglow in red, inspires as well. Then, there is a photo of a bullet used by Mangal Pandey, which was later presented as evidence during his trial. The trial itself makes its presence felt in the exhibition with original papers from 1857 and the judgment awarding him the death penalty seen in a neatly bound volume that shows little sign of ageing. 

“It is amazing how much interest the events of 1857 still generate. The response has been tremendous,” comments Mumtaz Baig, assistant archaeologist of the National Archives. “Part of it, of course, has to do with the fact that it also chronicles the history of the city. We are very excited by the response to the exhibition and urge all those who come here to look at the reams of material that the archives hold on the mutiny,” he adds. 

Another document worthy of note is the constitution that the rebels churned out proclaiming Bahadur Shah Zafar as the Emperor of India. There are also some rare books on display; alas, one can’t leaf through them as they are neatly laid-out inside a locked glass case. The most interesting among these is a book printed in 1908 by the chief of the imperial army staff. The book includes old maps and outlines the strategic and tactical measures that the British undertook at different battles. For students of military history, this book is a must-read. 

The present exhibition is the first in a series entitled Making of Modern India. Three more to follow are on Maulana Azad, Rajendra Prasad, and, finally, Dadabhai Naoroji. Let’s hope this experiment between the IIC and the National Archives inspires other institutions in India.