The text of this book review (September 2007) has been provided by the author for this website.


A Disgraceful Book on 1857

by C. M. Naim

The book has two title pages: that for the English section says, ‘1857 Revisited: Based on Persian and Urdu Documents’; the other, for the Urdu/Persian section, reads, ‘Dastawezat-e Ghadar 1857’ (‘Documents of the Mutiny, 1857’). The editor/compiler is S. M. Azizuddin Husain, who is described on the flap as a Professor of History and the Director of Premchand Archives and Literary Centre at the Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. It is published by Kanishka Publishers, New Delhi, and sells for Rs. 750.

Prof. Husain claims to have searched through many archives—a long list is given—and then selected 150 Persian and Urdu documents for this book, which, he asserts, commemorates the 150th anniversary of the momentous events of 1857. I imagine, if asked, Prof. Husain would describe his book as consisting of a detailed introductory essay in Urdu, translated into English for the larger public, followed by 150 selected documents, also translated into English for the general good. It would sound like a most commendable project; unfortunately, it has been executed deplorably.

In the introduction, Prof Husain has many axes to grind, and he grinds them well: historians don’t know Urdu and Persian; archives are not properly maintained; archivists fail to do the minimum; ICHR ignores its academic mission; Aligarh Muslim University and the Jamia Millia fall short in historical research. To all that I say, Well and good, for a few of them are my ‘axes’ too. But then I wait for him to tell me the first important thing in any anthology: the over-arching or defining purpose behind it. Surprisingly, he never bothers with that issue, except to say that he was instructed by a friend to not miss the chance of publishing a book at the 150th anniversary of the events of 1857. He never lays out in any fashion his criteria for the selections he made.

The documents reprinted here are in Persian and Urdu. In his lengthy introduction, Prof Husain deplores the decline in Urdu and Persian scholarship at Indian universities, but then he himself fails to ensure accurate reproduction of these precious texts. Apparently, careful reading of proofs is not a part of the scholarship he champions. He is, of course, not alone in that regard. Reading most newly published Urdu and Persian books in India is a painful experience. This book, however, is worse than many. (Perhaps I should not blame only the editor for it. I know from my own experience that the people who compose Urdu books on computers do not like to be corrected, and unless one persists they let their errors stand.) Exasperated by endless errors of misreading and mistyping, I turned to the English translations, only to discover a greater horror. I had assumed it was a bilingual book, containing Urdu and Persian original texts, together with English translations. I was badly mistaken. The translations are by no means full; they are abridgments and summaries—another fact that Prof. Husain fails to mention in his introduction. Worse still, the translations are often deliberately misleading. Two examples, one from the beginning and the other from the end, should suffice to make that clear.

The first is document no. 2 (p. 33), dated 18 April 1857. It is an Urdu note sent by Sad (sic) Bakhsh Khan and Buniyad Singh, both Deputy Kotwals, to all the thanedars in the city. Its main text consists of eleven lines, of which only the first three make complete sense. The remaining lines were either misread or mistyped, or both. At places they read like gibberish. The English translation reads as follows: “General Taley Yar Khan visited the Kotwali and directed that an order should be issued to all the Thanedars of the city that during the month of Muharram prohibit the playing of music. Send this order to all to follow the direction.” Prof. Husain distills eleven lines of Urdu into two English sentences. But that is not the only egregious thing he does.

Prof. Husain refers to this document in his introduction. The Urdu version gives the date wrong, the English version has the date right; it reads: “Bahadur Shah issued an order dated 18th April, 1857, banning the music during the days of Muharram. Sufis laid the foundation of azadari of Muharram in India during the 13th century and made it a part of Indian society and Culture. Mughal Emperors were having a great regard for ahl-i-bait (family members) of Prophet Muhammed. Bahadur Shah’s order for banning the use of music during the days of Muharram shows his respect to Imam Husain. Bahadur Shah directed the Kotwal of Shahjahanabad to sent the copies of this order to all the thanedars of Shahjahanabad.”

