There was no all-India canvas

The scene of action in 1857 centred around the Gangetic plain, with the whole of southern India keeping out of the picture, recalls Maj-Gen Himmat Singh Gill (retd)

Hodsonís Horse at Rohtak
Hodsonís Horse at Rohtak

Accepting that Mangal Pandeyís attempts at inciting his colleagues in his Infantry battalion, and a little later the skirmishes in the 3rd Light Cavalry were mere triggers to later events in Lucknow, Kanpur and Delhi, the question that begs an answer is whether the first war for independence if it was one, was actually pre-planned to ignite in this manner and at this moment of time by those who had masterminded the uprising.

Pandey was arrested and hanged shortly after the event, and most of the companies of his unit were disbanded. Was there anyone amongst the Indians one could identify as the central controlling force that was nominated or elected to take the war to its logical conclusion, and if not then was this event really launched on an all-India scale, with clear objectives and a time frame for execution?

As it is, the scene of action in 1857 centred around the Gangetic Plain, with the whole of southern India keeping out of the picture and rulers and princes only too anxious to safeguard their kingdoms sitting on the proverbial fence. Yes there was fighting in Awadh (Oudh), because that state was well endowed with weapons and war material and because the British presence there was perceived to be minimal and ineffective.

Another aspect that must not be glossed over is that it were mostly the units of the Bengal Army of the EI Company that took up arms, and that the Madras and Bombay Armies remained dormant or off the scene altogether. So those who had raised the flag of revolt against the British ended up fighting with the Gurkhas, Sikhs, Punjabi Musalmans (PMs as they were called then) and others from the North West Frontier who continued to soldier on with the British.

Was a war on a national scale even possible in those days when the state of road communications was so meagre and when military messages were sent through the helio lamp and horse riders, many of the latter never even reaching their destination.

Even otherwise as history has it, the first mutiny or war for our freedom occurred much earlier in 1806 at Vellore, but this attempt did not succeed because of Col Rollo Gillespieís counter-action. The racial, religious, caste and ethnic divisions that existed at the time, were in my humble opinion not very conducive to a national level, planned out upsurge that could have in itself dethroned the company and its armies which were commanded by foreigners all the way, with the Indians only reaching the Jamadar and Subedar rank.

There are others who have even called the period between 1857 and 1947 as one long freedom struggle, oblivious of the fact that Indians of many a race shed their blood in the First and Second World Wars under the British. And in between we also have a school of nationalists who have often downplayed the sacrifices of the Indian National Army, and the spark generated by the Bombay Naval Mutiny during this era, all suggesting that history keeps on being rewritten from time to time depending on the quality of the pen pushers and the power and reach of the rulers in the driving seat.

So, readers must objectively judge for themselves what name identification tag they would wish to give the events of 1857, and not be too influenced by movies and other populist vehicles of the commercial kind where virtually single handed some have gone about ushering in freedom all by themselves.

Nevertheless, whatever be the reasons for the uprising or mutiny, few can deny that within months the British were back in power in Delhi, having exiled the aged and ineffective Moghul Emperor, and more importantly affecting a power switchover from the Company Bahadur to the Crown. This was a turning point in the ways of the Raj, wherein from that period onwards the British only grew stronger and I daresay harsher in their treatment of the subjects that they governed.

The British component of the armies was strengthened, the Muslims were subtly cut to size in judicial and other sarkari appointments, and the recruitment from the northern regions of the country was stepped up.1857-58 actually resulted in the British settling down in India to govern with their brand of social reform and raising an infrastructure of roads, communications, railways, postal et all. It is only about 90 years later that they departed basically I believe, when their post World War II economy could no longer sustain a far flung empire, and when the rumblings of the necessity of a democratic order worldwide had started to stir the imagination of many a nation. It is within this template that the gains of the events of 1857 as a possible catalytic agent leading to better governance (earlier on we were just fiefdoms and kingdoms at war with each other), needs to be looked into. Extrapolating regional events and happenings that certainly were not on any all-India canvas during and after 1857, and the wont of some historians only too eager to prove that 1857 was a masterly, prearranged and well-planned freedom movement on our part, should possibly be avoided.

Though the British colonised and ruled over us initially for economic gain, there is ample evidence that many of the Governor Generals who followed had the genuine interest of Indiaís betterment and progress in mind. Sadly we Indians, not exactly known for writing records, accounts, gazettes and diaries tabulating day-to-day events of an era which becomes the truthful history of the time, should write more frequently and record for posterity history in the making as we then saw it. This possibly is another meaningful gain (if only we realise it), of 1857.

Bahadur Shah wrote good poetry but had lost touch with his subjects, and some of the icons of the 1857 era who need not be named here, have been credited by historians as being in and out of the struggle, as suited their own gain and personal interest. The coming anniversary is most welcome provided we have drawn the right lessons out of this event, and promise to ourselves that we will work towards a United India which unfortunately it was not in 1857. But today we also need to ask ourselves whether the democracy we practice has not degenerated into a mobocracy, and whether the soldiers who died fighting for the Crown or the Emperor did so in vain, as our clutch of politicians and their henchmen go about furthering their interests at the cost of the nation.

And as we go ballistic on a war which certainly was not the first for our freedom, should we not in all fairness also remember the supreme sacrifices of the Punjabis who filled the Cellular Jail in the Andamans or those intrepid pioneers who sailed on the Kamagata Maru to shores alien and fought it out against all odds? Or the soldiers of the INA who died in the paddy fields of Malaysia, the jawans who died defending the heights of Kargil, and those who die defending the independence of the land in Siachen and the North East on a daily basis. These are the heroes that the country should also be celebrating as we mark the anniversary of 1857.

And did the mutiny really come to define our identity as some feel, or resulted in a bigger social divide than that existed before? If the British were foreigners, then how would we like to define the Moghuls? Or would it not be better to rank them for the good that both did for a divided land, and so educate our youth which unfortunately many seem to be blissfully unaware of much of Indian history beyond Aamir Khan and Mangal Pandey?

Let 1857 remind us to shed the communal divide that still separates many, and let some who call themselves historians start reading faithfully and honestly a turbulent past of 150 years back and so record it for posterity.

The writerís cavalry regiment Hodsonís Horse took part in the battle at the Ridge in Delhi in 1857.