The ongoing high profile state celebration of the 150th year of 1857 uprisings, raises a number of doubts, especially because the Congress, the Muslim academicians of Aligarh school and the Communists are in the forefront. Till recently, all of them were disowning the 1857 uprising. They let the centenary year of 1857 pass quietly in 1957. Only some private organisations at that time held public meetings or seminars for that great event. At the State History Congress in Bhopal in January 1968, the great Gandhian and former General Secretary of the Congress, Acharya Kripalani, said: ?Sepoy mutiny of 1857, which has been glorified into the ?First War of Independence? was nothing but an attempt by the old order to get back their kingdom and principalities.? Jawaharlal Nehru, India'sfirst Prime Minister, held similar views.
Many books and articles on 1857 have already flooded the market and more are in the pipeline. In his much talked about book, The Last Mughal, William Dalrymple has worked on the premise that 1857 was a people'swar against the British rule to bring back the previous Mughal rule, whose last titular King Bahadur Shah nominally occupied the Delhi throne, while the East India Company of the British was the actual ruler. Official firmans (orders) were issued in the name and authority of the Company: ?Khalk khuda ka; mulk badshah ka; Hukum company bahadur ka? (The word belongs to God; the country belongs to the king, but the orders issue from the East India Company). Dalrymple has laboured hard to prove that Hindus were active participants in getting back to the Mughal rule.
Having mutinied against the British in Meerut on May 10, 1857, the mutineer Indian sepoys, Hindus and Muslims both, marched to Delhi, occupied it on May 11 and declared a reluctant Bahadur Shah the real king and leader of the rebel forces. The mutiny in Kanpur took place on June 4, 1857. After looting the Treasury, the mutineers made Nana Saheb Peshwa, their leader, and started for Delhi. On reaching a place called, Kalyanpur, Nana'saide, Azimullah Khan and some others, convinced Nana and other mutineers of the futility of going to Delhi. So, on June 5, they marched back to Kanpur. Rani of Jhansi revolted on June 6, 1857, and proclaimed Independence. Prior to it, she had made several attempts with the British to get justice, but failed. At Lucknow, the mutiny first took place on May 3, but was suppressed. Another uprising of a larger scale took place on May 30/31. It was led by Begum Hazrat Mahal, in the absence of Nawab of Awadh who was almost a prisoner in Calcutta (Kolkata). In Bihar, Kanwar Singh, a Rajput chief of Jagdishpur, near Arrah, joined the revolt after the Sepoys of Danapur (or Dinapur) mutinied and marched to Arrah on July 25th. Kanwar Singh was perhaps the greatest military leader among the rebel kings of Talukedars.
The main centres of 1857 uprising were Meerut, Delhi, Kanpur Lucknow, Jhansi, Ruhelkhand and Jagdishpur (Bihar). At all these places, the revolt was triggered off by the sepoys of various regiments of the Bengal Army of the East India Company. The word Bengal is a misnomer as its recuits largely came from high caste Hindus and the Muslims of UP and Bihar. Indian sepoys of the Company'sarmy in other Presidencies, like Bombay, Madras and Punjab, remained loyal to the Company. Incidentally, the Bengal Army was the most powerful. It had won for the Company all the territories from Panjab to Assam and even Burma. But, the discontent among the sepoys had been mounting right since the first quarter of the 19th century. The reason was imposition of European traditions and discipline on them, which often violated Indian traditions and religious beliefs of Hindus and Muslims both.
The Muslim mind during the period is reflected in a pamphlet dropped in Cavalry Lines of Arkat and a few other places in 1822. It said that the followers of Mohammed, having been subjected to the power of the English, suffered great hardships; that, being so subjected, their prayers were not acceptable to the Almighty and, therefore, they were dying of cholera in great numbers; and therefore it was their duty to make a great effort for the sake of their religion. It contained a joint action plan for Muslim and Hindu subedars, jemadars and sepoys to strike simultaneously on a fixed day at Vellur, Chitur, Madras (Chennai) and other places. The attempt to ignite a mutiny at that time failed, but it shows that even about two hundred years ago, the Muslim clergy considered it a sin to live under a non-Muslim government and strive for a Quranic regime. Hindu ire, on the other hand, had no clear goal and no dea of an alternative Hindu polity to replace the British Raj.
