“In war, truth is the first casualty.” – Aeschylus
Women have always been participants in our history. However, only a small percentage of them have been duly represented in the great saga of our country. Many women have either not been represented at all – or if represented, they have been portrayed as subordinate to men or contributing to their cause. Often women have been juxtaposed with the stereotypes that were fabricated to serve political needs (particularly of men).
The revolt of 1857 presents us with one of the myriad such examples where women were denied the agency to appear as legitimate sources of information to write about what was essentially a women’s experience. The rumour of the Chapati Movement was not the only thing that spread like wildfire during the revolt. Tales of the ‘violated or fallen’ Anglo-Indian women were rife during the revolt.
However, as soon as the revolt was suppressed, all earlier claims made in favor of the atrocities committed against these women were also silenced. It was the men who augmented and acted in the name of these ‘tales of truth’ – and the same people silenced them as rumours. It is thus important to understand why such a silencing took place. What purposes did it serve and for whom?
While the plights of the Anglo-Indian and the marginalised women weren’t exactly similar, it is important to understand that irrespective of the relative superiority/inferiority between them, women in nearly all societies were considered inferior to the men .
The horrific image of 200 women at Kanpur – whose bodies were found in a well ‘naked and dismembered’ – gave birth to many tales of sexual assault Anglo-Indian women suffered at the hands of allegedly Indian men during the 1857 revolt. However, a report by William Muir, commissioned after 1857 to explore the rumors and establish the truths regarding the assault of English women by the mutineers, supposedly found that the ‘honor of their women was safe’. It is important to analyse how such a truth-to-rumour transformation was a tactic employed by the British power to serve their political ends.
The stories of rape served the purpose of propelling men into action against those who had insulted their women. The British men interpreted the assault of their women by the (masculine-y inferior) Indian men as a challenge that shook the very foundations of its political, military and racial hierarchies. Thus, sexual assault was used to justify brutal retaliatory measures against the Indian rebels. However, such a confession proved to be a double-edged sword in the future. Giving legitimacy to the tales of violation of women meant acknowledging that the rebels were successful in dismantling traditional, racial and power hierarchies. So when the revolt was suppressed, it was necessary to disprove these rumours to assert the might of the British hold over India.
The stark contrast between the accounts published during and after the rebellion brings to the limelight a peculiar characteristic of patriarchal societies – the connect between the honour of women and the prestige of a country (vis-a-vis the pride of its male members). The fates of the British women became tied to the fate of the British enterprise in India. Perhaps, the molestation of women – Hindu and Muslim – during the partition of 1947 can also be understood in this light. Events of rape and arson were considered an attack on the masculinity and prestige of the men of the respective religious societies.
A disturbing reality of the Muir report is that it was written, theoretically, to establish the truths regarding the atrocities against women. Practically, however, it was neither about those atrocities, nor was it about the women. Under the veil of an investigation about women, the authorities wished to assert the embryonic political consciousness of the Indian rebels, while reasserting their own political superiority. Thus the trope of the ‘Sepoy Mutiny’ was utilised to belittle the grandeur of the event.
The rhetoric of the report is that the mutineers didn’t have lust or desire on their minds but a simple cold and heartless bloodthirstiness. This establishes a very important feature of the report, which is a dualism between two types of violence – an acceptable violence on the body of the woman (that is, murder) and a much more severe and thus, unacceptable violence over the soul of the woman (rape).
It is claimed that while the mutineers were, in some cases, able to do the former, they were never able to undertake the latter. It can be understood from the fact that while the murder of the women is confirmed, there is a rather discomforting emphasis in the latter case – neither at Meerut nor Delhi was murder preceded by dishonour. Muir’s report does not showcase remorse on the murder of so many women – rather, it portrays a misogynist comfort that the dead women were not dishonoured while they were alive. Thus, it is clear that the report did not investigate the loss of women’s lives. Rather, it tried to reconfirm that the British pride was intact. The report says less about what actually happened to women and more about what couldn’t ever happen to the British power and pride.
The revolt has thus been conceived in heavily gendered terms. We fail to look at the incidents through a feminine perspective. Often, accounts written by women have been left at the margins of history. There exists a plethora of personal memoirs that were maintained by the English women, which if viewed through the prism of historical evidence, can address the ambiguities of the gendered narratives of 1857. The tales in these memoirs combat many stereotypes.
Foremost is the stereotyping of women as domestic creatures. The ‘separate sphere’ theory naturalised and normalised the military prowess of men and the absence of women from this field. However, the female narratives challenge this stereotype by demonstrating the wide array of involvement of women in military matters – from knowing how to fire a gun for personal use, to offering criticism on the decisions taken by men in military matters, to partaking in military activities themselves.
A further stereotype associated with women was that of the innocent female as the ‘helpless victim’ of Indian aggression. Muir’s report equates the innocent powerlessness of a child to that of the sexist idea of a powerless woman. Refuting the image of a damsel in distress, Indira Ghose points out that the accounts of women under siege are predominantly concerned with survival tactics rather than grand notions of male heroism.
Female pacifism is next in the line of stereotypes attached to women. History often does not look at women as instigators of violence. Women are supposed to be peaceful and pious – and thus, far removed from the world of war and killing. However, in their memoirs, women actively voice emotions of vengeance, thereby deconstructing the trope of the ‘passive female’. To acknowledge the violence of women is not to enshrine it as an act of empowerment. Rather, it’s needed to understand that like men, women’s notions were also influenced by the racist and militarised notions of the Other.
The notion of the ‘violated woman’ is the most deep-rooted of all tropes surrounding the Rebellion of 1857. Rape is unspeakable and thus unpresentable – this is a common thread in the Muir report and its narratives about women. Comforting euphemisms are utilised to hint at something ‘more’ than death. This resulted in women becoming a ‘sexed-up subject of colonial discourse’. Women were labelled as victims only to show the Other as a villain and their own selves as the saviour. It also goes on to show the creation of a hierarchical system in which the sanctity of womanhood was placed above the living body of a (dishonoured) woman.
The aftermath of 1857 forced the British authorities in India to undertake major ideological revamping. At first, the assertion of women’s violation became a political tool of repression. Later, in its denial, it became a tool for the restoration of order. The accounts of women during 1857 prove that there was an active desire to rebel against their representation. The dichotomy that encapsulated the women’s position in 1857 was telling. Neither was she a mirror image of the stereotyped woman (from the men’s narrative), nor was she able to assert her agency completely. She was the coloniser and the colonised.