Irfan Habib

Frontline: June 16-29, 2007


The Revolt of 1857 must be set in the larger context of what colonialism was doing to India and its people at the time.


First of all, colonialism involved a constant and devastating drain on India’s resources. For 1854-55, just two years before the Revolt, the annual drain was about Rs.5.8 crore (app. US$ 1.75 million), if one goes by the excess of exports over imports shown in Indian customs records. Because of the drain, the Indian people were subjected to increasing and excessive taxation. The tax burden most heavily increased in what were called the Mahalwari areas, where land tax was not fixed, as was the case in the Permanently Settled and Madras Ryotwari areas.


In real terms, between 1819 and 1856, taxation in Mahalwari areas (present UP, excluding Awadh, and parts of Central India) increased by 70 per cent. In many districts, up to 50 per cent of the land changed hands as a result, between 1839 and 1858. The problem of land and taxation for both peasants and zamindars thus had become extremely critical. We must remember that this area constituted the heart of the rebellion: the one from where the Bengal sepoys – mostly Hindustani peasants in uniform – came, and where the rebellion enjoyed the widest support.


The second factor to be taken account of was the development of what is now called the Imperialism of Free Trade. English industrial manufactures, after the Charter Act of 1833, entered India practically free of duty. This meant that Indians, particularly spinners and weavers, were thrown out of employment as more than a quarter of the total textile consumption of India was now met by imports from Britain. It is not surprising that urban weavers were observed to be especially enthusiastic in their support of the Revolt, many even joining as armed volunteers.


The urge to expand markets brought under enforced Free Trade gave spurt to a vigorous policy of annexation. Sind, the Punjab, Satara, Nagpur, Jhansi and Awadh were annexed between 1843 and 1856. Almost one-fifths of the territory of India was added to British control during these years. Each annexation resulted in huge unemployment as people employed by the older regimes – dependants of the princely courts, and artisans for example – were deprived of their livelihood. The annexation of Awadh in 1856 particularly caused much distress, and 1857 here represented partly a popular attempt at the restoration of the old regime.


Finally, Imperialism of Free Trade demanded a considerable contribution in blood.

The Bengal Army, the largest modern army in Asia, had over 135,000 Indian (`native’) soldiers trained in modern methods of warfare. It was the main army of British imperialism at the time, one that had borne the brunt of British wars of aggression in India and the world from 1839 onwards. The sepoys fought and died in wars in Afghanistan, Sind, Punjab, Burma, Crimea, China and Iran, sustaining heavy casualties year after year. This naturally put a very heavy strain on the morale of the Bengal Army, and on the loyalty of its sepoys to their paymasters.


In a sense, all the tensions that imperialism or colonialism was generating came to be concentrated in a dramatic form in the very instrument which it had forged for its own purposes. In order to have soldiers who spoke the same language, the Bengal Army sepoys were recruited only from Hindustani speaking areas. The British wanted literate and disciplined soldiers, so they concentrated on recruiting Brahmins for their main arm, the infantry, and this increased the element of caste sensitivity within the Bengal Army. After 1855, it was decided that because there were so many Brahmins in the Bengal Army, no `low caste’ people would be recruited.


The Bengal Army had little to do with the old world of rajas, nawabs, zamindars and taluqdars. They had little intrinsic sympathy with the old regimes. The sepoys revolted on the immediate issue of greased cartridges, an issue most important for the Brahmins, who were naturally more conscious of caste and ritual purity than other elements in the Army. Yet it would be a mistake to suppose that since the sepoys rose to defend their “dharm” or “deen” (religion), they were tied down to any theocratic perceptions or anti-modern prejudices.


The sepoys were greatly familiar with modern methods of military organisation and leadership, and, as noted, had no connection with the `feudal’ classes. An important feature of the Bengal Army was that Hindus and Muslims were put together in the same units. When the issue of greased cartridges came up, there were many occasions where the Muslim sepoys said that as long as their Hindu brothers would not accept these cartridges, they would not do so. After the Revolt broke out, the sepoys began to elect their own officers. It is astonishing that on many occasions largely Hindu contingents elected Muslim officers and, similarly, contingents with a largely Muslim composition chose Hindus as their officers. The fact that this was not anywhere done consciously makes it a particularly notable example of inter-religious solidarity among the Bengal Army sepoys.


