Sunday, November 12, 2006

The Last Mughal - 2- The Sepoys and the British

Continuing from the previous post..

So, we have a weak, ineffectual, but a rather nice king, a population representing a rather interesting hindu-muslim culture..

The sepoys violently changed the prevailing order in Delhi by riding in from Meerut and killing every single christian they could find. It is interesting that none of the europeans who had converted to islam (of which there were many) were touched. To properly understand the sepoys' motivations, we must see what the british, their employers had been doing.

When we say 'The British', we of course, mean The British East India Company, which was one of the earliest MNCs. Imagine, if you will, Pepsico, or Microsoft, running a country with the only motive being their bottomline. That's essentially what the BEC was doing to India (and Sri Lanka and Burma) with the marked lack of empathy that is the defining characteristic of a Corporation(then, as now).

The British East India Company had got their foothold in hindustan (bengal, bihar, UP and MP) by obtaining the mughal's permission to collect taxes on their behalf. As the mughal power waned, and it had been waning for a while now, two other kingdoms had become powerful, the Marathas and the Sikhs. As 1857 rolled by, the british had defeated both, and were on the path towards ruling India. Their main tool was the native army, which was recruited from hindus and muslims (especially from the groups that the british considered 'martial races) and trained in the european way. The initial group of the british interacted with the indians on quite convival terms. The officers fraternized with the troops, became quite fluent in local languages and aware of local customs. Many of them acquired indian wives and lived rather indian lives (complete with separate harems for their hindu and muslim wives :-) ). Many of these british were fluent in indian languages and some were actually accomplished poets in those languages. This was news to me. Apparently the extent to which the first-generation british had integrated themselves into indian society is not stressed by the indians or the british :-) When the revolt exploded, this would save some of their sons and daughters as former servants and soldiers of these men saved their children from certain death. The sepoys of the old-style officers also permitted their officers and their families to escape, out of loyalty.

As more and more british started coming in, this stopped and a divide grew between the british and the men they commanded. They looked upon the older group who had 'gone native' with horror and derision. The new class of british that came in were also quite religious and saw in India a vast opportunity to 'reform' the 'natives' of their superstitions and convert the country to the 'One True Faith' of christianity. The 'natives' who had their own 'One True Faith's didn't take very kindly to it and this was to become one of the biggest reasons for the revolt. This extreme religiousity also ensured that the British were particularly insensitive to the sepoys' concerns about the greased cartridges which became the proximate cause of the revolt.

At this point, the East India Company had made the move of invading and occupying Avadh, a rich indian state that was also home to many of its sepoys. Avadh was a friendly state to the British. This sent out a loud message to other states in India that your disposition towards the british didn't matter to them, they would take you over anyway. It also inflamed the sepoys who had to aid in the takeover of their own state by the foreigner.

The british were also the de facto power in Delhi and had a say in who would be the next mughal emperor. They were also plotting to eliminate the Mughal line and move the survivors out of Delhi. In this, they had the collusion of Bahadur Shah's favorite wife and other courtiers.

The revolt, thus, had different complexions in different parts of the country. In some places (like in Jhansi), it was against the attempted land-grabs of the british. In others, like Delhi, it was certainly a religious war.

Once the revolt started, the sepoys killed their officers and promptly marched on Delhi. They went to Bahadur Shah and asked him to lead them. He was not willing in the beginning, but as he began to see the possibility of maintaining his line, he agreed. So, now, you had a group of sepoys, predomninantly hindu, not just accepting, but demanding that the mughal emperor lead them.

Though he was the titular head, there was no one who could actually provide leadership. None of the sepoys had an experience of leading more than hundred, since the officer class had all been european. As mentioned previously, the court was working against itself. If there had been a strong leader, he(or she) would have been able to weld the sepoy regiments into an army. That was not to be. For a long time, the sepoys outnumbered and outgunned the british but couldn't defeat them just because they had no one who could maneuver them like an army. Instead, they charged the british in battalions and were promptly crushed. What they lacked was not courage or weaponry, but leadership. The first shot at some kind of unified leadership came when Bakht Khan of the Bareilly Brigade marched in and tried to bring some kind of leadership and order. But ego-clashes amongst other leaders of the sepoys quickly put paid to that hope.

