The Mutiny of 1857 in India, also called the First War of Indian Independence
“It was a mercenary army. It was not from patriotic motives that the sepoy enlisted, but because the army was his hereditary profession, because it brought him an adequate livelihood together with social position, consequence, and honour.” (p.155)
“There were also men from all over India, once large landholders, who felt themselves aggreieved by the policy of the new generation of British, mostly protectors of the poor. And everywhere there were the Brahmans who began to scent the danger to their ascendancy that ‘progress’ threatened.
“Education in Western science, western medicine, railway trains and telegraph-wires – all were dangers to the Brahman system. And to these insidous assaults, the English had now begun to add legislative interference. Suttee was the first step, then it had been made legal for Hindu widows to re-marry; now a convert who had changed his religion was to be allowed to inherit property. Convicts in the jails were being made to feed in messes instead of each man separately. No one knew what might come next. In part, the Mutiny was a reaction of obscurantists against social change.”
“Then came something more specific, the General Service Enlistment Act of 1856. This meant that in future all recruits must swear on their enlistment that they would cross the sea in ships if they were ordered. To cross the sea was pollution to an orthodox Hindu; no Indian soldier could eat salt, pork and ship’s biscuit. Uptil now, the sepoys had been bound to serve in India only; they were within their rights if they refused to sail to Rangoon or Persia. (pp157-158)
“The cartridges were in the ordnance depots. They were being prepared for issue to the troops when the news broke. It did not take long to reach the officers; on January 24, 1857, the danger was reported to the Government. The 25th was a Sunday. Orders went out on 27th; the greased cartrides from the ordnance depots were to be kept for British troops and the sepoy was to grease his own with bees’ wax and vegetable oil; the rifle drill was changed and the greased cartrides were now to be broken with the fingers.
“It was too late. The tale had spread quickly and grown in the telling. The English had planned to break the sepoy’s caste, thinking that they would then find it easy to make him a Christian as the only refuge left him. They had not only greased the cartridges, they had mixed the ground bones of bullocks with the flour; they had polluted the sugar.
” None of this would have been believed thirty years ago. No one in his senses would then have thought the English could possibly plot to convert their soldiers to a creed they hardly seemed to hold themselves. All that was changed now. The prevailing tone among the company’s servants was earnest and evangelical. More and more of them had begun to feel it a duty to convert others.
“There were mutinies in Bengal in the early part of the year; there was no general attack on officers. In May, eighty-five men at Meerut refused cartiridges – not the offending variety. They were sentenced to long terms of imprisonment; a punishment parade was held at which the sepoys were drawn up in line, commanded by the guns of British artillery men and the sabres of a regiment of British dragoons. The eighty-five were stripped of their uniforms, the irons were fastened on them by smiths on the parade-ground.
“It was a long business’ taking several hours. It seems to have filled the remaining sepoys with a burning sense of injustice and convinced them that they really were to be forced to use something that was against their religion. On Sunday evening three regiments broke open the jail murdered as many as they could of their officers, their wives and children, and made for Delhi. Here there were no British troops. Here too the Indian troops rose and massacred their officers, their wives and children. The Mutiny had begun.” (pp.158-159)
“The Sixth at Allahabad were a regiment whose officers had always taken a friendly care of their men and a keen pride in their fidelity. Then men seemed to return the officers’ feeling; they reported strangers from the bazar who made seditious approaches to them, they demanded to be led to Delhi against the rebels. A model regiment, they received the thanks of the Governor-General at a special parade; they greeted the Commissioner’s praise with ringing cheers. That same night they rose and murdered their officers.” (p.160)
compiled by A.L.Rawal, Associate Professor, DCAC, University of Delhi.