People's Democracy

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


No. 31

August 05, 2007

The Revolt Of 1857 In Eastern India: An Overview


1857, Barracks, Barrackpore,


Basudeb Chattopadhyay


IN the biography of the Indian nation there had been moments, which transcended the limits of immediacy. The Revolt of 1857 was one such moment. Throughout the remaining century of the British rule and even thereafter, it was etched in the collective psyche of both the colonisers and the colonised as a defining event, albeit for different reasons. For the rulers it came as a rude and unanticipated shock, which shattered the mid-Victorian complacency about political stability. Asa Briggs rightly suggests “no single event more powerfully affected the mind of that generation than the ‘Indian Mutiny’ in 1857.” Viewed in a long term the dominant memory for the rulers was arguably one of an elemental fear caused by as yet the most comprehensive challenge to its legitimacy. How best to reduce if not entirely eliminate the chances of its recurrence became the dominant official concern. 1857 was not an empty threat. From Lord Lytton in the 1870s through General Dyer in 1918 to Tottenham in 1942 the spectre of the Revolt of 1857 haunted the administrators whenever they were called upon to deal with a mass upsurge.


For the colonised, the memory was of patriotism and sacrifice and an overarching solidarity that cut across the traditional divides in Indian society. FromSavarkar to Nehru and beyond, the anti-imperial dimension of the revolt was repeatedly stressed though opinions varied on whether it was progressive or retrogressive in character. Predictably, therefore, in a straightforward act of inversion the rebels who were scoundrels to the imperialists were icons to the nationalists. Admittedly there were many shades in either of these two thumb-nail versions of the historiography of the Revolt, but at a very broad level of generalisation the distinction remains valid.




However, in the mainstream historiography of the revolt, both in its imperialist and nationalist versions, the regions to the east of the Gangetic heartland virtually draw a blank. It has generally been assumed that the mutinous conduct of Mangal Pandey of the 34th Native Infantry, on March 29, 1857, was an isolated act of individual bravado caused by religion and precipitated by bhang. The canonical version of the story, based on the court martial proceedings of Pandey, was ratified by Sir John Kaye soon after the end of the revolt and reproduced by historians even to this day. Nor does one find any mention of the peripheral areas even in the celebratory accounts of the Revolt, the most notable example of which was S N Sen’s Eighteen Fiftyseven. It is further being assumed that this solitary gesture of defiance was neither preceded by any protracted agitational run-up nor followed by any radical alteration in Bengal’s equation with the Company’s government. In short, it did not materially affect otherwise even tenor of life in eastern India. At best, the event may be said to have provided only a spark, which turned into wildfire in parts of northern and central India. Bengal and the regions further east continued to remain firmly ensconced in the loyalist fold.


It must be admitted straightway that eastern India did not constitute the epicentre of the great political earthquake. There are many reasons for this, which presently we may not go into. But contrary to text-book wisdom, eastern India was not altogether immune from its shockwaves either. Sir Frederick James Halliday, the first Lieutenant Governor of Bengal, compiled the earliest comprehensive overview of events in eastern India. His report dated September 30, 1858 is important because as the Lieutenant Governor he had an intimate knowledge of what had happened in eastern India. Halliday remarked, “hardly a single district under the government of Bengal has escaped either actual danger or the serious apprehensions of danger.” It is surprising that Kaye, in his otherwise reliable account uses discontent in the Bengal cantonments as entry-point to his narrative but soon shifts his gaze to the Gangetic heartland once this area overtook eastern India in terms of dramatic content of contestation. Kaye’s influential survey commanded so much approbation that others followed his trail, though not necessarily his argument. The cumulative outcome of this tradition is a somewhat lopsided view that limits the geographical spread of the movement. Although the trajectory of the movement in each region was regulated by its own specificities, the Revolt of 1857 was indeed of a truly sub-continental dimension. And eastern India was no exception. On the basis of copious documentations available in the regional archives, it is possible to reconstruct a supplementary narrative of the revolt, which would redress the perceived imbalance in its historiography. That, I presume, is one of our main purposes on the 150th anniversary of the Revolt of 1857.




