People's Democracy

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


No. 15

April 15, 2007

The Impact Of The 1857 Revolt In Tamilnadu


Marudu brothers, leaders of Poligars' rebellions


N Rajendran


IN historical writing on the colonial period large tracts of anti-colonial struggles in south India remain unexplored. Consequently the resistance to colonial domination in the vast Madras Presidency, especially during the early phases of colonial rule, has often been ignored. Moreover there is a general perception that the Madras Presidency was untouched by the events of 1857. It is necessary to emphasise that colonial consolidation had taken place in large parts of Madras Presidency, particularly in Tamilnadu, much earlier than in northern and eastern India. Therefore the timing of the struggles was also different. The last quarter of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth century witnessed widespread resistance to the East India Company’s attempts to establish its supremacy in south India--the most notable being the Anglo-Mysore wars; the poligari uprisings; and the Vellore mutiny of 1806. This tradition of resistance at various levels continued throughout the nineteenth century, and was visible in several episodes of rebellion in 1857 as well.




In Tamilnadu, as in other parts of India, the earliest expressions of opposition to British rule took the form of localised rebellions and uprisings. Chief among these was the revolt of the Palayakkarars (poligars) against the East India Company in 1799. This uprising continued till 1801. The poligari system had evolved with the extension of Vijayanagar rule into Tamilnadu. Each poligar was the holder of a territory or palayam (usually consisting of a few villages), granted to him in return for military service and tribute. They regarded themselves as independent, sovereign authorities within their respective palayams and this brought them into conflict with the East India Company when it attempted to encroach upon their authority. The notable poligars who raised the banner of revolt in the deep south of Tamilnadu were: Puli Thevar, Vira Pandiya Kattaboman and the Marudu Brothers of Sivaganga. The issue of taxation, more specifically who was to collect it—whether the traditional rulers or the rapacious new collectors from overseas--lay at the root of the uprising. A report submitted to the Board of Revenue spelt out the political necessity of bringing the poligars to heel: “The immediate reduction of their (poligar) power and their increase of inadequate tribute are objects of equal importance to the preservation of the people, the prosperity of the country and the permanent safety of our Government [emphasis added]”. . In all two major poligari wars were fought. The second poligari war of 1800-1801 is termed as the “South Indian Rebellion” considering the vast area it engulfed. The suppression of the poligars gave to the East India Company effective control over Tamilnadu.


Discontent with British rule did not end with the suppression of the poligari uprisings. In 1806, Indian sepoys in the British army stationed at Vellore staged an uprising that has come to be seen as the precursor of the Great Rebellion of 1857. Tipu Sultan’s sons were imprisoned in the Vellore fort after the Battle of Srirangapatnam (1799) in which Tipu Sultan was killed and the whole kingdom of Mysore was annexed by the British. After the mutineers captured the Vellore fort they declared Tipu’s son Fateh Hyder as the king. This has a parallel to the 1857 Revolt. 




Plan of the fort of Acrot


The view held by quite a few scholars is that unlike the north, the southern part of the country remained calm and peaceful during the tumultuous days of 1857-58. This view is typically expressed by Surendra Nath Sen in his Eighteen Fifty Seven (which may be regarded almost as an official nationalist account of the Revolt) where he says: “The Presidency of Madras remained unaffected all through, though some slight signs of restlessness were perceived in the army. The educated community unreservedly ranged itself on the side of law and order and condemned the rising in unambiguous terms".


However, the records available in the Tamilnadu archives at Chennai have a different story to tell. Significantly, according to one government report as many as 1044 sepoys of the Madras army were court-martialled for their sympathy or support to the 1857 Revolt.


The outbreak of the revolt in May 1857 considerably influenced the army, intelligentsia and the common people in Tamilnadu. Subsequently the 1857 Revolt was an important symbol for nationalist mobilisation in the region. As for the contemporary response of the ‘educated community’, the pro-British memorials published in government gazettes, or resolutions passed in meetings held under the aegis of the establishment, cannot be considered as representing the views held by the entire community. In this regard, it would be apt to quote from a document of Government of Madras (Judicial Department, 3rd September 1857): 


“ ... Prominent notice was drawn to the Native Community by the press. The proceedings of Government in its General Administration, as well as in Military and Political matters, and the supposed discontent caused thereby, especially among our Native Soldiery, were largely descanted upon, --our want of strength-was pointed out and most injudicious subjects were discussed. Thus one newspaper entered into lengthened arguments to prove that greased cartridges of objectionable materials had really been issued ... another turned into derision Sir H. Lawrence’s [Henry Lawrence, Chief Commissioner of Avadh/Oudh] address to the Troops at Lucknow, and published a supposed speech from the mouth of a Sepoy in refutation of it. These publications, unfortunately, do not reach English readers only. They are republished in Vernacular newspapers and thus have a deleterious effect on the Native Community. The policy of annexing Native States on the failure of lineal male heirs may in particular be noticed as having been discussed in very inflammatory language.” 


In the light of the situation described in this official document it would be incorrect to maintain “the educated community unreservedly ranged itself on the side of law and order and condemned the rising in unambiguous terms”. It is apparent that there was considerable awareness about the revolt and even sympathy with the cause of the rebels. This became a matter of concern for the colonial officials.


According to a report on the conditions in Madras, within the city itself the sentiments in the Triplicane area caused the authorities to become so ‘suspicious’ that on June 29, 1857 military posts were established in different parts of the town. Europeans were enrolled for the Volunteer Corps and other precautions were taken. Triplicane had a large Muslim population with many families being associated with the Nawab of the Carnatic. 