The fact that the sepoys had killed all europeans had the effect of making the british bloodthirsty for revenge. Breathless tales of how the women had been raped and killed spread. The fact of the matter was that not one woman had been raped (they had all been killed though, so I guess it is small comfort). They saw their role as 'delivering God's justice on the heathens'. The british response took on an extremely religious overtone. The british felt that they had been betrayed by the indians to whom they were trying to bring culture and civilization and by God, they were going to shed some blood to show who was boss. This essentially made it a religious war. With christianity on one side and the hindus and muslims on the other.

Of all the conquering peoples, the british must be truly unique for their consistent stand that all of it was done for the benefit of the conquered. I am sure that when Genghis Khan was building his tower of skulls, or the Romans, were destroying Carthage, selling its inhabitants to slavery and sowing salt in the land (so nothing would grow there) weren't saying to their victims 'But why did you resist us? All we were trying to do was bring you culture!'. The british on the other hand, saw it as their God given duty to 'civilize' their colonies. It permitted them to do really horrific things self-righteously.

For instance, when the british re-took Delhi, they killed indiscriminately, men, women and children. On the march to Delhi, locals were randomly executed. Thousands of the citizens of delhi were killed out-of-hand, regardless of whether they had helped the sepoys or the english. The british used short-ropes for hanging the indians (if you hang someone with a long-rope, it is the fall and neck-snap that kills. A short rope kills slowly by strangulation.). Remember the ones who collaborated with the british? They didn't get much of a better deal. The city was looted, and about eighty percent of Red Fort destroyed. All this, of course, to civilize the heathens. But, I digress.

To get back to the story, once the british got their wits together, they disarmed all native troops that seemed rebellious, and hired auxiliaries from amongst the sikhs and the pathans and marched on Delhi. The british also had a superb spy system which they used to great effect. It is in this time that characters like Hodson and Nicholson made their name (for great brutality and courage). The actions of some (like Theo Metcalfe who was known for his indiscriminate hanging of indians) disgusted even the british.

The looting, the mismanagement and the choking of Delhi by the gujjar tribesmen caused severe supply problems for the sepoy army and they started slipping out of the city. When the british finally stormed the city, there were not many left (Bakht Khan had slipped away with his army to Lucknow). Once in Delhi, the british wreaked a tremendous revenge, extinguished the line of the Mughals and sent Zafar into exile to Rangoon. The only reason his life was spared was because Hodson had promised Zinat Mahal, his wife that his life would be spared in exchange for her cooperation during the rebellion. After the rebellion, the muslims were treated much worse than the hindus were (since the british saw this as an attempt by the muslim mughals to reassert themselves) which laid the foundation for their alienation from the hindus and the eventual partition. This also comprehensively destroyed the Delhi Renaissance that was occurring under Zafar.

Dalrymple details all this, and brings to life all these characters and more. Like I mentioned previously, this gives great insight into the causes of the revolt. Was it a religious war? Was it a war waged by hindus and muslims to restore the mughals to power? Was it a mutiny? Was it a war by the indians against an encroaching foreign power? The answer is all of the above. It was not exactly a war of independence as claimed by V.D. Savarkar. It was not exactly the matter of a mutiny, as claimed by the british.

We need more such looks at indian history that focus on the facts and not on the political, social or religious leanings of the historian. Also, we tend to idolize leaders and events. It is understandable because we are emotionally invested in it. Unfortunately that prevents us from cold-bloodedly examining our history and learning from it. This book, perhaps because it is not written by an Indian, steers clear of that, and we get to see what everyone does. Actually, it is not completely fair to say that Dalrymple is emotionally disconnected. He obviously loves Delhi and this book is in a way an elegy to the Delhi that was. A cosmopolitan, polished place where hindus, muslims and christians, indians and europeans hung out, went shopping in bazaars, wrote and listened to poetry, watched courtesans dance, ate at roadisde fastfood joints and had a generally wonderful time. Until History intervened.


sumir said...

Dear Sambar42,

First of all thanks for the appreciation for the comment left on my blog.

Here, bit too long, but my comment on the review of the book.

