Open Diary

Swapan Dasgupta is an MP and India’s foremost conservative columnist
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The skull of Alum Bheg and the message from Tripura

THE REAL PROBLEM with India’s history is that it is insufficiently read. This has nothing to do with the richness of the subject, but rather with the inadequacies of professional historians. With rare exceptions, our historians have done their utmost to turn an appreciation of the past into forbidden territory, reserved exclusively for those who have mastered the academic jargon. Narrative history, a craft which was bequeathed to future generations by the likes of Edward Gibbon, has by and large been abandoned in favour of dry analysis that takes both life and excitement out of the subject. In recent years, the only histories that have been widely read—and not merely by those in academia—have been penned by those who are often not regarded as professional historians. Indeed, the custodians of academic history make it a point to discourage students from reading their work.

It was therefore heartening to come across a book that combined empirical rigour, narrative flow and imagination in telling an interesting, if quirky, story of the 1857 revolt. I am referring to recently published The Skull of Alum Bheg: The Life and Death of a Rebel of 1857 (Hurst & Company, London, 2017) by Kim A Wagner of Queen Mary College, London.

The story begins with the chance discovery of a human skull in England. According to a small note that was attached to it, this was the head of one Alum Bheg, a rebel sepoy who was executed in a grisly manner by being blown apart from the mouth of a cannon in Sialkot in 1858. Fascinated by this bizarre trophy of war, Wagner set out to reconstruct the set of events in Sialkot that culminated in the brutal execution of Alum Bheg (Alim Beg), a sepoy in the Bengal Regiment.

What marks this book is not merely its meticulous reconstruction of events, using all available contemporary sources, but the larger story of the 1857 revolt as seen from the perspective of both Indians and British officials and non-officials (mainly missionaries) stationed in the Sialkot cantonment. Read along with William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal on the uprising in Delhi, Wagner’s book brings alive the story of one of the most turbulent phases of British rule in India.

Yes, there have been other studies of the 1857 uprising by Indian historians and at least two contemporary accounts that have been translated into English. But as far as popular history— and I use this term not in any pejorative sense—is concerned, the story of Alum Bheg is obligatory reading.

ANYONE WHO READ my previous Diary may have been forewarned about the outcome of the Assembly election in Tripura. In a sense, I am glad that not enough of the political punditry had any inkling that this tiny north-eastern state was going to produce such a result. For a party to increase its popular vote from some 1.5 per cent to 50 per cent can’t be explained by swing alone. There was a change in the chemistry of politics.

At the risk of being over-simplistic, let me hazard an explanation. In popular discourse, the 2014 General Election is perceived to be the high point of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity. It certainly was as far as Gujarat and maybe a few of its neighbouring states were concerned. However, across large tracts of India, Modi was still a hazy figure—a reason why voters interpreted him in a manner of their own choosing.

Since 2014, countrywide awareness of Modi and, by implication, the BJP, has increased exponentially. Media exposure—both positive and negative—has been a contributory factor. But equally, the sheer energy of the Modi Government has made a mark. In particular, the toilet building programme of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, the cooking gas scheme and, of course, the demonetisation of November 2016 have served to raise awareness to such an extent that no local election is purely local any longer. There is always a clear Modi dimension.

In both eastern and southern India, where the BJP was never really a major player, the impact has been the greatest. The BJP surge in Assam, Manipur, Tripura and Nagaland are evidence of it. And these were tested only in local elections where the national factor plays a much smaller role. Come the 2019 General Election, and we will witness a de facto presidential election that will be much more about one leader than the 2014 election was.

Tripura was a small indication that past voting trends are no longer indicative of how the future will shape up. The 2019 outcome may show this even more clearly.