1857 – the cheeky chapattis

150 years ago. This text is somewhat overdue, as it as promised, then delayed, and reworked, then neglected, viciously, for too long. And its still not finished – these notes at least tell themain tale… Which is… That, in an important book which pretty much started the Gramsci influenced ‘school’ of Indian historiography called Subaltern Studies, Ranajit Guha tells a snappy little story about some chapatti’s that utterly confused the operatives of the British East India Company. Huzzar!

It seems worthwhile retelling the story once again, as has happened before. Guha writes in “Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India” that various numbers of chapattis – usually six – were transported from village to village as some sort of signal. The British noticed this, but had no explanation as to the meaning of the phenomenon. Guha notes that there were also circulating arrows and other weapons, but it is the chapattis that seem most to hold most interest, and the most promise. This was in 1855, and Guha of course relates this to questions of organisation in the lead up to the so-called ‘mutiny’ two years later.

One of the main innovations that Subaltern Studies historians offered was the idea that the historical record, in this case reports about mysteriously circulating sheaves of leavened bread, could be read against the grain so as to open up possible alternate readings, alternate histories (from below?). The historical record, written by the East India Company, shows certain troop movements and certain ‘intelligence’ concerns related to what can now be read as an organised preparedness on the part of villagers otherwise assumed to be sleepily subject to colonial rule. Guha here quotes Mao Zedong to underline his theoretical interest in the ways the peasantry, assumed to belong to a fragmentary polity, disaggregated (potatoes in a sack) and dispersed… Here, Guha suggests, is something similar to the solidarity of shared experience of oppression that Mao also found among the peasants of Hunan – subject to imperial power, they organise across perceived or assumed differences. The chapattis are a message that can be read as political communication today.

Unfortunately, when this story is retold in some social theory, the concerns of theory outweigh questions of organisation. Homi Bhabha also retells the story, but for him the chapattis are a sign of ambivalence, a cipher, open to … well, a theoretical arabesque that I appreciate – since the story of the chapatti is funny – but which misses the politics of rumour as organisation, or rather as evidence that questions of organisation must be asked.

[Here I want to bring forward a paragraph from chapter 8 of my Bad Marxism – I’m retelling, as I said]: “The debate hinges on Guha’s reading of the ‘revolutionary consciousness’ of the peasantry, which is born of their shared ‘subjection … exploitation and oppression’ (1983:225). In the context of his discussion of the 1857 Rebellion, Guha quotes Mao Zedong’s 1928 argument that conditions of counter-revolutionary suppression in provinces that are adjacent to each other serve to unite the diverse elements of the peasantry in a shared and ‘common struggle’ (Mao 1928/197593). The people are united against the oppressor. Guha’s discussion is of the ways that rumours circulate to establish and support this shared consciousness. The key story is of the greased bullets that soldiers were required to use in the Enfield rifle, with the defiling fat being an affront to religious sensibilities, and, as is well known, a ‘mutiny’ of soldiers in Meerut sparked off an India-wide insurgency. Of course, to see the events of 1857 primarily in terms of the rumour of greased cartridges only facilitates the colonialist view that it was a ‘mutiny’ within the military rather than a more wide-ranging rebellion and revolutionary fervour that caught the public mood, but there is no question that this confrontation has its role.”

So when I get to read Bhabha, I wonder at the way he elevates what he calls ‘the slender narrative of the chapatti’ to do service for a theoretical argument about the ways rumour and panic circulate. Myself, I like chapattis, and I think the story of a very British officer (of the EIC), scratching his stiff upper lipped head trying to work out what on earth the chapattis mean, is a great one.

[Again from BM]: “In reading this episode, Bhabha wants to emphasise the ‘rumour and panic’ involved, and suggests that the ‘slender narrative of the chapatti’ symbolises the wider contexts of the rebellion (1994:202). Following Guha, Bhabha wants to read the rebellion and the ‘subject of peasant insurgency’ as ‘a site of cultural hybridity’ – the rumour of chapattis indicates a panic that ‘constitutes the boundary of cultural hybridity across which the Mutiny is fought’ (1994:206–7). The chapatti is a displacement of the Enfield rifle and its greased bullet, the ostensible trigger. For Bhabha, ‘Panic spreads. It does not simply hold together the native people but binds them affectively, if antagonistically – through a process of projection – with their masters’ (1994:203). He then identifies the British ‘projection’ of their own binding panic on to the story of the chapatti. The British did not know what to make of the stories of travelling bread.”

