Professor Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst speaking about the 1857 Indian Rebellion. Photo Credit: Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.
On Wednesday, March 27, the Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding hosted Professor Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst to speak on the 1857 Rebellion in India. Professor Morgenstein Fuerst particularly concentrated on one common byproduct of conflict: the hardening and divergence of group identities based upon narratives developed during the conflict. Specifically, Dr. Morgenstein Fuerst discussed the emergence of a discursive shift toward Muslim Indians during the revolt. In the aftermath of the war, all Muslims in India became equated with Jihad to the point that Muslim and Jihadi became interchangeable in discourse.
The Rebellion of 1857, also known as the First Indian War of Independence, involved a series of local mutinies by Indian soldiers serving in the British Forces against their British comrades, officers, and some civilians. At the time, the British Army in India numbered 159,000 men, of which 24,000 were European troops and 135,000 Indian. The mutinies were confined to the state of Bengal, although the uprising spread fear among British troops throughout the country. Factors leading to conflict included discontent with quality of life for the soldiers (poor terms of service, low pay, low opportunities for promotion) as well as cultural insensitivity and a concern that the British would try to convert the Hindu and Muslim troops to Christianity. These tensions coalesced into violence after the issuance of the new Enfield rifle, as there were rumors that the bullets had been greased with lard and tallow, offensive to Hindus and Muslims, respectively.[i]
The first revolt began on May 10, 1857 in Meerut, and uprisings quickly spread to affect all of the Bengal Light Cavalry Regiments and many of the Bengal Native Infantry Regiments. The revolt gained traction among civilians, who joined in for various reasons, including economic and religious factors. But the diversity of these supporters meant the revolt was far from unified. Different groups sought divergent and incompatible outcomes from British withdrawal, and the rebellion was also divided along religious lines, with the greatest cleavage being between Hindus and Muslims.[ii]
According to Dr. Morgenstein Furest, the rebellion “seismically reconfigured” how religion was considered in India. The way the rebellion was written about and portrayed in the media promoted an equation of Muslims with fanatical violence. This style of narrative was particularly associated with British writer W. W. Hunter, who wrote that elite Muslims were not “real” Muslims and that the majority of Muslims were fanatical. Hunter’s narrative fit with his beliefs and ideals for the government in India, which he sought to continue under British rule. Another influential contemporary of Hunter’s was Syed Ahmed Khan, who wrote a widely read review of Hunter’s book. While Khan disagreed with Hunter’s assessments, he also reified the idea that Muslims exist as part of a group with specific characteristics.
The rebellion thus stressed the religious differences among Indians. According to Dr. Morgenstein Fuerst, Muslims became “racialized” and “minoritized” by the discursive shift that occurred, which equated Muslims with Jihad. She described “racialization” as ascribing characteristics to a group due to racial group status, and “minoritization” as “the systemic process by which elites deny access to a group through an implementation of power,” specifically, in this case, the process of consolidation of British power over Muslim elites. While the idea of Muslims as fanatics existed pre-1857, commentary on the Rebellion transformed it into a widely accepted “fact” over the course of the rebellion.
The lessons of this event are varied and highly relevant to contemporary politics. Dr. Morgenstein Fuerst argued that our imagination of the past is integral to our view of the present. The politics of naming the rebellion as a mutiny, as opposed to a war of revolution, alters the narrative and self-conception of the Indian state. During the rebellion, Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs were killed alongside each other, but the narrative that emerged from the rebellion separated these groups by defining the Muslims as violent while depicting the Hindus as martyrs. Consequently, Muslims are often written out of the description of the rebellion in India today, stated Dr. Morgenstein Fuerst.
One of the greatest victories in a conflict is the ability to control the future of its narrative, and, as a result, the future narratives of the state. Security studies scholars and practitioners poring over historical conflicts to understand present-day tensions should always be mindful of the differing narratives at play in each conflict. To understand the history of a state or group of people emerging from conflict, it is vital to understand which narrative won out and how that narrative influenced post-conflict reconstruction and identity formation.
[i] “Why Did the Indian Mutiny Happen?” National Army Museum, https://www.nam.ac.uk/explore/why-did-indian-mutiny-happen.
[ii] “Why did the Indian Mutiny Happen?”