The Annalist of The Silent Millions

Bankimchandra opens his Anandamath with a graphic description of the village of Padachinha. It is a scene of utter desolation caused by the great famine of 1770. As it happened in the year 1176 of the Bengali calendar it is popularly known as 'Chhiattarer manwantar'. It was a time out of joint. The great Mughal empire was in ruins and the British empire was yet to rise in its place. The interregnum between the two was politically very unsettled. Misgovernment under the so-called 'diarchy' or dual administration had already made the common people's life miserable. Now nature seems to have chosen her moment to withhold her bounty from a province where her bounty is proverbial. The monsoon, the mainstay of Bengal's agriculture, failed for two consecutive years and there was total failure of crops. Food grains became scarce and the prices shot up beyond anybody's reach. The famine had started in its most virulent form The untold misery of the people was compounded by the increased demand of land revenue and the ruthless collection of a record amount in the very year when the famine was raging most fiercely. No suitable relief measures were taken and on the contrary hoarding was brazenly resorted to both by the traders for profits as well by the government for its garrisons cantoned at various strategic points. In spite of orders to the contrary the very people whose duty it was to provide succor to the starving population themselves unscrupulously indulged in speculation. People died like flies and as cremation of the dead had become a luxury which the starving people could ill afford epidemic followed the famine in its train. Worst of it all was that men were driven to feed on human flesh, parties being formed to seize and eat solitary victims. One-third of the population of Bengal is said to have perished. Once flourishing human settlements in the countryside had turned into jungles and had become haunts of wild beasts of prey. In living memory no other famine has been as devastating as that of 1770.

The name Padachinha is fictitious but not so its story. In his childhood Bankim heard it from his elders and by the time he attained manhood Hunter's The Annals of Rural Bengal had been published in 1868. The Anandamath was to be published fourteen years later in 1882. The story of the novel is set against the backdrop of this great famine so vividly described by Hunter and the action takes place in the same district of Birbhum. Bankim admits his debt to the Annals but few of us who have read the Anandamath are familiar with this source. Yet it deserves our wider familiarity because it is a historical document and a unique one too. It is radically different from the kind of history which we are required to study in schools and colleges. Commonly books of history tell us the stories of kings and emperors and their heroic exploits -- a lot of dates and boring facts - but rarely, if ever, tell the stories of the common people. In India even this kind of history is a laborious reconstruction from scanty facts. When it comes to rural India the position is worse. In the words of Hunter, "Every county, almost every parish, in England, has its annals; but in India vast provinces, greater in extent than the British islands, have no individual history whatever. Districts that have furnished the sites of famous battles, or lain upon the routes of imperial progress, appear, indeed, for a moment in the general records of the country; but before the eye has become familiar with their uncouth names, the narrative passes on, and they are forgotten" ..... in India, one rural generation dreams out its existence after another and all are forgotten". In his dedicatory epistle Hunter declared that his "business is with the people" and the pages of his Annals "have little to say touching the governing race". It was therefore not a matter of mere courtesy that Max Muller hailed its publication in the following very characteristic words: "It is a mighty undertaking to write the history of a people rather than their rulers. It is so in civilized countries, even in England. How much more in India! A work of this kind will not, perhaps, interest people who cannot bear history unless it is brought before them in the form of a sensation novel, but it will be of great advantage to the political economist and the statesman".

But interestingly Hunter was the least likely person to be an annalist of rural India. Son of a small-scale manufacturer of Scotland, Hunter, having finished his university education, had in 1861 taken the just introduced competitive examination, and passed out first amongst the 207 candidates. He thus belonged to that generation which arrived in India after the Mutiny, the "competition-wallahs" as they were called by the old hands who had had to undergo no such humiliating experience as a competitive examination for their entry into the Company's civil services in India. They knew nothing of pre-Mutiny life which was essentially medieval. They were already imbued with the spirit of imperialism. On his first voyage out to India in 1862 Hunter was writing to his fiance about the political importance of Aden as "one of the keys to our Indian Empire" and in the Mediterranean while the French had Toulon and other fortified harbors on their coast the British had strategic points like "Gibraltar, Malta and Corfu at the entrance, the middle and extreme east of the Mediterranean". Their training and an increasing competition also strengthened in these people a strong sense of caste. Young Hunter was writing, "It is easy to be a Company-man and yet to be superior to the common run in an intellectual aspect but it is impossible to be first-class - I mean the very first, one of a set of men picked out from the whole country for their talents, and fritter your evenings away in walking quadrilles and consuming ices. I aspire to a circle far above the circle of fashion. I mean the circle of Power ... Until I can earn a position in that circle I do not choose to waste my time filling up a lady's drawing room or eating people's corner dishes". Finally, though the financial prospect of a career in the Civil Service was not such that after one's days in the service one could return home a 'Nabob - laden with spoils and profits - as did many Company-men during the early days of the British in India - yet it was still fair enough and he wrote to his fiance, "If God gives us health and long life together we shall be rich, very rich, before we are fifty ... Let us be thankful to Heaven for its mercies".

