The period 1857-1859 may be regarded as the first phase of the Indian War of Independence. The year 1857, no doubt, marked the commencement of the War for Indian independence. The current celebration of 150th anniversary of that war at national level and commemoration of the historic events’ of the year is really a matter of gratification for the people of India.
The distortion and falsification of the history of the first Indian War of independence 1857-1859 at the hands of some Indian and British historians have created some vacuums in our knowledge of the subject. Furthermore, the diametrically opposite views expressed by some historians and scholars regarding the anti-British Indian movement of the period under notice, and the succinct and imperfect account and hazy picture of the subject presented in some of the works do not render it possible for many of us to arrive at any definite or plausible conclusion about its real nature and character.
The British historians, who have called 1857 War a mutiny, sepoy war or sepoy revolt, include Charles Ball (The History of the Indian Mutiny, 2 Vols. London, 1858), T R E Holmes (A History of the Indian Mutiny and of the Disturbances which accompanied it among the civil population, London, 1888; History of the Indian Mutiny, London, 1898), JW Kaye (A History of the sepoy war in India, Vols I & II, London 1870, Vol. III, London 1876), G B Malleson (History of the Indian Mutiny, 3 vols, London, 1878-80), Kaye and Malleson (The Indian Mutiny of 1857, 6 vols, London, 1888, rept. 1891), G W Forrest (A History of the Indian Mutiny, 3 vols, London, 1904-12; Selections from the letters, Despatches and other state papers preserved in the Military Deptt. Of the Govt. of India, 1857-8, 4 vols, Calcutta, 1893-1912), M L Innes (The Sepoy Revolt, London, 1897), R G Wilberforce (An Unrecorded Chapter of the Indian Mutiny Being the Personal Reminiscences, compiled from the Diary and Letters Written on the spot, London 1894, rept, Delhi, 1976), P E Roberts (History of British India under the company and the Crown, London, 1921, rept 1945), Hibert (The Great Mutiny, Delhi, 1884), Thompson and Garratt (Rise and Fulfilment of British Rule in India, Allahabad, 1973), L J Trotter and W H Hutton (History of India from the Earliest Times to the present day, 1st Indian rept, Delhi, 1975), W H Russell (My Diary in India in the year 1858-59, 2 Vols, London, 1860), R Aikes (Notes on the Revolt in the North-Western Provinces of India, London, 1858), Johm Lawrence and Johm Seeley; those who called the war of 1857-58 a rebellion include NA Chick (Annals of the Indian Rebellion, 1857-58, Calcutta, 1859-60), A Duff (The Indian Rebellion, its Causes and Results in a series of letters, London, 1858) and JB Norton (The Rebellion in India, London 1857). They all have admitted that the Indian revolt or rebellion of 1857-58 was directed against British imperialism. Kaye and Mallesson (two of the noted British authorities on the subject) consider it partly a mutiny and partly a war of independence. H G Rawlinson (A Concise History of the Indian People, London 1938, rept., 1956) asserts that the “ Indian mutiny was not a national movement “. A Llewellyn (The Siege of Delhi, London 1977) Also rejects the idea of a nationally organized movement for independence from the foreign rule.
The most prominent among the Indian Historians who call 1857 war a mutiny and the revolt is RC Majumdar which is evident form his very work, The Sepoy Mutiny and the Revolt of 1857 (Calcutta, 1957).
The British General James Outram called it “an organized national movement and war of independence”. Karl Marx was the first scholar to unequivocally call the anti-British Indian movement of 1857-59 the first Indian War of Independence. The work, The First Indian War of Independence 1857-1859 (Moscow, 1959, 4th rept., 1975), by Marx and Engels, is based on their articles on 1857-59 “national liberation revolt in India” printed in the New-York Daily Tribune. The said work is English translation of the Russian edition prepared by the Institute of Marxism-Leninism of the CCCPSU in 1959. The authors refuted the false contention of the British ruling classes that the movement was an armed sepoy mutiny and there was no involvement in it of broad sections of the Indian population. They laid emphasis on the fact that the movement started from the very beginning as a “national revolt – a revolution of the Indian people against British rule”. They clearly stated in their articles that the revolt “brought together not only people of different religions (Hindus and Muslims) and castes (‘Brahmans, Rajputs and, in some cases Sikhs’) but also of different social standing”. Although the British press left no stone unturned to hush up the participation of the Indian people in anti-British revolt, Marx asserted in his early articles that the Indian people not only sympathized with, but supported the revolt in every way .In his article “The Indian Revolt” (London, Sept.4,1857), Marx proved beyond doubt that broad sections of the people- the peasants most of all- took part in the movement in direct or indirect way. He categorically stated that the “Liberation struggle of the Indian people was against the domination of foreign colonialists”. The colonial exploitation nurtured the Indian Revolt. He wrote, “that sepoy regiments have murdered their European officers; 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.” (“The Revolt in the Indian Army”, New York Daily Tribune, No. 5065, July 15,1857.)
