If we had a tradition of open threads here, I would just open one here today and ask all of y’all to share your thoughts on the Sepoy Mutiny, a.k.a. Rebellion, a.k.a. First War of Independence, a.k.a. perhaps some other name, depending on your viewpoint and the importance you assign to nomenclature in history. I know shamefully little about this fundamental event in the history of the Indian Subcontinent, and even less about the debates that it has spurred among historians, except that I know that these have been complicated and sometimes heated.
But today marks the official sesquicentennial commemoration of the start of the Mutiny/Rebellion/War, and by way of launching the conversation, I present three different takes that are in the news today. First we have Mani Shankar Aiyar, India’s Minister of Youth Affairs and Sports, who gave the official start to a youth march from Meerut to Delhi a couple of days ago. His remarks to a RediffNews correspondent emphasized the secular nature of the uprising; he observed that India today can learn from the uprising the importance of pluralism, secularism and religious understanding:
The significance of 1857 for today’s youth is that it makes you realise that we all are one people in spite of our diversity.
The freedom-fighters who revolted against the British in 1857 were mostly Hindus in Meerut. After disobeying their British superiors they went straight to the Mughal king, Bahadur Shah Zafar, and made him their king.
They had no ill-feeling for the Mughal king though he was a Muslim. This is the kind of secular bonding these soldiers had in them.
Our young generation must remember that united we stand, and though we are a diverse people we have to maintain our unity. That is what the message of 1857 was to all Indians. …
This is another message that Bahadur Shah Zafar and the freedom-fighters of 1857 wanted to pass on to the future generations. No matter what your religion and region be, respect all religion and maintain harmony. …
We have to remember the fact that India has the second largest Muslim population in the world. We have more Muslims than in Pakistan and Bangladesh but we Indians live together peacefully and I am proud to say all Muslims are my brothers.
Next up is the White Mughal himself, William Dalrymple Saheb. You knew he’d turn up somewhere! In an opinion piece today in the Guardian he argues that 1857 bears lessons for certain other interventions and occupations that Britain might happen to be involved in today. Here’s one of the similarities he points out:
The British progressed from removing threatening Muslim rulers to annexing even the most pliant Islamic states. In February 1856 they marched into Avadh, also known by the British as Oudh. To support the annexation, a “dodgy dossier” was produced before parliament, so full of distortions and exaggerations that one British official who had been involved in the operation described the parliamentary blue book (or paper) on Oudh as “a fiction of official penmanship, [an] Oriental romance” that was refuted “by one simple and obstinate fact”, that the conquered people of Avadh clearly “preferred the slandered regime” of the Nawab “to the grasping but rose-coloured government of the company”.
Yet the lessons of 1857 are very clear. No one likes people of a different faith conquering them, or force-feeding them improving ideas at the point of a bayonet. The British in 1857 discovered what the US and Israel are learning now, that nothing so easily radicalises a people against them, or so undermines the moderate aspect of Islam, as aggressive western intrusion in the east. The histories of Islamic fundamentalism and western imperialism have, after all, long been closely and dangerously intertwined. In a curious but very concrete way, the fundamentalists of all three Abrahamic faiths have always needed each other to reinforce each other’s prejudices and hatreds. The venom of one provides the lifeblood of the others.
Before we go too far down that track, here’s a third perspective, from Rudrangshu Mukherjee in the Telegraph:
[I am] surprise[d] at the sudden burst of enthusiasm among historians about the great uprising. There is nothing like a state-sponsored anniversary to stoke the interests of historians in a subject. The adjective, state-sponsored, is used advisedly. In a country with as rich and as diverse a history as Indiaâ€™s, every year is an anniversary of something or the other. In June will come the 250th anniversary of the battle of Plassey. Is the Indian state celebrating that anniversary? The answer is no. The decision to celebrate the revolt of 1857 with some fanfare is based on the conclusion â€” put forward by some historians and accepted by the government of India â€” that the rebellion is worth celebrating because it represented Indiaâ€™s first war of independence.
Mukherjee argues that “1857 should be remembered but not commemorated,” because of the extreme violence of both the insurrection and the counter-insurrection.
The events of 1857 churned around a vicious cycle of violence. The rebels killed mercilessly without considerations of gender and age. Witness the massacre on the river in Kanpur where nearly the entire British population was killed in a spectacular show of rebel power. The British killed indiscriminately to punish a population that had transgressed the monopoly of violence that rulers have over the ruled.
Today, as the celebrations begin to mark the 150th anniversary of the rebellion, some questions need to be asked: is 1857 an occasion to celebrate? Can the Indian state uphold the violence that is inextricably linked to that year? Can the Indian state say that it is loyal to the ideals of Mahatma Gandhi, the apostle of non-violence, and in the same breath celebrate 1857 when so many innocent people, on both sides, were brutally killed?
The questions are important because in India, there is no mode of remembering without celebrating. We commemorate to remember, sometimes even to forget. Eighteen fifty-seven is an event to remember, as all events of the past are; it is an event to comprehend and analyse because, as Jawaharlal Nehru wrote, it showed â€œman at his worst”. That comprehension and analysis is best done outside the aegis of the State.
I present these three perspectives somewhat arbitrarily. I imagine there are many others and I hope people will share them, honest in their opinions and generous with their explanations.
While your points above are very well taken, let us not undervalue the importance of the formation of a Nation State. The Indian nation state is one, warts and all, that all Indians should be greatly proud of, and represents the rise of a powerful, Modern India. For that, I will always be happy to celebrate.
I can’t believe that I am agreeing with moornam (though in this case I don’t think its that surprising given my distaste for certain aspects of the state, an attitude I share with many “right” libertarians) but I think he has an excellent point, if Rajat Kanta Ray’s theisis about the “felt community” is plausible. As I said in # 64 above:
A few months is a bit of an understatement.
Besides, doesn’t independence really only make sense when in the context of a nation-state? One could argue, many people speak English in India, Bollywood reigns over all (let’s not forget where the Ollywood part comes from), Cricket, a British sport is more or less religion, kids are drinking cokes and pepsis and eating tic tacs… so where’s this independence you speak of?
