Mutiny of 1857
– the Punjab and the Sikhs –
Mutiny of 1857 was not the first time that Indian Sepoys rebelled against their British officers. There had been several mutinies before: Buxar in 1764; Vellore in 1806; and Barrackpore in 1824. There had been several mutinies in 1840s, when the British annexed Sind, and the soldiers were to continue duties in that area, while no longer entitled to foreign service allowance.
Causes of the Mutiny of 1857
Different authorities give different views. Some persons such as Sir John Lawrence considered it a mere Sepoy Mutiny by undisciplined but united Poorbia soldiers of the Bengal Army. Others such as Benjamin Disraeli, leader of the Opposition in the British Parliament, considered general unrest among the public because of bad policies of the Government interfering too much in the life, property and religion of the people. Reverend Alexander Duff considered it a Muslim conspiracy in which Emperor Bahadur Shah’s family, and Nawab of Oudh and his Wazir, were major partners, though John Lawrence rejected that theory. Duff, like David Urquhart, M P also believed a Russian hand behind the uprising.
Karl Marx, perhaps taking a clue from Disraeli, went as far as to call it India’s first war of Independence – the thread, which was elaborated by V D Savarkar, and picked up later by most Indian historians. [See: 1857 In India, Ainslie T Embree, Ed Boston: D C Heath and Co, 1966. Especially recommended part: “Military Mutiny or National Revolt?” July 27, 1857 speech by Benjamin Disraeli in the British Parliament]
Governor General Lord Dalhousie’s “Doctrine of lapse” — policy of annexation of a state, ruler of which died without leaving a direct male offspring of his or her own body – under which Satara, Berar, Oudh and Jhansi were annexed, had angered adoptees and heirs of these and various other States, and made many enemies. Application of this law was not limited to Rajas, but to all property holders, causing widespread panic.
Some well-meaning legislations by the British, such as ban on infanticide of ‘unwanted’ girls, abetment to suttee, remarriage of Hindu widows, were considered by orthodox Hindus as interference in their religion, and burden on their economic obligations. “Who is going to pay the dowry? Who is going to take care of the young widows, whose bread earners are dead? Is the government going to do that?” were the questions that bothered most Hindu families. There was a general feeling that the English were out to convert all Indians to Christianity.
Campaigns to convert the convicts to Christianity, and law granting the converts retention of right of inheritance even after conversion to Christianity, were some of the many thorns that were piercing the minds of the non-Christians.
The soldiers were feeling sab lal ho gya hai, the whole of the map of India has already become red, and there would be no more places to conquer, hence no jobs for soldiers. The soldiers were feeling insecure, hence there was lack of loyalty.
To open new job opportunities for Indian soldiers, the General Services Enlistment Act was passed in 1856. This meant that in future all recruits must swear on their enlistment that they would cross the sea in ships if they were ordered – something that was against the Hindu beliefs.
The “Company” introduced a new Enfield rifle. This one too, like the old ones, had to be loaded from the muzzle with a cartridge. The new cartridge was encased in paper, instead of cloth. The old cartridges were lubricated with a mixture of wax and vegetable oil, to ease their passage down the barrel to the breech. The new ones were coated with tallow, for smoother loading. The cartridges, now made by a contractor in India, used tallow as per given specifications, which did not specify what kind of tallow was to be used.
The word soon spread through the garrisons that the paper of the cartridge was greased with a mixture of beef and pork fat. The ends of the cartridges had to be bitten off before inserting them in the muzzle. The news fitted properly into the previously prevailing belief that “the troops were all going to be forcibly converted to Christianity.”
Although the major revolt over cartridges started from Meerut in May 1857, but there had been trouble at Dum-Dum in January; at Barrackpore and Behrampore in February; and in Ambala and Lucknow in April. The news of the mutiny was suppressed.
On Friday, April 24, 1857, eighty-five out of 90 sepoys of a regiment of the 3rd Light Cavalry in Meerut, refused to load their rifles with greased cartridges. They were court-martialled and sentenced to long terms of imprisonment. But that was not enough.
On Saturday, May 8, a punishment parade of all the troops at Meerut was held. The European troops were armed with loaded guns and rifles. The 85 were stripped of their uniforms, and paraded through the U-shaped formation. Irons were fastened to the feet of the eighty-five, which took several hours. The blood of the rest of the Indian soldiers, watching the scene, kept boiling.
