Tuesday, 29 April 2008

1857: First War of Indian Independence?

1857: First War of Indian Independence?
In recent weeks India has been witness to quite a hoopla surrounding celebrations of the 150th anniversary of the ‘First War of Indian Independence’ of 1857. At a celebration in Delhi the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh claimed “there is no doubt that 1857 was a shining example of our national unity”.I do not quite share these sentiments. In fact, my reading of history leads to very ambiguous sentiments regarding the very same events.The BackgroundBy 1857 the British East India Company had established its Raj (rule) across India. Lately, they had also started tinkering with religious and social issues. They introduced a radical critique of certain customs and practices that were deeply entrenched in India and had religious and social sanction. Sati was banned, and widow remarriage was made legal. Many Indians resented this and saw it as a threat to their religion. In 1857 such resentment was rife among soldiers in the Bengal Army, most of whom were upper caste Hindus or Muslims from Awadh (present day Central U.P.). So when there was talk that new rifles issued to them had cartridges lubricated with fat from cows and pigs, the soldiers’ resentment boiled over (beef being taboo for high caste Hindus and pork being taboo for Muslims). In cantonments across North India, Bengal Army soldiers rose up against the British, as did some princes. For a few months British rule ceased to exist across large swathes of North India. The British eventually defeated the rebels, and followed it up with brutal reprisals.The Nature of the Revolt
To understand the nature of the revolt let us take a closer look at events at two locations, Delhi and Jhansi.Delhi
The events in Delhi during the revolt have been masterfully narrated by William Dalrymple in his book The Last Mughal. The broad outlines are well known, so I give here only a very brief description.In the years prior to 1857, while the Mughals still retained a powerful hold on the imagination of the people of North India, the British were the real power behind the throne. The Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, had very little interest or influence on the matters of state and spent most of his time on artistic pursuits.The revolt started in Meerut on May 10th 1857 when soldiers of the Bengal Army, incensed by reports of cartridges greased with the fat of cows and pigs, rose against the British. They then took control of Delhi, where they proclaimed the restoration of Mughal Rule, and compelled a reluctant 81 year old Bahadur Shah Zafar to declare his support for the rebellion. After regrouping, British forces attacked rebel-controlled Delhi in early June and entrenched themselves just outside the city – but mindful of their small numbers, made no attempts to assault the city or even to blockade it. By September, sufficient reinforcements had arrived for the British to go on the offensive. By this time, the ‘British’ forces outside Delhi comprised mostly Indian troops - about 80%. The assault on the city was carried out and after a few days of fierce fighting, Delhi fell to the British on September 21st 1857.It is clear from Dalrymple’s book that as far as the Indian participants were concerned, the uprising was overwhelmingly seen as a war of religion. British men and women who had converted to Islam – apparently there were quite a few in Delhi – were not hurt; but Indians who had converted to Christianity were cut down by the soldiers. Urdu sources refer to the British “not as angrez (the English) or as goras (whites) or even firangis, but instead almost always as kafirs (infidels) and nasrani (Christians)”. The proportion of jihadi fighters was significant and eventually grew to almost half the total force defending the city.Dalrymple also informs us that while many ordinary residents of Delhi initially welcomed the soldiers, people soon “tired of hosting a large and undisciplined army of boorish and violent peasants. ... Delhi sources describe them as ‘Tilangas’ or ‘Purbias’ - effectively outsiders”. The ordinary people of Delhi in their petitions to the Mughal court “did not describe the event there as Ghadr (mutiny) and still less Jang-e-Azadi (war of freedom) so much as fasad (riots) and danga (disturbance)”.

JhansiThe events in Jhansi are not very widely known. So I give a slightly more detailed description of these events, based primarily on Tapti Roy’s delightful new book, Raj of the Rani.
Jhansi was a principality in Bundelkhand (in present day U.P. and M.P.) where the Marathi Brahmin Newalkar family ruled, initially as governors of the Peshwas, and then under British protection. The Newalkars were devoted to the British, as the quote below exemplifies.
In 1832, William Bentnick, the Governor General of India ... visited Jhansi. Amidst all the glitter [the Jhansi ruler] Ramchandra Rao was awarded the title of Maharajadhiraj and described as a ‘devoted servant of the glorious King of England’ ... Ramchandra, overwhelmed by this honor, begged to be allowed to adopt the Union Jack as the flag of Jhansi. The request was granted and the flag hoisted over ... Jhansi fort.
