Although dismissed by some as merely a sepoy’s mutiny or revolt, or as a protest against the violation of religious rights by the British, the great uprising of 1857 is slowly gaining recognition as India’s first war of independence. And in its broad sweep it was the greatest armed challenge to colonial rule during the entire course of the nineteenth century. Attracting people from all walks of life – both Hindus and Muslims, it triggered demands for radical social and economic reforms, calling for a new society that would be more democratic and more representative of popular demands.
Neither was it a bolt out of the blue. Although not very well known, the period between 1763 and 1856 was not a period during which Indians accepted alien rule passively. Numerous uprisings by peasants, tribal communities and princely states confronted the British. Some were sustained – others sporadic – a few were isolated acts of revolutionary resistance – but nevertheless they all challenged colonial rule. Precipitated by the policy of unchecked colonial extraction of agricultural and forest wealth from the region – the period saw tremendous growth in rural poverty, the masses being reduced to a state of utter deprivation.
Even as official taxation was back-breaking enough, British officers routinely used their powers to coerce additional money, produce, and free services from the Indian peasants and artisans. And courts routinely dismissed their pleas for justice. In the first report of the Torture Commission at Madras presented to the British House of Commons in 1856, this was acknowledged along with the admission that officers of the East India Company did not abstain from torture, nor did they discourage its use. That this was a practice not confined to the Madras presidency alone is confirmed by a letter from Lord Dalhousie to the Court of Directors of the East India Company in September , 1855 where he admits that the practice of torture was in use in every British province.
[ Note :- Testimonials to the Torture Commission , Presented in 1856 and 1857 to the British House of Commmons
“Last year, as our peasanum (principal paddy or rice crops) failed for want of rain, we were unable to pay as usual. When the jamalbandi was made we claimed a remission on account of the losses, according to the terms of the agreement entered into in 1837, by us, when Mr. Eden was our collector. As this remission was not allowed, we refused to take our puttahs. The tahsildar then commenced to compel us to pay with great severity, from the month of June to August. I and others were placed in charge of persons who used to take us in the sun. There we were made to stoop and stones were put on our backs, and we were kept in the burning sand. After 8 o’clock, we were let to go to our rice. Such like ill treatment was continued during three months, during which we sometimes went to give our petitions to the collector, who refused to take them. We took these petitions and appealed to the Sessions Court, who transmitted them to the collector. Still we got no justice. In the month of September, a notice was served upon us, and twenty-five days after, our property was distrained, and afterward sold. Besides what I have mentioned, our women were also ill-treated; the kittee was put upon their breasts.”
“When a European or native regiment passes through, all the ryots are pressed to bring in provisions, etc., for nothing , and should any of ‘them ask for the price of the articles, they are severely tortured.”
A Brahmin along with several co-villagers was ordered to provide free raw materials and labor for a bridge. On refusing, he was manhandled by 12 men and subject to considerable ill-treatment. In his complaint, he testified: “I presented a complaint to the Sub-Collector, Mr. W. Cadell, but he made no inquiry, and tore my complaint. As he is desirous of completing cheaply the Coleroon Bridge-work at the expense of the poor and of acquiring a good name from the Government, whatever may be the nature of the murder committed by the tahsildar, takes no cognizance of it.”
“In matters under the immediate cognizance or direction of the Deputy Commissioner, Mr. Brereton himself, the houses of wealthy citizens had been ceaselessly searched; that property seized on such occasions was detained for lengthened periods; that many parties were thrown into prison, and lay there for weeks, without charges exhibited against them; and that the laws relating to security for bad character had been applied with sweeping and indiscriminating severity.”
Peasants from Tippu Sultan’s Mysore who compare conditions under Tippu and the East India Company: “While we were cultivating wet and dry lands, hill tracts, low tracts and forests, paying the light assessment fixed upon us, thereby enjoying tranquility and happiness under the administra tion of ‘Ranee’, Bahadur and Tippoo, the then Circar servants, levied an additional assessment, but we never paid it. We were not subject to privations, oppressions or ill-usages in collecting the revenue. On the surrender of this country to the Honourable Campany, (the East India Company) they devised all sorts of plans to squeeze out money from us. With this pernicious object in view, they invented rules and framed regulations, and directed their collectors and civil judges to put them in execution. But the then collectors and their subordinate native officials paid for some time due attention to our grievances, and acted in consonance with our wishes. On the contrary, the present collectors and their subordinate officials, desirous of obtaining promotion on any account whatever, neglect the welfare and interests of the people in general and turn a deaf ear to our grievances, and subject us to all sorts of oppressions.” ]
Desperate communities had often no choice but to resist to the bitter end. Armed revolts broke out practically every year – only to be brutally suppressed by the British. Lacking the fire power of the British arsenal – they were invariably outgunned. And lacking the means of communication available to the British – individual revolts were also unable to trigger sympathetic rebellions elsewhere. Disadvantageous timing led to crushing defeats. Yet, some of these struggles raged for many years.