On Sunday, May 10, three regiments broke open the jail. The British officers and their families were massacred. The mutineers rushed from Meerut to Delhi, and killed every European there. They involved Bahadur Shah II (who was originally reluctant), and made him issue firmans to princes in different parts of the country asking them to join the campaign to overthrow the British.
Maharaja Narinder Singh of Patiala received one such firman, from Bahadur Shah, in a letter-box placed at the gate of his palace:
On account of your proud attachment to my family, you are directed as quickly as possible to present yourself in person with all your army. ... Delay not. Following is translation of a couplet, that was part of this communication:
My life is passing from my lips, come, then that I may survive
For if I cease to be, what will become of you.
The Maharaja passed the firman on to Mr Barnes for transmission to the Chief Commissioner.
Mutiny in Punjab
News of Meerut massacre reached Lahore telegraphically on May 11, 1857. John Lawrence was at Rawalpindi. Robert Montgomery, who was in charge, went to the Brigadier commanding the station. They alerted the Europeans and on the morning of May 13, disarmed the four Hindostani regiments – to their amazement.
That started a chain of brutal killings, all by one side — the English.
In the following week, units at Ferozepore and Peshawar were disarmed. The soldiers were all unsure of their future and were afraid of their lives. All those who tried to escape were chased and summarily disposed off.
Not sure of support from Punjabi civilians, the British put their ‘divide and rule’ policy in high gear, playing the Race Card.
Reverend Cave Browne writes in his book, The Punjab and Delhi in 1857:
In a population such as in Amritsar “the embers of religious animosity were continually smoldering; and the true policy at such a crisis was to prevent their being entirely extinguished…In their jealous rivalry lay our security. To keep the two classes thus in mutual check – to counterbalance race by race and creed by creed – was the great aim of the Deputy Commissioner, Mr F Cooper, on whom the duty devolved.”( p 104)
Chief Commissioner Sir Henry Lawrence, blatantly applying the same ‘divide and rule’ formula, told the Muslims that Maharaja Ranjit Singh ‘never permitted the Mohammedans to call the pious to prayer’.
On 12th May, 1857 addressing Hindu and Muslim sepoys of the 13th and 48th Native Regiments, in Lucknow, he said:
“Soldiers! Some persons are abroad spreading reports that the Government desire to interfere with the religion of their soldiers; you all know this to be a transparent falsehood.... Alamgeer in former times, and Hyder Ali in later days, forcibly converted thousands of Hindoos, desecrated their fanes, demolished their temples, and carried ruthless devastation amongst their household gods. Come to our times. Many here present will know that Runjeet Sing never permitted his Mohammedan subjects to call the pious to prayer – never allowed the muezzin to sound from the lofty minarets which adorn Lahore, and remain to this day a monument of their magnificent founders. The year before last a Hindoo could not have dared to build a temple in Lucknow. All this is changed. Now, who is there who would dare to interfere with our Mohammedan or Hindoo subjects…?”[And then he warned them of the British might that can crush any foe.} (Rev. Cave Browne, The Punjab and Delhi in 1857, 1861, p 33, Reprint 1870, – hereafter Cave Browne)
Henry’s brother, Sir John Lawrence, Chief Commissioner of Punjab, addressing the “Hindostanee Soldiers of the Bengal Army”, on June 1, 1857 used a similar approach:
“Sepoys, … You know well enough that the British Government have never interfered with your religion. ... It was the other day that the Jumma Mosque at Lahore, which had cost lakhs of rupees, and which the Sikhs had converted into a magazine, was restored to the Mohammedans…”(Cave Browne, p 217)
Brutal English Vengeance in Punjab: ruthless massacre of innocent civilians; no Indian life was sacred
Respected historian, Stanley Wolpert, tells us that the British made wanton attacks even on passive villagers and on their own faithful domestic servants.