I’m not agreeing with any of that, I’m just saying it could be argued… Independence usually implies a political/governmental/administrative independence..
Well, if you want to think of Bharat under a King equitable to what we perceive as India, then maybe you could find some merit in your argument but it’s still based on that assumption and to me it wont represent the same India as what I perceive India today and whose seeds were sown in the 1900s. The geographical India you speak of was also just that and I am not sure how much it represented the idea of one people, especially from the perspective of the locals.
1947 was a lot more to most Indians than just a Nation state. You cannot argue against the merit of a reacquisition of freedom even if we had it in the past, of the hopes and aspirations that it brought and I think 15th August does symbolize a lot of those things and not just a Nation state formation.
When I was a kid in school, I would steadfastly refuse to sing the National Anthem, participate in the Independance Day celebrations and other such activities, and consequently would be severely caned by the Principal.
Good for you. I also abhor the ‘pledge of allegiance’ and nativist crap that kids are subjected to.
I would argue that nationalism as a mode of thought predated the state; the state (or rulers) merely latched on to this sentiment to legitimate itself (or themselves).
Maybe 15th August could be celebrated as the day when India became a republic.
“Republic Day” is officially the 26th of January (India became a republic in 1950, between 47 and 50 it was a Brit dominion, like Australia is now)
Yeah why not, how ever I think it would be better to celebrate the day that India became a Republic on the day that India became a Republic. It’s the 26:th January, it’s called the Republic Day and it’s a day when the Republic shows off it’s awesome power by parading missiles in Dehli. Some people call it celebrating, but I don’t. It’s kinda ridicoulus.
January 26th is already celebrated as Republic Day! Because it was the day chosen for India’s current constitution to go into effect, in 1950. (It was chosen as that day, because the Indian National Congress (party) passed a Resolution calling for ‘complete independence’ twenty years previously, on Jan 26 1930, while meeting at Lahore.)
And Mountbatten chose August 14/15 as the Day of the Transfer of Power Ceremony in 1947, because that was the day in 1945 that the Empire of Japan formally accepted Allied Surrender Terms ! Pakistan took August 14 as its Independence Day, India took August 15.
Where are our resident historians!? 🙂
Slightly off the current topic, but Siddhartha, please consider having the ‘India 1857’ map that is up there archived locally on the SM server. It’s quite a rare find, and although someone already thanked you for finding it, let me thank you again!
And a small suggestion to the wonderful folks who make the delightful SM banners – please consider making one (or a few) with this map as the background/foreground! Given the centrality of the ‘Mutiny’ theme to SM, this would be quite apropos. Thank you!
Chachaji, anuary 26th is already celebrated as Republic Day! I assumed, as many other people also probably did, that ACD was joking.
And Mountbatten chose August 14/15 as the Day of the Transfer of Power Ceremony in 1947, because that was the day in 1945 that the Empire of Japan formally accepted Allied Surrender Terms ! Pakistan took August 14 as its Independence Day, India took August 15. There is some controversy about this.
THERE has always been a certain amount of speculation as to why August 15 was chosen as the date for India’s Independence from British colonial rule. Philip Ziegler, in his biographical work, Mountbatten, writes, “Mountbatten claimed that the date came to him as by inspiration, the only reason for August 15, being the somewhat tenuous one that it was the anniversary of his appointment as Supreme Commander.” However, Mountbatten later “contradicted” this statement in his “own retrospective despatch in which he states that 15 August was agreed with the Indian leaders in the first days of June.” Notwithstanding this denial, Ziegler clarifies, “No trace of such conversations is to be found in the copious records.”
I do remember coming across a description in a biography of Mountbatten of the exact occassion when the date was decided, and I tend to believe that it being the anniversary of his appointment might have been the reason.
I do remember coming across a description in a biography of Mountbatten of the exact occassion when the date was decided, and I tend to believe that it being the anniversary of his appointment might have been the reason.
What I remember reading is something like that:
Clement Atlee, then PM had pushed forward the date of independence in general terms, but it was all wishy washy.
Mountbatten lands in India, and in one of the first press conference, he is asked about the date of independence. He blurts out “15th August”, that was the day he as a Deputy Supreme Allied Commander in the Pacific Theater had accepted surrender from the Japanese (remember, the H-bombs were dropped in early August, there was a formal on the Burma front apart from the larger one with General MacArthur) couple years ago.
PS: I might be little hazy on exact details.
I meant: there was a formal surrender also on the Burma front apart from the larger one with General MacArthur
Shankar, thanks! I must have been in a severely humor-challenged moment when I wrote that. Sorry ACFD!
Your citation from Ziegler, on the other hand, is interesting but inconclusive. Not sure which anniversary you had in mind, since Mountbatten took over as Viceroy on 21 February 1947.
The reason I think he had the Japanese Surrender in mind when deciding the date of Transfer of Poweer was that he himself had been Supreme Allied Commander South East Asia (SACSEA) during 1943-46, to which he was appointed in October 1943. He was personally vested very strongly in the Burma campaign to turn back the Japanese from invading India. In his capacity as SACSEA, he personally took the Japanese surrender at Singapore on Sep 12 1945. So the Aug 14/15 date was quite important to him.
That Nehru, Jinnah et al agreed to the Aug 15 1947 date in early June 1947 (around the time the Radcliffe Commission began its work) does not contradict the rationale for why Mountbatetn suggested August 15 in the first place.
I don’t remember where I read Mountbatten’s rationale for August 15, but even if Ziegler could not conclude “for sure” based on anything written down, we can still draw plausible inferences.
Kush, I remember reading about the details of the conference, and what you have sounds pretty close to what I remember about it.
I think the reason it has stayed in my mind is because of its implication for the Partition of India. Problems involving riots and other communal violence were expected long before. In comparison, for instance, the dates for the invasion of Europe and Japan were picked with great care. To fix a date for Independence and thereby Partition on a date of merely historical (and dare I say, personal) significance sounds irresponsible to me. I am not trying to blame Mountbatten for the problems and, to be clear, I am not sure where the blame for the problems related to partition lies, but I do know that Mountbatten was criticized by the Conservatives for handling the partition poorly once he got back to England.
