People's Democracy

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


No. 34

August 26, 2007

India’s First War Of Independence: The Dalit Connection


Sukomal Sen


ON ‘Great Sepoy Mutiny of 1857’ or correctly speaking India’s ‘First War of Independence’ – many researchers have published a number of books and articles. A number of scholars like Prof. Irfan Habib and a few others have contributed articles in the pages of People’s Democracy also. Many facts and facets of the great event of 1857 have already been discussed in depth. My intention is not to repeat well-known details about the Revolt. This article is aimed at attracting attention on an incident in Dum Dum Ordinance Factory relating to a worker of the dalit community.


It is now an accepted fact that the Revolt, though spearheaded by the Indian Sepoys, did not remain confined within the Bengal Army, but along with the landed nobility common masses also in various ways aided the great rebellion and they were involved in it in various parts of the country.




Ever since the advent of Nawab Siraj-ud-daula as the ruler of Bengal, and that of Clive of East India Company, Dum Dum began to come into the limelight of Bengal history. Earlier it was merely an insignificant village surrounded with jungle. With the arrival of the old Bengal Artillery on the scene in 1775, Dum Dum assumed more importance, later to emerge as a famous Cantonment.


Professor Arun Bandyopadhya in his History of Gun and Shell Factory, Cossipore writes about production of military ‘fire works’ in the ‘company’s laboratories in various parts of the country … but the first concerted attempt to build an ammunition factory in Bengal started by the middle of the nineteenth century. As Dum Dum has been the centre of the Bengal Artillery for long, it was chosen for the site for some repair and manufacturing of percussion caps … as early as 1843-44, and the ammunition factory was established there in 1846. This momentous decision was partly rooted in the disastrous defeat of the British Indian Army in the Afghan campaign in 1841–42, and flintlock muskets were gradually abandoned to give way to manufacture of percussion caps’. The Factory had an establishment for making small arms cartridges, and it was here that trouble over greased cartridges first started. However, ‘Dum Dum bullets’ made since British Army’s Afghan campaign, remained the most well-known product of the factory. By 1858, the various workshops at Dum Dum had merged into the Cartridge and Precision Cap factory.


H I S Kanwar in his Memories of Dum Dum throws further light in the matter of ‘greased cartridges’. He writes, ‘In 1853, the headquarters of the Artillery was moved to Meerut as being Central because Dum Dum was considered unsuitable for the purpose any longer. With this change, the cantonment became a store house for Small Arms Ammunition. A new musketry school was opened for providing training in the use of the newly introduced Enfield Rifle. By 1856, greased cartridge gained notoriety. How far these were responsible for lighting the spark of the 1857 revolt is given in more than one version. Before 1856, Indian units were armed with double grooved rifle, the Brown Bess, the cartridges for which were greased and covered with a paper, regarding which there was no suspicion. These weapons were later replaced by the Enfield Rifle, the ammunition for which had been sent from England. When this arrangement ceased, it was replenished with cartridges made in the Ordinance Factory at Meerut, Calcutta and Dum Dum. Apart from preservation, grease was necessary for the lubrication of the cartridges’.


Kanwar further writes, ‘It seems that the Ordinance authorities ordered for supply of tallow, without taking the precaution of specifying the fat composition of it’. Malleson, whose record of the 1857 revolt was first published in 1864, when memories were still fresh, admits the use of the cow-fat as an oversight, for it would have been easy to enter into a contract for a supply of sheep or goat’s fat, to which there would not have been the objections. He also states that no pig-fat was then used in the tallow. Incidentally, this tallow was supplied by Gangadhar Banerjee & Co. to the Fort William Arsenal under a contract for two years with effect from the August 15, 1856. The contract described as ‘Greased Tallow’ at two annas per pound. Colonel Abott, then Inspector General of Ordinance with headquarters at Ichhapore records that ‘quite often, grease and tallow were supplied as separate items. For instance, an indent on the above mentioned contract includes ‘Grease … for Ammunition purpose, Tallow of the purest kind …(for greasing composition for Minie Rifle ammunition)’. However, later indents show these items as just ‘Grease’ or less often as ‘Tallow’ with the added remark ‘Required for Arsenal purpose’.


