1857: The causes

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1857: What triggered the revolt?



The Times of India

For far too long, 1857 has been trapped in a debate about what it really stood for — mutiny, feudal revolt, or a full-blown war of independence. In the year of its 150th anniversary, what is certain is that 1857 represented the most serious and bloody armed struggle by Indians against the most powerful empire of the time. From 1857-59, a large swathe of northern, eastern and central India became a battleground between rebels and the British army. Thousands lost their lives, both sides were guilty of terrible violence. If the massacre of English women and children at the Satichaura Ghat in Kanpur became a symbol of the depravity of the rebels, British retribution was equally bloody.

By the time a ‘State of Peace’ was officially declared throughout India on July 8, 1859, the British empire and many of its convictions had been severely shaken. The uprising has been called the beginning of the Indian freedom struggle. It definitely marked the end of the East India Company’s rule. In late 1858, the Company was abolished and the British government took over the reins of government. In more senses than one, the uprising marked a transition from old to new.

In the run-up to the 150th anniversary, TOI will visit some of the landmark sites of The Rising and examine them — now and then. We begin with Barrackpore — the place where Mangal Pandey was executed, creating the first ‘martyr of the revolutionary war’

Barrackpore: The origin of the revolt

Like everything about the 1857 uprising its origins, too, are disputed. Did it begin on a muggy March afternoon when a 26-year-old sepoy of the 34th Native Infantry at Barrackpore went on the rampage on the parade ground? Or, was May 10 — when sepoys mutinied at Meerut — the day it really began. There is little doubt that Meerut triggered the larger revolt, which spread like wildfire across northern India. But in popular imagination, the first shot of the uprising was fired by Mangal Pandey in Barrackpore.

One hundred and fifty years later, the only description available of the events of March 29 is from British officers. These accounts make it clear that the main trigger for Pandey to revolt were the persistent rumours that the cartridges of the new Enfield rifles issued to the British army were greased with animal fat. The potent fear of losing caste and religion would soon grip the sepoys, many of whom like Pandey were Brahmins from Awadh. On March 29, Pandey brandishing a loaded musket shouted to his fellow sepoys, ‘‘Come out you behn*@, the Europeans are here! Why aren’t you getting ready? It’s for our religion! From biting these cartridges we shall become infidels.’’ When confronted by two British officers, Sergeant-Major Hewson and Lieutenant Baugh, Pandey wounded both of them with blows from his sword and musket. When the commanding officer of the Presidency division, General Hearsey, finally arrived on the scene, Pandey shot himself. The bullet grazed Pandey but did not kill him.

Today, there is little to remember Pandey by in Barrackpore, a nondescript suburb of Kolkata that is home to police and army barracks. A lone bust of Pandey installed in 2005 is the only reminder of his place in history. An inscription below the bust describes Pandey as ‘sepoy number 1446 of 34th regiment’ who ‘fired at British officers in broad daylight on 29 March

1857’. The local cantonment board has installed the bust. It had also taken the initiative in 1978 to name a patch of green next to the Ganga, which flows by Barrackpore, after Pandey. A private company now maintains the park. ‘‘Till the bust was put up we had no idea what Mangal Pandey looked like. There are no other statues of him in Barrackpore,’’ says Biren Dutta, a resident.

In less than a week after Pandey revolted, he was brought to trial. He admitted that he had been taking bhang and opium of late and was not aware of his actions. After a swift trial, Mangal was unsurprisingly given the death sentence. When he went to the gallows on April 8, he apparently did so with quiet dignity. Locals believe that the banyan tree from which Pandey was hanged still exists. ‘‘The tree is now located on the premises of the police barracks and no one is allowed to visit it. We have only heard about it,’’ complains Tushar Dutta Gupta, a local resident. There is nothing else in Barrackpore to commemorate either Pandey or his rebellious act.

