The [story of the ] Great Mutiny has usually been told by the Marxist historians of the 1960s and 1970s primarily as a rising against British economic policies. Over the last three years, however, my colleague Mahmoud Farooqi has been translating some of the 20,000 Urdu and Persian documents, many previously unaccessed, that we have found in the Mutiny Papers section of the National Archives of India. This has allowed the Rising in Delhi to be seen from a properly Indian perspective, and not just from the British sources which to date it has usually been viewed.
What was even more exciting was the street-level nature of much of the material. Although the documents were collected by the victorious British from the palace and the army camp, they contained huge quantities of petitions, complaints and requests from the ordinary citizens of Delhi—potters and courtesans, sweetmeat-makers and over-worked water carriers—exactly the sort of people who usually escape the historian’s net. The Mutiny Papers overflow with glimpses of real life: the bird-catchers and lime-makers who have had their charpoys stolen by sepoys; the gamblers playing cards in a recently ruined house and ogling the women next door, to the great alarm of the family living there; the sweetmeat-makers who refuse to take their sweets up to the trenches in Qudsia Bagh until they are paid for the last load.
We meet people like Hasni the dancer who uses a British attack on the Idgah to escape from the serai where she is staying with her husband, and run off with her lover. Or Pandit Harichandra who tried to exhort the Hindus of Delhi to leave their shops and join the fight, citing examples from the Mahabharat. Or Hafiz Abdurrahman, caught grilling beef kebabs during a ban on cow slaughter and who comes to beg the mercy of Zafar. Or Chandan, the sister of the courtesan Manglu, who rushed before the emperor as her beautiful sister has been seized and raped by the cavalryman, Rustam Khan: “He has imprisoned her and beats her up and even though she shouts and screams nobody helps her…. Should this state of anarchy and injustice continue, the subjects of the Exalted One will all be destroyed”.