It was not about the hat alone

Published : Aug 11, 2006 00:00 IST

WAS the Vellore Revolt of 1806 only an angry outburst by a group of army personnel against poor pay, undesirable service conditions and unwarranted regulations? Or did it have any greater significance? What is its place in Indian history?

British historian Phythian Adams terms it "a serious outbreak of mutiny" involving a section of the regiments posted at the Vellore Fort as a result of the injudicious introduction of a new turban and certain regulations. He observes, "The Vellore Mutiny is the only stain which sullies the loyalty of the Madras Soldier during 200 years' service."

South Indian historian Dr. K. Rajayyan, however, sees the revolt not merely as an angry outburst by disgruntled soldiers but as a part of the revolutionary activities of groups of people operating in different regions. The groups mobilised people to protest against the "oppressive" rule of the (East India) Company and the Crown under the Pitt's India Act (1784) in the areas that came under the Company's control following British troops' victory over most of the native rulers in what is now Tamil Nadu between 1750 and 1800.

In the occupied areas, the British system of land revenue collection was imposed. This destabilised the rural economy and led to an agrarian crisis. Sections of the affected communities rallied round the discharged troops of defeated native rulers, who were regrouping in an attempt to resist alien rule. These revolutionary groups drew support from the few native rulers who were still holding on. Interestingly, many of these revolutionaries, who had held important positions in the unsuccessful armies, found their way into the British army. The revolutionaries' messengers fanned out to different areas to mobilise popular support and were also in touch with the sons of Tipu Sultan, housed in the Vellore Fort. Thus, the revolt by soldiers of the British army had the backing of this loosely knit revolutionary network spread all over southern India.

Explaining the circumstances that led to the revolt, Dr. K.A. Manikumar, a historian who is preparing a volume on the revolt for the Vellore Revolt Biocentennial Commemoration Committee, told Frontline that the British introduced the Permanent Settlement system for the collection of land revenue, which held the entire village community to ransom. At a time when agricultural prices were crashing, the system forced the entire community to leave the village in search of livelihoods. "People had to sell their land and move out of their villages," Manikumar said. "Many of them opted for a military career under the British," he added.

Soldiers of the disbanded armies of the Polygar chieftains also joined the British army. Records show that by 1806 members of both land-owning and land-labouring communities had joined the British army in a big way. This accounted for the substantial presence in the British Army of Vellalars and Naidus, both land-owning communities, and Dalits (Pallas and Paraiahs), mostly agricultural workers. Besides, there were also members of the militant Marava community of the southern districts and Muslims.

When the Army prescribed a new hat for soldiers, which the latter contemptuously called "ferangi (foreigner) cap", and also sought to prevent them from wearing religious marks on their bodies, the soldiers took it as an affront to their past glory and religious sentiments. Caste Hindu Naidus and Vellalars said the hat looked like "a drummer's cap", generally used by Pariahs. Both Hindus and Muslims were offended by rumours that the hat was made of the hide of cows and pigs.

Native soldiers saw in the British regulations "an effort to homogenise Indians through conversion to Christianity". The native soldiers' tie-up with Tipu's sons only indicated that they wanted to replace the British with the erstwhile rulers, in this case Muslims.

In the light of these inferences, Manikumar said, one could conclude that the Vellore Revolt had the elements of what historian Eric Hobsbawm calls "Proto-nationalism". Resentment against conquerors, rulers and exploiters who happened to be recognisable as foreigners by colour, costume and customs should be considered anti-imperial. Hobsbawm says that a proto-national base is essential for state-aspiring national movements.

Said Manikumar: "Proto-national identifications, ethnic, religious, linguistic or otherwise, among the mutineers are notable in the resistance of the sepoys and native officers who participated in the Vellore Revolt."

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