The earliest signs of disquiet among the sepoys were evident in Dum Dum in January. Dum Dum had earlier been the headquarters of Bengal Artillery. When this headquarters was shifted to Meerut, Dum Dum had to be satisfied with a School of Musketry designed to impart training of the Enfield Rifle. In January, the cantonment at Dum Dum was agog with all sorts of rumours about the nefarious designs of the government. From Dum Dum, rumours reached Barrackpore, the headquarters of the Presidency division of the army. In late January Major General John Hearsay, who was in charge of the Division, noticed a growing “ill-feeling” in the minds of the sepoys of the regiments at Barrackpore. There were reports of animated discussion among the sepoys, generally held at night. In February 1857 General Hearsay felt that the English at Barrackpore had been “dwelling upon a mine ready for explosion.”


What was still a suspicion at Barrackpore, turned into a belief at Berhampore. To this military station was posted a regiment of the 19th Native Infantry and a corps of Irregular Cavalry. Two things about Berhampore made the administration anxious. One was its proximity to Murshidabad, the residence of the Nawab Nazim (descendant of the nawabs of Bengal) whose support, it was apprehended, could turn the scale in favour of the rebels. The other cause was the absence of any European troops in the town or in its vicinity. Colonel Mitchell, who was in charge of Berhampore, was informed about excitement in the Lines on February 27. His intemperate handling of the situation and reported threat to send the errant sepoys to Burma exacerbated an already volatile situation resulting in the mutiny of the 19th Regiment. Once the mutiny was brought under control it was decided that the 19th Regiment was to be disbanded. However, the task was carried out, a month later, when the sepoys of the Regiment were brought from Berhampore to Barrackpore. This was indeed the first recorded instance of the mutiny of the sepoys in Bengal in 1857.


In March the locus shifted from Berhampore back again to Barrackpore. That there was adequate tension in the cantonment was already noticed by Hearsay. What he failed to appreciate was the depth of the grievances. Hence he took recourse to the conspiracy theory, which eventually turned into a shibboleth of colonial analysis of popular movements in India. The restiveness in the sepoy lines was ascribed to some “designing scoundrels”, such as the Dharma Sabha people in Calcutta, who poisoned the minds of the gullible sepoys. It is this optical illusion that saw nothing beyond blind religious fury, which blinded Hearsay and his folk to the ground level realities and took them somewhat by surprise on March 29, 1857. The story of Mangal Pandey’s defiance has been retold so many times and in so many different versions that it might well form the subject matter of a separate historiographical exercise. Suffice it to say that although his call was not readily responded to by very many of his comrades, at least for the time being, and his act of defiance was put down by Hearsay without much of a bloodshed. It was provocative enough to send the administration scurrying for covers. The first thing that it did was of course to execute Pandey after a court martial and to decide to disband the seven companies of the 34th Regiment stationed at Barrackpore.


Already the 19th Regiment were brought from Berhampore to Barrackpore and were disbanded and dismissed on 31 March. The disbandment of the 34th was implemented on 6 May 1857. Lest these drastic steps affect the morale of other cantonments in Bengal, the government issued a proclamation on 16 May disavowing any intention to tamper with the observances of religion and caste of the sepoys and advising them to shun company of “false guides and traitors.” Quite clearly the “conspiracy theory” was at work and outside agencies were held responsible for tampering with the “habitual loyalty and orderly conduct of the sepoys”. To Canning, they were ignorant and childish, but excitable sepoys.


While the government was busy regrouping its strength, rumours were afloat that some of these soldiers, who were out of employ, did not return to their native districts in western Bihar or U.P., but hovered around the vicinity of Barrackpore. What had particularly unnerved the European community was the information regarding events in Meerut and Delhi, which had already begun trickling into Calcutta. They now apprehended that in the event of the disbanded sepoys descending on the city, the native police would be of no avail. Worse still, the followers of Wajid Ali Shah who, along with his entourage was then living in Garden Reach, in the south-western suburb of the city, might join hands with the rebellious sepoys. He and his visitors were kept under close surveillance. Together these created a climate of opinion in favour of more coercive measures. Some even suggested a general disarming of the native soldiery as a precautionary measure. On 30 May and 6 June 1857 two coercive acts were promulgated which made mockery of the rule of law.