In his monumental work, The Indian War of Independence 1857 (London, 1909, immediately proscribed, 1st pub in India, Bombay, 1947), V D Savarkar has conclusively proved that the Indians’ fight against the British for the independence of their country form the foreign rule first commenced in 1857. He has provided a picturesque description of the subject under treatment. His work abounds in valuable information about the heroes and heroines who sacrificed their lives while fighting against the British in the holy war of independence. The said work is called “the Bible of the Indian Revolutionists”. In his rarest of the rare works, Bharat Mein Ang-reji Raj (The British Rule in India, 3 vols, Allahabad, 1929, immediately banned, 2nd edn, 1938), Sundar Lal, in his Eighteen Fifty Seven, based on his study and research of nearly two decades (with a Foreword by Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad, Delhi, 1957), S N Sen, and in his History of 1857 (based on eye-witness accounts, Delhi, 1934), N.K. Nigam, have also pointed out that the movement of 1857 was national in character, and it was no doubt the first battle of independence.
Raj Bali Pandey (Bharatiya Itihasa Ka Parichaya (Introduction to Indian History), Varanasi, 1963) Calls it “a national uprising” and also “a war of independence”. K M Pannikar (Survey of Indian History) is absolutely correct in stating that it aroused national awakening. All were “united in object – the expulsion of the British and the recovery of national independence”. One of the noted historians of modem India, Bipin Chandra, has also admitted that it was a struggle for freedom.
In fact, the anti-British Indian movement of 1857-59 first began as a mutiny as the sepoys (native soldiers to the British service or the men and officers of the native regiments of the Anglo-Indian army) ignited its spark that blazed up into a conflagration; it soon turned into a revolt or rebellion and gradually assumed the character of a national movement (to a considerable extent) also called the first war of Indian independence. The war of independence had virtually commenced in 1857 and continued upto 1859 which can be well substantiated by going deeper and deeper into the entire course of events that took place during the period.
The people of India, including the tribals, started raising the voice against the British from the very beginning of their rule in the country. They wanted to frustrate the attempts of the British to consolidate their imperial authority. They were determined to throw off the yoke of British servitude from the neck of India. The British rulers started receiving blow after blow from 1770 onwards.
Not a year passed without armed resistance to British rule in one part of the country or the other. There were, no doubt, several antiBritish revolts in India before 1857 like those of Pahadiya tribe of Rajamahal and Bhagalpur (1770-78), Tilaka Manjhi and his followers in Santhal Pargana, Bhagal-pur and adjoining regions (1781-84), Mahadeva Koli tribe of Maharashtra (1784 -85), Tamad of Chota-nagpur (1789, 1794-95), Koyas of eastern Godavari region in Andhra Pradesh (1803), the tribal people of Chotanagpur (180708), Bhils of Gujarat (1809-28), tribal peasants of Bihar (1811-20), Bhils of Rajas-than (1812-17), the people of Bareli (1816), Mahadeva Koli of Maharashtra (1818), Kols of Chota-nagpur (1831-32), Maha-deva Koli and Bhils of Maharashtra (1830-48), Mundas of Chotanagpur (1820, 1832), the tribal people of Orissa (1835-36), the tribals of Bastar, Madhya Pradesh (1842), Bhils of Gujarat (1846), the people of Barsat, Bengal (1831), the people of Faridpur, Bengal (1847), the fanners of Mopala, Kerala (1849, 1851-2, 1855), Kandha tribe of Orissa under the leadership of Chaka Bishoi (1850), the Khasi tribe of present Meghalaya (1828 39), the Angam, Nagas of Nagaland (1832, 1844, 1849, 1855), the tribes of North-East Frontier region and Upper Assam (1830-43), Santhal tribe led by four brothers, Sidho, Kanhu, Chanda and Bhairo (1855-56), and Bhils of Madhya Pradesh (1856-57).
