Amit Varma, one of my favorite bloggers (and indeed of many Indians in the blogosphere) agrees with the criticism of “The Rising—the Ballad of Mangal Pandey” in the Telegraph where British historians have accused the movie of demonizing British Rule.
Despite not having seen the movie myself and basing my assessment solely on what the Telegraph and Amit says the movie contains , I shall have to disagree.
Amit quotes the Telegraph article.
The Â£6.5 million production, which is largely in English and which opened across Britain on Friday, accuses the [British East India] company of murdering civilians to further its interests and of flouting the Empire-wide ban on slavery.
In one scene an officer is shown bidding for a slave girl who is sent to a brothel for the exclusive use of British officers. Later, a fellow officer orders the destruction of a village and itsdefenselesss inhabitants after they refuse to set aside land for opium production.
Saul David, the author of the acclaimed The Indian Mutiny: 1857, attacked the depictions as fabrication.”I am no apologist for the British East India Company but I have never come across any evidence which supports either of these assertions,” he said. “It is nonsense. Of course a certain amount of criticism is justified but this sounds like vilification of the British just for the sake of it.”
Now let me tell you what the British did do. In Bengal (at least and I am sure they did it in other places) till 1860s, the British forced the local farmers to grow indigo instead of paddy. When they refused, the British East India Company would drag villagers to their bunglows, whip and torture them till they signed away their land and set fire to their paddy crops.Sometimes they just did it for the fun of hearing the natives squeal in pain.
The “Neel Sahebs” (the British who were Indigo cultivators) were famous for scouring the land on horseback and kidnapping women for their carnal amusement.
When villagers in Bengal talk about the ancient bunglows of the British in hushed whispers because “the screams of women still echo in the night” they are articulating the collective generational memory of so many Indian women who were raped in those places.
Now I dont know about you, Saul David but this does not seem to me to be too different from “brothels for the exclusive pleasure of Britishers” and “burning villages to force them to grow opium”.
Lest it be dubbed as a conspiracy to defame our erstwhile masters, the person who brought this to public notice was a preacher named Rev. James Long who translated Dinabandhu Mitra’s “Neel Darpan” from Bengali to English.
His motivation? The Indigo planters were too much of a negative advertisement for Christianity—a religion he was trying to get the natives to convert to.
Coming back to the main point, history is not being “manufactured” here—–it is merely being put in a different context for the sake of a movie. Which is not an unreasonable thing to do.
However historians like Saul David, who are intent on sanitizing British rule in India, want to sweep under the carpet the inevitable barbarity that is concomitant of any imperialist agenda (I am sounding like a loony left guy here) and in the process deny bare-facedly the atrocities they have committed.
The film’s naive political agenda was articulated by Aamir Khan as well, in a recent interview to Time Out in which he said:
The script questions the right of any superpower to move into anothercivilizationn and control and loot it economically and socially try and change its norms. Which is also what’s happening today, that’s what America is doing all over the world. […] I felt, arre, this happened in 1857 in India, it’s happening today in Iraq and Afghanistan!
And there, in one casual sentence, he condones the barbaric regimes of the Taliban and Saddam Hussain. (I also find the bit about “this happened in 1857 in India” amusing, because what he shows in the film did not, as it turns out, happen.) Afghanistan is certainly better off since the Americans got there and, far from “loot[ing] it economically”, they’ve spent tonloads of money in that place, just as they have done in Iraq. Aamir’s analogies are ludicrous and ignorant.
Again, Amit, I find myself, hopefully for the last time, on the side of a Bollywood actor.
I agree with you—the Taliban was a scourge and so was Saddam. You and I both agree that democracy is the best form of government. And that the US is fighting to bring democracy and spending money to develop infra structure in a foreign country. In other words, in our eyes, the US is doing something to foster positive change. But it is not doing so from a motivation of “liberating suffering peoples ” (despite the political rhetoric) they are doing it to further their national interests. In the process, some “good” is definitely coming about. But the point to note—it is “good” according to our “modern” Western belief systems.
Likewise the British brought about many positive changes but they were motivated by their own self-interest. Western education spread because they needed English-knowing clerks. Railways were built to help British goods reach their market. Their own value system was imposed on Indians, not because the Indians wanted it but because the British (the Evangelical movement was in its ascendancy then) felt it was the white man’s burden to civilize the natives.
The Sepoy Mutiny (or the First War of Independence) was a rebellion against this imperial hubris—- “the white man knows best”.
Looking back, the political reasons behind the Mutiny seem today to be “wrong” ( the caste system, blind superstition, the reinstatement of the lame-duck Bahadur Shah Zafar). However what was “right” was that it was a rebellion against “imposed change”—-true change has to come from inside; it cannot come at the end of a gun. Only resentment is born that way.
I know this is a difficult issue to wrest with——there are no clear cut good and bad guys—–I personally support the US’s initiative and believe that the region will be stronger if democracy is established, even though it is an imposed change (which is not the ideal let me add).
However these changes are happening because the US has pre-ordained that “Afghanistan needs democracy” just like the British decided that “feeling overtly emotional about biting off a greased cartridge was silly.”
In that respect, the parallels are striking.
A source says
Their British officers, for their part, are normally scrupulous observers of these silly religious protocols. But on this day, of all days, they appear not to careâ€”if the sepoys are to be properly civilized, they must do away with useless religious forms sooner or later. Why shouldnâ€™t it be sooner?
From the Wiki (this I have seen in all history books about the War)
The Commander in Chief in India, General George Anson reacted to this crisis by saying, “I’ll never give in to their beastly prejudices”, and despite the pleas of his junior officers he did not compromise.
In February 1857 when 19th Bengal Native Infantry regiment came to know about new cartridges, they refused. Their Colonel confronted them angrily with artillery and cavalry on the parade ground, but then accepted their demand to withdraw the artillery and cancel next morning parade.
This is what the Telegraph critiques “the Rising” with:
The film’s version of events is rather different. Not only are the bullets issued but an officer threatens to slaughter reluctant sepoys with a cannon unless they agree to use them.
In other words, according to the Telegraph, noone confronted the sepoys with artillery and cavalry once they refused to use the cartridges. Creative with the truth here perhaps?
So here’s the final deal. From what I hear, “The Rising” has its share of historical inaccuracies—but it does not exaggerate British repression to such an extent that they should start croaking about it.
The British did a lot of good (without intending to) but if they want to pretend to have been merely benign political masters whose only legacy was Western education, the Railways and cricket—–then they are, in true English style, understating themselves.