Leaders and followers
To fight the British, leadership and organisation
were required. For these the rebels sometimes
turned to those who had been leaders before the
British conquest. One of the first acts of the
sepoys of Meerut, as we saw, was to rush to Delhi
and appeal to the old Mughal emperor to accept
the leadership of the revolt.
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A D V E R T I S E M E N T
This acceptance of
leadership took its time in coming. Bahadur
Shah’s first reaction was one of horror and
rejection. It was only when some sepoys had
moved into the Mughal court within the Red Fort,
in defiance of normal court etiquette, that the
old emperor, realising he had very few options,
agreed to be the nominal leader of the rebellion.
Elsewhere, similar scenes were enacted
though on a minor scale. In Kanpur, the sepoys
and the people of the town gave Nana Sahib,
the successor to Peshwa Baji Rao II, no choice
save to join the revolt as their leader. In Jhansi,
the rani was forced by the popular pressure
around her to assume the leadership of the
uprising. So was Kunwar Singh, a local
zamindar in Arrah in Bihar. In Awadh, where
the displacement of the popular Nawab Wajid
Ali Shah and the annexation of the state were
still very fresh in the memory of the people,
the populace in Lucknow celebrated the fall of
British rule by hailing Birjis Qadr, the young
son of the Nawab, as their leader.
Not everywhere were the leaders people of the
court – ranis, rajas, nawabs and taluqdars.
Often the message of rebellion was carried by
ordinary men and women and in places by
religious men too. From Meerut, there were
reports that a fakir had appeared riding on an
elephant and that the sepoys were visiting him
frequently. In Lucknow, after the annexation of
Awadh, there were many religious leaders and
self-styled prophets who preached the
destruction of British rule.
Elsewhere, local leaders emerged, urging
peasants, zamindars and tribals to revolt. Shah
Mal mobilised the villagers of pargana Barout in
Uttar Pradesh; Gonoo, a tribal cultivator of
Singhbhum in Chotanagpur, became a rebel
leader of the Kol tribals of the region.
Rumours and prophecies
Rumours and prophecies played a part in moving
people to action. As we saw, the sepoys who had
arrived in Delhi from Meerut had told Bahadur Shah
about bullets coated with the fat of cows and pigs
and that biting those bullets would corrupt their
caste and religion. They were referring to the
cartridges of the Enfield rifles which had just been
given to them. The British tried to explain to the
sepoys that this was not the case but the rumour
that the new cartridges were greased with the fat of
cows and pigs spread like wildfire across the sepoy
lines of North India.
This is one rumour whose origin can be traced.
Captain Wright, commandant of the Rifle Instruction
Depot, reported that in the third week of January
1857 a “low-caste” khalasi who worked in the
magazine in Dum Dum had asked a Brahmin sepoy
for a drink of water from his lota. The sepoy had
refused saying that the “lower caste’s” touch would
defile the lota. The khalasi had reportedly retorted,
“You will soon lose your caste, as ere long you will
have to bite cartridges covered with the fat of cows
and pigs.” We do not know the veracity of the report,
but once this rumour started no amount of
assurances from British officers could stop its
circulation and the fear it spread among the sepoys.
This was not the only rumour that was circulating
in North India at the beginning of 1857. There was
the rumour that the British government had hatched
a gigantic conspiracy to destroy the caste and religion
of Hindus and Muslims. To this end, the rumours
said, the British had mixed the bone dust of cows
and pigs into the flour that was sold in the market.
In towns and cantonments, sepoys and the common
people refused to touch the atta. There was fear and
suspicion that the British wanted to convert Indians
to Christianity. Panic spread fast. British officers
tried to allay their fears, but in vain. These fears
stirred men to action. The response to the call for
action was reinforced by the prophecy that British
rule would come to an end on the centenary of the
Battle of Plassey, on 23 June 1857.
Rumours were not the only thing circulating at
the time. Reports came from various parts of North
India that chapattis were being distributed from
village to village. A person would come at night and
give a chapatti to the watchman of the village and ask
him to make five more and distribute to the next village,
and so on. The meaning and purpose of the distribution
of the chapattis was not clear and is not clear even
today. But there is no doubt that people read it as an
omen of an upheaval.
Why did people believe in the rumours?
We cannot understand the power of rumours and
prophecies in history by checking whether they are
factually correct or not. We need to see what they reflect
about the minds of people who believed them – their
fears and apprehensions, their faiths and convictions.
Rumours circulate only when they resonate with the
deeper fears and suspicions of people.
The rumours in 1857 begin to make sense when seen
in the context of the policies the British pursued from
the late 1820s. As you know, from that time, under the
leadership of Governor General Lord William Bentinck,
the British adopted policies aimed at “reforming” Indian
society by introducing Western education, Western ideas
and Western institutions. With the cooperation of
sections of Indian society they set up English-medium
schools, colleges and universities which taught Western
sciences and the liberal arts. The British established
laws to abolish customs like sati (1829) and to permit
the remarriage of Hindu widows.
On a variety of pleas, like misgovernment and the
refusal to recognise adoption, the British annexed
not only Awadh, but many other kingdoms and
principalities like Jhansi and Satara. Once these
territories were annexed, the British introduced their
own system of administration, their own laws and their
own methods of land settlement and land revenue
collection. The cumulative impact of all this on the
people of North India was profound.
It seemed to the people that all that they cherished
and held sacred – from kings and socio-religious customs
to patterns of landholding and revenue payment – was
being destroyed and replaced by a system that was
more impersonal, alien and oppressive. This perception
was aggravated by the activities of Christian
missionaries. In such a situation of uncertainty,
rumours spread with remarkable swiftness.
To explore the basis of the revolt of 1857 in some
detail, let us look at Awadh – one of the major centres
where the drama of 1857 unfolded.