Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The Skull of Alam Bheg: A Tale of Brutal British Raj in India

Havaldar Alam Baig (Alum Bheg), stationed in Sialkot now in Pakistan, was shot out of a cannon and blown to pieces as punishment by the British colonial rulers of India in 1857. All that was left of him was his severed head that was taken to England by a British officer as a war trophy.  A recently published book "The Skull of Alum Bheg: The Life and Death Of A Rebel In 1857" by Kim A. Wagner tells the tale of the brutality that this man and many others suffered at the hands of the British Raj in 1857.

Discovery of the Skull:

Wagner, a historian of Danish origin, describes the discovery of a human skull in early 1960s in The Lord Clyde, a pub in the eastern English coastal town of Walmer in Kent by the pub's new owner. It was hidden in some boxes and crates in the back of the building. It was missing its lower jaw, the few remaining teeth were loose, and it had the deep sepia hue of old age. Inside one of its eye-sockets was a neatly folded sheet of old paper, a handwritten note that briefly outlined the skull’s history as follows:

‘Skull of Havildar “Alum Bheg,” 46th Regt. Bengal N. Infantry who was blown away from a gun, amongst several others of his Regt. He was a principal leader in the mutiny of 1857 and of a most ruffianly disposition. He took possession (at the head of a small party) of the road leading to the fort, to which place all the Europeans were hurrying for safety. His party surprised and killed Dr. Graham shooting him in his buggy by the side of his daughter. His next victim was the Rev. Mr. Hunter, a missionary, who was flying with his wife and daughters in the same direction. He murdered Mr Hunter, and his wife and daughters after being brutally treated were butchered by the road side.

Alum Bheg was about 32 years of age; 5 feet 7 ½ inches high and by no means an ill looking native. The skull was brought home by Captain (AR) Costello (late Capt. 7th Drag. Guards), who was on duty when Alum Bheg was executed.’

Wagner's Story:

Kim Wagner teaches British imperial history at Queen Mary College in London. His specialty subject is colonial Indian history.

“I received an email from a family who had a skull,” he told Marco Werman of PRI's the World recently, “and didn’t know really what to do with it".

Wagner's research indicates that Alam Baig was not “a principal leader” of the revolt, as claimed in the note found in his skull. “Alum Bheg was in many ways an insignificant soldier,” says Wagner. “Just one amongst thousands who served in the East India Company army, but who got entangled in the uprising of 1857.”

“At Sialkot, where Alum Bheg was, it wasn't as violent as was the case elsewhere,” explains Wagner. “But there was a Scottish missionary couple and a small baby who were waylaid and cut down. And that is one of the murders that Alum Bheg was alleged to have carried out.” “As I found out in the process of researching the book,” Wagner says, “Alum Bheg was actually innocent but as far as the British were concerned it didn't matter much. Because all Indian soldiers — and in many instances, all Indian men in areas where the outbreak had happened — were considered to be guilty. With or without any evidence, really.”

Whitewashing History:

The brutal response to the 1857 rebellion against the colonial rule is just one of a series of brutalities in India that have been whitewashed by the British historians.  Wagner's book is an exception to such history that has almost always been told from the British point of view.

It's only recently that scholars like American historian Audrey Truschke and Indian writer Shashi Tharoor have begun to challenge the British version of Indian history.

In his recently published book "Inglorious Empire: What the British did to India", Dr. Tharoor has argued that British Raj greatly impoverished India. He says that "Britain came to one of the richest countries in the world in the 18th century and reduced it, after two centuries of plunder, to one of the poorest".  He told a British TV host that the Brits suffer from "historical amnesia".  “The fact you don’t really teach colonial history in your schools... children doing A-Levels in history don’t learn a line of colonial history.

Colonial-era British historians deliberately distorted the history of Indian Muslim rule to vilify Muslim rulers as part of the British policy to divide and conquer India, says American history professor Audrey Truschke, in her recently published book "Aurangzeb: The Life and Legacy of India's Most Controversial King". These misrepresentations of Muslim rule made during the British Raj appear to have been accepted as fact not just by Islamophobic Hindu Nationalists but also by at least some of the secular Hindus in India and Muslim intellectuals in present day Pakistan, says the author.  Aurangzeb was neither a saint nor a villain; he was a man of his time who should be judged by the norms of his times and compared with his contemporaries, the author adds.


Havaldar Alam Baig (Alum Bheg), posted in Sialkot, was shot out of a cannon and blown to pieces as punishment by the British colonial rulers of India in 1857.  All that was left of him was his severed head that was taken to England by a British officer as a war trophy.  Kim Wagner's  "The Skull of Alum Bheg: The Life and Death Of A Rebel In 1857" tells the tale of this atrocity committed by the British Raj in India. The brutal response to the 1857 rebellion against the colonial rule is just one of a series of brutalities in India that have been whitewashed by the British historians.  Wagner's book is an exception to such history that has almost always been told from the British point of view.

