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How 1857 shaped modern india


Saurabh Kumar analyses how nationalism, secularism, communalism, casteism and fundamentalism are legacies of the first war of independence
TSI | Issue Dated: May 20, 2007
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How 1857 shaped modern india Thus declared old and fragile Bahadur Shah II, standing on a marble pedestal near Diwan-e-Aam. He was an old man, but his prophetic gesture defied his age. Nevertheless, the man who stood today at Diwan-e-Aam was not an emperor. He was not Bahadur Shah. He was Zafar, the poet. A short while ago, the mutineers from the 3rd Bengal Light Cavalry, who rose in rebellion three days ago, cajoled him to take up the reigns of the mutiny. Zafar waited for word from the Company’s political agent, not knowing that Simon Fraser had been lynched hours ago. The ‘word’ he waited for never came. He could not resist the pressure tactics of mutineers for long. His heart pushed him towards mutineers, his mind towards the British. The poet that he was, he sided with his heart. So, there he was, standing near a rampart, face turned towards mutineers. Flanked by his young sons and military generals, Zafar read the lines he penned a short while ago. It was 13 May, 1857. The revolt had begun.

Without doubt, the mutiny (if you are British) or the First War of Independence (if you are a flag waving Indian) has shaped virtually every major political, social and economic trend that marks modern India. William Dalrymple, a noted historian and an authority on the 1857 Revolt says, “It was in 1857 that India first witnessed the phenomenon where religious and caste prejudices were evoked to raise passions. It was the first time that ‘divisive factors’ were allegedly used to ‘unite’ people. In a way, it was in 1857 that communalism and casteism emerged out of the closet”.

Imagine an Indian cricket team 150 years ago. The players would smear mudpacks on their faces instead of sunscreen lotion and drink aam ka panna in place of colas. But, could the presence of 11 men help achieve what thousands of armed men, galloping on their horsebacks from Delhi to Bihar, could not? Probably yes. What India needed in 1857 was a sense of collective consciousness. It was the lack of this cohesive nationalism, which activities like cricket are capable of bringing about, that ultimately led to the failure of the 1857 revolt. How 1857 shaped modern india Nobody is sure about the identity of a band of fakirs who would appear mysteriously outside the Kali Paltan temple in Meerut and urge the native sepoys to rebel against the British. By the time the British got a whiff, it was too late. The sepoys, helped by people – both Hindus and Muslims – massacred every British national they could lay their hands upon. On the night of 10 May 1857, about 2,000 soldiers rode all the way to Delhi and demanded an audience with Zafar. It was a very peculiar scenario – rebel sepoys, most of them uppercaste Hindus – urging a Muslim king to take over the reins of the rebellion. This is one reason why the events of 1857 are asked to be seen from a secular high window. But, there is another scenario which seems to be emerging, at least from Delhi. Documents on the mutiny clearly refer to a strong presence of the Jihadi substratum in Delhi. These men, who had joined the rebel sepoys, were known as Ghazis.

A fringe group of such men are said to have brought Delhi to the brink of civil war by declaring a war against all ‘infidels’, including the Hindus. By the time the British forces stormed Delhi in September, the majority of the rebel forces in Delhi consisted of these Jihadi elements. In a way, the behaviour of the intellectuals in India is understood. 1857 has been dubbed as the First War of Independence and the idea of religion in the uprising takes away the romance of revolution. But then, history needs to be told exactly the way it transpired. This is simply because many lessons still need to be learnt; more so in times when nations are being occupied in the name of freedom. The most important lesson is: if you invade a land and humiliate its people, you will have to face resistance. Some also argue about the absence of morality during the uprising. The massacre of innocent British women and their children in Meerut, Delhi, Jhansi, Kanpur, Lucknow and elsewhere tore the moral high ground to shreds. The British reciprocated in such an uncivilised manner that village after village became oblivious to the existence of humankind. Almost all able bodied men around the nervecentres of the uprising were slaughtered by hanging them by tree branches or tying them in front of the cannon muzzles and blowing them off. The uprising also marked the end of high culture in places like Delhi and Lucknow. It was 12 years after the uprising that the noted Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib passed away. The same year a child was born in the western Indian state of Gujarat, who would later lay a very strong moral edifice for India’s freedom. Most of the men who were at the helm of affairs in 1857 were semiliterate. Ninety years later, most of the men who would usher India into freedom were foreign-educated. This is where the sense of detachment started. 150 years after the 1857 revolt, we as a nation have learnt no lessons from history.