[ Note :- Unsung Heroes of the Indian Freedom Struggle (1763-1856)
While much has been written on the Indian Freedom Movement as led by the Congress and Gandhi, little is known of the numerous uprisings by peasants, tribal communities, princely states and other isolated revolutionary acts of resistance against the British. Heroic acts of resistance against the British during1763 to 1857 are almost unknown. The following is a listing of armed revolts that were brutally suppressed by the British as the East Indian Company consolidated it’s rule in the century preceding the 1857 revolt:-
Sanyal Revolt : 1763-1800
Cooch Bihar: 1766
Jalpaiguri, Rangpur and surroundings: 1766-69, 1771, 1776
Dhalbhum Rajas: 1766-7
Peasant’s Revolt, Tripura: 1766-8
(led by Shamsher Ghazi in Roshanabad)
Sandip Islands: 1769-70
(S. of Noakhali)
Moamarias, Jorhat/Rangpur: 1769-99
Chakmas, Chittagong: 1776-89
Gorakhpur, Basti and Bahraich: 1781
Rangpur Peasants: 1783
Khasi revolt: 1788
Agha Muhammad Reza: 1799
Birbhum, Bishnupur: 1788-9
Bakarganj Peasants: 1792
Poligars Uprising: 1795-1805
included Tinnevelly, Ramanathapuram, Sivaganga, Sivagiri, Madurai, N. Arcot
Chuar Peasants, Midnapur: 1799
Vaji Ali, Awadh: 1799
Ganjam, Gumsur: 1800, 1835-7
Vellore Mutiny: 1806
Naik Revolt: 1810-16
(in Bhograi, Midnapur)
(under Velu Thambi)
Bundelkhand Chiefs: 1808-12
Abdul Rahman, Surat: 1810
Benaras Hartal/Agitation: 1810-11
Parlakimedi, W. Ganjam: 1813-34
Rohilla Revolt: 1816
(included Bareilly, Pilbhit, Shahjahanpur, Rampur)
(included Cuttack, Khurda, Pipli, Puri)
Bhils: 1817-31, 1846, 1852
(included Khandesh, Dhar, Malwa)
(included Sighbhum, Chota Nagpur, Sambhalpur, Ranchi, Hazari Bagh, Palamau, Chaibasa)
Mers, Marwar 1819-21
Gujars, Kunja: 1824
Sindgi, Bijapur: 1824
Bhiwani, Rewari, Hissar, Rohtak: 1824-26
Kittur, Belgaum: 1824-29
Kolis: 1828-30, 39, 1844-48
Ramosis, Pune: 1826-29
Garos: 1825-27, 1832-34
(Also known as the Pagal Panthis Revolt – in Sherpur, Mymensigh distt.)
(included Gadadhar Singh 1828-30, Kumar Rupchand 1830)
(led by Tirot Singh)
Sighphos: 1830-31, 43
Akas: 1829, 1835-42
(spread from Bengal, Bihar to Punjab and NWFP)
Titu-Mir, 24-Parganas: 1831
Mysore Peasants: 1830-31
Bhumij, Manbhum: 1832
Gonds, Sambhalpur: 1833
Naikda, Rewa, Kantha: 1838
Farazis, Faripur: 1838-47
Khamtas, Sadiya-Assam: 1839
Surendra Sai, Sambhalpur: 1839-62
Bundelas, Sagar: 1842
Salt Riots, Surat: 1844
Gadkari, Kolhapur: 1844
Savantvadi, N. Konkan: 1844-59
Narasimha Reddy, Kurnool: 1846-7
Khonds, Orissa: 1848
Garos, Garo Hills: 1848-66
Abors, NE Hills: 1848-1900
Lushais, Lushai Hills: 1840-92
Nagas: Naga Hills: 1849-78
Umarzais: Bannu: 1850-2
Survey Riots: Khandesh: 1852
Saiyads of Hazara: 1852
Nadir Khan, Rawalpindi: 1853
(included Rajmahal, Bhagalpur, Birbhum)
These revolts show how widespread the opposition to British colonial rule was. Though fragmented, this opposition eventually crystallized into a more sweeping and cohesive force that would eventually lead to 1857 – which provided a brief and faint glimmer of freedom that would not be won untill almost a century later. ]
One of the earliest rebellions was led by Dhondia Waug of Shimoga who managed to briefly liberate the Shimoga, Chitradurg, Dharwad and Bellary districts in 1799 (soon after the defeat of Tipu Sultan). Karnataka’s Rani Chennamma led a valiant revolt in the Kittur region in 1824 which was followed by Sangoli Rayanna’s guerrilla war five years later. Various peasant revolts persisted in Karnataka up to 1833. Also significant were the Kol Uprising of 1831, the Santhal Uprising of 1855, and the Kutch Rebellion which lasted from 1816 until 1832. Earlier, some of the rulers of Orissa and West Bengal had offered stiff resistance for more than afew decades before falling to British might.
