Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Nana Sahib: Terrorist?

NRO has an article up by James Robbins discussing the growing irrelevance of Osama bin Laden. Robbins says, "If he is alive, he will have to prove it soon or suffer the same slow descent to obscurity as his predecessor, Nana Sahib."

Money 'graf:

"Who was Nana Sahib, you ask? Surely, for some he was the Osama of his times, a well educated, Hindu radical who was instrumental in the Sepoy revolt of 1857. In June of that year he seized the town of Cawnpore and proclaimed himself the Peshwa. After a three-week siege of the redoubt the British garrison and citizens surrendered, almost 1,000 in number, having been promised safe passage down the Ganges to Allahabad. Yet, for reasons unclear, the promise was not kept. Most of the men were shot down outright. The women and children were imprisoned and later methodically hacked to pieces over the course of one evening, their body parts thrown down a well. These gruesome events shocked the conscience of the British people, and sparked bloody retaliation. "Cawnpore!" became the rallying cry of the British soldiers, and Nana Sahib's forces soon were routed. He fled over the mountains to Nepal, his name having become a byword for brutal, pitiless mass murder. A search commenced. A bounty was placed on his head. Letters periodically appeared supposedly authored by Nana Sahib. There were occasional sightings, and rumors abounded. However, the leading terrorist of his day remained elusive. He had some impact on popular culture; Nana Sahib was brought to the stage by 19th century sensationalist Dion Boucicault who, in his role as the archvillain, dared the audience to throw things at him. Jules Verne wrote a novel about him. An Indian magician toured the U.S. under his name, "whose exhibition of occultism is said to be beyond belief," the Washington Post noted. Then, 17 years after the events at Cawnpore, Britain thrilled to news of the capture of Nana Sahib, only to find out later the man was an imposter. His true fate is unknown. One report had him dying soon after fleeing India, another that he passed away in 1926 at the age of 102. By then he was mostly forgotten in the West. However, true to the adage, Nana Sahib was another man's freedom fighter, and after independence, the government of India honored him with a stamp."

Now, none of this is untrue, but it does rankle Indian sentiment to think of the 1857 conflict as terrorist activity, especially given the peaceful way in which India did end up winning Independence. There's a lot of talk of 1857 being the "First War for Indian Independence." Hogwash, of course. Nana Sahib's primary grievance was the Doctrine of Lapse, or the way in which the British stopped recognizing adopted heirs (interestingly, the legendary Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi fought for the same reason). Because he was only the adopted son of the Peshwa Baji Rao II, upon the Peshwa's death (or rather former Peshwa, since he had lost the Third Maratha war and was by then a pensioner) the British authorities, under the Doctrine of Lapse did not recognize Nana Sahib's claim to the title and the pension (paid for of course, by the British). Nana Sahib was pissed off that the East India Company was not giving him an annual stipend. Talk about desire for Independence!

Furthermore, the Rebellion of 1857 happened only in the Ganga-Jamuna Doab, with major engagements taking place at Meerut, Delhi, Kanpur, Lucknow and (a stretch) Gwalior. Indian soldiers were among those trapped in the seige of Lucknow, and were also among those who fought against the rebellion in each of those engagements. Furthermore, the Sepoy Mutiny only took place within the Bengal Army. The Bombay and Madras armies were actually called in to relieve the Company's forces in the north. There was no All-India National Princes League fighting for the various principalities (later called 'Princely State') across the nation. In fact, the vast majority of Princes remained loyal to the British, and were given the rights and benefits of Princely State status as a direct result of that loyalty.

Nana Sahib himself was insignificant. According to John Keay, Nana Sahib "owed his celebrity less to his exploits and more to the British need for scapegoats plus Indian nationalism's later need for heroes." But, Robbins has a point. Nana Sahib's forces engaged in barbaric activity at Kanpur. Even if you believe his cause was just (and I'm not sure if fighting to re-establish a feudal order is a just cause), it is impossible to condone the means he used. People have argued that Nana Sahib did not know about the massacres (as he later claimed). I don't think Nana Sahib was cruel or bloodthirsty. He appears to be more of a bumbling oaf who couldn't control his soldiers. Regardless, he was in charge, and the actions of his subordinates tainted the entire sub-continent's people (much like a certain global figure is doing for his community today). Let us hope that Robbins is right and that bin Laden has been rendered irrelevant, just like Nana Sahib was only two years after his capture of Kanpur.

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