You say,
“So, when Zafar joined the Sepoys, it was the british that were mutinying against their masters, not the indians. I think it's really ironic that the british should consistently refer to the events as the Mutiny of 1857 :-)”

Well, Well. However, I will suggest that the domination of the East India company should be studied from Allahabad Treaty of 1765 onwards. Under Subsidiary Alliances, it was the elite group of the Indian society, which had surrendered India to them. Hence, by virtue of being the winners, the East India Company was ruling over India. Another best example is annexation of Sindh and Punjab. I hope you know that what the British officer said while annexing Sindh. He claimed that it was the finnest piece of rascality but they had done it. On the other hand, annexation of Punjab can never be justified. But only argument which can be used is that it was the prize won by the winner in Anglo Sikh war. Only comment that can be made is that there is touch nationalistic urges in your statement. Somewhere, it is your country and your region (the region of Cholas, Pandya and Cheras) which are alive. You may be away from home but your heart is here. You will be surprised to know that it is a recent trend that the rule of Cheras and Cholas are being reinterpreted on a model which had been build around the history of some tribes in South part of Africa. The success of Cholas and the imperialistic activities are being under rated under that new interpretation.

On the whole, it can also be said, that it was the force behind the nationalistic movement which tried to push out the British out of India. It was the basis on which the Puran Swaraj demand was placed instead of a Dominion Status. Dominion Status was good for Canada and Australia because they belonged to Anglo-Saxon group. But Indians were never from that lot. But, I am unable to understand in spite of the teacher and student of history, that how this middle class theory had been build to gain the independence. My reading of history is taking me to a different direction. Middle Class and rise of Nationalism with Middle Class theories never appeal to me. The problem is that we have always picked western model as frame of reference to evaluate the Indian history. Similarly, the Marxist interpretation and the Grimansci model to interpret on the basis of fight for hegemony between the classes have also not cut ice with me.

You say,
“The history of the 1857 rebellion is taught very superficially in school.”

You are quite right. I would like to direct your attention to some of posts in my sumir-history blog. Actually there is a need of rewriting the Indian history. Kindly check the following posts wherein I have dilated on this issue in different contexts:

“Apparently, Delhi was undergoing a cultural renaissance under him. He also seems to have been made in the mold of Dara Shikoh rather than Aurangzeb. He was a lover of the arts, a sufi, a pretty good poet himself and treated hindus and muslims equally.”

You have reached an established conclusion. I would like to direct your attention to a book of Muzaffar Alam “The Crisis of Empire in Mughal North India (Awadh and the Punjab 1707-1748) and second book by Ishrat Haq titled “Glimpses of Mughal Culture”. Ishrat Haq had treaded a new path wherein she had tried to study of the cultural changes as taking place through the poetry of the period by five major poets of the 18th century. She had also traced the similar changes in 19th century. You may enjoy reading the British Paramountancy by R. C. Majumdar. He has been able to bring out some more effective conclusions. It is really ironical that he was not given much recognition after the D. D. Kosambi and than later Marxist lot dominated this field.

You have read,
“The siege of Delhi, as it were, was actually carried out by gujjar tribesmen who looted anyone that entered or left the city, effectively choking the city out.”

Well R. C. Majumdar had never identified them with any particular group. Secondly, if you know, that such conclusions about Mewatis (Jats) had angered the particular community in India recently. No doubt, it was a strong contention of R. C. Majumdar that the event of 1857 should never be called the first war of independence. He had traced a regular theme in the Sepoy Mutiny of 1764, then inVellore Mutiny in 1806, then in Barrackpore Mutiny in 1824 and finally the 1844 mutiny and Afghan Mutiny during Anglo Afghan War. Basic thing is reinterpretation is required. A set of concepts has to be framed which describe the events in Indian continent on the basis of the facts as they were there. The problem is that we have never been able to shed the edifice which J Mills constructed on the Indian history. Now, when as a nation, we are finding our place in the community of nations, we find that we already have that vital force which makes us a nation. Go to America and live among them. You sense and feel that it something American spirit which are their strength. It is not racialism. That is only one shade. But there is totally a different existence and that is American Spirit. Here I would like to direct you attention to the following post.

You have read,
“The sepoys violently changed the prevailing order in Delhi by riding in from Meerut and killing every single christian they could find.”

