100 Years Ago: First War of Independence

Mauritius Times – 60 Years Ago

By K. Sharma

Free India is celebrating this year (1957) the centenary of what has usually been called the “Indian Mutiny” of 1857. The event was not merely a mutiny or an exclusively army affair, but was in reality an outburst of the deep popular discontent felt all over the country over the establishment of a foreign government. Nationalist opinion accordingly has been of the view for decades that the happenings of the year really constituted the first few shots fired in the fight for freedom by India — a fight that ended only in 1947 when the country became free again. Herein lies the significance of the centenary now being observed.

But before the full import of the celebrations is realised, it would be useful to note the great political change that took place in the wake of the so called “Mutiny”. The East India Company ceased to exist as a political power and the administration of India was taken over by the Crown of Britain. This step clearly indicated the grave dissatisfaction in Britain over the way in which India had been ruled by the Company, a way which had led to the “Mutiny”. It also showed a new spirit in administering the affairs of a dependent people; imbued with sympathy, tolerance and a desire to promote their welfare and happiness. This was the true significance of Queen Victoria’s Proclamation of 1858.

To dwell on the details of the “Mutiny” would be merely to dramatize them, but they may be recapitulated in the barest outline. Cartridges had been issued to the Indian Army, the ends of which had to be bitten before firing. They had been greased with the fat of the pig or of the cow animals, one of which was detested by the Muslims and the Hindus and the other venerated by the Hindus. This fact greatly outraged the religious feelings of the Sepoys of both the communities. In March 1857, a British adjutant was cut down in open parade by a Brahmin (Hindu) Sepoy, in Barrackpore near Calcutta. The culprit was duly punished. And next month discontent and incendiary fires were seen as far away as Ambala.

In May the Sepoys at Meerut boldly revolted, opened the jails, burnt the houses of the officers and killed all the British that came in sight. The 10th of May is generally reckoned as the day on which the “Mutiny” began. Delhi was occupied, and there, the old displaced Mughal emperor was proclaimed the sovereign. Agra was also in revolt. Apart from the Delhi area, the main trouble centres were Lucknow, Kanpur and Bundelkhand in Central India. Everywhere the rebellious sepoys had the upper hand at the outset, while, one the other hand, British troops and officers defended gallantly. Gradually the Government regained control and put down the insurrection. Such was its immediate task, and that done, it turned to the pacification of the country. The work was primarily political in its nature and was crowned by the Queen’s Proclamation of 1858 which assured everyone of equality before the law, and freedom of faith.

It would be useful to look into the cause of the revolution and to study what lessons British administrators learnt from their experience. The Indian Army before 1858 consisted mostly of Indians, trained, equipped and officered after the British model. The proportion of Indians to Britons was nearly five to one. Indian regiments besides consisted of men from all parts of the country, and of all castes or communities a bond of unity developing amongst them thereby. The army reorganisation that took place in the early sixties of the last century, carefully avoided risks of another uprising by increasing the proportion of British troops to Indian ones by more than doubling the numbers of the former, so as eventually to provide for two British soldiers for every five Indian soldiers.

In addition, the class-company system was introduced according to which regiments were based on community, province or caste so that, if necessary, one Indian regiment may be pitted against another. Thirdly was enunciated the “martial races theory” which held that certain peoples of the country did not constitute good soldiers while others made excellent fighting material. This in actual fact meant the exclusion from the army of sections of the country which were markedly nationalistic and patriotic.

Of the civil side, the British government adopted certain measures intended to redress old wrongs and to pacify the country. The fact shows that the British historians of the ‘‘Mutiny’’ have vigorously sought to deny the 1857 incidents were more than merely an army affair.

To recapitulate at random a few of the causes which created unrest in the pre-‘Mutiny’ days are: the large number of lapses and escheats of territory in favour of the British government had led a good many of the remaining ruling chiefs to feel very insecure in their own areas and powers, lest for any known or unknown reason they should themselves be displaced by an all-absorbing and ever-grasping alien government. The proclamation of 1858 gave them the assurance that no further expansion of British held territory at the expense of Indian rulers was indented so that the latter may not have any fears of dispossession.

Secondly, the strict and rigid enforcement of law and order had produced the fear that the basic structures of the Hindu caste system were deliberately being undermined by the new power and that the Hindu religion itself was in danger. On this point also the Proclamation stated categorically that there would be an absolute freedom of faith in the country. On the basis of such solemn promises India regained a large deal of normalcy.

The British administrators of 1860 and immediately thereafter sought to rule the country in the spirit of the Proclamation. They were, as a rule, honest, sympathetic and hard-working. But human nature being what it ever has been, conditions worsened as time marched on.

Britain was not all altruistic and selfless in her behaviour towards India. Often she was just unjust so as to promote her own interests and to injure those of India. Her sons, too, working at this end, became self-centered and pompous, many of them losing contact with the people and developing a superiority complex on the ground of race and colour. In the meantime a change was coming over the people also.

Towards the beginning of the present century, world events aroused in them the desire to self-rule. Study of English institutions and English Literature also worked up their mind. But the self-satisfied British administration did not understand the new spirit. In fact, it could not even recognize the change that was taking place. On the contrary, the authorities chose to dub it as ‘‘sedition’’ and began to punish the nationalists. This was the inner meaning of India’s fight for freedom which went on bitterly till 1947. And when at that time, again due to world events no less than to internal causes, Britain realized that she could no longer hold India down with force, she acted with courage and statesmanship and withdrew from the country with grace and alacrity.

A new generation of Indians is now growing up to whom British rule is scarcely a memory, if at all, and it would be wrong to recall with bitterness and ill-will the tragic events connected with the beginnings of India’s fight for Independence. Even without her doing so, there is enough disharmony and ill-feelings among the nations of the world today. But to those who took part in the struggle and to those who have experience of it, to refrain altogether from all show and joy and happiness over their eventual victory is not easy. It is thus in a spirit of jubilation, and not of animosity towards Britain, that India is celebrating the Centenary of 1857 during the current year.

Indians are today proud of their victory. They are looking back on history from a new angle and in particular they feel that the earliest heroes of 1857 were all patriots and martyrs not dacoits and desperadoes as represented by some historians. The drama of history cannot afford to overlook the supreme greatness of the Indians that flitted across the stage in those eventful days. Maharani Lakshmibai of Jhansi was one of them. A young woman of twenty with exceptional powers of organization who led her troops on the battlefield with drawn sword in hands and died in action. She is a figure that thrills the patriotism and imagination of everyone in the world. A grateful country is now erecting a statute in her honour.

In thinking of the British period of the history, India has much to forget but not her memories and glories of sons and daughters who kept alive the torch of national freedom even in the midst of utter gloom and despair.

New Delhi – India 6 April 1957


* Published in print edition on 24 July 2020

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