Upsurge in south

Print edition : June 29, 2007

A Statue at Panjalamkurichi of Veera Pandiya Kattabomman, a notable Poligar who raised the banner of revolt in the south. The British undertook two major campaigns against the Poligars in the late 18th century.-A. SHAIKMOHIDEEN

Colonial writers claim Madras was unaffected by the Revolt, but records tell a different story.

THE wrong perception that when the north was aflame as a consequence of the 1857 Revolt, regions south of the Deccan were calm appears ingrained in much of the existing historiography of anti-colonial struggles.

For colonial writers, "benighted Madras" was a "model Presidency". Even Surendra Nath Sen, in his work Eighteen Fifty-Seven, says: "The Presidency of Madras remained unaffected all through, though some slight signs of restlessness were perceived in the army. The educated community unreservedly ranged itself on the side of law and order and condemned the rising in unambiguous terms."

Records available in the State Archives in Chennai (formerly Madras), however, tell us a different story. In what is now Tamil Nadu, as in other parts of India, the earliest expressions of opposition to British rule took the form of localised rebellions and uprisings. Chief among these was the revolt of the Palayakkarars (Poligars) against the East India Company. The notable Poligars who raised the banner of revolt deep south in the Madras Presidency were Puli Thevar, Veera Pandiya Kattabomman and the Marudu brothers of Sivaganga. There were two major campaigns undertaken by the British against the Poligars in the late 18th century.

By this time the first cases of Indian soldiers in the British army rising in mutiny and facing severe punishments for doing so find mention in the records. On January 30, 1775, the Madras Council, in reply to an application for assistance from Bombay (Mumbai), decided to send the Ninth Battalion of `native' infantry, which was then stationed at Tiruchirappalli (Tiruchi). The men refused to march, leaving its officers in despair.

After serious deliberation the Council of War noted: "Makhdum Sahib, acting-Commandant of the Ninth Battalion of sepoys has been the principal cause and promoter of the late sedition and mutiny in the battalion... . The punishment proper to be inflicted on him for such a crime, in such a person, and on such exigency of service, is Death."

Captain Kelly caused the Commandant to be blown away from a gun in the presence of the battalion comprising 900 men.

In June 1795, news arrived in Madras of the outbreak of war with Holland, and expeditions were immediately planned against Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Malacca and other Dutch possessions. The expedition against Ceylon was commanded by Colonel James Stuart of the 72nd Regiment. In 1796 he received reinforcements, amongst which was the newly raised 35th Battalion. On March 20, the soldiers mutinied and were "punished in the most summary manner".

The Vellore Fort. The sepoys who captured it in 1806 declared Tipu Sultan's son Fateh Hyder as the king, a curious foreshadowing of the 1857 mutineers' declaration of the Mughal emperor as their leader.-D. GOPALAKRISHNAN

In 1806, Indian sepoys of the British army stationed at Vellore staged an uprising that has come to be seen as the precursor of 1857. One cause of the uprising was that the sepoys felt that the British had insulted their religion. After capturing the Vellore fort, mutineers declared Tipu Sultan's son Fateh Hyder as the king. This has a parallel in the 1857 Revolt when the sepoys declared the last Mughal ruler, Bahadur Shah Zafar, as king.

According to one government report, as many as 1,044 sepoys of the Madras army were court-martialled for their sympathy or support to the 1857 Revolt.

Contrary to received wisdom, the 1857 rebellion had a deep impact on the army, the intelligentsia, and the common people in the south. Ultimately, the memory of the Revolt was used as a tool of nationalist mobilisation at a time when the nationalist movement in the Madras Presidency was weak.

News of the Revolt in 1857 in the northern British possessions spread quickly in south India. The "native" press, for example, was quick to respond to it. A Government of Madras resolution dated September 3, 1857, for example, referred to the "native" press that commented on the "proceedings of Government in its General Administration, as well as in Military and Political matters, and the supposed discontent caused thereby, especially among our Native Soldiery... our want of strength was pointed out and most injudicious subjects were discussed." One newspaper apparently entered into "lengthened arguments to prove that greased cartridges of objectionable materials had really been issued... another turned into derision Sir H. Lawrence's address to the troops at Lucknow, and published a supposed speech from the mouth of a sepoy in refutation of it".

A note of palpable alarm now enters the record. "These publications, unfortunately, do not reach English readers only," the resolution notes. "They are republished in vernacular newspapers and thus have a deleterious effect on the native community. The policy of annexing native States on the failure of lineal male heirs may in particular be noticed as having been discussed in very inflammatory language."