But the greatest revolt that shook the very foundation of British empire in India occurred in 1857, and for sometime at least the fate of Britishers in India was hanging in the balance. The revolt of 1857 that broke out during the time of Lord Canning (1856-58) was an epoch-making event in the history of modem India.
The first serious attempt to overthrow the British Raj in India was made in 1857. The year 1857 was the hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Plassey (1757) and it was prophesied that it would be the end of British rule.
Lord Dalhousie’s (1848-56) policy of Doctrine of Lapse, Annexation, and Abolition of Royal Titles, pensions and privileges contained the seeds of revolt by the rulers, Nawabs and princes against the British. On the ground of his policy of Doctrine of Lapse, according to which the ruler of a state not having male issue was not allowed to make his or her adopted son the next successor, and the sovereignty of such state passed back or lapsed to the British paramount power, he annexed a number of Indian states to the British dominion. The states annexed include Satara (1848), Jaitpur in Bundelkand, Sambhalpur in Orissa, and Baghat, a petty hill State in the Punjab (1850), Udaipur (1852), Nagpur (1853) and Jhansi (1854). He also annexed Berar in 1853 and Oudh in February 1856 to the British dominion. The Nawab of Oudh, Wajid Ali Shah, was deposed, given a pension of Rs. 12 lakhs and deported to Calcutta. The annexation of Oudh deeply offended the Muslims of northern India. It also created a feeling of anger and despair in the minds of disbanded 60 thousand soldiers of Oudh. In pursuance of his imperialistic policy, Dalhousie also abolished the titles and pensions of some native rulers. Nana Sahib, the adopted son of the last Peshwa Baji Rao II, was not allowed the pension of his adoptive father nor was he permitted to use the title of Peshwa. After the death of the titular Nawab of the Carnatic and the Raja of Tanjore in 1855, their titles and pension were abolished. The jagirs of the latter were also confiscated. The last Mughal Emperor of India, Bahadur Shah Zafar, was deprived of all privileges enjoyed by him earlier. It was also decided that on his death his family would have to vacate the ancestral palace and the fort at Delhi. This shocked the Muslims in general. The rulers who were dispossessed of their states and the Nawabs who were deprived of their privileges formed a sort of confederacy to fight against British imperialism. The feeling of hatredness towards the British started growing in the hearts of both Hindu and Muslims rulers.
The anti-British feeling started growing among other sections of the people too. During the time of Lord William Bentinck several rent-free estates in Bengal had been taken over which had caused a great unrest among the dispossessed Zamindars (landlords). Thousands of Jagirs had been taken over in the Decan in the time of Lord Dalhousie. This was also a rude shock to the landlords. After the annexation of Oudh the Taluqdars (minilandlords) were deprived of many of their estates and they too were unhappy. Moreover, several thousand people were deprived of their livelihood. And so Oudh became a hotbed of discontent.
The followers and dependants of the dispossessed landlords and the Nawab of Oudh were very much discontented. The Taluqdars and landlords forfeited the right of colleting the land revenue from the cultivators and, hence, they were deprived of their income as well as the status. Under the new land revenue settlement, the British started colleting the land revenue directly from the cultivators. The new land revenue system was too oppressive to be tolerated by the cultivators. The peasants also became the victim of British policy of economic exploitation. The British adopted stringent measures for collecting land revenue from them. The company had dealt a death blow to the indigenous industries with a view to encouraging the use of English goods. This had thrown many workers out of job. Not only the working lass, traders and artisans but also the peasants, Taluqdars, landlords and other people decided to join hands with the rebels. Each section of the society had some grievance or the other against the British.
Several restrictions were imposed by the British on the observance of the traditional Indian social customs and religious system, beliefs and practices. The frequent British onslaught on the Hindu religion and culture was greatly resented. The British Government was bent upon converting the Indians to Christianity. And, thus, the cry was raised, “religion and traditions in danger”. The Hindus and Muslims rallied round under one banner to fight the British.
