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Commemorating 1857: The Role Of The Bengal Army In The First War Of Independence

'There were more fundamental causes behind the Bengal Army’s Mutiny than the relentless pressure of military campaigning and the ‘accident’ of the greased cartridges'

Commemorating 1857: The Role Of The Bengal Army In The First War Of Independence
Commemorating 1857: The Role Of The Bengal Army In The First War Of Independence
outlookindia.com
2017-05-24T16:31:46+0530

 On the 9th of May this year the 160th anniversary of the revolt of 1857 passed off as quietly as during the preceding years. No longer do many of us realise that this date in 1857 marked the beginning of an armed revolution of the greatest scale that we have ever known in India. Indeed, it was the largest anti-colonial uprising anywhere in the world in the nineteenth century. Even in Latin America under the great Bolivar, the revolutionaries never exceeded more than a few thousands of armed men. In India in 1857 more than 125,000 soldiers of the Bengal Army joined the uprising.

            The Bengal Army, which in strength formed the bulk of India’s three Presidency Armies, had been serving as the ‘sword arm’ of British Imperialism not only in India but also other countries. It was engaged in continuously fighting for its masters between 1839 and 1857 from China to Crimea. Even in 1856-57, there was an ongoing war with Persia, with Indian troops fighting there and in China. It is an ordinary perception among professional generals that armies need rest, but for straight eighteen years, such rest had remained unknown to the Bengal Army. John William Kaye, the contemporary British military historian, acknowledged that it was common for British officials, while reprimanding the Sepoys of the Bengal Army, for any fault, to threaten them with being ‘sent to Burma, or to China where the men would die’.

            The frustration that the sepoys felt as soldiers was given expression to in ways that were determined by the very kind of army that the British had built. For reasons of convenience, the British recruited soldiers for the Bengal Army from an area where people spoke and understood the same language, namely, Hindustani. So the recruits primarily came  from an area comprising the present territories of Uttar Pradesh, Western Bihar and Haryana. Some 40,000 belonged to the two present Divisions of Faizabad and Lucknow, which constituted, before 1856, the kingdom of Oudh. Another point about the Bengal Army was that it was recruited largely on a caste basis. The Brahmans constituted a very large part of the infantry. They were often literate, and were seen to be more prone to accept the discipline needed for modern warfare, than the usual ‘martial’ elements in traditional Indian armies. Rules were framed in 1850 to include the stipulation that upper caste men only would be recruited to the Bengal Army. At the same time in order to encourage cohesive action in campaigning, divisions on religious lines were not established in the Bengal Army. Imperialism had apparently not discovered till then that it could use the religious divide between Hindus and Muslims to its own advantage, everywhere. Soldiers of this modern army, which had very little to do with the Indian ruling classes of older days constituted perhaps the most numerous modern element in Indian society at that time and thus possessed two important features: Its soldiers were very highly caste-sensitive, and yet were not communally divided.

Given their sensitivity regarding caste, the greased cartridges were particularly difficult for the Sepoys to accept. They had little scope for promotion, one out of twenty, or it could be thirty, could become a jamadar, fewer still subedars and a minute number subedars major. They were paid, but constantly humiliated by their officers as people of an inferior race. Only the pride of caste had been left to them and the British government was now taking even that away with its greased cartridges containing cow and pig fat.

            At the same time there were more fundamental causes behind the Bengal Army’s Mutiny than the relentless pressure of military campaigning and the ‘accident’ of the greased cartridges. It was no ‘accident’ that the area the bulk of its sepoys came from, had been turned into the highest taxed part of the country. The peasantry as well as the ‘village zamindars’ here had been made subject to an ever rising burden of tax under the Mahalwari system established in 1822. In Mahalwari areas, not only were the settlements made for twenty years only, but the revenue-rate could be changed at any time. There was also collective responsibility for payment: even if one peasant or landholder paid his tax, but his neighbour did not, then his own land could also be forfeited to the Government. In Aligarh district, Eric Stokes tell us, between 1839 and 1858 half of the land changed hands; in Muzaffarnagar, a quarter between 1841 and 1861. The tax-free (mafi) lands had also been resumed wholesale after 1833. The Brahmans and ‘Shaikhs’, among Muslims, who were particularly recruited in the Bengal Army, often held mafi lands, which were ordinarily given to pundits and Muslim scholars under the pre-British regimes. Both as peasants and as mafi-holders, the classes that the Sepoys came from, were increasingly adversely affected, and this, of course, naturally led to discontent spreading among the sepoys.

