1857: Contemporary reportage

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1857: Eye-witness accounts in the The Times of India


From The Times of India


The year was 1857. On May 10, sepoys mutinied in Meerut and began marching towards Delhi, sparking off what nationalist historians would later call the First War of Independence. Reports were duly carried in The Times of India. But with telegraph lines destroyed, and the chaos of war shrouding facts, it wasn’t till much later that precise details were pieced together — and the sheer magnitude of events realised. Armed with historical evidence, we revisit the Rising as it happened, and present a real-time report of the action — and reactions — of that fateful day. All events described here are based on eyewitness accounts — garnished with the benefit of hindsight

1857: May

Delhi/Meerut: On Sunday evening, Indian sepoys raised the banner of revolt in Meerut, a cantonment town 65 km north-east of Delhi. Just as British residents of the town were preparing to attend evening service on a stifling hot afternoon, sepoys of the 20th Native Infantry went on the rampage, setting bungalows on fire and massacring British families. Though official figures are not available, the number of Europeans killed has been put at 50, including women and children. Later, several mutineers were seen headed towards Delhi, leading to speculation that the revolt might not remain confined to Meerut.

At around 6 pm, the first reports of violence and arson came trickling in from the Native Infantry lines. Lieutenant Hugh Gough, the orderly officer of the day, was the first to reach the parade ground of the 20th Native Infantry. “The sepoys were dancing and leaping frantically about. Calling and yelling to each other, and blazing away into the air and in all directions,” he said. “Efforts on my part to bring them to a sense of their duties or of obedience to my orders were absolutely useless. After a time the disregard of my authority changed to open mutiny; there were loud shouts of ‘Maro! Maro!’ and a few men, chiefly recruits, fired pistol shots at me, mostly at random, although one shot so far took effect as to pierce the canticle of my saddle." 
A senior officer, Colonel John Finnis, was shot dead while trying to quell the rebel sepoys. Ensign Everard Phillips, who was with Finnis, recalled, “As we were mounting our horses, the Colonel fell by my side, shot through the heart. The 20th afterwards put 15 bullets into him. As I mounted my horse, my servant, who was holding him, was knocked over, bullets falling as thick as peas. Had not the brutes been infernally bad shots we would all have perished.” Women and children were not spared. Charlotte Chamber, the heavily pregnant wife of an officer of the 11th Native Infantry, was butchered in her house. 
Harvey Greathead, the civil commissioner of Meerut, and his wife Elisa were saved by their servant after they were trapped inside their bungalow. “Our faithful servant, Golab Khan, seeing our perilous situation had thought of a plan by which to draw away the mob,” Elisa said. “He boldly went up to them, won their confidence by declaring himself of their faith, and willing to give us up into their hands. He assured them it was useless to continue their search in the house. The plan succeeded and so convinced were they that what he had told them was the truth, that not a man remained behind. In this interval we got safely down.” 
The immediate reason for the rebellion and eruption of violence was the court martial and sentencing of 85 sepoys of the 3rd Light Infantry for refusing to use the cartridges of the new Enfield rifle, which are suspected to be greased with the fat of pigs and cows. On April 24, 90 men of the 3rd Light Infantry were marched out on to the parade ground and instructed to load and fire their carbines. None of the sepoys were, however, willing to take the cartridges. A little over two weeks later on May 9, 85 sepoys were sentenced in the presence of all the troops in Meerut. 
After they were stripped of their uniforms and their ankles shackled, they were marched off to prison. Lieutenant Gough said, “As they passed our regiment, carrying their boots which had been taken off for the purpose of fixing their fetters, a number of them threw them at the Colonel, cursing loudly in Hindustani, and calling to their comrades to remember them. There was a good deal of murmuring in our ranks, and had it not been for the presence of the British troops it is impossible to say what might have taken place.” 
Besides the immediate provocation in Meerut, there have been signs of unrest across northern India over the past few months. Sepoys have become increasingly disenchanted with British officers, many of whom treat them with contempt. It is not uncommon for British officers to address Indian soldiers as ‘niggers’ and ‘suar’ (pig). The annexation of Awadh, which is a favourite recruiting ground for soldiers, had also made a deep impact on the sepoys. A sepoy of the 26th Bengal Infantry said on condition of anonymity, “The seizing of Awadh filled the minds of the sepoys with distrust and led them to plot against the government.” 
From the beginning of this year, chapattis and lotus flowers have been mysteriously circulating in parts of northern India. There are many who believe these are a warning for some catastrophic event, which is to take place exactly 100 years after British won the Battle of Plassey in Bengal. According to Mainuddin Khan, thanedar of Paharganj, the distribution of chapattis “undoubtedly created a feeling of great alarm in the native mind through Hindusthan.” 
The Enfield cartridges, seen as a threat to caste and religion, added a new element to the volatile situation. Major General John Hearsey, commanding officer of the Presidency division, wrote a letter to the government on February 11 that Barrackpore was like a “mine ready for explosion.” Hearsey’s misgivings came true when later that month an Indian regiment at Behrampore refused to accept the new cartridges. On March 29, a sepoy of the 34th Native Infantry at Barrackpore, Mangal Pandey, revolted and injured two British officers before shooting himself. 