The Indian soldiers were very often ill-treated by the English soldiers and officers. They were debarred from holding the higher posts and rank in the army. They were not adequately paid and there was no avenue of promotion for them, where as the English soldiers enjoyed all facilities. This discriminatory attitude of the British towards them was not tolerable. As the British empire extended, the Indian sepoys were required to serve farther and farther away from their homes without any extra allowances. They were even called upon to fight in wars across the sea. This they could not tolerate. The high castle orthodox Brahmans in particular took it a sin to cross the seas. In 1856, the General service Enlistment Act of Lord Canning was passed by which the sepoys enlisted under this Act could be sent wherever the need arose. The soldiers of the annexed states were deeply offended as they were thrown out of service. The disbanded soldiers of Outh in particular were rendered idle. All these caused wide-spread resentment among the Indian soldiers against the British.
The reasons for anti-British fight were, of course, different, but the goal- to liberate the country from the foreign rule – was common. All sections of the Indian people were seething with discontent. They were suffocating under pax-Britannica or British paramountcy. Their fulmination and fermentation knew no bound.
The fire that had been smouldering since long burst out in flames which spread to different parts of the country over a period of time. The spontaneous outburst of accumulated or pent-up anti-British feelings found its reflection into various forms of revolt. India was virtually sitting on the mouth of a volcano that was burning beneath. It did not take much time to erupt and explode.
The planning and preparations began for launching a movement or waging a war against the British for the independence of the country. Nana Sahib, Tantya Tope, Azimulla Khan, Bahadur Shah of Delhi and his Begum (Wife) Zinat Mahal, Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi, Hazrat Mahal, Begum of deposed Nawab of Oudh Wajid Ali Shah, and Kunwar Singh of Jagdispur (Bihar) were some of the prominent leaders who planned armed revolution against the British with all dexterity and ingenuity. They took up the organization of the movement in their own hands. The people in India and abroad were contacted to garner their support and mobilize the public opinion against the British.
Nana Sahib sent his able aide or counsellor Azimulla Khan to England to plead or represent his case. He met Rangozi Bapu, the leader of Satara, there who had gone to England to regain the State of Satara from the British. Both made an outline of revolution while they were in London. Rangozi Bapu returned to India.
Azimulla decided to tour East Europe and other countries to get help for the Indians in their revolution against the British. He toured Russia, Italy and other European countries and also Egypt and Turkey to fulfill his mission. The history was repeated later by the Indian revolutionaries abroad in the course of their struggle for freedom. In the meantime, Rangozi Bapu established contacts with the Indian princes, Sepoys and the people and instigated them to rise in open revolt against the British. After the return of Azimulla Khan to India, Nana Sahib started organizing secretly the dissatisfied forces against the British. He started corresponding with the rulers of Delhi, Lucknow and Mysore who had been the victim of British imperialism. Nana Sahib accompanied by his brother Bala Sahib and Azimulla travelled from Kanpur to Bithur, Delhi, Ambala, Mathura, Agra, Kalpi, Lucknow and other cities on the excuse of making pilgrimage to places, but, in fact, his real objective of undertaking the tour was to establish contacts with the populace and potentates and to ensure that everything was properly organized. Secret meetings were organized at several places in which several Rajas and Nawabs resolved to rise in revolt against the British Secret meetings were held at Red Fort in Delhi. Bahadur Shah and his Begun Zinat Mahal, Begun Hazrat Mahal, Wazir Ali Naqi Khan and others participated in the meetings and chalked out their strategy to fight the British. Correspondence began between the organizers of the movement regarding their planning and preparations. The letters were passed between Bahadur Shah of Delhi, Nana Sahib of Kanpur, Begum Hazrat Mahal of Lucknow, Rani Lakshmi Bai of Thansi, Commander Nabi Baksh of Patna, Kunwar Singh of Jagdispur and a host of other leaders.