Chachaji and Kush, I am not sure. I just recall reading that there has been some controversy about why the date was chosen 🙂
And chachaji, I love reading your good-humored comments 🙂
To fix a date for Independence and thereby Partition on a date of merely historical (and dare I say, personal) significance sounds irresponsible to me.
That is true, a lot of historians think Clement Attlee idea of moving the independence was disastrous. First, it gave the idea of “unified India” almost no time to work it out, and very less preparations for riots during the partition. The British intelligence had clear ideas of what would happen during partition – but had no time to prepare (or cared little at that point), and very little time for logistics on the ground. But then even people like Jinnah who kept his Bombay house and even wanted the first meeting Pakistan Constituent Assembly in Delhi. Almost all the leaders at some point were delusional.
Most importantly, UK was on the brink of hunger and heating crisis immediately after WW II – running India was becoming too expensive, and everything had been looted that was to be.
Mountbatten was almost like godson to Winston Churchill, and had friends in Labor Government, considerable experience in India, Sri Lanka and around – that is why he was picked. Clement Attlee requested him to see Churchill before he left for India.
Here is wikipedia on Earl Mountbatten of Burma.
Most importantly, UK was on the brink of hunger and heating crisis immediately after WW II … Mountbatten was almost like godson to Winston Churchill, and had friends in Labor Government, considerable experience in India, Sri Lanka and around – that is why he was picked. Right. The first time I read about the way they executed the partition of India, I remember being absolutely stunned. Here was a huge country on the brink of a huge conflagaration, and here were these questions being asked about whether it would really take two people to do the job and if one wouldn’t serve equally well.
Radcliffe drew up the Radcliffe line between India and Pakistan/Bangladesh, but the way it was done, it was pretty much one guy sitting up day and night drawing lines over a map working furiously trying to make the deadline of August 15th, which was itself pretty arbitrary. Here is the wiki entry on how the border between India and Pakistan/Bangladesh was drawn.
The border had already been roughly drawn up by Lord Wavell, the Viceroy of India, but the final version was set out by Sir Cyril Radcliffe. Radcliffe had never visited India and didn’t know anybody in India before his arrival. Thus, he was considered to be unbiased. However, he was ignorant of realities on the ground and this caused avoidable gaffes in the division. For example, there were instances where the border was drawn leaving some parts of a village in India and some in Pakistan. There were even instances where the dividing line passed through a single house with some rooms in one country and others in the other. Radcliffe’s justification for such a casual division was that no matter what he did, people would suffer. He also had to work in a very short time period so there was little point in being careful where exactly the border lay. He made no real attempt to ensure that the border skirted villages or was drawn between thickly populated areas instead of right through them. Radcliffe has been accused of being completely unconcerned about the sufferings of the Indians. The division was done in secret, and the British government allowed no Indians to review it, since disputes were bound to have arisen then and it would delay the Partition.
Frankly, I don’t think there’s much that could have been done differently to have prevented the bloodshed. It would have been good if no transfer of population had taken place, and people could have remained in their native towns and villages. Lahore city for example was actually Hindu/Sikh majority (by a very small margin), but the Lahore district as a whole was Muslim-majority and thus went to Pakistan. Amritsar city was Muslim majority (by a very slight margin) but the Amritsar district as a whole was Hindu/Sikh majority and thus went to India. About 20-25% of Pakistani Punjab was Hindu/Sikh at the time of Partition, and at least 35% of Indian Punjab was Muslim. 20% of Sindh was Hindu prior to Partition. 5-10% of NWFP in Pakistan was Hindu/Sikh. Rawalpindi region had a large Hindu concentration, and Montgomery, Lyallpur etc. had big Sikh concentrations. Conversely, Jalandhar, Gurdaspur, and Hoshiarpur, which all went to India, were 40-45% Muslim. The scale of the forced migrations and the massacres are simply hard to believe.
VJ day is August, 14, 1945. This is with accordance with US time zone.
However, Mountbatten was stationed in Sri Lanka at that time, and for him and even for Japanese, it is August, 15th.
Interrupting regular programming for this message : Am I the only one here who is getting a little outraged that a bunch of NRIs /non-Indians deem it fit to tell Indians in India that they should not celebrate Independence day or Republic day? A little national pride never hurt anybody…
Now back to the original and fascinating discussion…
Am I the only one here who is getting a little outraged that a bunch of NRIs /non-Indians deem it fit to tell Indians in India that they should not celebrate Independence day or Republic day? A little national pride never hurt anybody. Heh. That is just MoorNam being MoorNam. A kinder, gentler MoorNam, yes, but still the good ol’ MoorNam of days of yore 🙂
I don’t think I ever said that India shouldn’t celebrate the Republic Day, on the contrary. I said we shouldn’t celebrate by hauling out our bid dicks, sorry parading Agni missiles down the Janpath. It doesn’t get less stupid just because I’m a NRI.
Blabbering is free, and opinions are a dime a dozen. Here’s mine:
I think national pride has been patented by Americans. The first president of this country and the father of this nation, was a slave-owner. Smile
I think there’s some intelligence in not showing too much pride (in nations), but a little — whisper — a littttle — whisper ends — pride in our* collective effort to show the occupiers the door, is, in my humble opinion, justified on the 150th anniversary of 1857 (notice the careful use of the event-identifier; no claim of any ‘firsts’).
Subhash Bose’s Indian Struggle (this book and his An Indian Pilgrim didn’t get the publicity as the Truth Experiments and Discovery of India, but see the dust jacket to read the amount of critical acclaim he received for his clarity of purpose and lucidity of thought) begins thusly: (writing from memory) The Mughals had come to stay here, and made it their home. The Britishers are birds of passage.
Samjay # 173 January 26th is probably the one day that many Indians get to see and think about the armed forces and the amount of sacrifice that they have put in just so that folks like you and me could live, thrive in India and one fine day leave it .
