People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 10

March 11, 2007




Jyoti Basu


THE great Revolt of 1857 was a watershed in the history of modern India. It marked first national challenge to the English in India; it emboldened the growth of Indian nationalist politics; it presaged significant constitutional changes in British India. Today one hundred fifty years later as we commemorate the event, the rebellion provides us with a new source of inspiration to complete the nation-building project.


Nineteenth century witnessed some anti-imperialist uprisings against imperialism, most notably in Latin America against Spanish colonialism under the leadership of Simon Bolivar and the revolutionary priest Hidalgo. But both in terms of social base and geographical distribution, the 1857 Revolt in India was much more powerful. The Revolt started with the mutiny of the Indian sepoys over the use of greased cartridges, but the sepoys were soon joined by broader sections of the civil society whose moral economy had been disrupted by the political system that had been imposed by the East India Company. The conjunction between the sepoy mutiny with the civil uprisings imparted the rebellion of 1857 the character of a national popular armed Revolt. Writing shortly after the outbreak in the New York Tribune of 28 July 1857, Karl Marx had correctly described it as “not a military mutiny, but a national Revolt”. On 14 September 1857 in New York Tribune Marx compared the 1857 Revolt with the 1789 French revolution and noted:


The first blow dealt to the French monarchy proceeded from the nobility, not from the peasants. The Indian Revolt does not similarly commence with the ryots, tortured, dishonoured, stripped naked by the British, but with the sepoys, clad, fled, patted, fatted and pampered by them.


It is unfortunate that professional historians of our country could not appreciate either the national or the popular character of the 1857 Revolt and preferred to call it a Sepoy Mutiny. But I understand that recent researchers have exposed the fallacy of such a contention, and the historians in India and abroad are increasingly acknowledging the national character of the 1857 Revolt.


The 1857 Revolt began on 29th March 1857 when Mangal Pandey of the 34th infantry in Barrackpore became the first martyr. The mutiny spread rapidly in eastern and northern India. Dehri, Patna, Arrah, Azamgarh, Allahabad, Gorakhpur, Faizabad, Fatehpur, Jhansi, Lucknow, Kanpur, Etawah, Fategarh, Gwalior, Shahjahanpur, Agra, Bharatpur, Rohilkhand, Mathura, Agra, Hatras, Delhi, Meerut, Bareilly and Roorki – these emerged as storm-centres of the Revolt. On 11th May 1857 the sepoys of the Meerut regiment captured Delhi and proclaimed the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar as their undisputed leader. In this entire region the dispossessed talukdars and impoverished peasants and artisans joined the sepoys to contest the English authority. The English land-revenue experiments not only deprived the talukdars and landlords of their estates and social status, but also subjected the peasants to excessive revenue demands. At the same time the acute crisis faced by urban handicraft industry due to the intrusion of cheaper English products and the disappearance of the patronage of the traditional local courts and ruling classes dislocated the livelihood of the artisans. Despite their class contradictions the zamindars, the peasants and artisans joined hands with the sepoys to fight their common enemy – the English. According to one estimate one-fifth of the Indian population in 1857 directly or indirectly participated in the Revolt. 


The English authority virtually collapsed over the entire plains of Uttar Pradesh. In Rohilkhand the British rule was `non-existent’ for almost a year. Contemporary British officials remarked that in Oudh and its surrounding areas it was difficult to distinguish who among the rebels were the sepoys and the peasants. In some areas like Bijnour the civil population even rose up in revolt before any help could be received from the sepoys. In other cases as in Bulandshahr the popular uprising coincided with the arrival of the rebel army from Aligarh. Recent researches have thus tended to stress that in the affected area the mutiny of the sepoys were either preceded by or accompanied by or followed by a civil rebellion. The popular violence was characterised by killing of Europeans, pillaging of English establishments and record rooms, indigo factories and burning of land records and official documents. In some areas such assaults on symbols of English authority were contemporaneous with attacks on indigenous baniyas and moneylenders. In parts of North-Western province the peasant participation in the Revolt was motivated by the aim to win back the land that they had lost because of English revenue settlement. Contemporary English observers like Kaye admitted that there was hardly any Indian belonging to any religious faith between the Ganges and Jamuna who was not against the British. Although traditionally believed that Bengal remained aloof from the tumult, I understand that recent historians in Bengal are demonstrating that the English in Bengal were also panic-stricken and the area, too, was seething with unrest.


The other unique feature of the 1857 Revolt was the solidarity amongst the rebels cutting across religious and provincial lines. Leaders of the Revolt issued proclamations to stress the importance of communal amity amongst the rebels, emphasising the need of Hindus and Muslims to join their hands to drive out the English and protect their own religious customs and rituals. Mention may be made in this connection of the pamphlet Fath-I-Islam (Victory to Islam) issued from Lucknow. Again, the Azamgarh proclamation called upon the Indians of all classes and religions to rise up against the faithless English. The rebel leader Feroze Shah’s proclamation of August 1857 reiterated the same national spirit:


It is well known to all that in this age, the people of Hindoostan, both Hindoos and Mohammedans, are being ruined under the tyranny and oppression of the infidel and treacherous English.


Historians have also drawn our attention to such examples as the Muslim rebel leaders banning sacrifices of cows during the Id festival to avoid any Hindu-Muslim discord.


It is unfortunate that sometimes the Revolt of 1857 is denied the national character since the ideal of a unified all-India nation state was premature for most people of nineteenth century India. But how can we deny a national character to a popular outburst against an alien regime, particularly when it enjoyed the support of a large mass of population and affected a large part of the country? We need not forget that based on this particular criterion many European episodes have been considered as national events, as for example, the Russian peasants fighting Napoleon or the French fighting the English under Joan of Arc or the Carbonaris fighting for Italian unification even when the concerned Russians, French or the Italians were yet to develop the notion of a united Russia, France or Italy. Double standards in historical judgements are required to be avoided.


The Revolt failed, thanks to the brutalities committed by the English on the rebels. But the Revolt generated new national ideas. Historians like Irfan Habib have demonstrated that apart from laying stress on communal harmony the rebel leaders visualised a new national order. They sought to establish `a kind of elective military rule’, assured economic relief to the zamindars, peasants and artisans alike and promised better service conditions for the sepoys. The rebel leaders certainly deserve credit for nursing this national vision at a time when nationalism in the modern bourgeois sense was yet to develop.


What then is the lesson to be drawn from the 1857 Revolt? The uprising underlines the importance of fighting imperialism at all costs. The 1857 rebels fought and died for a cause – the cause of national liberation from an alien rule. They raised the standard of rebellion when the English power in India was at its ascendant height, and fought relentlessly shoulder to shoulder for a national cause till the last hour, ignoring religious, ethnic and local divides. Today when we are fighting to uphold the secular and democratic values of our federal polity, to strengthen the national unity of our country and to frustrate the evil designs of the forces of neo-imperialism we can draw strength from the martyrs of the 1857 Revolt. This should be the context of the commemoration of the 150 years of the 1857 Revolt. I am happy that the government of India has constituted a committee to observe the anniversary. But this should not be only confined to high level conferences for established academics or officials. We should use the occasion to correct any distorted understanding of the great event, publish credible accounts of the Revolt in vernacular and in a language that can be understood by the rank and file in our society, and disseminate the political lesson of the uprising at the grass-root level. Only then the commemoration of the glorious chapter in our struggle for freedom can have a multiplier effect, and only then can we pay our real tribute to the martyrs who died for the noble cause to make our country a better place to live in.