The Rising

Largely Hindu regiments elected Muslims as their officers, and vice versa. One finds it difficult to agree with Nehru’s judgement that 1857 was essentially a “feudal outburst”, says noted historian Irfan Habib

Bahadur Shah Zafar
Bahadur Shah Zafar

Until the rebelling sepoys from Meerut crossed the Yamuna river early in the morning of 11 May 1857, what had happened to disturb the equanimity of Lord Canning and his advisers was only a series of incidents of unrest within the Bengal Army on the issue of greased cartridges from February onwards at Berhampur, Barrackpur, and Lucknow — all the "mutinies" having been suppressed, with humiliations, punishments and disbandment of the affected units.

What made Meerut the turning point was that the sepoys’ mutiny here on 9 May could not be put down and the rebelling men, braving all threats, freed their comrades and marched and seized Delhi. That one action suddenly opened the floodgates, bringing about a general uprising of the Bengal Army, and then a popular rebellion over so large a part of Northern India, that two such different contemporary observers as Disraeli and Marx could immediately characterise it as a "national revolt".

In some recent writing, there is a tendency, seemingly out of protest against the use of the term "Mutiny", to belittle the role of the Bengal Army. This is surely an error. The Bengal Army sepoys not only began the rebellion, they remained its major fighting force to the end.

On the eve of the "rising", it was the largest modern army east of Suez. Estimates of its size at the time vary, but there were probably no less than 128,000 "native" sepoys of whom only a little above 8,000 remained loyal to the English. The revolting sepoys, by their training and discipline, and knowledge of modern methods of military organisation, continued to be not only the most steadfast in the cause, but its most crucial instrument.

Exceptional was the spirit of solidarity among the sepoys, where the very large number of caste-conscious Brahmans in the infantry did not affect the bonds of mutual loyalty tying them to their Shaikh, Pathan and Rajput brethren along with whom they had shed their blood for the English for so long. It was characteristic that when they revolted, they elected their officers, from amongst themselves, giving themselves the military titles in vogue in the British Army: majors, colonels and generals. They also formed "councils" — and at Delhi even a Court of Administration — to take decisions in a democratic manner.

It was noticed that largely Hindu regiments elected Muslims as their officers, and vice versa. With such a key component within the rebellion, one finds it difficult to agree with Jawaharlal Nehru’s judgement that 1857 was essentially a "feudal outburst", a "feudal rising." (These statements occur in the Discovery of India, which otherwise is heavily condemnatory of the mass killings by the British in suppressing the rebellion.)

Nor can the word "feudal" really apply to many who supported the sepoys once they broke into Delhi and rose in rebellion elsewhere. Clearly, as we know from all accounts, the Mughal king Bahadur Shah "Zafar" and his retinue were reluctant and apprehensive. On the other hand, as the detailed narrative of the Sepoys’ takeover of Delhi in the Dehli Urdu Akhbar (weekly) of 17 May, shows large numbers of ordinary people in Delhi cooperated with the "Telingas", the common name for infantry sepoys).

Among persons who were especially active the rebel sepoys were men from artisan classes. According to an eyewitness description (by Syed Ahmad Khan) of the forces of the local rebel leader of Bijnor, Mahmud Khan, these troops included, besides gun-wielding Pathans, some 40 sepoys, headed by one Ram Sarup, all excellent soldiers; but for the rest, "they were just cotton-carders and weavers, who had handled yarn, but never a sword." The official ethnologist William Crooke was to recall later that weavers played a fanatical role in the revolt in 1857. It must be remembered that this was the time when the mass of town weavers were being deprived of their employment by competition from Lancashire.

Another important class in the town was that of the educated. An impression prevails that modern means of knowledge had no or little influence yet on the educated urban population of the Hindustani-speaking area. This impression is not at all borne out by the weekly printed journals like the Delhi Urdu Akhbar from Delhi or Tilism from Lucknow. Indeed, it was among such educated strata that the grievance at exclusion from administrative employment and, indeed, state patronage was very greatly felt.

