By M.V. Kamath
Mangal Pandey: The true story of an Indian revolutionary; Amaresh Misra: Rupa & Co., Delhi, pp. 100, Rs. 95
Mangal Pandey: Brave Martyr or Accidental Hero?; Rudrangshu Mukherjee; A Penguin Original; pp. 109; Rs. 50
Ever since the release of the film The Rising in which Aamir Khan portrays Mangal Pandey, immortalised by Veer Savarkar as the hero who initiated the Great Sepoy Mutiny (or India'sFirst War of Independence) in 1857, great interest has been stirred in the country about the antecedents of the man iconised as a true patriot. But is Mangal Pandey really the hero he is depicted to be? Two Indian writers have tried to solve the mystery in their own way. Amaresh Misra is a film maker and script writer credited with writing the history of Lucknow. Rudrangshu Mukherjee is a professional historian with an Oxford University D. Phil to his credit. Both their works are predictably slim, considering that so little information is available on Pandey, a north Indian Brahmin who joined the armed forces of the East India Company when he was hardly 16 and had served the Bengal Army faithfully for seven years. According to Mukherjee his conduct throughout his years of service ?had always been good? and there had never been a single charge of misbehaviour against him during that period, to sully his record. Indeed, writes Mukherjee ?we still do not know what made Mangal Pandey act the way he did? and ?there is nothing in the historical records that helps to understand Mangal Pandey'sactions unless one accepts that he broke rank and discipline under the influence of bhang.?
What exactly did Mangal Pandey do? The report is that one Sunday afternoon in March 1857 Pandey who belonged to the 34th Native Infantry marched to the parade ground in Barrackpore, exhorting his fellow sepoys to join him in protecting their common religion from British officers out to convert them to Christianity. Reportedly, three of his British officers came on the scene and Pandey had a tussle with them attempting to shoot one. He did not succeed. Then he turned his musket muzzle at his own breast but only succeeded in wounding himself. He was arrested at once, tried and sentenced to death by hanging and was duly executed on April 8, 1857.
During his trial Pandey said that he was not guilty of the charges levelled against him. He also made two points: one, that he did not know what he was doing and the other that he had acted completely on his own, and had no accomplices. He was reportedly in a state of intoxication. But was that all? Even an intoxicated man does not challenge his superiors unless he has deep psychological reasons to do so. What could they be? Both Misra and Mukherjee deal with the subject. The Indian sepoy was frequently treated as an inferior creature. He was sworn at. He was treated roughly. He was addressed as suar?pig. According to Misra, British officers behaved like sadists and ?delighted in attacking villages, picking up women for their pleasure?. Some officers reportedly also tried to convert sepoys into Christians. Misra provides a lot of background to the times in which Pandey lived. One, Lt Wheeler was known to support evangelisation and missionaries, which had led to resentment among the sepoys. As one Englishman wrote: ?The Grand Scheme of Mission on the heathens is now being acted on? The whole land has been shaken by missions to its innermost centre?? Pandey no doubt was incensed at it.
Then came the issue of cartridge grease allegedly made from the fat of pigs and cows; sepoys had to open the cartridges with their teeth and the thought of having to taste such grease was repugnant both to Hindus and Muslims. All in all the British had made themselves unacceptable to the Indian sepoys.
But trouble had been brewing long before 1857. There had been a mutiny in 1824 in Barrackpore during which 200 sepoys had been killed. According to Mukherjee, the 1824 mutiny was ?much more open and collective?. Then there had been another mutiny in Rungpore (Assam) in October 1825 again out of fear of loss of caste. According to Mukherjee ?by any reckoning, the 1824-25 mutinies were more substantial as acts of protest and resistance and constituted a bigger threat to the British? than one man, Mangal Pandey'srebellion.
Actually, Pandey'sone-man rebellion did not stir up trouble in Barrackpore. The real mutiny started almost a month after Pandey was hanged?and that, too, in Meerut. As Mukherjee puts it, ?without the mutiny in Meerut, Mangal Pandey would have remained in obscurity like the sepoys of 1824-25 and without the fall of Delhi the Meerut mutiny would have been an episode in the history of mutinies in India.? Actually, the Meerut mutineers did not look at Pandey ?if they knew him at all? but towards Delhi and the Mughal Emperor.
Misra in his study says that the sepoys did not consider John Company as a state but merely as an employer at best. India in 1857 was NOT part of the British Empire. The East India Company ruled in the name of the Mughal King and the British line was: mulk Badshah ka, hukam Company Bahadur ka, meaning that the nation belonged to the Emperor while the order was of the British. So, as Misra puts it: ?For sepoys as well as general Indians, the mutiny was not a revolt?it was more a restoration of legitimate authority usurped by John Company, an upstart. Technically, sepoys owed their allegiance to the Mughal Empire.? That puts an entirely new light on the so-called ?mutiny?. The sepoys were well within their rights to challenge the behaviour of the British upstarts. Pandey, an Awadh Brahmin was merely defending his caste and his religion. The Meerut uprising was independent of Pandey'sone-man revolt against the British attack on indigenous culture. It wasn'ta calculated move. Like any mass movement, 1857 had no head and no particular representative face. It happened because it HAD to happen.
One must read both Misra and Mukherjee'sbooks, both of which are highly instructive. Mukherjee, incidentally, reproduces excerpts from documents on the trial of Mangal Pandey. One gets the impression that the revolt was not ?political? as much as ?social?. As Misra puts it: ?In the Brahmin, the Anglo-Saxons met their match?here was a figure they could not bend, who had an ancient tradition, mandate from heaven?? That describes Mangal Pandey. Brave martyr he indeed was. But he also became in the process an ?accidental hero.? No matter. He had a role in India'shistory to play and he played it well. Credit is due to Mukherjee and Misra for their efforts to recreate another era. They have done a distinct service in understanding Indian history of the mid-nineteenth century.
Mangal Pandey is best understood and appreciated in the context of his times and when that is said, all is said.