1857: First War of Indian Independence?
In recent weeks
I do not quite share these sentiments. In fact, my reading of history leads to very ambiguous sentiments regarding the very same events.
By 1857 the British East India Company had established its Raj (rule) across
The Nature of the Revolt
To understand the nature of the revolt let us take a closer look at events at two locations,
The events in
In the years prior to 1857, while the Mughals still retained a powerful hold on the imagination of the people of
The revolt started in
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
The events in
In 1832, William Bentnick, the Governor General of
India... visited . Amidst all the glitter [the Jhansi Jhansiruler] 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 . The request was granted and the flag hoisted over ... Jhansi fort. Jhansi
In 1842, the ruler of
The storm broke over
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).
To narrate all the strange and unexpected occurrences that took place during your absence from
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). India
British officials stationed near
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
First War of Indian
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
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
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
. …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 India Bombayand the Pariahs in . It is therefore true to say that the untouchables not only helped the British to conquer Madras Indiathey helped them to retain (link). India
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
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
Rather than the ‘First War of Indian Independence’, what we should really celebrate in 2007 is the 150th anniversary of end of feudal
The very same year as the revolt – 1857 – the great universities of
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.