Maulavi Ahmad Shah of Fyzabad visited Delhi, Agra, Lucknow, Meerut. Patna and even Calcutta preaching holy war against the British. Nabi Bakshkhan of Patna kept up correspondence with all the chiefs for complete revolution. Contacts had been established between Delhi, UP, Bihar, Bengal, Bombay, Satara and Punjab. Ali Naqi Khan made an extensive tour of the whole India in the guise of a hermit to hide his identity and conceal his motive. He instigated Hindus, Muslims and sepoys to rise in revolt against the British. Hindus and Muslims touching the sacred water of the Ganges and the Holy Quran respectiv-ely vowed to fight unitedly against the British Raj in the country. Likewise, Ma-ulavi Alam Shah undertook extensive tours from Lucknow to Agra and ins-tigated the people to start a revolution to oust the British from the country. The taluqdars and jamin-dars also contributed their mite to the making of anti-British revolt a success.
The Indian troops serving the British were contacted in almost all the cantonments for seeking their cooperation as the success of the movement greatly depended on their participation. They were ready for the revolution by wide spread distribution of red Lotus flowers which they accepted hoping that “everything will turn red”.
They were instructed to kill their English officers and then march to Delhi to rally round under the banner of Bahadur Shah of Delhi. The Hindus and Muslims formed a combin-ed front to fight their common enemy the English, the usurpers of their lands and their kingdoms. Chap-atis symbolizing the message of revolution were di-stributed among the common people to awaken them politically.
They were asked to keep themselves ready for the revolt. Pandits, Sadhus, Maulavis and Bards were employed to carry the message of revolt from door to door and village to village. It was hoped that the year 1857 will mark the end of the British rule in India. Pandits and Maulavis had already prophesied the fall of the British exactly a hundred years after the Battle of Plassey, that is in June 1857. Keeping these prophecies in view, the leaders of the movement had fixed the date May 31, 1857 for a national uprising against the British. But because of the greased cartridge incident that triggered the revolt of the sepoys, the anti-British movement began about two months before the said fixed date. The cartridges greased with the fat of cow and pig were supplied to the native soldiers asking them to bite their end with their teeth and then to fit them in the new improved (Enfield) rifles with deliberate intention to defile the religion of both the Hindus and Muslims.
This news spread like fire among the soldiers of Native Regiments. This was a signal for outbreaks in several cantonments.
The 29th March of 1857 was an eventful day in the history of Indian Mutiny. On that very day the soldiers of 34th Regiment of the Native Infantry at Barrackpur (about 30 km north of Calcutta) defied the order of British Army officials to touch the greased cartridges. They revolted against the British under the leadership of their fellow Mangal Pandey. After having shot dead Major Hudson (who had ordered soldiers to arrest him) and injured many other British officers — Mangal Pandey shot at himself and was injured.
He was made prisoner, court-martialled and sentenced to death by hanging. He was hanged on April 8, 1857. He was the first to become a martyr in the holy war of 1857. This incident sparked off a series of revolts and rebellions in other parts of the country.
On April 24, 1857 Col. Smith ordered the Sepoys of a Native Regiment at Meerut to use greased cartridges. Only five out of ninety Sepoys obeyed his order and the rest eighty-five refused to do so. On May 9 all eighty-five soldiers were made prisoners, court-martialed at Meerut and sentenced to ten years’ rigorous imprisonment for refusing to touch greased cartridges which added fuel to fire. On May 10, 1857, the soldiers of three Native Regiments at Meerut rose in open revolt. They shot down their English officers stormed the jail, released the prisoners, set the English bungalows on fire and marched off to Delhi crying out that “the British Raj was ended”.
The mutineers of Meerut reached Delhi on May 11, captured the city and put a great many Europeans to death. Then they occupied the Red Fort and palace and proclaimed the last Mughal King, Bahadur Shah, emperor of India. Delhi was declared independent. The independence of Delhi was a great success for the Indian revolutionaries and a major blow to the British rulers. Bahadur Shah declared “Jange-Azadi” (War of independence). He exhorted the Hindus and Muslims to fight unitedly against the British for the independence of the country. He issued a Fatwa (decree) to “drive out the Ferangees (Britishers)” to attain the freedom of the country. The Hindus and Muslims accepted him as their leader, and having the unity of purpose and goal decided to fight shoulder to shoulder against the British. Mutineers from other cantonments in the country also began to pour into Delhi to extend their support to the compatriots. The 11th May 1857 was no doubt a historic day. It proved to be a turning point in the history of the first Indian war of independence.
