People's Democracy

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

Vol. XXX

No. 33

August 13, 2006



CPI(M) Commences Year-Long Celebrations


B Prasant


PROFESSOR Irfan Habib spoke on the significance of the great rebellion of 1857 in Kolkata during the evening of August 4, 2006.  The occasion was the commencement of the year-long programme undertaken by the CPI(M) to observe the 150 years of that historic event, often called the first fusillade against British Raj in India. 


Biman Basu, secretary of the Bengal unit of the CPI(M) presided.  The venue, the Promode Dasgupta Bhavan on AJC Bose Road, was quickly filled to capacity with the landings and the basement having to be set up with seating arrangements for the hundreds who poured in.  Among those present were noted historians of Kolkata including Dr Barun De, Dr Aniriddha Ray, and Dr Ramakrishna Chatterjee.


Professor Irfan Habib spoke for over an hour and set up his lecture in three interesting parts.  He essayed a basic character of the rebellion as he sketched in the circumstances that led to the spark.  The second part comprised an evaluation of the basic features of the event.  He concluded by situating the great rebellion in the context of the national and nationalist movements.




Rendering a scholarly apology towards the beginning of his lecture, as the great rebellion was not, as he would say, a specialisation for him, Dr Habib launched right away into the denigratory manner in which the rebellion was etched into young minds in the history text books earlier and where the event was made out to be all about ‘sepoy atrocities’ on ‘gentle Englishmen and women,’ and how there was a ‘betrayal of the Raj.’


It was Karl Marx, pointed out Habib, who wrote prodigiously and analytically of the ‘first war of Indian independence.’  Karl Marx called the event a revolution, comparing it with the bourgeois revolution in France in 1789.  Marx saw a similarity between the two events with sepoys leading the rebellion in India, the bourgeois being in the vanguard in France, and the peasantry groaning under the misrule of colonial rulers in India and the ancien regime in France.


Describing the great rebellion of 1857 as a major event in the history of India and Asia, he pointed out that it was the first important armed rebellion against the free trade imperialism of the British colonialists.  It was a regular army, the Bengal army, that rebelled against the British and they were fully armed as professional soldiers.  This was a rare event, said the speaker.


Worked to death by the British colonials, deprived of proper pay and emoluments, constantly threatened with and receiving harsh punishment, even as the country started to starve under misrule, the sepoys revolted.  The Bengal army was already a well-knit unit, all 128,000 of them.  Caste-sensitive but devoid of communal feelings, the soldiers were ‘blood brothers’ to each other in the violence of the battlefield.


The ‘greased cartridge’ episode that finally caused the break, was described by Professor Habib as a hurt on the caste dignity of the sepoys most of whom belonged to the upper echelons of the Indian caste system, more so as the order to bite into the cartridge before firing it from the breech-loaders came from the Firangi oppressors. Earlier, the rapidity of the process of land transfer and the high rate of the land tax had hurt sentiments all around among the sepoys.




An astonishing example of dedication, fervour, unity, and military tactics, the great rebellion 1857 was a blast against the forces of imperialism as 90 per cent of the Bengal army rebelled. And as the rebellion spread, British colonial expansion ground to a halt, and the Queen Victoria had to communicate promises to the sepoys, only to be turned unceremoniously down by the latter.


The great rebellion, noted Professor Habib, was more than a mere peasants’ war and yet, it was anti-feudal in nature as well.  The rebel manifestos that Nana Sahib and the Rani of Jhansi penned were in Urdu (alas for the BJP-leaning historians who would see in these two leaders, a Hindu revival) and showed the complete unity and harmony – despite caste prejudices – that existed among the sepoys and all the ranks.


The anti-British character, the unity among the sepoys, and the secular character of the rebellion are things that the national independence movement was to inherit.  The rebels failed because of a lack of unity of command (‘the rebel leadership spoke in terms of tactics, the British employed long-term strategies’), lack of a political consciousness, lack of a political party as a platform against imperialism, and by the lack of the bourgeoisie as a class.


Nonetheless, the rebels looked the whole of the country, and spoke about unity and integrity against the British rulers.  The rebels, sepoys and ordinary men and women, showed incredible bravery and fortitude in the face of great odds, and seldom, surrendered, he said. 


The great rebellion, concluded the speaker, created the ground for the nationalist movement. The importance of the unity of the mass of the people and the need for an uncompromising determination to overthrow the regime and a solid base of communal unity were qualities that the great rebellion left behind.