Understanding 1857

Irfan Habib

THE Revolt of 1857 had as its opponent what was the largest colonial power of the world. It has, therefore, a notable place in the history of Imperialism, and no study of the Revolt can be separated from that of the emergence and internal mechanics of Imperialism. In a letter (27 October 1890) to Conrad Schmidt, Engels noted that while colonial powers before 1800 aspired to capture sources of imports at the lowest cost, thereafter following the Industrial Revolution, they essentially sought markets for their own industrial manufacturers. In respect to India, Marx (New York Daily Tribune, 11 July 1853) dated the change to 1813, when the Charter Act threw Indian markets open to British manufactures by abolishing the East India Company’s commercial monopoly. The results of this invasion of ‘Free Trade’ for India’s own artisanal manufactures were disastrous. In Capital, I, (ed. Dona Torr, p.461), Marx noted that after 1833, there came about “the wholesale extinction of Indian handloom weavers”, amounting to a “destruction of the human race.” It must be remembered that this new source of misery was in addition to the increasing burden of ‘Tribute’, extracted by Britain through excessive over-taxation of the country. Marx had seen in such Tribute a special source of primitive accumulation for British capital; and this too was, therefore, an inseparable element of the new regime of Free Trade, how much individual Free Traders like Bright may have criticised it.

Not only was ‘Free Trade’ a vehicle for the conquest of external markets by British capitalism, a new impetus was now given to world-wide expansion of British power, so as to impose ‘Free Trade’ on the whole world. ‘Imperialism of Free Trade’ is how this new aggressive stage in British colonialism has been described by British historians, J. Gallagher and R. Robinson in an essay of this title (1953). Marx himself had never believed in the sincerity of the ‘peace cant’ of the British Free Traders (Tribune, 11 July 1853) and spoke specifically of the military means that were adopted for “securing the monopoly of the Indian market to the Manchester Free Traders”. (Tribune, 30 April 1859).

The expansion of British power, both world-wide and within the Indian subcontinent imposed a still further burden on India: Annexations of princely states came one after another: Sind, Punjab, Nagpur, Satara, Jhansi, Awadh, all went into Britain’s grasp between 1844 and 1856. In each state large sections from courtiers to common people lost their means of livelihood. Payment had to be made in blood as well. The Bengal Army became a major instrument that was put to use for fulfilling the sub-continental and global ambitions of British imperialism. The bones of thousands of its Sepoys lay scattered in the fields of Afghanistan, Sind, Punjab, Burma, Crimea and China, and no end to the blood-letting was in sight when the storm burst over the greased cartridges in 1857.

We can thus see in 1857 a critical juncture in the history of emerging Imperialism: the pressures it relentlessly exerted on the largest colony in the world, provoked, finally, an anti-colonial outbreak, unique for its scale in the whole of the nineteenth century. The rebellion pitted against the colonial regime over 120,000 trained professional soldiers from the Bengal Army, the most modern army east of Suez, with tens of thousands of other armed rebels, reinforcing and aiding them. In terms of the area affected, nearly a fourth of the population of British India (some five crores of people) passed under rebel control.

That the Revolt of 1857 had its roots in the pressures exerted on India by the Imperialism of Free Trade can hardly be denied; but the depth and breadth of the upheaval also raises the question of the classes and groups that became involved in it, and of their grievances and aspirations.

In his Discovery of India (1946) Jawaharlal Nehru wrote most feelingly about the slaughter and suffering imposed on the people of India by the British during and after the Revolt; and he compared the ‘racialism’ exhibited by the British to that of Hitler. Yet he simultaneously believed that the uprising was essentially “a feudal outburst, headed by the feudal chiefs and their followers, and aided by the widespread anti-foreign sentiment” (p.324). Nehru repeats this characterisation at the end of his account of the rebellion as well (p.328: “essentially a feudal uprising, though there were some nationalistic elements in it”).

Such characterisation, though perhaps natural with the limited amount of evidence available on 1857 at the time Nehru was writing, needs now to be reconsidered.