What is wrong in seeing the Agni missiles parade down Janpath? I for one always watched the parade ( televised – alas – could never see it live) and gave thanks to all the brave men and women of our armed forces and felt proud to be an Indian.Besides the military stuff – I hope you remember that the parade also included floats from every state, school children, winners of the child bravery awards etc . What is wrong with that ? Here in the USA , my town has big parades for the 4th of July, St Patricks day etc etc .I enjoy watching those too 🙂
Whats wrong? Well if it’s to celebrate the creation of India it surley should have been lawyers parading down Janpath. Why not school teachers, doctors, scientists? I’ve got no problem with a parade, just the militaristic nature of it. It kinda gives me totalitarian vibes.
The last three comments were deleted because they were all from the same person. If you want to agree with yourself, do it elsewhere, thanks.
All this stuff about the Raj abolishing sati is a red herring. Think about it, the East India Co got Bengal in 1757 and they waited until 1829 to abolish it. And they did it only after Hindus petitioned them to do so. The gap of 72 years is about the same as how long the Soviet Union existed (1917-1991). Saying that the Brits came to India and abolished sati is akin to saying that the Bolsheviks came to power and then disbanded. True, but is not the complete truth. The Brits didn’t really care about sati or anything. They saw an opportunity to claim credit on a “slam dunk” reform and vilify Hindus in one action and jumped in. Was it a good thing that they abolished it finally? Sure, better late than never, I guess. They can realistically claim credit honestly about getting rid of the thugs. But then again, the thugs were interfering with their business and so the Brits had a real reason to go after them.
Anyone know anything about Gandhi’s treatment of the Bengal Famine? It looks like he pretty much ignored it, which dismays me. Three million dead – literally dying on the streets of Bengal – and he didn’t say or do anything? Please tell me I am wrong. I read a letter from Mountbatten to Gandhi flattering him that while the ‘Empire’ needed thousands of men to control the Punjab, only one man was needed to control Bengal – a fasting Gandhi. It hurt me to read it, thinking that, to my knowledge, he did not fast in protest of what Amartya Sen has asserted to be a colossal, heartbreaking manmade disaster.
I wait for the day the Bengal Famine is as well known as the Great Irish Famine.
LOL.. I read the comment and was trying to respond. I think you should leave the comment as it is. It could be the newest of “nationalist myths” that Punjabis and Sikhs were all in support of the mutineers while it is just the paid mercenary Sikhs who supported the Brits. and how Muslims saved cows in Delhi to prove their secularism.. 🙂
kinda curious whose comment was deleted? anyone know?
A critical look as to why the “popular” 1857 first war of independence (sepoy mutiny) was neither “first” and nor a “nationalist” war of independence make sure you read the last few lines in the article http://www.hindu.com/mag/2007/03/25/stories/2007032500140400.htm
This is probably a little misleading. The anti-sati reform movement and the petition was spearheaded by Ram Mohan Roy who had founded the Brahmo Samaj one year before sati was made illegal. The movement was strongly opposed by social conservative Hindus, led by an outstanding scholar Radhakanta Deb, on the principle that the government should not interfere in the social and religious life of people. They formed a society named Dharma Sabha and presented a counter petition. Regardless of Bentinck’s motivations, it was not a “slam dunk”. And even though Ram Mohan was not as virulently anti-Hindu as “Young Bengal” crowd graduating from his Hindu college — yes, an ironic name — used to be, he was fiercely resisted. As usual, Rabindranath summarizes Ram Mohan’s position well, if you can get past the lyricism and metaphors.
Great discussion! This Sunday edition of Anandabazar has a fictitious and fascinating discourse on 1857 between Marx and Ghalib. Unlike internet disussions, they end up convincing each other a little bit even though they started with diametrically opposite perspectives.
Raj (#182): Good article. Reading too much about the British Raj is infuriating…because we (desis) were just so easy for them (the Brits) to control…like taking candy from a baby. In the 1800s at least, it was like this big adult (England) controlling a bunch of 5 year olds (the various Indian kingdoms, religious and ethnic groups, etc). The 5 year olds have NO idea what’s really going on. Just so disgusting.
Dipanjan, with much respect to Ram Mohan Roy and all the intellectuals and social reformers of Bengal (whose influence eventually affected the entire country), would any of that have happened if the British hadn’t come to India? In fact, one of the biggest ‘what ifs’ to ponder is what would have happened to ‘South Asia’ if the Brits were never there.
When it doubt quote Marx. Marx and Engels gave contemporary coverage to the revolt.
That Mussulmans and Hindus renouncing their mutual antipathies, have combined against their common masters; that disturbances beginning with the Hindus, have actually ended in placing on the throne of Delhi a Mohammedan emperor; that the mutiny has not been confined to a few localities,â€™â€™ Marx wrote in one article.
Even in the end, when the revolt was dying, Engels predicted ominous portents for the future for the British. “The great rebellion, stirred up by the mutiny of the Bengal army, is indeed, it appears, dying out. But this second conquest has not increased Englandâ€™s hold upon the mind of the Indian people. The cruelty of the retribution dealt out by the British troops, goaded on by exaggerated and false reports of the atrocities attributed to the natives have not created any particular fondness for the victors,â€™â€™ Engels wrote on October 1, 1858.
Yes, there would be no Ram Mohan if the British were not in India. He was actually an employee of East India Company and must have come in contact with some “good Englishmen”. What-ifs are hard. We would all speak French perhaps.
That would really suck.
Hey Dipanjan, nice link. The British and French continued their rivalry and war all over the globe on the lands their colonialist hands were grasping for. When you look at it like this, the driver for Empire was very parochial — neighbourhood rivalry, the eternal battle for supremacy between Britain and France, going back hundreds of years and continual tension and war.
Have you seen that brilliant movie starring Daniel Day Lewis called ‘Last of the Mohicans’? It’s all about how the British and French fought wars for control of America, using local Native American tribes as proxies for their battles. Everywhere they went, the European powers brought war.