In 1842, the ruler of Jhansi, Gangadhar Rao, got married to Manikarnika, affectionately known as Manu. Henceforth Manu would be known to the world as Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi. In 1853, just a day before Gangadhar Rao’s death, the childless couple adopted a boy as their son and heir to the throne. However, the British authorities refused to recognize him as the legitimate heir, and, under a policy known as the Doctrine of Lapse, decided to annex Jhansi. The Rani spent the next four years trying to reverse that decision through a series of petitions and appeals to the British authorities. She impressed (link) many Britishers with the force of her personality, as well as her beauty and grace. Her exertions were to no avail, however. The British Governor General remained unmoved. According to Roy, Rani Lakshmibai’s actions in these years demonstrate her “faith and trust in British justice”.
The storm broke over Jhansi on 5th June 1857, when soldiers in the British cantonment rose in rebellion. A massacre of the British followed. The Rani herself seems to have been caught completely by surprise. Roy, in her book, shows that Rani Lakshmibai had nothing to do with either the revolt of the soldiers or the massacre of the British, nor was she consulted prior to the uprising. In fact, in those chaotic days, the Rani herself seems to have been in some considerable danger from the rebel soldiers. Having ousted the British, they demanded money from the Rani in return for installing her on the throne of Jhansi, and threatened to install a rival claimant, Sadashiv Rao, instead. It is likely that they threatened her with more dire consequences as well. After extorting a satisfactorily large sum from the Rani, the soldiers handed Jhansi over to her and left for Delhi. Rani Lakshmibai was now ruler of Jhansi.In a letter to a British official written on 12th June 1857 Rani Lakshmibai gave her own version of the events.
…the [soldiers] thro’ their faithlessness, cruelty and violence, killed all the European civil and military officers, the clerks and all their families and the Ranee not being able to assist them for want of guns, and soldiers as she had only 100 or 50 people engaged in guarding her house she could render them no aid, which she very much regrets. That they the mutineers afterwards behaved with much violence against herself and servants, and extorted a great deal of money from her. ... if she, at all hesitated to comply with their requests, they would blow up her palace with guns. Taking into consideration her position she was obliged to consent to all the requests made and put up with a great deal of annoyance, and had to pay large sums in property, as well as in cash to save her life and honor (link).
Ruling Jhansi was no cakewalk for the Rani. A rival claimant to the throne, Sadashiv Rao, captured a fort and proclaimed himself ruler of Jhansi. Then, on 10th August 1857, the Rani of Orchha (a neighboring state) sent her army into Jhansi to reclaim land her predecessors had lost to the Newalkars. Not to be left out, another neighboring state, Datia, invaded Jhansi as well. Rani Lakshmibai had to take frantic measures to prevent a complete collapse. It is a testament to her extraordinary ability and leadership qualities that not only was she able to quell Sadashiv Rao’s rebellion and repel the invading armies of Orchha and Datia, but she also managed to restore some semblance of order and normality to Jhansi. What is rather astonishing (in light of popular belief today) is that during this period (June to December 1857), a critical phase in the ‘First War of Indian Independence’, Rani Lakshmibai viewed the British not as her enemy but as her ally. Rather, she viewed Orchha and Datia as her enemies. Here is a quote from a letter she wrote to a British official on 1st January 1858.
To narrate all the strange and unexpected occurrences that took place during your absence from India is a painful task. I cannot describe the troubles and hardships I have suffered during this period. Your return to India has given me new life. ... At the time when the British forces mutinied at this place, and when the chiefs of Dutya and Oorchha commenced their career of coercion and rapine, I lost no time in writing to the British officers ... I tried my best by selling my property, taking money on interest--collected a party of men and took steps to protect the city. … The enemy ... did much mischief. … I wrote [to the British] … for reinforcements ... Under these circumstances I can never expect to get rid of these enemies and to clear myself of the heavy debts without the assistance of the British Government. ...I beg you will give me your support in the best way you can, and thus save myself and the people who are reduced to the last extremity and are not able to cope with the enemy (link).
British officials stationed near Jhansi also viewed Rani Lakshmibai as their ally. A British proclamation was issued declaring that “the Ranee will rule in the name of the British Government” and called on “all great and small, to obey the Ranee, and to pay the government revenue to her”. However, in Kolkata, high ranking British officials were bent upon indiscriminate reprisals. Without bothering about evidence, and discounting reports from their own officials in the area, they decided that Rani Lakshmibai must pay for the massacre of the British in Jhansi. The die was cast. Rani Lakshmibai’s fate was sealed. A Bombay Army force commanded by Major General Hugh Rose was sent to Jhansi. British actions (and inaction) had, by around January/February 1858, created serious doubts in the Rani’s mind about their intentions. However she still harbored hopes of reconciliation. A report reached the British, which said, “it is given out that should this vakeel [the Rani’s representative] be treated kindly the Ranee will in no way oppose the British force. She will pay obedience to our government and return all the districts now in her possession. While on the contrary should the British officers show displeasure she will fight to the last”. By end-February 1858, Rani Lakshmibai had come to the realization that she had no choice but to “fight to the last” against the British.