There are unconfirmed reports that some princes, zamindars and even the Mughal king, Bahadur Shah Zafar, might join the rebellion. If that happens, what Lord Canning had said in 1855 might well come true: “We must not forget that in the sky of India, serene as it is, a small cloud may arise, at first no bigger than a man’s hand, but which growing bigger and bigger, may at last threaten to overwhelm us with ruin.”


1857: Documentation about-- Letters, Despatches & Other State Papers

Selections from the Letters, Despatches & Other State Papers

Dawn May 06, 2007

REVIEWS: Remembering 1857

Reviewed by Munizeh Zuberi

THE departure of the British from the subcontinent is a vivid national memory. It resulted in the creation of two countries and the largest mass exodus the world had ever seen. However, history is hazy about the precision of how the East India Company first secured power and eventually took over the reigns of the kingdom. 1857 was a milestone year for both India and Britain. It was this year that India officially became a colony and Britain acquired the biggest jewel in its crown; when the East India Company gave way to a formal and direct control by the British crown for the next 90 years.

The 1857 War of Independence has been largely relegated to obscurity in history books. The enormity of the war and its events and ramifications has been almost entirely forgotten. It had deep and grave consequences on the fate of India and its various peoples. It was the first time that India was consolidated as a state as the world came to know it.

G.W. Forrest’s four-volume ‘Selections…’

On the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the War of Independence, Sang-e-Meel Publications has reprinted The Indian Mutiny: Selections from the Letters, Despatches & Other State Papers preserved in the Military Department of the Government of India. Edited by G.W. Forrest, C.I.E. Director of Records, Government of India, the four-volume book was first published between 1893 and 1902 and is supplemented by maps and plans prepared by Colonel Wilkins, assistant surveyor-general, and Mr Cusson, assistant surveyor in India. Initially, Forrest started to examine and systematically arrange, with a view to publication, all state papers relating to the revolt of the Bengal Native Army in 1857 at the suggestion of lieutenant-general Sir George Chesney, K.C.B. who was military member of the council. Later it was compiled as a complete recollection of the events of what the British refer to as the “Sepoy Mutiny” and the Indians as the “War of Independence” — told through letters, reports, returns and despatches printed exactly as they were written, without any alterations.

The first volume, published in 1893, contains documents from the first outbreak of disaffection to the siege and storming of Delhi by the English troops. The first part is solely linked to events relating to the introduction of the Enfield Rifle with which the Government of India had decided to replace the old-fashioned muskets. To load the riffle, the cartridge had to be bitten off and emptied into its muzzle. It was rumoured that the grease used in preparation of the cartridges consisted of a mixture of pig and cow fat which offended both Muslim and Hindu soldiers. While there were several other reasons for the locals despising the authority, it was in essence the cartridges of the Enfield Rifle that triggered the mutiny (pun unintended).

The story of the siege of Delhi is told by the letters and despatches of the chief actors and their plain narrative of facts and through them the construction of a continuous story by Forrest in the form of a detailed introduction.

Volumes two and three contain, in a similar form, all papers relating to the mutiny at Lucknow and the defence of the Residency by the garrison; General Havelock’s march from Allahabad and the first relief of Lucknow; General Outram’s defence of Lucknow; Sir Colin Campbell’s relief of Lucknow in November 1857; General Outram’s defence of the Alambagh; General Windham’s defence of Cawnpore and Sir Colim Campbell’s storming and the capture of Lucknow. All documents relating to the outbreak at Cawnpore, the defence of the entrenchment, and the massacre of the survivors. Since they do not furnish an unbroken narrative of events, Forrest, like in the previous volume, constructed a continuous story prefixed with an explanatory introduction fortified by contemporary literature which was varied and abundant.

