'When the sun rises the moon leaves sight. When true knowledge illuminates ignorance is eradicated.' - Sri Guru Nanak Dev Jee - Ang 791 SGGS

Something different to the usual Articles on This is a lengthy academic article on the Indian Mutiny of 1857. It has been chosen to feature on because it demonstrates the power and strategy of the Indian Media to paint very idyllic pictures and distory history. The Sikh nation has been subjected to such strategy and continues to do so. The author wishes to remain anonymous.

Between 1757 and 1857, to what extent was there a nationalist idea of an Indian Nation?


Winston Churchill succinctly summarizes the conflict of historical opinion on “The First war of Independence” as being “between the retired Civil Servant, for whom the Mutiny was simply a popular military rising, a momentary ripple on the placid waters of the British Raj, and the young Indian Nationalist, who saw in the rising the first stage in the struggle for independence” - to little astonishment there is “very little in common” amongst these. Although this remains contentious it is difficult to deny the impact, whether intentional or not, the Indian uprisings after Plassey (1757) had on the whole Independence movement thereafter. The scale of this impact creates another ambiguous area for debate but its existence is widely acknowledged as being genuine. Historians such as Guhu have made the comment that in the least the developed anti-colonialism. Nationalism despite its appeal seems very far reached as prior to its British annexation “India” was only a conglomeration of princely or tribal states containing society further dissected by religion, caste and other such social barriers. As Dr. Rudrangshu points out for many of the participants “mulk (country) was his small village….his watan (nation), a small plot of land that his father and forefathers cultivated. These states would not unite unless they sought mutual interest, and in reality they never really did against the British and whether the existence of nationalism in isolated rebellions existed is questionable.

When looking at Post-Plassey India it is the rebellion of 1857 that is of greatest historical documentation, its significance is resonant in many primary and contemporary historical accounts. Many of the very first mutineers in 1857, if not the majority were Hindu Brahmins like Mangal Pandey - the famous hero of nationalist propaganda. For a Brahmin purity of mind, soul and especially of the body were the tenets of his life. Rules such as if a Brahmin was to cross water or if he was to eat meal or share a meal with a “shudra” his soul would become soiled and he would no longer remain a Brahmin. These rules were very important to the Brahmin community. W. H. Fitchett extensively discusses the dogmatic nature of the Brahmins in his work on the mutiny . Surely people of such dogmatic nature would definitely not respond or show support to the call from Dehli from the figurehead ruler of the now crumbling Mughal Empire. The Brahmins had been faced with oppression and had conversion forced upon them for nearly the last two centuries by the Mughals and thus their involvement in the future of the mutiny was relatively minor due to their hatred of Mughals. In fact the prejudice of the Brahmins is said to be non-exclusive as it was towards anyone non-Brahmin be it the British, the Muslims or the lower castes and thus they could never unite with the rest of “India” as it has now called. Secondly the incident that is said to have triggered the likes of Pandey – the greasing of the grenades with beef and pig fat is historically unverifiable and many historians have reduced it to a rumour or if true an untended mistake. The rationality behind the British deliberately invoking religious offence from their forces is highly unlikely. Why it roused anger and mutinous sentiment in the battalion is understandable and obvious distrust of the polluted firanghi superiors led to the events that followed. Fitchett the Australian journalist-cum-minister goes as far to suggest Pandey and his companions were intoxicated with bhang (opium) and that boosted their courage. Furthermore the vicious Christian Evangelical missionary activity which attempted to reform the “heathen idolater” natives of India would of only heightened hate and suspicion in this circumstance. There was a common concern amongst the higher classes of the British attempts to eradicate caste and heritage but the Brahmins were the highest caste and their hyper-paranoia likewise highest. “The prohibition of Sati (burning women on the funeral pyres of their husbands); the putting a stop to female infanticide; the execution of Brahmins for capital offences; the efforts of missionaries and the protection of their converts; the removal of legal obstacles to the remarriage of women; the spread of western and secular education generally and, more particularly, the attempt to introduce female education, were causes of alarm and disgust to the Brahmins” . Despite the specifics of the events of Awadh the “grenade incident” has become the subject of many patriotic films, nationalistic plays etc.. The murders that occurred after the court martial of the third regiment were probably a reaction to just that: the court martial and not a reaction to the religious offence. This shows protest and resentment and a reaction to the fear of change instilled in the conservative higher-class Hindu population and this cannot necessarily be interpreted as a calculated act towards Indian Independence. In simple terms as they were not fighting for the independence of the nation of India, neither was this glamorous event in reality a historically momentous that sprouted the first seeds nationalism.

