It started in Barrackpore
Subhrangshu Gupta, Tribune Correspondent in Kolkata

Mangal Pandey
Mangal Pandey

Oddly enough, the Barrackpore barrack, the venue of the first revolt of the sepoys against the company rule where the hero of the sepoy mutiny Mangal Pandey was hanged, does not bear any reminiscences of that heroic event.

There is no statue or monument and not even any inscription on the plaque in memory of those war heroes and their great sacrifices. But the groves of the banyan trees where Mangal Pandey’s body had been kept hanging for some time for other warriors to watch and get horrified, are still there.

Neither the Left Front government nor any other social and cultural organisation has come forward to hold any seminars or exhibitions in remembrance of the historic event on the occasion of the 150th year of the sepoy mutiny. The cultural ministry also has been keeping silent.

The rebellion of 1857 was an uprising by the Bengal regiments of East India Company against the prolonged oppression and subjugation and the inhuman treatment by the British Army.

The company under Lord Clive got the power of dewani of Bengal after winning the battle of Plassey in Murshidabad in 1757 which saw the beginning of the colonial rule in India that lasted nearly two centuries at a stretch.

In 1764 after the victory in the battle of Buxar, the company won the nizamat of Bengal and subsequently, following the permanent settlement of Bengal, the company continued to extend vigorously its control in the rest of the country.

Disarming of sepoys at Barrackpore
Disarming of sepoys at Barrackpore

But the freedom-loving people of the country and the sepoys were not happy and there were diverse political, economic, military, religious and social causes. Like the poor people, the sepoys and the jawans very often had been treated like bonded labour. They also had their own list of grievances against the company Raj — mainly caused by the gulf between the British officers and the Indian troops.

In 1857, the Bengal army had 10 regiments of Indian cavalry and 74 of infantry and they all at some point or the other mutinied. On March 29 at Barrackpore Latbagan, Mangal Pandey of the 34th Bengal Native Infantry suddenly burst out and attacked the adjutant, Lt Baugh with a sword. But failing in the attempt he fired at him, which, unfortunately, did not hit him but his horse.

Prior to that, on February 26, the 19th BNI regiment, comprising both Hindus and Muslims, refused to use the cartridges in the newly introduced Pattern 1853 Enfield rifles which had been greased with lard (pork fat) and tallow (beef fat): both taboos to the Hindus and the Muslims, respectively. The Enfield rifle was the substitute to the old smoothbore Brown Bess rifle, which was less accurate and less powerful.

Gen. John Hearsey saw a frenzied Mangal Pandey attacking Lt Baugh and he ordered forthwith Jamadar Iswari Prasad to arrest Mangal Pandey but he refused. The whole regiment, excepting a soldier called Shaikh Paltu, also drew itself back. But still they did not dare to go for direct action against the company’s troops as desired by Mangal Pandey.

Pandey then in an attempt to end his life, placed a musket on his chest and pulled the trigger with his toe. But his attempt failed. On April 6 he was court-martialled and on April 8 he was hanged to death.

Jamadar Ishwari Prasad, who had refused to arrest Mangal Pandey, was also hanged to death subsequently on April 22 and the whole regiment was disbanded. The sepoys were unarmed and their uniforms stripped off.

Mangal Pandey died but his sacrifice, courage and valour had been an inspiration and encouragement to the sepoys under the bondage. And soon, waves of revolts and resistance by the sepoys against the British army spread to other places which led to the ending of the company rule in India.