History from below

Print edition : January 15, 2010

THE Revolt of 1857 must be set in the larger context of what colonialism was doing to India and its people at the time.

First of all, colonialism involved a constant and devastating drain on Indias resources. For 1854-55, just two years before the Revolt, the annual drain was about Rs.5.8 crore, if one goes by the excess of exports over imports shown in Indian customs records. The tax burden most heavily increased in what were called the Mahalwari areas, where land tax was not fixed, as was the case in the Permanently Settled and Madras Ryotwari areas.

In real terms, between 1819 and 1856, taxation in Mahalwari areas (present U.P., excluding Awadh, and parts of Central India) increased by 70 per cent. We must remember that this area constituted the heart of the rebellion: the one from where the Bengal sepoys mostly Hindustani peasants in uniform came, and where the rebellion enjoyed the widest support.

The second factor to be taken account of was the development of what is now called the Imperialism of Free Trade. English industrial manufactures, after the Charter Act of 1833, entered India practically free of duty. This meant that Indians, particularly spinners and weavers, were thrown out of employment as more than a quarter of the total textile consumption of India was now met by imports from Britain.

Almost one-fifths of the territory of India was added to British control during these years [1843 to 1856]. Each annexation resulted in huge unemployment as people employed by the older regimes dependants of the princely courts, and artisans for example were deprived of their livelihood.

Finally, Imperialism of Free Trade demanded a considerable contribution in blood.

The Bengal Army, the largest modern army in Asia, had over 135,000 Indian (native) soldiers trained in modern methods of warfare. It was the main army of British imperialism at the time. The sepoys fought and died in wars in Afghanistan, Sind, Punjab, Burma, Crimea, China and Iran, sustaining heavy casualties year after year. This naturally put a very heavy strain on the morale of the Bengal Army and on the loyalty of its sepoys to their paymasters.

In a sense, all the tensions that imperialism or colonialism was generating came to be concentrated in a dramatic form in the very instrument which it had forged for its own purposes. The British wanted literate and disciplined soldiers, so they concentrated on recruiting Brahmins for their main arm, the infantry, and this increased the element of caste sensitivity within the Bengal Army.

The Bengal Army had little intrinsic sympathy with the old regimes. The sepoys revolted on the immediate issue of greased cartridges, an issue most important for the Brahmins, who were naturally more conscious of caste and ritual purity than other elements in the Army. Yet it would be a mistake to suppose that since the sepoys rose to defend their dharm or deen (religion), they were tied down to any theocratic perceptions or anti-modern prejudices.

The sepoys were greatly familiar with modern methods of military organisation and leadership, and, as noted, had no connection with the feudal classes. An important feature of the Bengal Army was that Hindus and Muslims were put together in the same units. After the Revolt broke out, the sepoys began to elect their own officers. It is astonishing that on many occasions largely Hindu contingents elected Muslim officers and, similarly, contingents with a largely Muslim composition chose Hindus as their officers.

In the debate on whether 1857 was or was not a mutiny, one should not overlook the crucial role of the sepoys in the Revolt. They were the core of the rebellion, its armed element, its most steadfast component. This is what made the rebellion of 1857 the biggest anti-colonial revolt in the world, [bringing to] the field over 120,000 professional soldiers of the kind that the Bengal Army sepoys put into battle.

Of particular significance is the republican or democratic sentiments of the Bengal Army sepoys. Where they formed representative bodies, they chose to call them councils, and elected their peers. In Delhi, they acknowledged the titular emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, but actually constituted a Court of Administration consisting of the representatives of different rebel contingents to administer Delhi.

Another thing to mark is that despite the criticism of the sepoys conduct in Delhi in British accounts, it is remarkable that during the four months of rebel control in Delhi (there are newspapers and documents belonging to this phase in the National Archives), the amount of misconduct by the sepoys was limited. Contrast this with what happened after the British occupation. There was mass slaughter and plunder of the people. In contrast, throughout the rebellion, the conduct of sepoys was exemplary considering the circumstances.