In our Mandalised society, we have even fragmented those who dared to turn the tide against an empire whose sun never set. So Uda Devi, the Dalit woman shooter, who dressed up as a male soldier and shot many British soldiers from a treetop, is being used as a symbol for political mileage. Sixty years after India’s tryst with destiny, has anything changed for her ordinary people? Not really. The foreign invaders have gone, leaving us with a legacy which has given rise to numerous East India Companies. They are omnipresent. In Nandigram. In Vidarbha. In Nithari. Even in the tomato you may eat. If only we were a blue billion in 1857! How 1857 shaped modern india The festering wounds...

Savage British retribution after 1857 changed the structure of the Indian society and polity forever

This couplet was penned by Mirza Ghalib. Although the lines were written in a different context; one needs to read between them. Ghalib, smart and farsighted man that he was, had already visualised what the future had in store for him. Delhi had been recaptured in a manner that ran a chill down the bones. In the words of William Hudson, “…teach a lesson to the natives”. The British arrested Bahadur Shah and the next day British officer William Hudson had his sons shot. A generation of Muslim nobility was blown to pieces by the British six-pounders. Those left behind, like Ghalib, had to furnish proof for their non-involvement in the mutiny. Those who failed to do so were categorically exiled. The empty alleys of Kucha Faiz and Fatehpuri were occupied by the neo-rich Punjabis, Khatris and Baniyas.

If 1857 changed natives, it affected the British too. The mutiny ended the rule of the British East India Company in India. Only a month after recapturing Delhi, the British East India Company ceased to exist. It was dissolved, by the Government of India Act 1858, and power was directly transferred to the Crown.

The revolt also changed the demographic profile of the army. The impact of mutiny was most visible on this group. Noted historian William Dalrymple says, “The revolt changed the constituents of the British Colonial Army forever. The units that helped British recapture its fortresses were preferred over the ones who revolted. When India became independent, it seeped into its army too.” The mutiny transformed both ‘Native’ as well as ‘Anglo-Saxon’ armies of British India. According to a clearly planned move, the number of Anglo-Saxon soldiers was increased in relation to that of Natives. Regiments (read races) such as Sikhs, South Indians (then called Madrasis), Gurkhas and Baloochis that had remained loyal to the British were retained. On the other hand, Muslims, Biharees, Oudhees and Bengalis, who aligned with the mutineers, were either barred or categorically sidelined.

One can conclude that the Mutiny of 1857 changed the contours of society forever. The Muslim aristocracy was wiped out. That gave birth to reformists like Sir Sayyad Ahmed Khan. The British held Muslims responsible for the Mutiny and thus targeted them. Persian was abolished as the court language. Upper class Hindus, especially Brahmins, were targeted as well. Attempts were made to rewrite history. No stone was left unturned to create animosity between Hindus and Muslims. The British did it with consummate ease for which they were famous. India still feels the pinch. How 1857 shaped modern india Behind enemy lines

Lets face it; it is not the British that were savage; there are many beastly tales from the Indian camp

While no one can downplay the heroic deeds of the mutineers and their leaders, one must also recount the valorous deeds of the British. Much has been said about the brutality of British generals and their native loyalists. Nonetheless, there were instances where excesses were committed by the mutineers too. Two events that have left deep imprints in history are the siege of Cawnpore (now Kanpur) and Lucknow. The most heart-wrenching among the two is ‘The Siege of Cawnpore’. The incidence took place in June 1857. It so happened that the Sepoys under General Wheeler in Kanpur rebelled due to the instigation of Nana Sahib. They captured most of the cannons (mostly British six-pounders and eight-pounders) and besieged the European entrenchment. The siege went on for 22 days, while Europeans who were stuck inside the battlement were left with little water or food. Meanwhile, the captured British six-ponders created havoc in battle. The British lost men, women and children continuously. When capitulation was imminent, the British struck a deal with mutineers, where they were allowed safe passage, in lieu of the control on the garrison. On 25 June, Nana Sahib told the British troops to surrender, which they promptly did so. When the British boarded riverboats,firing broke out. Who fired first has remained a matter of debate, but what followed was the complete annihilation of the British. Nana Sahib was promptly awarded by the British press, the title of ‘The Butcher of Cawnpore’.

