People's Democracy

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


No. 18

May 06, 2007

Some Aspects Of  The 1857 Rebellion In Bihar



Ram Swaroop


THERE has been a long-drawn controversy with regard to the nature of the 1857 rebellion. Scholars have expressed diverse views about it. Whether or not this rebellion was broad-based like the French Revolution or the Russian Revolution, and had the willing support and cooperation of the civilian population at large is a disputed question. It is true that the entire civilian population of the British Indian empire did not come forward to side with the revolting sipahis. It would not however be true to hold that throughout the period of the revolt the rebel soldiers stood absolutely divorced from the sympathy and support of the common people. The people joined the sipahis for diverse reasons in most of the areas where troops rebelled.


The revolt that began at Meerut on May 10, 1857 very soon spread to large parts of northern India, including Bihar. There were three major developments in Bihar during July 1857. At Patna there was an uprising led by Pir Ali and his associates (Pir Ali was a book-seller); the mutiny at Danapur (Dinapur); and the assumption of leadership of the revolt in the region by Kunwar Singh. On July 25 three regiments stationed at the major cantonment of Danapur on the outskirts of Patna rebelled. Most of the troops crossed the Son river into Shahabad, where they joined the rebels under Kunwar Singh who were then besieging a small European community at Arrah.


At the time of the revolt the Bihar province (or, rather, Patna division) of the Bengal presidency consisted of the following six districts: Patna, Bihar, Saran, Shahabad, Tirhut and Champaran. It needs to be underlined that these, along with Bengal and Orissa, were the earliest large-scale territorial conquests of the East India Company. Bihar had enjoyed considerable importance in the trading activities of the European companies since the seventeenth century. Indigo production played a significant role in the colonial exploitation of the region (opium was the other major commodity of the colonial economy of Bihar). Under the East India Company a system of forced cultivation of indigo, and exploitation of the cultivators by European indigo planters and indigenous zamindars, was imposed in the countryside.




The first major incident in Bihar during the revolt was the Patna uprising of July 3, with Pir Ali at its forefront. On this date the Deputy Opium Agent of the Patna Opium Agency, Dr Lyell, was killed. This was as an attack on a major source of colonial revenue. Gangetic Bihar, together with the Banaras-Ghazipur region was the main area of opium production in the East India Company’s territories. It is significant that this entire tract was engulfed by the upheavals of the revolt.


Pir Ali was charged with Lyell’s murder, convicted and hanged. William Tayler was the Commissioner of Patna division at this time (Tayler carried out the operations against Pir Ali and his associates and was distinguished by his sadistic brutality. Yet, writing of Pir Ali’s valiant conduct on the eve of his execution he was forced to remark: ‘… he is the type of a class with many of whom we have, in this country to deal, men whose unconquerable fanaticism renders them dangerous enemies and whose stern resolution entitles them in some measure to admiration and respect’! Apart from Ali, sixteen more rebels were hanged for their participation in the Patna uprising another seventeen were imprisoned with hard labour, and two were transported to penal settlements.


After the rebellion in Patna, sipahis of three of the regiments in Danapur mutinied on July 25, 1857. This may be said to mark the beginning of a widespread revolt in Bihar, which lasted for more than a year. On July 26 the troops reached Shahabad in an effort to organise themselves under the leadership of the octogenarian Kunwar Singh, raja of Jagdishpur, who had already launched a movement against the British. Kunwar Singh gathered a large number of followers, who included his brothers Amar Singh and Ritnarain Singh; his nephews Nishan Singh and Jai Krishna Singh; Thakur Dayal Singh and Bisheswar Singh. It may be mentioned here that whereas a section of the landlords of Bihar, including some very prominent zamindars, took part in the revolt, the bulk of the big landlords remained loyal to the colonial government and helped it in crushing the movement. Nevertheless the uprising was fairly widespread in the region, and did have strong popular support in several areas.


In Patna and Chhotanagpur divisions the soldiers and civil population fought together against the British government. In Shahabad the rajputs rose in arms under the leadership of Kunwar Singh. The rebel troops in Gaya were strengthened by a large number of disaffected villagers and Bhojpuri rebels under the leadership of Jeodhar Singh and Haider Ali Khan. In Hazaribagh the Santhals, and some local leaders, launched a movement against the British. The activities of Nilambar and Pitambar in alliance with the Chero zamindars made Palamau a centre of serious popular agitation during the revolt. Singhbhum witnessed a struggle of the sipahis in conjunction with the Kols and other tribes of the district under the leadership of Arjun Singh. In Manbhum the sipahis, the Santhals, and the raja of Panchet estate, Nilmoni Singh, rose in revolt against the government. In Sambalpur the mutinous sipahis in their struggle against the British were led by Surendra Sahi, Udwant Sahi, and other leaders from amongst the civilian population. In Patna the Wahhabis played a leading role in the revolt. The Danapur mutiny also had an impact on the Muzaffarpur area, where too an uprising took place in the wake of the events at Danapur. The mutiny of the 12th Irregular Cavalry at Sugauli on the Indo-Nepal border eventually led to the outbreak of a revolt in Champaran and Saran. Purnea rose in revolt under the influence of the Jalpaiguri mutineers. The contagion of the Danapur mutiny and the provocation of the detachments of the Ramgarh battalion provoked the Hazaribagh revolt that had its echoes in Ranchi and Sambalpur.




