A Journal of Teaching English Language and Literature

ISSN Print : 2229-6557, Online: 2394-9244

Re-Writing the Colonizer’s Discourse: A Study of Nana Saheb in Gadar (1930)

Manjari Chaturvedi

In the centenary year of the War of 18571 in India, the Government of India initiated a formal archiving of the history of the event. The Sahitya Akademi also pitched in by compiling an imprint of the 1857 War on the literary front. In the article “1857 and Indian Literature” that was published in Indian Literature, the journal of Sahitya Akademi in October 1957, P. Machawe lists poetry, plays, novels, stories and even diaries that had been composed and published in Indian languages until 1957. At the beginning of the book, Machawe brings in the controversy of 1857 when he says “historians are not unanimous in their verdict on the motives and implications of what happened in India in 1857, but that the initiatives taken by the Government of India to celebrate the centenary indicate the recognition of the “historical significance of the event in the evolution of free India (p. 53)”. However, unlike natural expectations that “so potent and widespread an upheaval would have had a considerable impact on modern Indian literature, particularly as the dramatic events took place in the most formative period of its development”, there is barely any noteworthy oeuvre of fiction on the war of 1857.

In England, about seventy novels have been written with the events of 1857 as the background (Chakravarty, 2005, p. 3), thereby making up a distinct category known as “Mutiny Novel”. Initially, the subject of these novels was the Anglo-Indian way of life, with romance in the foreground and the War of 1857 as a backdrop, as in The Wife and the Ward or a Life’s Error (1859) by Edward Money. By contrast, the adventure novels between the 1890’s and the First World War such as Rujjub The Juggler (1893) by G. A. Henty, turned “the rebellion into a site of heroic imperial adventure and an occasion for demonstration of racial superiority” (Chakravarty, p. 3-4), thereby bringing central issues of race and empire to the popular readership of the novels. Implicitly, the mutiny novels functioned as a vehicle to promote British imperialism, as they became sites to justify and propagate the colonial agenda of expansionism. They also played a crucial role in what Nancy L. Paxton calls the “project of creating an idealized image of the British Empire” (1999, p. 116). This idealized image was constructed through binaries where Indians, at the opposite end of the axis, were heathen or barbarians. 

“Rebellion novel”, interestingly, is a term given by Prem Singh, in his essay “1857 in the Hindi Novel: The Character and the Spirit of the Rebellion” to “Indian novels based on the upsurge of 1857 … perhaps as a rejoinder to the colonial coinage ’mutiny novels’” (2009, p. 111). Clearly, Singh is attempting to create a space for Indian voices from and about 1857, however dispersed and insignificant in quantity as compared to British writings. Further, Singh includes within the generic category of “Rebellion Novel”, all fictional writings based on 1857 and composed in all the modern Indian languages. The term stands not just in opposition to “Mutiny Novel” but also provides a means of understanding the evolution of the standpoint of Indian authors on the 1857 War. The War provided a national rhetoric on the superiority and invincibility of the British, created through coverage of the events in periodicals such as the Illustrated London News and Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine, and later, popular histories such as Charles Ball’s The History of Indian Mutiny (1858), eventually finding its way to the Mutiny Novels.

In order to give “a picture of British valour, skill and strategy”, in both historical accounts and fiction writings, the British officers were depicted as heroes while the Indian leaders were depicted as “murderers and cowards” (Singh, 1973, p. 26). The few instances of fiction writing on the events of 1857 respond in various ways to the narratives of British invincibility and superiority. In this context, this paper takes up the study of a novel, which responds to the representation of a key figure from the Indian side – Nana Saheb, who led the battles in Kanpur, a strategic center during the War.

To understand the significance of Nana Saheb in the narratives of 1857, a brief background is essential. Nana Saheb was the adopted heir of Peshwa Baji Rao II, who was exiled in 1818 to Bithoor, an ancient holy place six miles from Kanpur on the bank of the Ganges, after he lost to the British and accepted truce for a pension. Nana Saheb lived in isolation from his peers and was under constant surveillance of the British. Consequently, he established cordial relations with the British in Kanpur and frequently entertained British officers and ladies to parties at his Bithoor palace. Thus, when the mutiny happened in Meerut and Delhi in early May, General Hugh Wheeler, who was heading the Kanpur Cantonment at the time, turned to Nana Saheb for help. He asked him to provide a secure shelter for the British women and children at his palace in Bithoor and lend his personal guard, in case troops in Kanpur mutinied as well. However, when the mutiny broke out in early June, Wheeler shifted the entire European and Eurasian population to an entrenchment, while Nana Saheb assumed leadership of the mutinied soldiers and organized his army.