A large number of private letters and diaries including actual conversations with the many people who witnessed the events have also been made use of. Putting together fragments of information and comparing accounts of several eye-witnesses, Forrest arrived at a complete and correct conception of the combination of scenes which a battle or the storming of a fortress presents. According to Forrest, the attempt was made to allow the presentation of facts in such a manner that the reader forms his/her own judgement by giving abundant citations from original authorities as footnotes.

In compiling the story of the defence of Lucknow, referred to as “one of the most dramatic incidents in our national history” by Forrest, the diary of Captain George Fulton, who was given the title of Defender of Lucknow, have also been included. The story of Cawnpore has been put together from the narratives of Captain Thomson, Lieutenant Delafosse and Mr Shepherd — the three survivors — and from an account written by one of the two women who escaped the massacre, and the two accounts have been thoroughly compared for substantial accuracy

Keeping with the same form, volume four, also published in 1902 contains all the papers relating to Sir Hugh Rose’s campaign in central India from the capture of Rathghur and the action at Barodea to the siege and storming of Jhansi on April 3, 1858; all documents detailing the operations attending the capture of Calpee on May 24, 1858; all despatches and reports relating to the Gwalior operations, from the march from Calpee on June 6 to the capture of the Rock of Gwalior, held to be one of the strongest and most important fortresses in India. In the introduction to this volume, the history of the Central Indian Campaign is told from the despatches of Sir Hugh Rose and the respective commanders and brigadiers. They have been collated with diaries and letters and errors have been rectified and obscure points cleared but the introduction has no official character or authority.

For anyone desiring to do an in-depth study of the War of Independence, its causes, consequences and events, the volumes are a priceless source of information. ________________________________________

The Indian Mutiny: Selections from the Letters, Despatches & Other State Papers Preserved in the Military Department of the Government of India (Volumes I, II, III, IV)

Edited by George W. Forrest

Sang-e-Meel Publications, 25 Shahrah-i-Pakistan, Lahore

Tel: 042-7220100


ISBN 969-35-1834-9

3206pp. Rs 4,500

1857: Delhi/ contemporary news accounts, Urdu and English

Dilli ka laddu


The following is a report from the August 23, 1857 edition of Delhi Urdu Akhbar: “…the water and air of our city of Delhi is such that the troops who display and can act with great daring outside and put the kaffirs to sword and their deaths in one attack itself, the moment they drink the water of the city and do a round of the Chandni Chowk and stroll about the big and small Dariba and go around Jama Masjid and enjoy eating the kalakand of Ghantawala and its laddus, they lose all urge and determination to fight and kill the enemy and become shorn of all strength and resolution.” Rebel Englishmen

After the battle at Badli-ki-Serai, where the British troops under Barnard defeated the rebels, two Englishmen were captured. Lieutenant Coghill, who was present there, recalled: "We killed two blackguard Englishmen who begged for mercy swearing they had been compelled to fight but had aimed over our heads… no mercy was shown and they were killed on the spot." The two Englishmen were apparently deserters who had converted to Islam. Some British officers attributed the accuracy of the rebels to the two English artillerymen.

Women power

Said Mubarak Shah, the chief of police in Delhi, wrote of two old women from Rampur who were particularly impressive during the fighting He writes: “Frequently two old withered Mussalman women from Rampur would lead the rebels going far in advance with naked swords, bitterly taunting the sepoys when they held back, calling them cowards and shouting to them to see how women were in front where they dared not follow: ‘we go without flinching among the showers of grape you flee from’.”

Wireless messaging

The circulation of chapattis before the uprising took place is part of folklore. There is, however, the first-hand account of Nawab Mainuddin Khan, the thanadar of Paharganj police station. He wrote, "Early one morning (in February 1857), the village watchman of Indraput came and reported that the watchman of Seraie Faruck Khan had brought him a chupatti (which he showed me) and had instructed him to cook five similar chupattis, and send them to the five nearest villages of the neighbourhood, with orders that each village chowkider was to make five similar ones for distribution."

