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    Commemorating 1857 - an essay by Dr. Crispin Bates

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    Outline History of events leading up to and the Uprising of 1857

[from C. Bates, Subalterns & Raj: South Asia since 1600 (London: Routledge 2007)]

On land in India as in other parts of the Empire, the British had to face continual uprisings of one sort or another, and these were especially commonplace in India in the early nineteenth century. The so-called Pax Britannica in India was thus very much a myth; indeed it was a myth in all parts of the empire and probably only applicable at sea where British naval power was pre-eminent. It is for this reason that one historian has described the events of 1857 as 'unique only in their scale' [Bayly 1988]. The uprising of that year began with a mutiny amongst Indian sepoys in regiments of the East India Company's Bengal army based in the plains of north India. It was made worse by the incompetence of those in command, and the fact that no wholly British-recruited regiments were available in north India to restore order. They had been despatched to fight on the north-west frontier in support of the Afghanis against the Persians in their struggle for control of the principality of Herat, under the threat of Russian intervention. The uprising spread outwards from Meerut to become a widespread civil and urban insurrection, affecting all of the towns, villages and cities of north India. The rule of the East India Company was only restored after a bloody nine-month campaign, spear-headed by Sikh troops recruited from the Punjab and reinforcements sent up the Ganges from Calcutta. Unravelling exactly what happened, and why, has been complicated by partisan accounts on both sides. Contemporary and later British historians have sought to minimise the Company's responsibility, whilst Indian historians have tended to depict the events of that year as in some sense an anticipation of the Indian nationalist movement that later on was to successfully challenge colonial rule in the early twentieth century. In both versions of events, the exceptionality of 1857 and its leaders is emphasised, and the struggles of ordinary Indians before, during and after that year have been neglected.

Indian Resistance movements in the early nineteenth century

After the final defeat of the Marathas in 1818, the authority of the East India Company in the newly ceded and conquered territories in central and northern India was challenged on many fronts. Dacoity, or banditry was endemic, of which the so-called thugs were the most notorious example. The word 'thug' is of Indian origin, thagi meaning 'to deceive'. Although terms like it could be found in generic use in previous periods, 'thag' was first used as a specific category by a British district officer named William Sleeman, in application to a variety of groups of marauding bandits in central India in the 1820s. The suppression of the thugs thereafter became part of the great civilising mission of the British in India, along with the abolition of sati, infanticide, human sacrifice and other supposed social evils. Work on these fronts was faithfully reported to the Board of Control in London and the annual Statement Exhibiting on Moral and Material Progress and Condition of India from 1859 onwards.

The thug phenomenon was paralleled by another and more serious law and order problem in the early nineteenth century, which was similar in causation: the Pindaris. They were bandits who raided whole villages on horseback, principally in the newly ceded territories in central and northern India [Anon 1818; Ghosh 1966]. The Pindaris were mostly unemployed mercenary cavalrymen who had served in the armies of the Maratha Princes and others, before being disbanded in 1818. The threat that they posed was so considerable that an entire sepoy army had to be sent to suppress them.

The thugs and the Pindaris occupied a great deal of British military manpower, but there were numerous other uprisings in the same period to occupy them, many in adivasi or tribal areas. For example in the 1820s, a succession of revolts occurred amongst the Bhil tribes in Gujarat, and the Kol in Bihar between 1829 and 1833. Most serious of all was a revolt by the Santhals in 1855, just two years before the uprising of 1857, following which more than 10,000 tribals were killed in British reprisals in an attempt to pacify the territory [Guha 1983]. Nomadic and 'wandering' communities had good cause to resent the British, by whom they had been systematically persecuted. In the early 19th century huge areas of grazing lands around Delhi, used by the Gujars, Rangars and Bhattis were cleared and given by the British to Jat peasant farmers to cultivate. These communities were therefore amongst the first to resort to arson and banditry as soon as British control collapsed in 1857. They all had one thing in common, being in one way or another losers in the land revenue settlements of the early nineteenth century.   The Gujars and Bhattis lost land because the British did not recognise pastoralists to have proprietary right of access or occupancy. Tribals, who practised shifting forms of cultivation, were also frequently denied rights to the land and expelled from large areas of forest which were taken over by the government. It can be conjectured that many so-called thugs may have been Gond adivasis from the highlands of Central India who had been forced out of the forests in which they had traditionally hunted and foraged. From a life of banditry and petty thieving, it was but a small step to join in open rebellion.

The thugs and the Pindaris occupied a great deal of British military manpower, but there were numerous other uprisings in the same period to occupy them, many in adivasi or tribal areas. For example in the 1820s, a succession of revolts occurred amongst the Bhil tribes in Gujarat, and the Kol in Bihar between 1829 and 1833. Most serious of all was a revolt by the Santhals in 1855, just two years before the uprising of 1857, following which more than 10,000 tribals were killed in British reprisals in an attempt to pacify the territory [Guha 1983]. Nomadic and 'wandering' communities had good cause to resent the British, by whom they had been systematically persecuted. In the early 19th century huge areas of grazing lands around Delhi, used by the Gujars, Rangars and Bhattis were cleared and given by the British to Jat peasant farmers to cultivate. These communities were therefore amongst the first to resort to arson and banditry as soon as British control collapsed in 1857. They all had one thing in common, being in one way or another losers in the land revenue settlements of the early nineteenth century.   The Gujars and Bhattis lost land because the British did not recognise pastoralists to have proprietary right of access or occupancy. Tribals, who practised shifting forms of cultivation, were also frequently denied rights to the land and expelled from large areas of forest which were taken over by the government. It can be conjectured that many so-called thugs may have been Gond adivasis from the highlands of Central India who had been forced out of the forests in which they had traditionally hunted and foraged. From a life of banditry and petty thieving, it was but a small step to join in open rebellion.

Uprisings of more substantial rural elites as well as of peasants occurred in the first half of the nineteenth century. The Bundela Rajputs, for example, were relatively prosperous landowners in Central India who rebelled in 1842, in reaction to tax increases and oppressive court proceedings which had deprived some of them of land. The mere arrival of a British land survey team, whose task was to measure the fields and decide how much tax should be paid, could provoke a riot, as occurred in Khandesh in 1852. The were also violent outbreaks among the peasantry on the Malabar Coast, where Muslim Mappila tenants were almost continuously in revolt against Hindu landlords appointed by the British.

Finally, in urban areas, unrest was often communal, characterised by the rioting of unemployed Muslim artisans against the Hindu moneylenders who were prospering under colonial rule. The replacement of the law officers of the old Mughal cities (such as the Kotwal, Qazi, and Mufti) by brusque colonial officials added further to the prevailing sense of unease. Dissent and unrest were therefore widespread during the early part of the nineteenth century, but the inadequate intelligence of the East India Company meant that the seriousness of this opposition was not appreciated until events overtook them. When the general insurrection occurred in 1857, the company was therefore taken completely by surprise. The sudden collapse of British power merely provided the opportunity for many of these dissenting groups to rise up at the same time. This was what was unique about 1857.

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