In mid-January 1857, an incident of far-reaching consequence occurred at Dum Dum in the vicinity of the Ammunition Factory. Kanwar writes, ‘…a low caste Laskar or Magazine man meeting a high caste Sipahi in the cantonment asked him for a drink of water from his lotah. The Brahmin at once replied with an objection on the score of caste, and was tauntingly told (by the Laskar) that caste was nothing, that high caste and low caste would soon be all the same, as cartridges smeared with beef fat and pig’s lard were being made for the Sipahis at the Depots and would soon be in general use throughout the army!’


Kanwar writes: ‘Actually the contamination was to be brought to the very lips of the Sipahis. It was not contemplation but a demonstrative fact and naked truth. So it appealed to the strongest feeling of aversion of the Muslim and the Hindu alike’.


The English quickly took up the matter. On hearing the story, Lieutenant Wright, Commander of the 70th Sipahis detachment at Dum Dum, brought the incident to the notice of the Commandant of the Musketry Depot on January 22, 1857. On the following day, another officer, Major Bontein, reported it to the commanding officer of Dum Dum, who in turn informed the General commanding of the Presidency Division. After satisfying himself regarding the incident, and obtaining the Governor General’s approval, the General gave instructions to all officers to calm the minds of the Indian soldiers at Dum Dum and elsewhere. The Adjutant General of the Army at Meerut was also directed ‘to issue all cartridges free from grease, and to allow the Sepahis to apply with their own hands suitable mixture they might prefer’. Kanwar again writes, ‘Meanwhile, the Inspector General of Ordinance immediately contacted Major Bonteinn, instructor of the Dum Dum Musketry School, who confirmed that until then the suspected cartridges had not been issued to Indian soldiers, either at Dum Dum or other stations in the Presidency Division. It is on record, however, that although the laboratory work on the greased cartridges was done at Dum Dum, they were sent to the Fort William Arsenal, whence they were distributed to units, including those at Dum Dum. Feeling relieved, Colonel Augustus Abbott issued a circular on January 29, 1857, laying down that only tallow of sheep or goats’ fat was to be issued to Indian soldiers’.




But news, it is said, spreads quickly. The incident of Dum Dum was no exception. In those days, for obvious reasons, any news detrimental to English prestige got added momentum. The earlier confidence of Indian soldiers in their English officers was gone. That was why the above-mentioned Brahman Sipahi refrained from directly reporting the incident to his superiors, who would have assuredly carried out an on the spot inquiry.


The Dum Dum incident seemed to be in accordance with a superstitious belief prevalent at that time, as if it was ordained to take place in early 1857. The cause lay much deeper than what appeared on the surface of the general trend of events as the then prevalent superstitious belief. Such an atmosphere was not confined to the little cantonment alone, but the entire sub-continent of India. Something was brewing in the minds of the people, perhaps long before this incident, which could be called a culminating point. For quite a long time, the year 1857 was considered auspicious in the minds of Indians, who believed in a prophecy ‘said to be of ancient date, which foretold the downfall of the English power at the end of this century’, that is, one hundred years reckoned from 1757, when the English had laid the foundation of their imperial power in India, after the defeat of Nawab Siraj-ud-daula at the Battle of Plassey.


Thus, one historical writing shows as the advent of the year 1857 drew near, considerable excitement prevailed amongst the Indian soldiers and the general populace, who were steadily being imbued with discontent against their English masters. The publication in a leading journal of the day in Calcutta ‘that a prophecy had been discovered, a thousand years old, pointing to the downfall at this time; in other words, that our destruction had been predicted many hundred years before we had ever been seen in the country, or ever heard of by the people’, added to the already increasing excitement and belief in this prophecy. As a point of interest, it may be mentioned that something about the prophecy had been found in several religious books in India, including a Sikh granth called ‘Sau Sakhi’. In the past, there was a speculation whether the prophecy was Hindu or Muslim in origin. On this point, interesting light is thrown by E A Reade, who in a letter to Colonel Malleson, historian of the 1857 uprising stated:
‘I do not think that I ever met one man in a hundred that did not give the Muhammadan credit, for the prediction. I fully believe that the notice of the change after a century of tenure, was general, and I can testify with others to have heard the prediction at least quarter of a century previously. But call it a prediction or superstition, the credit of it must, I think, be given to the Hindus. If we take the Hejra calendar, 1757 A D correspondence with 1171 Hejra; 1857 A D, with 1274 Hejra. Whereas by the lunisolar year of the Sumbat, 1757 A D is 1814 Sumbat, and 1857 A D is 1914 Sumbat.’