The Marx-Ghalib (fictitious) exchange was interesting. The basic point, I think is that any â€œgainsâ€ from British rule were purely incidental; its like saying that the Japanese conquest of Asia was â€œgoodâ€ for Indonesia and Malaysia since it got rid of respectively Dutch and British rule. Further, its pretty well known among scholars of South Korean economic history that economic growth in Korea pre WWII actually increased during Japanese rule (brutal though it was); one reason was that the Japanese basically killed all the large land-owners and put up factories. Japanâ€™s grisly record in Asia actually fades before the British record in India after the Mutiny:
Mike Davis: Late Victorian Holocausts (excerpts) (Amartya Senâ€™s Review)
Vivek Chibber: The Good Empire?
Getting back to the original point, the debate basically asks you to chose between two repugnant alternatives by justifying the better one. Maybe a left-handed person will prefer losing the right hand rather than the left.
Typo,I should have said that
Apologies, but I forgot to add after
that Indian GDP per capital did not change much between 1757 (Battle of Plassy) and 1947.
thanks for the link to Sen’s review. I agree with many of his arguments, but I disagree with economists in general (we can debate on some other forum) that the design of the structure is the panacea of all ills. Most outcomes are due to a combination of the person and the situation. Structuralists, who are now ruling the roost in their influence on policy making in India, put too much importance on the situation, neglecting the person in toto. People do not behave by mechanical utility functions, day after day, month after month. There are other fundamental imprints – biology, group processes, cultural icons, mimetic processes etc. Because of this neglect on what the people of India can do, we still continue to use wrong labels – ‘industrialization’ in West Bengal, for example, when the right word should be entrepreneurship.
At some point in Indian history (As many pointed out … those were the dark days of India), we lacked enterprise. There is an urgent need to focus on social sciences other than economics, that study our motivations, decision-making, organizing abilities, teamwork, conflicts, status differentials etc. instead of assuming some unreal utility function, and extracting prescription from those findings. Cause and effect is not the forte of regressions and simulations anyway, and no one does experiments in India.
Am I allowed an opinion?
Because if I am…this is it… There were a number of local rebellions among the sepoys in Bengal already in early 1857, which were crushed and the rebel leaders hanged. Similar incidents took place elsewhere. The revolt climaxed when the sepoys in Meerut rose in arms on May 9-10, 1857. They killed their officers and called for a general mutiny. The rebels proclaimed the Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, as their sovereign and demanded the British to leave India. Meerut, Delhi, Lucknow, Kanpur, Jhansi and Bereilly were the main centres of revolt.
Some rulers of princely states also joined the uprising. Under the Doctrine of Lapse introduced by the Company it could annex states under its protection if the ruling family had no male heir to succeed. Some rulers had no male heir to succeed them. Other disgruntled forces that joined the movement were local leaders and warlords. The descendants of Shah Waliullah issued a fatwa calling it a jihad. But most rulers of princely states, Hindus and Muslims, kept away or even sided with the British.
The Sikh warlords and princes also sided with the British. Only eight years earlier in 1849 the English had defeated the successors of Ranjit Singh (1799-1839) and annexed the Sikh Kingdom of Lahore. The Company had deployed soldiers from northern India, called Purbi Bhiyas, against the Sikh armies. Now, the British played upon Sikh anger against the Purbi Bhiyas and made them crush the sepoys with a vengeance. Also, Muslim tribal and clan leaders from the Punjab and the NWFP helped the British. Afterwards all of them were rewarded with titles and land grants.
But not all Punjabis sided with the British. In some places there were uprisings. On January 4, 2005 I interviewed Maulana Habibur Rahman Sani in the main Friday mosque in Field Ganj, Ludhiana, East Punjab (currently there is a sizable Muslim labour force from Bihar and the UP in Ludhiana). Maulana Sani’s grandfather, Maulana Habibur Rahman, was one of the founders and main leaders of the Majlis-e-Ahrar. He told me the fascinating story of his ancestor, Shah Abdul Qadir Ludhianvi, who he said led the revolt in the Punjab against the Company.
I was told that Shah Abdul Qadir Ludhianvi was able to drive out the British from Ludhiana. He took his forces to Panipat and from there to Chandni Chowk in Delhi, but was defeated and died fighting. Maulana Sani’s theory was that because Shah Abdul Qadir was an Arain the British later put a ban on that tribe from being employed in their Indian army.
In any event, the rebels lacked coordinated leadership and the participation of the people was sporadic. There was no clarity on ideology beyond the common programme of driving the British out of India. Ultimately the Company fought back and regained its pre-eminent position in India. Bahadur Shah Zafar was sent into exile to Rangoon. His sons and many other relatives were captured and killed. All this was done in a most brutal and vicious manner.
In a hundred years — from the battle of Plassey of 1757 to the uprising of 1857 — the English East India Company had extended its power in all of northern India while it had become the main power in the south even earlier.
The gold, silver, precious stones and other riches transferred during that period helped to a point to finance the British industrial revolution. Thus by 1833 the Board of Directors of the East India Company had been transformed from one dominated by importers to exporters.
Some radical scholars believe that India was ripe for large-scale production. Had its wealth not been taken away it would have successfully entered the era of industrial production. Some people even suggest that literacy was as high as 85 per cent and 20-25 per cent of world trade originated in the subcontinent (it is 1 per cent at present for all of South Asia while the region is house to 25 per cent of the total world population). I have not been able to find reliable data to support these claims but there is no doubt that it was the wealth of India that brought the Europeans to it.
The 1857 uprising profoundly transformed the nature of British rule. India was formally annexed by the Crown in 1858 and became a part of the empire. Thus began the process of integration of different parts of India into a modern bureaucratic state. The new centres of political revival and economic activity were not the old towns and cities of northern India but coastal towns such as Madras, Bombay and Calcutta — all located in Hindu majority areas.
The Indian National Congress, founded originally in 1885 on British prompting to counter the radical terrorist tendencies in Bengal, later began to organise mass opposition to colonial rule under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi. In turn the British played upon the fears of the Muslim minority and encouraged them to found the All-India Muslim League in 1906. But all such machinations could not prolong British rule beyond mid-August 1947, when two independent states of India and Pakistan came into being.
Indian nationalists, who until 1947 included Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and others, celebrated the 1857 uprising as the First Independence Struggle, some used stronger words such as the ‘First War of Independence’. Their main argument is that those who took part in that struggle wanted an end to alien rule; they were seeking to restore the Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, as the emperor of all the people of India.