Losing his shirt

Bahadur Shah Zafar’s holy shirt was one of four shirts sent from Mecca to the major Muslim powers in the world. Zafar used to wear this shirt, with verses of the Koran written on it, at all times during the final days of the Delhi siege. For whatever reason, he threw it off when he fled the Red Fort. It was discovered and passed into the hands of a British officer, Colonel Tytler, and then his descendants. Later the Nizam of Hyderabad made an offer of Rs 10,000 for it, but was eventually bought by ASI for Rs 12,000 in 1909. It is now displayed in the archaeological museum inside the Red Fort.

1857: Contemporary news reports


FROM The Times of India ARCHIVES

MAY 11, 1857


What was your newspaper actually writing about the momentous events as they unfolded? Journey into the past as we reproduce articles exactly as they appeared in The Times of India on the dates mentioned

An obliging correspondent at Umbala has furnished us with the following particulars about the mutinous spirit evinced by the troops at that station: ‘‘The telegraph despatches will have, long ere this reaches you, informed your readers of the threatening attitude assumed by the sepoys in connection with the cartridge question. The belief that the British Government are anxious to proselytise the Native Army seems to pervade every rank, and the feeling which this belief has naturally excited is growing stronger with every attempt on the part of the Government to enforce the use of the “detested” cartridges. The sepoys are in a fearful state of excitement. Meetings and discussions on the all-absorbing topic are frequent and the worst is anticipated. It is not difficult to guess the quarter whence the incendiaries, whose acts are already notorious, have emanated, and the impunity which they have enjoyed, notwithstanding the offer of a reward of rupees 1,000 for the apprehension of each offender, shows that they are not without the the countenance of a large body, who can thus easily arrest the road of justice. Where the matter will end it is impossible to say; but that the crisis is at hand, which will see either the destruction of the growing hydra, or the subversion in some measure of the authority of the British Government, is apparent from existing circumstances.” We do not participate in the fears manifested by our correspondent. There can be no doubt that disaffection exists in large parts of the Native Army. The whole affair, in our opinion, has originated in mismanagement and indiscretion on the part of certain military functionaries, whose names are already too well known to need mention here.

The 3rd Cavalry Meerut have mutinied, so says my correspondent, and have burnt the Dragoon Hospital at that station. Another fire here on Saturday night, the bungalow of the Band-master burnt to the ground; strange to say that this bungalow is in the very centre of the officers’ lines. And next to the Mess, where there is a European Guard and some half a dozen chokeedars.

1957: The centennial


MAY 11, 1957 Simple Ceremony Held At Rashtrapati Bhavan CELEBRATION OF FREEDOM STRUGGLE New Delhi, May 10: India is celebrating today the centenary of the first armed uprising of 1857 against the expanding sway of the East India Company and the British over this country.

History has not pronounced its final verdict on it — whether it was the first war of independence against foreign occupation forces or, as the British themselves consider it, an unsuccessful mutiny among the armed forces.

But India today commemorates those who fell in that attempt to overthrow British rule as martyrs.

On May 9, 1857, the court-martialling of 85 sepoys of a regiment at Meerut for refusing to touch greased cartridges supplied to them on religious grounds and their sentence to ‘ten years’ R.I. touched off a simmering revolt among the armed forces against the British Company.

On May 10, three regiments at Meerut revolted, freed the imprisoned sepoys and started a march on Delhi.


The revolt soon assumed the proportions of a country-wide uprising and the British hold on the country tottered everywhere for over a year. It was on June 17, 1858, that Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi fell in the heroic defence of Gwalior, besieged by British forces, and Tatia Topi, commander of the revolutionary forces, fled. That broke the back of the revolt.

The Lok Sabha in Delhi began its first session after the recent general elections this morning with a two minutes silent tribute to the fallen martyrs of the 1857 revolution.

All over the country people gathered to commemorate the centenary. In every town of importance, according to reports received here, prabhat pheries marched in procession to the singing of national songs and the Nation Flag was hoisted.

In many places, the special flag of the 1857 revolutionaries — a green flag with a golden sun — was unfurled by the side of the Indian national tricolour


MAY 12, 1857


We have just received the following serious intelligence by Electric telegraph from Agra

The 3rd Cavalry are in open mutiny. They have burnt down the lines and officers bungalows. Several officers and men have been killed and wounded.