Related Links:

Haq's Musings

Shashi Tharoor Argues the British Raj Destroyed India

Hindutva: The Legacy of the British Raj in India

Decolonizing Minds in Former British Colonies

Pakistan Day: Freeing the Colonized Minds

Alam vs Hoodbhoy

Inquiry Based Learning

Dr. Ata ur Rehman Defends Higher Education Reform

Pakistan's Rising College Enrollment Rates

Pakistan Beat BRICs in Highly Cited Research Papers

Launch of "Eating Grass: Pakistan's Nuclear Program"

Upwardly Mobile Pakistan

Impact of Industrial Revolution


Riaz Haq said...

"The Skull of Alum Bhegg" by Kim Wagner is about the Brits brutal response to 1857 rebellion by Indian sepoys, both Hindu and Muslim soldiers who served together and fought side by side against the East India co rule

Wagner describes how the Hindu and Muslim sepoys practiced a syncretic faith and participated in each others' rituals in 1857.

Destruction of religious harmony occurred mainly after the British government took over from East India company and the British "scholars" aided and abetted the divide and rule policies by distorting the history of Mughal rule. This part is addressed in Audrey Truschke's "Aurangzeb"

Riaz Haq said...

By rewriting history, #Hindu nationalists lay claim to #India. #Modi has appointed committee of #Hindutva "scholars" to change #India's national identity to one based on #Hindu religion. #Islamophobia #Pakistan … via @SpecialReports

By RUPAM JAIN and TOM LASSETER Filed March 6, 2018, 11 a.m. GMT

NEW DELHI - During the first week of January last year, a group of Indian scholars gathered in a white bungalow on a leafy boulevard in central New Delhi. The focus of their discussion: how to rewrite the history of the nation.

The government of Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi had quietly appointed the committee of scholars about six months earlier. Details of its existence are reported here for the first time.

Minutes of the meeting, reviewed by Reuters, and interviews with committee members set out its aims: to use evidence such as archaeological finds and DNA to prove that today’s Hindus are directly descended from the land’s first inhabitants many thousands of years ago, and make the case that ancient Hindu scriptures are fact not myth.

Interviews with members of the 14-person committee and ministers in Modi’s government suggest the ambitions of Hindu nationalists extend beyond holding political power in this nation of 1.3 billion people - a kaleidoscope of religions. They want ultimately to shape the national identity to match their religious views, that India is a nation of and for Hindus.

In doing so, they are challenging a more multicultural narrative that has dominated since the time of British rule, that modern-day India is a tapestry born of migrations, invasions and conversions. That view is rooted in demographic fact. While the majority of Indians are Hindus, Muslims and people of other faiths account for some 240 million, or a fifth, of the populace.

The committee’s chairman, K.N. Dikshit, told Reuters, “I have been asked to present a report that will help the government rewrite certain aspects of ancient history.” The committee’s creator, Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma, confirmed in an interview that the group’s work was part of larger plans to revise India’s history.

For India’s Muslims, who have pointed to incidents of religious violence and discrimination since Modi took office in 2014, the development is ominous. The head of Muslim party All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, Asaduddin Owaisi, said his people had “never felt so marginalised in the independent history of India.”

“The government,” he said, “wants Muslims to live in India as second-class citizens.”

Modi did not respond to a request for comment for this article.


Helping to drive the debate over Indian history is an ideological, nationalist Hindu group called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). It helped sweep Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party to power in 2014 and now counts among its members the ministers in charge of agriculture, highways and internal security.

The RSS asserts that ancestors of all people of Indian origin - including 172 million Muslims - were Hindu and that they must accept their common ancestry as part of Bharat Mata, or Mother India. Modi has been a member of the RSS since childhood. An official biography of Culture Minister Sharma says he too has been a “dedicated follower” of the RSS for many years.

Referring to the emblematic colour of the Hindu nationalist movement, RSS spokesman Manmohan Vaidya told Reuters that “the true colour of Indian history is saffron and to bring about cultural changes we have to rewrite history.”

Riaz Haq said...

How Winston Churchill stole from India for Britain’s war

“I am glad to learn from the Minister of War Transport that a strict line is being taken in dealing with requests for cereals from the Indian Ocean area. A concession to one country at once encourages demands from all the others,” the prime minister commented in a memo on 10 March 1943. “They must learn to look after themselves as we have done. The grave situation of the UK import programme imperils the whole war effort and we cannot afford to send ships merely as a gesture of good will.”

