1857: Little known but important facts

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1857 and the Chapati

1857 No yeast, but so much ferment

Vikram Doctor


On Why The Humble Chapati Gave The East India Company Indigestion

Chapatis are unleavened, made from atta, salt and water. Different from light elastic loaves made with yeast, which are Western imports. It is easy to see how the earthy chapatis became an icon of Indian tradition as opposed to the effete European imposition of leavened bread.

As an explanation for the mysterious chapatis that circulated in the run-up to the Rising, this appeal to an unleavened India fits well enough. The only problem is, along with all other theories about the chapatis—they hid messages, were a folk form of communication, part of a religious cult—it is only a theory. The only certain fact is that they existed. We have no idea why or whether they were related to the Rising.

This one fact though is established. Around early February of 1857, British officers across Northern India in the Doab area between the Ganges and Jamuna reported that chapatis were being circulated by village chowkidars and native policemen. When questioned, the men didn’t seem to know why; some even thought it was a British order.

Indians reported the chapatis as well, with one of the accounts coming from Mainodin Hassan Khan, a Delhi policeman who stayed loyal to the British during the Mutiny (and did rather well from it). Khan later wrote a book called Khodang Godur (Mutiny Game), in which he recounts how in early 1857 while in charge of ‘Pahargunge’ police station a constable asked him what to do about the chapatis arriving in the villages. A man would run up to a village and hand over a chapati, the size of a man’s palm, to the headman, telling him to make five more and send each to other villages, with instructions to do the same. Khan noted that people were rather fearful of the whole business, but were reluctant to break the chain, which might seem understandable if you remember the first chain mail you got with scary warnings about what happened to those who broke the chain.

Khan linked this to stories of similar portents in Delhi at the height of Maratha power. Andrew Ward in Our Bones Are Scattered, his Cawnpore-focused 1857 history, quotes Brahmin views that the chapatis were the idea of Dassa Bawa, Nana Sahib’s guru, who foretold “that Nana’s suzerainty would one day extend as far as the chupatties reached”. Ward notes that the first chapatis were made of flour and lotus seed which might be the origin of the story of lotus blooms circulating at the same time. (It’s tempting to see an early Hindutva connection, but its debatable if the lotus was a symbol of militant Hinduism at that time).

This Hindu origin of the chapatis is countered by Colonel G B Malleson, an excitable early chronicler of the Rising, who often seems unable to decide who he blamed more—the rebels or the obtuse new British officials who provoked it by refusing to listen to old India hands (like him). Malleson credits the chapatis to a mysterious Maulavi named Ahmadullah from Faizabad. Malleson is certain that Maulavi devised the “chapati scheme...to work upon minds, already prone to discontent”.

Although no real proof was ever found, it didn’t stop the chapati from becoming an important element of the Mutiny novels that were soon a minor genre. Invariably an early scene in them has the hero finding either chapatis or their couriers. J G Farrell’s Booker Prize winning novel The Siege of Krishnapur (pehaps too subtle, even funny to belong to this genre) starts with the Collector finding chapatis in his dispatch box, on his verandah, his desk, and soon all over the city. In Nightrunners of Bengal, John Master’s lurid novel that is really emblematic of the genre, the chapatis are an elaborate code: they aren’t just delivered, but ceremoniously torn into five and 10 pieces—for the 10th day of the 5th month, May 10, when the Meerut revolt broke out!

There was a time in the early days of Company rule when the British ate chapatis. But over the years, Indian habits were distanced, and bakeries for leavened bread set up. It must have been a deep shock then to have something so insignificant, even innocent possibly turned against you in such a deadly way.

1857: Beyond greased cartridges

1857 Revisited

A need to look beyond the big stories

Rosie Llewellyn-Jones


The National Archives on Janpath, as William Dalrymple recently discovered, is a treasure chest of little known, or sometimes completely unknown, material on the Great Uprising. Although so much has been written about the events of 1857-1858, there is still a lot more to say. The hardest task for the historian is trying to modify the firmly held views of those who call it ‘The Indian Mutiny’ or ‘The First War of Independence’. (Before you jump to the obvious conclusion that only the British persist in referring to it as ‘The Mutiny’, let me say that the term is still widely used in India, while in the politically correct Britain of today it is referred to as anything but the M word.)

