People's Democracy

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


No. 06

February 11, 2007




Nalini Taneja


WHAT we know as the largest anti-colonial uprising anywhere in the world in the 19th century, and the only widespread armed revolution in the sub-continent’s history, encompassed a series of actions that began with a Mutiny of soldiers in Dumdum, West Bengal, in January 1857, and continued into 1859, spreading across north, north-western and central provinces. For two whole years the people bravely fought against the might of British rule, shaking it to its roots even in defeat. It was ‘sparked off’ by the anger over greased cartridges, which they saw as attacks on their religions and culture by an arrogant colonial power, but increasingly became a contestation of power. 


Many historians have marked that 1857 was ‘both a culmination and a beginning’ in the history of popular struggles in the sub continent. ‘No armed struggle of that magnitude against colonial rule took place thereafter’, and 1857 itself emerged as much out of the pattern of revolts that preceded it as from the impact of British rule in all its dimensions. On the other hand, experience of 1857 was carried over in the form of lessons learnt—in terms of possibilities and strategies for future combat—and as memory. It meant that British could no longer take their rule for granted, and had to bring in changes in administration and policies which angered the people even more, while for the people of South Asia it meant a huge leap in political consciousness and political organization thereafter.


At another level, 1857 was a manifestation of the spontaneous unity of Hindus and Muslims, which came from shared lives, and which later had to be campaigned for in the face of attempts at communal consolidation from late 19th century onwards. The events of 1857 showed that the communal politics did not exist prior to 1858. 


Tradition of rebellion, however, was strong. Hardly a year went by without armed rebellion and resistance to British rule, since the beginning of British conquests and up to 1857; and this was true of almost every section of Indian population and every part of the country. Peasants, tribals, dispossessed zamindars, former rulers, were all actors in the fight to prevent the consolidation of British rule. Tipu Sultan had fought the British till the end. Tribal and peasant protests had taken place all over the country. Even soldiers had revolted before—in Bengal in 1764 and in Vellore in 1806, in Barrackpore in 1824—and were ruthlessly punished in the cruelest forms.


There was certainly widespread hatred for foreign rule among a very large section of people by 1857. Therefore despite not being planned, the potential for what happened in 1857 was there, and it could have begun at any time and place, “as soon as provocation may combine with opportunity”, as Frederick Halliday, Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal said, later in 1858. The incidents of greased cartridges and the Dumdum mutiny of soldiers in January 1857 were followed by one in Barrackpore in March, during which Mangal Pandey, a young soldier very heroically attacked his superior officers. Following this there were refusals to accept greased cartridges in many other places as well, and violent actions by soldiers, accompanied by expressions of sympathy and solidarity for them by civilian populations nearby. The Bengal Army had decisively lit the fire of revolt. 




On April 24 ninety-nine men in Meerut refused to accept greased cartridges. Eighty-five men of the Third Native Cavalry were dismissed, and sentenced to 10 years rigorous imprisonment. This was a turning point in many ways: on May 9 and 10 the British were faced with a full scale mutiny. The prisons were broken open, British officers were killed, imprisoned comrades were released, and the men marched to Delhi, where they were welcomed by the local infantry. Civilian population and peasantry in the district came out in revolt.


Delhi was occupied on May 11. This was a very important development as Bahadur Shah the last Moghul, rendered powerless by the British and confined to ceremonial tasks and his residential quarters, was proclaimed the Emperor of Hindustan. As Bipan Chandra says in his book Modern India, “With this single act, the sepoys had transformed a mutiny of soldiers into a revolutionary war.” 


By it the soldiers proclaimed three things: one, that they still recognized the Moghul king as legitimate ruler and symbol of authority; two, that foreigners were usurpers and needed to be not just defeated but also driven out; three, they did not yet envision a nation in the modern sense as we know it, but were determined to be actors and makers of their own destiny. There was a sense that the British were ‘foreigners’ and very different from those that people of this country had earlier fought—either those that had come from ‘outside’ or those who were of this land but another kingdom. 


What these soldiers represented in word and deed at this stage of uncompromised rebellion was true then of almost all sections of people in all areas of the country, and the rebellions proceeded accordingly in all other centres of rebellion despite local variations in grievances, demands and class conflicts. These underlying perceptions provided a unity and spread that made for a collective 1857 although different sections of people were affected differently by British rule and had their actions shaped by local circumstances. 


