1857: Characterisation of The Revolt.

The tumultuous events that took place in the year 1857 have been characterised by different actors, who played part in those and by later commentators, in highly contestable ways influenced by their own interests, attitudes and world views. East India Company [EIC] vilified the revolt as “Sepoy Mutiny” by savage, deceitful and untrustworthy natives; rattled as it was by the near demise of her rule.

“{EIC}…declared it as a mere ‘Mutiny’ of the ‘Poorbeah’ (people from eastern India, the British used this term in derogatory sense) sepoys, ‘Budmashes’ (Urdu term for rascals which the British often used to describe the rebels) and ‘Pandies’ (followers of the rebel Mangal Pandey),… ”.

The Kings, Nawabs and landed Gentry, who saw gradual but substantial erosion of their economic interests and social standing in the new colonial order that EIC sought to impose, seized this opportunity to throw off the yoke of English rule and resurrect the old order. Marxists found little subaltern involvement to assert and to defend subaltern concerns and causes in the revolt and therefore held it the Feudal Order’s Pushback against the overarching company rule.


Source: Mutiny at the Margins: New Perspectives on the Indian Uprising of 1857 {p18}

The rise of “nationalist” fervour in the latter part of 19th Century among Indians exposed to English and European ethos influenced them to frame 1857 as the first stirrings of Indian nationhood. Those who viewed it thus chose to describe the revolt  “First War of Independence” or “the Great Uprising”. So described, 1857 metamorphosed into revolt of Indian People to throwaway the foreign {फिरंगी} rule and took firm hold of popular imagination especially through textbook renderings. Naturally, those princely states and landed gentry who sided {eg. Patiala, Jind, Nabha, Kapurthala} with the EIC or remained apathetic {Hyderabad, Mysore, Travancore, Kashmir, Baroda, Rajputana} came to be viewed as traitors to the “patriotic” cause. Though the revolt was broadly confined to areas of today’s Delhi, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh with no serious challenge posed to company rule by skirmishes in other parts of India, it’s dubious claim to  “national uprising” had the effect of maligning whole communities as traitors to the cause for the deeds of their feudal lords. This is what Shamsul Islam in his book, Rebel Sikhs of 1857 {extracted in Sikhs & 1857: Myths & Facts}, brings out vividly by directly sourcing from contemporary records.  But, even he seems to hold the Rebellion’s Claim to National Uprising as valid.

“… {British} soon realized the hollowness of this {mere mutiny} claim. Major W. S. R. Hodson (Commander of the British cavalry battalion which was created in his name itself, the ‘Hodson Horse’ and chief of the army’s intelligence wing) who played a major role in capturing Delhi, and was responsible for mass killings of Delhites including Mughal Princes in the most savage manner, in September 1857, in a letter to his wife from Delhi British army camp [July 26, 1857], did admit the fact that it was “an entire army and a whole nation” which was in revolt”.

Hudson’s letter is of 26th July 1857. The revolt was pretty rapidly spreading through eruptions at different centres, but almost all of them in UP, MP, Haryana and Delhi; and the last was where was posted at the time. The proximity of the revolts breaking out around him most likely deluded his thinking to give it an all India character with involvement of entire {Native component?} army. His “testimony” hardly bears out the situation on the ground.

Dhananjay Keer writes, “The Poona Brahmins of Bajirao II who mustered strong at Poona were taking things lying down. The prominent leaders of the revolution were Maharashtrians though the fields of battle were outside Maharashtra {Kanpur, Gwalior, Jhansi, Indore}.” {pp136-137}

“On the fall of Delhi in 1857, the Governor of Bombay telegraphed to the Resident at Hyderabad: “If the Nizam goes, all is lost”. “Had the Nizam openly avowed sympathy”, said Colonel Briggs, “the whole of southern India would have been in a blaze”, for the British. When Salar Jung visited England in June 1876 he was hailed there as the ‟saviour of Indian Empire‟”. {p137}”

Therefore, the claim, “an entire army and a whole nation” which was in revolt”, badly falters geographically when large swathes of the country went unaffected or were only affected in pockets. That doesn’t mean that rest of India did not resent colonial rule or had not revolted against it in earlier times as the Anglo-Mysore Wars and Poligars’ Uprising in 18th century or Vellore “mutiny” of 1806 in the south testify. However, it’s pan-India character in 1857 doesn’t stand scrutiny and it also comes unstuck when we see what leading Indian thinkers, social and religious reformers who lived at the time of revolt thought.

Mahatma Jyotiba Phule.

An agonizing fear had seized his {Phule’s} mind. If Nanasaheb succeeded, Brahmin rule would again have been established in Maharashtra and serious social and religious restrictions would have been imposed on non-Brahmins as had been done during Peshwa rule.

“British rule is there today, it may not be there tomorrow. It may not even outlast us. Nobody can be sure about its permanency. But as long as it is there, the lower classes should educate themselves and release themselves from the age-long thralldom of Brahmins, which had kept them bound with ignorance and deprived them of social and personal and human dignity”. {p138} Source: Keer, Dhananjay : Mahatma Jyotirao Phule.


Source: Mutiny at the Margins: New Perspectives on the Indian Uprising of 1857 {p18}

Gopal Ganesh Agarkar.

Agarkar, a leading figure in the social reform movement, was not even a year old at the time revolt, but talking about 1857 some two decades later he reportedly said,

“that the existing times were favourable for social reforms. God was merciful, he thought, to the Shudras that he frustrated the attempts of Nanasaheb Peshwa”. {p138}

Swami Dayanand Saraswati.

The Founder of Arya Samaj, which “unnecessarily and fraudulently portrayed Dayanand Saraswati as a freedom fighter“, “went in to hiding as tension prevailed during the mutiny of 1857”, according to a book, नवजागरणके पुरोधा दयानंद सरस्वती, by डाॅ. भवानीलाल भारतीय.

Sayyid Ahmed Khan.

The founder of Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College in 1875 that later became Aligarh Muslim University wrote a paper in 1858, The Causes of Indian Revolt.

“The proclamation issued by Her Majesty contains such ample redress for every grievance which led up to that revolt, that a man writing on the subject feels his pen fall from his hands. Why enter further into the matter when the cause of all the dissatisfaction has been discovered and provided against?”.

“So too we must reject the idea that the natives of this country rose of one accord to throw off the yoke of foreigners, whom they hated and detested. The English did not obtain the Government of Hindustan in a day. Little by little they have spread their authority. They date its commencement from the year 1757: the year in which Siraj-ul-dowlah was overthrown on the plains of Plassey, from that day until a comparatively recent date, all men, high or low, have remained well-affected to the English Government. They have long been accustomed to hear of the good faith, the clemency, the consideration, and the leniency of the Government, of the noble qualities of the high moral character of those by whom it has been conducted. Hindoo and Mussulman, all who have been under English rule have been well content to sit under its shadow”.

This brief survey of the thinking of contemporary reformers shows that any overarching narrative of the revolt of 1857 is destined to fail because causes of it’s genesis were varied and accretive; and so were the concerns and aspirations of the different strata of Indian societies. The goal for constructing such overarching narrative is never meaningful appreciation of historical or even contemporary events but to serve some “grandiose  agendas”, which often are not in genuine interests of the people even though they masquerade as such.

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