People's Democracy

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


No. 19

May 13, 2007

Our Rebel Ancestors of 1857


P C Joshi


A HUNDRED years ago, on May 10, the Indian sepoys stationed at Meerut Cantonment revolted and the next day they victoriously marched into Delhi and the historic Red Fort became the rebel headquarters, our traditional capital a rebel city.


Within the next few weeks the English Raj virtually disappeared from North India. Between Calcutta and the frontier of the Punjab, British authority completely collapsed, except for a few miles around Agra and the few cantonments that had British regiments garrisoned within.


A contemporary British chronicler, Thomas Lowe, in Central India during the Rebellion of 1857, wrote in 1860:


“To live in India now was like standing on the verge of a volcanic crater, the sides of which were fast crumbling away from our feet, while the boiling lava was ready to erupt and consume us.”


In the hundred years that followed the battle of Plassey the British aggressors had seized Mysore, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tanjore, Bundelkhand, Rohilkhand, Oudh, Hariana Prant, and the Punjab including the pre-partition North-West Frontier province. All the remaining princely states from Kashmir to Cochin had been forced to accept British “protection.”


And what was the reality inside the Empire which the British adventurers had so mercilessly carved out in our country? Let me again quote Lowe:
“It is quite evident that the resources of this country, instead of being developed and improved, have been permitted to lie as they did a thousand years ago, and decay; that such of the native arts and manufactures as used to raise for India a name and wonder all over the Western world are nearly extinguished in the present day; once renowned and great cities are merely heaps of ruins --- dens for hyenas and jackals; its colleges are no more --- the wise men of the East live only in fables and histories of the past; its temples and wondrous caves of Ajanta and Ellora and other places are crumbling fast to dust; and by and by there will scarcely be a trace of them left; its tanks and caravansarais are going and gone to rapid ruin; its canals for irrigation are filled up and forgotten, while districts have been deserted by their inhabitants, and the jungle and the wild beasts have suueeded them and deadly malaria closed them… ruin, ruin, poverty…. As though a leper had touched the land, it were hastening to decay…”


The right answer was given by our ancestors who suffered these conditions and witnessed this tragedy being enacted in our land by the foreign rulers: they rose in rebellion to end this state of affairs.


The atmosphere and spirit of those historic days is reflected in the following folk song:


Storm in the river
Far off is Englishtan
Hurry up, hurry up, quit
You perfidious Firangi!


The Ghadar fighters were the initiators of the Quit India movement.


The hatred of the foreigner was all-consuming and manhood identified with the rebel leaders. Here is a song on Amar Singh who succeeded his brother, Kunwar Singh to the command of the rebel forces in bihar and the leadership of the rebel government and conducted a long drawn heroic guerrilla struggle.


The princes became mere
and the gentry no better
than Dhuniyas
if there is a man,
he is Amar singh!
The world trembles
(at his very name).


(Dhuniyas literally, carders of cotton or mere nobodies).


On May 22, 1858, on the eve of the battle of Kalpi, Rani Jhansi administered the following mass oath to the rebel soldiers, with the sacred Jamuna water in their folded palms.


We shall not give up Kalpi
As long as we live!
With our own hands
We shall not
Our Azadshahi bury!


From Badshahi and Peshwashahi, which alone they had known so far, to holding aloft the banner of Azadshahi (regime of freedom) and pledges to die for Azadi was a historic advance for our people.


Sri Brindabanlal Verma, famous author of the historic novel Jhansi Ki Rani, writes to me that he has seen a letter from the Rani to Raja Mardan Singh of Banpur in which she has used the modern word “Swaraj.”


The greatest single significance of the 1857-59 Rebellion is that our people on an unprecedented scale then rose and took up are against foreign rule, they fought and died for freedom.




Another great achievement of the leaders of 1857-59 was to consciously attempt to build a joint furore of the Hindus and Muslim and all. The British rulers who were used to see our disunity and differences began achieving before the new spectacle of unity.


For example, Thomas Lowe shrieked, “The infanticide Rajput, the bigoted Brahmin, the fanatic Mussalman, had joined together in the cause; cow-killer and the cow-worshipper, the pig-hater revolted together.”