The main characters of the Uprising are well known — the two Queens, the Rani of Jhansi and Begum Hazrat Mahal; the Nana Sahib Dhondu Pant and his commander, Tantia Tope; the old king of Delhi, Bahadur Shah Zafar, and of course Mangal Pande. But there are many other rebels, or freedom fighters, if you prefer, who have remained anonymous, like extras in a crowd scene. In October 1857 the government of India requested a list of the ‘leading persons concerned in the present rebellion, whose apprehension may be desirable’ and by April 1858 over 400 names and descriptions were printed for circulation.

The names of those who rose against the British

The list, from the National Archives, goes through the affected areas in alphabetical order, from Allahabad to Tirwa, naming the men who had risen against the British and sometimes against their fellow countrymen too. Tejpal Singh, a talukdar from Allahabad, had ‘attempted to establish his own authority’. Daryao Singh, a zamindar at Fatehpur, collected a number of men ‘in open rebellion’ and killed staff working on the railway. Two men, Mir Jangu and Sheikh Zamir-ud-din of Midnapore, were sentenced to seven years hard labour, ‘in irons’ for using seditious language. Dacoits rub shoulders with rajas, maulvis, nawabs and sepoys, in this British listing, showing how broad the base of rebellion was. Only one woman is named, the Rani Digambir Kaur at Gorakhpur, ‘in open rebellion against the State’. Where the positions of these men are given, we can see that the largest group in opposition was the zamindars, followed by the rajas and the talukdars — the landholders who had the most to lose under British rule.

Indian loyalists

The plight of Indians employed in (British) government service is seldom mentioned by either side, although there were extraordinary acts of bravery among them. Anyone who worked for the British was targeted. Bhure Khan, the tehsildar at Rohtak, was murdered by sepoys while attempting to defend the treasury for the British. At Anupshahr, a group of Jats, loyal to the British, guarded the ferries, ‘beat off an attempt by 1,000 rebels to cross and dispersed 100 rebel cavalry who had got across the river’. The Rani of Basti leading 800 Rajputs defeated an attempt by 2,000 Gorakhpur rebels to sack the town. She was later rewarded by the grateful British with a grant of land seized from a neighbouring Rani, who had supported the rebels.

Britishers who supported the rebellious sepoys

The rebellion threw up similar paradoxes — there were Indians who supported the British, fighting in the regiments which remained loyal to the East India Company. Bankers and merchants in Delhi who had been robbed by rebellious sepoys prayed for the British to recapture the city, then prayed for them to leave as the dreaded prize agents got to work, demolishing their houses in a mad search for treasure. Then there were the renegades — a handful of Europeans who joined the rebels and fought with them against the British. This is not as surprising as it seems — while some like Sergeant Major Gordon, known as Sheikh Abdullah Beg, were found with his sepoys defending Delhi against the British, others had worked for the nawabs in Lucknow and saw no reason to abandon their masters when Awadh was annexed by Lord Dalhousie. A number of Anglo-Indian bandsmen employed in regiments that mutinied, opted to become Muslims. Others, who remained Christian, were murdered by Major Hodson at Humayun’s tomb.

If we put to one side the wellreported events — the recapture of Delhi, the massacres at Kanpur, the relief of the Lucknow Residency — and examine the way the Uprising impacted on the lives of ordinary men and women, Indian, Anglo-Indian and British, an ‘alternative’ history emerges. It may not include the great ‘set-pieces’ of the Mutiny that the British enjoyed relating and which provided material for novelists for years, nor the raw history of the Indian nationalists. What we do find is a far more complex story — one in which factionalism played an important role, where different groups fought with each other, instead of against the common enemy, the British.

A story in which some people were ambivalent about where their loyalties lay, or where some men seized opportunities thrown up in the confusion of the moment, for personal gain. Others settled old scores which had nothing to do with the British. This is not to underplay the importance of the Great Uprising as we commemorate the sesquicentenary, but to remind ourselves that it was not as clear cut as earlier historians would have us believe. And perhaps the final paradox is why, in a country as computer literate as India, there is still no on-line catalogue for the Mutiny records in the National Archives.

The writer is working on a history of the untold tales of the Uprising.

