Thursday, August 11th, 2022 01:35:39

The lesser knowns of 1857 Uprising

By Dr Uddipan Mukherjee
Updated: June 22, 2021 2:06 pm

“There is nothing in the past that in certain circumstances cannot provoke passions in the present.”

Arnaldo Momigliano [Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Explorations in Connected History, p 80]

Commendable as it is, Bipan Chandra and other authors flag off their celebrated book entitled “India’s Struggle for Independence” with the Uprising of 1857 as the ‘First Major Challenge’ to the British rule. The authors however, narrate a history which is more or less known to all and sundry. From Bahadur Shah, Rani Laxmibai and Begum Hazrat Mahal to Kunwar Singh of Arrah, the authors as if re-iterate and re-emphasise popular notion, amplify school-level history text books and aid the making of fictional scripts of the Bollywood film industry. To highlight the cause of disgruntlement of the soldiers (termed Sepoys by the Britishers) of East India Company (EIC) to be the economic rationale of arbitrary taxation imposed on the inhabitants of Awadh (the northern part of the country, pivoted around Nawabi Lucknow) was but one major reason for the casus belli.

The theory of relating heavy taxation on Awadhis to the fact that a large chunk of the Bengal Army had their roots in Awadh, has been a potent weapon of the Marxist historians to paint the Uprising of 1857. In their narrative, religion of course took a backseat, being adjudged as ‘people’s opium’ by Dr Karl Marx. Furthermore, the role of women has also been typified with the glorification of Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi and to some extent by vaguely mentioning Begum Hazrat Mahal without however even attempting to explain how the Begum stayed back to proclaim independence from the Company Raj whereas her husband, the corpulent ‘more a poet and less a king’ Wajid Ali was housed in the safe confines of Calcutta. Though popular narratives find it convenient to worship the valour of Laxmibai, yet hardly the narratives mention about the Rani of Orchha – Jhansi’s neighbour – who because of local reasons, supported the EIC against Laxmibai [Tapti Roy, Uprising in Bundelkhand, pp 162-181, Alkazi Collection of Photography, The Uprising of 1857, hereon Alkazi].

Few other questions turn out to be germane. How did the rebels behave once they broke the shackles of the Company Raj? Were there any indications of planning for the uprising? Was Mirza Ghalib the only totem of Urdu intellectualism during that period?

Delving Deeper

William R. Pinch adds weight to the ‘local military uprising at Meerut on 10 May 1857’ as the ‘key factor in sparking off wider rebellion’. [Mutiny at the Margins, Ed. Crispin Bates, Vol.1, p 61, hereon MM] Finch argues that without the initial mutiny of the 3rd Light Cavalry and 20th Native Infantry at Meerut, the Uprising of 1857 perhaps would not have occurred. [p 61, MM, Vol. 1] While the popular and accepted version of greased cartridges is considered to be the reason for the soldiers of Meerut to rebel, yet there is hardly a mention of the prostitutes of Meerut’s Sadar Bazar who constantly ridiculed the soldiers of the 3rd Light Cavalry for not having the balls to rescue their 85 comrades who had been incarcerated on 24th April and court-martialled on 9th May. [p 62, MM, Vol 1] Whether this provided the necessary ignition to the rest of the soldiers to come out in open outbreak against their ‘masters’ could definitely be a matter of debate.

However, Pinch refers to an August 1857 letter from Captain Henry Norman, acting adjutant general of the Delhi Field Force in which he writes about a certain ‘Mees Dolly of Meerut’ who had been hung at Meerut for being implicated in the first outbreak of the Uprising. [pp 62-63, MM, Vol1] As Pinch informs, Mees Dolly was perhaps running a ‘house of refreshment of sorts’ in the Meerut bazar. [p 63, MM, Vol.1]

As if to corroborate this hypothesis of Pinch, Syed Zahiruddin Hussain Zahir Dehlvi, an eye-witness of the 1857 Uprising, then of twenty two years’ age, quotes the rebel sepoys as under : [Zahir Dehlvi, Dastan-e-Ghadar, p 59, hereon Ghadar]

“There were conspiracies being hatched in every house with group discussions and debates everywhere, especially amongst the womenfolk…….There were many women whose inheritance had been confiscated and they fanned the flames of mutiny with their taunts and sarcastic remarks. Their words were like oil in the fire of rebellion.”