From the rebel regimes at Delhi and Lucknow proclamations were issued banning cow-slaughter and after the rebels established themselves anywhere this was the first appeal they made.


The British agents tried to incite Hindu-Muslim tension and riots to divert and disrupt the national revolt but the rebel leadership always denounced these attempts as provocations.


In the highest rebel leadership at Delhi, Hindus and Muslims were equally represented. When Bahadur Shah thought of resigning imperial power it was into the hands of the rulers of Jaipur, Jodhpur, Bikaner and Alwar. Muslim soldiers served under Hindu commanders and Hindu leaders and princes pledged allegiance to a 0Muslim, Bahadur Shah.


After the suppression of our first national revolt the British planfully evolved and meticulously carried out the policy of fanning and using Hindu-Muslim differences.




Every text-book of the history of the period gives an account of the gruesome condition of the peasantry under the East India Company.


The Company’s sepoys were drawn from the peasantry and their revolt epitomised the sufferings in this homes in the countryside.


Again as the banner of rebellion was unfurled in province after province, the peasantry joined up on a mass scale.


Thousand of them became volunteers in the rebel forces.


Here is a British account of the peasant rebels’ plan of operations. They “everywhere displayed towards the government records the same animosity as they did to the account books of the Banias and for a similar reason. They regarded them as machinery by which we enforced our severe taxation and maintained that disciplined order which had become so distasteful to them.”


Generally the revolt of the sepoys was accompanied by a rebellion in the town and the countryside. In some cases the people mutinied before the sepoys. Generally the urban and surrounding rural people fraternised and united, and together attacked the government treasury, sacked the magazine, burnt the court and its records, flung open the jail gates, occupied the tehsils and the thanas.


The rebellion had several features of a peasant partisan war though it suffered from very serious limitations.




This mass participation in the revolt had its impact on the organs it threw up.


The Centenary Memorial Volume on the great Rebellion, being published by the People’s Publishing House, Ltd. Contains hitherto unknown evidence collected from the National Archives, about the new democratic organs created by the rebel leadership at Delhi and other places though they were yet not strong enough to surmount the various weaknesses and obstacles that they had to face.


After the rebel sepoys marched into Delhi and proclaimed Bahadur Shah as the Badshah they did not restore Mughal autocracy but established a “Court of Administration” which discharged all the functions of the government and the military High Command and the Badshah only signed its decisions or proclamations. The attempt may be characterised as a sort of constitutional monarchy.


The court consisted of ten members, six from the army and four from the civilian departments. Hindus and Muslims were equally represented. Each member was responsible for one department of administration and functioned through a departmental committee and secretaries. Most of the members had risen from the ranks to leadership during the revolt itself.


The court had a democratic constitution of its own and tried to assert its authority.


The court was in supreme charge of the command of war operations against the British though the Mughal princes were left in nominal command.


The court alone claimed the right to levy taxes and demand war contributions from merchants and bankers and stopped the princes from doing so as was their wont.


Under the siege, a great amount of hoarding and profiteering had taken place causing great popular suffering. The court tried to control and fix prices but in the absence of rationing and assured supplies it failed.


War necessity compelled the court to levy heavy taxation but it was on the classes able to pay and not the common people.


The court of administration passed orders for liquidation of the zamindari system and giving proprietary rights to the tillers but its regime was too short-lived to fulfil the task.




The plebian atmosphere that prevailed in the rebel capital is thus stated by Nawab Moinuddin when the rebel sepoys first encountered the Mughal Badshah.


"They addressed the Emperor with such disrespectful terms as "I say, you king! I say you old fellow!” (Arre Badshah, arre Buddhe!) 'Listen', cried one catching him by the hand, 'Listen to me', said another touching the old king's beard. Enraged at their behaviour, yet unable to prevent their insolence, the king found relief in bewailing before his servants his misfortune and his fate."


The prevailing revolutionary atmosphere and the mass participation in the revolt with the slogan throw the foreigner out gave rise to the damocratic ideas and farces, however circumscribed they were, and they belie the theory that the feudal leadership of the Revolt would have meant, in the event of its success, the restoration of the pre-British feudal autocracy.




It is commonly realised that one of the causes of the failure of our first national revolt was that only a part, though a very big part, of North and Central India, rose in rebellion, and not the whole of India.


