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Print edition : Aug 11, 2006 T+T-
THE VELLORE FORT, as it stands today.-S.S. KUMAR

THE VELLORE FORT, as it stands today.-S.S. KUMAR

The bicentenary of the Vellore Revolt kindles memories of the first challenge to the British empire in India.

MILL and Wilson wrote in The History of British India, Vol VII: "In the midst of their pacific operations, the Government of India was startled by the occurrence of an event unprecedented in the annals of British India, and inspiring fears for the solidity and permanence of the empire - the massacre of the European officers and soldiers in the garrison of Vellore by the native regiments on duty along with them, This happened on the morning of the 10th of July 1806."

The impregnable Vellore Fort, where the garrison was located, was rocked by gunfire as scores of native soldiers (sepoys, as the British called them) shot at British officials who rushed out of their barracks. Some fell dead and others were wounded. The sepoys forced their way into a hospital and shot at a few patients. Their operation was over before dawn but in under nine hours they lost control of the Fort.

Colonel Gillespie brought in forces from Arcot, about 20 km away, and in a swift operation in which hundreds of sepoys were said to have died, although the official count was only 350, regained control of the fort. A section of sepoys and some outsiders were said to have plundered the belongings of the officers in the fort.

British military historian John William Kaye wrote of the event in his book History of the Sepoy War in India: "Two hours after midnight the work commenced. The sentries were shot down. The soldiers on main guard were killed as they lay on their cots, and the white men in the hospital were ruthlessly butchered. There was then a scene of unexampled confusion. Roused from their beds by the unaccustomed sound of firing in the Fort, the English officers went out to learn the cause of the commotion, and many of them were shot down by the mutineers in the first bewilderment of surprise. The two senior officers of the garrison were among the first who fell."

What gave the revolt a political dimension was the hoisting of the flag of the Mysore Sultanate in the palace inside the fort. Staying in the palace and some other places around it were the families of the 12 sons and six daughters of Tipu Sultan, the ruler of Mysore, whom the British had killed in the Fourth Mysore War in 1799. More than 3,000 others from Mysore, who were close to the royal family, were also staying in Vellore.

Referring to this, Kaye writes, "It was no mere military revolt. The inmates of the palace were fraternising with the Sepoys. From the apartments of the Princes went forth food to refresh the weary bodies of the insurgents, and vast promises to stimulate and sustain the energies of their minds."

Elaborating on the link between members of Tipu's family and the sepoys, Kaye writes, "One of the Princes, the third son of Tipu, personally encouraged the leaders of the revolt. With his own lips he proclaimed the rewards to be lavished upon the restorers of the Mahomedan dynasty. And from his apartments a confidential servant was seen to bring the tiger-striped standard of Mysore, which, ... was hoisted above the walls of the Palace."

According to one version, the revolt was originally scheduled for July 12, but it broke out two days in advance because a section of sepoys believed that information had leaked to officials and apprehended strong pre-emptive and punitive action.

It is not as though top army officials were totally unaware of the discontent simmering among sepoys over an order that restrained the native troops from wearing beards and turbans. The order also prescribed a dress code, regulations on the use of religious identities such as ear-rings and a stipulation that they should wear a particular type of hat.

Mill and Wilson observe in The History of India, Vol. VII: "Although the storm had burst so suddenly upon the victims of its fury, indications of its approach had not been wanting; and careful and intelligent observation might have anticipated its violence and guarded against its consequences. It was known early in May that deep and dangerous discontent pervaded the troops in garrison, upon the subject of orders regarding their dress and accoutrements, and rigorous measures were resorted to for its suppression."

To suppress the revolt of a smaller dimension in May, officials resorted to severe penal measures. Two persons who were supposedly involved in the revolt were given 900 lashes each. "Not only were there dark rumours of an approaching tumult current in the Fort and Petta, but in the latter a Mohammedan Fakir repeatedly proclaimed in the Bazar the impending destruction of the Europeans," Mill and Wilson write.

The fakir's utterances were ignored. Three weeks before the revolt, Mustafa Beg, a sepoy, went to Colonel Forbes, the Commander of the Corps, and informed him of the plot to murder European officials. Beg was not only ignored, but also dubbed a drunkard and penalised for his disclosure. Later, when Beg deposed in favour of the British, he was rewarded.

Neither the military officials nor their political masters paid attention to the socio-economic factors that lay behind the discontent among the sepoys. That was why similar, though smaller, revolts followed at Wallajabad, Palayamkottai and Hyderabad. Officials responded differently in these places. While in Hyderabad the order concerning the regulations was withdrawn, at Wallajabad the official ordered the entire army to march to the headquarters at Madras. When the headquarters would not receive the troops, they were stopped en route and forced to accept the new regulations.

At Palaymkottai, the sepoys were aggrieved over many other issues as well. Some of them had lost their relatives in the army's reprisal and one sepoy too was shot dead. The incident left a deep imprint on the army personnel. Realising that the accumulated anger might explode any time, the Commanding Officer took a strange decision, which was later termed `panic response'. He ordered the discharge of all Muslims among the soldiers. However, the army headquarters ordered him to reinstate all of them.

The army headquarters used different yardsticks for different places. In Vellore, most of the persons discharged after inquiry were taken back. The entire blame was, however, thrown on Muslims, although Hindu and Muslim sepoys were equally involved in the revolt, the main purpose of which, in their understanding, was to put Tipu's descendants back in the saddle. But then that was part of the "Divide and Rule" policy the British followed in the colonies.

A significant outcome of an inquiry into the entire episode was the recall of William Bentinck, the Governor of Madras. The revolt was also vindicated when the controversial order was withdrawn.

Fifty years later, the colonial government confronted a revolt by soldiers at Barrackpur and Meerut (The Sepoy Mutiny, 1857, later termed the First War of Independence) for similar reasons. Together with the Mutiny in the Royal Indian Navy in 1946, these revolts were among the milestones in the freedom movement.