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Misplaced enthusiasm

Misplaced enthusiasm

Author: Prafull Goradia
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: May 15, 2007

The rising of 1857 was more a struggle by the Muslim landed class to recover their lost power from the British

The enthusiasm to celebrate the 150th year of 1857 appears to be growing. No voice has, however, been heard that proposes a fresh review of the uprising.

The first protest against the replacement of the old musket by a new rifle, which required cartridges greased with the fat of cows and pigs, occurred at Behrampore in March 1857. Mangal Pandey shot his sergeant major at Barrackpore in the same month. There was little action thereafter until the conflagration in Meerut on May 10 when the mutiny took a serious start. The next day the sepoys reached Delhi to persuade Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar to be their leader; he agreed after some hesitation.

In the next few days, regiments at Ambala, Lahore and Jalandhar were disbanded. But Delhi was all fire. The Company could not recapture the city until September 20. The next day, Zafar surrendered to Major Hodson at Humayun's tomb.

What we call Uttar Pradesh today was the scene of many a massacre; Kanpur and Lucknow saw the worst violence. But besides Barrackpore and Uttar Pradesh, the only scenes of revolt were the Danapur cantonment near Patna and the disbandment of a regiment at Peshawar. Neither the east, the west, the south nor the entire north revolted.

The Sikhs, the erstwhile rulers of the Punjab and further north, actually helped the Company suppress the mutiny by the sepoys and rebellion by others. The Hindu powers that stood aloof included the Marathas led by the Scindias and the Holkars. The whole of Rajputana, too, kept out of the conflagration of 1857.

Perhaps no episode in Indian history has attracted so much comment, nor so many names ranging from "the war of independence" to "the great rebellion", an "uprising", a "revolution" to a mere "mutiny". But how can it be a war of independence when most Hindus kept out of the fight except Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi, Nana Sahib Phadnavis and Tantia Tope.

Nana Sahib alias Dhondu Pant was trying to revive the pension that his father, the last Peshwa, used to receive. The British looked upon Nana Sahib as a friend. Indeed, the first person Major General Sir Hugh Wheeler turned to for help on May 21 at Kanpur was Nana Sahib who promptly promised to send his troops to defend the Company treasury. His mercy petition dated April 20, 1959 makes a plea consistent with his first reaction. He was compelled by his soldiers to let them loot the treasury etc. He was particularly helpless as his family was exposed to the caprice of the soldiers.

Nana's aide Tantia Tope wrote on the eve of his execution that the former had played his part in the rebellion under duress. Unable to get an assurance of British forgiveness, Nana Sahib fled to Nepal. Tantia Tope fought actively. It included coming to the aid of Lakshmibai. However the main Maratha potentates like Scindia and Holkar did not participate.

The Rani of Jhansi stood out as a character with a spine. She preferred to die in battle than either surrender or abscond. Her tragedy lay in a failure of communication. The British presumed that she had instigated the massacre of Europeans at Jhansi on 5 June, 1857. On the contrary, she was the victim of invasions on Jhansi by neighbouring rulers of Datia and Orchha. She appealed to the British to protect her but to no avail. Only when she lost hope of getting such help did she choose between the British noose and her own martyrdom. Her correspondence with the British officials demolishes the myth of 1857 as a war of independence.

The uprising was largely a revolt by the Muslim landowners, for they were the losers when the British took over. The replacement of Nawab Siraj-ud-Daula by Robert Clive as the de facto ruler of Bengal epitomised the Muslim debacle. So were the dethronement of Wajid Ali Shah and the annexation of Oudh. The selection of Zafar as the symbol of the uprising was also uncanny. Gen Sir James Outram called the rebellion a Mohammedan affair. The Muslim participants were told that it was a jihad for restoring the might of Islam. Shah Abdul Ali who was the son of Shah Waliullah, founder of the Wahabi movement, had declared in 1810 that Hindustan be a dar-ul-harb or a land of dispute, as distinct from a dar-ul-Islam.

The potential beneficiaries of the 'crime', the uprising, would have been Muslims. Little wonder, over 90 per cent of those hanged by the Company in 1858 at the Delhi Gate were Muslim.

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