Among the three provincial armies, only one revolted --- the Bengal Army.


The British had used in the Sikh Wars the Bengal Army composed of sepoys from the Hindustani-speaking regions, popularly called the Poorabeas. They had acted as the army of conquest and treated the Sikhs all of low caste.


Now when the Bengal Army itself revolted and the rebellion spread to their homeland, Sir Henry Lawrence, the British chief in the Punjab, successfully exploited the anti-Poorabea sentiment of the Sikhs not only to keep the Punjab away from the general revolt but also to recruit the Sikhs on the British side against the rebel Hindustani speaking troop and regions.


Again, when Delhi was taken and Bahadur Shah was proclaimed the Emperor, the British in the Punjab were able to raise the ghost of the anti-Sikh atrocities of Aurangzeb's day and get the Sikhs to join the British army for the assault on Delhi.


Yet another cause for the failure of the Revolt can be seen in the role of the majority of the feudal leaders.


While the Rani of Jhansi, Tantia Tope, Kunwar Singh and many others acted as real patriots and fought the British to the last for which they are proudly remembered today, the same cannot be said about the majority of the feudal leaders.


Those Indian princes who had been deposed by the British sided with the rebels to regain their thrones but they also maintained links with the British and offered to cross over if they were promised concessions. They played a double role and not a consistent patriotic role. The mass of the rebels who staked their lives to expel the British usurpers saw through bitter experience the weakness and cowardice of this section of the feudal leadership.


The majority of the India princes handed over their armies to the British to suppress the national revolt because they thought their own safety and security lay in following this treacherous course.



Lord Canning also stated that the role of the princes was that they "acted as the breakwaters to the storm which would have otherwise swept us in one great wave.”


Queen Victoria in her proclamation declared, "We shall respect the rights, dignity and honour of native princes as our own."
Thus, in the main the feudal elements betrayed the revolt and this has had important lessons for our national movement: that the freedom struggle had to be conducted not only against the British, but also against Indian feudalism as the ally and fifth column of the alien imperialists.




The 1857 national revolt is the fountain source of all modern developments. The 1857 revolt is the historic base of our national movement. And by assimllating its positive and negative experiences our forefathers built our mighty anti-imperialist movement which with regrouped national forces. Learning new ideas, they continued the struggle for freedom and we ultimately won it 90 years later after the great rebellion.


The debt we owe the fighters and martyrs of 1857 is what one owes to one's ancestors who did their best, according to their lights, in their own time. For the great cause of Indian freedom.


This is not all the glory of the rebels of 1857. In a remarkable series of papers being published in the Memorial Volume by People's Publishing House Ltd., new and unknown evidence has been massed about the healthy international reactions generated by the Indian revolt.


The remnants of the Chartists and the British radical labour leaders wrote campaign articles and pamphlets denouncing British terror in India and popularising the sepoys cause as just, as the struggle for Indian freedom. The modern British Labour Socialist movement begin with the 1857 revolt, and what high and noble ideas does it recall today that we have grown together in mutual solidarity ever since our birth!


The modem Chinese anti-imperialist movement begins with the Taiping Revolt. There is evidence to show that the British regiments, meant to suppress the Taipings, were diverted to quell the Indian revolt and the Chinese thus gained time. Again, there is evidence to show that the Taipings were sympathetic to the Indian Revolt and the Indian soldiers deserted to the Taipings and fought on their side.


What new strength is generated by the memory that the Chinese and Indian national movements were born together and grew in solidarity from their infancy! And this helps us to make India-China friendship immortal.


It was in the middle of the last century that Marx wrote not only his Manifesto but also his articles on India including some on the Revolt. Marxist teachings in general and his prophetic analysis of the rule of British imperialism in India and the great future for the Indian people have greatly influenced the Indian national movement. Marx helped us to understand more scientifically than anyone else the character of our national enemy and the path to realise our historic destiny.


When we celebrate the Centenary of the 1857 Revolt, we should recall, over and over again, the glorious internationalist traditions of our national movement that it generated. This will help us to fulfil, with our heads held high, our present historic role in the cause of world peace and colonial liberation as a great and independent Asian power, shoulder to shoulder with our liberated Chinese brothers.

(From New Age, May 12, 1957)