In the debate on whether 1857 was or was not a “mutiny”, one should not overlook the crucial role of the sepoys in the Revolt. They were the core of the rebellion, its armed element, its most steadfast component. Of course, there were others. But in any rebellion, the forces that are armed become its primary component. This is what made the rebellion of 1857 the biggest anti-colonial revolt in the world. No other anti-colonial revolt brought into the field over 120,000 professional soldiers of the kind that the Bengal Army sepoys put into battle.


Democratic sentiments: Of particular significance is the republican or democratic sentiments of the Bengal Army sepoys. Where they formed representative bodies, they chose to call them `councils’, and elected their peers. In Delhi, they acknowledge the titular emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, but actually constituted a `Court of Administration’ consisting of the representatives of different rebel contingents to administer Delhi. If the revolt had succeeded, then we might have had, instead of the Central Legislative Assembly, the Court of Administration of Delhi as the initial Parliament in India. In Lucknow too the sepoys insisted on constituting a similarly representative `court’ or `council’.


Thus, the Bengal Army sepoys not only had a concept of modern organisation, but also put stress on the important question of representation by election. (It was often said that this was also their undoing because there were interminable discussions before any decision could be taken.)


Another thing to mark is that despite the criticism of the sepoys’ conduct in Delhi in British accounts, it is remarkable that during the four months of rebel control in Delhi (there are newspapers and documents belonging to this phase in the National Archives), the amount of misconduct by the sepoys was limited. They were not receiving any pay, so in the beginning they had to get some money out of the civilian population. But once their pay was organised, they did not harass the civilian population, not even the moneylenders. Contrast this with what happened after the British occupation. There was mass slaughter and plunder of the people. In contrast, throughout the rebellion, the conduct of sepoys was exemplary considering the circumstances.


A patriotic colour was sought to be given to the slogan of religion. An argument put forth by the rebels was that Hindus and Muslims were monotheists while Christians believed in the Trinity. Thus, Muslims and Hindus had common religious values, which they did not share with the English. But beyond this was the idea that both Hindus and Muslims were loyal to India and the English were people of a different race who insulted and exploited Indians. One can indeed gauge the kinds of notions prevalent among the rebels from the newspapers that were issued during the four months of the rebel regime at Delhi.


There were three such newspapers, issued weekly, during that time, two in Urdu and one in Persian. Delhi Urdu Akhbar, the major paper, strongly argued that the English rulers were foreigners and drew away wealth from India. They were Christians and so not monotheists. On the other hand, Muslims believe in Allah and Hindus in Adipurush, that is, One God.


The paper always addressed its readers as `fellow countrymen’ and called the rebel army fauj-i Hindustani or the Indian Army. The paper’s hero was Bakht Khan, the `republican’-minded commander-in-chief in Delhi, who is most unfairly portrayed as a Wahabi in some modern accounts.


Delhi Urdu Akhbar acclaimed the value of manual labour and pleaded that people should obtain skill and manufacture rifles. There was no condemnation in the paper of modern means of communication. In fact, it demanded a restoration of the postal services under the aegis of the rebels. In his proclamation of August 1857, Feroz Shah, a noted rebel leader, said that the rebels would develop both steamboats and railways.

Peasant participation in the rebellion was provoked first by taxation (or over-taxation) under the British, and secondly by the fact that the sepoys themselves came from the villages. Basically, however, it was over-taxation in the Mahalwari areas, the loss of their lands or the probability of such loss, that drove most peasants to giving support to the rebellion. In some localities, and especially in Awadh, they also tended to rise at the call of the traditional landed elements, the zamindars and taluqdars.


Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru in The Discovery of India characterises the rebellion of 1857 as basically a feudal uprising. This is true only insofar as many of the major leaders of the uprising were either princes or zamindars and some of these rendered outstanding contributions to the Revolt. For example, Kunwar Singh and Amar Singh, the two zamindars of Jagdishpur, marched through Rewa, Kalpi, Kanpur, Lucknow and Azamgarh in an epic campaign.