Whatever sources of the discontent might have been, the fact that practically the entire Bengal army revolted, step by step, but with increasing tempo, remains a dramatic phenomenon. Over a hundred and twenty-five thousand revolting out of one hundred thirty-five thousand ‘native sepoys’ is itself, an incredible development. The unrest showed itself in West Bengal, first in Dum-dum, in January 1857; then, Mangal Pandey enacted the first bold act of defiance, in March at Barrackpore. The flames spread to Lucknow early in May; and on May 9 and 10, a full scale mutiny erupted at Meerut. The Meerut Sepoys occupied Delhi on May 11. This proved to be the decisive general signal for the whole of the Bengal Army to join the uprising.

Until now, despite much speculation, there has been no solid evidence that behind this sudden upsurge was any long pre-meditated plan or a recognizable leadership, beyond a strong sense of brotherhood among the Sepoys. The brotherhood that had long been developed through shedding blood together in their masters’ wars can only explain how the mass of sepoys decided to follow the call of solidarity with the Meerut rebels. When we deprecate the term ‘Mutiny’ given to the Revolt of 1857, we should not at the same time underestimate the vital role of the rebelling soldiers in the uprising. Throughout its course they remained the backbone of the Revolt. Practically all of the hundred and twenty five thousand men went to their deaths, on the battlefield, or on the gallows, or in the Tarai defiles; any one hardly escaping, with only a few ever surrendering.

It is also true that the rebel soldiers immediately found response in the civil population. The areas where the Sepoys were recruited from were immediately convulsed by a widespread wave of sympathy for the rebels; and the revolt soon engulfed larger masses of civil population.

One must remember that all the major social classes in India were adversely affected by imperialism; and popular distress at that particular juncture was concentrated in those areas where the Bengal Army Sepoys mostly came from. As we have seen, the land tax was intensely heavy there; and the land rights of the zamindars and peasants were being rendered increasingly vulnerable to forfeiture. The annexation of Oudh had taken place in 1856; and the talukdars, who were the great landed magnates of Oudh, were threatened with the imposition of the same Mahalwari system that had ruined landed classes in the rest of the province. So there was a situation, in which both the peasants and the landed classes faced acute oppression from the same source.

As would happen in any agrarian revolution, the conditions on the ground undoubtedly varied. Mark Thornhill claimed in a report from Mathura (15 November 1858) that the upper landed castes, who had suffered most in the Mahalwari system in U.P., remained loyal to the British, whereas the peasants, ‘who have derived the most benefit from our rule(!) were the most hostile to its continuance’. This is an obviously one-sided version, foreshadowing the subsequent British policy of winning over the landlords and repressing the peasantry. In any case, in Oudh the Governor General Canning himself thought that the landlords (talukdars) were the leaders of the rebellion, and, therefore, issued his famous proclamation of 1857, in which he declared that the entire land of Oudh under the talukdars’ possession was now held forfeit to the British Government. (The threat was later modified.)

Moreover, apart from the rural roots of the rebellion, there were also urban elements involved in it. British rule had meant considerable growth of urban unemployment. Lucknow was a large city, possibly even larger at the time than Calcutta. After the Annexation of Oudh in 1856 Lucknow became full of people deprived of their livelihood, because the court was gone. The artisans, especially weavers, were the hardest hit because of free imports of British products. As L.E.S. Rees, an English eye-witness of the events at Lucknow in 1857, admitted: ‘That the Lucknow people should rise against us was a very probable event… We had done very little to deserve their love and much to merit their detestation’. What was true of Lucknow was true, in varying measure, of most towns of the affected region. Therefore, the Revolt of 1857 was more than an agrarian war: people of cities also joined the rebellion: Delhi, Lucknow, Bareilly, Kanpur, Jhansi and other towns became determined centres of resistance.

The documents that became known to us in the 1950s are important in this regard, as they bring out some of these sentiments of the rebels. For example the Mughal Prince Firoz Shah’s proclamation of 25 August 1857 lists many of the popular grievances of the time and seeks by certain specific promises to attract many sections of the population to the Rebel banner. It will be seen that in it practically every class of society is appealed to with specifio measures of relief being promised.

Indeed, even the most traditional of rebel leaders were conscious of the need for making an appeal to the masses. This is particularly to be seen in their use of the printing press to publish their proclamations. The Oudh Court, in the name of Birjis Qadr, issued a printed ‘General Notice to the Zamindars and General Inhabitants of this Country’, which was a bilingual document in Hindustani in Urdu characters (on the right) and Nagari (on the left). The language was deliberately kept simple, and the document shows that the days of Hindi-Urdu controversy had not yet dawned.