The British were seen as having destroyed their whole way of life, and people were out to affirm and regain what they had lost; not in the literal sense, but through asserting their aspirations for justice. Colonialism had shattered the entire village economies and opened them up for loot and robbery by the foreigners. While ‘drain of wealth’ was not perceived the effects of revenue settlements, changes in crop cultivation and de- industrialisation were very visible and were being directly experienced. The British system of justice, discipline and punishment seemed alien; the legal system with its endless litigation entailing expenses, debts and loss of working time was perceived as extortionist, exploitative and unjust; written contracts and ‘useless’ paperwork seemed designed to confuse them and was unacceptable to people used to custom bound justice and village level community justice. A number of folk songs in Bhojpuri express the peasants’ anger at the legal system and injustice, and show that peasants had their own way of perceiving honour, of how their lives had been overturned and how the communities had lost control. (Details Pankaj Rag, Special Issue, Social Scientist). As he puts it 1857 provided people with a situation in which they could attempt to defy the authority of the Englishman in day to day life. There is no doubt that they also reveled in it and considered it liberating, for the time that it lasted.


Nana Saheb, Rani of Jhansi and Bahadur Shah were aggrieved over the British policy of annexations, the peasants and zamindars of Awadh over the revenue settlements and very stiff taxation, artisans in Lucknow over the unemployment and de industrialization and so on. Mediated by these varied concerns, their hatred for British rule was expressed in equally varied forms: yet the rebels basically hit out at the British officialdom and those seen as representing and implementing policies that affected them adversely.


In addition, attempts at alternative constructions of power, therefore, involved reaching out to the traditional legitimate authorities, but also pushing these authorities to represent what they themselves felt and wanted out of rebellion, and, further, creating formations and rudimentary ‘collective’ councils for ‘administering’ areas ‘won’ from the British. These generalizations can be made on the basis of developments in the princely states where also soldiers and civilian population revolted or was on the verge of discarding their rulers if they did not side with the ‘Gadr’(as in Gwalior) or the examples of Delhi and Bundelkhand which brought forth very articulate and broad based proclamations and ‘constitutions’ by the rebels. Thousands of ordinary people from all walks of life emerged as leaders on the ground, and became legends in their regions. The wahabis provided many ground level leaders. It is an unfortunate aspect of our history text book writing that, apart from Mangal Pandey and a few others only the kings and queens are mentioned by name.




In Delhi ‘General’ Bakht Khan, a subedar in the British army, who had brought rebelling soldiers from Bareilly assumed command of the new administration. A Court of Administration was established, on an elective principle, with a composite representation, good component of soldiers. It had regular discussions, gave orders, deliberated on questions of fund raising, the establishment of order in the fast emerging chaotic situation and so on. There was no doubt plunder and violence, but also reassuring signs of religious accommodation and respect for practices of both Hindus and Muslims, as in more normal times. The vaguely ‘republican’ elements of the constitution and expressions of popular democratism created their own internal tensions here. 


The language of religion remained the major instrument of communication—here, and everywhere else—as the only language available, facilitating the greatest mobilisation support; natural in an age when ideas of good and evil, justice and injustice, freedom and oppression were still mediated by a pre secular, largely religious world view. Through it appeared the stirrings for justice, freedom and a will to throw out those seen as alien and outsiders, and definitely also those identified as architects of their misery: the British. There was a consciousness of the land (country) belonging to all others except British, and also of the differing and unequal placements of the princes and other ‘privileged’ and the ordinary people, comprising peasants, artisans and soldiers.


Class configuration of the revolts differed on the ground everywhere, and was changing through phases. In that context ‘restoration’ and ‘freedom’ meant different things to different people: for ordinary people not essentially the Mughul Empire and provincial kingdoms or old talukadars and zamindars. 