We have no reason whatever to doubt the correctness of the dispatch having received it from our own correspondent at Agra. It is impossible by any comments to heighten the importance of the event it relates, and we shall await its confirmation by the dak with considerable anxiety. Finer material for any army nowhere exists than in Bengal, and the frightful system of misrule which has converted our troops there into a mass of mutineers, is sickening to contemplate. One cannot but be struck by the fact that the causes for this widespread disaffection are so numerous. One writer finds the cause of the mutiny in the caste system, another in the seniority system, a third in the brigading system, a fourth in the terms of the enlistments system, a fifth in the centralizing system, a sixth in the staff system and so on, and they are all right! The evils of the Bengal army system are manifestly legion, and the wonder is it has held together so long. Let us take one of the regiments for inspection. Parade out eight hundred men, and they are as fine-looking a body of fellows as you would wish to see. Very well, under the enlistment system they were allowed to dictate where they would serve and where they would not, whom they would obey , and whom they would not, and they mean to enforce the bargain; under the seniority system they have been allowed to dictate who shall be jemadar and who subedar, and they will mutiny if they refuse; under the centralizing system, they have been allowed to appeal direct to the Colonel against the Captain; and the Commander-in-Chief against the Colonel; under the brigading system they have been stationed so long in some places that they are ready to mutiny if ordered to march, while the whole army is broken up into fragments of regiments, instead of being concentrated in a dozen or twenty camps, where the discipline of the field might be always maintained.

What will be the end of all this it is impossible to say. That the crisis calls for the very highest qualities of generalship, there can be no doubt whatever. In the Rawal Pindee mutiny — a bagatelle to the present — we had a Brig Charles Napier at the head of the army, and the skill with which that difficulty was met and surmounted, merited a very different acknowledgement, from the much be lauded Lord Dalhousie, than the told General received.

Had the warnings of Sir Charles Napier been heeded in 1850, the army would not be fermenting with mutiny in 1857, and it will be well if we do not see the foreboding of that able man realized to the letter, through the insane neglect of the remedies so forcibly and so frequently pointed out to him.

1857: The press, folksongs

Discovery of history

By Mubarak Ali

Dawn 2007

Once history is lost or distorted and its sources are wiped out, it becomes difficult to collect material and reconstruct its missing link. However, after independence, historians of the Indian subcontinent attempted to trace the history of 1857 and rewrite it from a nationalistic point of view. First of all, they tried to collect material from the British sources containing the policy regarding the rebellion.

There are a number of cases in which British writers have recounted how they treated the Indians, burned their villages, hanged people on the slightest suspicion, shot them without any investigation, humiliated them by smearing pig and cow fat on the bodies of Muslims and Hindus and insulted them while pronouncing death sentences. All such cases prove the brute force and callousness that the British Army resorted to during that period.

Another important source is Indian newspapers. During war these newspapers wee free to publish pro-rebel news and statements. For example, Maulvi Baqar’s Delhi Urdu Akhbar supported rebels’ cause and encouraged them to fight against foreigners. It continued to publish news of other cities. His son, Muhammad Hyssain Azad, wrote a poem against the Company and its misrule.

Another newspaper was Sadiqul Akhbar, whose editor was Jamiluddin Hijr.This newspaper also provided information about the news of rebellion to the readers. It published Bahadur Shah Zafar’s poetry against the British. It also published the combined fatwa of the ulema which declared holy war against infidels. The third newspaper was Payam-i-Azadi whose editor was Mirza Bidar Bakht, the grandson of the Mughal king. It was assisted by Azimullah, a close companion of Nana Sahib. He published one of his famous poems in the newspaper in which he exhorted Indians to fight against the British for the freedom of their homeland. Besides Urdu, the Persian newspapers such as Gulshan-i-Nobahar, Sultanul Akhbar and Sirajul Akhbar regularly published news reports during the war.

There were a number of pamphlets, posters, and declarations, {framin} of the king asking the people to get united to fight against foreign rulers.