The proclamation of Nana Sahib is also important in another respect. It has long been the custom of certain historians to treat Nana Sahib and Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi as representing the chiefly ‘Hindu’ centres of the Rebellion, while Delhi and Bareilly were regarded as particularly ‘Muslim’ centres, with an assumption of an underlying sense of hostility between them. How wrong such a conception could be is shown by the fact that not only was Nana Sahib’s first proclamationpublished in Urdu, and bore a Hijri date, but its main theme is that the Sultan of Turkey had intervened on behalf of the Indians to slaughter the English in Egypt! As for the Rani of Jhansi, some of her most determined fighters were Muslim gunners and Pathan guards.

On the supposedly ‘Muslim’ side, the way the standard of jehad was removed from the Jama Masjid in May 1857 at Delhi, lest it be apprehended as being directed against the Hindus, and all cow and buffalo-slaughter was banned at the Muslim Iduz Zuha festival in late July, showed the Rebels’ determination to keep clear of communal conflict— a realm in which Percival Spear (Twilight of the Mughals) in his detailed account of Delhi during 1857, credits the rebels with the ‘most striking success’. At Bareilly, Bahadur Khan, the principal rebel leader, printed an appeal to Hindu chiefs to join the struggle against the British, detailing the attacks on Hindu customs and taboos by the British and offering, on behalf of Muslims, to give up cow-slaughter and the eating of beef!

In his important book, Felt Community, Rajat Kanta Ray underlines the fact that in the rebellion of 1857, in the minds of most of the participants, the sense of religious differences receded to a surprising degree. Hindu contingents would elect Muslims as their representatives; Muslim contingents would accept a Hindu Subedar major as their head. Among the Muslims who voluntarily joined the Rebellion, under the impulse of joining a righteous war, and so were called mujahids or jihadis (‘fanatics’ in official British translation) there was the same acceptance of the need for Hindus and Muslims coming together to fight for a common cause: the British alone formed the target.

In the Risala Fath-i Islam (Tract on the Victory of Islam) composed under the supposed aegis of the famous rebel leader and theologian Ahmadullah Shah, the appeal is repeatedly made to both Hindus and Muslims to fight unitedly to defend their respective faiths against their English oppressors. But still more spirited was the rebel weekly Delhi Urdu Akhbar in strongly condemning an apparently Wahabi-inspired poster, asking Muslims to cooperate with the English, as ‘People of the Book’, and not join Hindus, they being kafirs. The editor of the paper (later to be executed by the English) justified the Hindu-Muslim alliance by citing Sa‘di’s famous verse to the effect that ‘all human beings should feel each other’s pain’ and proudly called the rebel army “Our Army” (Hamari Fauj) and ‘the Army of India’ (Lashkar-i Hindustan).

It is relevant here to refer to the spirited reply that the rebels gave to Queen Victoria’s proclamation of November 1858 in the name of Birjis Qadr. They said that the promises the Queen was holding forth to Indians were totally deceptive; the British had never fulfilled their promises. The British had destroyed Indian princely states, one after another, and the rebels gave a list which included practically every important state in India destroyed by the British, from that of Tipu Sultan of Mysore, to that of Duleep Singh of the Punjab. The rebels were thus concerned with what had happened to the whole of ‘Hindustan’. The proclamation told the Sepoys, and all rebels, not to believe the British, who would ultimately kill them. Queen Victoria’s promises meant nothing: the Indians were destined under her to be only the hewers of wood and drawers of water, and not masters of their own house. The reply is totally defiant and uncompromising, even when as in November 1858, everything seemed lost. One’s heart is warmed by the fact that the Rebels still spoke of India and remained steadfast in what they believed to be her cause.

Such firmness of sentiment did not, however, change the situation on the ground, which was that of divided commands among rebel ranks facing a united centrally directed enemy. It is true that the Sepoys did not only adopt English military titles like Generals and Colonials, they also almost everywhere tended to form ‘councils’ or ‘courts’ to manage their affairs. In Delhi, they formed the famous Court of Administration, which in every way was modelled after British practices. But these organs of power were no substitute for a unified military command over the whole Rebel movement, which was not only a political but a military necessity. One of the great advantages of the British was that they could devise strategies and plan troop movements according to need. The Sepoys could decide only on local tactics, and could not concentrate their military strength at vital points. Despite their large numbers, they could yet be overthrown by being destroyed in their separate parts.