“As the first word of the murder of British men and women reached Lahore, Peshawar, Simla and Calcutta, a terrible racial ferocity, unknown since the Black Hole tragedy, erupted and inspired British vengeance. Wanton attacks on passive villagers and unarmed Indians, even faithful domestic servants, became common practice in the wake of the mutiny.” (Stanley Wolpert, A New History of India, 6th ed, p 237)
The units that had been disarmed were confined to barracks. Desertions were expected from such soldiers who were scared for their lives. And the British were determined not to let any one escape.
The very first deserted soldier to be captured was a Subedar Major. He was hanged in presence of all the troops in Peshawar, to teach others a lesson.
However, terrified, the 55th Regiment at Hoti Mardan deserted and fled. Nicholson chased the sepoys, killed a hundred and twenty; captured 150 and brought them back for another gruesome display.
A parade, like the one at Meerut on May 10, was held at Peshawar. In presence of the troops and thousands of persons from outside, 40 men (selected at random from the 150) were blown to bits at the mouth of guns.
Cooper’s Shame: Black Hole of Amritsar
Cooper, Deputy Commissioner of Amritsar, was proud of the brutal British policy in Punjab. He tells us in The Crisis in the Punjab, that “The Punjab authorities adhered to the policy of overawing, by a prompt and stern initiate, ... and would brook nothing short of absolute, active and positive loyalty.
Early in July 1857, about 400 men of the disarmed 26th Native Infantry broke from their jail in Lahore, and fled to escape to the hills or make to their own villages. They had no money, or food, Over a hundred are said to have been killed. 250 of them had taken refuge on an island in the river.
Philip Manson, narrating this horrendous episode, tells us:
The mutineers surrendered peacefully and were bound; he got them ashore by means of two leaky boats and conveyed them to the nearest police-station, six miles away, where they were locked up for the night...
Cooper had meant from the start to finish them off and had made arrangements for immediate execution. Some more were captured during the night, bringing the number in the lock-up to 282. (Philip Manson, The Men Who Ruled in the Punjab, p 170)
Cooper says unashamedly that he celebrated in his own way Muslim festival of Bakra Eid, by slaughtering 282 men without giving them a chance to say a word in their defence.
“Ten by ten sepoys were called forth. Their names having been taken down in succession, they were pinioned, linked together, and marched to execution, a firing-party being in readiness.”
Phillip Manson adds:
The number executed had arrived at two hundred and thirty-seven when the remainder refused to come out of the bastion where they had been imprisoned. It was supposed that they were planning a rush, but ‘behold! They were nearly all dead. Unconsciously the tragedy of Holwell’s Black Hole* had been re-enacted. ... Forty-five bodies, dead from fright, exhaustion, fatigue, and partial suffocation, were dragged to light.’
The story told by Cooper himself in his dispatch, was announced by the Foreign Office in London and narrated by Cooper in his book, The Crisis in the Punjab.
Philip Manson remarks in The Men Who Ruled India:
“And there was a note of gloating triumph in Cooper’s telling of the story that is sickening.” (p 171)
Manson reminds, that they had surrendered ‘in the insane belief’ that they would be given a trial.” (Also see: Edward J Thompson, The Other Side of the Medal, London: 1925, pp 58-66)
Cooper’s ego was bloated further by both Lawrence and Montgomery by congratulating him for his heroic performance.
Montgomery “ jealously called it a ‘feather’ in his cap” and wrote “You have had slaughter enough. We want a few for the troops here, and also for evidence.” The request was faithfully granted; forty one more fugitives were ‘gleaned’ from the surrounding country and sent to Lahore where they were all blown to pieces along with a severely wounded man who earlier could not walk to the place of execution at Ajnala.” (Salahuddin Malik, The Punjab and the Indian Mutiny, Punjab Past and Present, VIII, I-ii.)
Cooper’s savagery had several parallels in places such as Kanpur (July 15, 1857) and Lucknow, where the mutineers slaughtered innocent children and raped white women, bringing shame to Hinduism as well as to Islam. Stories of vengeance by the British are even more shameful.
Later when the Sikh soldiers arrived they were able to save the lives of many women and children, from being slaughtered by the Poorbias
A Black Mark on Sikh Community
With such atrocities committed by the British on the people of Punjab, they deserved no sympathy, or assistance from the Sikhs. But, cis-Sutlej Sikh Rajahs, jumped on their band wagon, because they were treaty-bound.