The Brahmin Sipahi against whom a low caste Laskar used taunting words was no other than Mangal Pandey. Furious on learning that the cartridges were greased with cow or pig tallow, he suddenly shot a British Sergeant on the parade ground of Barrackpore near Dum Dum factory on March 29, 1857 and injured him, and wounded an Adjutant with a sword after shooting at him. Mangal Pandey was, however, attacked by Havaldar Shaikh Paltu who prevented him from killing the Adjutant and the Sergeant–major.


When General Joyce Hearsay ordered the Jemadar of the troops, a soldier called Ishwari Pandey, to arrest him, the Jemader refused, as did the rest of the company except Shaikh Paltu. Mangal Pandey then pointed the gun against his own chest and used his foot to pull the trigger to shoot himself.


He failed and was captured and sentenced to death along with the Jemadar Ishwari Pandey. Mangal Pandey was hanged on April 8, 1857. His execution was scheduled for April 18, but he was summarily executed 11 days earlier, as the British feared that there might be a large scale revolt. The whole regiment was dismissed with disgrace on May 6, as a collective punishment, because it was felt that ‘they harboured ill feelings against superiors’. Other Sepoys of the Bengal Army thought this was a harsh punishment. Shaikh Paltu was promoted on the spot to the post of Jemadar by General Hearsay.


As for the Laskar, he has been identified as a dalit named Matadin Bhangi. Recently Badri Narayan Tiwari of the G B Pant Institute of Social Sciences, Allahabad, has pointed out that, ‘The revolt of 1857 was unique in the sense that it saw various sections of the society working towards a common objective, without any particular group getting dissolved into a larger whole, as was witnessed in the Gandhian era.’ Tiwari discusses the role of Matadin Bhangi: ‘It is only when seen in a narrow perspective that one can assume that the lower castes had nothing to do with the revolt of 1857, as these underdogs who might not have participated in the armed struggle due to their inability to access weapons, had nevertheless infused vital energy into the movement without which it could have never achieved its magnitude’.


About Matadin Bhangi’s taunting remark Tiwari comments, ‘However, surprisingly most people failed to understand the significance of what appears mainly as “nasty taunt” from a lowly born. The words of the humble sweeper had, in fact, awakened the sense of pride and acted as a catalyst rousing an upper caste man Pandey and his ilk, that had been lying dormant for ages’.


He further adds, ‘Similarly, the names of Balleram Mehtar and Chetram Jatav come forth as glorious examples of national resurgence. Both these lower caste men, who plunged themselves into the uprising that began with Barrackpore uprisings, were tied to trees in Etawa district of Uttar Pradesh and shot dead on the orders of British officers. According to Tiwari, ‘A number of Dalit writers have produced literature that seeks to give an insight into the struggles of lower caste men and women of that era. This has thrown up a number of icons, which include besides Matadin, Jhalkari, Mehtar and Jatav, Uda Devi, Vira Pasi, Basnke Chamar and many more’.


Jhalkari Bai, a maidservant of Laxmibai, has been given an iconic status by the BSP, which invokes her name in Bundelkhand region to expand its electoral base, according to Tiwari. He adds that, ‘Similarly the name of Uda Devi, a pasi woman known to be closely associated with Begum Hazrat Mahal of Lucknow, is also being used by both the BSP and Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janashakti Party in Bihar for their political gains’.