It is only at this late stage, with the rebel forces already defeated in Delhi, Kanpur and Lucknow, and the most critical phase of the revolt already over, that she declares herself against the British and the Rani of Jhansi of popular legend emerges: the heroic warrior queen fighting the British with audacity and courage. On 21st March 1858, Hugh Rose’s forces besieged Jhansi. By 5th April they had taken the fort by assault. The battle was fierce, and Rani Lakshmibai led from the front – she was always in the midst of the fighting, inspiring and encouraging her troops. As Jhansi fell, the Rani affected a daring escape. Later, she, along with rebel leaders Rao Saheb and Tantia Tope carried out a bold attack on British ally Jayajirao Scindia, and captured Gwalior. In British eyes, the seizure of Gwalior “created a sensation throughout India only equaled by that which was caused by the first mutinies”. Hugh Rose marched on Gwalior. And there, fighting the British, Rani Lakshmibai died a true warrior’s death on 17th June 1858, and passed into legend.

First War of Indian Independence?
Can this uprising really be called the ‘First War of Indian Independence’? Were the rebels really fighting for national independence? Was it really a “shining example of our national unity” as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently described it?
As Dalrymple has shown in his book, the rebel soldiers saw this as a war of religion. Muslim soldiers saw the war as a jihad. High caste Hindu soldiers were primarily motivated by a desire prevent any violation of their ritualistic caste purity. Consider the event that triggered the war: reports of cartridges greased with cow and pig fat. Now, touchability/untouchability of beef lies at the core of upper caste Hindu concepts of ritual purity/impurity. Interestingly, and contrary to popular belief, large sections of Hindus – the lowest castes (the Dalits of today), who comprise some one-fifth of all Hindus – have never had any qualms about touching or eating beef or pork (link, link, link). This revolt was certainly a war about religion. But it was about a narrowly defined idea of religion as a set of rituals and taboos wrapped up in notions of caste purity and pollution, rather than any broad inclusive vision. Very different indeed from the progressive and inclusive religiosity of Gandhi or Vivekananda.
We have also seen that for most of the war the Rani of Jhansi was quite willing to ally with the British to take on the neighboring states of Orchha and Datia. Though the Rani of Jhansi was indeed a heroic warrior, the spirit of national unity simply did not exist for her or for any of the other feudal rulers. The rebels certainly did not present a “shining example of our national unity”. If anything, Indian unity was better represented by the ‘British’ forces, which were made up largely of Indians, including Sikhs, Gurkhas, Muslims from the North West Frontier, low-caste soldiers of the Bombay and Madras armies, and contingents from various princely states.
Most of the leaders of the Indian independence movement and social reform movements in the post-1857 period did not take inspiration from the revolt, nor did they say much about it. However, what little they had to say is revealing.
In 1903, in Indian Opinion, Mahatma Gandhi opines:
The year 1857 was a year of great anxiety. … An appeal was made to the worst superstitions of the people of India, religion was greatly brought into play, and all that could possibly be done by the evil-minded was done to unsettle people’s minds, and to make them hostile to British rule. It was at that time of stress and trouble that great mass of the Indian people remained absolutely firm and unshaken in their loyalty [to the British] (link).
Later, however, Gandhi may have taken a somewhat different view of the revolt. In 1925 he says:
You do not know of our condition at the time of the 1857 revolt. The persecution of the people at that time has no parallel. You cannot imagine how happy the country was before the days of the modern innovations – the railways, post and telegraph, etc. (link).
Jawaharlal Nehru in Glimpses of World History writes:
The revolt developed into a war of independence … but it was independence of the old feudal type, with an autocratic emperor at the head. There was no freedom for the common people in it. … It was fighting for a lost cause, the feudal order … The revolt of 1857-58 was the last flicker of feudal India.
And in Discovery of India, he says:
Essentially it was a feudal outburst, headed by feudal chiefs and their followers... There was hardly any national and unifying sentiment among the leaders.
Maulana Abul Kalam Azad in his foreword to the book 1857, says:
As I read about the events of 1857, I am forced to the sad conclusion that Indian national character had sunk very low. The leaders of the revolt could never agree. They were mutually jealous and continually intrigued against one another. ... [Bahadur Shah Zafar] was not fit to serve even as a symbol.
Mahatma Jyotirao Phule, the great social reformer in Maharashtra, who had started schools for low caste girls in the 1840s, took an active interest in the events of 1857. In his book Slavery he writes:
It was through Providential dispensation that the revolt engineered by Bhat Nana [Saheb] was put down by the brave English rulers. Otherwise the so-called emancipated Brahmins who perform religious rites ... would surely have sentenced many Mahars for wearing the dhoti tucked away on one side, or for (the offence of) having uttered Sanskrit verses during religious discourses, to transportation for life.
