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Why no freedom struggle was waged against the Muslim rule in India

Those who have termed the revolt of 1857 as the first war for India’s independence are the fools who wanted freedom for the Hindus alone. It didn’t bother them that had the revolt succeeded by ill luck, the princely kingdoms would have perpetuated the system that had denied the Untouchables their basic human rights. Explains Kanwal Bharti:


We are told that the revolt of 1857 was the first war of independence. This is the opinion of scholars who were Brahmins and those who believed in Hindutva and wanted to perpetuate the feudal system. The people of this caste/class exulted in their religious system and wanted to perpetuate it without any change. During 800 years of their rule, the Muslims didn’t interfere in the Hindu religious system and allowed them full freedom to follow their religion. That is why not a single battle for independence was fought in India during the Muslim rule.

It is the intellectual class that provides the leadership and drives a movement forward and unfortunately, the Brahmins formed the intellectual class in India. The intellectual class and Brahmins are considered synonymous. The Muslim rulers had obtained the loyalty of the Brahmin class by allowing them a lot of freedom and privileges.

But the East India Company did not follow suit and began interfering in their religious system. As a consequence, it had to face revolt of the brahmanical forces. In other words, their agenda of social reforms itself became the cause of revolt against the British rulers. At least, two major revolts in India were caused by the social reforms: the Sepoy Mutiny of 1806 in Vellore and the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. Dr Ambedkar has written that while the Vellore revolt of 1806 was a small spark, the revolt of 1857 had turned into a major fire (Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writing and Speeches, Volume 12, Page 140).

The sole reason for the revolt of Vellore was the order issued by the chief commander of the Madras Army, John Craddock, discontinuing the dress code based on religious and caste identities of the soldiers. They were not allowed to wear turbans or finger rings or sport beards. Instead, he introduced a new uniform cap for all.

A painting of the Sepoy Mutiny 1857 (Courtesy BBC)

The soldiers considered the move as an attempt to convert them into Christianity. The Hindus thought that the new cap was made of cow hide while the Muslims saw the ban on the beard as an interference in their religious practice. The sepoys of both the faiths revolted to preserve their religious customs. Tipu Sultan’s family, housed in the fort of Vellore, aided the revolt.

Brahmin scholars have glorified this mutiny as the first independence struggle against the British rule. They have gone to the extent of saying that this event paved the way for the revolt of 1857. (A. Rangarajan’s essay “When the Vellore Sepoys Rebelled” published in The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, 6 August 2006)

Was it really a freedom struggle? If it was indeed a freedom movement against the East India Company, why did the soldiers join the Company’s army in the first place? Secondly, why did they revolt only after the new order on the uniform was issued?

From the foregoing, it can be inferred that the rebellion was not against the East India Company; it was against the regulation that abolished the religious and caste identities of the soldiers. Had it not issued the order, there wouldn’t have been any revolt. Then, on what basis was this revolt a struggle for independence? It was not an attempt to end the Company’s rule. It was a religious, caste struggle. In that case, we should call it a religious movement and not India’s first struggle for independence.

Sepoy Mangal Pandey is credited with launching the revolt of 1857. He was a conservative Brahmin who believed in untouchability. Matadeen was a sweeper in the barracks where Mangal Pandey was stationed. Once while sweeping the floor, Matadeen touched Pandey’s pot accidently. Feeling insulted, the Brahmin sepoy abused and humiliated the sweeper. A fuming Matadeen retorted: “You claim to have become impure by my touching your pot, but you don’t lose your purity when you use your teeth to open the cartridges that are lined with the fat of cows and pigs.” Pandey came to believe that all Hindu sepoys had become impure. This incident was the trigger of the Sepoy Mutiny.

A postal stamp released by the Government of India in 1998

Was it the only reason behind the revolt? It couldn’t have been, because all the soldiers knew that the cartridges were lined with animal fat, although they may not have known the specific animal that the fat came from. Mangal Pandey was a vegetarian and touching animal fat of any kind was taboo for him. Then, why did he start a revolt on the use of cow fat alone? It should also be borne in mind that the soldiers went on to use the same cartridges against the army of the East India Company during the rebellion. How did they open the cartridge then? The real issue was perhaps not the animal fat, but something else.

Cow and pig are associated with the religion of the Hindus and the Muslims, respectively. Hindus regard the cow as a mother and worship it. The Muslims see the pig as a filthy animal, and it is “haram” (or forbidden) for them to even touch it, let alone consume it. The communal forces use these animals to start riots between the Hindus and the Muslims.

In 1857, the brahmanical forces employed these animals to start a riot against the British. They found in cow fat a handy weapon in this holy war. They used the pig in a bid to woo the Muslims so that they too would join them. It is quite possible that Matadeen was a messenger of the Brahmins.

The issue that the discussion on the Vellore revolt threw up may be relevant here, too. Brahmins scholars, such as Savarkar and Har Dayal, who termed the 1857 Mutiny as the first war of independence, didn’t care to consider whether there would have been a revolt had the fat of cow or pig not been used in cartridges or had it been used and the soldiers never came know of it. If the main reason was indeed animal fat, it is evident that there wouldn’t have been a revolt. Then on what basis can it be called a war of independence?

