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Forgetting the Mutiny

The Mutiny Memorial, North Ridge, Delhi.

The Mutiny Memorial, North Ridge, Delhi.

The Red Line of the Delhi Metro runs on an elevated trackway north of Shahjahanabad, or Old Delhi. Two stops west of Kashmere Gate, at Pul Banshgah, the view from the station platform takes in a forested hill that rises above the city. Close to the top of the hill, a Gothic spire rises incongruously out of the trees. From the metro station, it is just possible to make out a cross at the top of the spire. It looks like a steeple that has been separated from its church.

The structure is actually a purpose-built memorial. It was built by the British to commemorate the greatest armed revolt against their rule in India, the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857-58.

In 1857, the British-owned East India Company (EIC) ruled India as company property, in cooperation with local kings. Although the EIC had a trade monopoly granted to it by the British Crown, the company’s leaders were not under the authority of anyone but themselves. The EIC functioned as India’s government, because it had the authority to levy taxes, develop infrastructure, and raise an army. The company army consisted mainly of native troops known as sepoys (from the Hindustani word sipahi, soldier) serving under British officers.

The Sepoy Mutiny broke out after the EIC army introduced new gun cartridges that were more efficient to use because the soldiers tore them open with their teeth, leaving one hand free for holding their guns. A rumor circulated among the troops that the cartridges were greased with cow and pig fat, thus making them ritually unclean for both Hindu and Muslim soldiers. When the EIC officers refused to recall the new cartridges, sepoys across north India revolted. Rallying behind Bahadur Shah, the Mughal Emperor in Delhi, the sepoys managed to gain the upper hand temporarily. Ultimately, though, the EIC, with the help of local kings who had remained loyal, managed to defeat the rebellious sepoys. Bahadur Shah was deposed and sent to Burma to spend the rest of his life in exile. Since the EIC had done a poor job managing India, the British Crown stepped in to rule India directly. This was the beginning of the British Raj, which lasted until Indian independence in 1947.

The Sepoy Mutiny was a bloody conflict, and both sides committed atrocities. The Mutiny Memorial commemorates the British soldiers and loyal native troops who died defending Delhi against the rebels in 1857. In contemporary Indian memory of the Mutiny, the rebels were the heroes while the British troops were the villains. Indian history textbooks portray the Mutiny as the “First War of Indian Independence,” with the implication that Gandhi’s movement against British rule was the second. This portrayal is based on a selective reading of historical evidence, since large portions of India remained loyal to the EIC throughout the Mutiny.

Modern India has an ambivalent relationship with its memory of the colonial past. On the one hand, Indians are still proud that the British are gone and they are their own masters. But it has proven difficult to forget that during the colonial period, most Indians collaborated with the British most of the time. In some instances, statues of British monarchs and other embarrassing reminders of colonial rule have been moved to museums or sold to other Commonwealth countries such as Canada. Other colonial relics, like the colossal architecture of New Delhi, are too big to move, and therefore these relics have been adopted as symbols of independent India’s government.

The Mutiny Memorial in Delhi falls somewhere in between these extremes. In most cases, Indians after independence have not cared to tear down colonial monuments out of spite. This benign neglect has saved the Mutiny Memorial from destruction, and as of 2015 the monument still rises above the modern city of Delhi. But just because it still stands does not mean it is accessible or interpreted. When I visited in February of this year, it took me a while to locate the monument in the ridge park, as there were no signs pointing to it. When I reached it, I was disappointed (albeit not really surprised) to find that the gate at the base of the monument was locked and thorn-forest had grown up around it. Although it would be too extreme a measure to actually tear down the Mutiny Memorial, the British casualties on the side of the conflict have no meaning for modern Indians, so why bother making the monument accessible?

The Mutiny Memorial, North Ridge, Delhi.

The Mutiny Memorial, North Ridge, Delhi.

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Old Delhi’s walls and gates

The remains of the fortifications of Old Delhi don’t make it onto most tourists’ itineraries when they visit the city. This is understandable, because Old and New Delhi have a range of world-class tourist attractions – such as the Red Fort, Qutb Minar, and Lutyens’ Delhi – which overshadow the city walls. But as I have found on several visits to Delhi, exploring the remains of the fortifications can be a rewarding experience. From my visits to the gates and walls, I have learned about urban planning, military science from several eras, and adaptive reuse.

Old Delhi was founded in 1639 by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, who wanted to move his capital to a more suitable location than Agra, which was experiencing problems with drainage, overcrowding, and erosion. The original name of Old Delhi was Shahjahanabad, after the city’s founder. The centerpiece of Shahjahanabad was the Qila Mubarak (Blessed Fortress), now known as the Lal Qila or Red Fort. The fort stands on the eastern side of Shahjahanabad, with its back to the Yamuna River. It served as the royal palace and center of the Mughal government. To the west of the fort, an area of about 1,500 acres was enclosed by city walls built of stone rubble. The walls were broken by eight main gates and several lesser portals.

The walled area of Old Delhi still retains its historic identity. It even has its own postal code, 110 006, and it is colloquially referred to as “Delhi-6.” Only fragments of the walls and four of the eight main gates remain, though. On the southern side of Old Delhi, Ajmeri Gate, Turkman Gate, and Delhi Gate still stand on little plots of land, disconnected from the historic walls and surrounded by their own fences and gates.

Left to right: Ajmeri Gate, Turkman Gate, Delhi Gate.

Left to right: Ajmeri Gate, Turkman Gate, Delhi Gate.