Pandey, however, remains one of the most identifiable faces of 1857. V D Savarkar in his controversial The Indian War of Independence describes Pandey as the first ‘‘martyr of the revolutionary war’’. In 2005, he was back in the limelight with Aamir Khan playing the lead in a highly romanticised account of Pandey. Historians still continue to quibble over whether Pandey’s act of rebellion had anything to do with the uprising that gathered steam only in May 1857. Rudrangshu Mukherjee in a book titled, Brave Martyr or Accidental Hero?, debunks the notion that Pandey had any notion of patriotism or the incipient Indian nation. That might well be true, but Pandey and the March 29 incident became a symbol of the constellation of forces that led to the 1857 uprising. It created such a deep impression that for the British ‘Pandy’ became synonymous with mutineer. In that sense, Mangal Pandey’s was an individual act that sparked a million mutinies.


1857: The events leading to the Rising

1857: book review

Dawn 2007

The Great Uprising: India, 1857

By Qurat ul Ain Siddiqui

By Pramod K. Nayar Penguin, India ISBN 0-14-310238-9 282pp. Indian Rs250

THE history of Pakistan does not begin on August 14, 1947, and neither does that of India on August 15, 1947. The story of the subcontinent’s history begins much earlier with several incidents recurring and eventuating with a political settlement that resulted in the region’s independence from British rule. Pramod K. Nayar’s precise and comprehensive account of the 1857 uprising in his book The Great Uprising comes at an opportune moment – the year 2007, which marks the 150 years of the 1857 War of Independence against the British Raj. Apart from detailed accounts of the events that occurred before, during and after the uprising, the book also contains a chronology of events that led to the so-called ‘mutiny’ and those that occurred in subsequence of it.

Starting from the very beginning, Nayar talks about the first Englishman to set foot on Indian soil in 1597, and how in 1599 some London merchants petitioned Queen Elizabeth I for trading with the East Indies to which she agreed. The East India Company eventually spread its influence over the Indian sub-continent and Sir Thomas Roe, an ambassador from James I’s court, was important in obtaining rights for ‘the free movement of English goods and people through India.’ However, probably the most important event since the Queen’s granting of the charter to the Company was the defeat of Sirajud-Daula, the Nawab of Bengal, at the hands of Robert Clive who later instated Mir Jafar in Sirajud-Daula’s place. The East India Company was thus transformed from ‘a mere trading house to a political power,’ which was further strengthened by Warren Hastings and Lord Wellesley. Thus by the time Queen Victoria ascended the throne, over 90 million Indians were being ruled by only 50,000 British personnel.

With rising political power and its own army, which constituted of at least 235,000 Indians, the Company comfortably began to overlook the different concerns of the groups involved and apathy turned out to be a significant cause for the so-called ‘mutiny.’ The cartridge controversy was the immediate cause for the sepoys’ refusal to follow orders-- a situation which led to a bloody ‘rebellion’ in which Mangal Pandey emerged as an important character. Nayar’s book transcribes the proceedings of Pandey’s trial (April 6, 1857) which resulted in Pandey’s hanging as a mutineer. This in turn led to further unrest and dissent in various parts of the Indian subcontinent.

In the chapter titled ‘The summer of discontent,’ Nayar judiciously documents several incidents that occurred during the period 1857-1858, without even a hint of maudlin waffling or largely meaningless sentimentalism. A clinical tone of distance as well as understanding runs throughout this particular section of the book. Nayar then proceeds to document what immediately followed the ‘mutiny,’ which of course was not going to go unavenged by ‘the unconquerable British Infantry’. The British were prepared to hang massive numbers of people and depopulate entire villages with ‘a viciousness unparalleled in its history.’

Nayar has devoted an entire section of the document to the trial of Bahadur Shah Zafar, who was, very ironically, tried by those who had ‘no right to try him,’ since technically, the Company as well as the members of the tribunal were ‘his vassals.’ The year 1857 was thus the ‘most tumultuous year’ of the Raj as it witnessed ‘the first civilian-popular-military moments of Indian nationalism and the freedom struggle.’