And if these examples do not garner much credence, then we may like to listen to Andrew Ward [Alkazi, p 122] as he mentions the prostitute Azizun who goaded the Muslim rebel soldiers to make Nunnne Nawab their leader in Kanpur. Ward informs that Azizun with her sword unleashed, ‘was said to have moved around Kanpur’ and perhaps ‘survived the mutiny to testify before a police commission’. [Alkazi, p 135]

More so, as the Company banished Wajid Ali Shah and his entourage to Calcutta on 7 February 1856, ‘among those left behind in Lucknow’ were many of his temporary wives or (the shia concept of) muta. One such temporary wife of the nawab was Mahak Pari, daughter of a slave of African origin. As she gave birth to a son named Birjis Qadr in 1845, Wajid Ali had promoted her to the rank of ‘Mahal’, with her new name Nawab Iftikhar-un-nisa Begam Hazrat Mahal Sahiba. However, in 1850, Begam Hazrat Mahal ‘was one of the six wives divorced’ and at the same time thrown out of the royal harem by Wajid Ali Shah. [Alkazi, p 144] And as Jones writes, it was very much ‘by chance’ that Hazrat Mahal became ‘the focus of the revolt in Lucknow’. [Alkazi, p 144] It was more of a providence and far less planned when on the Sunday of 5 July 1857, the twelve-year-old Birjis Qadr was crowned ‘in the Chandiwali Barahdari in Qaisarbagh.’ [Alkazi, p 149] Obviously with Qadr still being the minor, Begam Hazrat Mahal was the focus of authority, around which the rebellion would rotate and the rebels would draw legitimacy.

It wouldn’t be out of place at all if what Wajid Ali had communicated to Viceroy Canning in July 1859 is reproduced verbatim: [Alkazi, p 158]

“…..Hazrat Mahal,,,having foolishly, perversely, and maliciously, set up her son Birjis Kadr in your place,,,,,,,your friend [Wajid Ali Shah] was consumed with grief….”

Such an admission may be clearly construed as an epistolary supplication of an Indian princely ruler in front of the colonial power – a deplorable act of pusillanimity.

Religion at the forefront

Once a man asked the Prophet of Islam: “Guide me to such a deed as equals jihad [in reward].” Muhammad answered: “I do not find such a deed.” [The History of Jihad: From Muhammad to ISIS, Robert Spencer, p 42]

Crispin Bates and Marina Carter aptly write that both the rebels and the colonial regime ‘used religion to legitimate their activities and to activate their respective forces.’ [p 41, MM, Vol 4] Ghulam Rasul Mihr has opined that ‘the key players’ in the 1857 revolt were ‘jihadis’. [p 42, MM, Vol 4] Nothing preposterous though, since theocratic elements did play crucial roles in initiating the uprising, or may be inciting jihad. One such maulvi was Sayyid Ahmad Ali Khan of Chinapattan (then Madras). He actually belonged to a royal family and even said to have visited London. However, as expected of the son of a Nawab, Khan had a command over the art of warfare. [Facets of the Great Revolt of 1857, Edited by Shireen Moosvi, pp 39-40, hereon Moosvi] Once he returned to India, he met a Sufi saint of the Qadri order, Saiyid Furqan Ali Shah, who directed Khan – now christened as Ahmadullah Shah, to proceed to Gwalior.

In Gwalior, Ahmadullah was initiated into the Qadri order for a second time by Mehrab Shah Qadri. After spending over four years under the strict guidance of Mehrab Shah, Ahmadullah was infused with the principles and practice of jihad. Finally, when he had supposedly graduated in the discourse of jihad, he was directed to move to Agra and spread the message of jihad. Ahmadullah kept on moving in north India, especially in the Awadh region, accompanied with a small band of murids or followers and spread the message of jihad against the Company Raj. He arrived in Lucknow in November 1856, which incidentally was reported in the Urdu weekly Tilism, edited by Maulvi Mohammad Yaqub Ansari of the seminary Firangi Mahal. In fact, on 30 January 1857 the weekly reported that Ahmadullah ‘orally pleads for jehad’ and in his mass gatherings, homage was being paid to another theocrat, Maulavi Amiruddin Ali. [Moosvi, p 41]