It is not surprising that the discussion on the upheaval that was taking place in the north had the Government of Madras extremely worried. In the light of this, it would be far from correct to say that the "educated community" ranged itself on the side of the British.

In fact, in the town of Madras itself, popular sentiment in Triplicane, which was the headquarters of the Carnatic Nawabs, became so "suspicious", according to a government document, that military posts were established in different parts of the town on June 29, 1857. European volunteers were enrolled and other precautions taken.

Madras had revolutionary links with other centres in the south, like Belgaum and Kolhapur. Munshi Mahommed Hussain, writing in July 1857 from Belgaum to Subhedar Abdul Reheman of the 27th N. I. Regiment at Kolhapur said: "I also sent to you letters which had been received from Madras. I have not heard whether they have reached you and I am anxious on this account. Tell me also quickly what intelligence you have received from this direction."

The British Political Agent at Belgaum, in his intelligence report of July 28, 1857, mentioned the discovery of a serious conspiracy, the ramifications of which extended to Mysore, Kumool and Madras.

In September 1857, the Madras Government received from the Governor-General of India copies of two different "seditious proclamations". Strict instructions were issued to the civil and military authorities in the Madras Presidency to keep a close watch on the dissemination of any such proclamations amongst the troops or the population generally and to punish with "summary and exemplary severity all persons who might be found distributing or exhibiting them".

Ghulam Ghouse and Sheikh Mannu, two activists, were arrested in February 1858 for pasting wall posters "of a highly treasonable character", that is, in favour of the 1857 Revolt, and urging the people of Madras to rise against the British.

Coastal regions such as Madras and Chingleput (Chengelpet) and interior areas such as Coimbatore were considered "disturbed" during the 1857 Revolt, according to reports of the period. In Thanjavur in southern Tamil Nadu, a revolutionary by name Sheikh Ibraham was apprehended in March 1858 and convicted on charges of sedition.

At Kalaiyar Kovil, Sivaganga district, a statue of Periya Marudu, one of the Marudu brothers who were early heroes in the resistance to British rule in the south.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Similarly, in North Arcot, in anticipation of the Revolt of 1857, plans and secret meetings were held for organising a war against the British, from as early as January 1857. It is on record that one Syed Kussa Mahomed Augurzah Hussain held talks in this connection with the zamindars of Punganur (in Chittoor district, now in Andhra Pradesh) and Vellore. Syed Kussa was apprehended by the British in March 1857 and a security was demanded of him.

In 1857, the 18th Regiment of the British army was quartered at Vellore. Some sepoys of the Regiment revolted in November 1858. In the armed struggle, Captain Hart and Jailor Stafford were killed. The Sessions Judge of Chittoor tried a sepoy of the Regiment on charges of wilful killing and sentenced him to death.

In Salem, the news of the start of the 1857 Revolt was met with much commotion as it was rumoured that the patriotic army would march to the area soon. On the evening of Saturday, August 1, 1857, a crowd consisting of a large number of weavers assembled on Putnul Street near the house of one Ayyam Permala Chary, saying that the Indian soldiers would be coming and that the British flag would fall. Hyder, a thana peon, told the assembled people that "about this time of the day, a flag (of India) will have been hoisted at Madras".

During the revolt, a sanyasi called Mulbagalu Swamy in Bhavani, an industrial town near Coimbatore, started preaching that British rule should be brought to an end. "Let all the Europeans be destroyed and the rule of Nanasahib Peshwa prevail," he would tell his devotees during his daily puja. He was finally apprehended at Bhavani by the British and brought to Coimbatore.

Chengelpet became a hotbed of secret gatherings and revolutionary activities in the early period of the outbreak of the Revolt. Sultan Bakhsh went from Madras to Chengelpet in July 1857 to help organise the anti-British uprising there in cooperation with his local associates, Aruanagiry and Krishna, two leaders who were already leading a revolt in the area.

On July 31, an uprising took place in the Chengelpet area. The movement started spreading. On August 8, 1857, the Magistrate of Chengelpet informed the Government of Madras about this serious insurgency. Memories of the Revolt were kept alive in south India. The leaders of the national movement in Tamil Nadu invoked its legacy in their struggles, particularly during 1905-1910 and in 1927.

Dr. N. Rajendran is Professor and Head, Department of History, and Director, Centre for Nehru Studies, Bharathidasan University, Tiruchi.

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