There were others who joined the revolt, both Hindus and Muslims, under the slogan of defence of dharm and deen. The Delhi Urdu Akhbar used both these words and in emotional editorials called upon Hindus and Muslims to fight together, for they shared a common belief in One God, using the term Adi Purush and had nothing in common with their enemy, the English, who believed in Trinity and had nothing in common with them. Even far more theologically inclined, like the followers of the sufic rebel leader Ahmadullah Shah, took a similar position in the well-known rebel tract Risala Fateh Islam.

The “Wahabis”, whose position was usually less tractable, have been needlessly given a larger-than-life role in the rebellion, by the assumption that the word “mujahid” or “jihadi” implies a Wahabi. These words, in the 1857 usage, merely implied a Muslim volunteer who joined the fight, though not a professional soldier or sepoy. The famous Delhi commander Bakht Khan had been quite wrongly given the tag of a Wahabi. His own position is made clear in a proclamation of his (dated 30 July) in which he not only threatens to punish anyone who would engage in cow-slaughter but also condemns the “mujahids” for occupying the Jama Masjid and spoiling it by their dirtiness (najasat).

The towns were important; but the countryside was vital for sustaining the rebellion. There were many reasons why both the upper rural classes (zamindars and taluqdars) and the peasants be aggrieved at British rule in the main area of the rebellion. The Mahalwari system of land-revenue imposed on the present territory of U.P. was perhaps the most heavy of all revenue systems in India and, after the Annexation (1856), this system was now being sought to be extended to Oudh, whose taluqdars had been treated much more leniently by the deposed dynasty of Oudh. Older conditions still prevailed to the extent that the leading zamindars (“chaudhuris”) could call peasants, especially of their own castes to serve them.

In their case, the capacity to combine with the rebelling sepoy regiments was remarkable.

As for peasants’ participation on their own, it is much to Eric Stokes’ credit that he has treated this phenomenon in great detail, he quotes the general statement of Mark Thornhill, made in November 1858 from his own observations that, “unlike the large proprietors”, “the agricultural labouring class” had in 1857 proved to be “the most hostile” to the continuance of British rule.

Peasants, being illiterate, unluckily did not leave any record of their ideas and aspirations behind. Readers of the memoirs of Zahir Dehlawi may, however, recall how, when fleeing from Delhi, he obtained the assistance of a hardy village headman, who, though hostile to the rebel leader Khan Bahadur Khan, yet gave the fugitives food and help, upon being told that they were being pursued by the English.

The ruling houses who had suffered from deposition, annexation or reduction in status had reasons enough to join the revolt, once the sepoys rose. Their entourages and retainers were not only bound to them by ties of loyalty but also by hopes of restoration. Bahadur Shah Zafar, Nana Sahib, Hazarat Mahal and Rani Lakshmi Bai all could be assigned personal or dynastic motivations for their joining the revolt initially. But the very fact of resistance in course of time imposed on them the demands of a larger loyalty.

This change was well put by Rani Lakshmi Bai in her words to Vishnubhat Godse, the Maratha Brahman pilgrim, as she passed by him, “dressed as a Pathan”, after the English storming of Jhansi. I have given up, she said, her “common widow’s dharma” in order to take up the cause of “the honour of Hindu dharma.” Not a dynastic cause any longer, but the defence of the faith — “the faith” given a much larger meaning, as with the 1857 rebels generally, than their own religion: it was the defence of a whole way of life.

The Oudh rebels’ reply to Queen Victoria’s Proclamation of November 1858, in the name of Hazrat Mahal’s son, Birjis Qadr, speaks not of the grievances of the dynasty of Oudh, but of the whole of India, enumerating the territories seized by the English from Indian rulers. It speaks of “the Army and People of Hindustan”, and ends by declaring that the English can see no better work for Indians than just labouring on roads and digging canals. A national sentiment is clearly palpable here.