Secondly, it must be understood that this was not the only rebellion that broke out under the rule of the East India Company and later the British Empire. There were rebellions before, after and quite notably there was not one rebellion during this period of time but several in different regions. The reputed Indian Historian R.C Majumdar has said: “the so called First National War (that of 1857) is neither First, nor National, nor War of Independence” . Examining the idea that the mutiny was not “National” requires evidence of groups not participating in the mutiny, which were part of the supposed Indian Nation. The main supporter of the idea of a nation at that time is in R.D Savarkar’s book ‘The Indian War of Independence-1857’ and even he cites reference to the example of the “treachery of the Sikhs” . The changing role and attitude of the Sikh’s from two Anglo-Sikh Wars to the Indian Rebellion of 1857 shows signs of a non-national conflict. It was surprising, seeing as the Sikhs had developed hero-like admiration (which continues to this day) for the likes of Bhai Maharaj Singh , the generals of the Second Sikh War and had previously gone to the extent of forming an unnatural alliance with the Afghan Dost Muhammed Khan would now be a pinnacle in the British success of the suppression of the Mutiny. This is evidence to suggest that the conflict in 1857 was dominated by regional/historical context for example the Sikhs took the side of the British for multifaceted reasons but historians have suggested mainly because of their racial hatred of the “Poorbea” Hindus of Bengal which had contributed greatly to their defeat in the Anglo Sikh War along side their hatred of their historical oppressors: the Mughals. There have been some suggestions of the Indian Nation in colonial India, as portrayed by modern Indian Cinema and literature and the evidence for this comes in the form of the Bharatvarsh/Aryavart argument and gives us evidence of the concept of a India in the past, the rich united heritage, which had been carefully mythologized by the past rulers to use to their advantage, this meant that there was still some basic sense of patriotism, whether that was nationalism is a debatable. However this feeling was almost exclusive to the majority Hindu Population as they were patriotic by religious obligation. Even Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime-minister of India supports the idea of a “lack of nationalist feeling which might have bound the people of India together” despite his obvious nationalist sentiments. Further evidence to demonstrate Nehru’s notion comes in the form that “The early activities of the sepoys in Delhi and its neighborhood were repugnant not only to the civil population of the country but also to the non-Poorbia soldiers, the Rajputs, the Mahrattas, the Madrasis, the Garhwalis, the Gorkhas, the Dogras, the Punjabi Musalmans, the Sikhs and the Pathans” . Nearly all of these ethnic groups come from strong martial traditions and many of them considered themselves as nations in themselves and were detached from the Sepoy rebellion making the rebellion far from national.

Whether the British had a policy of religious conversion that posed a threat to the Hindu’s and Muslims of pre-1857 Indians is questionable. Accusations of conversion techniques have included those towards the likes of H.H. Wilson (1786-1860), “the greatest Sanskrit scholar of his time” . He translated both from English To Sanskrit and vice-versa and upon his translation of the Bible the renowned German researcher on Hinduism Klaus K. Klostermaier cites Wilsons interests as being “to promote the translation of Scriptures into Sanskrit, so as to enable his countrymen to proceed in the conversion of the natives of India to the Christian religion”. Summarizing the policy of the missionary activity in India he progresses to write “Although the East India Company did not allow Christian Missionaries into its territories and maintained a policy of religious non interference, Western Christians considered India as a mission field and tried to employ Indian studies for this purpose” Whether the vastly illiterate population of India cared about this is doubtable but it does demonstrate evidence of British religious interference and opinion on the Native religions of India. Commenting on this an Indian Religious leader, a senior disciple of what in the West has become known as the Hare Krishna Movement, formally known as ISKON says that Wilson and British contemporaries “felt that the Christian culture should simply replace the Vedic Culture” . The religious and cultural policy of the British is important to examine in order to see whether the mass demonization of British Imperial Rule that has been publicized by the modern day largely Indian media carries any weight and the validity of this has implications on the various mutinies and the motivation of the mutineers. If attempts to “replace” Hinduism were not enough, the official court language was changed to English in 1835 by the then Governor on being convinced by the famous document: Macaulay’s Minute (on Indian education). The aim of this was said to be “promoting and establishing a permanent position for the use of English language in Indian educational institutions”, again whether this concerned the majority non-educated mutineers is highly unlikely but it is almost certain that this would of affected the climate in its anti-British Sentiment. Therefore to assert as many Indian historians have that this was a British ruse to diminish Hindu/Indian identity and subsequently a cause for a nationalist idea for an Indian Nation which Sarvakar and fellow nationalist Historians claim is far fetched to say the least. The actions of the British were seen as arrogant, but many of them were due to ill advice and lack of understanding of one the worlds religious conflict/sensitivity hotbeds. The nationalist idea of an Indian idea is being manipulated as a political for India radical parties such as the RSS and BJP.