On June 13 two other decisions were taken. In order to stifle dissentient voices in the press Canning promulgated what was derisively described as the Gagging act. On the same day Corps of Volunteer Guards of Calcutta was formed. Although it was part of civil defence, its leitmotif was to arm sections of the white population of Calcutta in order to guard against the rebellious sepoys and distrusted police. Spurred by all these, the European population of Calcutta made frantic efforts to arm themselves. The Commissioner of Police admitted, “there is hardly a house inhabited by Christians in Calcutta, which does not contain one or more muskets or pistols.”




Thus there were adequate incendiary materials in the vicinity of Calcutta for rumours to feed on. There were persistent demands for the posting of European guards in the White Town. But in view of the dispatch of troops to Banaras and Allahabad, Canning could not overstretch his slender resources. Nevertheless, so potent was the alarm that some reinforcements of European troops for the city and Barrackpore had to be arranged and the feelings of the Europeans assuaged. What broke this uneasy calm was a panic measure of General Hearsay in Barrackpore on June 13. He informed Canning that the sepoys at Barrackpore had decided to rise in revolt on the night of June 13. As a precautionary measure, he had requisitioned 78th Highlanders from Chinsurah to help him disarm the suspected regiments. It was in this context that Calcutta witnessed a scene reminiscent of the Great Fear of 1789. The Europeans in Calcutta believed in the rumour that an uprising had actually taken place in Barrackpore the previous night and that the rebels were marching towards Calcutta. If they succeeded in reaching the city, the deposed nawab of Awadh’s men would join them and no European house would be spared. Hence, from the morning of June 14 the European quarters of the city was firmly in the grip of a panic. On this “Panic Sunday,” the Europeans were found scurrying for cover either in the safety of the fort or in any ship or steamer anchored in the midstream of the river. The government had a hard time persuading them to believe that the rumour had no substance.


Since then there was no dearth of panic in the city and its vicinity. Close on the heels of “Panic Sunday” was another panic in July caused by the reported purchase and concealment of a large number of arms by the natives. The suspicion grew so strong that even the Grand Jury of the Supreme Court, through the Judges, transmitted a presentment to the government “recommending that the native population of Calcutta and the suburbs should be disarmed” and sale of arms to the natives should be prohibited (July 22, 1857). The government instructed the city Commissioner of Police to investigate the allegation. The latter in his reply (dated July 23, 1857) admitted that there had been an increase in the sale of firearms in Calcutta, but the purchasers had been Europeans: “That there has been a general arming by the native population I have no reason to believe. The persons who spread these reports confound the character of the Bengallee with that of up country men.” With a wry sense of humour he added, “a musket in the hands of a Bengallee would be a far more dangerous weapon to the proprietor than to an enemy. The Bengallee arms are the lattee, the sword and the spear.” Nevertheless, in view of the prevailing sense of panic, an act was promulgated for the licensing of arms. These might have allayed the apprehensions of the Europeans but for the fact that throughout the month of June-July there were sporadic reports of desertion and mutiny of Indian sepoys in Murshidabad and Berhampore. In the context of reports of the early English reverses in Delhi these disparate incidents of mutiny of sepoys in Bengal caused considerable consternation among the Europeans in Bengal.




The panic reactions in the months of June-July were not confined to Calcutta or its immediate vicinity. Instances abound. Bihar was already witnessing considerable disquietude. Apart from events associated with Kunwar Singh and Amar Singh in Shahabad, rebellion of the Ramghur Battalion at Chhota Nagpur and discontents in the Danapur cantonment, the city of Patna itself was experiencing the heat. The murder of Dr Lyell on July 3 and the attack on the Roman Catholic Mission in the city led to panic reactions. Subsequent enquiries made by the local administration suggested that it was more than a handiwork of the Wahabis who admittedly had an emphatic presence in Patna. It was realised that the rebels had a wider support base and although Peer Ali, a local bookseller, was arrested and executed along with many others, the reverberations could be heard long after they went to the gallows. Several other districts in Bihar witnessed mutiny of and desertions by sepoys. The Company tried in vain to enlist the support of the rural elites. In August, 1857, it admitted, “with the exception of the Rajah of Bettiah and Hutwah, no native chief has come forward to aid the government.” On the whole it appears that the mutiny and rebellion in Bihar badly needs its historian.


