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1857 war: history as narrated by women

By Rauf Parekh

IT is often said that truth is the first casualty of war. But it is a sad fact that most often women, too, are among the first casualties of war and are affected by it in more than one way. It is, however, rare that we come across an account of a war written by a woman.

The 1857 war was no exception. In fact, in the beginning, much of the history of the 1857 independence war was based on the texts and documents compiled and edited by colonialists themselves, besides women of the subcontinent. Calling the independence war a ‘mutiny’, most of the western historians could see but one side of the coin, conveniently forgetting that it was the British that immorally and illegitimately ‘occupied’ India after ‘revolting’ against the Indian government and the people of India were justifiably fighting to reclaim their sovereignty.

This unilateral approach was perhaps one of the reasons for Iain Macleod (1913-1970), an English Conservative politician, remarking that “History is too serious to be left to historians”. Luckily, some researchers found some new, authentic and contemporary sources on the 1857 war, consisting of diaries, autobiographies, memoirs and letters. Notable among them are letters of Ghalib, Ghalib’s book ‘Dastamboo’, memoirs of Hakeem Ahsanullah Khan, diary of Mubarak Kotwaal and some writings of Khwaja Hasan Nizami and Rashid-ul-Khairi.

The early Urdu prose was almost monopolised by male writers but it is a fact that subcontinent’s women poets had been composing poetry in Urdu and Persian since long and at least two tazkiras have recorded such poetry. The first one is ‘Baharistan-i-naz’ (1864) and the other one is ‘Miraat-i-khayali’ also known as ‘Chaman andaaz’ (1878).

Though Urdu prose is not totally devoid of memoirs of female writers, we do not have even in the modern-day literature something like ‘The diary of Anne Frank’. On the other hand, the few memoirs of women writers recording the impressions and events of 1857 war have not been given proper attention, according to Dr Tanzeem-ul-Firdous. She has collected her three long research articles in her new book ‘Jang-i-azadi 1857: tareekhi haqaaiq ke nae zaviye’ (the 1857 war of independence: new perspective on historical facts). The first of the three papers, titled ‘1857 ki nisvani yaad-dashten’ (female memoirs of 1857), thrashes the memoirs of 1857 written by female writers and draws some new conclusions.

Dr Tanzeem teaches Urdu at the University of Karachi and has penned a couple of books in addition to a considerable number of research papers. She is a regular contributor to research journals. She says the writings of women about the 1857 incidents and its aftermath reveal more than just the political events or the impact of shift in the centre of power. In addition to describing the political and cultural fallout, these writings present heart-wrenching pictures of human tragedy. She then goes on to quote from and to analyse the eye-witness accounts of some historical events either written or narrated by women (some such accounts were narrated by women and jotted down by their male relatives as not all women knew how to write). She has taken special care to take into account the authentic sources such as ‘Begmaat-i-Avadh ke khutoot’, ‘Beeti kahani’, ‘Begmaat ke aansoo’ and ‘Shahzadiyon ki bipta’. The other paper included in the book discusses the fall of Avadh in 1858, with a special reference to the royal ladies and their perceptions of the independence war. Sifting through the data from some memoirs of women writers and in particular from the letters of the Begums of Avadh collected by Mufti Intezanullah Shahabi, Dr Tanzeem has thrown some light on the social and cultural aspects of the life in Avadh from a rare angle. The third one surveys the role of ulema (religious scholars), especially that of Ahmadullah Shah Madrasi, in the war of independence.

Dr Jafer Ahmed, director of Karachi University’s Pakistan Study Centre, has superbly summed up the book’s contents and its importance in his foreword and has very rightly mentioned that as May 1957 marked the centennial of the independence war a number of new, indigenous and authentic sources were published. Magazines brought out special issues and discussed different aspects of the war. But in 2007, says Dr Ahmed, when 150th anniversary was commemorated not much enthusiasm was observed and aside from ‘Sahifa’ (Lahore) and ‘Pakistan Perspective’ (Karachi) not many periodicals published much new material, neither were many new books published. Commenting on the book he says that the papers make it quite clear that in the aftermath of 1857 war the Muslim scholars and political elite were largely in a state of confusion and only a limited segment could understand and analyse the true implications of the disaster that had befallen on India.

In her intro to the book Dr Najeeba Arif points to the fact that Dr Tanzeem’s point of view is feministic and she has provided the reader with a different perspective highlighting the cultural and social aspects as well as the political ones.

It has become fashionable in Urdu these days to talk of feminism and then try to cash on it. One feels that in the midst of a flood of feministic writings that emphasise only a few limited aspects, the book is like a gust of fresh air as it very seriously and in a scholarly way surveys a very serious realm and draws some conclusions that may serve as food for thought. Unlike other feminist writers, Dr Tanzeem-ul-Firdous has quietly done a wonderful job without making any tall claims about it. She will have to learn how to blow her own trumpet and then enjoy the fruits.

Source: Dawn