The British did receive reinforcements from England later, and might have survived, but even before their arrival the tide had turned in their favour.
Mostly because of the help provided by these cis-Sutlej Sikh Rajahs the British were able to suppress the great rebellion – which till today, Indians are debating, whether it was “First Indian War of Independence” or not?
However, as noted above, one noble thing that the Sikhs did was to save the lives of many women and children, who were in imminent danger of being slaughtered at the hands of the Poorbias.
The Sikhs and the Mutiny
It is often asked, “Why did the Sikhs help the British? Why did they not help the mutineers, and possibly bring an end to the British rule in India?”
Here is a brief answer: Most important thing in this matter is to separate the Sikhs in general, or the Sikh community, from the cis-Sutlej Rajahs, who did not side with the Sikhs, during the Anglo-Sikh Wars – because they were treaty-bound, not to support those who were unfriendly towards the British.
The Sikhs in general did not come to the rescue of the British, as testified by Philip Mason:
“Very few Sikhs from the Punjab proper came to the colours till Delhi had fallen.” (Philip Mason, The Men Who Ruled India, p 170)
Some of the Sikhs who fought for the British hoped that one day they might fight against them, and recover the lost kingdom.
There are now nearly 100,000 Sikhs in the British service and we have heard how saucy they are, they fight, they say, today for the British, but may fight tomorrow against them, as it may please God (Marx and Engles, First Indian War of Independence, Moscow, 1960)
The nationalist Sikhs were never any time privy to the cause of the Mutiny of 1857. They had never been consulted. The Poorbias who had fought against the Sikhs and helped the British in the two Anglo-Sikh Wars had neither face nor guts to ask the Sikhs for help.
The cis-Sutlej Sikh states helped the British with men, money and materials. They were bound by their Treaties. Besides, they had always been lackies of the British. It was only due to them that the Amritsar Treaty of 1809 was signed. The Treaty divided the Sikhs into two camps. They sided with the British during the Anglo-Sikh Wars.
“The pro-British leanings of the Sikh princes were not even shared by their civil and military populations, still less by the general mass of the rest of Panjab.” (Salahuddin Malik, The Panjab and the Indian Mutiny, Punjab Past and Present, VIII, i-ii)
After the First Sikh War, which the British won because of treachery of Sikh’s own commanders, their forts had been razed to the ground, and their arms had been confiscated. Manufacture or sale of arms and ammunition was prohibited. That helped them win the Second War, despite the determination of the Sikhs to uproot the British Raj.
Above all, the Sikhs were leaderless. During the first year of Administration 8,000 people had been arrested.
Mughals or the British : A Challenge to the Sikhs
As noted earlier, the biggest mistake the mutineers made was to place on the throne good-for-nothing ‘Emperor of India’ Bahadur Shah, who had been living on pension of mere One Lakh Rupees a month from the British, since 1803. And in the words of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, he was “a mere puppet, who had neither the army, nor the treasure, nor influence.”
For the Sikhs it presented a choice : whether to bring back the Mughals, under whom the Sikhs had suffered immensely, or to continue under the powerful British.
The Sikhs were aware that during the two Anglo-Sikh Wars, the ‘Emperor’ of Delhi and one of his leading chiefs, the Nawab of Jhajjar, had given assistance to the British. Same Nawab was Bahadur Shah’s main supporter in the struggle then.
The Poorbia Factor
During the Anglo-Sikh Wars, Lal Singh and Tej Singh, Prime Minister and Commander-in-Chief of the Sikhs, both Poorbias had treacherously helped the enemy — the British.
During the battle of Mudki, the ten Native Infantry Regiments of the enemy, the 2nd, 16 th, 24th, 26th, 41st, 42nd, 45th, 47th, 48th, and 73rd that fought against the Sikhs were all composed of Poorbias.
The British exploited this Poorbia factor fully, as far as motivating the Sikhs to join them was concerned, although the sympathies of the Sikh Rajahs also were on the same side as those of the Poorbias during the Anglo-Sikh War.