In Tiwari’s opinion this phenomenon, which prima facie appears to be merely a political statement, deserves closer attention as one finds in it the key to understand the socio-economic phenomenon that has driven the Hindi belt along caste lines: ‘The 1857 era shows us that the society was capable of uniting for a common cause, surmounting all contradictions. In fact, the present day era can take a leaf out of that period and can lay the foundation for an equitable society by educating all the social strata that their forefathers had fought a common enemy’.


Historian M S Jayaprakash believes that Mangal Pandey was not the premier freedom fighter of the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny. He is of the view that the first accused in the case was Matadin Bhangi who was convicted by the British Court and hanged to death. Mangal Pandey was the second accused in the case. (The Hindu, August 26, 2005) Some literature emanating from Dalit writers also refers to Matadin Bhangi and his momentous role in igniting the fire of revolt.


Avarna Sahitya Sammelan held at Patna on September 28-29, 1997 produced a collection of writings on this subject. One of the contributors states that, ‘The person who sowed the seed of Independence War by the Sepahis is Matadin Bhangi. He revealed the truth of secrets of tallow grease in cartridges. Colonel Wright of the 70th Regiment Bengal Army has also mentioned about this in his letter of January 1857.’


Anarya Bharat a newspaper published from Mainpuri (Uttar Pradesh) in its edition of August 15, 1996 writes, ‘After this all Hindu Sepahis planned the Revolt. It may be mentioned that the ‘charge sheet prepared by the Government named Matadin as number one accused among others … Matadin was the first to be hanged.’ Dalit historian D C Dinkar’s Swatantra Sangram Mein Achhuton ka Yogdan also argues that Matadin was hanged. The historicity of the Matadin episode rests in a book written by Acharya Bhagwan Das. [See Tiwari, Economic and Political Weekly, July 31, 2004]. Nevertheless, these historians and dalit writers have ignored the fact that though Matadin Bhangi, because of his unwitting role in revealing the secrets of grease tallow, was hanged by the British, it was Mangal Pandey whose angry shoot-out at Barrackpore Parrade ground at the British Sergeant that actually marked the beginnings of the Great Revolt.


At the same time it is important to emphasize that dalit participation in the revolt has been ignored and this should find its rightful proper place in the heroic saga of the War of Independence.




What were the consequences of the incident at Dum Dum? The story of the notorious cartridges spread to other cantonments like wildfire arousing hatred for the British. In Barrackpore, the Sipahis in a fit of rage burnt down the telegraph office, which was followed by similar acts from then onwards, not only in Barrackpore but also in other stations even as far as 100 miles away. Evidently, since the flare-up was sudden, official steps to stem the tide of the revolt proved of little avail. The full record of events during 1857 is too long to be included here and in any case beyond the scope of this article. The result of the suppression of the revolt and the bloodshed that ensued resulted in a reign of terror. The common people, worried about their daily bread, were glad when peace reigned again. The next fifteen years were spent in the consolidation of British power, and reconstruction. Dum Dum’s importance as a cantonment increased. More English troops were stationed there, and with their arrival, social events also increased. Dum Dum soon became the cynosure for the elite of Calcutta, who came here to spend many a pleasant evening or week-end in the gay atmosphere.


Many researchers have shown how in different parts of India, Dum Dum, in particular, common masses were inspired by the Revolt. Kanwar has referred to the origin of folk songs relating to the War of Independence. One of these most outstanding of these sung by the plebeian masses around Dum Dum is quoted below:


Dekho meri jan!
Kampani nishan,
Bibi gia Dum-dumma,
Oori hai nishan,
Burra sahib, chota sahib,
Banka Kapitan,
Dekho meri jan,
Lia hai nishan,
Chamakdar sipahi,
Golbaj pantloon,
Jaisa kisi Pasha,
Aj Mahandi Haroun,
Hathi par howdah
Ghora par zin,
Dekho, bahar nikla
Warren Hasteen.


The Dum Dum incident of the martyrdom and the subsequent flare up constitute a glorious record of India’s First War of Independence.


[The author is indebted to Bijon Guhathakurta, joint secretary of All India Defence Employees’ Federation, Jabbalpur, for substantially assisting him to write this treatise]