There was also a precedence for a soldiers mutiny when Indian soldiers in Vellore (Northern Tamil Nadu) mutinied in 1806. Although unsuccessful, it led to the growth of unofficial political committees of soldiers who had several grievances against their British overlords.
For instance, in the Bengal Army, the 140,000 Indians who were employed as “Sepoys” were completely subordinate to the roughly 26,000 British officers. These sepoys bore the brunt of the First Britsh-Afghan War (1838-42), the two closely contested Punjab Wars (1845-6, and 1848-9) and the Second Anglo-Burmese War. They were shipped across the seas to fight in the Opium Wars against China (1840-42) and (1856-60) and the Crimean War against Russia (1854). Although at constant risk of death, the Indian sepoy faced very limited opportunities for advancement – since all positions of authority were monopolized by the Europeans.
Many of the sepoys in the Bengal Army came from the Hindi speaking plains of UP where (excluding Oudh) the British had enforced the “Mahalwari” system of taxation which involved constantly increasing revenue demands. In the first half of the 19th century – tax revenues payable to the British increased 70%. This led to mounting agricultural debts with land being mortgaged to traders and moneylenders at a very rapid rate. This inhumane system of taxation was then extended to Oudh where the entire nobility was summarily deposed.
As a result, the dissatisfaction against the British was not confined to the agricultural communities alone. By bankrupting the nobility and the urban middle class – demand for many local goods was almost eliminated. At the same time local producers were confronted with unfair competition from British imports. The consequences of this were summarized by the rebel prince Feroz Shah, in his August 1857 proclamation: “the Europeans by the introduction of English articles into India have thrown the weavers, the cotton dressers, the carpenters, the blacksmiths and the shoe-makers and others out of employ and have engrossed their occupations, so that every description of native artisan has been reduced to beggary.”
Contrast this turn of events with the arrival of Mughal rule in India. Babar, in spite of his distaste for the Indian climate and customs, noted the tremendous diversity and skill of Indian craftspeople, and saw in that a great potential for expanding Indian manufacturing. Quite unlike the British, the Mughals built on the manufacturing strengths of the Indian artisan – (already well establish in the earlier Sultanate period) – and took them to dazzling heights in the later periods. But by the mid-19th century, this pre-industrial virtuosity in manufacturing had been virtually choked off by British policies. A British chronicler of the period, Thomas Lowe noted how ” the native arts and manufactures as used to raise for India a name and wonder all over the western world are nearly extinguished in the present day; once renowned and great cities are merely heaps of ruins…”
All this inevitably prepared the ground for the far more widespread revolt of 1857. Although concentrated in what is now UP in modern India – the 1857 revolt spread from Dacca and Chittagong (now Bangladesh) in the East to Delhi in the West. Major urban centres in Bengal, Orissa, and Bihar including Cuttack, Sambhalpur, Patna and Ranchi participated. In Central India – the revolt spread to Indore, Jabalpur, Jhansi and Gwalior. Uprisings also took place in Nasirabad in Rajasthan, Aurangabad and Kolhapur in Maharashtra and in Peshawar on the Afghan border. But the main battleground was in the plains of UP – with every major town providing valiant resistance to the British invaders.
Starting out as a revolt of the Sepoys – it was soon accompanied by a rebellion of the civil population, particularly in the North Western Provinces and Oudh. The masses gave vent to their opposition to British rule by attacking government buildings and prisons. They raided the “treasury”, charged on barracks and court houses, and threw open the prison gates. The civil rebellion had a broad social base, embracing all sections of society – the territorial magnates, peasants, artisans, religious mendicants and priests, civil servants, shopkeepers and boatmen.
