People's Democracy

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


No. 19

May 13, 2007

1857: In The Hearts And Minds Of People


Prakash Karat


THE significance of 1857 is that it was the first major national revolt against British colonialism. All through the 18th and 19th centuries, there were a series of uprisings against the British. These began with the Sanyasi rebellions which took place in the last three decades of the 18th century. These revolts punctuated the early efforts of the East India Company to extend its domination all over the country. On the eve of the 1857 revolt by the Bengal Army, there took place the great Santhal rebellion of 1854-55. 15,000 Santhalis were slaughtered by the British in putting down the uprising.




As against these uprisings, the 1857 revolt assumed the character of a national revolt. It is a remarkable coincidence of history that the founder of scientific socialism who began his studies on India in 1853 got drawn to the revolt in India which he termed “not a military mutiny, but a national revolt”. In a series of articles in the New York Daily Tribune, Karl Marx wrote with sympathy for the people of India suffering under the rapacious loot of the East India Company.


For the most comprehensive and accurate collection of articles by Marx on India in the New York Daily Tribune, one is indebted to the volume “Karl Marx on India” edited by Iqbal Hussain (Aligarh Historians Society, Tulika 2006) which came out recently. It provides a fascinating glimpse into how Marx viewed the British rule in India from 1853 to 1862.


Marx had looked forward, in one of his first articles in 1853, to a time when “the Hindoos themselves shall have grown strong enough to throw off the English yoke altogether.” Commenting on the 1857 revolt, Marx could see that the uprising would be crushed despite the heroic efforts of the native fighters. He could analyse with the information available to him, the material conditions of the people subject to colonial loot and exploitation. He knew that the nature of the leadership of the revolt doomed it to failure, yet his sympathy for the rebels and his condemnation of the British atrocities come through strongly.


The 1857 revolt can be called the first war of independence because it covered a huge area stretching from Bengal to the Punjab, involving lakhs of people. As Irfan Habib pointed out, a hundred and twenty eight thousand men out of a total of hundred and thirty five thousand soldiers of the Bengal Army joined the rebellion. Marx recognised the Bengal Army as “the first general centre of resistance” in modern India. Wherever this army was stationed, it became the centre for revolt which spread to the populace of the neighbouring areas. Historical research about the various areas affected by the revolt, such as the Awadh and Bundelkhand, have shown how the vast Gangetic belt saw a popular uprising spearheaded by the sepoys’ revolt, which spread to the kasbas and the villages. It took two years for the British to fully subdue the revolt.




The Bengal Army was composed of both Hindus and Muslims drawn from different castes. It provided the basis for a level of Hindu-Muslim unity not seen before in those times. Just as the Hindu and Muslim sepoys fought together, so also Hindu and Muslim talukdars and rajas banded together. It was the ordinary people, both Hindus and Muslims, who fought valiantly and bore the brunt of the British repression.


It was this army which was used as cannon folder by the British for their colonial expeditions to Afghanistan and Burma. The racism of the British officers and the colonial system further devalued the sepoys’ self-esteem and pride. As such, it was a crucial step in developing the national consciousness that emerged in the fight against the British rule. The 1857 revolt was, thus, a precursor to the national movement which developed in the early 20th century.


The 1857 revolt was among the great anti-colonial uprisings of the 19th century. There was nothing like it in scale except the Taiping rebellion in China, which was mainly directed against the Qing dynasty. The 19th century saw the peoples of Asia and Africa rising against the colonial masters time and again in the form of revolts by peasants, tribes and dispossessed rulers taking to arms. But all these rebellions were crushed by the superior military force, resources and strategy of the colonial powers who represented a more advanced social formation.


The 1857 revolt bore the hallmark of such rebellions. Though fought by “peasants in uniform”, they relied on traditional leaders and religious symbols. India was still in the pre-capitalist stage, where only such feudal princes and talukdars could provide the leadership. It was “national in character” neither in the sense of a movement for a nation state nor of the nationalism of the 20th century, but because of the way classes came together from the feudals to the peasants and the artisans, all of whom experienced the rapacity of the colonial rule.


