In the annals of modern Indian history, the year 1757 was a watershed year when Robert Clive defeated Siraj ud - Daulah of Bengal at the Battle of Plassey. Exactly 100 years after this historical event, the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, or the first Indian War of Independence as Marx called it, cleared the path for the British monarchy to take over the reins of India from the East India Company, which had established its control over large parts of the country over the preceding 200 years.
Though most history texts describe this revolt, which originated from Delhi, Meerut and Lucknow, as seeking to re-establish Moghul rule, there is more to the uprising. Revisiting the Sepoy Mutiny on its 150th anniversary in 2007, an officer of West Bengal State Archives, Ananda Bhattacharya, took up the task of unearthing forgotten pieces of history to explore the role of Bengal in the 1857 revolt.
The revolt began early in 1857 with rumours that the catridges provided with the new Enfield Rifles issued to the sepoys of the British army were saturated with animal grease – the fat of a swine used to pollute one community and the fat of the cow to degrade another. While there has been a gamut of historical literature on the revolt, revisiting and exploring its various aspects, the author has undertaken a probe into contemporary accounts and dug out valuable information on hitherto unknown socio-economic aspects of the Great Revolt.
In this respect, the history books only mention the episode of Mangal Pandey, a Native Infantry sepoy from Barrackpore, who was hanged on April 8, 1857 for his active role in inciting sepoys against their British masters. In his findings, Mr. Bhattacharya points out that Bengal was not left behind in the uprising even though Calcutta was the Capital of British India.
“It is a marvel and a mystery that so many years should have passed away without an explosion. At last a firebrand was applied to what a single spark might have ignited; and in the course of a few weeks there was a general conflagration; but a conflagration which still bears more marks of accident than of deliberate conspiracy and incendiarism” (Edinburgh Review No. 216).
Being the chief British colonial city, Calcutta and its surrounding towns had native Infantry platoons in Dum Dum and Barrackpore. Though Bengal was not the epicentre of this great political upheaval, Eastern India was not immune to its impact. The mutinies in Bengal have from the beginning drawn the sympathy of the country. The mutineers were joined and aided by the civil population. In some regions of Bengal, the rebellion took on the attributes of a patriotic revolt against the British Raj. As in the case of Mangal Pandey (Barrackpore revolt), sometimes the leaders became folk heroes in the nationalist movement.
In the case of Dacca revolt, this book quotes a recollection of a witness who said that “without delay the prisoners were tried the next day and were hanged near Episcopalian Church, close to the maidan at Antaghar … these sepoys were hanged in the open, in the heart of the town, perhaps to create an impression on the mind of the people of Dacca”.
While the Native Infantry sepoys were echoing the revolt of Lucknow and Delhi, the British Indian Association, under the secretaryship of Iswar Chander Singh, viewed the happenings at Meerut and Delhi with disgust and horror of the soldiery at those stations and said that “it would not meet with support from the bulk of civil population or from any influential classes”. Three days after this resolution, another meeting under the chairmanship of Raja Radhakanta Deb was of the opinion that “it would be the duty of native portion of Her Majesty’s subjects to render the government every aid for the preservation of civil order and tranquillity”.
So was the case of Mohammedans of Calcutta such as Haji Mohammed Ispahane and Aga Mohammad Hassan. The Armenian residents in the city and the French inhabitants too echoed similar sentiments in support of the government and against the sepoys. In case of need, these groups said, “their services may be accepted for the common good and as a proof of their loyalty and attachment towards Her Majesty of England”.
This book also contains some unpublished documents based on the military despatches by Forrest and Mutiny papers of Kaye (preserved in the India Office Library, London). Some of them show a different light of Bahadur Shah and Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi about their roles in the Mutiny of 1857.
The concluding part of the book contains the deposition of Shaik Hedayut Ali, Subedar and Sirdar Bahadoor of Bengal Sikh Police Battalion, commanded by Captain T. Rattray which gives a broad background of the mutiny of the Bengal Army and the consequent rebellion in the Bengal Presidency. The details of reaction of British soldiers during this crisis shows the valiant minds of local leaders and the chicanery of the rulers who were living in palaces. This section is really an eye-opener.
In a nutshell, this book throws new light on the possibility of unearthing untold stories of our valiant fighters such as Mangal Pandey et al. In that sense, the attempt is a valid one.
BENGAL AND 1857 — Selections: Edited by Ananda Bhattacharya; K.P. Bagchi & Company, 286, B.B. Ganguli Street, Kolkata-700012. Rs. 495.