Interestingly, Mehrab Shah Qadri was a soldier in the contingent of a Maratha sardar. He is said to have preached jihad against the British. [Moosvi, p 47] Similarly, Maulvi Amiruddin Ali was associated with the jihad in Hanumangarhi at Ayodhya, against the bairagis who allegedly had demolished an old mosque. [Saiyid Zaheer Husain Jafri, Mid-19th Century Communal Tussle in Ayodhya Has a Lesson for Today’s Awadh, The Wire, 06 September 2018] And as an eerie coincidence, in the evening of 22 January 1857, the soldiers of the East India Company at the Dum Dum cantonment in Calcutta had for the first time raised suspicions about the greased cartridges. [Uddipan Mukherjee, Before Mangal Pandey, Uday India, 21 March 2020, pp 27-35] Ahmadullah on the other hand, planned to attack the Christians assembled in the church on a Sunday. But he was let down by his undisciplined followers who could not reach on time. The plan failed and the news was leaked to the Company administration. It has also been written by historian Jafri [Moosvi, p 42] that ‘thousands of’ Company soldiers used to come and meet Ahmadullah during his stay in Lucknow. However, when police started chasing him, he left for Bahraich, and en-route halted at Faizabad. He was incarcerated at Faizabad, only to be released by the rebel soldiers when the Uprising commenced in the town on 8 June 1857 and in turn was made the leader of the uprising there.

And if Ahmadullah was one theologian to incite and lead the great rebellion of 1857, the 104 years old Moulvi Sulamut Ali of Kanpur issued a decree that it was right and proper for Muslims to kill Christians as heretics [Alkazi, p 121]. He is supposed to raise a flag and cheer the rebels. [Alkazi, p 135] Not to forget Maulvi Liaqat Ali – who ‘proclaimed himself to be the governor of Allahabad under the King of Delhi’ just after the uprising took shape in the city on 6 June 1857. [MM, Vol 1, p159] However, once the British forces recaptured the city on 11 June, the Maulvi fled and kept on evading British clutches for about 14 years. [ibid]

If the Muslim jihadi component was predominant in the Uprising, then Hindu religious component was hardly lacking. Historical records indicate the participation of Prayagwals of Allahabad in the 1857’s war of independence. In January 1858, two of them, Rakshi Bhai and Tulsi were tried and hanged for recalcitrance. Another Prayagwal, Babu Pragwal of Kydganj, escaped and avoided charges [MM, Vol 1, p 160]. On the whole, the Prayagwals – who were the caste of Brahmin priests or pandas and guided the pilgrims in the holy city of Prayag (or Allahabad). They had animosity against the Christian missionaries, and destroyed many churches in Allahabad (today’s Prayagraj) [ibid].

Furthermore, the Urdu historian Zakaullah and an eye-witness of the 1857 Uprising, alludes to the pandits (Hindu priests) of Delhi who were encouraging the Sepoys to rise up against the Company, by referring to the Hindu Shastras (law books). [Iqbal Husain, Fazl-e-Haq of Khairabad : A Scholary Rebel of 1857, Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, Vol. 48 (1987), pp. 355-365 (11 pages)]

Interestingly, G W Coopland wrote at Gwalior on 11 June 1857 that it was basically a Mahomedan uprising and the Hindus of Varanasi need not be feared much. Furthermore, the Azamgarh proclamation of the rebels asserted that both Hindus and Muslims were being ruined by the infidel and treacherous English. The fundamental intention of the rebels was to throw out the infidels and bring Hindus and Muslims together. In Delhi, about 30,000 Muslim ghazis were fighting alongside 25,000 to 30,000 rebel sepoys. Though the underlying cause of religion was palpable, historian Iqtidar Alam Khan [The Wahabis in the 1857 Revolt: A Brief Reappraisal of Their Role, Social Scientist, Vol. 41, No. 5/6 (May-June 2013), pp. 15-23] argues that the inclusion of the ghazis in the rebellion did not imply the participation of the fanatical Wahabis (followers of Syed Ahmed Barelvi) or influence of their ideologies (following Prophet’s tradition). Incidentally, in the village of Hamirpur, the following proclamation was read out:

“Khalq khuda ka

Mulk Badshah ka

Raj Peshwa ka”

Rebels reach,

but Delhi in Slumber

Hazrat Zill-e-Subhani Khalifah ur Rahmani Abu Zafar Sirajuddin Mohammad Bahadur Shah had just finished his morning prayers and was sitting in the jharokha, and his elephant was being made ready for him. [Ghadar, p 53] It was 11 May 1857. When everyone was looking at the jharokha, suddenly Mir Fateh Ali requested Zill-e-Subhani to look toward a fire coming from the bridge over the Yamuna river. Information reached the Mughal Emperor that the soldiers of the EIC had come down, murdered the Mir Bahri (Lord of Admiralty) and set the toll gate on fire. Emperor ordered his officers Mir Fateh Ali and Hamid Khan ‘to destroy the bridge and not let the army come down’. [Ghadar, p 55] But before the bridge could be destroyed, the soldiers sneaked through and reached the jharokha. They submitted the following, among other issues, before Bahadur Shah: [Ghadar, p 58]

“We will not obey the British orders……in the cantonments of the infantry and cavalry there are letters being exchanged amongst us saying that the entire army should refuse and relinquish their duties, and if there is too much oppression, on a fixed day we should revolt all over Hindustan…”

The rebel soldiers continued: [Ghadar, p.60]

“Badshah Salamat, please keep your hand on our heads and give us justice. Our religion has been corrupted.”