One of the outstanding Sikh heroes of the Second Anglo-Sikh War was Jawahir Singh Nalwa, son of Sardar Hari Singh Nalwa, who fighting along with Sher Singh Attariwalla, in the battle of Chillianwalla, on January 13, 1849 ‘pursued Pope’s cavalry brigade with great élan, cutting down many British Horse artillerymen including Major Christie, one of the battery commanders, destroying six guns and carrying four guns intact apart from two ammunition wagons and fifty three horses as war trophies.’ With turn of the wheel, same hero of the Second Anglo-Sikh War, joined the British 1st Sikh Cavalry in 1857, to fight against his other enemies — the Poorbias and Muslim sepoys who had fought against him in Chillianwala and Gujerat.*
Based on a fake book Sau-Sakhi (100 stories) many ignorant Sikhs believed in several prophesies – some of them initiated by the British to serve their own purpose. One of them was falsely attributed to Guru Tegh Bahadur, who is said to have foretold the arrival of the British to punish the Mughals.
In 1857 a prophesy was ripe among the followers of Guru Tegh Bahadur that they would attack Delhi with the help of the white man and completely avenge the old insult. The British who seem to have initiated the prophecy were of course, most willing to gratify their new allies. In order to please the Sikhs, Capt. Hodson’s Horse “deliberately shot” and killed two[three] Mughal princes [two sons and one grandson of Bahadur Shah] after having promised them safe conduct. Thereafter, he ordered their bodies to be taken into Delhi and put on public dispay at the same place where the head of Tegh Bahadur was supposed to have been exposed over a century and a half before. After three days Hodson ordered the corpses to be removed for sanitary reasons” (Salahuddin Malik, The Panjab and the Indian Mutiny” Punjab Past and Present, VIII, i-ii; Major W.S R Hodson, Twelve Years of a Soldier’s Life in India, p 302)
“Twenty-one princes** of the royal family were hanged shortly afterwards.” (Gardner, The East India Company, p 178)
For propaganda purposes the British told the Sikh soldiers that it was a revenge for Aurangzeb’s execution of Guru Tegh Bahadur, but Hodson’s real reason was that, “On the very spot four months earlier, English women and children had suffered every form of indignity and death.” and “To the Sikhs, who crowded round”, the place was, where Guru Tegh Bahadur had been beheaded in 1675. (Cave Browne, p 154)
Economic Factor: The Mazhbi Sikhs
A large number of Mazhbi Sikhs were employed in public works, “more especially on the different canals in the course of formation in the Doaba…When the mutiny broke out, and all put out of all such works” they were thrown out of jobs. “When the call was made upon them, they eagerly seized the opportunity…and were drafted off in huge numbers to Delhi.…” A large number of them were, after the mutiny, formed into “Pioneer Corps,” later called the “24th Punjabees”, a corps which has attracted so much attention from the many converts to Christianity. (Cave Browne, pp 207-08)
[Also see: The Fourth Punjab Administration Report (1956-58)]
The Sikh soldiers (who had participated on the side of the British, in their struggle for survival) were conscious of their decisive contribution, and it was natural for them to be upbeat.
Frederick Engles warning the British that the Sikhs might attempt restoration of their lost empire, wrote in 1858:
The Sikhs are beginning to talk in a way, which bodes no good to the English. They feel that without their assistance, the British would scarcely have been able to hold India, and that, had they joined the insurrection Hindustan would certainly have been lost to England, at least for a time. They say this loudly and exaggerate it to their Eastern way. To them the English no longer appear as that superior race which beat them at Mudki, Ferozeshah and Aliwal. From such a conviction to open hostility there is but a step with Eastern nations, a spark may kindle a blaze.
In the minds of the Sikh soldiers, the British were, perhaps, never superior, as they were aware that the British won the war against them due to treachery of the Sikh Commander-in-Chief and his deputy, not through their fighting skill.
