There are two historical explanations regarding 1857 revolt. For some historians, 1857 marked the first war of independence, while for others it is known as the year of Sepoy mutiny. In this small note I am not going to analyse whether it was the first war of freedom struggle or only a Sepoy mutiny. As we commemorate the 150 years of 1857 through various government and media initiatives; it is interesting to see how this mutiny by the Indians and the consequent suppression by the British Raj forced many people to migrate from several areas of the country. Most of the urban centers of India witnessed rural urban migration in various phases. In this context, it is important to recognize that displacement and migration can happen at any historical juncture. In the transnational world of today, we need to understand that often under the garb of voluntary migration; forced migration has occurred in the past too that had gone undocumented. As we celebrate the 150 years of 1857, it is important to take a close look at the mass displacement movement had brought about.
The Times of India has tried to unravel some interesting facts, which paves way for further research. The revolt opened up new destinations for people who were forced to flee. Destinations were as varied as Singapore, Mauritius and Jabalpur. Various powerloom corners of Mumbai (Malegaon and Bhiwandi) and two Muslim quarters Mominpura and Madanpura in Bombay also witnessed mass influx of people from Northern India. The suppression in the wake of the Mutiny or the First War of Independence was responsible for uprooting thousands in various corners of Northern India, the then United Provinces.
Community leaders of Malegaon recall tales that have gone undocumented and need to be told (Hafeez, “1857 Malegaon Story” Times of India, 10 May 2007). Residents of today’s Malegaon are descendants of the migrant populace who were force to flee from Meerut, Awadh and Lucknow. Interestingly as Hafeez points the residents of United Provinces used railway services to flee certain areas. Hafeez refers to Basheer Adeeb who has written a book on the history of Malegaon. Basheer Adeeb’s grandfather and other members used bullock carts and trains as the means of transport to reach Burhanpur (in Madhya Pradesh) and after that they had to walk. While many chose to stay in Buhranpur, Adeeb recalled that many migrants moved to various places like Jabalpur, Nagpur, Kampti, Shahda, Dhule, Malegaon, Yeola, Bhiwandi and Mominpura and Madanpura in Bombay. Most of the people, who were forced to migrate, chose areas that were nearby Agra Highway. Apart from Bombay, the other destinations were Maheshwar, on the banks of the Narmada and a seat of power for the Holkar dynasty, followed by various places in Maharashtra as mentioned above. In fact, the very place Mominpura gets its name from Momin weavers of U.P. (“Malegaon to Mauritius: On the trail of 1857” Times of India, 10 May 2007)
Malegaon is interesting because it did exist pre 1857, though there are no archival records to suggest the influx of people from Northern parts of the country. What is crucial to note here is that the pattern of migration is spread over a huge time. Kinship ties were responsible for spreading news about the economic prospects of Malegaon. Malegaon recently made it to the news because of the blasts around September. This place is home to the descendants of the migrants from various northern states primarily Awadh. Most of them were weavers. After they migrated to Malegaon they continued in the same profession. The dramatic event that changed their lives was the introduction of power looms in 1936. Most of 80% percent of the city’s population is dependent on these power looms.
Apart from the Deccan states, the British plantations in Mauritius witnessed a rise in the number of indentured labourers post revolt. According to newspaper report, a Mauritian family has records that a ship crammed with more than 500 Bhojpuris, embarking from the Kerala coast. The article also refers to Amaresh Misra’s soon-to-be-published book War of Civilisations: India 1857 where he has discussed in detail how the Bhojpuri language has influenced the popular culture of Mauritius. “"The local language in Mauritius, Creole, is a patois of French with notes of Bhojpuri — for example, in the song 'Hamre avion mein chal jo' or the other common usage for 'I love you', 'Je t'aime va', where a 'va' is added in the way that Bhojpuri speakers say riskva or chalva," he says”.
These instances show how migration patterns are interesting and how the push-pull factor of migration analysis needs to move beyond the economic factors. 1857 revolt sparked internal migration and outward migration. This shows that there is much need to document the nuances that underlie the very notion of “forced migration”. At various historical junctures there have been cases of mass displacement. While the modern historiography around partition literature has attempted to capture the experiences of people who were forced to migrate to Pakistan and Bangladesh; revolt of 1857 has not received due attention.
The journey from United Province to Malegaon and Mauritius is significant because most of the migrants to Maleagon belonged to the minority community and were subject to routine violence by the Zamindars. They had no right to name their own children. On the other hand, it will be an interesting subject to explore the reasons that were responsible for the Bhojpuri migrants to migrate to Mauritius which was then a French colony. Who were these migrants? These migrants were from Eastern U.P. and Bihar. They were skilled at growing sugarcane. The British had managed to destroy the rural agrarian enterprises, which was instrumental in creating a huge surplus of labour. Eventually, they were shipped off to Surinam, Mauritius and Caribbean islands. What could be an interesting domain of research is how the popular culture of Mauritius is influenced by the Bhojpuri culture and how this separation has brought about a unique folk tradition called the kaharwa, a folksong sung in the Kahar community that narrates the pain of separation from a wife or beloved as a result of migration; the chamraudha dance of the Chamar caste, the songs of which cover the same theme; the barahmasa narrations, which detail the different emotions that each month of the year brings; and the nautanki popular theatre, performed during festivals and weddings. These folk traditions are known as Bidesia. Bidesia is a Bhojpuri term for those who left for overseas. These living traditions speak about the experience and pain of migration. These living traditions speak about the agony of separation from “home”. The notions of “home”, “nation” and memory are crucial to understand the Mauritian case. The migration to Malegaon is further intriguing. Even though the migration is limited within the boundaries of nation, people were forced to flee from their “homes”. In the transnational context, when people are constantly on the move and boundaries have blurred can we erase the pain of displacement the weavers of various places in UP might faced some 150 years back?