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Of Mangal Pandey and the Madras Army

V.R. Raghavan

The Madras Army did not join the upheaval of 1857, but it had lit a fuse in Vellore.

THE STORY of Mangal Pandey, depicted by the film, has evoked considerable interest. The more important question is the military background to the rising in 1857. There are valuable insights into the manner in which British officers of the time handled incidents of military indiscipline. Even more interesting are the possible links between the defiance of soldiers like Mangal Pandey and events in the Madras Army of the time.

The Madras Army of the British East India Company came into being through the need to protect the Company's commercial interests. These were mostly untrained guards, with only some bearing arms. The French attack and capture of Madras in 1746 forced the British hand. In 1757, a hundred years before Mangal Pandey came on the scene, the British decided to raise well-trained military units to conduct operations, conquer territory, and force allegiance from local rulers.

The loosely organised military units were later combined into battalions with Indian officers commanding local troops. One of the first major actions fought by these troops was in the battle of Wandiwash in 1760. The troops were highly praised for their steadiness under fire. Earlier a good part of the force was sent to Bengal under young Clive, who made history and a personal fortune after the Battle of Plassey.

The Madras Army officers were in the early years very conscious of the soldiers' local customs, caste rituals, dress, and social hierarchy. Some leading landowners joined the Madras Army, one of whom is recorded as Mootoo (Muthu) Nayak from the nobility in Madura. As the army expanded and new officers came in, mostly from Company sources, the leadership style and care of the men changed for the worse. The most famous incident in the Madras Army was the Vellore mutiny. Looting was an organised activity among the East India Company officers. Lord Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington, was in the Seringapatnam battle. In keeping with the times, he laid down the share of every officer and sepoy from the loot that was organised after Tipu was killed. The defeat of Hyder Ali and the death of Tipu with the most widespread looting of Seringapatnam rankled with Indians at all levels. After Tipu Sultan was killed, his two sons were held in British custody in Vellore Fort.

In 1806, it was decreed that soldiers would no longer wear caste marks, and would change to wearing headdress akin to that of the British. There were other reasons for resentment: changes in pay and permission to keep families, the use of soldiers for menial duties, and doing away with the appointments of senior Indians known as `Black Commandants.' Realising the anger this had caused, the Commander-in-Chief, Sir John Craddock, advised Bentinck, Governor of Madras, to cancel the orders. The 32-year-old Bentinck refused. The troops, seething under the orders perceived as unjust and affecting their religious practices, and angry at inconsiderate officers, decided to march to Vellore and free Tipu Sultan's sons. In the process they killed British officers, and shot sick British soldiers in their hospital beds. On reaching the Fort, they nearly took control of it from the outnumbered British. One British survivor escaped to bring the news to Arcot. An enterprising officer rushed to Vellore with a small number of British troops, blasted his way into the Fort with gunfire, and rounded up the rebels.

Nearly 350 Madras Army soldiers were killed and shot. Many were court-martialled and sent to life imprisonment. The summary punishment of blowing up nearly a hundred soldiers by tying them to guns had a devastating impact in the Madras Army. Some attribute the absence of mutinous behaviour in 1857 in the Madras Army to this one action. On the other hand, Governor Bentinck was recalled. Even more important, new rules prohibiting tampering with soldiers' religious and social customs were issued. The flogging of soldiers, which was common, was abolished.

Despite this, in 1824, General Paget who was commanding the Bengal Army set in motion a series of events that confirmed the Indian sepoy's distrust and anger. The Bengal Army had a large percentage of Brahmin soldiers, who were preferred by the British as competent and dependable. These high caste troops were particular about their rituals and social standing. On a minor administrative issue, he ordered fire to be opened on the 47th Native Infantry, killing nearly 100 sepoys. The next day he held a summary trial and sentenced another 40 sepoys to death, because they refused to go to Burma.

Crossing the ocean was seen by soldiers as amounting to losing caste, requiring an elaborate purification ceremony. Such disregard for the soldiers' personal needs had built up a widespread sense of anger and helplessness among the soldiery. The Vellore mutiny of the Madras Army and its brutal outcome had been known in the Bengal Army, through word of mouth and the never-failing soldiers' grapevine.

A mutiny is collective disobedience and violation of military discipline by enlisted men. It results from loss of faith and trust between the leaders and the led. Disregard for the soldier's well-being, arising from the expanding commercial and profit needs of the East India Company, prepared the ground for 1857.

A Mangal Pandey and others like him were waiting to happen. The Madras Army did not join the upheaval of 1857, but it had lit a fuse in Vellore.

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