In fact, the revolt was a reaction to measures taken towards social reforms. It was a battle to protect a religious system. It was an issue of freedom of the Hindu religion, and it had nothing to do with the freedom of the country. Some conservative Brahmins, and a few kings and nawabs whose kingdoms were vulnerable to the British Raj, tried to portray this revolt as a freedom movement.

Let’s discuss the basic reasons for the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny. The Bengal Army started the revolt. It was a Bengal Army in name only. It had no Bengali soldiers. The army consisted of the sepoys mainly drawn from the upper castes of Awadh and Doaba region. The Brahmins dominated the army. They spent a major part of their time in observing religious rituals. Therefore, this army became easy prey to the Brahmin conspiracy.

The Brahmins of Awadh and Benaras were outraged by the rules and regulations introduced by the British for social reforms. They wanted the British rulers, like the Mughals, to not interfere in their religious affairs. But the British rulers found some of the interventions necessary.

A painting of the Hool Revolt 1855

Dr Ambedkar writes about of these social informs. He observes that all the social ills are dependent on religion. A Hindu man or woman does everything according to his or her religion. He eats, drinks, bathes and wears clothes, as dictated by his religion. His religion determines his birth, marriage and cremation. Consequently, a social ill, which may appear as a sin from secular point of view, is not a sin for him because his religion calls it as a virtue. So, a sinful Hindu retorts, “If I am committing a sin, it is because it is according to my religion.” (Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, Volume 12, Page 116-137).

A society is always conservative. It changes only when it comes under pressure to change. Whenever pressure is exerted, a struggle between the new and the old order ensues. Therefore, any social evil, especially one that is based on religion, can never be eradicated without the help of the law.

In order to put a stop to the social ills, the East India Company considered it necessary to enact five laws. All these laws were enacted before the revolt of 1857. The sixth law was introduced after the revolt, in 1860, under the section 375 of the Penal Code to curb sexual harassment and rape of women. The five laws introduced before the mutiny were as follows:

  1. Bengal Regulation Act, 1795 – to stop the “Kurra” tradition among the Brahmins in Benaras province, in which women were killed by the men of the family. Until then, capital punishment didn’t apply to the Brahmins. For the first time the Brahmins were brought within the purview of death penalty if found guilty of murder.
  2. Regulation Act 1802 – to stop sacrifice of innocent children in the name of religion.
  3. Regulation Act 1829 – to end the Sati tradition. This tradition required women to be burnt to death in the pyre of her dead husband.
  4. Caste Abolition Act 1850 ­– which was an extension of section 9 of the Regulation Act 1832. It was put in place to stop the practice of untouchability.
  5. Hindu Widow Remarriage Act 1856 – to legalize remarriage of Hindu widows.

It is clear that these rules interfered with the religious practices of the Brahmins. For the first time, a Brahmin could face death himself after being found guilty of murder. It was more disturbing to the Brahmins of Benaras, who did not hesitate to kill a girl or a woman as part of the “Kurra” tradition.

These laws aimed at social reform sparked the revolt by the Bengal Army in 1857.

Lord Dalhousie’s Doctrine of Lapse also contributed to the trigger. The states of Satara, Jaitpur, Sambhalpur, Baghat, Udaipur, Jhansi and Nagpur were brought under Company rule. The existence of certain other states was also in danger. Even the Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Jafar was afraid and could not decide whether to support the British or to oppose them.

Let us take the example of Jhansi, as its role in the revolt is well known. It was a dependency of the Peshwa. Its ruler, Gangadhar, was a tyrant. He didn’t have a son, so he adopted his nephew and wanted to declare the nephew his heir apparent. But the Company didn’t let him. Even though his ancestors had always been loyal, the Company declared Jhansi a part of its territory by offering a pension of Rs 5,000 to the queen. She refused the compensation and declared, “I will never give away my Jhansi.” She fought the British to save her kingdom. All these rulers wanted to regain their kingdoms. This is why they joined the Brahmins in the revolt.

At this juncture we should pose a question – was it a freedom struggle? If so, had the concept of “Akhanda Swaraj” or Undivided India taken shape – in an India that was still divided into hundreds of kingdoms. The answer is a resounding no. The Hindu concept of Swaraj took shape only after the year 1900. The vision of complete independence did not exist till the Round Table Conference of 1930. Gandhi and other Congress leaders were still demanding the dominion status for India. It was Dr Ambedkar alone who advocated complete freedom. If this was the state of affairs in the 20th century, does it make any sense to treat the 1857 revolt as a struggle for independence?

It was a babble of those fools who wanted freedom for the Hindus alone. It did not bother them that, had the revolt succeeded by ill luck, the princely kingdoms would have perpetuated the system that had denied the Untouchables their basic human rights. The widows would have been burnt; innocent children would have been sacrificed. Feudal lords would have had the girls and women kidnapped and raped. All kinds of violence and brutality of the Brahmins would have been pardonable. Neither would there have been a single, uniform law nor would everyone have been treated as equal before the law.

