People's Democracy

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


No. 33

August 19, 2007

The Battle For Delhi: Myths Of The ‘Mutiny’ And The Construction Of The Raj (II)



Madhu Prasad


THE major stumbling block to British ambitions was not the growing disaffection in the Bengal Army, but the continuing legitimacy of the Emperor at Delhi. They chaffed against it and were pressurising the royal family to leave the Red Fort and their claims to sovereignty after the death of Bahadur Shah. “. . .although the Delhi Sovereign had long been deprived of all real power and dominion. . . . almost every state, and every class of people in India, still continue to reverence his nominal authority. The current coin of every established power is still struck in his name and the princes of the highest rank still bear the titles and the insignia, which they or their ancestor derived from this source; . . . The universality of this impression maybe further inferred from the conduct of the Tamburetty or Princess of Travencore, a Hindoo state situated near Cape Comorin, the southern extremity of the region, and at no period of its history subject to the Mughal, or to any Mohammedan superior: yet in 1813, she applied to have a dress of investiture for her son, the infant Raja, although he was under the special guardianship of the British government, to which he was indebted for the tranquility of his accession.” [Walter Hamilton: Description of Hindoostan and the Adjacent Countries. 1820. Reprint 1971. p422-3].


“All persons conversant with Indian history must be aware of how much moral importance attaches to the possession of Delhi in the eyes of the inhabitants of India generally.”


For this reason, the outbreak at Meerut was “seized upon as the real starting point of the Indian Mutiny; for the weakness of Hewitt and Wilson (who failed to contain it) allowed the mutineers to seize the Imperial city . . . and to enlist the influence of the Mughal’s name on their side, and thus yielded to them an immense moral and material advantage at the very outset of their operation. . . .They could confidently appeal to the discontented who had hitherto longed but feared to rebel.” [T Rice Holmes. p111].




“Delhi is not a city. . .that we may hold or abandon at our pleasure. The possession of Delhi is a tower of strength to us politically and morally.”


Delhi was the focus of the rebellion, and the vital point upon the recovery of which was staked the very existence of British aspiration to empire. This accounts for the ferociousness with which control over the city was established by the victors after the defeat of the Rebellion. The myth that the barbarism was caused and justified by the desire for revenge following the massacre of a group of European men, women and children in the Palace on May 16, though it reached exaggerated proportions in the popular imagination, diverted attention from the fact that it was, in fact, calculated policy.


The manner in which the Punjab was quelled from May 12 onwards, following the receipt of the telegraph message from Delhi, and troops raised for the assault on Delhi, already displayed a ruthlessness that was explicitly seen as essential to securing British supremacy. Col. Sydney Cotton compelled troops to witness the executions of deserters and suspected leaders. The method was simple and horrible. According to an eye-witness account of executions ordered by John Nicholson, later lionised as the ‘hero’ of Delhi, “the first ten were picked out, their eyes were bandaged and they were bound to the guns – their backs leaning against the muzzles, and their arms fastened to the wheels. The port fires were lighted, and at a signal from the artillery major, the guns were fired. It was a horrid sight. . .a regular shower of human fragments of heads, of arms, of legs appeared in the air through the smoke. . .fragments of Hindoos and fragments of Muslims, all mixed together – were all that remained of those ten.” [Letter by a British officer from Peshawar who witnessed 30 executions on a single day, printed in Blackwood’s Magazine, Edinburgh, November 1857]. The news of these executions and the mode adopted in carrying them into effect, “spread far and wide, and even in the city of Kabul itself, were the subject of discussion and astonishment. . .and the Afghans,. . .on finding that the supremacy of the British government had prevailed, were themselves deterred from an aggressive movement.” [Gen. Cotton: Nine Years on the North-Western Frontier of India. p174-5].


This conduct was not atypical; it constituted the policy with which the mutinous rebellion and conditions of general insurrection were to be brutally crushed. “Our object is to make an example to terrify others” John Lawrence, Chief Commissioner, Punjab wrote to the then commanding officer of the Delhi Field Force, Gen. Sir Herbert Edwardes in June, 1857, advising that “I would select all those against whom anything bad can be shown – general bad character, turbulence, prominence in disaffection, or in the fight, disrespectful demeanour to their officers – . . . .I would then add to them the oldest soldiers. All these should be shot or blown away from guns. . . .The sepoys will see that we punish to deter, and not for vengeance.” [Micheal Edwardes. 1973. Appendix 2. p157.]