A similar incident took place in Lucknow. It is known as ‘The Siege of The Residency’. Since 23 May, Lawrence, the British officer in command, started the fortification of The Residency. He started storing provisions for the troops as well as European citizens, who flocked to The Residency. On 30 May, the inevitable happened. The Oudh and Bengal troops that were stationed at Lucknow, broke into open rebellion. Lawrence confronted them with the bulk of the British 32nd Regiment, but lost many souls. What followed were two continuous sieges that lasted 87 and 61 days respectively. The residents of The Residency lived in fear of being killed or of dying of hunger and sub-human conditions.

No news from the outer world!
Days, weeks and months have sped;
Pent up within our battlements,
We seem as living dead.
No news from the outer world!
Have British soldiers quailed
Before the rebel mutineers,
Has British valour failed?

Wrote J.B.S. Boyle, the commander of the garrison during the siege of The Residency. When relief finally came in the form of lieutenant Outram and Commander in Chief Campbell, a sizable number of the Europeans had perished. Amongst the dead were women and children. The list also contained the names of Sir Henry Lawrence and Lieutenant William George Cubitt, 13th Native Infantry. How 1857 shaped modern india A Million Mutinies

There are many examples of mutinies against East India Company lost in obscure historical records

It is 150 years since Mangal Pandey from the 34th Regiment of Bengal Native Infantry, fired a musket on one of his Sergeants. The reason was the lethal potion of nationalism and religious piety. He was promptly hanged and his regiment disbanded. The incident triggered the First War of Indian Independence. There have been fierce discussions in the literary circles on the nature of this revolt and its nomenclature, from ‘Sepoy Mutiny’ to ‘First War of Independence’ and every thing in between.

Nevertheless, what all the historians forgot were similar mutinies and movements that were waged against the colonial masters. Since the debacles of Plassey and Buxar in 1757 and 1764 respectively, there have been innumerable revolts that broke out in different parts of India.

The most important among these were numerous tribal uprisings that broke out in different parts of central, central east and eastern parts of India. Some of the most important were the Kol Uprising of 1831, the Santhal Uprising of 1855, and the Kutch Rebellion which lasted from 1816 until 1832. Among these, the Santhal Uprising is the most important if one takes into account the scale. In June 1855, two Santhal rebel leaders named Sidhu Murmu and Kanhu Murmu decided to take the British on when they thought they had had enough. They mobilised close to 12,000 Santhals and declared a rebellion. The duo and their untrained band of Santhals succeeded initially, but could not match the technological advancement of the British for long. The revolt was ruthlessly suppressed. A revolt of a similar kind was waged in Bengal in the latter part of the 18th century. It was termed as the Sanyasi or Fakir-Sanyasi revolt. Actually, the name had been collectively given to sporadic, but frequent incidents where sannyasis and fakirs used to clash with British regulars, when they were stopped from collecting funds in famine affected districts.

Another famous revolt is the Titumir revolt, which occured in Bengal. The Titumir revolt in Bengal and the revolt by Pir Ali in Patna are two incidents, where a single man displayed his valour by challenging the might of an empire. While the former was a rebel who confronted zamindars and the British colonial system in 19th century Bengal, the latter was a book seller in the Azimabad (Patna), who organised the revolt against resident British forces. Although both were killed by the British, they left an indelible imprint.

The southern part of India had also seen some of the fiercest rebellions and conspiracies. The most important among them is Polygar wars. Polygar War or Palayakarar Wars is the name given to the wars fought between the Polygars of the then Madurai Kingdom and the British forces in late 18th and early 19th century. Although the British suffered initial setbacks, they finally gained an upper hand over the Polygar armies when they forced them out of the forests. Another less known, but important one is ‘The Conspiracy of Pintos’ that is also known as ‘Conspiracy of Goa’ at times. It was actually a rebellion against Portuguese rule in Goa in 1787. The plotters wished to depose the Portuguese.

