HAT exactly happened in India in 1857? Was it a ?Sepoy Mutiny? as some British historians, contemptuous of India, would have us believe? The usual explanation given by the British was that the ?Sipahis? were unhappy with the introduction, in 1857, of the new Infield rifle, with its distinct ammunition, which required the bullet to be bitten before loading. Rumours were that the grease used on the bullets was either from the fat of cattle or pigs and that was an attack on Hindu and Muslim religious sentiments.
There are many historians who doubt this thesis. The primary cause of the revolt was the imperialist exploitation of the Indian people. The population of Dacca?renowned throughout the world for the fine quality of Muslims they produced, decreased from 150, 000 in 1827 to 20,000 in just ten years. The peasants fully supported the rebels and did not stand apart. Indeed, the peasants were on the side of the rebellion in areas where the cowardly talukdars remained loyal to the British. It was not an elitist war as some would like us to believe. It had roots deep in the hearts of the people, though, in Punjab, the Sikhs sided with the British not because they had any love for the foreigner but because they had enough of tyranny from the Mughal dynasty.
And it is well to remember?as Savarkar himself has pointed out?the 1857 movement continued even after the British Governor -General issued a proclamation to withdraw the offending grease cartridges. A British writer, Charles Ball put the case in proper perspective when he wrote: ?The Meerut Sepoys in a moment found a leader, a flag and a cause. The mutiny was transformed into a revolutionary war?. Another British writer, Justin McCarthy wrote: ?The fact was that throughout the greater part of northern and northwestern provinces of the Indian peninsula there was a rebellion of the native races against the English power. It was not the sepoy alone who rose in revolt. It was not by any means a merely military mutiny. It was a combination of military grievance, national hatred and religious fanaticism against the English occupation of India. The Mohammedans and the Hindu forgot their old religious antipathies to join against the Christian?.?
Still another Britisher, Charles Ball wrote: ?At length the torrent overflowed the banks and saturated the moral soil of India. The movement now assumed a more important aspect. It became a rebellion of a whole people incited to outrage by resentment for imaginary wrongs and sustained their delusions by hatred and fanaticism?. And P.C.Joshi, in a volume he edited on 1857 quotes Sir W.Russell, the London Times correspondent as writing: ?Here we had not only a servile war, but we had a war of religion, a war of race and a war of revenge, of hope, of national determination to shake off the yoke of a stranger and to re-establish the full power of the notice chiefs and the full away of native religion.?
It is significant that almost for the first time, Hindu and Muslims joined hands. They were both opposed to attempts by the new rulers to establish Christianity in India. P.C.Joshi quotes the Chairman of the Court of Directors of the East India Company as saying in the House of Commons: Providence has entrusted the extensive empire of Hindustan to England in order that the banner of Christ should waive triumphant from one end of India to the other. Everyone must exert all his strength that there may be no dilatoriness on account in continuing in the country the grand work of making India Christian?. Joshi also quotes one Rev Kennedy as saying: ?Whatever misfortunes come on us as long as our empire in India continues, so long let us not forget that our chief work is the propagation of Christianity in the land. Until Hindustan from Cape Comorin to the Himalayas embrace the religion of Christ and until it condemns the Hindu and Muslim religions, our efforts must continue persistently?.
The Christian missionary propaganda was not only violently aggressive and widespread, writes Joshi; it was also supported by the government agency. Joshi quotes Syed Ahmad Khan as saying: ?In some districts, the missionaries were actually attended by policemen from the station.
And then the missionaries did not confine themselves to explain the doctrines of their own books. In violent and unmeasured language they attacked the followers and the holy palaces of other creeds, annoying and insulting beyond expression the feelings of those who listen to them. In this way, too, the seeds of discontent were sown deep into the hearts of the people?. And imagine what Macaulay wrote, to his mother on October 12, 1836: ?It is my firm belief that if our plan of education is followed up, there would not be a single idolater in Bengal thirty years hence?. The British were not only greedy for money and for land. They wanted to Christianise and de-nationalise India. And that is the Truth. Religious India, of course, retaliated with vigour and vengefulness. Every act of conversion, every act of brutality, was repaid in equal brutality. The story of 1857 was one of revenge. When the British realised the full vigour of Indian anger, they fought back in ample measure.
The poet Ghalib is quoted as saying: After the British re-occupation of Delhi. ?The victors advanced through the passage in front of the Kashmir Gate which leads to the market and killed whomsoever they could find on the road. Not one among the gentry and the sober but barred the entrance to his house?. Ghalib noticed that ?there were gallows on every side?. When James Neill with the Madras Fusiliers marched from Banaras to Allahabad, he systematically executed 6,000 Indians who were termed ?niggers?.
According to Kaushik Roy writing in Economic and Political Weekly (May12) ?the number of civilians and Indian soldiers killed exceeded one lakh (1,00,000). There was not a tree in some places which did not see a dead Indian hanging from the branches. In comparison just about 2,034 British soldiers died in action another 8,978 died form disease. British terrorism did not frighten Indians. The EPW quotes a British lady residing in Lucknow noting in her journal on May 16, 1857: ?You can only rule these Asiatics by fear; if they are not afraid, they snap their fingers at you?.
(To be continued)