Bahadur Shah however, replied in the negative. [Ghadar, p. 61]

“Don’t entertain any hopes of help from me. It’s between you and the British….It may be possible for me to broker peace…..I have summoned the Resident Sahib…and God willing, I will sort out your differences.”

The British Resident Fraser said: “Please give up this line of thought and stop killing us, and then no one will kill you.” [Ghadar, p 63]

Nonetheless, the rebel soldiers were not to relent. They unleashed mayhem in Delhi. Europeans and Christians were attacked. The Christian priest (Padri) and the Indian convert Dr Chiman Lal (Emperor’s physician) were the first to be eliminated, followed by the British resident of Delhi, Simon Fraser, writes Zahir Dehlavi in his Dastan-i-Ghadar [p 71]. Sipahis went berserk. Many Delhi civilians bore the brunt of the rebels. According to news writer Chunnilal, the rebel infantry troops forcibly entered and plundered the shops of confectioners in all the streets of Delhi. One moneylender Mahajan Narayan Das had his house looted. A jeweller named Mohan Lal was kidnapped by the sepoys, kept at gunpoint until he paid a ransom of 200 rupees.

On some occasions, there were open clashes between the rebel soldiers (who were at times joined by street urchins and lumpen elements) and civilians of Delhi. For instance, in Hauz Qazi area, there ensued a riot between some rebel soldiers and the residents. The inhabitants of Nagar-Seth street closed the gates and attacked the looters with brickbats, and drove them off. In the wake of this chaos, civilian delegations met the Emperor and pleaded for protection. One of the largest such delegations to come before Bahadur Shah and beg for protection were from Paharganj.

The Emperor repeatedly chastened the princes, who were in-charge of the law and order of the city, to take care of such unfortunate incidents of lootings and to bring the miscreants to book. The princes on the other hand, did not pay much heed to the octogenarian emperor’s dictates. Arrival of Bakht Khan from Bareilly certainly made a difference. A martinet as he was, Khan was a good administrator too. For managing the administrative affairs of the city, he formed a council composed of personnel from the military and civil officialdom. Emperor’s son Prince Mirza Mughal was a part of it, with the Emperor himself as the de jure head of the council.

Bahadur Shah however, trusted the seasoned Bakht Khan more than his own sons insofar as efficiency in law and order maintenance was concerned. Moreover, Bakht Khan was an artillery officer in the EIC army and was a veteran of the Afghan war. Nevertheless, maladministration, lack of coordination, mistrust, court intrigues, jealousies, lack of food supply and of course, the most important, lack of ammunition, turned out to be the potholes for the rebels during the siege of Delhi. By mid-June 1857, since many sweepers were busy in maintaining the city defences, the sanitation of the city had ceased to function. Dead camels lay rotting even in the elite quarter of Daryaganj. Freebooters and looters obviously posed an additional problem. Right from the beginning, Delhi was doomed to be lost to the British.


By the end of the second week of the Uprising, Maulvi Muhammad Baqar, editor of the Dehli Urdu Akhbar, reported:

“In the city and around, thousands of houses have been plundered and burnt.”

Before being hanged on 18 September 1857 (at the infamous Khooni Darwazaa) by Captain Hodson, Baqar had a prominent presence in Delhi. Born in Delhi to a family of Shia scholars who had migrated to India from Iran in the early 18th century, Baqar was a prominent member of Bahadur Shah’s court and also a close friend of the poet Zauq, writes Farooqui. [Alkazi, p 70] He started publishing Dehli Urdu Akhbar from 1836 onward. Though initially the newspaper was in no way anti-establishment, yet during the Uprising, it’s tenor was sharply anti-British. For instance, in the 14th June 1857 issue, Baqar invokes religion and gives a clarion call to both Muslims and Hindus to fight against oppression. [Alkazi, p 72]

If Baqar was a pro-revolt intellectual, then of course, Ghalib was at least prima facie, anti-rebel. Ghalib’s account of the Uprising, mentions Farooqui, ‘was composed in Persian under the title Dastanbui – a collection of flowers. In his work, writes Farooqui, Ghalib gives ‘utmost respect’ to the Britishers and at the same time, ‘abused the rebels’. Ghalib was purportedly a double-faced character as he was frequently visiting the royal court ‘and offered masnavis (poems in rhythmic couplets) and qasidas (odes) to the Emperor and expressed hopes of his victory’. [Alkazi, p 58] However, at the same time, Ghalib used the term qatl-e-aam (a general massacre) in order to describe the condition of Delhi after the British re-conquest in September 1857.