After twenty-two days of being besieged by the Indians, Wheeler accepted Nana Saheb’s offer of a safe passage to Allahabad via the Ganges. On the morning of 27 June, the survivors of the siege reached Satti Chaura Ghat and boarded the boats. Meanwhile a huge hostile crowd gathered on the banks of the river. This crowd comprised of people from Kanpur as well as the surrounding villages. They had been driven into the city to escape the massacres carried out by a British column under General Henry Havelock and led by Major Renaud and Colonel Neill, who burnt villages and hanged the villagers en-route from Allahabad to Kanpur. What happened next at Satti Chaura is conjectural. English accounts vary, from the Indians guns firing at the occupants of the boats (Ball, 1858, p. 344) to a situation exploding out of control when some English officers kicked the boatmen (Thomson, 1859, p. 166) and indiscriminate firing began on both sides. Eventually, the men were shot on the spot while about two hundred surviving women and children were kept in confinement at Bibi Ghar in Kanpur. However, the issue of whether the Indians attacked the British first or vice versa became crucial in determining Nana Saheb’s complicity, if it was indeed a planned massacre. The British women and children who were taken to Bibi Ghar were brutally killed, it is said, by butchers, and their bodies thrown into a nearby well on 15 July, a day before Havelock’s men reached Kanpur (Ball, p. 368). The massacres transformed Nana Saheb into the “demon of Cawnpore”, who “figures again and again in Victorian writing about India as a treacherous monster who deserves no quarter” (Brantlinger, p. 201).  

The first novel in Hindi based on the events of 1857, titled Gadar appeared 73 years later even though novel writing in Hindi had begun two decades after the war. Interestingly, Gadar is based in Kanpur and depicts the story of Nana Saheb. Written by a resident of Delhi, Rishabh Chandra Jain, Gadar was first published in 1930, but was immediately confiscated by the British government (Singh, 2009, p. 111). It is worth noting that neither did Jain choose Delhi as the location of action nor were the chief players of the Indian side from Delhi. Rather, Jain responded to the narrative of betrayal and deceit of Nana Saheb woven in different histories, autobiographies, etc., and reflected in the Mutiny novels in English. In these narratives, as Patrick Brantlinger (1990) points out, “Nana Saheb’s treachery serves as a reductive synecdoche (p. 203)”. The strong resentment of Indians against British presence built up over almost a hundred years is shrunk to the characteristic Indian racial traits— ungratefulness, untrustworthiness, and deceit.

Gadar is a short novel of 88 pages. It covers a time span of barely two months from 10 May to 17 July, both landmark dates in the chronology of the war. The plot of Gadar is dramatic and fast-paced. In fact, Nana Saheb’s character sketch is the mainstay of the text. British narratives depict Nana Saheb as being “not a very impressive”2 person which was interpreted as either weak-willed or with a tendency to pretend. So a “weak willed” Nana Saheb, who had been caught unawares like Bahadur Shah Zafar, would have been forced to join the mutineers, while a Nana Saheb who pretended to be a British friend and sympathizer when he was actually plotting against them, would have to be a back-stabbing traitor. Jain’s Nana Saheb is of the first kind. He is a simpleton in awe of the British people, their system of justice and the glory of their race. The novel begins when the news of the mutiny at Meerut reaches Bithoor, where a despondent Nana Saheb wonders as to how insignificant sepoys could ever attack the English.

Itne din atychari musalmaano ke haath dukh uthakar toh Hindustan ko nyaysheel compny ke shasn mein nek saubhgy praapth hua hai, ab Gadar ka kya kaam? Huh! Tukadkhor sipahion ka yeh saahas kahan? (p. 8)

Hindustan is privileged to have come under the unbiased Company after having borne so much trouble under the persecuting Muslims. What is the purpose of rebellion now? Where is daringness in soldiers who live on pieces? (Translation mine)

Where Nana Saheb displays supplicant behavior, Azimullah Khan, a smart, attractive man of humble origin is shown to be the actual mastermind of the conspiracy against the British, who shows exemplary nationalism and fortitude, inspired by his love for Maina, Nana Saheb’s daughter. Maina seeks to instill the qualities of self-respect and nationalism in Nana Saheb, so that when the moment of leading the rebellion arrives, her father would perform the role of the Peshwa and provide leadership.

