1857 IN RETROSPECT
K P Fabian says how the sepoy mutiny can be seen as the first war for India’s independence even though the idea of India did not exist then
BENEATH THE PYRAMID LIE BURIED A PALACE, ITS KING, ITS PRINCES AND THE MONSTERS OF BENGAL NATIVE ARMY THEY INCITED TO MUTINY, MURDER AND OTHER CRIMES UNUTTERABLE. STRANGER! IF YOU KNOW WHERE DELHI WAS BEHOLD ITS DEBRIS IN THE PYRAMID YOU STAND ON.
— ANNO DOMINI MDCCCL VII T HAT was the epitaph that an angry Englishman had written for Delhi. It was carried in a newspaper published from Bombay in the middle of 1857. It correctly sums up the insatiable thirst for revenge that the British felt whether they were in India or in Britain.
“I wish I were commander-in-chief in India”, wrote Charles Dickens on October 4,1857, “I should do my utmost to exterminate the Race upon whom the stain of the late cruelties rested.” He spoke for millions of his compatriots who were certain that all the stories of murder and rape carried in the British media were true. The church too joined in the demand for mass slaughter in revenge and bishops invoked the avenging Jehovah and not the forgiving Jesus Christ. In a novel,First Love and Last Love: A Tale of the Indian Mutiny, James Grant wrote, “To the brutal Mussulman and the sensual Hindu, the position occupied by an English lady or any Christian woman, seems absurd and incomprehensible; hence came the mad desire to insult, degrade and torture, ere they slay them.” Post-mutiny investigations by British authorities found that the stories of rape were untrue. One Miss Wheeler who had reportedly killed herself for fear of violation was found living with an Indian decades later.
In justification (sic) of the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre in 1919, Viceroy Chelmsford invoked 1857. He wrote: “At any moment the trouble might have spread to the United Provinces and the remaining provinces; at any moment the Army might have gone, and once they had gone we should have had a state of things which would have been infinitely more serious than the Mutiny of 1857. You must remember that it was the initial indecision in dealing with the Mutiny which led to its widespread nature.” What exactly was the British public reacting to with such anger and thirst for revenge? They called it pejoratively the Sepoy Mutiny, slightly inaccurate as the sepoys(foot soldier) as well as the sowars(cavalry) revolted. The British rendering is right up to a point in that it all started as a mutiny. But, it did not remain a mutiny when large numbers of people joined in and for a while it appeared that the British power was approaching its end. Yet, we cannot call it a full fledged war for Indian independence for reasons that shall be given later.
Conventionally, the mutiny began on May 10 ,1857 in Meerut when about three regiments shot dead their officers, set free the prisoners in jail, and for a while killed every European in sight. From a military point of view ,the British with about 1700 European troops in Meerut, might have been able to put down the mutiny and prevent the cavalry from moving to Delhi. But, the British in Meerut panicked. The cavalry reported to Bahadur Shah, 82, who, though initially reluctant to support the mutiny, later, wrote the couplet:
Na Iran ne kiya, na Shah Russe ne, Angrez ko tabah kiya kartoosh ne. (Neither Iran nor Russia’s Czar could destroy the English, but the cartridge did it.) T HE British in Meerut or Delhi, or for that matter, in Calcutta need not have been taken in by surprise. There were enough indications that a storm about to burst was gathering. That the Indian soldiers ,whether Hindu or Moslem, would have objected to cartridges greased with cow and pig fat was known to the British. In 1853, when the Enfield cartridges were sent to India to test their suitability to the climate, General William Gomm, the Commander-in-Chief of India wrote that it was a sensitive matter and no mistake should be made. But, he was overruled. However, the greased cartridge was only the last straw on the camel’s back. The sepoys were badly paid and badly housed. Their basic pay was Rs.7 a month out of which they had to pay Rs 3 to 5 for food alone. The London Times correspondent described the Sepoy huts as “relics of barbarism.” The Bengal Army had a substantial number of high caste Hindus. They hated crossing the kalapani to fight overseas in Crimea or Iran. Even to Bombay the journey was by sea. But there was some relief as overseas service was voluntary. But, the new Viceroy Canning assuming office in February 1856,made it compulsory, knowing that many soldiers resented it.