This young man's perception of his career prospects admitted of no ambiguity - he was conscious of his role in the promotion of the cause of the Empire and his intellectual superiority to the common run. As a thrifty Scotsman if he eventually did not become very rich he certainly became financially well off. But today his name is not to be found in the list of men who ruled India. By the quirk of destiny his aspiration to enjoy power remained unrealized. During his service career he never became a Magistrate of a District or a Secretary of a Department nor at the end of it a Governor of some British Indian province. He started as an annalist and remained an annalist to the last. And for that he is still remembered while those of his colleagues who enjoyed the glamour of power in their days and basked in the glory of 'Rule Britannia' have mostly been forgotten. It is true that in his lifetime he was crowned with many crowns but the one to which he had resolved to aspire forever eluded him. As it turned out, Hunter, after a brief stay at the imperial capital at Calcutta, was posted out as Assistant Magistrate to Suri, the headquarters of the remote district of Birbhum, which was remote indeed in those days of almost primitive system of transport and communication. There he was put in charge of the district treasury and his boss, the Collector, most probably a Company-man, with whom his relationship was anything but cordial, overburdened him with duties which Hunter as Assistant Magistrate was not supposed to do. In the treasury he stumbled upon an "ancient press" which was never opened and it contained early records of the British rule. Rummaging through those decaying papers he was convinced that "these neglected heaps contain much that is worthy of being preserved. For what trustworthy account have we of the state of rural India at the commencement and during the early stages of our rule? Eloquent and elaborate narratives have indeed been written of the British ascendancy in the East, but such narratives are records of the English Government or biographies of the English Governors of India, not histories of the Indian people. The silent millions who bear our yoke have found no annalist". This discovery early on in life decided for Hunter what future course his career would take. It will no longer be the pursuit of power. His ambition from now on will be to be the annalist of the silent millions. He began to ransack all kinds of old records, collect local traditions and consult whatever scanty private papers he could lay his hands on. In the meantime his newly-wed wife joined him at Suri. She smilingly shared the literary labors of her hardworking husband. At the end of the day which was usually long and arduous she would take dictations from her husband and that is how the Annals came to be first drafted. It was finalized by Hunter after further research while on leave in Britain.

A little less than a century - 85 years, to be exact - after the great famine of 1770 the district of Birbhum had featured in another momentous event, the famous Santal Rebellion of 1855, which also forms the subject matter of the Annals. The Santal, "one not easily" violent, to borrow the words of Shakespeare's Othello, "but being wrought, perplex'd in the extreme", rose in a body against his tormentors - the mahajans, the banias, the zamindars, the corrupt amlas, the police and the negligent sahibs in a gesture of despair and defiance. It is perhaps the most tragic yet the most glorious chapter in the history of that race. And in Hunter's treatment of the theme not only his generous sympathy but also his respect for this 'manly race' is not to be mistaken. This is apparent from its comparison with Hunter's source -- the anonymous essay on the subject, published in 1856 in the January-June issue of the Calcutta Review. Chapters III and IV of the Annals are entirely devoted to the study of the Santal society and this study will remain a classic.

The Annals was first published in London on the 4th of April, 1868. The first man of mark to have praised it as a "mighty undertaking" was Professor Max Muller. The reviews in the British Press were a long chorus of praise. A few months before its publication Hunter had called on his countryman 'Tom' Carlyle at Chelsea, but it is not known whether that Victorian Jeremiah, who was largely responsible for the view that history was the biographies of great men, ever read the book and if so, what were his reactions. In any case the book was received with universal eulogy and almost overnight its author became a celebrity. His treatment of the Orissa famine in the Annals earned him letters of thanks from the Bengal Government. Naturally therefore the young author must have expected a warm welcome from his colleagues in Calcutta. But his hopes were belied. After his arrival in Calcutta, he wrote to his mother on 27th December, 1868 that they "had quite a public welcome" indeed, but people hinted to him that he might expect trouble because of his loyalty to Sir Cecil Beadon, the previous Lt. Governor, to whom he had dedicated his Annals, "and that the natural jealousy which a close service like ours feels towards a member who has distinguished himself outside the regular line would be used as the instrument of my discomfiture". And this is how he describes his meeting with the Chief Secretary: "I was rather in good spirits and confident of a friendly reception. Judge of my surprise when, instead of saying something nice about my Annals Mr.--- began a long tirade, and wound it up with an offer of a Calcutta appointment inferior in pay and position to the one I held two and a half years ago and below my standing in the service! If I did not accept this, he added, I might expect to be sent back to the subdivision, the post I had occupied in 1865".  We do not know if Hunter knew at the time that in the straight-jacket bureaucracy he was perhaps the first but certainly would not be the last Indian bureaucrat to find the possession of some merit to be equivalent to, if not worse than, the commission of a crime. Eventually however he found himself rescued by the Government of India. That is a different story which we propose to tell on some other occasion. 


More by :  Kumud Biswas

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