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1857 – Nationalism, Religion and The Sikhs

Dr M S Ahluwalia

The 1857 rebellion was a major anti-colonial movement which symbolized the resistance against the aggression of imperialist policies. The uprising has assumed a national character. However, its correct understanding is marked by two limitations: One, pertaining to the character of the happenings in which major religious faiths participated; two, role of the Sikhs. Its scope remained narrow and limited because it was seen as religious oriented and for its failure the Sikhs were held responsible.

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:
The most important thing in this matter is to separate the Sikhs in general, as a 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 anti-British. The cis-Sutlej Sikh states helped the British with men, money and materials.

An unbiased study of the record shows it was not only the Sikh ruling families in Punjab who supported the British but also other rich families, both among Hindus and Muslims, who joined the British campaign against the rebellion of 1857. Again the reality was no different in the rest of India, where rulers of Gwalior, Hyderabad, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Kota, Bhopal, Dhar and many other native states joined hands with the British. But only the princely states of Patiala, Nabha, Jind or Kapurthala, who in no way represented the Sikhs, have been singled out to be identified in terms of the religion professed by its rulers.

While studying 1857 in relation to Punjab, one has to bear in mind that there were three main cultural streams, which divided Punjab, both regionally and communally. In case of the Sikhs, for that matter Punjab, events of a few years before 1857 show that Punjab was the last province to be conquered. Victory cost the British heavily both in terms of men and material. The two wars fought with the Sikhs by the English for the expansion of the Empire in India were not only the last but also the hardest fought battles. Victory in these battles gave to the English nearly ninety thousand square miles, since the ‘Raj’ extended up to Afghanistan.

From the annexation of Punjab in 1849 to the uprising of 1857, the British carried out their policy of consolidation. At the same time the British adopted the policy of “Divide and Rule”. In spite of John Lawrence’s alacrity and astuteness, Punjab remained tense and provocative during the uprisings. A review of the available evidence shows that the Sikhs and the people of Punjab made significant sacrifices in the uprising.

Nationalism Versus Religion
A terrible myth continues to flourish about the complicity of the Sikhs as a community in helping the ‘Firangees’ in suppressing the 1857, revolt. It is necessary to review and take note of the true facts and undo the injustice which has continuously been done to the Sikhs in relation to the 1857 rebellion. The myth gets strengthened mainly due to the British writers who unhesitatingly declare that the Sikhs played an important part in suppressing the rebellion. For example William Howard Russel, a well-known war correspondent, who came to India to cover the ‘Mutiny’ for the Times, London, wrote in one of his dispatches:

“Our siege of Delhi would have been quite impossible, if the rajahs of Patiala and Jind had not been our friends, and if the Sikhs had not recruited (in) our battalions, and remained quiet in Punjab...”

Raja Narinder Singh of Patiala played the most crucial role in the British victory. Raja Sarup Singh of Jind State too sided with the British, whose loyalty, according to Russell was conspicuous during the mutiny. Bharpur Singh, the Raja of Nabha, Raja Randhir Singh of Kapurthala and Raja Wazir Singh of Faridkot State also acted with exemplary loyalty during the revolt of 1857.

There is no dearth of otherwise well-meaning Indian historians, who, even today, hold the opinion that 1857 War of Independence was lost mainly due to the betrayal by the Sikhs. Even a renowned historian like R.C. Majumdar, who otherwise refused to treat 1857 rebellion either as ‘national’ or ‘War of Independence’ and out-rightly rejects the claim that it was led by any kind of ‘patriotism’ is most vocal in propounding the theory that Sikhs as a community wholeheartedly supported the British to crush the revolt. According to his logic, it was hatred for the Mughal rulers who persecuted Sikhs in the past, that the latter joined the British ranks to settle scores.

The main issue to be resolved is:
Did the Sikh States who sided with the British in 1857 represent the Sikh community?
An honest analysis of the whole episode will reveal that ‘It would be nothing but travesty of facts to present the active support of the few Sikh ruling families of Punjab to the British cause in 1857 as siding by the whole Sikh community with the British.’

There is hardly any evidence that the Sikh States under discussion, ever claimed proudly that they represented the Sikhs or Sikh interests. Even today they proudly display the titles which they secured from the Mughal and the British rulers. A simple perusal of available documents would convince even a common reader as to who the rulers of the Sikh States represent: the British or the Sikhs?

In fact, all available documents relating to 1857 make it absolutely clear that there were Sikh princely states professing Sikhism who actively supported the British in suppressing the “Mutiny”, (The Englishmen of the time consistently advocated the view that the revolt was started by the soldiers, till it was quelled). But that did not mean that they represented the Sikh community as such or that all the Sikhs agreed with their perception and activities. Let the historians be honest to say that, as in the case of many Hindu and Muslim Princely states, they were mainly led by their personal and political reasons. In fact, howsoever bitter it may be, the rulers of these Sikh States had completely disassociated themselves from any project related to Sikhism or Sikh interest.