They were not looking for the establishment of a Hindu Rashtra or an Islamic Caliphate. Therefore, the argument goes, it was a manifestation of a genuine desire to be free as a pluralist nation comprising all communities. Whatever the truth, I think some symbolic gesture to mark the 1857 uprising must be made jointly by India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. It has often been asserted that Punjab didn’t participate in the First War of Independence and Punjabis worked against the cause. But Chandigarh-based eminent scholar of Punjabi studies Harnam Singh Shaan has found irrefutable evidence showing that Punjab not only participated in the War, but also its people smilingly laid down their lives. Only they were never saluted for their role.
A striking proof that the War, as elsewhere, started in Punjab on May 10, 1857, comes from the accounts of Frederic Cooper, the then Amritsar deputy commissioner, whose book titled “The Crisis in the Punjab from 10th May to the Fall of Delhi, 1857” is revealing. It was published in London in 1858 and contains details of the execution of Punjabi soldiers ordered by Cooper in 1857.
On the night of July 30, 1857, a band of 500 Punjabi patriots, were camping on the banks of the Ravi, six miles from Ajnala. The British spotted and surrounded them. Cooper ordered the killing of 150 soldiers. While receding, several patriots were overpowered by the unsparing currents of the Ravi. The remaining, about 282, were sent to Ajnala jail. Several were brought out in groups of 10 and shot down on the streets. Of those in jail, 45 died of suffocation and thirst. Their bodies, instead of being cremated, were bundled up and thrown into a nearby well which was covered with earth, by Cooper’s orders. The well still exists near Ajnala and is called “Kaliyan da Khuh”. The martyrs never got any memorial but their death sparked protests in “Bangar Desh” (now Haryana).
References to Punjab’s role in the uprising also emerge from the accounts of poet-historians of that age. In “Jagnama Dilli”, Khazan Singh refers to 1914 (Bikrami calendar) which corresponds to 1857 (Christian year). He writes, “Saal unin sau chaudhavan vartada si, sare desh de vich fatur paie; Kavi Singh aakhe ehnan kalian ne, topan bir ke morche aan laei.”
Seeds of revolt were actually sown when the British captured Punjab after Ranjit Singh’s death. National poet of Punjab Sayed Shah Mohammad also referred to the battle between British India and Punjab. In “Jangnama Singhan te Phirangian”, 1846, he wrote: “Jang Hind Punjab da hon laga, doven badshahi phaujan bharian ne, Shah Mohammad ik sarkar bahjon, phaujan jit ke ant nun harian ne” (the Sikhs lost in the absence of Ranjit Singh)
Ten years after Mohammad’s echoes, the War opened. In his records, Khazan Singh wrote of how the British wanted to Christianise their forces. “Jang Nama Dilli”, the manuscript Shaan researched, talks about Lord Canning’s arrival in Ambala from Calcutta and of how Canning asked the local subedars to surrender. The Punjabis were at first hesitant to support “Poorbia” (from East India) soldiers as they thought the Poorbias helped the British conquer Punjab. Later, however, the Punjabis rose up to the challenge. Of Punjabi soldiers, Khazan Singh writes, “Asian maran ge teg di tab agai, jang karan ge morche lae ke ji, Asin bhaj ke kite na javna hai, tainun chhaddan ge Sindh tapae ke ji”.
The rebellion further spread to Ferozepur where many soldiers were killed. From there, Punjabi soldiers marched on towards Jhelum, Atak, Ambala and Ferozpur cantonments. When they reached Gurdaspur, the British officer in charge was so anxious, he asked Lahore to send additional forces.
“Ghadar di Var”, the 1858 manuscript, records the incident: “Jang kamai kaliyan, Jhelum Atak sipah, Sardar bajar te chhavni, lut leya Sialkot nu jah, thar thar kambda Sialkot, Gurdaspur val aiye, Likh pawrana Smith sahib bhejia, Pharangi takhat Lahoron phat pahunchaiyeâ€¦”
The usual argument made for this typical behaviour of the Punjabis is that after the annexation of Punjab (1849), John Lawrence, and his band of dedicated and dynamic officers had not only turned the badly disturbed Land of the Five Rivers into the best governed province from 1849 to 1857 but had also given to its people peace, prosperity and happiness â€” something which they had not seen in their long history. Consequently, the â€œgratefulâ€ Punjabis stood by their benevolent rulers and saved their empire.
Thatâ€™s untrue! Punjab was not â€œquietâ€ in 1857. Despite heavy deployment of troops (about 45 per cent of the entire Bengal army and about 60 per cent of its European troops), terribly tight bureaucratic grip over the people, and full preparation to meet any emergency on the part of the authorities, Punjab was afire, though in varying degrees. There were serious sepoy mutinies at Ferozepur, Hote Mardan, Jullundur, Phillour, Jhelum, Sialkot, Thanesar, Ambala, Hansi, Hisar, Sirsa, Lahore, Ferozepur, Peshawar, and Mianwali.
Some people underestimate these risings and negate the Punjabisâ€™ role therein, by calling these risings as Poorbeasâ€™ doings. This is also untrue: the regiments, which played a heroic role in these risings were the â€œmixed onesâ€. They consisted of Hindus (of high and low castes), Muslims, and Sikhs, Poorbeas and Punjabis. Through their concerted efforts, these people performed great feats.
There is yet another very interesting feature of these â€œmutiniesâ€, which has remained hidden to a large extent. That is, the sepoys here did not rise anywhere without tacit understanding with and positive support of the local civil populace. Aberrationally, if they rose on their own anywhere, they did not succeed in their mission.
Ambala is a good example to prove the point. About nine hours before the outbreak at Meerut (10 May), the 5 NI, 60 NI and 4 LC regiments stationed there revolted. They attacked their regimental kotes, seized arms, and arrested their officers. They had no liaison with the civil populace in the city. Their rising failed! As opposed to this, the sepoys at Jullundur, Ludhiana, Thanesar, Hansi, Hisar, Sirsa, Ferozepur, Sialkot, etc., had leagued with their civilian brethren. They were successful.