The rebels were actually placed between two enemy pincer movements, one from the east, and the other from the northwest; and so ultimately broken up and destroyed. They were not, however, destroyed easily. The defence of Delhi lasted for more than four months, with Bakht Khan as its leading commander in the late phase. Lucknow resisted for almost ten months, repulsing the first invasion by the British commander-in-chief, General Campbell himself. The Gwalior contingent defeated the British troops and occupied Kanpur, inflicting on General Windham one of the few defeats in an open engagement, ever suffered by the British in India. The bitter defence of Jhansi under its brave Rani remained memorable. And for ever an epic was the campaign over a surprisingly large area by that old and determined chieftain, Kunwar Singh of Jagdishpur. Tatiya Tope valiantly continued his battle against the British for almost two years and was hanged on April 18, 1859. The rebels hardly ever went down without fighting, or without resisting.

One needs to remember here the recurring descriptions of the rebels, who were tortured and hanged. They went to their deaths unbowed and hardly anyone craved pardon. There was often the same stoical and defiant streak, which was to be seen later in the Singapore Mutiny of 1915, and not only among Sepoys, but also among ordinary men. Let us hear Kaye, author of The Sepoy War, on the conduct of Peer Ali, a simple bookseller of Patna:

“Brought before the Commissioner and other English gentlemen, ‘heavily fettered, his soiled garments stained deeply with blood from a wound in his side’, he was asked whether he had any information to give that might induce the Government to spare his life. With dignified composure, such as our people (i.e. the English) did not always maintain under exciting circumstances, he confronted his questioners… he denounced the oppression of the English… Peer Ali was [then] taken out to execution… He was hanged, his house was razed to the ground and his property was confiscated”. 

            It had repeatedly been said that many Englishwomen had been dishonoured: this was said on the floor of British Parliament again and again. After the rebellion was suppressed, despite the English assiduously trying to find evidence against the Rebels for molesting English women nothing by way of evidence could be found. Yet the cry that ‘the natives had dishonoured our women’ was a very important piece of hate propaganda spread in England against the Mutineers and was used to justify all the barbarities perpetrated by the British victors on the sepoys and civilians.

            Even before they could have possibly known of the Kanpur massacre by the rebels that took place later, the English had begun committing atrocities on Indian men, women and children. Let us read what Kaye says about the haunting dilemma that British atrocities posed for him:

“An Englishman is almost suffocated with indignation when he reads that Mrs. Chambers or Miss Jennings was hacked to death by a dusky ruffian. But in native histories, or history being wanting in native legends and traditions, it may be recorded against our people, 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 any that rend our own hearts”.

Such atrocities undertaken by the English from the beginning of the revolt enflamed the Rebels and hardened their hearts. The English gave no quarter to their opponents: As Engels recalled in 1870 they violated all laws of war in killing their prisoners of war; and they did so by every imaginable, fiendish means, like hanging after binding their victims in contorted forms or — a special favourite —blowing the captives from mouths of their cannon pieces.

Right from the beginning, with Col. James Neill’s expedition in early June 1857 horrible bouts of atrocities were committed by the British as they regained each village or town from the rebels. There was a frenzied general massacre of civilians at Delhi upon its fall in September 1857, devastating and depeopling the whole city—an account of which may be read in William Dalrymple’s Last Mughal. Every subsequent success of the British was similarly marked by a general massacre and plunder of civil populations. William Russell of London Times was a witness to the British loot of Lucknow in March 1858. A Maharashtrian pilgrim caught in the Rebellion similarly described the slaughter of civilians, including women and children, wrought by the British at Jhansi and neighbouring places. The repression continues even after the end of the Rebellion. There were pursuits, trials and executions. Confiscations of lands and properties followed. Not only individual rebels but whole families, whose members were suspected of having been involved in any way in the Revolt, were deprived of their lands. The confiscated lands were given to British families and to such ‘natives’ as had rendered service against their own compatriots.

Bahadur Shah, the last Mughal king, is not one of the heroic figures of the Revolt of 1857. But he was a poet, and as he was being tried, deprived of pen and paper, he is said to have scrawled with charcoal on the walls of his cell, verses of sorrow and sadness at the tragic end of the Great Rebellion.

It is for us, the people of India, now to show by our own conduct how much we really care for the cause of those of our forefathers who, whether they were Hindus, Muslims or Sikhs, shed their blood so unquestioningly together.

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