Madras had revolutionary links also with other centres in the south, as for instance Belgaum, Kolhapur, etc. Munshi Mahommed Hussain, writing in July 1857 from Belgaum to Subhedar Abdul Reheman of the 27th N. I. Regiment at Kolhapur stated in his letter: “I also sent to you letters which had been received from Madras. I have not heard whether they have reached you and I am anxious on this account. Tell me also quickly what intelligence you have received from this direction.” On the British side, the Political Agent at Belgaum in his intelligence report of July 28, 1857, mentioned the discovery of a serious conspiracy, the ramifications of which extended to Mysore, Kurnool and Madras generally. 


In September 1857 the Madras government had received from the governor-general copies of two different ‘seditious proclamations’, with instructions to the civil and military authorities in the Madras Presidency to prevent dissemination of any such material amongst the troops or the population generally, and to punish with summary and exemplary severity all persons who might be found distributing or exhibiting them. These instructions were not without reason. There were reports of attempts being made to incite rebellion in the city. The Madras Judicial Proceedings of February 9, 1858 mention the case of two activists in Madras city, namely, Ghulam Ghouse and Sheikh Mannu, who were arrested in the city for sticking up wall placards “of a highly treasonable character”, that is, in favour of the 1857 Revolt, and urging the people of Madras to rise against the British.


From the available records, it is obvious that coastal regions like Madras and Chingleput or interior areas like Coimbatore were disturbed during the Great Revolt of 1857. It may be mentioned that in the southern part of Tamilnadu, in the coastal area of Thanjavur, a revolutionary named Sheikh Ibraham was apprehended in March 1858, and convicted on charges of committing sedition. Similarly, there is evidence to that in North Arcot secret meetings had been held and plans prepared from as early as January 1857 for organising a war against the British. It is on record that one Syed Kussa Mahomed Augurzah Hussain held talks in this connection with the Zamindars of Punganur (in Chittoor district) and Vellore. Syed Kussa was apprehended by the British in March 1857 and a security was demanded of him.


At the time of the Revolt, the 18th Regiment of the British Army was quartered at Vellore. Some sepoys of the Regiment revolted in the month of November 1858. In the armed struggle, Capt. Hart and Jailor Stafford were killed. The Sessions Judge of Chittoor (now in Andhra Pradesh) under the Commission under Act 14 of 1857, tried a Sepoy of the 18th Regiment on charges of the wilful killing of Hart and Stafford. The Sepoy was sentenced to death. 


Southward, in the town of Salem, there arose a great commotion as the news of the commencement of the 1857 Revolt spread to the area. It was rumoured that the patriotic army would be marching down to the area soon. On the evening of Saturday, the 1st of August 1857, a crowd consisting of a large number of weavers assembled on the Putnul Street, near the house of one Ayyam Permala Chary, saying that the Indian soldiers would soon be coming and that the British flag would be taken down. One Hyder, working as a thana peon, told the assembled people that, ‘about this time of the day, a flag (of India) will have been hoisted at Madras’.


At Bhavani, an industrial town near Coimbatore, a Sanyasi called Mulbagalu Swamy who was the Chief of a Mutt began to preach that the British rule should be brought to an end. As news of the Revolt reached the area, he declared to his followers assembled for the daily Puja that ‘let all the Europeans be destroyed’ and ‘let the rule of Nanasahib Peshwa prevail’. At last, with great caution and sufficient strength, the British apprehended Mulabagalu Swamy at Bhavani and brought him to Coimbatore. 


Chingleput is a coastal district to the south of, and adjacent to, Madras. In the very early days of the 1857 Revolt, it became a hot-bed of secret gatherings and revolutionary activities. A rebel by the name of Sultan Bakhsh went from Madras to Chingleput in July 1857 to help in organising the anti-British uprising there, in cooperation with local associates, Aruanagiry and Krishna. Aruanagiry and Krishna were rebel leaders who were already leading a revolt in Chingleput area. On July 31, an uprising took place in the Chingleput area. Soon this movement spread to other areas as well. Writing from Saidapet on August 8, 1857, the Magistrate of Chingleput informed the Government of Madras about the seriousness which the insurgency had assumed. Eventually Sultan Bakhsh and four of his followers were apprehended.


Although more research is required to put together a detailed history of the anti-colonial struggle in Tamil Nadu during 1857-58, we can be certain that there were several spontaneous attempts to challenge colonial rule which must be seen as part of the larger history of the Revolt. It is for this reason that popular memory of the Revolt could be invoked at the beginning of the twentieth century for nationalist mobilisation in Tamilnadu during 1905-1910 and in 1927. Mention may be made of Subramania Bharati’s articles on 1857 published in the weekly Independent (Independent was published from Pondicherry in French and English). Independent caught the attention of the colonial authorities through an article entitled ‘The Wanderer in the Jungle’, which highlighted the events of 1857, in particular the methods employed by the British to quell the Revolt. 


During the 1920s the nationalist demand for the removal of a statue of the notorious British military officer James Neill--the 1857 ‘butcher of Allahabad’--, which was located in Madras city, became an emotive issue. The Tamilnadu Volunteer Corps, an independent body of local inhabitants, spearheaded the movement for the removal of the statue. When Gandhiji toured Madras in the first week of September 1927 he lent his support to the volunteers to continue the movement on the condition that the movement should conform to the conditions for a proper satyagraha and that the movement should be independent and self-supporting. In the Madras Legislative Council, thirteen notices were given to pass a Resolution for the removal of the Neill’s statue. Eventually the statue was removed through a Corporation Resolution in 1937, during the first Congress ministry, and is now placed in the Madras Museum.


The events of 1857-58 in Tamilnadu indicate that the Revolt had an all-India character and was not just confined to the Gangetic heartland and parts of central India. This is not surprising in view of the ruthless nature of colonial exploitation that was experienced by all regions of the subcontinent. It was this common experience of exploitation that gave an all-India character to the anti-colonial struggle of 1857.