Recently I was asked to comment on manners in which Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) authority control must wrestle with contested historical events and come up with an authoritative heading. I considered the events in India, 1857-58, which have historically been labelled by the British as “The Sepoy Mutiny”–an event in which indigenous soldiers (sepoys), irregulars, and civilians in several regions rebelled against British East India Company’s administration of India. The term “sepoy” is misleading insofar as regular enlisted soldiers known as sepoys made up only part of India’s rebellion despite the fact that the rebellion’s armed origins began within Indian Army ranks, while the term “mutiny” implies that a.) soldiers who engaged in the rebellion refused moral, lawful orders, and b.) those civilians or non-regulars somehow had legal and moral obligations, on par with those of sepoys, that would subsequently classify their behavior as mutinous. On the other hand, Indian nationalists have sought to refer to the events as the “First Indian War of Independence” in a manner that ties the events of 1857-58 to those of the Quit India campaigns of the early 20th century despite the far more regional and far less egalitarian nature of the former rebellion. While both of these phrases are grounded in some sense of the events, neither is un-controversial.
Above are the LCSH heading for the events and related sub-headings. Note that “sepoy” is retained but the more controversial “mutiny” term has been avoided in the authorized heading. Both above and below variants include “Sepoy Mutiny,” as well as “Indian Mutiny” and “Sepoy Rebellion,” but oddly, they avoid the less controversial and frequently used term “Indian Rebellion [of 1857-58].” While the LCSH authority standard avoids assenting to the charge that the soldiers were mutinous, the sepoy focus is still narrow in its scope and may even tends to unwittingly serve antiquated British notions of the unfitness and un-trustworthiness of Indian soldiers. In fact, the Term “Indian Rebellion/Revolt of 1857[-58]” is increasingly the norm. Numerous encyclopedias (including Wikipedia, World at War: Understanding Conflict and Society, Cultural sociology of the Middle East, Asia, & Africa, and World Book) use the phrase “Indian Rebellion/Revolt/Uprising of 1857[-58].”