They came together in 1857 everywhere because they had always been fighting together and living together: class struggles had been interspersed in the sub continent’s history with fighting between kingdoms. People, as soldiers and civilians (peasants and tribals) had experienced both fighting and owing allegiance to multi-class, multi caste, multi-religious (mixed Hindu and Muslim) armies as much as protesting their class oppressors within their ‘own society’. They could therefore rally behind rulers and zamindars and push them towards greater militancy at the same time and with the same ease as they could voice aspirations that contained class content. This is reflected in the folk songs commemorating local leaders, and imbuing them with the desires and aims that they themselves were revolting for. This is true of the rebel constitution of Delhi, the folk songs of Bihar, Awadh, Bundelkhand, and the proclamations of the middle level and local leaders. 




The Awadh region saw the widest possible participation from peasants, artisans, shopkeepers, day labourers and zamindars. The annexation of Awadh was seen as an affront and humiliation by all sections of people: it was simply not accepted by them. Displaced zamindars played a significant role here, leading attacks on new zamindars with whom the British had replaced them. Peasants, in their situation of poverty, debt and heavy taxation, peasants saw money lenders as complicit in British designs.


Account books and records of debts were destroyed, and moneylenders were attacked. Law courts, revenue offices and police stations, symbols of British rule, were special targets of popular anger. Here the intensity and widespread character of the revolt is apparent from an estimate that from about 150, 000 people who died fighting, over 100, 000 were civilians…and the British had to ‘fight and reconquer many parts of Northern India village by village.”(Bipan Chandra, Modern India). 


In Faizabad-Ayodhya areas the fiery hero was the ‘saintly rebel’ Maulvi Ahmadullah. A native of Madras he came to the Faizabad region preaching armed rebellion, and led a bitter battle against British troops. In Muzaffarnagar district the Jat peasantry defied British authority under the leadership of a Mewati Muslim, and also joined the small landed Muslim forces against the British. Bareilly was another important centre of rebellion. In Allahabad a railway store was systematically destroyed, again a symbol of colonial power.


In Kanpur the revolt was led by Nana Saheb, who had been deprived of his legitimate right to the throne because of the British policy of annexations. He proclaimed himself Peshwa. Along with him were Tantia Tope and Azimullah, two very prominent leaders, who became legends in the area. The rebel soldiers, zamindars and peasants, also pushed for and enabled the Begum of Awadh, Hazrat Mahal, to capture Lucknow for sometime and confine the British to their Residency, at the same time proclaiming her son Birjis Kadr as Nawab. In early May Lucknow became a significant site of an urban revolt with artisans, shopkeepers and a wide range of civilian population actively ensuring the capture of the town. 


The revolt in central India is associated with the exemplary courage and valour shown by Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi, in the face of Maharaja Scindia’s support to the British. Here the rebels pushed the Rani into an uncompromising war, a position she honoured to the end, and showed greater capacity for organization. Here it was, as Tapti Roy shows in her work on Bundelkhand, ‘a fight for power’ in which the rebels emerge as ‘attempting to capture nothing less than the apparatus of power’. The soldiers and peasantry formed the backbone of the popular action in this area, though the restoration of the rights of the Rani and of zamindars is better known, no doubt due to the nature of sources studied so far. Reference to folk songs gives a more radical picture in terms of grievances and aspirations of the rebelling population in the area, and also of its composite leadership. Khudabaksh and Ghaus Khan, Jhalkhar Bai, a lower caste woman are some of the heroes here.


The Gwalior contingent, created out of the disbanding of Sindhia’s army, played a significant role in 1857. It had a larger component of lower castes, and as with the Bengal army, a mixed religious component. Their revolt engulfed into the uprising even the troops of Scindia and of Baiza Bee. Inayat Khan emerged as leader, and Jahagir Khan was another leader. There are records of differing perceptions and discussions within the Gwalior contingent, as Iqtidar Alam Khan shows, and the contingent contained within it a set of leaders ‘capable of acting as the spokesmen of the entire body of sepoys’, and showed greater capacity for organization than the Bengal army. 


The contingent came over to Rani Laxmi Bai, and on May 19 the troops of the first cavalry marched to Aligarh and captured the treasury here. On May 23 a sizeable section proceeded to Delhi, and by May 26, as Scindia informed the British authorities, the contingent had “ceased to be servants of the government.” By May 29 the entire contingent was committed to staging an uprising. There was an outbreak in Jhansi on June 7, a carefully planned uprising on June 14 which resulted in capture of the entire establishment of the contingent, and revolts in Agra, Sultanpur and Seepree. (Details, Iqtidar Alam Khan, Social Scientist, Volume 26, Special Issue on 1857). 