In a similar vein, another intellectual, Ghalib’s friend and contemporary, Fazal-e-Haq Khairabadi used the phrase khoon-e-nahaq or unjustified slaughter to describe the British regime after the siege. [Alkazi, p 61] Khairabadi (1797-1862), who belonged to a scholarly family of Awadh, was instrumental in exhorting ‘the leading theologians of Delhi to issue a fatwa for jihad’ against the EIC. [Moosvi, p 49] He left an account of the Uprising in Arabic, As Saurat al Hindiya.

At the same time, it is worthwhile to mention that even Hindu intellectuals, who were mostly European-bred at the time, though were not anti-British and had a distaste for a perceived sepoy-dominated post-war order, were not uncritical of British regime as well as violence perpetrated by the colonisers. [Sudhir Chandra, 1857 and the Indian Intelligentsia,] In that sense, a sweeping theorisation that intellectuals did not participate in the 1857 Uprising would be a gross misunderstanding.

Was the Uprising Planned?

It is said that Indian astrologers had predicted the end of the Company Raj in a century from the Battle of Plassey. [Alkazi, p 117] Frederich Burroughs, the commanding officer of the 17th Native Infantry in early 1857 concluded that the planning for the revolt was not very recent, yet probably known to a select few in each regiment. But who were involved in this planning, if any?

Nana Saheb’s secretary-cum-advisor Azimullah Khan, accompanied by another official of Nana – Mahomed Ali – went to London to plead to the EIC’s Court of Directors for increasing the pension of Nana Saheb aka Dhondu Pant. [Saul David, The Indian Mutiny, pp 48-49] After fruitless peregrinations in the land of their colonial masters, on the way back they saw to their surprise, demoralised English troops in the battlefield of the Crimean War. Mahomed Ali even claimed that at Constantinople a certain Russian agent had approached Azimullah for providing material support if a rebellion is stirred up in India. Upon his return to India, Azimullah appears to have explained to Nana Saheb that rebellion against the Company Raj was the only option left. [Saul David, The Indian Mutiny, p 50]

To buttress the proposition of Azimullah and Nana’s involvement in some sort of a planning, Times war correspondent William Howard Russell wrote : [ibid]

“Azimullah and Nana visited the military cantonments all along the main trunk road – and went as far as Ambala.”

It was probably more than a mere coincidence when in January 1857, Lieutenant Edward Martineu met Azimullah at the dak bungalow in Ambala. [Saul David, The Indian Mutiny, p 50] And it was rather prophetic that the rumour of using pig and cow fat in the greased cartridges for the Enfield Rifles and Maulvi Ahmadullah Shah’s call for jihad also converged in the month of January 1857 only.

Further, Sitaram Bawa writes that Nana Saheb was trying to form alliances since 1855 and was writing letters to rulers of Gwalior, Assam, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Jammu, Baroda, Hyderabad, Kolhapur, Satara and Indore. [Saul David, The Indian Mutiny, p 51] In fact, Raja Man Singh, a taluqdar of Awadh, was one of the first to respond to Nana’s calls. Other dispossessed taluqdars too joined the movement. Leading citizens of Lucknow and the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir Golab Singh, were also part of the group. Zahir Dehlvi too mentions that the soldiers of the EIC were exchanging letters in the cantonments of infantry and cavalry. It was decided by the soldiers to rebel on a fixed day if the British oppression exceeded limits. [Ghadar, p 58].

The upshot is clear. The Uprising of 1857was certainly not a chaotic exhibition of some disgruntled sepoys of the EIC. Chaos did exist within the movement, which however was bound to exist in any grand movement of this scale and magnitude. The general narratives describing the 1857 Uprising showcase a minuscule aspect of the complexities inherent in the movement. Further rigorous research probing the inner confines of the movement in order to unravel the details and provide shape to the narrative in its finality is imperative.


By Dr Uddipan Mukherjee

(Any opinion expressed here is solely that of the author.)

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