Identity and Narratives: Dalits and memories of 1857 In the

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    Identity and Narratives:

    Dalits and memories of 1857

    In the Azamgarh district of UP there is a village called

    Majhauwa, which is predominantly inhabited by Dalit castes

    like Chamar, Pasi, Dhobi, Mali and so on. Next to a narrow

    footpath inside a field in this village there are four cemented

    stones. These are called Shahid Baba by the villagers. The

    Dalits of this village worship these stones with red powder;

    they pour water on them and offer home-made sweets like

    thekua, etc. as a form of worship on them regularly. All

    newly married brides of these castes visit the Shahid Babas

    stones to offer prayers at them for their future happiness. On

    enquiring about the history of these stones, the village

    school master who is a Chamar by caste said that four

    Chamars of this village laid down their lives during the 1857

    rebellion. These four men started appearing in the dreams of

    the villagers and conveying messages saying that if they

    prayed to these four martyrs they would all prosper. Since

    then they have been incarnated as gods in the eyes of the

    villagers, who constructed shrines in their memories and

    began to pray at them for happiness and prosperity.1

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    Around the village Shahapur in Arrah district of Bihar, a

    deity called Rajit Baba is worshipped by some lower caste

    communities of that region. His thaans (memorial stones)

    are usually found under peepal trees which are decorated

    with red loin cloths, red flag, red powder marks, incense

    sticks, home made sweets and so on. People of the villages

    pray for the fulfillment of their wishes at the thaans and after

    they are fulfilled, offer prasad there. It is said that Rajit Baba

    became a martyr while fighting against the British during the

    1857 rebellion. He then became a god incarnate.2

    These are only two examples which show how, in

    various regions of north India, martyrs of the 1857 rebellion

    belonging to lower castes have become integral components

    of the lives of the Dalits living there. This fact is interesting

    since a perusal of the mainstream academic history of the

    1857 revolution shows that the role of the dalits is not even

    acknowledged in it. But the two examples given above show

    that they have given god-like status to their own heroes of

    the 1857 rebellion. Even today in many villages of north

    India where the revolution was concentrated one can find

    stories and myths popular among the dalit communities,

    centering around the 1857 revolt. For example, there is one

    myth that is narrated in the village Janaidih in Bihar which

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    was an important center of the revolt. The story goes that

    there was once a man called Raghu Chamar in the village

    who was very skilled at using the katta (an indigenous knife

    like instrument). He was a soldier in Kunwar Singhs army

    and fought against the British in the 1857 revolt, in which he

    lost his life. The day he died, the seeds of a guler tree, which

    is still there in the village, sprouted, but although the tree

    grew into a thick, tall one, no Guler flowers have ever been

    seen on it. However, the villagers believed that exactly at the

    stroke of midnight on full moon nights, one single flower is

    seen blooming on the tree. Many people claim to have seen

    it over the years, which has helped to establish the

    authenticity of this story.3

    Another story that is popular among the dalits in the

    villages adjoining Bithoor in UP is that of Ganga Baba, a

    local hero of the 1857 revolt. The story goes like this:

    Gangu Baba was a youth living in a nearby village. It was

    said that he was so strong that he could change the

    course of rivers and chop off the heads of mountains. He

    could fight against two tigers together. Gangu Baba was

    as kind as he was brave. If he saw a hungry person he

    would give him his own bread to eat. If he saw someone

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    shivering in the cold he gave his own blanket to wrap.

    People also say that if he heard a deer crying at night he

    used to get so upset that he would go to the forest and

    break the bones of tigers. Although he was born in a low

    caste poor family, he commanded great respect in the

    village. Rich and influential landlords used to leave their

    chairs to embrace him.

