“The spark cannot just be kept alive through fighting,” declares one of the characters in Khan Mahboob Tarzi’s novel, “The Break of Dawn.” The words are spoken at the end of the Indian Mutiny (also known as the Sepoy Mutiny, 1857-1858): the largest military uprising against the British rule in India, albeit ultimately a failed one.
The meaning of these words is that Indians should try other ways of resisting the foreign government. Since the novel was written much later, in independent India, by talking of a “spark” that was “kept alive” by other means the author seems to refer to the forms of resistance that were to appear few decades after the rebellion: civil disobedience and representative politics. In other words, the idea is that there was one flame, but it took various shapes – those wh0 peacefully broke the law or boycotted colonial institutions could have been as nationalistic as those who fought battles with the British.
This is an important and recurring theme in literary and visual representations of India’s colonial past: various uprisings and forms of resistance, widespread as well as local, were ultimately a part of one independence movement.
This admittedly is a rather teleological narrative, meant to arouse patriotic feelings. To be historically precise, one needs to point out that the 1857 mutiny was mostly a rebellion of Indian soldiers serving in the British army, as well as of some of the former Indian monarchs, and that it largely took place in the northern regions. It thus wanted to depose the colonial rule but not to create one, independent, Indian state. Such a state was created only 90 years later, in 1947, while at the time of rebellion (as well as earlier) there were numerous states in India. And yet, the Sepoy Mutiny is often called the First War of Independence.
Tarzi’s “The Break of Dawn” is but one instance of this narrative. The novel was originally published in Urdu in 1957 – exactly a hundred years after the Sepoy Mutiny, during which the book is set. The timing was no coincidence as the book was commissioned to be published during the centenary celebrations of the uprising (most of its protagonists are rebel soldiers). This reminds us that this vision of the rebellion as a war of independence exists because it was presented this way — not only by art and pop culture, but also by governments.
It was only in 2021 that the book came out in English. Interestingly, the novel’s translator and the spiritus movens behind its publishing in current form is Ali Khan Mahmudabad, a professor and a politician of an Indian opposition party (Samajwadi Party), but also the great-great-great-grandson of a ruler who also took part in the mutiny (Muqeem-ud-Daula Raja Nawab Ali Khan, who died during the conflict). The novel mentions him as one of the rebel leaders, and this in turn explains Ali Khan Mahmudabad’s personal interest in getting it translated and published.
“The Break of Dawn” is a fictional story with a historical background, and thus both presents the Sepoy Mutiny as an Indian independence war on the level of narrative, and yet mentions in passing historical facts that allow us to see the event differently. The mutiny was a time “when Indians awoke from their deep slumber and united against the British. They did so without caring about the differences of sect or faith, in order to secure their freedom,” the author writes in the preface. The rebels are called “martyrs of the freedom movement” and the mutiny and earlier conflicts are presented as a “War of Independence.” “One day,” one of the leaders declares, God will grant independence and “we will fly the flag of free India proudly.” The result of the rebellion was that a “seed has been sown and watered by the blood of the martyrs,” states one of the commanders when the fight is waning. Thus, a failed mutiny turns out to be a victorious one when presented as an inspirational moment that will fuel the imagination of future generations.
And yet a careful reading of the novel shows that, historically speaking, the rebels were trying to recreate various political structures dismantled by the British rather than to create a new, single Indian state. This was certainly true of the monarchs who joined the mutiny: They did so because the ruling East India Company deposed them in the years that preceded the rebellion. But even the first units of soldiers who rebelled marched to Delhi and made the Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, their leader (even though the old ruler was a weak figurehead by then). And the novel admits as much. While one of its characters speak of the objective being “flying the flag of free India,” in another instance a different character speaks of the goal of flying Bahadur Shah Zafar’s flag.
Similarly, another historical act of the rebels mentioned in the novel is the crowning of the young prince Birjees Qadr as the king of Awadh (the region where the story takes place). This reminds us that the rebellion was in fact not one coordinated conflagration but consisted of disparate epicenters of fire; it did not have one leader and its most important parts were attempts by a few dynasties to reclaim their realms.
Finally, the novel is full of praise for one of the rebel commanders, the Maulvi of Faizabad Ahmadullah Shah. But it declares only in passing that the “Maulvi waged jihad against the British,” a very brief reference to religious sentiments that were so crucial in kindling the rebellion.
As stated above, the “First War of Independence” narrative is not historically accurate, but it is an important way of instilling patriotic feelings. It is an image that lives on. This can be seen not only in the translation of “The Break of Dawn” but through other recent events, such as the decision that the mosque to be built in the city of Ayodhya will be named after the rebel commander Maulvi Ahmadullah Shah.