While many zamindars and local leaders were with the government, others were sympathisers of the agitated masses and openly participated in the rebellion and became its leaders. The most important of them was Kunwar Singh who was generally looked upon as a ‘natural’ leader by most rebels in Bihar. When some Bihar rebels were being tried in September 1857, one of them declared, ‘the supremacy of the English and the Company is at an end, and it is now Koonwar Singh’s reign’. Thus, the rebels of Danapur, Chhotanagpur, Manbhum, Singhbhum and Palamau wanted to carry on the struggle together under his common leadership. Jadunath Sahi (the son-in-law of Kunwar Singh’s brother Dayal Singh) who had taken a leading part in the rebellion in Ranchi, was located as a follower of Kunwar Singh. Raja Arjun Singh of Singhbhum as well as Arjun Singh’s brother, along with many local leaders, were keen to fight under Kunwar Singh’s leadership. Many of them sought to help Kunwar Singh by sending their forces to join him.


Kunwar Singh moved from place to place fighting the British with the help of local chiefs and the common people. However, at a critical juncture the British were saved by Major Eyre, who defeated Kunwar Singh’s forces at Bibiganj on August 3. This was a great relief for the British garrison. But this did not mark the end of Kunwar Singh’s struggle. He shifted out of Bihar, moving to Mirzapur, Rewa, Banda, Lucknow and Kanpur.


Kunwar Singh adopted the unique method of attacking the weakest positions of the English, while keeping his men mobilised for any eventuality. This perhaps explains why the rebellion could be sustained for such a long time. Avoiding fixed positions, Kunwar Singh moved around extensively in areas like Rewa, Banda and Kalpi, along with his comrade-in-arms Nishan Singh. He was joined by the Gwalior troops and then proceeded to take part in the battle of Kanpur. Next he marched to Lucknow and then to Azamgarh. The governor-general ordered the re-occupation of Azamgarh as Kunwar Singh had seized it, which forced the latter to march towards Ghazipur. By April 23, 1858 Kunwar Singh was back at Jagdishpur. He had lost an arm, but his determination to fight the English had not weakened. He defeated the English force in an important engagement but died very soon after this. In a rare tribute to Kunwar Singh, George Trevelyan, a prominent British politician who had served in India during the 1860s, wrote:


For long past Coer Singh had been watching the course of events with keen interest and a definite purpose. This remarkable man came in for an abundant share of the abuse so indiscriminately dealt out to all those who took part against us at the crisis. Coer Singh was described in the contemporary journals as a devil whose villainy could be accounted for only on the theory that he was not of “human flesh and blood”. The time for shrieking and scolding has gone by and we can afford to own that he was not a devil at all but the high-souled chief of a warlike tribe who had been reduced to a non-entity by the yoke of a foreign invader. … Surely a people whose favourite heroes are Lochiel and Rob Roy Macgregor may spare a little sympathy for the chieftain, who at eighty years old bade fill up his brass lotah, saddle his elephants and call out his men … ; who inflicted on us a disaster complete and tragical; who exacted from the unruly mutineers an obedience which they paid to none other; who led his force in person to Lucknow and took a leading part in the struggle which decided the destinies of India; who after no hope was left for the cause north of the Ganges did not lose heart but kept up his men together during a long and arduous retreat in the face of a victorious enemy; and as the closing act of his life by a masterly manoeuvre, baffled his pursuers and placed his troops in safety on their own side of the great river, when friend and foe alike believed their destruction to be inevitable. On that occasion a round shot from an English gun smashed his arm as he was directing the passage of the last boat full of his followers…. It was uncommonly lucky for us that Coer Singh was not forty years younger (The Competition Wallah, 1866 edition, p.74).




Kunwar Singh inspired the leaders in Chhotanagpur, the Santhal Pargannas, and other parts of Bihar to carry on the struggle. After his death his brother Amar Singh led his followers, who held out bravely in different parts of Bihar. Their activities continued to be a cause of serious concern for the East India Company’s administration. The forest area of Jagdishpur was the base of Amar Singh’s military campaign. The struggle between Amar Singh and the British force under Sir E Lugard in the first half of 1858 assumed epic dimensions. Engels took note of Amar Singh’s military acumen in an article in the New York Daily Tribune (October 1, 1858): ‘These impenetrable forests [in Jagdishpur] of bamboo and underwood are held by a party of insurgents under Ummer [Amar] Singh, who shows rather more activity and knowledge of guerrilla warfare; at all events, he attacks the British wherever he can, instead of quietly waiting for them. If, as it is feared, part of the Oude insurgents should join him before he can be expelled from his stronghold, the British may expect rather harder work they have had of late. These jungles have now for nearly eight months served as a retreat to insurgent parties, who have been able to render very insecure the Grand Trunk Road from Calcutta to Allahabad, the main communication of the British’. In other words, Engels saw in Amar Singh the one great hope of the continuation of the revolt. After the retreat of Nana Sahib into Nepal, Amar Singh went over to the terai region to assume the leadership of Nana’s troops, but was captured in December 1859. He was imprisoned by the British at Gorakhpur, but died of illness at Gorakhpur on January 3, 1860 before he could be placed on trial.


The indigo planters got an opportunity to prove their loyalty to the raj in 1857. They fought against the rebels, protected government treasuries and guarded settlements of Europeans from possible attacks. Such help in the severest crisis that the raj had to face in Bihar gave the government full confidence in them. And in return they began to seek all possible support from the government machinery for the cultivation of indigo in the post-1857 period. Since popular participation of the common people in the revolt threatened the foundations of the empire, the colonial administration was in search of a common ally to buttress British rule. Thus the appeasement of the landed aristocracy became the hallmark of British policy after the revolt. In order to exercise control over the raiyyats it was necessary to form a joint front with the local zamindars. Since the planters had ready cash, they began to pay higher rents to the zamindars. The zamindars therefore preferred to enter into arrangements with the planters rather than the raiyyats when it came to leasing land. Thus, during the latter half of the nineteenth century a ‘triple’ alliance was formed in the Bihar countryside to exercise control over tillers of the soil.