The promise of plunder was also held out to pre-empt the spread of the revolt. A proclamation authorised “anyone who found a deserter to kill him, and take possession of his personal property.” [Punjab Mutiny Report. p67] Likewise, the police of the states with loyal rajahs, like Patiala, Nabha and Jind, “scoured the country, and assured of indemnity, slew every criminal upon whom they could lay their hands. Highway robbers and plunderers were in many cases hanged on the nearest trees as soon as they were caught. . . .It is needless to say that severity like this proved to be the truest mercy in the end.” [T Rice Holmes. 1898. p337-8]


Following these ‘severities’, Secy to John Lawrence informed Maj-Gen. Wilson, then in command of the Delhi Field Force, that the “Chief Commissioner cannot conceive that any danger can now arise at Dehlee from the people of the country. . . they will now be thoroughly overawed. . . . our troops may now do almost anything. . . .No one dare raise his head. All are our devoted servants.”


Atrocities imposed by British officers on civilians in the North-Western Provinces, which led to suicides in many instances, became embarrassingly public in 1859 when the Lieutenant-Governor of the Province placed written reports by serving officers, without reprobation or rebuke either from him or their senior officers, before the Legislative Council. Officers declared that in order to govern the Indian people, “they must not be treated as civilised or intelligent beings” and advocated “the maintenance of a foreign mercenary army so that we may be in a position to pass what laws and what taxes we chose ‘without the slightest regard for the opinion of the whole native world’.”




At the end of his Diary in 1859, William Russell explicitly stated: “I am deeply impressed by the difficulty of ruling India, as it is now governed by force, exercised by a few who are obliged to employ natives as the instrument of coercion. That force is the base of our rule I have no doubt; for I see nothing else but force employed in our relations with the governed.” [W H Russell: The Diary. My India Mutiny Diary, edited by Michael Edwardes. p34]


“I protest against meeting atrocities by atrocities. . . .instead of bowing before the name of Jesus, we were preparing to revive the worship of Moloch.” [Benjamin Disraeli. Speech at Newport Pagnell. September 1857] Such protestations notwithstanding, it was clear that the British regarded their own conduct in India as being above morality and not bound by any civilized codes. “It is necessary in all Eastern lands to establish a fear and awe of the government. Then and not till then, are its benefits appreciated.” [Letter to Henry Tucker from Col. James Neill, July 1857. Edwardes. 1973. Appendix 2. p159] Neill’s cruelty and perverted vindictiveness, and he was by no means an isolated figure, found few contemporary critics. Queen Victoria would award him a posthumous knighthood. John Nicholson believed in flogging Afghan tribesmen and cultivated the myth of their hero-worship on this barbarism – a myth treated with skepticism even by British officials although none opposed his behaviour.




Brutality was grounded in a deep-seated and carefully cultivated racism: the Muslim as bigot; the Hindu as dishonest and servile. The unreliable, superstitious and corrupt Asiatic as opposed to the civilising British resulted in the converging of both the ‘vulgar’ and the ‘refined’ racism. The retreat of English men, women and children, accompanied by droves of native domestics, from the Flagstaff Tower to Karnal and Ambala, is “that piteous flight, the first of many such incidents which hardened the hearts of the British to inflict a terrible revenge, not more for the physical sufferings of their kindred than for their humiliation by an inferior race.” [Letter from an officer of 38th Native Infantry to The Times, August 6, 1857. T Rice Holmes. p110].


