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The First War of Independence?

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Fifty years before Meerut: The memorial to the Vellore Mutiny.
Fifty years before Meerut: The memorial to the Vellore Mutiny.

S. MUTHIAH

As the Government prepares to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the "First War of Independence," a critical look at this and the various other uprisings that preceded it.

CRORES have been sanctioned by the Government of India to celebrate through the coming year the 150th anniversary of the Mutiny, Revolt, Rebellion, Uprising, or whatever else it in fact was, of 1857 but which the Government has decided to call the First War of Independence, a description first used by Karl Marx. Southern historians, however, have been irked by the Government's descriptions to the extent that they have even taken the labelling to court though not much attention was paid to their plaint. They, however, have at different fora been stressing that the first revolts against the East India Company were in the South and that one of these could well be called, following the Government's line of thought, the First War of Independence. At a symposium held in connection with the recent South Indian History Congress, nine eminent historians, including the Co-ordinator, and this chronicler, brought back to mind the numerous mutinies and rebellions that had long preceded the events of 1857 in the eastern Indo-Gangetic Plain.

The first incidence

Mutinies by European officers there had been in the South and elsewhere from 1674, but the first mutiny by Indian troops was in Tellicherry early in 1780. This was more in the nature of a strike, when Carnatic battalions from the Madras Coast Infantry, expecting to be relieved by the troops from Bombay, discovered that no relief was on the way. A mutineer was blown from a gun and two suffered 1,000 lashes each. Later that year, in October, it was the Circars battalions of the Coast Infantry that mutinied in "Vizagapatam" when they were ordered to sail as reinforcements to Madras. Claiming to have been recruited only for local service, they had fired at their British officers, the three who were killed being the first Europeans to die at the hands of Indian mutineers. When the mutiny was put down, dire punishment followed. Several other such local mutinies by Indian troops had preceded 1857.None of these, however, were of the scale of the revolts by local powers in the South, the first being as early as 1757. When Mohammed Ali, the Nawab of the Carnatic, supported by the Company, attempted to extend his control over the "Madura" and "Tinnevelly" districts, the poligars (palayakarar = local chieftains) rebelled. The eastern poligars of Telugu origin, led by Kattabomman Nayak of Panchalamkurichi, and the western poligars, led by Puli Thevar of Nelkattamsevval, forged local alliances and then a grand alliance as they revolted against Mohammed Ali. Of necessity he had to seek John Company assistance, and, though battles were won and lost, the revolt was finally put down in 1761 by Yusuf Khan, who had been nominated the Governor of "Madura" and "Tinnevelly" in 1758 by the British, despite Nawab Mohammed Ali's objections. Yusuf Khan, a "Ramnad" Vellalar who had become a Muslim and had worked in his youth with the French in Pondicherry, became a mercenary and fought alongside the French in the siege of Arcot in 1751. Robert Clive, impressed by the charges Yusuf Khan led against the battlements of Arcot, recruited him and Yusuf Khan put his Nellore sepoys and cavalry at the disposal of the English. Over the next decade, as the Company fought the French in the Wars of the Carnatic, it was Yusuf Khan's guerrilla tactics, repeatedly cutting the French lines of supply, that did the French in, particularly during Lally's siege of Madras in 1758. Lally was to later describe the role of the Nellore Subedar's sepoys in these words: "They were like flies, no sooner beat off from one part, they came from another."

Unique case

Company officials considered Yusuf Khan "the bravest and ablest of all native soldiers that ever served the English." In recognition of this, he had in 1754 been made the first native Commandant of all Indian troops and been awarded the first medal to an Indian, a special gold one given to him by Stringer Lawrence, the "Father of the Indian Army". After breaking Lally's siege, he was made Governor of "Madura" and "Tinnevelly". His success in the role did not go down well with Mohammed Ali and the Nawab's machinations led Yusuf Khan to revolt in 1763. For over a year "Madura" was besieged by the English and the Nawab's forces, but the city fell in October 1764 only after Yusuf Khan had been betrayed from within. The English failed to keep their word that he would be tried in Fort St. George and handed him over to the Nawab who promptly hanged him. The English, it was stated, lost 700 Europeans through death or desertion, expended 40,000 cannon balls and 18,000 shells, and spent £ one million subduing the Khan Saheb!What made Yusuf Khan's rebellion special is not just the losses of the Company but the fact that for the first time the English had used the word "independent" in connection with any revolt or mutiny against it. The Madras Council in January 1763 stated that Yusuf Khan was "endeavouring by all possible methods to render himself INDEPENDENT." Three months later, Stringer Lawrence proclaimed, "Yusuf Khan has declared himself INDEPENDENT and considering the enterprising genius and ambitions of this man... it is necessary to put a stop to this usurpation... " Does the use of the word emphasised by me, then, make this the First War of Independence?Prof. K. Rajayyan, perhaps the doyen of historians in Tamil Nadu, however, terms the poligar rebellion of 1799, a much wider spread one than the uprising 40 years earlier, as the First War of Independence. Beginning with the defiance again displayed by Kattabomman and his brother Umathurai in "Tinnevelly", it spread to "Madura" and Sivaganga, where Vellai Marudu and his more forceful younger brother Chinna Marudu forged an alliance of poligars from "Tanjore" to Palayamkottai, with Kalayarkoil in Sivaganga as Chinna Marudu's citadel. This revolt, too, was in the end crushed, but while it lasted, till 1801, it was significant for the efforts Marudupandian made to spread it through the South by seeking, though unsuccessfully, the support of Travancore and Mysore.

The Vellore Mutiny

Also described as the First War of Independence has been the Vellore Mutiny of 1806 that broke out after orders had been issued to the Madras Infantry to remove caste marks and beards, trim moustaches and wear new headgear with leather decorations. Thomas Munro was to later say "the general opinion (was) that it was intended to make the sepoys Christians." And this was 50 years before Meerut!There were several other uprisings against the Company in the first half of the 19th century in what are the States of the South today. The ruler of Travancore in 1808-09 revolted against the Company trying to impress its authority on his territory. Between 1800 and 1857 there were 11 uprisings in Karnataka, Tontia Tope with a Mahratta alliance in 1800, Chennamma in 1824 and the Canara revolt in 1827 the most serious. In Andhra, the Chittoor poligars revolted in 1804 and in 1846 there was the Narasimha Reddy-led uprising in Cuddappah. All of them were crushed. But unlike what happened after 1857, the Company and its allies determinedly followed a scorched earth policy after almost every local rebellion in the South.What, however, needs to be remembered when looking at all these mutinies and rebellions as well as the rather larger-scale events of 1857 is that the idea of Indian nationalism did not exist at the time in the fragmented subcontinent. That nationalism had its beginnings only in the 1890s and flowered only in the early years of the 20th century. Thus, to call these tragic events wars for independence is to exaggerate. Even the mutineers of 1857 and their subsequent political allies did not march on Calcutta to drive out the dominant John Company; most of them hastened to Delhi to request the Mughal emperor, representative of another conquering power but himself subservient to the British, to lead them! Not seeking that leadership was nearly two-thirds of the sub-continent beyond the eastern Indo-Gangetic Plain. These outbreaks against authority, uprisings at best, were all local in nature, a consequence of felt-wrongs done to personal beliefs or due to the curtailment of personal power and wealth. A war for the independence of India none of them was.


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