In Bengal, the Special Narrative on the mutiny mentions the mutinous behavior of the sepoys of the 73rd Native Infantry stationed at Jalpaiguri in the Rajshahi Division of north Bengal. In July a plan was hatched by some sepoys of the 73rd Native Infantry Jalpaiguri to murder European officers at that station. They mentioned the matter to a havildar who, playing the role of Shaikh Paltu of Mangal Pandey’s uprising, pretended to join them, shot one of them through the head and apprehended others. The rebels were sent to Calcutta for court-martial. Even in far-off Darjeeling a sepoy of Darjeeling sappers was sentenced to imprisonment in irons for “seditious” conversation. There were reports that the sepoys at Jalpaiguri were in communication with the Bhutias. This is interesting. While the military authorities had begun reposing faith in the loyal Gurkhas, they were becoming highly suspicious of the Bhutias. Emissaries were sent to Bhutan to find out the possible linkage between the Bhutias and the 73rd. Enquiries were made about the attitudes of the hill chiefs of Khasiah and Jayantiah Hills in view of a rumour prevalent there regarding the fall of the British power. In the Judicial Proceedings from July-August, the situation in Assam began to figure prominently. In one of the earliest of these it was reported, “there is much reason to fear the extension of the revolt in Assam”. On further enquiry it transpired that “many of the men of the 1st Assam Light Infantry are from the Arrah district, and closely related to the mutineers of the 40th Native Infantry.” It was alleged that some of these sepoys were from the estates of Kunwar Singh and “an uneasy spirit has lately been perceived to prevail among them.” Worse still, the men of the 1st Assam were suspected to be in close contact with the Sarang Raja Kandarpeswar Singh whose Diwan in Calcutta, Maniram Dutt, was already under surveillance. His house was searched and some letters were seized. Copies of some of the letters seized are available in the Proceedings volumes of the Judicial Department in the West Bengal State Archives. The language is so heavily coded that on first reading it is somewhat difficult to make any sense out of them. But a more careful reading indicates where the Diwan’s sympathy lay. The Special Narrative records that the entire “province is in considerable peril, and an European force of seamen, trained as gunners, under the command of a naval officer has been sent up by steamer to Debrooghur, to be disposed of as the local authorities may deem most advisable.” What subsequently happened to Maniram is too well known to bear recapitulation. He was one of the many victims of kangaroo trials, now made possible under the special act. Already the government had issued a proclamation on July 10, 1857 authorising handsome rewards to those who would help it apprehend any mutineer or provide information leading to apprehension.




In the remaining months of the year, two major incidents of mutiny deserve our attention. The most important of these occurred at Chittagong in November. Chittagong, it might be recalled, was an important port, which handled a large amount of shipping. Naturally, the Company was particularly concerned to ensure its protection. The situation in Chittagong was generally peaceful in the first half of 1857. There was report of a panic in June, but, then, June was a month of panic for Europeans in general throughout Bengal. In Chittagong many of the European residents resorted to vessels and continued to remain so in order to keep themselves out of the harm’s way. By July, things returned to normalcy and in August it was reported that perfect tranquility prevailed in the region. By November things had changed beyond recognition. It might be recalled that seven companies of the 34th Native Infantry stationed at Barrackpore had already been disarmed following Mangal Pandey’s mutiny. The three remaining companies were garrisoned at Chittagong. In November these detachments stationed at Chittagong had mutinied. They plundered the treasury, released the prisoners from the jail, killed one of the jail barkandazes, burnt down their own lines, fired the magazines and then left the station, carrying off with them three government elephants and the whole of the treasure they found in the collectorate. It is interesting to note that that the mutiny was not accompanied by physical violence against the Europeans. None of the European residents were injured.