The Brahmin scholars who called the 1857 Mutiny the first freedom struggle and dreamt of an Akhand Hindu Bharat or the Undivided Hindu India were blind to the fact that the revolutionary work of uniting India was actually being carried out by the British.

As the saying goes, patience pays off. There were millions of the downtrodden, Dalits, Backwards, Tribals and labourers. Why shouldn’t there have been a turnaround in their fortune after thousands of years? Though the Brahmins and the kings wanted the revolt to succeed, so that they could re-establish the feudal-religious system, destiny favoured the millions of Bahujans.

The revolt could not become pan-India. It was limited to Delhi, Lucknow, Allahabad, Kanpur, Benaras, Jhansi, Gwalior and some parts of Bihar. It was crushed soon. The soldiers of Bombay and Madras did not participate in the mutiny; rather they helped to crush it. The armies of these two southern provinces consisted mainly of the people from the Untouchable castes. Men from Mahar and Pariah communities dominated the armies of Bombay and Madras, respectively. They did not join the revolt of the Brahmins. The mutiny that started in March 1857 came to an end in July the same year. The country bade farewell to a dictatorship and commenced its journey on the path to becoming a democracy.

This article would be incomplete without addressing this question: What was the policy adopted by the British government towards social reforms and the Dalits following the suppression of the mutiny? I will have to refer to Dr Ambedkar here. He writes about it in his research paper, “The Untouchables and the Pax Britannica”, which may compel the present-day Dalit scholars to reconsider their views on the British government.

The East India Company fought its first battle in 1757 and defeated Siraj ud-Daulah in Plassey (Palashi in West Bengal today). Having conquered Bengal, the Company fought its second battle in Koregaon (in today’s Maharashtra). This was the battle that destroyed the Maratha Empire and established the British rule in India. India was won with the help of Indians. Who were the Indians who joined the ranks of the foreigners? Ambedkar observes that it was the Untouchables of India who had joined the armies of the East India Company. Those who participated in the battle of Plassey were Dusadhs, while Mahars fought in Koregaon. In other words, the soldiers who fought for the British armies belonged to the untouchable class. Lord Dalhousie noted this fact in the report he sent to the Peel Commission. As stated earlier, soldiers of the Bombay and Madras armies, majority of whom belonged to the Mahar and Pariah caste, quelled the revolt of 1857. Not only did the Untouchables help the British in establishing their rule in India but they also helped in securing it.

But how did the British government treat the Untouchables for their services? Dr Ambedkar notes that they were not treated fairly. The Company banned recruitment of the Untouchables in 1890. In accordance with its new policy of recruitment, the British divided the Indian people into two categories, martial and non-martial, and banned the Untouchables by labelling them as non-martial.

Should those who fought bravely and helped the British conquer India and also quelled the revolt have been regarded as non-martial? As a matter of fact, they were not placed in the martial category because they were Untouchables.

In terms of the earlier policy, the British army used to select the best available men regardless of caste and religion. But in the new recruitment policy, adopted in 1890, caste became the principal basis for deciding the physical and intellectual ability. Henceforth, a regiment or a company consisted of people from one particular class alone. On this basis, Sikh Regiment, Dogra Regiment, Rajput Regiment and Gorkha Regiment were raised. According to the new policy, they belonged to the martial class.

Here, Ambedkar asks: If regiments could be raised on the basis of class (caste), why could not a regiment of the Untouchables be raised? Secondly, if the principle of recruitment on the basis of the martial class was accepted, then why was the recruitment of the Untouchables  stopped until it was proved that they were non-martial?

Earlier, few people from the upper castes would join the army, so a large number of people from the untouchable castes was recruited. But after the 1857 Mutiny, Dr Ambedkar notes, the ruling castes of India had lost much of their influence. They began joining the British Army in large numbers, which was until then dominated by the Untouchables. The issue of disharmony between the upper-caste Hindus and the Untouchables surfaced. When compelled to choose between justice and convenience, the British have always chosen the latter. They resolved the issue by declaring the Untouchables non-martial and removing them from the ranks. This decision proved disastrous for the Untouchables. A job in the army was symbolic of social change. It gave them self-esteem. Now, the British had discarded them.

Dr Ambedkar further observes that the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 turned the British against all types of social reforms. They did not want to take any risk. They mutiny had shaken them and they felt that they might lose India by carrying on with their social-reform measures. Consequently, they refrained from any kind of social reform. Needless to say, through the mutiny, Brahmanism did partially succeed in exerting some pressure on the British government.

Translation: Pramode Mallik; copy-editing: Parmanand Baiga/Anil

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About The Author

Kanwal bharti

Kanwal Bharti (born February 1953) is a progressive Ambedkarite thinker and one of the most talked-about and active contemporary writers. Dalit Sahitya Kee Avdharna and Swami Achootanand Harihar Sanchayita are his key books. He was conferred with Dr Ambedkar Rashtriya Award in 1996 and Bhimratna Puraskar in 2001

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