Before we start discussing the book “Event, metaphor, memory” by Shahid Amin, it is absolutely necessary to get at least an approximate idea of the events in Chauri Chaura in 1922, which were the historical background of the book.
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First, it should be mentioned that Chauri Chaura is a small town nearby Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh, in India, where, in February 1922, a British police station was attacked by nationalists. This armed conflict left 22 police officers dead. It should also be taken into account that at the beginning of 1922, there was a nationwide rebellion in India, which is now considered to be the Non-Cooperation Movement that remonstrated against authoritarian laws like, for instance, the Rowlatt Acts, which were adopted in 1919.
It was mostly the fact that Indians were deprived of their civil rights in their own county, which was the cause of the rebellion, and, naturally, they wanted to achieve self-government. This revolt was organized by the Indian National Congress, and its leader was Mahatma Gandhi, who pursued the so-called policy of satyagraha (non-violent resistance to the British rule in India).
On February 4 in 1922, at least 2,000 rebels gathered near the liquor shop at the local market in Chauri Chaura. Armed police forces were sent to the city police station to alleviate tension. The mob went towards the market and began to shout anti-government slogans. The police gave a warning shot. Nevertheless, the effect on the crowd was just the opposite, they were extremely aggressive and did not intend to retreat, and soon they started throwing stones at the armed police officers. Seeing the situation was beyond control, the sub-inspector commended the police officers for opening fire on the crowd.
Three rebels were killed at once, two Hindu and one Muslim, and some of the rebellions were wounded. The crowd became violent and assaulted the police. The armed police officers did not dare shoot at the unarmed people, and they took cover in the police station. The crowd was intent on taking revenge for their killed comrades, and the building was set on fire from all sides. According to the official record, twenty-three police officers were burnt alive (Amin, 7).
Mahatma Gandhi implored all Indians to put an end to this so-called Non-cooperation movement (or rebellion as we may call it now) and tried to acquit himself of these murderous attacks. Gandhi understood that he was too hasty in encouraging a rebellion against the British government in India without stressing the whole significance of non-violence. In the end, Indians abandoned civil resistance.
The British government imposed a curfew in Chauri Chaura and neighboring towns. All the areas were raided, and hundreds of people were placed under arrest. One hundred and seventy-two people (not necessarily rebels) underwent trial. On April 20, 1923, Allahabad high court sentenced 19 people to death, various prison terms ranging from life imprisonment to 2 years jail to 113 accused, and thirty-eight people were exonerated because of the lack of evidence.
According to Mahatma Gandhi, this incident could have turned into a wave of violence if this rebellion had not been quelled. He believed that it would result in the suppression of even more civil rights and liberties.
Shahid Amin tried to present his version of the events, which took place in Chauri Chaura in his heralded work “Event, Metaphor, Memory.” The author focused his attention on how history can be interpreted and sometimes distorted. First, it should be taken into account that the armed conflict in Chauri Chaura was practically erased from the history of Indian nationalism, and with time passing, the mob that attacked and slaughtered 22 police officers gradually transformed from “budmashes,” in other words, bad characters into the martyrs of Indian national movement (Amin, 18).
Amin arrives at quite a different understanding to Chauri Chaura that does not have the word “crime or rebellion” in its title. His wide use of archival sources and local knowledge of the region allows him to reconstruct an entirely different picture of the preconditions of the “riot” that Gandhi and Piggott “failed” to mention in their narrative.
Shahid Amin was born within a radius of fifteen miles from Chauri Chaura. The author shows in his research work perfect knowledge of the region and a sharp eye for the details of the culture and language of Indian people. Skillfully combining written and oral testimonials, he makes use of judicial records of that period and field interviews, which create a very realistic impression of the events.
Shahid Amin is intent on illustrating the supremacy of dominant narratives, mostly nationalist and judicial, and on showing how they distorted the very essence of Chauri Chaura. He researches archival materials and oral testimonies of Naujadi Pasin and Sita Ahir, the living relatives of the rioters, to get a clear idea of how the event seemed at different conjunctures in India’s colonial and postcolonial history.
With the help of oral testimonials, the author arrives at complex and nuanced conclusions about the issues of “subalternity.” He states that he employed oral evidence not to supplement or oppose official sources but to “arrive at an enmeshed, intertwined, and imbricated web of narratives” (Amin, 42).
The author shows that his informants’ recollections of the event have been affected by the national narrative since they also link the events of Chauri Chaura to a crime. Yet Sita Ahir, the son of a police officer murdered in the police station, provides a slightly different story that combines both crime and nationalism. He remembers the event through the violence of local activists, but he also perceives it as the beginning of the independence movement (Amin, 88).
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In the end, Amin states, “subalterns make their own memories, but they do not make them as they please” (Amin, 222). This point raises important concerns contrasting scholars interested in studying subaltern movements and politics.
Amin gives a very significant theoretical and methodological framework, illustrating how both archival sources and oral testimonies can be used to verify the credibility of the widely held views and opinions.
The author attempts to combine archival records with local memories and amplifies the voices of individuals. Shahid Amin is intent on retrieving local memories, but unlike most historians, he does not make them sound heterogeneous. Shahid Amin says that” Peasants do not write; they are usually written about. The speech of humble fork is not normally recorded for posterity; it is wrenched from them in courtrooms and inquisitional trials. Historians have therefore learned to comb confessions and testimonials” (Amin, 20).
Nevertheless, Amin states:” for me, it is not a question of counterpoising local remembrance with authorizing accounts, the process by which historians gain access to pasts is richly problematic, as is the relations between memory and record and the possibilities of arriving at a more nuanced narrative, a thicker description, seem enhanced by putting the problems on display” (Amin, 6). The author also says that it is next to impossible to surmount the high levels of discrepancy, distortion, and fragmentation, which may exist between official records and personal narrations of the event.
In his book Event, Metaphor, Memory, Shahid Amin researches some peculiar ways a certain historical event can be interpreted and distorted within the frames of Indian national history over some lapse of time. The author is extremely intent on deconstructing some aspects of Indian national struggles history, which according to him, are not entirely true; they are rather based on the retelling of some memorable stories, which, in the overwhelming majority of cases, describe Indian liberation struggles as the series of constant victories of good over evil(the British government ). The author says:” The story of Indian nationalism is written up as a massive undoing of Colonial Wrongs by a non-violent and disciplined people” (Amin, 20).
Thus we may arrive at the conclusion that in his skillfully organized book Shahid Amin showed how it is possible to combine both oral and written sources, producing an incredibly realistic effect. Moreover, the author showed how the true history of the Indian independence movement was carefully rewritten and soon almost forgotten.
Shahid Amin. Event, Metaphor, Memory. Chauri Chaura 1922-1992. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1996.