For three months, Viceroy Linlithgow had been warning about a food crisis in India, and earlier that March a member of his council, Sir Ramaswami Mudaliar, had told the War Cabinet’s shipping committee of “some danger of famine conditions, particularly in Calcutta and Bombay’.” Wheat was available in Australia, but all Indian ships capable of the round trip were engaged in the war effort. Moreover, in January the prime minister had brought most of the merchant ships operating in the Indian Ocean over to the Atlantic, in order to bolster the United Kingdom’s stocks of food and raw materials. He was reluctant to release vessels to carry grain to the colony, because lowered stocks at home would compromise the British economy and limit the War Cabinet’s ability to pursue military operations of its choice—and because his hostility towards Indians was escalating.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Kingsley Wood, had long been warning that India had erased its traditional debt to the United Kingdom and was instead becoming a major creditor. The sterling debt owed to the colony was mounting at a million pounds a day. It would fall due right after the war, just when a ravaged if liberated Europe would have to be fed. Food in the post-war era would be scarce worldwide and expensive to import—and His Majesty’s Government would already be bankrupt from paying for the war. In consequence, maintaining British food stocks had become crucially important to the War Cabinet and the debt to India a source of profound frustration.


“Winston cannot see beyond such phrases as ‘Are we to incur hundreds of millions of debt for defending India in order to be kicked out by the Indians afterwards?'” (Leo) Amery confided to his diary. “But that we are getting out of India far more than was ever thought possible and that India herself is paying far more than was ever contemplated when the present settlement was made, and that we have no means of making her pay more than she wants or supplying goods unpaid for, is the kind of point that just doesn’t enter into his head.” The prime minister was aware that the sterling debt was inverting the economic relationship between colony and colonizer. After the war, money would flow from Britain to India, not as investment to be repaid with interest but as remittance. Whatever the romance of empire, a colony that drains the Exchequer is scarcely worth having—and that reality, notes historian Dietmar Rothermund, would make it easier for India to be finally released.


On 10 January 1943, Amery received an even more desperate plea from India’s Department of Food. The army’s wheat reserves would run out in a month. The remainder of the wheat promised to the army was waiting in Australia and must be brought in by February; and if shipping could not right away be found for 6,00,000 tons, at least 2,00,000 tons must come by April. “The vital necessity for expedition cannot be exaggerated as we have to carry on with practically no supplies for civil population till some of these shipments arrive,” the officials warned.

Riaz Haq said...

The Churchill Cult, by Jingo
Tariq Ali
Lionized in the age of Brexit and Boris Johnson as the epitome of bulldog spirit, Britain’s wartime leader was often reviled in his own time as a blundering reactionary—and rightly so.

Over the last forty years, the English cult of Winston Churchill has reached near-absurdist levels of adulation in England, provoking a backlash from anticolonial critics of British imperialism. It received a further boost in March this year when President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed the UK Parliament over Zoom and paraphrased one of Churchill’s more famous World War II utterances (from his “fight them on the beaches” broadcast), linking it to the Russian assault on the Ukrainian leader’s country.

Russian president Vladimir Putin was assigned the role of Hitler. Zelensky took the part of Churchill. Members of Parliament from all four parties drooled with pleasure. NATO-land may have conferred a temporary sainthood on Zelensky, but we should not overlook how misplaced his analogy is. The spinal cord of the Third Reich was, after all, crushed at Stalingrad and Kursk by the determination and courage of the Red Army (in which many Ukrainians fought, in far greater numbers than those who deserted to Hitler). The strength of the US war industry did the rest.

As a result, there was no fighting on English beaches or anywhere else in the UK. The Luftwaffe bombed Britain, but Hitler’s feared invasion never materialized, as his ambitions foundered on the Eastern Front. Not to be too mean-spirited, let the House of Commons and the British media networks swoon over Zelensky and his impersonation of Churchill, though I would hardly be surprised to learn that the gambit was recommended by the British Foreign Office in the first place. But I wonder if Zelensky is aware that a tsarist general much favored by Churchill and armed by him, Anton Denikin, who fought viciously against the Bolsheviks in the civil war that followed the Russian Revolution, is hero-worshipped by Putin today.

And what of the hero-worship of Churchill? In the immediate postwar period, Britons decisively voted him out of power. The Churchill cult, an essentially English phenomenon, would not take off for nearly forty years. It was first propagated in 1982, almost two decades after his death in 1965, by Margaret Thatcher, who, with moral support from President Reagan and General Pinochet, won the ten-day Falklands war against Argentina. Churchill had been much invoked by all sides in Parliament before the war. The Argentinian dictator, General Leopoldo Galtieri, was compared to Hitler and those who opposed the war were referred to as Chamberlainesque “appeasers.”