Museums, Archives & Heritage

Archiving Insurgency

“Peasants do not write, they are written about”, Shahid Amin writes in his classic study of the Chauri Chaura incident, a lethal raid on a north Indian police station, which led Gandhi to call off the non-cooperation movement in 1922. His words address the paradox of attempting to understand a mass movement through texts produced during a period of low literacy rates, problems that are redoubled when relying upon English language sources and state archives. The Indian Census recorded general literacy rates of 7.2% and 8% respectively for 1921 and 1931, and these are combined and approximate statistics. Rates were much lower in rural areas and for women, and statistically negligible for English. There is also something self-contradictory about the idea of an archive of insurgency in itself, archive being etymologically related to arkhe, the place of commencement and commandant, and hence associated with law and order.

“In order not to write like the Judge, I have tried to find out how the Judge wrote”, Amin continues in his book on Chauri Chaura. And the articles in this special section on “Insurgency in the Archives” work within this tradition of reading official documents against the grain; they look beyond the condescension of colonial censors to find political and aesthetic value in banned literature, and examine state records for what they reveal of colonial mentalities. But they also read along the grain to consider archival sources as “active, generative substances” with histories and itineraries of their own, in the words of historical anthropologist Ann Laura Stoler.  Being attentive to the material qualities of and circulation networks for these texts opens up new perspectives on seditious literature, both in India and globally.

Conference poster designed by Aratrika Choudhury incorporating Ghadar di Gunj (“Echoes of Mutiny”), a Panjabi poetry pamphlet published by San Francisco-based Indian revolutionaries in 1914.

This special section of History Workshop Journal brings together papers presented at a conference which took place in the Institute of Advanced Studies, University College London, 12 – 13 January 2018, titled “Insurgency in the Archives: the Politics and Aesthetics of Sedition in Colonial India”.  The focus of workshop was an archive of publications banned by the Government of India from 1907-1947, and now jointly held by the British Library and National Archives of India. Consisting of more than 2800 items in an extraordinarily wide range of languages and formats, this is one of the largest collections of primary sources relating to any twentieth-century decolonisation movement. The four articles in this section deal with literature deemed seditious and banned by the British in the interwar period.

Daniel Elam’s paper considers a transnational archive of radical texts, which informed the political thought of Indian revolutionary Bhagat Singh. He locates Singh’s atheism, as expressed in his essay “Why I am an Atheist”, in a specifically anticolonial and interwar refusal of authority, which distinguishes it from contemporary understandings of the concept.  Book history meets intellectual history in his account of how Singh arrived at the philosophy of Bertrand Russell and Muhamad Iqbal through paperbacks smuggled into India by San Francisco-based Indian revolutionaries. The ideological convolutions at work are no less vertiginous than the circuitous networks through which texts were transmitted.

From Bande Mataram, April 1929. Punjab Provincial Archives, Lahore.

Ali Raza looks beyond the familiar terrain of party archives and official sources to focus on vernacular print cultures of communism in 1920s and early 1930s Punjab. He describes combinations between localism and internationalism, during a period when ideological and communal lines had yet to harden. Capitalism and imperialism had made the world smaller and interdependent, requiring a comparative analysis of India’s situation in the conjoined struggle against both. The first issue of the journal Kirti(the worker) proclaimed solidarity with “workers throughout the world” and “the entire female sex”; subsequent editions offered analyses of revolutionary struggles in China, Ireland and Afghanistan. But Kirtialso used local languages and cultural idioms to prophesy a glorious future to be delivered by the shaktiof Bolshevism.  Through invocations of global historical forces and divine power, communist ideas were to be disseminated amongst Indian peasants and workers.

The extent to which they reached this audience may be hard to ascertain, but these publications do seem to have attracted the attention of both colonial censors and the Kresintern (Peasants International), with the latter writing a letter of support later published in Kirti. Raza and Elam go beyond centre-periphery models of the transmission of ideas (communism, atheism) to look at how they were transformed as they circulated between colony and ‘metropole’ –  were vernacularized, translated, censored and subject to cross-influence.