A key factor which contributed to the sepoy revolt and the popular uprising was the rapacious policies adopted by the British East Indian Company. After systematically destroying the crafts and work of artisans, the British imposed agrarian policies which became a naked instrument for extracting tribute in the countryside. The Permanent Settlement and the settlement in Awadh were glaring examples of this policy of loot. The annexation of Awadh in 1856 saw the dispossession of hundreds of talukdars off their revenue collecting villages. The effects of colonial rule and plunder had its disastrous impact on the society and life from where the sepoys of the Bengal Army came from.




However, it will be incorrect to characterise the 1857 revolt as an anti-feudal uprising. It was primarily an anti-colonial revolt. The feudal princes and talukdars joined with sepoys and the commoners to participate in the revolt because they were also badly affected by the East India Company’s oppressive regime. Though many of the talukdars made peace with the British during the course of the rebellion, the popular pressure forced others to join the ranks of the rebellion. It will be wrong, therefore, to characterise the 1857 revolt as only a revolt of the feudals who were dispossessed by the British. Many of the princes and feudals, such as the kings of Gwalior, Patiala and Nepal supported the British, without whose support the colonial power could not have survived. The failings of the feudal leadership were also visible in their disunity, petty interests and lack of an organised and coherent plan of action. Very often, they changed sides and made peace with the British at an opportune time. But the rebellion threw up heroic figures from the ranks of the feudal rulers and zamindars. The figures of Nana Sahib, the Rani of Jhansi, Kunwar Singh, Bakht Ahmad Khan and Tantiya Tope come alive with their heroism. At the same time, the real heroes were the common sepoy and the ordinary folk. They fought with great valour and faced death with stoic courage. None of them surrendered. Apart from those who died in the battle, thousands were captured and killed in a bestial fashion.


The “civilising nation”, in bringing order among the “barbarians”, proved more barbarous than the “natives”. Delhi witnessed the massacre of thousands after it was recaptured by the British. The fall of Lucknow led to killings and loot of shocking proportions. According to The Times, within a week, the loot amounted to a million and a quarter pounds. Marx’s revulsion at the bloodbath perpetrated by the British army finds powerful expression in a lead article attributed to him in the New York Daily Tribune. Describing the British atrocities, he concludes “the bloodthirsty spirit, hateful enough in a single tyrant, but which when adopted by a whole nation, becomes horrible indeed”.


The British learnt lessons from 1857. Divide and rule became the pronounced instrument for perpetuating its domination. The Hindu-Muslim unity shown in the revolt had to be disrupted at all costs.


The British compromised with the feudal princes. The talukdars of Awadh were bought off by restoring their estates to them. They became a blight on the peasantry till independence. The new Indian ruling classes too learnt similar lessons, when they compromised with landlordism after gaining freedom.


The army was restructured to reinforce loyalty with the so-called “martial races” and with an increased component of British soldiers.




But the fire that was lit in by 1857 could not be snuffed out. It took another nine decades after 1857 for India to become free.


The 20th century saw the spread of new ideas of national independence, democracy and socialism, and these were being embraced by new classes which grew under the impact of new rule and capitalism.


The masses, in the meanwhile, continued to rise in revolt in the manner they knew best. Birsa Munda led his fellow tribal people in a revolt which went up to 1899. This was the last major uprising of the 19th century before the advent of the modern national movement.


Commemorating the 150th anniversary of 1857, and remembering this heroic chapter in India’s fight against colonial slavery, we pay tribute to the “sepoys” who rose up in revolt and the tens of thousands of ordinary people –– peasants, artisans, religious preachers and rural craftsmen –– who joined the revolt and sacrificed their lives. The popular imagination of the revolt and its heroes can be witnessed even today in the folk songs and ballads sung in parts of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh by the ordinary people.


It is necessary to talk about this legacy because the ruling classes and the official ideologues want to observe 1857 by making it devoid of its “anti-imperialist” content. It reduces the revolt to “heroes” and “heroines” who fought the oppressor without the context of what India is experiencing 150 years later. At a time the Indian ruling classes are espousing collaboration and surrender to the descendents of the marauding colonial powers, it is time to remind them that the ordinary people of India still carry with them the spirit and essence of 1857 in their hearts and minds.