There was a widespread fear among the soldiers that there were serious plans to convert them to Christianity. At this distance of time, some of us might find it difficult to believe that such fears were well founded. But, there is solid historical evidence to support the conclusion that the soldiers were not entirely imagining things. Initially, as it acquired territory the English East India Company was careful not to permit missionaries to proselytise. The 1807 Vellore Mutiny was partly attributed to resentment to missionary activities. The Company strove to be evenhanded in religious matters. But all this changed under pressure from the church in Britain. William Wilberforce, known to history for his campaign for the abolition of slave trade, wanted all restrictions on missionary activities to be removed. He told the House of Commons in 1813: “Our religion is sublime, pure and beneficent. Theirs is mean, licentious and cruel.” Many missionaries did not bother to conceal their contempt for the Hindu religion. Until 1833, Hindu and Moslem holy men used to bless regimental colors. In 1850, a Baptist, asked to remove his shoes before entering a temple told the worshippers around that “God’s curse would rest on their temples, and that their idols would soon be destroyed.” There was a widespread belief that Canning was sent to Christianise India. Colonel Steven Wheeler, commanding the 34th regiment used to preach to his soldiers.
The annexation of princely states under Dalhousie did cause widespread resentment among not only the dispossessed royalty but also those who were employed by them. One annexation that was particularly resented was that of Oudh. According to a British historian, the Oudh army had 200,000 soldiers who lost their job when the army was disbanded. The taluqdars of Oudh also lost out heavily in land settlement. Nana Sahib, the adopted son of the last Peshwa, who was denied the pension of Rs 8 lakhs a year had vainly tried to get it restored by appealing to the Company’s Board in London. There was some resentment over the interference with the Hindu customs by the abolition of sati and the legal sanction given for widow remarriage.
After the fall of Delhi, the British power quickly crumbled over a large part of central and northern India. But the Indian side could not consolidate their gains for lack of coordination. Even if they wanted to coordinate, the Indian side had no access to the telegraph network that was the monopoly of the British. It should be acknowledged that in the face of adversity the British demonstrated resilience and cool determination.
But essentially, the fate of India was determined by Indians themselves, as Jawaharlal Nehru put it in his Glimpses of World History: The Sikhs and the Gurkhas supported the British. The Nizam in the south and Scindia in the north, and many other Indian states, also lined up with the British. Even apart from these defections, the Revolt had the seeds of failure in it. It was fighting for a lost cause, the feudal order; it had no good lead ership; it was badly organized, and there were mutual squabbles all the time. One might note that Scindia’s soldiers did revolt, he ran away, and was restored by the British.
There was much needless cruelty from the Indian side and many women and children were killed in cold blood. As we have seen, there were no rapes. The retaliation by the British knew no bounds. They virtually instituted a reign of terror and paid back a thousand times. Vast numbers, as Nehru put it, were shot down in cold blood, large numbers were shot to pieces from the mouth of cannon. “An English General, Neill, who marched from Allahabad to Cawnpore, is said to have hanged people all along the way, till hardly a tree remained by the roadside which had not been converted into a gibbet.” Let us as dispassionately as possible look at 1857. What Dalhousie did had to be completed in 1947 by Patel. The princely states had to be integrated to build India as a political entity. The criticism against those who fought against the British that they were fighting for a feudal order is correct, but such criticism misses the point that essentially India as a political entity was not there in the consciousness of the contemporaries. They owed their allegiance to the Nawab of Oudh, the Rani of Jhansi, to the adopted son and heir of Peshwa, or to the descendent of the Great Moghul. The genesis of India as we know it is post-1857, essentially from the foundation of the Indian National Congress in 1885. But even the founders of the Congress did not intend to use it as a tool to fight for India’s independence. It was much later, under Mahatma Gandhi, that the Congress was transformed into an allIndia organisation to fight for India’s freedom. It was historically not possible for any one in 1857 to have had a clear idea of a united India and to fight for it.
Yet, there is a sense in which 1857 can be interpreted as the first war of Indian independence if we can endorse Hegel’s theory of “the cunning of reason.” History makes human beings do many things the full import of which they are not fully conscious of at the time of action . Take the case of the French Revolution. The 14th of July celebration marks the storming of the prison Bastille in 1789. Did those who stormed the Bastille think in terms of the French Revolution and its immortal theme of liberty, equality, and fraternity? Did they expect that later that day will be celebrated by France as its national day? As a matter of fact, it was only in 1880 that a decision was taken to celebrate the 14th of July every year.
As a people, we do not have much interest in writing history or in preserving it. There have been a few books on 1857, but not yet an authoritative, comprehensive account. Do we remember and honor those who had the courage to rise up against established, alien authority? Why can’t we have a historical museum on 1857? Why can’t we have a statue of Rani of Jhansi in the national capital? The British who fought her compared her to Joan of Arc.
There is no reason to believe that our lack of interest in history is incorrigibly imprinted in our genes. In 1857 our forebears spread the rumor that the British rule was destined to end in 100 years starting from the Battle of Plassey in 1757. Did they not show some sense of history? In 2007 we should reflect over the fact that unlike in 1947, the Hindus and Moslems were united, effortlessly, in fighting the alien power in 1857.
The New Indian Express ePaper