Stretching eastward from Delhi Gate are some sections of the old city wall. One stretch of the wall is preserved in a city park, Ekta Sthal (Place of Unity). Only the outer side of the wall is protected, though. The inner side backs up to an alley, and there are several encroachments and illegal constructions built on the historic wall.

Backside of preserved wall segment in Ekta Sthal.

Backside of preserved wall segment in Ekta Sthal.

View from ramparts of Delhi's walls.

View from ramparts of Delhi’s walls.

One ramp up to the battlements hasn’t been encroached upon yet, and you can climb up and have a look around. From here you can see a round tower built in front of the wall. The tower doesn’t seem to match the style of the rest of the wall – and it shouldn’t, because it was built by the British in the nineteenth century. It is a Martello tower, designed to hold cannons and serve as an outer defensive post. The British built Martello towers all over their world empire in the nineteenth century.

Walkway to Martello tower.

Walkway to Martello tower.

Martello tower ruins.

Martello tower ruins.

Northeast of Ekta Sthal and the Martello tower, sections of the city wall now serve as retaining walls beneath more modern construction.

Remaining city wall serving as a retaining wall.

Remaining city wall serving as a retaining wall.

The longest stretches of surviving wall are on the north side of Shahjahanabad, around Kashmiri Gate. Parts of the city’s fortifications are still attached to Kashmiri Gate. Unlike Ajmeri, Turkman, and Delhi Gates, the surviving structure of Kashmiri Gate wasn’t built until the nineteenth century. The gate was constructed in 1835, and then in 1857 it was expanded to have two portals. A bastion next to the gate is built in angular star-fort style, a form of construction that was introduced to India by the British.

Kashmiri Gate, Delhi's only gate with two portals.

Kashmiri Gate, Delhi’s only gate with two portals.

A European-style bastion next to Kashmiri Gate.

A European-style bastion next to Kashmiri Gate.

Sections of city wall still stand on both the east and west sides of Kashmiri Gate. The sections on the east side are protected from encroachment by a metal fence. The sections on the west are not protected at all. Holes have been punched in the walls here and there. The arches under the battlements are used for stabling livestock and storing hay and building materials. When I visited the unprotected section of wall, I didn’t feel comfortable playing tourist and snapping picture after picture. I felt the same way that I would feel taking pictures of a stranger’s house. The walls are historic landmarks, but they are also places where some Delhiities live and work.

One of the preserved sections of wall near Kashmiri Gate.

One of the preserved sections of wall near Kashmiri Gate.

Phones in the United States and India (part 2)

Compared to mobile phones, an even more recent arrival in India is the smartphone. In 2009, smartphones were unheard-of in the Garo Hills. I don’t remember ever seeing them anywhere I went in north and northeast India either. By 2013, smartphones were more in evidence in Jaipur when I spent the summer there, but more in TV ads than real life. Now in 2015, smartphones are becoming increasingly ubiquitous. When I ride the Delhi Metro, half of the passengers are fiddling with smartphones, reading something in English, Hindi, or Punjabi, or playing a game. Apple iPhones are not as common in India as the USA, since most people don’t care to pay the premium price. The Samsung Galaxy is much more common as a prestige phone. There are also several indigenous brands not seen in the USA, such as Micromax.

What is remarkable to me about smartphones in India is that they are being adopted by a wide range of social classes. There is nothing remarkable about the privileged urban youth of India using smartphones in 2015, although I feel that they try too hard to prove that they have arrived in the twenty-first century by taking too many selfies and signing up for all of the social media services, and then posting all of those selfies, and anything else they think or do, on all of the services. They aren’t just using the usual suspects like Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, but also services I’d never heard of before coming to India this time.

What I do find remarkable is that some manual laborers and service workers, like the maid who works in the house where I stay in Delhi, have started using smartphones. Non-smartphones have not been marginalized in the market as definitively as they have been in the West, but it is clear to me that for certain classes of Indians, smartphones are now the only socially acceptable option. This is not the case for lower classes, but it is worth noting that lower-income groups now have access to the same technology that the privileged classes are using for status symbols.

Mobile phones gave many members of lower-income and rural populations access to their own phones for the first time. In the same way, smartphones are making the Internet more widely accessible. In the Garo Hills in 2009, when I wanted to check my e-mail, I had to hitch a ride to the nearby town and pay Rs. 40 an hour to use a slow, unreliable cell-network connection at a computer services shop. Sometimes I would arrive and the power would be out, or the manager would be away, or the connection would inexplicably not be working. This was an all-afternoon outing, and I could only make it once every week or two. I went to the effort to access the Internet because I had already become reliant upon it from my life in the West. For those who had never used the Internet before, it wasn’t likely that they were going to go out of their way to start using it there. Now, the growing number of smartphone users can access the Internet whenever they want, without having to go anywhere.

It is much too early to make any conclusions about what all of this means for Indian society. Are smartphones an egalitarian technology, like non-smartphones? TV ads that show sequestered women in rural Haryana using their smartphones to access educational resources would have you believe so. Of course, TV ads playing on the same channels also claim that “Love and Nourish” soap will give you perfect skin like Kareena Kapoor, and “Juzt Jelly” candies will give you the strength of the children’s cartoon hero Chhota Bheem. In the case of smartphones, though, this technology may indeed give economically disadvantaged people access to knowledge resources that were too expensive to access beforehand. Or smartphones might prove to be just a passive form of entertainment, opening the way for huge sections of the Indian population to become addicted to the next “Candy Crush.” I suspect that smartphones in India are already on their way to proving themselves as both useful tools and useless toys.

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