Punjab in 1857
There were five theatres of rebellion: Punjab, Delhi, Oudh, Eastern and Central India. Of these five, Punjab never became a theatre of real serious warfare at all, though the outbreaks of the mutineers and occasional local uprising had to be suppressed by the troops and the events of which Punjab was a scene was less thrilling, less appalling in their character, than those which marked the course of the mutiny in other parts of the country. (Lt General McLeod Innes, ‘The Sepoy Revolt’, London, 1897, p.132; Rev J Cave Brown, ‘The Punjab and Delhi in 1857’ vol, p X)

Majority of the population in Punjab during 1857 revolt was Muslim. The Sikhs constituted only one third of the population. After the loss of political power and prestige in 1849, Sikhism itself was loosing its attraction. In 1857 the Sikhs could have aspired to regain power but had no leader, as members of erstwhile ruling power were either dead, imprisoned or deported. The last successor to the throne, Maharaja Duleep Singh was no longer a follower of Sikhism.

At the time of mutiny, there were about 60,000 soldiers in the army, mostly Sikhs. The Punjabi population, comprising of all sorts of martial races (Sikhs, Pathans, Muslims and the hill Rajputs) was naturally volatile and posed a great threat to the British rule in Punjab. In fact Punjab was a challenge and the Governor General, Lord Dalhousie, was keen that there should be peace in the Punjab. Punjab between the Sutlej and the Ravi (Lahore, Amritsar, Ferozepur, Jullundhur, Phillaur, Multan and Kangra) was the weakest link in the chain as it consisted of hereditary soldiers – Sikhs and Mohammedans with their own vested interests.

The shocking news of Meerut reached Lawrence on 11th May when he was on his way en route to rest at Muree, followed by that of Delhi. The next day, the Judicial Commissioner of Lahore was quick in disarming the native garrisons. However, as per plans by the Punjabi soldiers, the morning of 15th May was set to capture all strongholds from Ravi to Sutlej and to break the spine of British hold on Punjab. Similar plans were carried out at Amritsar, Ferozepur, Phillaur, Kangra and Multan. An honest perusal of the mutiny documents shows that in Punjab the Sikh masses had not reconciled to the British conquest of Punjab. They nursed a grievance that Duleep Singh, son of Maharaja Ranjit Singh had been converted to Christianity and taken away to England to perpetuate the British rule in Punjab.

The term Poorbia was adopted in the army of Maharaja Ranjit Singh to designate the Hindustani soldiers who came from Eastern India and found their way into the Sikh ranks. However, the fact is that during the Anglo-Sikh Wars, the Bengal army, in the Company’s service, helped the British to emerge victorious. At the same time, the Sikhs/Punjabis were always looking forward to gain their freedom.

Fredrick Engles warned the British that the Sikhs might attempt a restoration of their lost empire. He wrote: “The Sikhs are beginning to talk in a way, which bodes no good for 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 in 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, it is but one step with Eastern nations, a spark may kindle a blaze. (Maxs and Engles, ‘First Indian War of Independence, Moscow, 1960, cited in H S Noor, “Connecting the Dots in Sikh History”, Chandigarh, 2004, p 124). On the part of the British, it was a policy of “Divide and Rule” which was systematically employed both before and during the period of mutiny. Lord Canning, reiterating the 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 Musslaman Mosques or Brahmin Temples we do exactly what is wanting to band the two antagonist races against ourselves ...as we must rule 150 million people by a handful (more or less small) number of Englishmen, let us do it in a 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.” (Agha Humayun, Major (retd), Pakistan Defence Journal, December, 2000, cited in H S Noor, op. cit., p 127).

John Lawrence knew he could not sustain the Punjab situation for long. He had noticed the change coming in the Sikhs. What was hidden so far had come to surface in the Sikhs – they were slipping away. Again the situation in Punjab in the month of July, 1857, was deceptive, only to deteriorate in August. The wind from Delhi northwards encouraged the seed of rebellion and Punjab became a whirlwind. It had all the means to set the whole country on fire.

The charge of ‘betrayal’ against the Sikhs could be justified only if they ‘had given up’ or had been disloyal to, or had violated allegiance to a cause, person or trust they had at any time befriended or owned. As history knows, the Sikhs had never at any time befriended nor owned the cause of the ‘Poorbias’. The Sikhs had never at any time been privy to, or taken up the cause of the mutiny of 1857. They had never been taken into confidence. They had neither been consulted nor invited.

The Poorbia sepoys, as the soldiers of the Bengal army were then, and are still called in the Punjab, had not the moral courage to approach the Sikhs for cooperation and assistance against the British as they had themselves helped the British destroy the independent kingdom of Punjab and reduced it to British subjection in 1848-49. The Sikhs could not volunteer to help these erstwhile enemies of the Punjab, nor could they, for obvious reasons, espouse the cause of the Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah, whom the mutineers had raised to the throne. For over two centuries, the Sikhs had fought against the Mughal tyranny, and they could not now be persuaded to support an alliance which would have resulted in its reestablishment. (Ganda Singh, ‘Indian Mutiny of 1857 and the Sikhs’, in Navtej Singh (ed) “Rethinking 1857 and the Punjab”, Punjabi University, Patiala, p 103)