The leaders of the plot were three prominent priests of Goa hailing from the Pinto family. There are other similar incidents too that are not remembered or mentioned. None can question the courage and intentions of the martyrs, for whom not many fancy odes were composed. How 1857 shaped modern india Buried in History

Well before 1857, Indian sepoys had risen in revolt in Vellore in Tamil Nadu in the name of Tipu Sultan

Lenin once remarked that every small struggle is a rehearsal for a great revolution. What was the significance in history of the 1806 Vellore Mutiny?

Was it a mere rehearsal for the 1857 Mutiny? Or was it the First War of Indian Independence as termed by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi?

10 July 1806 was one of the most tumultuous days in the annals of Indian history. For the first time, the rule of British East India Company was challenged by its own soldiers. The seed for the mutiny was sown by Sir John Cradock, the commander-in-chief of the Madras Army, in November 1805. He issued orders to the Madras Infantry to remove caste marks, ornaments, earrings and beards and trim moustache and wear a round hat with leather embellishments, instead of a turban. There were rumours that the hat was made of the hide of cows and pigs. Resentment is a mild word to describe the feelings of these soldiers. In terms of caste and class, the British army had already become heterogeneous. The mutiny was not a sudden outburst, but a well planned one and had its political connotations. According to historian K. Rajayyan, the revolt was not just an outburst of the native soldiers, but an integral part of the revolutionary activities of people.

The families of the sons and daughters of Tipu Sultan were staying as privileged prisoners in the fort and around 3,000 citizens from Mysore, who were close to the royal families, were also staying in Vellore. Prince Meirajuddin, the third son of Tipu, was in touch with the leaders of the revolt and assured them generous rewards if the dynasty was restored.

The discontent simmering among the native soldiers exploded in the wee hours of that fateful day. The soldiers gathered at the Vellore fort on 9 July, using the marriage occasion of one of Tipu’s daughters as a pretext. Around 1,500 soldiers took part in the uprising the following morning at 3am. More than 100 British soldiers on garrison duty were killed within a few hours and the fort was brought under native control. Alas, the triumphant native soldiers made a fatal mistake by failing to close the gates of the fort. They hoisted the flag of the Mysore Sultanate. Soon, a British officer who had escaped alerted the garrison at Arcot, 20 km from Vellore. Colonel Gillespie brought a small but strong force and recaptured the fort within a few hours. Hundreds of native soldiers were killed. The similarities between the uprisings of 1806 and 1857 were striking, but not surprising. Both the mutinies were triggered by the new regulations that hurt the religious sentiments of Hindu and Muslim soldiers and the mutineers attempted to bring their former rulers back to power. If 1806 ended the career of the Madras Governor, the 1857 uprising and its aftermath ended the rule of the East India Company and Queen Victoria took over the reins. Since Indian nationalism did not exist even at a nascent stage till late 19th century, both often fail to qualify as the First War of Indian Independence. Historian Dilip Menon said that, “the mutiny at Vellore had its local roots just as 1857 did. There were several revolts in 1857 and the ones in Bihar were not the same as the ones in the central provinces”. History repeats itself, Marx said, the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce. In the case of mutinies, the first time it was a tragedy and the second time also it was a tragedy but on a grander scale.

K.Thirunavukkarasu How 1857 shaped modern india The White Mughal?

Historian Willaim Dalrymple has stirred a hornet’s nest by saying there were Jihadis in the Mutiny

William Dalrymple is a Scottish author who has won several awards for his books. He divides his time between London and Delhi.

Was the 1857 revolt a ‘War of Religion’?

I cannot describe it that way. I did not ever claim that it was Jihad as a whole but what I say is that the Sepoy Mutiny did certainly have Jihadi overtones. It started as a mutiny but as it went along, Mujahideen started joining it. It included Punjabi merchants, students, traders, shopkeepers and the like. It was like a chain reaction where different groups joined the revolt in due course. Soon, conservative Muslims also started joining. It was here that the character of the revolt began to change.

How many Islamists joined the revolt?

The figures that I have received say that when the revolt broke out there were as many as 1,00,000 rebels in Delhi out of which 20,000 were Mujahideen or Jihadis. By the time the British recaptured Delhi in September, there were less than 25,000 mutineers while the Jihadis swelled to near 35,000.

Can you explain the phenomenon?

As revolt progressed, ordinary Muslims took up arms to “save their religion”. Such incidents were witnessed even when the US attacked Afghanistan after 9/11. Ordinary Afghans did exactly what ordinary Muslims in India did in 1857. Although they proved to be more of an obstacle than help, they were there.