While commenting on a conspiracy among Sikh regiments at Dera Ismael Khan, Engles wrote:
There are now nearly 100,000 Sikhs in the British service and we have heard how saucy they are, they fight, they say, today for the British, but may fight tomorrow against them, as it may please God. Brave, passionate, fickle, they are ever more subject to sudden and unexpected impulses than other Orientals. If mutiny should break in earnest among them, the British indeed have hard work to keep their own. The Sikhs are always the most formidable opponents of the British among the nations of India; they have formed a comparatively powerful empire; they are of a peculiar sect of Brahminism, and hate both Hindus and Musalmans. They have seen the British Raj in utmost peril; they have contributed a great deal to restore it, and they are even more convinced that their own share of the work was a decisive one. What is more natural than that they should harbour the idea that the time has come when the British Raj shall be replaced by a Sikh Raj, that a Sikh Emperor is to rule India from Delhi or Calcutta? (Marx and Engles, First Indian War of Independence, Moscow, 1960)
Even though Sikh soldiers, mostly provided by the cis-Sutlej Sikh Rajahs, helped the British in suppressing the sepoy mutiny, a good number of English people did not trust or respect them. In their opinion, they were still ‘niggers’.
The Sikhs don’t love us one bit, but hate sepoys (Poorbias) like poison…. Moreover, they are the lastly conquered of the Indian races and have not forgotten what British Pluck can do. They like the cause now, for the sepoys have mutilated and tortured their men…. And their blood is up on our side at present – but, this business over, they may play us the same trick as the sepoy ruffians any day. There is no sympathy between us – we despise the niggers, they hate us. (James Lawrence, Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India, p 267)
From the above evidence it is clear that the British were helped by cis-Sutlej Sikh Rajas, out of treaty obligations, with full realization that taking the side of Mughal Emperor, for whom the Sikhs had no love, only hatred, would have meant political suicide for them, and they would lose their states, just as Ranjit Singh’s empire had been swallowed. Sikh soldiers saw on the opposite side Poorbias, that had become victorious not because they were better soldiers, but because their treacherous Sikh Commander-in-Chief was in league with the enemy —the British. Therefore, they fought against the Poorbias with a vengeance.
Some Side Bars
After peace was proclaimed by Lord Canning, automatic pardon was announced for all rebels who would surrender before January 1, 1859, unless they had been involved in massacres.
Charles Dickens, furious on learning about announcement of Amnesty, wrote on October 4, 1858:
“I wish I were commander-in-chief in India, I should do my utmost to exterminate the Race upon whom the stain of the late cruelties rested” Nothing less than extermination of the Hindus would have satisfied Dickens, who was disgusted by reports that Canning had offered amnesty to mutineers not directly involved in the killings.” (Dickens, C, Letters of Charles Dickens, II, pp 459, 473 (Oxford, 1995); James, Lawrence, Raj: the Making and Unmaking of British India, p 283)
Queen Victoria in Defence of Duleep Singh
Maharaja Duleep Singh was in London. Some Englishmen observed that he had not condemned his countrymen’s atrocities, during the mutiny. Lord Clarendon was one of those, who were very vocal against Duleep Singh. Queen Victoria came to his defence and justified his reaction, whatever it was.
“Lord Clarendon wrote he was indignant to learn that the boy MahaRaja Duleep Singh, who was being educated in England, had shown little or no regret for the atrocities which had been committed. The young MahaRaja’s father, one of the most harsh and cruel of Indian rulers had been deposed by the British government and his son taken under British protection. The Queen pointed out that in spite of gentleness and amiability the MahaRaja had an Eastern nature, and could hardly be expected as a deposed Eastern sovereign to be very fond of British rule or to like hearing the people of his country called fiends and monsters and that they being brought by hundreds if not thousands to be executed. She advised Lord Clarendon to say nothing on the subject.” (Cecil Woodham Smith, Victoria, Dell Publishing Co, p 496)
British Policy of ‘Divide and Rule’ Employed Before and During the Period of Mutiny, was to Continue
Lord Canning, reiterating use of ‘divide and rule’ policy, but in a more sophisticated and calculated way, wrote in his letter dated October 9, 1857:
“The men who fought against us in Delhi were of both creeds; probably in equal numbers. If we destroy or desecrate Mussulman Mosques or Brahmin Temples we do exactly what is wanting to band the two antagonist races against ourselves …as we must rule 150 million of people by a handful (more or less small) number of Englishmen, let us do it in the manner best calculated to leave them divided (as in religion and national feeling as they already are) and to inspire them with the greatest possible awe of our power.” (Amin, Agha Humayun, Major (retd) Pakistan Defence Journal, December 2000)
The jury is still out, whether the British would have folded away their carpet, if the Sikh States had not come to their rescue, or not!