Rumour and panic. Guha is careful to tell us that he finds ‘nothing in the contemporary evidence to tell us what the circulating chapatti meant’ (1983:239). Bhabha sees them as symbolic of the ways the coloniser was bound up, however much in a hybrid and ambivalent way. Panic circulates, confusion. But I regret that Mao and organisation drops out of the discussion – the peasantry was organised we should not forget. And Mahasweta Devi’s tale of the Rani of Jhansi shows this clearly too [if you have not read this book you should, this year of all years – The Queen of Jhansi – Seagull Books, Kolkata. See Devi post].

[BM 8]: “It must be said that here Bhabha usefully notes that the coloniser is bound up with the colonised (co-constitution), but that he displaces the politics of this into the realm of translation is revealing: ‘in the very practice of domination the language of the master becomes hybrid’ (1994:33). The chapattis, drums, arrows and rifles become signs of hybridity as the ‘address of colonial authority’, in the discourse of the evangelical Christian missions, is threatened by ‘the oppositional voices of a culture of resistance’ (1994:33). This resistance is ambivalent so long as it remains talk. But, in a brilliant coda to his discussion, Bhabha evokes other rumours that spread panic, in particular about Christian conversion (hybridity) and an earlier mutiny, this time in Vellore in 1806, where the leather of belts and topis (hats) provoked panic (1994:210). The trouble is that we don’t hear much of the mutiny as an organisational question. When Guha mentions Vellore it is not hats but stories of salt contaminated by the blood of pigs and cows (1983:267) that are the focus. What has happened to common struggle? Apprehension of loss of freedom through forced conversion to Christianity is identified, with a glance towards Marx, as ‘a product of self-alienation’ (Guha 1983:268, Marx and Engels CWIII:339).

The key absence in Guha’s narrative, but more so in Bhabha’s distillation of the story, is the question of organisation that must necessarily be asked in terms of what is required for any ‘revolutionary consciousness’ to succeed against oppression. Clearly rumour is not enough, even if chapattis are part of the story; the arms cache has more political significance. The section Guha quotes from Mao, though he does not draw attention to it in the passage, is from Mao’s critique of localism in a subsection called ‘Questions of Party Organization’. Here Mao is writing against opportunists and ‘blind insurrection’ so as to build the Red Army into a ‘militant Bolshevik Party’ (Mao 1928/1975:93). Mao does not mention hybridity, but gives a subtle analysis of what is required for a political struggle that can succeed. His text, ignored at the time by the Chinese Communist Party leadership, then under Comintern influence, later became a key analysis of the character of agrarian revolutionary mobilisation.

Guha actually refers a number of times to exactly this Hunan-Kiangsi Report in his Elementary Aspects (1983:29, 48, 58, 67, 89, 135–6, 163). Indeed, he refers almost exclusively to this one text by Mao. In the retelling of the story by Bhabha, hybridity is admirably foregrounded, but what recedes is any chance of, or need for, a discussion of the shared experience of oppression that binds the peasants together sufficiently to organise an uprising. We are left with rumours, chapattis and only a faint echo of ‘revolutionary consciousness’.”

Bhabha, Homi 1994 The Location of Culture, London: Routledge.
Bhabha, Homi 1996 ‘Culture’s In-Between’ in Stuart Hall and Paul du Gay (eds) Questions of Cultural Identity, London: Sage. pp 53-60.
Devi, Mahasweta 1956/2000 The Queen of Jhansi, Kolkata: Seagull Books
Guha, Ranajit 1983 Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India Delhi: Oxford University Press
Mao Zedong 1928/1975 ‘The struggle in the ChingKong Mountains’ Selected Works vol 1, Peking: Foreign Languages Press, pp73-104
Mao Zedong 1937/1975 ‘On Contradiction’ Selected Works vol 1, Peking: Foreign Languages Press, pp311-347.
Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich, 50 Volumes 1975-2005 MECW Moscow: Progress Publishers & Lawrence and Wishart

This is a draft. It is destined for the publication for 1857.org.uk
Lal Salaam


3 thoughts on “1857 – the cheeky chapattis

  1. Sharing the bread/ the dough has always been a good way to make new friends :-) Certainly a better way to make friends than using MySpace.


  2. ha ha – YES! and there is no nourishment and nothing to mop up the curry sauce on myspace.


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