In central India an important uprising was that of the Binghal, a small tribe, led by Bir Narayan Singh who was eventually overpowered, convicted of treason and hanged on December 19, 1857. In western India the bhils expressed their anger through regular depredations. Tribals everywhere also settled scores with money lenders and traders. An important feature of their uprisings during 1857 was that they fought alongside non-tribals at this critical juncture, in the process also highlighting their own specific grievances. (Details KS Singh, Special issue Social Scientist).




In Bihar the hero of 1857 was Kunwar Singh, an 80-year old ruined and discontented zamindar of Jagdishpur, who fought British till the end and has become the subject of thousands of Bhojpuri folk songs which convey people’s allegiance to him as well as what they themselves were fighting for. The “firang” (foreigner) was outsider and oppressor both. Names of heroes of these folk songs reflect the multiplicity of leadership at the ground level, and also break the myth of 1857 as mainly led by the well known names in textbooks. Nishan Singh, Zulfikar, Ranjit Yadav, Karman bi (woman), Dharman bi (woman), Beni Madho, Maiku Mallah, Rajab Ali, Madho Singh, and other numerous names testify to the composite leadership of 1857 in the area. The lower castes were very much involved in the revolts here (details, Badri Narayan, Social Scientist, Special Issue 1857). 


The mutiny of the sepoys in Ranchi and Hazaribagh also became a signal for the tribals of Palamau to revolt, though not all tribes of Palamau or Ranchi joined the general uprising. The Cheros were joined by Bogtahs, and they further linked up with the forces of Kunwar Singh, and soldiers in Hazarbagh. In November 1857 they attacked Thakurai Raghubar Singh, then the station of a coal company and also several thanas, all in different places, but were defeated and their leaders captured on December 22. A section of retreating Bogtahs fought till the last from behind stone ridges. Stern measures of reprisals took place, their leaders, including Nilambar and Pitambar were captured and hanged. Some Chero jagirdars were also executed. In Ranchi the uprising was led by Bishwanath Nathshah Deo and supported by Jharkhandi Muslims, whose leader was Sheikh Bhikari, and also several Hindus. This was also suppressed brutally. In Hazaribagh the Santhals also came out though there was no organized movement among them now (there had been great santhal rebellions in the early 19th century). The Bhuyias also revolted and tried to recover lost lands. 


Everywhere it was evident that apart from the arms with the sepoys, ordinary people fought with whatever they could lay their hands on: pixes, axes, staffs, bows and arrows, whatever. With the great military superiority of the British, the defeat was brutally affected on the rebelling population. Delhi was virtually depopulated, hangings, shooting people from canons, mass killings were the punishments meted out. The British recaptured Delhi in September 1857 and made Bahadur Shah Zafar a prisoner. Nana sahib was defeated at Kanpur. Tantia Tope carried on heroic guerrilla warfare till April 1859 till betrayed, Rani Laxmi Bai of Jhansi died with a sword in her hand on June 17, 1858, Kunwar Singh of Bihar, Bakht Khan who became leader in Delhi, Khan Bahadur Khan of Bareilly, and Maulvi Ahmadullah Shah of Faizabad were all killed by then, and Begum Hazrat Mahal was forced to flee to Nepal. The thousands of leaders on the ground were no doubt killed brutally and publicly as a show of strength.


Talukdars by and large made peace with the British. The intelligentsia by and large did not come out in favour of the revolts. The rebelling soldiers lost their lives; civilian population was killed in lakhs. It was a war in which the people made a mark on history, and no doubt identified the ‘freedom’ with themselves—a commonsense that only the later mass movements were to re-create—and perceived of a ‘Mulk’ even if not of a nation in the modern sense. As we have seen, theirs was a rationality derived both from a feudal- pre capitalist ethos mingled with the specific social experiences of the emerging capitalism under colonialism. At that point of time they expressed less faith in the British than the intelligentsia did, as we have seen from the trajectory of events and proclamations of the time. They established local traditions of resistance to British rule. When they forced their presence again in the twenties, it changed the face of the national movement. In 1857 the leaders of the future had yet to catch up in these terms, had yet to emerge, or one can say were yet unformed.