Racial discrimination marked the personal behaviour of British soldiers; commissioned officers appeared to be little better. “The sepoy is estimated an inferior creature. He is sworn at. He is treated roughly. He is spoken of as a nigger.” [The Rebellion in India by a Resident in the North-Western Provinces of India. p34] “Subalterns fresh from school, often called natives ‘niggers’. . . .He is addressed as a ‘suar’ or pig”, it being regarded as a “praise-worthy sense of superiority over the sepoy to treat him as an inferior animal.” [Capt. J G Medley: A Year’s Campaigning in India from March 1857 to March 1858. p197]


General Wilson who took over command of the Delhi Field Force on the Ridge after July 17, 1857, resolved “above all. . .to protect the camp-followers, whom in their unthinking hatred of the coloured races, they (English soldiers) had treated with unthinking cruelty. . . .ignorant soldiers too often repaid the camp-followers, without whose services, given at the risk of their lives, they could’nt have existed for a day, with brutal words and savage blows; and few of their officers cared or ventured to restrain them.” [T Rice Holmes. p351-2]


Russell records with disgust what counted as acceptable behaviour towards natives: “I was very much shocked to see in this courtyard two native servants, covered with plasters and bandages, and bloody, who were lying on their charpoys and moaning. . . .they were so-and-so’s servants who had just been ‘licked’ by him. It is a savage, beastly and degraded custom. I have heard it defended. But no man of feeling, education or goodness of heart can vindicate or practise it.” [p129] “I believe”, he wrote, “that we permit things to be done in India, which we would not permit to be done in Europe, or could not hope to effect without public reprobation; and that our Christian character in Exter Hall, will not atone for usurpation and annexation in Hindustan, or for violence and fraud in the Upper provinces of India.” [Russell. Ed. Edwardes. p114]


The convergence of political ambitions and racial arrogance combined to ensure that the treatment meted out to the Emperor and members of the royal family was astonishingly crude. “I saw that broken-down old man – not in a room but in a miserable hole of his palace. . . .He showed me his arms, which were eaten into by disease and by flies. . .he said, in a lamentable voice, that he had not enough to eat! Is that a way in which, as Christians, we ought to treat a king?” [Mr. Layard. MP for Aylesbury. Speech at a public meeting in London, May 1858. Quoted in C Ball: History of the Indian Mutiny. Vol.2 p169]. Two sons and a grandson of the Emperor, leading figures of the rebellion, were shot without trial by Col. Hodson. “I also saw the dead bodies of the three princes. . .exposed to public view for two days at the Kotwallie. . . .Some days later I was present when two more princes of the royal house were shot by a platoon of European soldiers. . .and their bodies afterwards thrown into the river.”[Col. E. Vibart: The Sepoy Mutiny as seen by a subaltern from Delhi to Lucknow, p149-50]. Twenty-one princes of the royal family were “all condemned, hanged and carted off the same day.” [Memo of the Seige of Delhi by E Hare. Quoted in Sen. p111]


It would be argued after the trial of Bahadur Shah that it was the East India Company, and not the Emperor, who should have been tried for treason, for at no time had the Company formally renounced the position of feudatory it had accepted after the Battle of Plassey in 1757. However, power was the supreme legality for realising Britain’s imperial ambitions, and Christian values, laws, and even “natural tenderness”, were easily overcome to attain this singular end.


“The struggle we have had has been more like a national war than a local insurrection. In its magnitude, duration, scale of expenditure and in some of its moral features it partakes of the former character.” [Governor-General and Viceroy, Charles Canning to Sir Charles Wood, Secretary of State, August 8, 1859.] The term ‘mutiny’, which would afterwards be officially used to refer to this ‘national war’, was the final myth which converted the subjugation of India into a purported return of peace with “the cause of loyalty, humanity and rightful authority vindicated.”[Notification of the Calcutta Gazette Extraordinary, No. 1237 of 1857, announcing the fall of Delhi.]


However, the real history of that period found its reverberations during the freedom struggle. In 1944, in a ceremony held at the tomb of Bahadur Shah in Rangoon, members of the INA took an oath to free the country from British colonial domination. In the call to arms given by Subhash Bose, the slogan of the heroes of 1857 was recalled: The road to Delhi is the road to freedom. And finally, in 1947, it was at the Red Fort, acknowledged in that Red Year by courageous rebels across the country as the symbol of India’s pre-colonial unity and sovereignty, that the flag of an independent India was raised.