Early British atrocity. Blowing away rebellious sepoys after tying them to cannons (May 21, 1857). From Sir Colin Campbells "Narrative of the Indian Revolt from its outbreak to the Capture of Lucknow", London, 1858.-

A patriotic colour was sought to be given to the slogan of religion. An argument put forth by the rebels was that Hindus and Muslims were monotheists while Christians believed in the Trinity. Thus, Muslims and Hindus had common religious values, which they did not share with the English. But beyond this was the idea that both Hindus and Muslims were loyal to India, and the English were people of a different race who insulted and exploited Indians.

There were three newspapers, issued weekly, during that time, two in Urdu and one in Persian. Delhi Urdu Akhbar, the major paper, strongly argued that the English rulers were foreigners and drew away wealth from India....

The paper always addressed its readers as fellow countrymen and called the rebel army fauj-i Hindustani or the Indian Army. The papers hero was Bakht Khan, the republican-minded commander-in-chief in Delhi, who is most unfairly portrayed as a Wahabi in some modern accounts.

Delhi Urdu Akhbar pleaded that people should obtain skill and manufacture rifles. It demanded a restoration of the postal services under the aegis of the rebels. In his proclamation of August 1857, Feroz Shah, a noted rebel leader, said that the rebels would develop both steamboats and railways.

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru in The Discovery of India characterises the rebellion of 1857 as basically a feudal uprising. This is true only insofar as many of the major leaders of the uprising were either princes or zamindars and some of these rendered outstanding contributions to the Revolt. For example, Kunwar Singh and Amar Singh, the two zamindars of Jagdishpur, the Rani of Jhansi, Rani Lakshmi Bai, and Hazrat Mahal of Lucknow, who so stoutly resisted the British. There was Khan Bahadur Khan, a zamindar of Bareilly, who was ultimately hanged. Bahadur Shah Zafar partly atoned for his early hesitation and ultimate surrender through his post-1857 verses in which he so movingly mourns the rebel dead.

It is also to be observed that when taluqdars, zamindars and princes went into rebellion against the greatest colonial power of the world, the exigencies of popular resistance inevitably imposed changes in their visions and attitudes.

In the early appeals, traditional notions are in evidence, with promises to re-establish the old feudal hierarchies once the English are defeated. In time, these sentiments disappear from rebel proclamations. When, finally, the rebels from the camp of Hazrat Mahal issued their reply to Queen Victorias Proclamation of November 1857, all these matters were forgotten. It is the Indian people who are in the forefront. The Army and people of India are told not to believe Queen Victoria and her Proclamation, which is so full of fraud and deception.

A veil should not be drawn on what the British did, however undiplomatic it may be for us to raise this question. What happened to the Indian people after the rebellion broke out and was suppressed cannot be erased from the pages of history. As J.W. Kaye put it in his classic History of the Sepoy War, An Englishman is almost suffocated with indignation when he reads that a Mrs. Chamber or Miss Jinnings was hacked to death by a dusky ruffian; but in native histories it may be recorded that mothers, wives and children with less familiar names fell miserable victims to the first swoop of English vengeance, and these stories may have as deep a pathos as those that rend our own hearts.

The massacre in Delhi is described in a large number of memoirs that exist and in British reports. The whole city was depopulated and subjected to massacre. The slaughter went on for days. If the rebels killed the English in hundreds, the English killed in tens of thousands. which Briton was ever brought to face retribution for killing hundreds of ordinary Indians, men, women and children? How can we treat the two as at par?

Therefore, when our statesmen speak of the good things that happened under British rule, like the establishment of the Indian Civil Service, they should think sometimes of 1857, not only of the rebels but also of the ordinary citizens men, women and children who were shot or hacked to death or killed by various means, under the aegis of our great praiseworthy benefactors.

Irfan Habib was Chairman, Centre for Advanced Studies in History at Aligarh Muslim University. He is currently working on a Peoples History of India series.

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