For several months after the uprising began in Meerut on May 10, 1857 – British rule ceased to exist in the northern plains of India. Muslim and Hindu rulers alike joined the rebelling soldiers and militant peasants, and other nationalist fighters. Among the most prominent leaders of the uprising were Nana Sahib, Tantia Tope, Bakht Khan, Azimullah Khan, Rani Laksmi Bai, Begum Hazrat Mahal, Kunwar Singh, Maulvi Ahmadullah, Bahadur Khan and Rao Tula Ram. Former rulers had their own grievances against the British, including the notorious law on succession which gave the British the right to annexe any princely state if it lacked “legitimate male heirs”.
Expressions of Popular Will
The rebels established a Court of Administration consisting of ten members – six from the army and four civilians with equal representation of Hindus and Muslims. The rebel government abolished taxes on articles of common consumption, and penalized hoarding. Amongst the provisions of its charter was the liquidation of the hated ‘Zamindari’ system imposed by the British and a call for land to the tiller.
Although the former princes who joined with the rebels did not go quite as far, several aspects of the proclamations issued by the former rulers are noteworthy. All proclamations were issued in popular languages. Hindi and Urdu texts were provided simultaneously. Proclamations were issued jointly in the name of both Hindus and Muslims. Feroz Shah – in his August 1857 proclamation included some significant points. All trade was to be reserved for Indian merchants only, with free use of Government steam vessels and steam carriages. All public offices were to be given to Indians only and wages of the sepoys were to be revised upwards.
Overpowered by British Might, Betrayed by the Princes
Threatened by such a radical turn of events, the British rulers poured in immense resources in arms and men to suppress the struggle. Although the rebels fought back heroically – the betrayal by a number of rulers such as the Sikh princes, the Rajasthani princes and Maratha rulers like Scindia allowed the British to prevail. Lord Canning (then Governor General) noted that ” If Scindia joins the rebels, I will pack off tomorrow”. Later he was to comment: ” The Princes acted as the breakwaters to the storm which otherwise would have swept us in one great wave”. Such was the crucial importance of the betrayal of the princes. The British were also helped by the conservatism of the trading communities who were unwilling to put up with the uncertanties of a long drawn out rebellion.
But equally important was the superior weaponry and brutality of the British in defending their empire. British barbarity in supressing the uprising was unprecedented. After the fall of Lucknow on May 8, 1858 Frederick Engels commented: ” The fact is, there is no army in Europe or America with so much brutality as the British. Plundering, violence, massacre – things that everywhere else are strictly and completely banished – are a time honoured privilege, a vested right of the British soldier ..”. In Awadh alone 150,000 people were killed – of which 100,000 were civilians. The great Urdu poet, Mirza Ghalib wrote from Delhi, ” In front of me, I see today rivers of blood”. He went on to describe how the victorious army went on a killing spree – killing every one in sight – looting peoples property as they advanced.
Bahadur Shah’s three sons were publicly executed at “Khooni Darwaaza” in Delhi and Bahadur Shah himself was blinded and exiled to Rangoon where he died in 1862. Refusing to plead for mercy from the British, he courageously retorted: ” The power of India will one day shake London if the glory of self-respect remains undimmed in the hearts of the rebels”. Thomas Lowe wrote: “To live in India now was like standing on the verge of a volcanic crater, the sides of which were fast crumbling away from our feet, while the boiling lava was ready to erupt and consume us”
The 1857 revolt which had forged an unshakable unity amongst Hindus and Muslims alike, was an important milestone in our freedom struggle – providing hope and inspiration for future generations of freedom lovers. However, the aftermath of the 1857 revolt also brought about dramatic changes in colonial rule. After the defeat of the 1857 national revolt – the British embarked on a furious policy of “Divide and Rule”, fomenting religious hatred as never before. Resorting to rumors and falsehoods, they deliberately recast Indian history in highly communal colors and practised pernicious communal politics to divide the Indian masses. That legacy continues to plague the sub-continent today. However, if more people become aware of the colonial roots of this divisive communal gulf – it is possible that some of the damage done to Hindu-Muslim unity could be reversed. If Hindus and Muslims could rejoin and collaborate in the spirit of 1857, the sub-continent may yet be able to unshackle itself from its colonial past.