Interestingly, we can see this phenomenon working even outside Punjab. The failure of the mutiny at Barahamur and Barrackpore, and its resounding success at Meerut, for instance, can be explained only in the light of this fact.
This revelation discredits the theory that the uprising of 1857 was a sepoy mutiny, pure and simple, and that it was started by the sepoys alone. The revolt was, at least in Punjab, everybodyâ€™s concern. Barring a few ruling princes and their hangers-on, the people belonging to different religions, castes and classes had interest – positive interest, to be precise â€” in it.
Surprisingly, even the poor, illiterate, the so-called outcasts were a part of it. For instance, when the â€œSiege Trainâ€ dispatched from Punjab to help the British forces fighting before Delhi to capture the historic city halted at Jagraon, the Sansis, Hermis, Bawarias, etc. counted the guns in the â€œTrainâ€ and, despite the best efforts of the district police to check them, supplied the intelligence to the rebel forces at Delhi.
â€œThe lower orders and castes among the Hindus and Mohammedansâ€ at his place, says the deputy commissioner of Ludhiana, â€œfollowed any casual leader that turned up and joined in promoting general disorderâ€.
According to the deputy commissioner of Sialkot, at his station â€œthe menial servants were very generally implicated (in the revolt)â€. At some places, where anti-Feringhee feeling was universally strong and deep, even such sections of the population who derived personal benefits from the British, and who were, for these reasons, on the side of the British almost everywhere, were not prepared to back their masters.
What about the Sikhs? They, too, were opposed to the British who had taken away their freedom, humiliated their Maharaja, and his mother, humbled their chiefs and sardars, insulted their religion and tradition, and ruined their economy and culture.
Even in the Sikh princely states, which were loyal to the British, the Sikh masses nursed a different sentiment, and, wherever they could, they sympathised with their countrymen fighting to destroy the Feringhee raj. The sentiment was so strong that, even some close kiths and kins of the Maharajas of Patiala and Nabha revolted against them for supporting â€œtheir enemiesâ€.
On the north-western side, in the higher hills, the war-like Muslim tribes rose up and created a â€œpeopleâ€™s warâ€ there. Most of these people did not know where Delhi was, but they stood under the flag of its Padshah, Bahadurshah and fought against the Feringhee fiercely. Their spirit was not the spirit of ordinary fighters. We saw them dancing in the face of certain death at Gogira and other places, report the British officials.
Contextually, there is an interesting story that brings home the truth clearly. There was a Swedish officer, Lieut. A.H. Lindin, who had taken part in suppressing the uprising for the British. He had no mind to write anything on the uprising. But when he saw the British writers circulating untruth, he wrote his memoirs to set the record straight. â€œIt was not any lure of loot or attraction to lesser crimeâ€, he wrote, â€œthat prompted the Indians to participate in the uprising. Nobody can deny that the real stimulant of this uprising was with most people that most valuable, purest of all feelings, the love of freedom and of oneâ€™s own countryâ€.
In this 150th year of the uprising, it seems appropriate that truth about the brilliant part of the people of Punjab in the uprising lying buried under the debris of falsehood be extricated, and presented in colours true to history.
And anitherthing, Until the rebelling sepoys from Meerut crossed the Yamuna river early in the morning of 11 May 1857, what had happened to disturb the equanimity of Lord Canning and his advisers was only a series of incidents of unrest within the Bengal Army on the issue of greased cartridges from February onwards at Berhampur, Barrackpur, and Lucknow â€” all the “mutinies” having been suppressed, with humiliations, punishments and disbandment of the affected units.
What made Meerut the turning point was that the sepoysâ€™ mutiny here on 9 May could not be put down and the rebelling men, braving all threats, freed their comrades and marched and seized Delhi. That one action suddenly opened the floodgates, bringing about a general uprising of the Bengal Army, and then a popular rebellion over so large a part of Northern India, that two such different contemporary observers as Disraeli and Marx could immediately characterise it as a “national revolt”.
In some recent writing, there is a tendency, seemingly out of protest against the use of the term “Mutiny”, to belittle the role of the Bengal Army. This is surely an error. The Bengal Army sepoys not only began the rebellion, they remained its major fighting force to the end.
On the eve of the “rising”, it was the largest modern army east of Suez. Estimates of its size at the time vary, but there were probably no less than 128,000 “native” sepoys of whom only a little above 8,000 remained loyal to the English. The revolting sepoys, by their training and discipline, and knowledge of modern methods of military organisation, continued to be not only the most steadfast in the cause, but its most crucial instrument.
Exceptional was the spirit of solidarity among the sepoys, where the very large number of caste-conscious Brahmans in the infantry did not affect the bonds of mutual loyalty tying them to their Shaikh, Pathan and Rajput brethren along with whom they had shed their blood for the English for so long. It was characteristic that when they revolted, they elected their officers, from amongst themselves, giving themselves the military titles in vogue in the British Army: majors, colonels and generals. They also formed “councils” â€” and at Delhi even a Court of Administration â€” to take decisions in a democratic manner.
It was noticed that largely Hindu regiments elected Muslims as their officers, and vice versa. With such a key component within the rebellion, one finds it difficult to agree with Jawaharlal Nehruâ€™s judgement that 1857 was essentially a “feudal outburst”, a “feudal rising.” (These statements occur in the Discovery of India, which otherwise is heavily condemnatory of the mass killings by the British in suppressing the rebellion.)
Nor can the word “feudal” really apply to many who supported the sepoys once they broke into Delhi and rose in rebellion elsewhere. Clearly, as we know from all accounts, the Mughal king Bahadur Shah “Zafar” and his retinue were reluctant and apprehensive. On the other hand, as the detailed narrative of the Sepoysâ€™ takeover of Delhi in the Dehli Urdu Akhbar (weekly) of 17 May, shows large numbers of ordinary people in Delhi cooperated with the “Telingas”, the common name for infantry sepoys).