So, you believe that religious rhetoric was employed to incite violence?

Yes, certainly. The jihadis convinced ordinary Muslims that they are trying to change Delhi from Dar-ul-Harab to Dar-ul-Islam by fighting white Anglo-Saxons. But the tide turned because of the mindless violence. At the end of September, when the British recaptured Delhi, the majority of the soldiers with them were Sikhs or Pashtoon and the rhetoric died a natural death.

How come none of the classic historians came to this conclusion?

Until now, most of the facts and figures that have been used by classic historians have come from British sources. When I started to write The Last Mughal, I referred as 20,000 documents that were primarily written in Urdu and Persian. I took the help of my colleague Mahmoud Farooqi in translating them. These are primarily rebel documents that survive from the sepoy camp and palace in Delhi. These are accessible to historians and are kept in the National Archives in New Delhi. In the rebels’ papers, they refer repeatedly to it as a war of religion.

What lessons can we learn from 1857?

Talking of 1857, one can see similar sentiments in Afghanistan and Iraq today. You cannot go on attacking societies, bombing their cities and committing atrocities to apply your vision, even though your vision might be a progressive vision. In the case of India, steps like the banning of sati and allowing widow remarriage were considered idealistic steps by the British but were looked down upon by the Hindus. If you want them to be implemented at gun point, then be ready for such incidents. How 1857 shaped modern india The 'Secular' Historian

Imtiaz Ahmed insists that there was no Jihad even though he admits that Muslims fought more zealously

Prof. Imtiaz Ahmed retired as professor of sociology in New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. He is a noted social scientist and a commentator on the Mutiny.

Do you agree with the conclusion drawn by William Dalrymple that the 1857 Mutiny had Jihadi overtones?

It shall be outlandish to say that the 1857 revolt was a Jihad. The meaning of Jihad that is used in present context is quite different from what was perceived then. Therefore, we cannot call it a Jihadi revolt. Look at the how it started, by soldiers who were primarily Hindu Brahmins. Nevertheless, when they entered Delhi, they decided to pass the reins of the revolt to Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar. Apart from that, there are several instances where Hindus and Muslims fought together, forgetting differences.

British documents suggest the participation of Jihadi supporters.

That depends on how you read their language. Look, it is true that Muslims participated more zealously than their Hindu brethren. Nevertheless, it cannot be termed jihad. Most of the Hindus saw both the Mughals and the British as outsiders. For Hindus, the rule of both meant subjugation. Therefore, they took it as an event where one foreign rule was replaced by another. But it was not the same with the Muslims. They took it as a chance to reestablish Muslim hegemony. Therefore, it was natural for them to participate more zealously.

It is also evident from the manner in which the British retaliated.

No. That is a completely different story. The notion that the Muslims were responsible for the revolt came from Egypt, where the Muslims confronted the British Army with ferocity. That gave the impression that Muslims were the greatest threat to British imperial designs and this notion slipped into India. Although most of the soldiers were Hindus, the British thought that the conspiracy was hatched by the Muslims and that the Hindus were only party to it. Thus the retaliation.

What social and cultural changes did the revolt trigger?

It changed society forever. Among the Hindus, there was emergence of the neo-feudal class. The role of the urban clerk class also increased. The British thought that it was necessary to build confidence among Hindus because they were in a majority. Therefore, various steps were taken. A feudal class, whose wings had been clipped by the Permanent Settlement Act of 1773, was restored power. This class supported the British during their reign. The onslaught was severe on Muslims and the demography of many localities was altered. When things cooled down, the Muslims began to introspect.

Elaborate please.

The introspection I am talking about brought fundamental changes in society. It is ironic that two dramatically opposite movements were born at the same time, namely the Deoband and Aligarh movements. People like Sir Sayyad wanted the Muslims to come to terms with the British values and way of life, without compromising their own values. The ones in Deoband wanted to protect their religion and religious identity.

Was the 1857 Mutiny the First War of Indian Independence?

If you look at its impact, this can indeed be termed as the First War of Indian Independence. Although incidents like the Vellore Mutiny and the Santhal revolt took place well before 1857, they don’t qualify for the title because of their limited impact. I believe that the rebels of 1857 joined hands for a common cause and that is why it is called the First War of Independence.
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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017