1857: Revival of the Mughal Empire?

By Mubarak Ali, Pâkistân

Dawn 2007

There are groups of historians who believe that in 1857 an attempt was made to revive the Mughal Empire. This is incorrect.

The empire had already politically collapsed and had no energy left. The Mughal king was symbolically the head but had no power to assert his authority. He was once under the Marathas who paid his expenses. Then he came under the East India Company and received an annual stipend. However, the long Mughal rule legitimised his position, and the people of India had profound respect for him. Though his rule was confined within the Red Fort, he kept the centuries-old court etiquettes intact. This made the fort a social and cultural symbol.

When the rebel sepoys came to Delhi and sought the emperor’s blessings, their motive was to legitimise their rebellion against the company whose rule was not legal and who had usurped power by force and intrigue. After accepting leadership of the emperor, the rebel army used it as a propaganda against the company as foreign rule which should be ended.

However, these soldiers were not well-equipped to observe the court etiquette and violated them without any concen.They roamed around the fort on horses and addressed the emporer without any title. This annoyed the courtiers who looked down upon them as boorish and uncultured. Zaheer Dahlavi wrote that one day a person in ordinary attire came in the presence of the king and after holding his hand told him: “Listen old man, we have made you the king.” He was Bakht Khan, commander of the rebels. He annoyed the courtiers who were not accustomed to such behaviour in the king’s presence. It also shocked the king who in spite of his weaknesses was not prepared to be addressed in such a way. However, Bakht Khan’s behaviour was tolerated because the rebels were in power.

The rebels used the king for their interest and issued orders with his seal and signature for maintainig peace in the city. They fixed the prices of commodities, assured shopkeepers and merchants that their properties would be protected. At the time of his trial, Bahadur Shah Zafar admitted that he was helpless before the rebels who had forced him to put his signature on documents which they had drafted without his consent. Tilmiz Khaldun in his article The Great Rebellion describes in detail the organisation of different councils which were set up after the arrival of Bakht Khan. Though Bahadur Shah Zafar was declared the emperor, the real authority was vested in different councils whose task was to keep law and order, collect revenue, get loans from moneylenders and organise the army for war. After analysing the work of these councils and the draft of the constitution prepared by Bakht Khan, one can easily conclude that the rebel army and its leader possessed a modern outlook and wanted to set up democratic institutions in India. There was no plan to revive the Mughal Empire.

Who were the rebels?

The rebel sepoys belonged to the peasant class of north India and had consciousness of how the company exploited them by charging high revenues. When the rebellion broke out, the peasants believed that it was the end of the company’s rule and therefore joined the rebellion with a cause. The pattern of the peasants’ rebellion shows that they had full realisation of their motives. They burnt documents of the moneylenders and looted houses of those zamindars who had purchased properties in auction by depriving old landlords of their lands. Moreover, they not only plundered government property but also burnt it. The traditional zaminadars and some rulers of the states supported them because they had their own grievances against the company. On the other side, a majority of native rulers and big feudal lords supported the British government realising that in the end the company rule would prevail. To them, the peasants’ rebellion was a dangerous threat to their own rule; so they provided information to the British Army to help them defeat the rebellion.

In Sindh and Punjab, the rebellion could not spread because the majority of soldiers were from north India and had no connection with the local population. As soon as the government got information about the rebellion, it immediately ordered the sepoys to lay surrender. Those who refused were arrested and put to death. The insurrection remained confined only to army camps. There were some small occurrences in far-off places of Punjab which were easily crushed.

What were the results of 1957 rebellion?