Among persons who were especially active the rebel sepoys were men from artisan classes. According to an eyewitness description (by Syed Ahmad Khan) of the forces of the local rebel leader of Bijnor, Mahmud Khan, these troops included, besides gun-wielding Pathans, some 40 sepoys, headed by one Ram Sarup, all excellent soldiers; but for the rest, “they were just cotton-carders and weavers, who had handled yarn, but never a sword.” The official ethnologist William Crooke was to recall later that weavers played a fanatical role in the revolt in 1857. It must be remembered that this was the time when the mass of town weavers were being deprived of their employment by competition from Lancashire.
Another important class in the town was that of the educated. An impression prevails that modern means of knowledge had no or little influence yet on the educated urban population of the Hindustani-speaking area. This impression is not at all borne out by the weekly printed journals like the Delhi Urdu Akhbar from Delhi or Tilism from Lucknow. Indeed, it was among such educated strata that the grievance at exclusion from administrative employment and, indeed, state patronage was very greatly felt.
There were others who joined the revolt, both Hindus and Muslims, under the slogan of defence of dharm and deen. The Delhi Urdu Akhbar used both these words and in emotional editorials called upon Hindus and Muslims to fight together, for they shared a common belief in One God, using the term Adi Purush and had nothing in common with their enemy, the English, who believed in Trinity and had nothing in common with them. Even far more theologically inclined, like the followers of the sufic rebel leader Ahmadullah Shah, took a similar position in the well-known rebel tract Risala Fateh Islam.
The â€œWahabisâ€, whose position was usually less tractable, have been needlessly given a larger-than-life role in the rebellion, by the assumption that the word â€œmujahidâ€ or â€œjihadiâ€ implies a Wahabi. These words, in the 1857 usage, merely implied a Muslim volunteer who joined the fight, though not a professional soldier or sepoy. The famous Delhi commander Bakht Khan had been quite wrongly given the tag of a Wahabi. His own position is made clear in a proclamation of his (dated 30 July) in which he not only threatens to punish anyone who would engage in cow-slaughter but also condemns the â€œmujahidsâ€ for occupying the Jama Masjid and spoiling it by their dirtiness (najasat).
The towns were important; but the countryside was vital for sustaining the rebellion. There were many reasons why both the upper rural classes (zamindars and taluqdars) and the peasants be aggrieved at British rule in the main area of the rebellion. The Mahalwari system of land-revenue imposed on the present territory of U.P. was perhaps the most heavy of all revenue systems in India and, after the Annexation (1856), this system was now being sought to be extended to Oudh, whose taluqdars had been treated much more leniently by the deposed dynasty of Oudh. Older conditions still prevailed to the extent that the leading zamindars (â€œchaudhurisâ€) could call peasants, especially of their own castes to serve them.
In their case, the capacity to combine with the rebelling sepoy regiments was remarkable.
As for peasantsâ€™ participation on their own, it is much to Eric Stokesâ€™ credit that he has treated this phenomenon in great detail, he quotes the general statement of Mark Thornhill, made in November 1858 from his own observations that, â€œunlike the large proprietorsâ€, â€œthe agricultural labouring classâ€ had in 1857 proved to be â€œthe most hostileâ€ to the continuance of British rule.
Peasants, being illiterate, unluckily did not leave any record of their ideas and aspirations behind. Readers of the memoirs of Zahir Dehlawi may, however, recall how, when fleeing from Delhi, he obtained the assistance of a hardy village headman, who, though hostile to the rebel leader Khan Bahadur Khan, yet gave the fugitives food and help, upon being told that they were being pursued by the English.
The ruling houses who had suffered from deposition, annexation or reduction in status had reasons enough to join the revolt, once the sepoys rose. Their entourages and retainers were not only bound to them by ties of loyalty but also by hopes of restoration. Bahadur Shah Zafar, Nana Sahib, Hazarat Mahal and Rani Lakshmi Bai all could be assigned personal or dynastic motivations for their joining the revolt initially. But the very fact of resistance in course of time imposed on them the demands of a larger loyalty.
This change was well put by Rani Lakshmi Bai in her words to Vishnubhat Godse, the Maratha Brahman pilgrim, as she passed by him, â€œdressed as a Pathanâ€, after the English storming of Jhansi. I have given up, she said, her â€œcommon widowâ€™s dharmaâ€ in order to take up the cause of â€œthe honour of Hindu dharma.â€ Not a dynastic cause any longer, but the defence of the faith â€” â€œthe faithâ€ given a much larger meaning, as with the 1857 rebels generally, than their own religion: it was the defence of a whole way of life.
The Oudh rebelsâ€™ reply to Queen Victoriaâ€™s Proclamation of November 1858, in the name of Hazrat Mahalâ€™s son, Birjis Qadr, speaks not of the grievances of the dynasty of Oudh, but of the whole of India, enumerating the territories seized by the English from Indian rulers. It speaks of â€œthe Army and People of Hindustanâ€, and ends by declaring that the English can see no better work for Indians than just labouring on roads and digging canals. A national sentiment is clearly palpable here.
I just feel the whole picture needs to be understood, although it is obvious to me history is writen by the victor , or the power in chareg, thus India’s interest is to show this as the first war of independance, and exaggerate ts significance. See Aamir Khan’s Mangal Panday. Same way UK history books will teach it as a mutiny..
India really was a bunch of countries in a contienent, prior to the Moghuls and British arriving. I’d say even Hindutsan is a myth, we were all interchangable before the British divided us and set in our minds the separate identities we cling on..I hink I am too tired at this point and have lostthe plot, anyhow I hope I have informed…
I’m not sure of the veracity of everything you’ve posted (which doesn’t mean it’s not accurate, just that I personally haven’t come across most of that before)…but it was fascinating to read, and provided a very different perspective. Thank you. There are so many things we don’t know about what exactly happened back then.
Likhari, I second Amitabh’s comments. Your account is far more consistent with common sense than many other accounts.
@ Likhari (#195), That was very interesting to read. If you have the time, could you send me an email or let me know your email address? I appreciate it. Thanks.
Hmmm… a quick Google search returned the following articles (1,2,3) in the Tribune and News Intn’l with sentences that matched word for word with some of the sentences in comment #195.
Naughty naughty….you should have linked to the article; wouldn’t have made us think less of you if you did.