Jain structures Gadar so that Nana Saheb’s transformation from a submissive native vassal to a courageous and nationalist king happens in the middle of the story, when his blind belief in British jurisprudence is shattered by Wheeler acquitting a common Englishman, Charles, who had apparently misbehaved with Maina. Nana Saheb’s temperament undergoes a radical change at this denial of justice from the British race, thereby providing a suitable opportunity for Azimullah Khan to channelize Nana Saheb’s hatred for the English into fighting the British. The massacre at Satti Chaura Ghat happens despite Nana Saheb’s injunction to Azimullah to prevent a mishap, thus extricating Nana Saheb from the charge of having treacherously betrayed the British.

Nana Saheb, begins recounting the exploitation of Indians by the British. Increasingly, his motives for turning anti- British include more than his personal injury. 

Ab meri baari hai. Antim shwaas tak firangiyon se ladoonga. Andhkaar mein tha. Firangiyun ke atyachaar ne unki paardarshita ka pardaafash kar diya! Aise paapi! Aise anyayi! Aise atyaachari! Jinohne saikdo nirapraadhiyon ko top se udaa diya. Saikdo abodh graamino ko zinda jalaa diya. Vah bharat par raaj karein. Kabhi nahi, jeete ji aisa nahi hone doonga. Ab mujhe gyan ho gaya hai, balaa zaraa der se hua. Ab yeh mera vyaktigat prashna nahi, saare rashtra aur saare deshvaasiyon ka prshn hai. (p. 80)

It’s my turn now. I will fight the foreigners till my last breadth. I was in darkness … the tyranny of the foreigners has blown the cover of their justness. Such sinners! Such unjust! Such tyrants! Who blew thousands of innocents from the canon! Thousands of blameless villagers burnt alive. They rule over India! I will not let it happen as long as I am alive. I now know, though a little late. It is not a personal question; it’s a question of the entire nation and its citizens. (Translation mine)

As Nana Saheb rises in stature, Azimullah Khan falls. Jain transfers the attributes of British fictions’ Nana Saheb to Azimullah Khan.  Maina reproaches Azimullah for prioritizing their love over duty towards their country and takes her life in personal retribution for tempting Azimullah. The jilted lover is unable to bear this loss and transfers his anger to the innocent English women and children at Bibighar. Jain shows an insane Azimullah Khan ordering the killing of women and children in Bibighar in a fit of frenzy.

Jain then refers to British histories that describe the British killing spree in the Ganga-Jamuna Doab region. But Nana Saheb, unlike Havelock, is not unrepentant. His reputation is restored in the end by his decision to take the moral responsibility for the massacres and penalizing himself by drowning himself in the Ganges along with his family. The portrayal of Nana Saheb in the novel Gadar responds to the debilitating colonial discourse but attempts to extricate Nana Saheb from the depths of disgrace where he was relegated to in the British colonial discourse, in order to provide an enabling narrative of a native hero at a time when revolutionary freedom struggle3 was at a high.


1 The War of 1857 began with the Indian soldiers of the East India Company’s army in India mutinying in Meerut, Delhi, Kanpur and Lucknow and at a number of military stations across northern India, leading to the subsequent events being referred to as the Indian mutiny in British sources. Post-independence studies by scholars like Eric Stokes and Ainslee T. Embree took into account the active role of the civilian population in supporting the rebel soldiers, thereby, coining the more inclusive term Rebellion. Nationalist studies call the event the First War of Independence, the term being attributed from Karl Marx to Veer Savarkar. During my studies, I found both the terms- Mutiny and Rebellion, to be inadequate in explaining the multiple battles that were fought over a course of a year between, clearly, two sides- Indian and British.

2  Kanpur Commissioner

3 The closing years of the 1920’s was the period immediately preceding the publication of Gadar. This period witnessed the high point of armed revolutionary activity in India spearheaded by the Hindustani Republican Association and its members Chandrashekhar Azad, Bhagat Singh, Rajguru, Sukhdev and others.


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Manjari Chaturvedi is doing her PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University on the depictions of Nana Saheb in the colonial discourse on the war of 1857 against the British in India.