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Pankaj Rag
Commissioner
Directorate, Archaeology
Posted: Saturday, 7 May 2011 at 1:35 PM

Raag

Sleeman



References to the able British soldier, administrator and thugee suppressor, Major General Sir William Henry Sleeman (1788-1856), are liberally strewn across the pages of 19th century history. But his manifold contribution in administering the territories of the East India Company has never really aroused the curiosity of historians beyond passing mention.

This may change, thanks to the initiative of a low keyed, academically inclined 1990 batch IAS officer of the Madhya Pradesh cadre, Pankaj Rag, who recently returned to his old job as commissioner (archaeology) after a stint as director, Pune Film and Television Institute. Rag (along with colleague Gita Sabarwal) will be editing and publishing the Sleeman Papers this July under the aegis of the MP State Archives.

The documented correspondence covers Sleeman’s tenure as the ‘‘Jubbulpore-based assistant to the governor-general’s agent in the Saugor and Nerbudda territories’‘ between 1824-46 before his move to Lucknow on the orders of Lord Dalhousie. The papers have been lying in the state archives since 2000 when they were brought from Nagpur, formerly capital of the Central Provinces and Berar.

Visibly excited sitting in the deserted environs of his directorate, Rag said Sleeman’s varied career had aroused his interest as a student of modern history at St Stephen’s College where he specialised in the 1857 Revolt at Oudh. It was, in fact, Sleeman’s Ramblings and Recollections of an Indian Official which first brought him to his notice. The book is a contemporary journal on the land revenue system and the rural disgruntlement inside Oudh which led to the uprising.

As the first British resident to travel extensively in the rural areas, Sleeman’s observations did much to disabuse the prevailing British view that the native taluqdars (landlords) were a “bunch of predatory robber barons, boorish, and uncultured.” (quoted by Thomas R Metcalf in ‘Land, Landlords and the British Raj’).

Sleeman’s letters to his bosses during the period are filled with revealing administrative detail: “In one he writes to the Agent: ”I have the honour to request your sanction to the charge of 70 rupees Nagporee incurred in the execution of 11 thugs on 30th August last as a reward to the executioner who is not a regular servant, and has been in the habit of getting 10 rupees a head for those hung paying all the costs for ropes etc...”

Rag, who is also a poet, says he might have published the papers during his last tenure in the same position, but other pressing assignments beckoned. Topping the agenda was the publication of original documents on the Mutiny in Urdu, Persian, Bundelkhandi and English. All are currently in the National Archives. Also restored were a number of relics of the period eg. graves, boards etc. The officer has also authored two books, one of which 1857: The Oral Tradition explores the sources of oral history like folk songs and tales to reconstruct aspects of the revolt in Bihar, eastern UP, Bundelkhand, and Oudh.

Rag says he’d be happy if the publication of the Sleeman Papers goads researchers to give the soldier-administrator his due place in history. After all, he may have been the only consequential Englishman pointedly opposed to the annexation of Oudh, the disastrous consequences of which he did not live to see.  And this despite the fact that “he reported at great length on its chaos and lawlessness, and the misery of the people” to quote Philip Woodruff, author of The Men Who Ruled India. Sleeman’s success in checking law and order led to the formation of the anti-thugee and dacoity department. Disbanded in 1902, it was the forerunner of the Imperial CID.

(Published in the Delhi edition of the Sunday Standard, a publication of the New Indian Express, on 29th May 2011) 

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