February 26, 2021
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Delhi Under The ‘Sipahi Government’: May–September, 1857

The evolution of the sipahi government at Delhi did contain seeds of modern democracy.

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Delhi Under The ‘Sipahi Government’: May–September, 1857
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Delhi Under The ‘Sipahi Government’: May–September, 1857

It is generally recognized that the Revolt of 1857 was the most widespread and violent struggle against colonial rule in India during the nineteenth century. It lasted for almost two years and encompassed large parts of northern, central, and eastern India, as well as (unlike what standard textbooks tell us) Panjab and north-eastern India. Several hundred thousand Indians, a significant proportion of whom were non-combatants, were killed during the Revolt and immediately after it had been brutally suppressed.

The Revolt was not an isolated event. It was part of a long tradition of resistance to the East India Company’s rule throughout India. The Revolt began as a mutiny in the Company’s Bengal Army, and soon became a popular uprising. The Bengal Army was socially and linguistically quite cohesive as the bulk of its Indian soldiers were recruited from among upper castes and ashraf from the Awadh and Bhojpur regions. The mutiny broke out at Meerut on Sunday, 10 May 1857, when Indian sipahis (or ‘sepoys’ as they were called by the British) stationed in the city rebelled. The sipahis then as a body marched to Delhi, where they arrived the next morning. They put an end to the Company’s administration in Delhi, and assumed control of Shahjahanabad and its immediate outskirts. They sought the blessings of the Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah II (emperor from 1837 to 1857). This gesture was an indication of the symbolic political importance of the emperor. The Company too had reluctantly recognized the de jure authority of the Mughals, even though by the middle of the nineteenth century they had made the emperor completely irrelevant.

With the liberation of the city the sipahis had to reconstitute the organs of the state. These had to be staffed by personnel who were not hostile to the rebels. The royal palace (Red Fort) played a vital role in this task due to its involvement with the affairs of the city throughout the period of British rule. It should be borne in mind that the city and its surrounding areas had come under the control of the East India Company in 1803. The readymade, though rudimentary, infrastructure of the palace administration was the nucleus around which the administrative machinery of the new regime was organized. Officials of the Red Fort had intimate knowledge of local circumstances. Their personal connections were extensive.  The sipahis were able to stabilize their regime through the active participation in it of a section of these officials. There were many officials who remained neutral, while an influential section of the city’s elite was openly opposed to the new regime, colluding whenever it could with the British.

What required urgent attention was military mobilization. Delhi had to be defended. Links had to be established with rebel soldiers in other cantonments. Pro-British elements had to be kept in check. Till the end of June 1857 the main person who officially coordinated the military efforts, including the major task of defending the city, was Mirza Mughal, the eldest surviving son of Bahadur Shah Zafar. Mirza Mughal was assisted by the sipahi leadership consisting of ‘native officers’ of the Company’s army. The emperor personally intervened at critical junctures. During the four months and four days that the sipahi regime remained in existence, Bahadur Shah was not a passive onlooker. One should not take too literally Zafar’s statement at his so-called ‘trial’ in which he projected himself as a mere prisoner of the sipahis. For instance, on the day after the soldiers had occupied Delhi and the situation was chaotic, Bahadur Shah personally went round the city to instil confidence among the residents. The emperor was actively engaged in consultations. He regularly received petitions and heard appeals. The Red Fort was the command centre of rebel operations.

The destruction of the Delhi regime was the Company’s highest priority in the first few weeks of the revolt. The commissioner of Panjab, John Lawrence, formed for this purpose a body named the Delhi Field Force comprising an assortment of military units that had remained loyal to the Company in the region, along with contingents supplied by the princely states of Panjab. The field force reached the northern outskirts of Delhi at the end of May. On 8 June 1857 a decisive engagement took place between the British and the sipahis at Badli-ki-Sarai near the village of Alipur on the Delhi–Karnal road. The sipahi force was defeated in this battle. On the same day the British troops occupied the northern ridge (adjacent to what is now the main campus of Delhi University). The following day the sipahis launched an unsuccessful attack on the ridge. Somehow they did not pay much attention to the stretch between the ridge and the river Yamuna. Their negligence allowed the British to capture Thomas Metcalfe’s abandoned and pillaged residence on the 12th, helping them to strengthen their left flank in the stretch between the ridge and the river (Metcalfe had been the chief British official in-charge of administering Delhi since the mid-1830s till his death in 1853) . There was another unsuccessful assault on the British position on 15 June. Some of the British officers were in favour of an immediate full-scale offensive to take the city, whereas others preferred waiting for reinforcements. However the consensus was that an unsuccessful assault would be disastrous. A council of war was held on the 16th at which it was ‘resolved to wait in our present position for reinforcements’. The military conflict entered a critical phase in the first week of July when Bakht Khan assumed command of sipahi operations. Bakht Khan, who had been a subadar in the artillery wing of the Bengal Army, arrived in Delhi at the head of a large sipahi force from Bareilly at the beginning of July. He was to emerge as the foremost leader of the rebel administration and military organization.