Zahir Dehlavi in his book Dastan-i-Ghadr (Story of the mutiny) beautifully portrays the social and cultural life of Delhi before the rebellion and how everything changed when the rebel army came to the city. He also narrates in detail the plight of the city’s inhabitants when they were robbed, killed and expelled from the city. It is a moving story of those who lost their family members and were deprived of their homes and properties. He writes: “The victorious English Army started to loot the houses. If they found an empty house they robbed it within minutes; if they found somebody there, they shot him without any hesitation. In one mohallah (locality) 140 people were arrested and brought to Rajghat where all of them were shot dead and their bodies were thrown in the river. As far as women were concerned, they came out from their houses along with children and jumped in wells. All wells of Kucha-i-Chillan were filled by their dead bodies … my pen cannot move any further.”

Delhi was the centre of cultural activities and its destruction brought gloom and despondency to its residents. Mirza Ghalib, in his different letters to his close friends, has lamented the devastation of the city. Among the poets who wrote elegies of the city are Ghalib, Hali, Mira Dagh, Sadruddin Azurda, Zaheer Dehlavi, Mirza Qurban Ali Beg Salik, Muneer Shukohabadi, and Mir Mahdi Majroh. The defeat broke the hearts of the Indians as their leaders were either killed, hanged or sent into exile. The British triumph was supreme. There were folk songs and stories. P.C Joshi has compiled these folk songs in one of his articles. These moving songs were composed and sung by the common people. A folk song describes the insurrection of Meerut in the following words:

Oh, come and look!

In the Bazaar of Meerut

The Firingi is waylaid and beaten!

The Whiteman is waylaid and beaten!

In the open Bazaar of Meerut

Look, oh look, {he is beaten} His gun is snatched

His horse lies dead

His revolver is battered.

In the open Bazaar of Meerut

There were a number of folk songs sung for the Rani of Jhansi. One song describes how “she fought bravely like a man, oh, Rani of Jhansi {khub lari mardani, ary Jhansi wali rani}. There are also songs about Kunwar Singh, Rana Bini Madow, Tantiya Tope, Gulab Singh and Hazrat Mahal. These songs praised those who sacrificed their lives for the cause of independence. There is hatred and condemnation for the British rule. They express the popular feelings of the people. Though the Indians were defeated militarily and politically, these songs converted defeat into victory and kept memories of the rebels alive. It is said that at that time people had no concept of nationhood but these songs indicate that they fully realised the difference between their own rulers and foreign domination. Their loyalties were with local leaders and not with the British.

Subsequently, Khwaja Hassan Nizami and Rashidul Kheri collected material on 1857 after interviewing the survivors and narrated their stories, depicting a society which had lost its fabric as a result of the rebellion’s failure.

Ever since independence, historians have been working the events of 1857. When the centenary year was celebrated in 1957, several books were published presenting the Indian point of view. Recently, in 2007, on the occasion of 150 years of the war of independence, a number of books and articles have brought to light the forgotten aspects of 1857.

Before partition of the subcontinent, the Indian actor and filmmaker, Sohrab Modi, produced an excellent movie on the Rani of Jhansi, but it was immediately banned by the British government. Recently, a film on Mangal Pandey starring Aamir Khan, though not fully correct from a historical point of view, has highlighted the people’s sentiments against the Raj.

Of late, historians have been linking 1857 with resistance against imperialism and racialism. It would be hard to deny that 1857 was more than a military revolt and was a response to the social, cultural, religious, political and economic domination of the British -- the history which was lost is in a process of discovery. British domination of historiography is now coming to an end.

1857: Ghalib

Ghalib and the revolution of 1857

By Rauf Parekh


(Ghalib’s death anniversary falls on February 15)

Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib, one of our greatest poets, was in Delhi when the uprising of 1857 was at its peak. He observed the revolutionary changes taking place during his lifetime. And his travel to Calcutta (now Kolkata) in 1830, the then capital of the British India, had broadened his mental horizon. But no change or revolution, no matter how great, could reflect in his poetry.

There are barely a few of Ghalib’s couplets that can truly be attributed to any political or social upheaval. A few of his ghazals and couplets are sometimes unscrupulously reproduced and quoted as portrayal of the political revolution that saw Indians losing the war of freedom and Mughals their throne. But the fact is that his poetry has got nothing to do with the events of 1857 as he had composed such ghazals and couplets much before the rebellion.

But Ghalib’s Urdu letters reward anyone who is lucky and wise enough to read them. Many of them give an account of the events of 1857 and, besides carrying some biographical details about Ghalib, make a good reading, too.

