Behind the mutinies

Print edition : February 17, 2017

The memorial pillar erected in honour of the sepoys who died in the 1806 mutiny in Vellore, at the junction of Bangalore Road and Officers' Line in Vellore. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Uniforms worn by sepoys of Vellore in the early 19th century, at a exhibition at Vellore Fort in July 2006. Photo: S.S. Kumar

The volume explores how 19th century mutinies were connected to the issues of honour and justice, paternalistic relations, structures of deference, and the overarching issue of identity formation.

THE events of 1857 when sepoys of the East India Company rebelled against their superior officers are an important part of India’s modern history. Historians frequently revisit that period in search of the reasons for the revolt. This has led to a significant body of literature on the uprising. Among the popular works, William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty (2006) restricts the narrative to Delhi, locating the motivation for the events in the “clash of rival fundamentalisms”. In 2010, Mahmood Farooqui sought to add some valuable primary material to the literature with his book Besieged: Voices from Delhi 1857 containing the English translation of the Mutiny Papers.

Other well-known books on 1857 include The Great Mutiny: India 1857 by Christopher Hibbert (1978) and The Indian Mutiny: 1857 by Saul David (2003). Academics still revisit Eric Stokes’ The Peasant Armed: The Indian Revolt of 1857 (1986), which argues that the rebellion of 1857 was in a significant sense a peasant revolt. Rudrangshu Mukherjee’s Awadh in Revolt, 1857-1858: A Study of Popular Resistance (1984) also looks at the agrarian background of the revolt in the region of Awadh.

Some of the factors that led to rebellions and mutinies among sepoys in the 19th century can be discerned from the work of historians such as Seema Alavi whose work The Sepoys and the Company: Tradition and Transition in Northern India, 1770-1830 (1995) links the pre- and post-East India Company militaries in Bengal. The dated work of Amiya Barat, The Bengal Native Infantry: Its Organisation and Discipline, 1796-1852 (1962), is also relevant in this discussion for its comprehensive account of the Bengal Army being in an incipient state of revolt for half a century before the mutiny of 1857. More recently, military historians such as Kaushik Roy and David Omissi have looked at many of these aspects in the 19th and 20th centuries. This brief survey of the past literature allows us an entry point to discuss Sabyasachi Dasgupta’s useful work on the sepoy rebellions in 19th century India.

The monograph under review is based on Dasgupta’s PhD dissertation from the Centre for Historical Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. The volume focusses on “the sepoy rebellions of the nineteenth century and uses them as an entry point into the wider social world of the sepoys. It explores how the mutinies were connected to the issues of honour and justice, paternalistic relations, structures of deference, and the overarching issue of identity formation. It seeks to investigate the ways in which the pre-mutiny colonial armies sought to construct a sepoy identity and the problems that characterised this process.”

Unlike many historians before him, Dasgupta does not read pre-1857 rebellions in the Presidency armies as logically building up to the mutiny of 1857. In his examination of the three armies of Bengal, Bombay and Madras, Dasgupta tries to dwell into the nature of the identity of the sepoy. The Bengal sepoy, for instance, developed a “hybrid identity” as his separation from his parent peasant society was imperfect. Dasgupta also tries to give agency to the sepoy’s actions in his work and argues that the 1857 mutiny cannot be “termed as a revolt of the people of which the sepoys were simply the flag bearers”.

Early mutinies

Minor mutinies that did not threaten the dominance of the East India Company in the cataclysmic way that 1857 did were frequent in the first half of the 19th century. The earliest mutiny occurred in Vellore in 1806 when sepoys resisted the order to wear leather turbans. It was always issues of honour and a strong sense of justice that formed the basis for sepoys’ grievances and threatened to erupt into violence. Dasgupta uses the historian E.P. Thompson’s notion of the “moral economy” to demonstrate the relation between the Indian sepoy and the Company. In this unstated agreement, the “Indian soldier would accord deference to the Company, and in return the army would recognise and respect his customs, traditions and norms”. Any violation of this could give the sepoy (in his perception) the right to revolt.

The notion of honour for the Indian solider was linked to his position in civilian society. Thus Dasgupta brings in discussions on the caste composition of the three armies showing how they differed in the notions of honour held by sepoys. The Bengal Army, for instance, mainly consisted of “upper”-caste recruits, whereas the Madras and Bombay Armies had a significant number of recruits from “lower” castes.

Dasgupta also examines the manner in which the Company strove to develop a corporate identity among the Presidency armies by bringing in notions of discipline and uniform. Disciplining the soldiers meant bringing in modes of punishment such as court martial, flogging, dismissal and the death sentence. Their efforts were not entirely successful as the soldiers’ cultural mores and disciplining did not often lead to unquestioned obedience.

In terms of sources, Dasgupta relies on archival material as well as first-hand accounts from the 19th century. His survey of secondary literature is thorough as well. The work adds to the vast corpus of work on the events of 1857 as well as the military history of India.

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