It is a well-known fact that the mutiny was exclusively confined to the Poorbia sepoys of the Bengal army. Territorially too, it was limited to Uttar Pradesh and its neighbourhood, while the remaining 80% of India was practically unaffected by it. Again there was no continuance and progress of the sepoy mutiny, due to the absence of a common cause, any planned scheme, or any unity of interest. (Ibid., p l04) It is a bitter truth that not only the people of Punjab, the Hindus, the Muslims and the Sikhs, kept aloof from the mutineers, but the people of Bengal, Madras, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Sindh, Rajasthan, Jammu and Kashmir and North West Frontier Province also did not join them. Some of them actually opposed them. Out of the three Presidency armies – Bengal, Madras and Bombay, it was only a part of the Bengal army that had mutinied. Evidently, the Poorbia soldiers had failed to win the sympathies of their own class of people. (Ibid., p 116)

In the words of an eminent historian, Ganda Singh, ‘The movement had nothing national or patriotic about it. The idea of India being one nation had yet to grow in the country. The conduct of the mutineers and their leaders in Delhi, Meerut and other places was not such as to convey to the others the impression of the mutiny being anything like national or of common interest and benefit.’ (Ibid, p 116)

The biggest mistake the mutineers made was to place on the throne as the Emperor of India, Bahadur Shah, who had been living on a pension of a 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.

Based on a fake book Sau Sakhi (hundred 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 rife among the followers of Guru Tegh Bahadur that they would attack Delhi with the help of white man and completely avenge the old insult. The British who seem to have initiated the prophesy were of course, most willing to gratify their new allies. In order to please the Sikhs, Capt Hudson “deliberately shot” and had killed (two sons and one grandson of Bahadur Shah) after having promised them safe conduct. Thereafter he ordered their bodies to be taken to Delhi and displayed in public at the same place where the head of Guru Tegh Bahadur had been exposed over a century and a half before. After three days, Hudson ordered the corpses to be removed for sanitary reasons.” (Salahauddin Malik, ‘The Punjab and the Indian Mutiny’, Panjab Past and Present, VIII, i-ii, Major WSR Hudson, ‘Twelve years of a Soldier’s life in India, p 302)

In the minds of Sikh soldiers, the British were, perhaps, never superior as they were aware that the British won the war against them due to the treachery of the Sikh Commander-in-Chief and his deputy, not through their fighting skill.

Even though Sikh soldiers, mostly of cis-Sutlej Sikh Rajas, 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 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 the cis-Sutlej Sikh Rajas, out of treaty obligations, with full realization that taking the side of the Mughal Emperor, for whom the Sikh had no love, would have meant political suicide for them, and they would loose their states, just as Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s empire had been swallowed. They also saw on the opposite side, the Poorbias who had become victorious over them, under the British not because they were better soldiers, but because their own treacherous Sikh Commander-in-Chief was in league with the enemy. Therefore, they fought against the Poorbias with a vengeance.

One is inclined to disagree that the revolt was purely a military mutiny or a national rebellion. It was a sepoy discontentment, political intrigues of the fallen dynasties and people’s disaffection. In this crisis, it is generally held that Punjab alone was peaceful and faithful to the British and stood like a rock. However, before examining the events and the impact of the Great Revolt on Punjab, one has to take into consideration, political, economic and military conditions of Punjab on the eve of the crisis.

Mutiny of 1857 was not the only time that the Indian Sepoys rebelled against the British officers. There had been several mutinies before Buxur in 1764, Vellore in 1806 and Barrackpore in 1824.

The Sikhs for centuries had borne a grudge against the city of Delhi where the ninth Guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur was martyred by Emperor Aurangzeb and their beloved leader Banda Singh Bahadur had met his sad end. It is said that the Sikhs had been longing for a chance to pillage the city. The Sikhs therefore, instead of embarrassing the British, who, only eight years ago, had deprived them of their sovereign position in the Punjab, were predisposed to serve their masters and share with them the plunder of Delhi. The British agents also preached the myth that Topeewala Sikhs (hat wearing Sikhs, that is, the British) would come from the sea and avenge his death. (Daljit Singh, Punjab and the Revolt of 1857, Ibid, Navtej Singh, (ed) Rethinking 1857 and the Punjab, Patiala, n d., p 202)

Delhi was recaptured from the rebellion on 16th September, 1857, mainly with the help of armed forces from Punjab. It was claimed that Punjab saved India, i.e., the British Empire. The fall of Delhi in fact was the turning point of the revolt of 1857. After this event the chiefs surrendered to the British, were disarmed and the soldiers joined the British ranks. Perhaps as a reward for these services, Sir John Lawrance was promoted to the rank of Governor in 1859, and later in 1864, he rose to the high rank of Governor General and Viceroy of India as Lord Lawrence.

The jury is still out, whether the British would have folded their carpet, if the Sikh States had not come to their rescue? In any case what would have been the history of India may be left to one’s imagination.

As regards the Sikhs and 1857, it is high time that in view of the recent researches, based on the available documents, the blame is put where it actually lies, instead of singling out the Sikh community as a whole.

It is gratifying to note that the historians in our own times have seen reason and adopted an impartial and secular approach in their re-assessment of the events of 1857.


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