Although other mutinies of this era have been overshadowed or are simply too isolated and insignificant, The Vellore Mutiny of 1806 still continues to hold its place in History. Traditionally the cause behind the Vellore is said to be the change in dress code in 1805, “It is ordered by the regulations that a native soldier shall not mark his face to denote caste, or wear earrings when dressed in his uniform; and it is further directed, that at all parades, and on all duties every soldier of the battalion shall be clean-shaved on the chin. It is directed, also, that uniformity shall, as far as is practicable, be preserved in regard to the quantity and shape of the hair on the upper lip”. As evident from the detail of the regulations the British Authority was obviously concerned with the appearance of the Sepoys, however, whether this was another British ploy to degenerate the native culture is again a matter of historical debate. Every element of the changes were offensive according to historical opinion, although some claim that the history of Vellore and its connection with the imprisoned Tipu Sultan is why the situation became so inflamed: “These ill advised changes might possibly have been accomplished with occasioning any serious disturbance, had a cordial understanding subsisted between the British and native officers. But this was not the case; and the consequence of alienation existing between them was, that the sous of Tipoo Sultans, resident at Vellore” . Regardless of the nature of the intention of the British both major religious groups (the Hindus and Muslims) were offended probably due to their own prejudices and fear of being converted, “The new turban resembled the pariah drummer’s cap and could be called a top, or hat, just like the headgear of the equally polluting Europeans. The stock was leather and offensive to Both Muslims and Hindi. The belts were said to resemble crosses. Depriving Muslims of their beards and earrings and Hindus of their caste mark was already offensive”. The first events of 1857 in Awadh have largely been attributed to Brahmins however Vellore shows evidence of equal or greater Muslim reprisal. It is difficult to understand that in Vellore, where the consequences of the mutiny have been described as those of “massacre”, why the British were simply so ignorant. Vellore demonstrates again religious and cultural dogma as opposed to the idea of a nation, it suggests traces of the implementation of British Policy to undermine the native heritage or an attempt to change or replace it however there was not a nationalist reprisal by the sepoys.

However 1857 and before then 1806, both years of sepoy are mutiny are dominated by just that: the actions and responses to and from soldiers. One could call these and say others like. The Batta Mutiny, which was all-in-all dispute over wage payment by Bengali Soldiers : Soldier Rebellions. Arguably, the Agrarian Historian Eric Stokes has gone to the extent of calling the rebellion of 1857 “A Peasant’s Revolt”. However Peasant and Citizen revolts existed prior to 1857 and possibly within them lies the first expression of an Indian Nation because it is citizens rather than paid servicemen for the British Army which can constitute a Nation. The first of these to be documented well enough to examine is said to be the Sanyasi Revolt. Sanyasi is the word for Hindu Ascetics and because the involvement of Muslim Men in the same occupation some have coined it the Sanyasi-Fakir Revolt to acknowledge the Muslims Fakirs involved. Essentially it was a response to annoyance by the British and the Bengal Famine (1759-1760). Traditionally Sanyasis enjoyed collecting food and money from the land-owners but under British annexation and land tax increases, the tax increased fivefold, from ten to fifty percent and the Zamindars could no longer donate to the Muslim and Hindu holymen. This resulted in the looting of British godowns and standing crops by holy ascetics and has become known as the sanyasi revolt. It resulted in suppression by Warren Hastings, who went to the extent of using Gurkhas to put down about 150 Sanyasis. In isolation this is neither a demonstration of nationalism nor a revolt of significance however the perception would be as with other religious movements that the Sanyasis were both victims and martyrs, this was at least true right up to the independence of India in 1947. For the British it was just eradicating crime however peasants were at disgust to British land control policy and this lead to “this anti-colonial tendency of the peasant movements was evident most clearly in the Khasi resistance in Sylhet (1829-31), resistance by Lallaji Patel, a village headman, in the Satmahals (Malwa, 1831) and the Khond insurrection (1846) in Ganjam.” The trend of attributing the revolts as being peasant revolts in nature comes first from the letters of Karl Marx and Engels and then to the founders of the Communist party in India. To look at this in conjunction with 1857 the changes in Land polices were in both cases highly resented. 1857 itself could be seen as a response to the annexation of provinces under the “The Doctrine of the Lapse”, which in theory was to be used rarely in circumstances where their no one to govern and the rulers were "manifestly incompetent or died without a direct heir” but through this company was adding about 4 million pounds a year from the revenue generated through states annexed in this way. . For Dalhousie the apparent genius behind this it would lead to the “annexation of peace” however this was proven wrong in states like Jhansi and Awadh evidently in 1857.