1857: The unknown soldier

Interpreting 1857

By Mubarak Ali

Dawn 2007

Sadly, in history there are unknown soldiers and common people whose role and services remain unrecognised.

Historical events are interpreted differently in view of newly discovered material, new theories, and change of political and social circumstances. So is the case of 1857. During the colonial period it was called and propagated as mutiny and the heroes of the events were British generals and commanders who fought against the Indians and defeated them. Other voices kept silent.

The Indians were portrayed as rebels, rioters, trenchers and scoundrels A change of outlook took place during the 20th century when Indian nationalism inspired the educated classes to reinvestigate and reconstruct their history with a nationalist perspective. The result was that parallel to the British heroes, Indian historians brought to light Indians who fought for freedom and laid down their lives for the cause of independence. Tables turned after 1947 when history was rewritten, reconstructed and reinterpreted with the Indian point of view.

As the mutiny turned to first Indian war of independence, those individuals and localities which were either ignored or marginalised in the struggle in the past, made attempts to prove their contribution to the war. Besides great national narrative, there is plenty of literature written by historians about individuals and cities actively participating in the fight against the British. The problem of this kind of history writing is that it focuses only on those individuals who were in power and had resources to play a role.

A multitude that served under them and made them prominent, are generally ignored. We admired the role of Begam Hazrat Mahal and Nana Sahib who did not surrender and left India for Nepal. We forget that they were not alone but accompanied by thousand of soldiers and their followers who also suffered in an alien and inhospitable country and died in misery and poverty. We also failed to pay tribute to those volunteers who came from different parts of India to fight against the foreigners, Tonk was a small Muslim state in Rajasthan from where came armed groups to lay down their lives for the cause of Islam. There is historical evidence that these volunteers neither surrender nor escape but fought bravely till the end.

However, Awadh, Rohelkhand, and Utter Pradesh highlighted their contribution to the event of 1857. Other provinces and groups who participated in the war but failed to get recognition, are now trying to assert their point of view. Why? The marginalised groups, who are deprived of political rights and have lowest social status, need to historicise their role and assert their recognition at par with others. We have seen the same attitude in case of Pakistan movement.

Writing history of the movement, only the role of the Muslim League under the leadership of Muhammad Ali Jinnah is emphasised. To counter it, small provinces started to assert their role by highlighting their contribution in the movement in order to claim their share in political power. It followed those groups who are dispossessed such as women, students, workers, and minorities. All these groups, by asserting their contribution, demanded political rights and a dignified place in the history of Pakistan.

The same happened in case of Dalit or the lower castes in India who are marginalised and whose historical role is not recognised by traditional historians. Since 1857 became a war of Independence, they are also eager to have a place in the national narratives. Badri Narayan Tiwari analyses the interpretation of the Dalits in his article ‘Reactivating the Past; dalits and Memories of 1857’ {EPW:May 12-18,2007}. So far in the narrative of war of Independence, the role of elite class is described and eulogized, and all those groups who belonged to lower castes, are not mentioned. The Dalit writers, in response to the elite writings of 1857, are, taking efforts to historicise their role. There are a number of individuals who fought in the war and whose shrines are now revered by the Dalit community.

It is also pointed out that when the Rani of Jhansi escaped from the fort, a Dalit woman disguised as the Rani and stayed at the fort to defend it. Some Dalit writer accused Rani of Jhansi as a coward and sycophant of the British and claimed that in actuality, not Lakshmi Bai but a Dalit woman fought in her place. In reinvented Dalit history, the writers condemn the Grand National Narratives and refused to recognise their claim of freedom fighters. On the contrary Dalits emerged as the real fighters in 1857.

Similarly, the role of woman is also denied. It is a fact that besides Hazrat Mahal and Lakshmi Bai there were a number of women who actively participated in the war. The role of prostitutes is also not mentioned properly. We have historical evidence that a prostitute Azizan from Bareli fought against the British. When she was captured, she refused to renounce the cause of freedom; she was executed as a rebel. A Luckhnow courtesan supported the rebels financially and morally. When the war was over, the British government in retaliation confiscated their properties.

Sadly, in history there are unknown soldiers and common people whose role and services remain unrecognised.There is a need to reconstruct and reinterpret history in which common people should be given a dignified place.

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

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