Though the uprising was crushed mercilessly and was followed by unprecedented vindictiveness by the British, it nevertheless remains a part of the collective memory of the Indian nation. With the destruction of Delhi and Lucknow, two main centres of culture, literary and social activities came to an end. Also ended the composite culture {ganga-jumni tahzib} which had brought Hindus and Muslims together. From here begins the slow and gradual rise of communalism which ultimately separated the two communities. Following the end of the uprising, the Indian leadership realised that the right method to liberate themselves from foreign rule was not through an armed struggle but through the newly created political parties in an organised, constitutional effort against the British rule. This struggle was based on the concept of nationalism. Despite this, the spirit of resistance and consciousness against foreign rule engendered by the 1857 uprising cannot be ignored. The rebels were defeated but their struggle to liberate the country finally succeeded in 1947.

1857 and Karl Marx

Marx and 1857

Rup Narayan Das

Dawn 2007

With the 150th anniversary of the 1857 uprising being celebrated in the country, it might be worth recalling what Karl Marx had to say on what he called the ‘First Indian War of Independence’. It is another matter that historians in India, for good reasons, will not agree with his contention that the uprising of 1857 fired the first salvo of rebellion against the British rule in India; there had been sporadic movements against the British, such as the Vellore uprising in 1806.

Marx and Engels since the early 1850s wrote a number of incisive articles for the left-wing American newspaper, New York Daily Tribune, on the 1857-59 national revolt in India. Founded by Horace Greeley, a prominent American journalist and politician, it was the mouthpiece of the left-wing of American whigs until the mid-1850s. Besides, Marx in his Notes on Indian History wrote in 1853 on the situation in India at that time.

Marx and Engels had evinced a keen interest in developments taking place in India and Asian countries, particularly China, and were sanguine that some sort of revolution would occur in India. In fact, since the early 1850s the two, and Marx separately, wrote a number of articles on the ferment taking place in India, both during the Sepoy Mutiny and prior to it.

Marx perceived that the events in India and China would snowball into dissolution of patriarchal and feudal relations and the gradual transition of these countries to capitalist development. This change was expected to influence the prospects of the impending European revolution. Although the English called it a mutiny and an isolated uprising, Marx described the churning of that time as an insurrection, which was just part of a general anti-colonial liberation struggle of oppressed nations unfolding in the 1850s in nearly all of Asia.

He refuted the contention of the British ruling classes, who tried to describe the insurrection as an armed sepoy mutiny and conceal the involvement of broad sections of the Indian population. Marx and Engels sought to link the outbreak to the European revolution which, in their opinion, was due to break out as a sequel to the first world economic crisis which swept Europe and the United States at that time.

In his article, Revolt in the Indian Army, which he wrote on June 30, 1857, and published in the New York Daily Tribune as the leading article on July 15, 1857, Marx analysed the conquest and subjugation of India and noted the variety of forms and methods of British colonial rule and exploitation. He described the East India Company as the tool of Indian conquest and stressed that the British seized Indian territories by taking advantage of the feudal strife between local princes and fanning racial, religious, tribal and caste antagonisms among the people.

Marx demonstrated that the colonial plunder of India — one of the principal sources of enrichment for the ruling oligarchy in Britain — caused the collapse of entire branches of the Indian economy and impoverishment of the people of the vast, wealthy and ancient country. The British, he noted, neglected public works and thus brought about the collapse of India’s irrigated agriculture, which in turn doomed millions of Indians to starvation by breaking up local industries, notably hand-weaving and hand-spinning — these could not compete with British cotton fabrics flooding the Indian market.

The colonialists broke down the patriarchal framework of communal landownership. However, by introducing successively two land-tax and tenure systems, zamindari and ryotwari, they preserved many feudal elements in the Indian social system, which slowed down the country’s progressive development and burdened the Indian peasantry.

Marx drew the conclusion that it was the predatory policy of British intruders and colonial exploitation which nurtured the Indian revolt. In creating the native army, the British simultaneously organised the first general centre of resistance which the Indian people were never possessed of, Marx opined.

The writer is a historian.

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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