On September 14, 1857, Delhi was attacked by the British Soldiers commanded by General Wilson. The city (Delhi) was sacked and plundered by the company’s troops. Thousands of soldiers on both sides were killed. A large number of rebels and revolutionaries and many innocent people were put to death to strike terror in the hearts of Indians. The atrocities were perpetrated also on the inhabitants of Delhi of which an eye-witness account has been provided by the famous Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib in his book Dastabu, diary and letters dealing with Gadar (revolt) of 1857. After the terrible fight lasting for ten days, Nicholson with the help of a large number of British, Gorkha, Sikh, Punjabi and Kashmiri soldiers recaptured Delhi on September 24, 1857, though he himself was killed just at the moment of victory. Mirza Illahi Bux, a relative of Bahadur Shah, betrayed him and gave his secrets to the British. Bahadur Shah was soon made prisoner. Actually, he was captured from the Tomb of Humayun at Delhi. And his two sons and a grandson were executed before his eyes. Bahadur Shah, a sad and broken man, was brought back to Red Fort for his trial which began in January 1858. Delhi then being under the army rule of the Military Governor General Wilson, he was tried in court martial fashion. He was charged with masterminding the rebellion against the British as is evident from the Proceedings of the Trial of Bahadur Shah (Delhi, 1895). The judgement of the military court was pronounced on March 29, 1858. He was sentenced to deportation. Accordingly, in November 1858, he was deported to Rangoon where he died on November 7, 1862, at the ripe old age of 87. His mausoleum, which still exist there, constitutes a monumental evidence to the tragic episode.
The Delhi declaration of war of independence on May 11, 1857 had a far-reaching impact on the lovers of freedom in the country. The whole of northern India was virtually up in arms against the British rule. Kanpur, Jhansi, Lucknow, Bareli, Varanasi, Agra and Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh were the main centres of events. In Bihar, Bengal, Orissa, Assam, Rajputana, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh (Central India), Punjab (Sialkot, Lahore and adjoining regions) and North-West Frontier region (peshawar) also some events connected with the anti-British movement took place. Here we shall first provide the details of events that took place in North-East India especially Assam.
The year 1857 was a landmark in the history of north-east India. The flames of the Great Revolt of 1857 also flared in northeastern part of India touching the borders of Bengal. This revolt reverberated both in the valleys and hills of Assam. During the first fortnight of August 1857, the rebels from Bihar, Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and other parts of India reached Gauhati with the messages of Bir Kunwar Singh of Jadgishpur (Bihar), Nana Sahib of Kanpur and other leaders to convey to the people inhabiting both Brahmaputra valley and upper regions (lower and upper Assam).
They disseminated the news of carnage at Meerut, Delhi, Kanpur and other places and appalling cruelty inflicted upon the people there through the whole of north-east India and thereby kindled the spark of patriotism in the hearts of the people. (Brig. General Shower’s Report on the Military Defence of Assam Frontier, Sylhet and Khasi Hills, vide volume of Letters received from the Govt dated Head quarters Shimla, 29th October, 1862, Vol. 47 Oct.-Dec. 1864). On August 17,1857 the news spread about the coming of rebels from different parts of northern India to Gauhati. In September 1857, Maniram, Dewan of Kandrapesvar, the grandson of Ahom king Purandar Simha, raised the banner of revolt against the British rule in Assam. The revolt first began in Brahmaputra valley. The people inhabiting the valley extended their full support to Maniram. Onbeing inspired by his Dewan Maniram, the prince Kandrapesvar also joined the revolt. Maniram motivated the prince to overthrow the British Raj for which be appealed to him to instigate the Soldiers of Gauhati, Jorhat, Dibrugarh and Golaghat to rise in revolt against the British as is evident form his letters. The soldiers soon rose in revolt but they were overpowered by the British. Kandrapesvar was arrested at Jorhat and Maniram at Calcutta. The latter was brought back from Calcutta to Jorhat where he was tried and hanged along with his close associate Piyali Barua on Feb. 26, 1858 (Benudhar Sharma, The Rebellion of 1857 vis-a-vis Assam).
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