Dalits in general take a dim view of the revolt of 1857. Among the loyal soldiers of the Bombay Army around the time of the revolt was one Maloji Sakpal, an untouchable Mahar by caste. The army had instituted a policy of compulsory education for Indian soldiers of all castes as well as their children, both male and female. As a result, Maloji’s son Ramji received a formal education. Ramji also joined the army, and he and his wife – she too from a military family and therefore educated – emphasized education for their own children. One of these children, Bhim, better known today as Dr. Babaseheb Ambedkar, would go on to become one of the greatest thinkers and leaders of modern India. Naturally, Dr. Ambedkar did not think very highly of the revolt, and was actually quite proud of the Dalits’ role in suppressing it. Here is a quote from him:
The mutiny of 1857 was an attempt … to drive out the English and reconquer India. …the mutiny was headed by the Bengal Army. The Bombay Army and the Madras Army remained loyal and it was with their help that the Mutiny was suppressed. What was the composition of the Bombay Army and the Madras Army? They were mostly drawn from the untouchables, the Mahars in Bombay and the Pariahs in Madras. It is therefore true to say that the untouchables not only helped the British to conquer India they helped them to retain India (link).
The only nationalist leader of note who viewed the revolt as a heroic struggle was Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. He was the first one to describe the revolt as “the first war of Indian independence”, which was also the title of a book that he published. Savarkar seems to have taken a romanticized view of the revolt, one not entirely based on facts. Even then, he still struggled with one blatant and undeniable fact – that the rebel soldiers everywhere had proclaimed the restoration of the old and autocratic Mughal Rule, they had not even claimed to establish a new progressive government. Savarkar was never able to entirely square the circle, as this quote from his book demonstrates:
However this establishment of the power of this old representative of the Mughals, was not for bringing back the old Mughal dynasty or the old barbaric tradition…It would have been suicidal to do so…because that would have meant that the blood shed by Hindu martyrs, fighters for their religion, for their independence ... had been in vain.
My own view is that the revolt of 1857 fell well short of a war of national independence. I agree with Jawaharlal Nehru’s characterization that it was the “last flicker of feudal India”. However, it is also true that the revolt was more than just a series of local mutinies and uprisings. Some form of rudimentary nationalism did exist among the rebel soldiers, which gave them some sort of unity of purpose, and which drove them to proclaim the restoration of the Mughal Empire (rather than, say, establish new kingdoms in Meerut, Mathura, etc.).
Various other reasons have also been given by various groups regarding why the revolt should not be viewed as a glorious war of national independence. For a Dalit view, see this. Here is a Sikh view, and here is Hindu Nationalist perspective.

End of Feudal India and the Birth of a New India
Rather than the ‘First War of Indian Independence’, what we should really celebrate in 2007 is the 150th anniversary of end of feudal India. And this is something that is indeed worth celebrating, because the end of feudal India also marks the birth of a new and much more vibrant India.
The very same year as the revolt – 1857 – the great universities of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras were founded. These were representative of the new learning and the new ways of thinking that would sweep India over the next few decades. The very first batch of students to graduate from Calcutta University included Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, whose song Vande Mataram would inspire nationalism in millions of Indians. Among the first few graduates of Bombay University was Bal Gangadhar Tilak, the great nationalist thinker and leader. Eventually, it would be people like these, educated and inculcated with modern ideas, rather than the feudal chiefs and princes, who would go on to shape a new India.
As author V.S. Naipaul puts it in India: A Million Mutinies Now, there was a recognition that the feudal system was a “system ... that has come to the end of its possibilities, ... that the India that will come into being at the end of the period of British rule will be better educated, more creative and full of possibility than the India of a century before; that it will have a larger idea of human association, and that out of this larger idea, and out of the encompassing humiliation of British rule, there will come to India the ideas of country and pride and historical self analysis, things that seem impossibly remote [in 1857].”
Unless otherwise mentioned, almost everything here comes from the following:Majumdar, R.C. 1963. The Sepoy Mutiny and the Revolt of 1857. Firma K.L. Mukhopadhyay, Calcutta.
Dalrymple, William. 2006. The Last Mughal The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi, 1857. Penguin Viking, New Delhi.
Roy, Tapti. 2006. Raj of the Rani. Penguin Books, New Delhi.
Lakshmibai, Rani of Jhansi (web-site) This excellent web-site has a wealth of information on the Rani of Jhansi.
Sid's blog
posted by Siddhartha Shome at 3:05 PM