The networks through which these ideas circulated via the medium of books and writers often carried other types of contraband material – personnel and matériel. The types of sociality encouraged by circulation of seditious literature resembles that encountered in drug trafficking and gun-running, and did not require literacy on the part of those involved. The material properties of these texts also often made them handy carriers of revolutionary ideas:  Little Blue Books, designed to fit inside the pocket of a working man’s blue collar shirt, smuggled into India from Kansas; communist pamphlets printed using cheap and mobile cyclostyle technology in rural Punjab; notes distributed by an underground messenger service comprising of nationalist women and children.

The last is described by Kama Maclean in her article on the Hindustan Socialist Republican Army’s manifesto, “Philosophy of the Bomb”. Maclean discusses the conflation between books and bombs in a text that both advocated the use of violence and was hand distributed in ways that resembled the planting of explosives (thrown, hurled, mailed, and abandoned). Reproduced in the form of a poster, warning readers not to tear it down on pain of death, or piled up on the street, distributing the manifesto allowed revolutionaries to both spread their message and lay claim to public space.

Manifesto of the Naujawan Bharat Sabha (1928) and a handwritten notice of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Army celebrating the killing of a British police officer, John Saunders, by Bhagat Singh and Shivram Rajguru (23 December 1928). Punjab Provincial Archives, Lahore.

Chris Moffat writes of the legacy of revolutionary textual practices in his article on the Dwarka Das Library. The library was founded by Indian revolutionary Lala Lajpat Rai in Lahore in 1920, in what is now Pakistan, moved to Shimla post-Independence, and is currently located in the Indian city of Chandigarh. Moffat recounts how Rai’s travels in the US informed his ambition of establishing a modern, political library and training centre for radical youth, on the lines of the Rand School of Social Science in New York.

Card catalogues of the Dwarka Das Library. Chris Moffat, Chandigarh, 2012

The library’s most famous reader was Bhagat Singh, who claimed to have been inspired to bomb the Legislative Assembly in New Delhi in 1929 after encountering works by French anarchist Auguste Vaillant in its aisles. It was also the location for late-night discussions between Singh, his comrades and the librarian, Raja Ram. The Dwarka Das Library is now a depository for information collected under the 2005 Right to Information Act, and in this way continues a tradition of anti-state activism in an era when “the megabyte is the new dynamite”, in the words of Gaurav Chabra, a film-maker and information activist whom Moffat interviewed.

These continuities stretch back to the nineteenth century as well as forward to the twenty-first. They specifically recall Ranajit Guha’s inventory of the verbal and nonverbal media via which insurgency spread in early colonial India: tree branches sent between different groups of insurgent peasantry; chapattis that mysteriously circulated prior to the 1857 rebellion; a random collection of texts, said to have dropped from the heavens and offered as proof of divine sanction for insurgency (a book on locomotives, a set of visiting cards, a translation of the Gospel according to St John, and a sheaf of blank papers).

Torn poster on a wall in Amritsar, Punjab, bearing images of Bhagat Singh, Har Dayal, Kartar Singh Sarabha and Lala Lajpat Rai. Source: Chris Moffat, 2011

There are of course significant differences between the two periods. Guha was specifically writing about what he described as the ‘preliterate’ peasantry in the nineteenth century.  By the 1920s state machinery had become more complex. The geographical distances covered and time periods spanned, both in and by seditious literature, were much greater. Underground networks ran alongside and made use of by then well-established official channels: the infrastructure of the colonial postal system and protections afforded by international postal law, movement made possible by imperial citizenship as well as necessitated by colonial repression.

But in both periods opposition to the actions of a centralised colonial state prompted the stirrings of pan-national consciousness. In the latter, affiliations with distant others extended even further, in response to new communication technologies and radical ideas. Colonial subjects’ sense of the state and the state’s awareness of the populations it governed were transmitted in ways that resembled the spread of rumour or contagion, whereby a message passes from a teller to a hearer who themselves becomes a teller. And these qualities of anonymity and alienability were further enhanced in print communication.  Through sensitivity to extra-linguistic textual practices and a deterritorial understanding of the archive, the book, pamphlet and poster join the messenger bough and chapatti as auguries of insurgency.



I am grateful to Natasha Eaton, UCL History of Art, the IAS and the Octagon fund for supporting the workshop. Thanks also to the participants who made it a lively and memorable event, the editors and reviewers of History Workshop Journal, and to Chris Moffat for use of photographs from his personal collection.




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