The main organ of the sipahi government was the ‘court of administration’. In the (undated) original ‘constitution’ of the court of administration, which is written in Urdu/Hindustani, English language words were used to name the organ. A facsimile of this remarkable six page document which forms part of the ‘Mutiny Papers’ in the National Archives of India is reproduced in Surendranath Sen’s Eighteen Fifty-Seven (1957). All executive, judicial military and revenue authority was vested in the court of administration. It was organized essentially on democratic principles, although formally Bahadur Shah was the head of the government. The court of administration had ten members: six representing the three branches of the army (infantry, cavalry, artillery), and four civilians. The civilian members were elected by a majority from among people who were regarded as ‘intelligent, wise and capable’. The members of the court elected a president and a vice-president from among themselves. The president had two votes. The court of administration held daily sessions. Bahadur Shah had the right to be present at all sessions, but the court of administration took actual decisions. The emperor’s approval would then be sought, and his seal would be put on documents recording these decisions. The constitution laid down fairly elaborate procedures for conducting the sessions.

We can see in the constitution of the court of administration the vision of a new state in its embryonic form. It is not easy to speculate what the shape of the new kind of state would have been if the revolt had been successful. However, the evolution of the sipahi government at Delhi did contain seeds of modern democracy. The roots of the court of administration experiment lay in the informal soldiers’ councils within units of the Company’s army which in the pre-revolt period had been forums for deliberating upon various issues concerning the sipahis. It was a combination of features derived from these councils, combined with features of traditional panchayats, and had ingredients of whatever the sipahis knew about British constitutional monarchy and parliamentary procedure.

For the day-to-day functioning of the city the court of administration relied on the existing police establishment. This establishment remained largely intact, with the lower ranks having gone over to the sipahis immediately after the Company’s government collapsed in Delhi. It was subordinate to the court of administration which closely monitored the work of the police. Police personnel were expected to maintain regular contact with headmen of urban localities. One of the earliest measures taken by Bahadur Shah was to appoint a competent kotwal (‘native’ head of the police establishment). In the pre-Revolt period the city was divided for policing purposes into twelve thanas, each under a thanadar or darogha. The police force consisted of 148 barqandaz (armed constables) and about 230 police constables. In addition to these policemen there were four hundred night-watchmen.

The responsibilities of the police were greatly increased after 11 May. Apart from their duties relating to law and order, itself a massive task given the disturbed conditions in the city, they had to make sure that basic civic amenities were provided to the residents. After all the rebel sipahis had to demonstrate that they could govern efficiently. The policemen attended to complaints about drains in residential quarters; organized garbage disposal in various mohallas; arranged supplies for military operations; helped the court of administration to raise funds, etc. Daily diaries recorded the activities of each thana in minute detail. The impressive quantity of paperwork generated by the regime tends to confirm that the sipahi leadership had a coherent long-term vision for creating a new state.

The rebel government found it increasingly difficult to function because it hardly had any access to resources. Wealthier sections of the city were unwilling to give money to them as they did not have sufficient confidence in the sipahi leadership. Soon there were growing differences between Mirza Mughal and Bakht Khan, leading to the emergence to two rival centres of power. The emperor sided with Bakht Khan in this tussle, which is an important indication of the manner in which his ideological position had evolved. Whatever doubts he might have had earlier about identifying with the cause of the sipahis, these seem to have been overcome by July. That Bahadur Shah should have reposed faith in Bakht Khan’s capability is significant since the contradictions between the princes and the sipahi leadership were a reflection of the antagonism between the more uncompromising rebels on the one hand, and the conservative sections of the elite who were in favour of maintaining the status quo, on the other. In his path-breaking essay on the court of administration, based on the ‘Mutiny Papers’, the eminent journalist Satinder Singh writing under the pseudonym ‘Talmiz Khaldun’, stated that these contradictions were the outcome of ‘a struggle between the dying aristocracy and the new force of peasant proprietors’ (published in P.C. Joshi, edited, Rebellion 1857: A Symposium, 1957). The more reactionary sections of the old aristocracy and their adherents, in alliance with many of the big traders and financiers of the city who had been targeted due to their refusal to cooperate with the new regime, constantly encouraged the princes to defy Bakht Khan and the radical sipahi leaders, thereby undermining rebel efforts to effectively defend the city. The British did not lack sympathisers, some of whom were willing to assist the field force stationed on the ridge even by risking their lives. William Hodson who handled the intelligence wing of the Delhi Field Force was able to put together a network of spies to gather information about the activities of the rebels. To this network may be attributed the deliberate spread of misinformation about ‘secret’ contacts between Bahadur Shah and the British. These rumours were intended to discredit the sipahi regime, demoralize the rebels and engineer defections. There is no reliable evidence whatsoever to suggest that the emperor colluded, or tried to negotiate, with the British. He remained firmly committed to the struggle of the sipahis right till the end.

On 14 September 1857 the British launched a major military offensive to capture the city.  The main objective of the initial assault was to force entry into Delhi through the Kashmere Gate. The assault was successful. However, the resistance that was encountered by the British was so fierce that it took them one week to cover the short distance of less than two kilometres between Kashmere Gate and the Red Fort. The headquarters of the sipahi government fell to the enemy by 20 September. This brought to an end an innovative experiment in modern governance born of the experiences of the anti-colonial struggle of 1857.

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