It is notable that, wherever the mutiny broke out, the people joined it. Thus, there is no doubt that there was a general discontent among the masses against the British rule. The British authorities put the blame largely on Muslim leaders and started persecuting them more than Hindus. But, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, an employee of the British and the founder of the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) and author of the Muslim separatism, laboured hard to prove that Hindus were the actual rebels and that the few Muslims who took part, were misguided by their Hindu compatriots because of the proximity in mixed regiments. He wrote an elaborate pamphlet in Urdu, Asbab-I-Baghavati-i-Hind, (Causes of the Indian Revolt), and circulated its 500 copies to the British peers in UK. The British accepted Syed'sversion and thus started British-Muslim alliance, which culminated in the creation of Pakistan and Partition of India in 1947. Thus Syed had also started a journal, The Loyal Mohammedans of India. It was stopped after the third issue, for lack of funds.
Heavily backed by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty led-Congress, the Communists and other allies within and the global Islamic movement from outside, Muslim fundamentalists of India are hopeful of re-establishing Mohammedan rule in Hindu India. Hence, they are now championing the celebration of 150th anniversary of the ?First War of Independence?.
The truth about 1857 is that the native kings and nawabs and the public at large had a lot of grievances against the British rulers for latter's(a) treacherous ways of annexing Indian territories, one after the other; (b) extreme racial discrimination reflected in their frequent usage, ?you bloody Indian?, for every native Hindu or Muslim; high or low; ill-treatment of native soldiers in comparison to the British ones; and complete disregard for their religious feeling and practices.
The cow and pig fat laced cartridges triggered off the first shot by Mangal Pandey of 34 Native Infantry (NI) of the Bengal Army at Barrackpur on March 29, 1857. He and two others were hanged in the first week of April 1857.
A general, wholesale, mutiny broke out at Meerut on May 10, 1857, which had a chain reaction at other places as earlier mentioned. The princely chiefs, Hindus or Muslims, tried to cash in on the opportunity to regain their lost kingdoms.
It had also an ugly aspect. Severe Hindu-Muslim riots erupted in Muslim-dominated cities. Renowned historian, Shri R.C. Majumdar has observed: ?The communal hatred led to ugly communal riots in many parts of UP. The green flag was hoisted and bloody wars were fought between Hindus and Muslims in Bareilly, Bijnor, Moradabad and other places where the Muslims shouted for revival of Muslim kingdom.? Describing the situation in north-western provinces (Ruhelkhand), he states, ?The demon of communalism also raised its head. The Muslims spat over the Hindus and openly defiled their houses by sprinkling them with cow'sblood and placing cow'sbones within the compounds?.The Hindus oppressed by the Muslims, were depressed at the success of the mutiny, and daily offered prayers to God for the return of the English. Even many Muslims wanted the English to return??
The great revolutionary and Hindu Mahasabha leader, V.D. Savarkar had, for the first time, called 1857 a great War of Indian Independence in continuation of the one thousand years of Hindu resistance against the foreign rule. He did not call it the first War of Independence as now being projected. It is only the hard-core Muslim zealots and their patrons who have branded 1857 as the year of ?First War of Independence?, because they say that their period of subjugation started only from the year the British became the rulers, (1757 AD).
Regarding the causes of its failure, the British themselves have stated: ?It is to be remarked that in proportion as the individuality of the English leaders is distinct and strongly marked, that of the chiefs of the insurrecting movement is faint and undecided?If the individual energies of the leaders of the revolt had been commensurate with the power of the masses, we might have failed to extinguish such a conflagration.? The other major cause of failure, was that though Hindu'scontribution to the uprisings was the greatest, they had no alternative plan to replace the British Raj. The Quranic recipe offered by the Muslim leaders was not acceptable to them.
(Sources: Indian Mutiny of 1857-58, by Sir John Kaye and Col. Malleson, Vol.I, Longmans, Green & Co, London, published in 1909; R.C. Majumdar'sSepoy Mutiny and Revolt of 1857, second edn;, 1983; Ganda Singh'sThe Indian Mutiny of 1857 and the Sikhs, Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee, Sisganj, Chandni Chowk, Delhi, 1969; Altaf Husain Hali'sHayat-e-Javed (Biography of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan; V.D. Savarkar'sSix Golden Pages of Indian History (Hindi), Lok Hit Prakashan, Lucknow).
(The author, a scholar and historian can be contacted at A-2B/94-A, MIG Flats, Paschim Vihar, New Delhi-63.)