In the first place, the perception inexplicably overlooks the role of the Bengal Army sepoys. Coming largely from peasant and small land-owing families, they had been drilled and trained in modern warfare and, often themselves literate, were attuned to the mode of British administration with its committees and councils. They had thus no “feudal” attachments that we can think of. Yet, they remained from the beginning to the end, the firmest single component among the ranks of the Rebels. During the rebellion, they asserted their ‘democratic’ attitude by electing their officers (with, often enough, largely Hindu regiments electing Muslims, and vice versa). They formed ‘councils’ to govern their affairs, and in Delhi established the famous ‘Court of Administration.’ If their officers gave themselves designations, they were those of a modern army; such as “Captains”, “Colonels” and “Generals”!

Another class, which we tend to overlook, is that of the educated in the towns, who were increasingly affected by modern ideas. While it is true that there was nothing comparable to the Bengal Renaissance in the Hindustani-speaking zone, at both Delhi and Agra colleges had been established, imparting modern education. In People’s Democracy (April 23-29), Shireen Moosvi has given an account of weekly newspapers coming out in Delhi during the time it was held by the rebels (May-September 1857). Her account shows clearly that the rebel newspapers addressed themselves to people at large, and were not mere Mughal court bulletins.

Let us take a cursory view of the Delhi Urdu Akhbar (June 21,1857), where under the heading “Seize this Opportunity”, it tells its readers that the English had been depriving India of its wealth, by taking it away to England, and remarks upon how the new rebel administration, as it extended its control over “districts” would open opportunities for men of “education and capacity.” It calls upon the scions of the old aristocracy to leave their ways of idleness and take to various trades and crafts. It especially commends the ironsmiths who were manufacturing “rifles, English guns and Turkish pistols.” Its appeal to Hindus and Muslims to fight the English does, indeed, make use of the slogan of saving both religions from the onslaught of the alien English, but it increasingly shifts to patriotic sentiments, addressing “fellow countrymen” and glorying in the exploits of “the Indian Army” (Fauj-i-Hindustani). Modern methods of propaganda were also employed: a pamphlet containing an appeal to Hindus and Muslims was separately printed to be sold at a quarter Rupee per copy (issues of 5 and 12 July). Interestingly, the paper’s hero consistently is not any of the Mughal princes, but the brusque “republican” sepoy leader, the Commander-in-Chief, “General” Bakht Khan. Clearly, the weekly’s readership consists not just of the dependants of the Mughal court, but also a much larger educated population, which was being invited to support the rebel cause by enticing vistas of what they would gain from an Indian (not necessarily, a mere Royal) regime. The general slaughter by way of retribution carried out by the English in Delhi after its fall in September proved that in English eyes the rebel appeals to the Delhi citizenry for support had not fallen on deaf ears.

Beyond the educated class, there were the artisans whose callings the Delhi Urdu Akhbar in its issue of 21 June had so much commended. These included many who had lost their employment owing to the competition of British manufactures, especially textiles. Firuz Shah, the famous rebel leader, in his Proclamation of August 25, 1857 – which reads surprisingly like a modern political party’s programme – makes a special promise of giving employment to the weavers and other kinds of artisans rendered unemployed by English importations. Such artisans formed another class that turned out to be strongly sympathetic to the rebellion. Syed Ahmad Khan then a British agent, in his contemporary memoir of the Revolt in district Bijnor (Sarkashi-i-zila‘ Bijnor) speaks sneeringly of how the sepoys and professional soldiers of the local rebel leader, Mahmud Khan were reinforced by “cotton-carders and weavers, who had hitherto handled only yarn, and never a sword.”

While we are discussing the outlook of the rebel press at Delhi, it may be mentioned that none of the extant issues of the three weekly newspapers display the slightest sign of Wahabi influence. Iqtidar Alam Khan’s critique of the theory of a large Wahabi role in 1857 is going to be published in a subsequent issue, so more need not be said here about it. The practical absence of theocratic influence on rebel leaders, despite the constant cry of religion in danger is, indeed, remarkable.

