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Mainstream, VOL XLV, No 32

150 years of 1857

Sunday 29 July 2007, by Shree Shankar Sharan


A glorious moment has touched us again, the memory of 1857, India’s First War of Independence, though some say it was the second, the first being the Battle of Plassey between Nawab Sirajudaullah of Bengal and Robert Clive of the Company forces in 1757. There is another view that the battles fought by Mysore’s Tipoo Sultan should also be given the same status. Besides, it would be folly not to count the series of uprisings in Chhotanagpur of Bihar (now Jharkhand), the Tamur Chuar Bhumij Jagganath Dhal uprising in 1760, the Battle of Chero in 1770-72, the Tilka Manjhi Rebellion in 1784, the Battle of Coles in 1831-32, the Santhal Uprising in 1855-56.

Eighteen fiftyseven was, of course, the first comprehensive pan-Indian battle against the British fought by the combined will of Indians from various parts of the country, both Rajas and commoners, soldiers and civilians. Fought with exceptional bravery, with death-defying courage by the sepoys of the Company forces who decided to mutiny against their British officers, who vaingloriously believed Indians to be natural slaves or conquered people, incapable of fighting back for their rights and so lacking a sense of unity, split between religions and castes and rich and poor as to have no sense of nationhood, much less a sense or craving for its independence.

Eighteen fiftyseven laid to rest all these myths and make-beliefs of the English. They have tried to prolong these myths by a deliberate falsehood, attributing the mutiny to the religious beliefs of Hindu and Muslim soldiers against the use of new cartridges with a coating of beef or pork. The falsehood of this fond belief has been adequately challenged and demolished. There was behind the anger, and the lying and cheating about these cartridges which rode roughshod on Indian sensibilities, a deeper anger of having to submit to the command and authority of callous aliens who too were human and whose prowess often rested on the prowess of the Indian Army.

A sense also began to dawn on the illegitimacy of the Company Bahadur’s rule. They neither had a royal lineage in India nor abroad. They were a trading company which had usurped power from weak Indian rulers, in the form of concessions in rights and territory and had done the worst to convert these rights into rulership with an army of conquest, not just self-defence, had entered into treaties with Indian rulers, fought wars with them with false allegations of breach of terms, dethroned and replaced legitimate successors with more pliable ones and spread a reign of terror in the country.

The British Government, after the Sepoy Mutiny was crushed, did not repudiate their company of traders who merely had a charter to trade and not to rule Indians but merely took over and declared their Queen as the Empress of India for which the Company had done groundwork for a 100 years. The British Empire in India came not by conquest but by the treachery of their trading company, and their gradual expansion from their trading posts into the country by every devious means conceivable, by fanning intrigue and treachery of courtiers to Indian rulers, by courting Mir Jaffars, by constantly upping their terms of trade like revenue collection in Bengal, by interfering with the good and capable succession to Indian thrones on false pretexts, by a shrewed judgement that the country’s size and diversity made for natural rivalry and survival and prosperity by divide and rule and so on.

The 1857 uprising, despite its military failure after a dogged fight, taught the British some important lessons. It demonstrated the steel in Indian men of arms, a quality that the British imagined was exclusively theirs. The Indian sepoys fought without a unified command, without coordination between the warriors in various segments and the chance to withdraw from some and regroup in others.

It also demonstrated how the Indian soldier was a man of honour and seldom ran away from the battlefield in the face of superior arms or numbers. That is how so many of them could be apprehended after they lost the war rather than escape in the countryside. They also put up with the barbarous punishments meted by the British, like being blown up by mortars publicly, in the most gallant of fashions. About a 100 recorded Indians were publicly hanged led by Pir Ali of Patna who incited the uprising of the Danapur Garrison which slaughtered over 200 British soldiers sent by the Commissioner, Patna to put down the mutiny at Danapur. The civilian participation in Bihar was so strong the British later filed a case against an entire town Arrah vs Regina which had been briefly liberated but later failed. The fighters were often from the lower castes. Babu Kuer Singh, the acclaimed hero from Shahabad in Bihar who time and time again defeated the British and fought his way to Benaras and Kanpur and MP and died fighting, though 80 years old, and other heroes had their land confiscated by the British Government and sold to native zamindars for a song.

THE 1857 uprising underlined the sense of nationhood among Indians from every part of the country. Though its focus on north India, like Barrackpore in Bengal, where Mangal Pandey was the first to rise in rebellion aided on his contact by the redoubtable Babu Kuer Singh of Shahabad district in Bihar, who at the age of 80 gave fright to the British by the courage with which he fought, also aided at his invitation by Haji Begum of Sasaram in Bihar. It was joined almost simultaneously by the mutiny in Meerut, Kanpur and Lucknow in UP where the mutineers laid a siege to the British Residency for months and killed many before they could be rescued by reinforcements from outside and the mutineers captured; the mutiny was joined by soldiers in Punjab and the South as well. These brave soldiers called the bluff that Indians acquired a sense of nationhood for the first time under the British Raj without which they would not have had it.

The war of independence was fought not only by sepoys who had served the Company Bahadur’s Raj but also by the regular armies under the Rani of Jhansi who, because of her exceptional bravery, has become a folk legend all over India, Tatya Tope, a Maratha warrior, and other smaller Indian princes. It enjoyed the unstinted support of many smaller rajas and nabobs as well as the common man who supported it with information, food supplies and all other ways.

Another milestone achieved was the complete absence of communalism or the question of faith between the mutineers or the warriors who fought with them on the question of who will succeed the British. Unanimously Hindus and Moslems decided to restore the throne to the last Moghul Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zaffar. The communal question was not allowed to cloud the minds of the freedom fighters. It was better solved then than in 1947.

There is no doubt that the British were greatly unnerved by the 1857 uprising and it laid the foundation of their eventual exit in 1947. It made them realise that the Indians could not be ruled against their will. It needed Mahatma Gandhi to mobilise the masses in non-violent satyagraha movements to demonstrate that Indians did not want the British Raj and were raring to be free. The British tried to put it off as long as they could to better serve their economic interest of a large market and source of raw material and Imperial aspirations by fanning religious and caste divisions, but after the rising in 1942, albeit peaceful but massive, they thought it prudent to leave.

Even among those who believed in holding India down by force, the memories of 1857 rankled. Subhas Babu’s Indian National Army was a sharp reminder that the loyalty of the Indian Army could not be taken for granted and they could redo an 1857. The Naval Mutiny at Bombay further reinforced that fear.

While the Mahatma’s unique contribution to the attainment of freedom cannot be doubted nor his unique contribution of non-violent satyagraha as a weapon of struggle be belittled, there should be no doubt that the struggle for freedom did not start with Gandhi or Tilak and that the 1857 uprising was our first assault on the British for gaining independence, albeit with more conventional weapons, of which we should be justly proud.

The author is the President of the Awami Ekta Manch, Patna/Delhi.

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