It has been said by some British writers on the rebellion that if the rebels had about a dozen such leaders, then English rule could never have been re-imposed. There was the Rani of Jhansi, Rani Lakshmi Bai, and Hazrat Mahal of Lucknow, who so stoutly resisted the British. There was Khan Bahadur Khan, a zamindar of Bareilly, who was ultimately hanged. Bahadur Shah Zafar partly atoned for his early hesitation and ultimate surrender through his post-1857 verses in which he so movingly mourns the rebel dead.


It is also to be observed that when taluqdars, zamindars and princes went into rebellion against the greatest colonial power of the world, the exigencies of popular resistance inevitably imposed changes in their visions and attitudes.


Let us consider the language of the proclamations of the Awadh rebels, led so visibly by taluqdars, by the side of the sepoys. The proclamations are generally in spoken Hindustani. For instance, the initial Proclamation of Prince Birjis Qadr in July 1875 is a printed one that has Urdu script on the right and Nagari on the left. The texts are nearly identical in both columns, but the Urdu one has very few Persian words and the Nagari has an equally few Prakritic variants. The aim is obviously to use a language comprehensible to the common people.


Early appeals: In the early appeals, traditional notions are in evidence, with promises to re-establish the old feudal hierarchies once the English are defeated. In time, these sentiments disappear from rebel proclamations. When, finally, the rebels from the camp of Hazrat Mahal issued their reply to Queen Victoria’s Proclamation of November 1857, all these matters were forgotten. It is the Indian people who are in the forefront. “The Army and people of India” are told not to believe Queen Victoria and her Proclamation, which is so full of fraud and deception.


If the English really want to do justice, why don’t they return Mysore which they took from Tipu Sultan, or return the Punjab which they took from Dulip Singh, the rebels of Awadh ask. The second argument was that the English are unforgiving in their vengeance, and therefore the people must never give up the fight. And what future, the rebels ask, was to be in store for the Indian people if the English won. They would be merely coolies – fit only to build roads and dig canals?


In the story of Rani of Jhansi we see how family grievances convert into larger causes. The Rani had no problem with the British government till Jhansi was annexed and the child heir pushed aside. She was initially hesitant to join the rebels. But once she did, she did things she could never have imagined earlier. As she was fleeing from Jhansi after the stormy battle over that city she met a Deccan Brahmin,Vishnu Bhat Godse, who records that she was in a `Pathan’ dress. The Rani told him that she was a poor widow who should have adopted the vidhwa dharma or the prescribed customs for widows. But fate willed otherwise and she must now fight for the honour of Hindu dharma. That Hindu dharma was thus not the restoration of the customary religion that dictated that she should remain a widow secluded from the world, but one that decreed that the foreigners should be driven away. Loyalty to one’s particular religion now assumed a patriotic and non-sectarian form.


A veil should not be drawn on what the British did, however undiplomatic it may be for us to raise this question. What happened to the Indian people after the rebellion broke out and was suppressed, cannot be erased from the pages of history. As J.W. Kaye put it in his classic History of the Sepoy War, “An Englishman is almost suffocated with indignation when he reads that a Mrs. Chamber or Miss Jinnings was hacked to death by a dusky ruffian; but in native histories it may be recorded that mothers, wives and children with less familiar names fell miserable victims to the first swoop of English vengeance, and these stories may have as deep a pathos as those that rend our own hearts.”


Massacre in Delhi: The massacre in Delhi is described in a large number of memoirs that exist and in British reports. The whole city was de-populated and subject to massacre. The slaughter went on for days. If the rebels killed the English in hundreds, the English killed in tens of thousands. Numberless Indians were “tried” and hanged or shot in gruesome ways for the presumed offence of complicity in the killing of English persons, but which Briton was ever brought to face retribution for killing hundreds of ordinary Indians, men, women and children? How can we treat the two as at par? Therefore, when our statesmen (as our Prime Minister did, the other day, at Oxford) speak of the good things that happened under British rule, like the establishment of the Indian Civil Service, they should think sometimes of 1857, not only of the rebels but also of the ordinary citizens – men, women and children – who were shot or hacked to death or killed by various means, under the aegis of our great praiseworthy benefactors.


(Irfan Habib was Chairman, Centre for Advanced Studies in History at Aligarh Muslim University. He is currently working on a People’s History of India series.)

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