Anyone who has seen Muharram processions in India knows that drum beating, not to mention other kinds of ‘martial’ music, is often an integral part of them. The three legible lines of the text clearly say that General Taley Yar Khan, apparently a military man, went to the Kotwali and asked the two deputy kotwals to send an urgent note to all the thanedars, which was done. The thanedars, in their turn, put their names and seals on that paper to indicate that they had received the instructions. The general also gave his reasons. This is what the actual text says: “You should strongly instruct the thanedars that no music should be allowed to be played during Muharram because it might drown out the sound of the [alarm] bugle and let the enemy [make a surprise attack].” The rest, as transcribed in the book, is almost gibberish, but at one place it seems to discourage the making of other loud noises too. Obviously, Prof. Azizuddin Husain is so concerned with being politically correct in this ‘150th year’ that he sees no harm in distorting what the document actually says.

The second example is document no. 150. It is a letter from the Raja of Ballabhgarh to Bahadur Shah, dated 2 September 1857 (pp. 183–4). It runs to 23 lines in Urdu. The English translation by Prof. Husain has only five lines: “Received your letter, I feel honoured that you have accepted horse sent by me. I submit that you arrange the arrest of Hakim Abdul Haq and Pandit Jawala Prasad and give them under my custody so that I could collect Rs 25,000/- from them. I am always praying for the longevity of your Sultanat.” What did he leave out as of no importance?

(1) The horse was sent as gift, with the intention of placating the king (“Your honoured letter informs me that the horse was accepted and that you declared your assurance that no army person would be allowed to take any action against Ballabhgarh,”)
(2) The letter at hand was sent in response to a threatening note the raja had received that same day from Bakht Khan, the Commander-in-Chief of the rebel forces at Delhi. In it Bakht Khan had announced the release of some persons whom the Raja had accused of defrauding him, and also ordered the Raja to submit certain documents.
(3) The Raja begged the King “to please order the Commander-in-Chief to send to him the criminals involved in any way with Ballabhgarh.”
(4) The Raja further requested: “I submit that Hakim Abdul Haq and Pundit Jwala Prasad and others should also be arrested and handed over to me, so that I can get from them Rs. 11,25,000 that they owe me.” In fact the preceding letter (document no. 149) includes a list of the persons and the amounts that they each owe.
(5) The Raja also enclosed the letter he had received from Bakht Khan.

Apparently, all the above was unimportant for Prof. Husain, what he wanted most was to indicate that the Hindu raja of Ballabhgarh was loyal and devoted to the Muslim king of Delhi.

On the other hand, a five-line Urdu note (document no. 38, pp. 75–6) gets 14 lines of English. The Urdu, as expected, is quite garbled. One can only make out that the King wished the Kotwal of Delhi to intervene in a case involving a courtesan (‘tawa’if’) named Faiz Bakhsh and a rent-collector named Lala Rangin Lal. Here is Prof. Husain’s translation/commentary in its entirety. It can be read more for its comic effect:

 “One room of the government situated in the market of Chandni Chowk is under the occupation of Lady Faiz Bakhsh, Tawaif. She is living in that room as a tenant. Whenever, the rent collector goes to collect rent from her she does not pay it. An order was issued that Lala Ranjan Lal should prepare the report about the arrears of the rent of the above said accommodation and submit it. Dated 13th Muharram, 21 Julus.
 “Copy of the note is also sent to Thanedar of Chandni Chowk for necessary action.
 “Official room was given on rent to Ms. Faiz Bakhsh, Tawaif, but she did not pay the rent of the room. As we come across in other documents that people of Delhi were passing through a crisis and life had become difficult so all these circumstances were responsible for a troubled life. Ms Faiz Bakhsh must also be facing difficulties and had lost her income and also not in a position to pay rent of her room.”

I saw the book advertised, and then read a review in The Tribune. I immediately requested a friend to bring it for me from India. Now I feel ashamed that I put her to all the trouble. It cost her 750 rupees, but it is not even worth the price of the paper it is printed on. That such a book could be compiled by a professor of History is indeed a sad commentary on the state of academic research at some Indian universities that Prof. Husain himself passionately deplores in this book.

C. M. Naim,
Professor Emeritus
University of Chicago

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