As for peasant support for the rebellion this became so immediately apparent that already in his article in the Tribune (16 September 1857), Marx was drawing a comparison between the Indian Revolt and the French Revolution of 1789, on this, very basis. The peasants were hard-pressed by the Mahalwari system of land-tax (a consequence of the British pressure for Tribute), and the Revolt gave them an opportunity to throw off the tax-collector. The late Eric Stokes deserves much gratitude for his detailed studies of peasant participation in the Revolt. To him is owed the telling quotation from the report of Mark Thornhill (15 November 1858), where that official held “the agricultural labouring class”, i.e. peasants, rather than “the large proprietors”, as having been “the most hostile” to the continuance of British rule during the Revolt.

That large numbers of zamindars, the bulk of Oudh taluqdars and some princely courts threw their lot with the Rebels is, on the other hand, quite undeniable; and Talmiz Khaldun’s suggestion that the 1857 Revolt was developing into “a peasant [and, therefore, anti-feudal] war against indigenous landlordism and foreign-imperialism” was rightly contested by P.C. Joshi in whose centenary volume on 1857 the essay had appeared. Much of the visible rebel leadership came from these elements: the reluctant Bahadur Shah Zafar, Nana Sahib and Tantia Topi, Hazarat Mahal and her entourage, Khan Bahadur Khan of Bareilly, Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi, and Kunwar Singh and Amar Singh of Jagdishpur, all came from what one can conveniently characterise as feudal classes. Most of them had their own grievances, over lost rights or rebuffed claims. But it needs to be borne in mind that resistance and struggle, in which support had more and more widely to be sought from among the common people, could not but force fundamental changes of outlook. One may look, for instance at two proclamations of Birjis Qadr, whom the rebels declared to be the ruler of Awadh. The first was the proclamation of Rebel Rule at Lucknow, printed in Urdu and Hindi side by side, and issued in June 1857. Addressed to the “Zamindars and the Common People of this Country” it blames the English for their attack on the religion of both Hindus and Muslims, on their seizures of land, and on their disregard of the dignity of the higher classes by treating them at par with the meanest! There is no explicit reference to India, in the main text and, quite clearly, the interests of the landed aristocracy are given primacy. Contrast this with the last appeal to the Indian people in reply to Queen Victoria’s Proclamation of November 1858. In this Appeal issued on behalf of Birjis Qadr, India (Hindustan) is in the forefront. The story is briefly narrated of how the British by force and fraud have acquired territory after territory in India from Tipu’s Mysore to Dulip Singh’s Panjab. The rebels are not to believe in Victoria’s honeyed words, but to continue the struggle. Victoria’s Proclamation shows, it asserts, that if British rule continues, Indians would remain mere hewers of wood and drawers of water. The petty matters, such as the loss of hierarchical dignity, are here quietly forgotten.

One must recognize that the overall historical orientation of the 1857 Revolt cannot be established in definitive terms for the simple reason that, because of its ruthless suppression, there is no way of knowing how it would have developed should success have come its way. But some preliminary suggestions can still be made.

Given the crucial role of the Bengal Army sepoys in initiating and carrying the Revolt forward, the Revolt at least drew on one element of the ‘regenerative’ process, that Marx had spoken of, in his seminal articles of 1853 on British rule. The Sepoys did not at all belong to the old world of princes and landlords. Significant also are the early traces of modern ideas and perceptions that we see in rebel journalism of Delhi and certain proclamations of the rebels. The fact that these modern or quasi-modern elements could make common cause with princely courts, zamindars, unemployed artisans and overtaxed peasants was due to a particular combination of circumstances created partly by that transformation of colonialism itself, with a discussion of which this essay had opened. To characterise the revolt as either “feudal” or “bourgeois” would be unhistorical. The time for one was past, the time for the other had not come. Such discussions have their place in attempting any understanding of how 1857 came about. But what cannot be disputed is either the sheer patriotism of so many, whatever class they came from, or their undying defiance in the face of so brutal and ferocious a retribution as the English visited upon them. The memory of the Rebels’ sacrifices in what they believed so ardently to be the cause of their country will remain ever green in our people’s memory — so long, as the royal poet of 1857 said, as “the country of India endures.”

SOURCE: People’s Democracy May 13, 2007

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