The question still remains however that if the mutinies and rebellions upto and including 1857 were not for Indian independence then what collective motivation they shared. “Sir J. W. Kaye called it “a battle of blacks against the White.” L.E.R rees considered it to be “a war of fanatic religionists against Christians.” Taleboys Wheeler called this to the “Asiatic Nature”. T.R. Holmes regarded it as “a war between barbarianism and Civilization.” The problem is that these mutinies were not simply religious fanaticism or the acclaimed peasant insurgency that Historians like Stokes and Marxist Historians wrote about, really they a lot a less. Any revolution comes about from multifaceted reasons and this was the same, but whether even to call the series of anti-colonial acts that occurred in the years 1757 to 1857 as revolutionary is a bit incredulous acknowledging that they brought about no immediate change or effect, were quickly and efficiently dispersed, and there is far from historical consensus about their significance. It was a religious movement for the Brahmins, an opportunity to plunder and regain land for the poor, a chance to rebel against the government for others in but in fact not many of them were seeking any form of National Independence. Regional conflict is what this era was dominated by. In reference to what has been accepted as the largest mutiny (1857) Dr Ganda Singh talks about “The sepoys of Oudh who fought for the restoration of their own king, Nana Sahib and the Rani of Jhansi pressed their own claims, Khan Bahadur Khan, a grandson of Hafiz Rahamat Khan, set himself up as Viceroy or Naib Nazim of Rohilkhand. The Banjaras of Saharanpur set up a king of their own. The Gujjars had different rajas in different areas. Fatva was proclaimed as the king of the Gujjars. A Devi Singh proclaimed himself king of fourteen villages in the Mathura district. Similarly a Mahimaji Wadi, a dacoit, and Belsare, a Maratha Brahmin, were attracted to the rebel camp to improve their fortunes.” Furthermore Abul Kalam Azad A renowned Indian Muslim Scholar, politican and freedom Fighter writes: “With a few honorable exceptions - of whom the most distinguished were Ahmadullah and Tatya Tope - most of the leaders who took part in the struggle did so for personal reasons. They did not rise against the British till their personal interests had been damaged. Even after the revolt had begun, Nana Sahib declared that if Dalhousie's decisions were reversed and his own demands met, he would be willing to come to terms.” This all demonstrates how regional the conflict was and really it becomes more evidence against the idea of the expressions of rebellious behavior as being calls for a nation as seen through nationalist eyes. To understand this time period we must look beyond the Bollywood Driven sensationalist recreation and study the socio-economic background and the religious turmoil that existed before 1857 and in fact the issues that the Indian population were having at the time were for the majority the same as they had historically faced or sometimes better in terms of religious oppression and freedom of thought, the reason for the rebellion was the new found confidence in people in moving from the terror driven state they were previously staying in under the Mughals. The reason for the rebllions were the natural human tendency to dislike change, even if it was positive and accompaniment from the British to assert their superiority and cultural identity over the Indians. The railways, the schools and the churches, the language, the dress code and court procedure implemented by the British continues to thrive in 21st Century India but during the period of 1757-1857 the Indians felt intimidated and second class towards the British elite due to their never before seen sophistication and apparent advancement and much of the conflict was due to responses to change and opportunities to further personal or group motives.


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