Well, I have not the read the book. It is now in the market. When I will visit my regular book store, I hope that I would get a copy of it there. I have read in the interview of Darlymple as given to BBC that he had located sources from it was learnt that the Indian converts to Christianity were the main target. Well, It is definitely a new finding as far as my knowledge goes. In case of Tribal revolts, we have been studying that when such revolt took place then the immediate oppressors, whether they were money lenders, or Gora Babu or Gumastas of British company, they became their target of their anger. I think that there had never been anti-Christian riots as such. It is something which has been observed in recent times only. But anyhow, I think I should first look into the book. I believe that your present review is immediate reaction after reading the book. I will like to suggest you that History is an Art, a Science and literature; all three combined to make the writing of history. The literature aspect of history writing is a feature which play wonders as well mischief if an artist of words wields the pen. But I am not convinced that this anti-Christian feature was there in 1857. Now do not bring in the social reformers in it. I think the criticism of Keshav Chander Sen is wrong. Similarly the aversion to the activities of Pandita Ramabai is also not justified. All these features had to been to re examined. The Christians activists were here since the days of Portuguese. Even there is a theory that it is here since the days of Saint Peters. But, this feature of killing Christian agenda is something which requires some established proofs. One or two reference and then to declare it a history will turn out to be a Bad history.

You say’
“When we say 'The British', we of course, mean The British East India Company, which was one of the earliest MNCs. Imagine, if you will, Pepsico, or Microsoft, running a country with the only motive being their bottomline. That's essentially what the BEC was doing to India (and Sri Lanka and Burma) with the marked lack of empathy that is the defining characteristic of a Corporation(then, as now).”

How sweet. I can not really tell you how I enjoyed this comment. I have to really spend ten to fifteen minutes to explain to my undergraduate students. But, there is other side also. Firstly, the joint stock companies, as they were known at that time, never knew their status as such as it is defined now. Secondly, this anomaly was soon identified by the Britishers back at home. That was the reason that they brought Regulating Act of 1773 which was followed by Pitts India Act. They soon learnt the secret of the Naboobs like Clive and Vanistart. However, there were numerous other wheels which were moving within the movement. There was a feature of such companies under which the employee could also carry out his personal business along with that of the company. No doubt, the employment in BEC was most sought after jobs. It was only the young brats of 16 or 18 years from the elite class of London who came to East Indies.

You have read,
“Apparently the extent to which the first-generation british had integrated themselves into indian society is not stressed by the indians or the british”

Well I am also surprised. We have been reading the quotation of Thomas Roe which totally contradicts it. No doubt, there were people like William Jones, Charles Wilkins, H. H. Willson, John Princep, the people at short lived Wellesley School or as they are know are the Orientalists. They were attracted to Indian literature. They were impressed and influenced by it. Macaulay had just given sweeping statements. Even there are doubts about the contexts in which he had written those lines. But, absorption in social and cultural tradition – it is something which I would also like to study. Well there is a book by Thompson titled “Other Side of the Medal”, in which he had written some thing similar to it. However, that was about the sympathy and some extent an affinity of some British people with Indian way of life. Well in present day India, there is Ruskin Bond and Tom Alter who will be happy reading such theories. However, English gone native seems to be a new theory.

You have read,
“At this point, the East India Company had made the move of invading and occupying Avadh, a rich indian state that was also home to many of its sepoys. Avadh was a friendly state to the British. This sent out a loud message to other states in India that your disposition towards the british didn't matter to them, they would take you over anyway.”

Well this is an established theory. However, I will like to draw your attention to my one of my another post. I hope you can read Hindi. It is given below.

You have read,
“In others, like Delhi, it was certainly a religious war.”

Well, it is a sweeping statement. Was there “Manifest Destiny theory” more in operation than other urges. I will suggest that you must read the following post by Prof. R. K. Khanna.

You have commented that
“The british response took on an extremely religious overtone.”

It is a new theory. It requires further examination.

Anyhow, finally, you have done a great job. The book in question has been released in India also. I will definitely read it at the earliest. However, the interview of the author to BBC had definitely biased the judgement. Secondly, it is again the same old story that a foreigner comes to India, finds some untouched paper, picks them and write a book out of them and then we Indians start reacting to it. We in India, do not have it in us to do it first. We wait others to come and make us to react against him. Then the contents of our reaction are then projected as our statement. If any of us try to take initiative, first comes the discouragement and the second problem is always the funding which can be obtained only if you have the right networking.


sambar42 said...

Thank you for your comments. I will read them and hopefully I will have more questions. My exposure to history is basically at a school-level. It is a pleasure to be able to discuss with someone who has greater scholarship.
My statement that it was the british that were mutinying was meant to be a joke. I know that they were essentially in the game to invade and take what they could by right of conquest. I have no issues with that. That's the way of the world. What gets on my nerves is their holier-than-thou, attitude. Hence my remark.