He began writing letters in Urdu in or around 1847. He quit the old-fashioned way of writing letters that essentially meant long salutations and tortuous language and instead went for a very lively and frank style. The language of his letters is simple yet literary and sounds like the conversation of a person of highly developed tastes and knowledge. His ability to smile at his sorrows and brighten up at the gloomiest moments has made these letters a good example of decent humour.

Ghalib talked of the 1857 revolution in many of his letters which portrayed the pain and sorrows that he had felt. However, he was careful enough not to say anything that could offend the British. His attitude towards the ‘rebellious’ Indians was not sympathetic at all and at least on one occasion he denounced the Indians that killed the persons of British origin during the revolution. Ghalib had many friends among British officers. He had been trying all along to earn more favours particularly an award and pension from the British.

In fact there had been bad blood between Ghalib and his literary opponents much earlier. The literary circle that celebrated his imprisonment in 1847 for running a gambling den at his place was among the front-runners in the revolution of 1857. Renowned among them were Ustad Ibrahim Zauq and Maulvi Muhammad Baqar (who was later hanged by the British), editor of Delhi’s paper, Urdu Akhbar, and father of Muhammad Hussain Azad.

Zauq, Muhammad Hussain Azad’s teacher and mentor, was his foremost literary opponent and he could become the last Mughal Bahadur Shah Zafar’s Ustad (one who ‘advises’ the king on his poetry) only after Zauq’s death.

The literary group that opposed Ghalib was pinning their hopes on the ‘mutiny’ of 1857, expecting the defeat of the British and full restoration of Mughal monarchy. On the other hand, Ghalib had sensed a defeat of the revolutionary forces at the hands of the British as the rebellion was neither well-organised nor powerful enough to counter the military might of the foreigners.

Among his Urdu letters written during the war of independence, many were addressed to the ruler of Rampur, a friend and benefactor of Ghalib. As the letters contained some political advice and spoke on the aftermath of the revolution, apparently not too sympathetic or reverent towards the revolt and the Mughals, Ghalib had requested that the letters be destroyed once read.

This was the time when he wrote Dastamboo as a personal diary or journal in Persian. It records the events from May 11, 1857 to July 31, 1858. The book not only carries chapters from Ghalib’s personal life but it also speaks of the situation of Delhi and the British troops.

Ghalib tried to make his readers believe that the book offered the true picture and nothing had been added or omitted though he feared for his life when anyone found near or dear to the Mughal king was being prosecuted. He remained attached to the Red Fort as Bahadur Shah Zafar’s mentor and his loyalty to the British could have been questioned. In fact Ghalib wrote Dastamboo to show his loyalty to the British and, as we know, truth is the first casualty of war.

Dastamboo was published in November 1858 from Agra when the sword of the Press Act had fallen on the Indian press and the printing permission given for many newspapers had been cancelled. Dr Moin-ur-Rehman has very rightly pointed out in his book Ghalib Aur Inqelab-i-Satawan that while the printing presses were being forced to close down by the British for publishing ‘rebellious material’ and newspapers were forced to cease publication, how could any book be published that was not in favour of the British.

When Ghalib asked in a letter written on August 1, 1858, his friend Mirza Tufta to see if Dastamboo could be published in Agra, he was surprised and asked how in those circumstances (when the press act had been enforced) any press would be willing to print a book that could invite the anger of the government. Ghalib replied: “I will present a copy of the book to Nawab Governor-General Bahadur (Lord Canning) and another through him to Malika-i-Muazzama Inglistaan (the Queen of England). Now you should understand what will be the style of writing and how any press could dislike its printing.”

In a letter addressed to Mir Mehdi Majrooh in October 1858, Ghalib wrote: “The owner of the press had shown, with the help from Munshi Hargopal Tufta, the manuscript of the book to the authorities in Agra for the permission to print. The authorities gladly permitted.”

The British authorities must have been glad to see it in print form as the book covered up the truth and the writer conveniently forgot what happened in the aftermath of the failed ‘mutiny’ and how the British ran amok with a desire for revenge.

It is beyond any shade of doubt that Ghalib had written Dastamboo to save his skin and to show his loyalty.


See also

1857: The events

1857: The causes

1857: A jihadi revolt?

1857: The geographical spread

1857: Heroes and heroines

1857: The aftermath

1857: Contemporary reportage

1857: Books and folksongs about

1857: Little known but important facts

Dawn 2007

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