Nevertheless, this was indeed a major development. The already beleaguered Company was particularly concerned about its fallout especially in the neighbouring districts. The district officers were instructed to watch the movement of the mutineers. On the basis of their reports the precise trajectory of their movements can be reconstructed. From Chittagong the mutineers headed towards the princely state of Tripura. The Raja of Tripura was accordingly instructed to prevent the onward movement of the mutineers and to apprehend them if possible. Having spent a few days in the hills and jungles of Tripura they tried to enter into Cachar and thereafter to Manipur. It seems reasonable to infer that the rebels of Chittagong received some support from the local population, especially hill tribes of the region. The Commissioner of Chittagong Division grudgingly admitted that “so many as 1200 people were said to have engaged themselves in opening roads, cutting jungles and procuring provisions for them. It was further being reported that, “the Kookies were aiding them by carrying their baggage and cutting a path for them through the jungles.” The nexus that the rebels were able to develop with the hill tribes such as Kookies, and with Manipuri princes or Chera chiefs is an interesting story that would repay careful investigation. The Commissioner of the Chittagong division, however, attributed this nexus to liberal distribution of the money the rebels had plundered, which enabled them to make hillsmen their friends. Needless to say, the explanation sounds too simplistic and is in tune with the conspiracy theory so dear to the administrative mind of the colonial government.


The Chittagong mutineers were either killed or apprehended towards the close of 1857 and the early months of 1858. Those who were apprehended were tried under Act XVII of 1857 and executed. However the Chittagong mutiny had a somewhat unanticipated impact on Dacca. Dacca had already been under the official scanner because of the ongoing activities of the Faraizis. As usual, there was an atmosphere of panic in June-July. However, the arrival of a party of one hundred seamen from the H C S Zenobia with two armed pinnaces in July restored some confidence among the Europeans. A somewhat minor furor was created in September when the detachment of sailors sent on the expedition to Assam arrived at Dacca but refused to proceed any further. Barring a few deserters the rest were persuaded to go to Assam where their presence was considered necessary in view of a rapidly deteriorating situation. Dacca remained relatively quiet for a couple of months. But this relative quietude was rudely shattered on November 21, 1857 when the intelligence of the Chittagong mutiny reached Dacca. At once the district administration, in consultation with the military authorities decided that as a precautionary measure the sepoys were to be disarmed. At the daybreak of the following morning the guards on duty at public buildings were disarmed without any resistance. But when the officers reached the sepoy lines at Lalbagh, they had a different experience altogether. They found the sepoys and the native artillery ready to oppose them. After a sharp exchange of gunfire, which lasted half an hour, the sepoys were eventually turned out of their barracks. The magistrate reported that at the end forty-one sepoys lay dead on the ground: “Some more were shot or drowned in attempting to escape and 70 or 80 are believed to have been wounded.” On the Company’s side fifteen were severely and three slightly wounded, “Of the former three have since died of their wounds. Dr Green the Civil Surgeon of the station and Lieutenant Lewis who commanded the sailors were amongst the wounded.”


Once the sepoys were overpowered, the sailors and the volunteer guards took charge of the treasury. The disarmed sepoys broke up into small detached parties and tried to escape in different directions. Some twenty of them were captured, ten of whom were hanged. Reinforcements of European sailors and officers were immediately sent from Calcutta to restore confidence among the Europeans. Meanwhile the main body of the Dacca rebels passed through Mymensingh and reached the district of Rungpore. The Superintendent of Darjeeling reported early in January 1858 that, “the Dacca mutineers were reported to have passed out of the Darjeeling moving into the Nepal terrai.” A few of them were captured but the bulk managed to escape.


Evidently therefore Eastern India witnessed considerable commotion throughout 1857. The foregoing sketch was designed to highlight only a few of these. None of the major cantonments in Bengal was immune from the spirit of rebellion. We have also noticed that in not a few cases the rebels enjoyed the covert support of the civil population. The linkages established by them with the Kukis, with Manipur princes, Chera chiefs, the Bhutias, to name a few, are indicative of a wider network, the ramifications of which need to be carefully explored. Together these disprove the received wisdom that eastern India constituted a stagnant backwater while the Gangetic heartland was in turmoil.