    Once Gangu Baba was returning from the forest with a

    dead tiger on his back, which he had killed unarmed

    single-handed. Just then Nana Saheb Peshwa, the king of

    Bithoor, passed by with his army. At that time Nana Saheb

    Peshwa had already blown the bugle of the battle against

    the British. When he saw the strapping young man

    walking nonchalantly with a tiger on his back, he stopped

    him and asked him to join his army. Gangu Baba was very

    happy to hear this. He joined the army and while there he

    once alone killed nearly 150 British soldiers with his

    sword. This enraged the British, who tried their best to

    catch him dead or alive. After immense efforts they

    succeeded in capturing him. Then the cruel British officers

    tied him to the back of a horse and dragged him all the

    way to Kanpur, which was a long way away. There they

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    killed him by hanging him from a neem tree in Chunniganj,

    Kanpur. 4

    This is the story of Gangu Baba, the brave youth of

    Bithoor, whose story is part of the oral history of the region

    about the 1857 revolt. To make sure that the story

    remains for posterity, the dalits of the region raised

    enough money to commission a statue of Gangu Baba.

    The statue is installed in Chunniganj, where he had been

    mercilessly killed by the British as a punishment for his

    brave act of killing so many of their fellowmen.5

    The existence of such kinds of myths centering around

    dalit heroes of the 1857 revolt and the deification of many of

    them proves that there is a wide gap between peoples

    history and mainstream academic history writing in which

    dalits have not been acknowledged as agents and actors of

    the revolution who decided the course of the events that took

    place at that time. Their role in the revolution has been

    mentioned in passing by saying that they functioned as

    soldiers, stick wielders and guards of the feudal landlords

    and kings like Rani Laxmibai, Tatya Tope and Nana Saheb

    Peshwa, who were the persons chiefly in command of the

    revolution.

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    However, a reconnaissance of many villages of north

    India shows that the 1857 episode is still quite popular

    among many dalit castes. 6 The rebellion was concentrated

    in the north Indian Gangetic belt beginning from Delhi to

    Bengal. It began in Meerut on 10 May after news spread that

    the garrisons in Delhi had revolted and expelled the British. It

    soon spread to other parts of UP like Aligarh, Etawah,

    Mainpuri, Etah and so on (Mukherjee 2001: 65). In this way it

    moved to other parts of UP and Bihar like Kanpur, Awadh,

    Banaras, Azamgarh, Gorakhpur, Gonda, Bahraich, Sitapur,

    Ghazipur, Sultanpur, Western Bihar and finally to Bengal. In

    Upper India it was more in the form of a turbulent agrarian

    upheaval gathering together a wide variety of discontents.

    The rebellion commanded extensive popular support,

    especially in Oudh, throughout the North Western Provinces

    and western Bihar. Sepoy discontent was an essential

    ingredient of the rebellion but the mutiny derived its strength

    from the civil population (Metcalf 1990: 60). Peasants,

    political sadhus (Pinch 1996: 9), local kings and most

    importantly the conservative sections of society, who had

    suffered greatly under the British rule, became united

    against fighting colonialism.

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    The British Government put up a stiff resistance to the

    rebellion. Their retribution was harsh and deadly. Village

    after village were burnt or felled with cannon balls to quash

    the rebellion. Thousands of rebels were hung from gallows

    and an equally large number were hung from trees as instant

    punishment. The rebellion left a deep imprint in the minds of

    the common people that was very different from the scanty

    recorded history of that period. Recorded history only told

    the stories of rich feudal landlords, and kings and queens

    like Rani Laxmibai and Tantya Tope, but the stories of

    unsung heroes who played their role behind the curtain of

    written history were circulated only in oral history in rural

    north India, especially among the marginalised dalit castes

    and communities.

    Dalits and Memories of 1857

    The Dalits have an emotional link with the 1857 War of

    Independence for they believe that it was initiated by them.

    They claim that the Soldier Revolt by the mostly Dalit Indian

    soldiers in the British Army that took place in Jhansi in 1857,

    snowballed into the War of Independence. It was a War of

    Independence since the Dalits were fighting for their

    motherland rather than to gain power. The War was led by

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    Bhau Bakshi and Puran Kori and with them was Jhalkaribai

    who fought bravely against the British for the sake of her

    motherland (Dinkar 1990: 62). The Dalit