(Last Updated on : 27-03-2012)
Barrackpur insurgency is legendary in the first freedom movement, creating colossal furore among the British. The excitement at Barrackpur was in such a state, that it did not seem to diminish. Isolated actions on the part of the sipahis, indicating a very mutinous spirit, were reported to the Governor-General. The conspiring, which had led to the trial and sentence to fourteen years' penal servitude of several sipahis, had produced considerable perplexity in the minds of the authorities. But they still refused to believe that there was anything like a general plot. They preferred to think that the hostility was confined to some men of one regiment only, or to a few men belonging to two regiments. The suspicions of the rebellious men were not, it was hoped, so deeply rooted as to be proof against argument. The Government was conscious of its own innocence. It entertained no evil intentions against the sipahis. It had no desire to move to the right or to the left out of the path it had un-deviatingly followed for exactly a century. If this could be made clear to the men, all would assuredly go well. Lord Canning had authorised General Hearsey to try the experiment once, and General Hearsey believed that his arguments had produced some effect. He was anxious to try once again the powers of his oratory. He therefore persuaded Lord Canning
to authorise him to address the men of the four regiments in language and in terms which he had talked over with the Governor-General.
The parade took place on the Barrackpur
plain, on the 17th of March, three days before the actual arrival of the 84th from Rangoon (Yangon). General Hearsey spoke eloquently and well. He pointed out to the men the childishness of their fears; he entered into full details regarding the necessity to use lubricated cartridges with the new muskets; he told them that the Government were resolved to maintain discipline, and that they would dispense stern justice to the 19th by dissolving that regiment. He concluded by assuring the sipahis of the brigade that they had nothing to fear, that their caste and religious convictions were safe, and that their officers would listen patiently to any complaint they might make.
But the speech failed to touch the inner minds of the sipahis (soldiers). These were inspired by men who had a great object in view-a political object of vast importance-the detaching of the sipahi army from the foreign Government. But for these men the question of the greased cartridge would never have arisen; the waxed patches had been used without complaint for years. The emissaries of the Maulavi and his comrades had done their homework systematically. The midnight conferences in the huts of the sipahis, not at Barrackpur only, but in all the principal stations of the North-western Provinces of India, had gone to but one point-the embedding of a conviction in the mind of the native soldiers that the foreign masters who had annexed Oudh would hesitate at nothing to complete their work of forcing them to become Christians. They had disregarded the arguments of General Hearsey beforehand. As they had pointed out that a Government which, in defiance of treaties, had entered Oudh like 'a thief in the night,' and overthrew the native sovereign at the point of the bayonet, would shrink from no means, to complete the scheme of which the annexation had been the first move. It was not a logical argument, and the European mind would have found it full of flaws; but the emissaries knew the men they were addressing. The comrades appealed to the sentiments which touched the sipahis to the quick. It is not surprising, then, that the logical arguments of General Hearsey produced no effect whatsoever.
Evidence of this was very speedily given. On the 29th of March, a Sunday afternoon, it was reported to Lieutenant Baugh, Adjutant of the 34th N. I. in Barrackpur, that several men of his regiment were in a very excited condition. One of them, Mangal Pandey by name, was striding up and down in front of the lines of his regiment, armed with a loaded musket, calling upon the men to rise, and threatening to shoot the first European he should see. Baugh at once buckled on his sword, and putting loaded pistols in his holsters, mounted his horse, and galloped down to the lines. Mangal Pandey heard the sound of the galloping horse, and taking post behind the station gun, which was in front of the quarter-guard of the 34th, took a deliberate aim at Baugh, and fired. He missed Baugh, but the bullet struck his horse in the flank, and horse and rider were brought to the ground. Baugh quickly disentangled himself, and, seizing one of his pistols, advanced towards the mutinous sipahi and fired. He missed. Before he could draw his sword Pandey, armed with a talwar (Indian for 'sword') with which he had provided himself, closed with his adjutant, and, being the stronger man, brought him to the ground. He would probably have despatched him, but for the timely intervention of a Muhammadan sipahi, Shaikh Paltu by name.
The scene had taken place in front of the quarter-guard of the 34th N. I., and but thirty steps from it. The sipahis composing that guard had not made the smallest attempt to interfere between the combatants, although one of them was their own adjutant and the other a mutinous soldier. The sound of the firing had brought other men from the lines, but these, too, remained passive spectators of the scene. At the conjuncture, i.e., as Shaikh Paltu had warded from Baugh the fatal stroke of the talwar, and as Mangal Pandey, to be doubly assured, was attempting to reload his musket, there arrived on the ground, the English serjeant-major, breathless from running. He was one of the two English non-commissioned officers attached in those days to each native regiment. The new arrival rushed at the mutineer, but he was breathless, whilst the sipahi was fresh and on the alert. In the conflict between the two men Mangal Pandey had no difficulty in gaining the mastery, and in overthrowing his adversary. Still the sipahis of the regiment looked on. Shaikh Paltu, faithful among the faithless, continued to defend the two officers, calling upon the other sipahis to come to his aid. Then these, on the order of the Jamadar (this was a rank used in the British Indian Army, where it was the lowest rank for a Viceroy's Commissioned Officer) of guard, advanced to the position. Instead, however, of endeavouring to seize Mangal Pandey, they struck at the two prostrate officers with the butt-ends of their muskets. They even threatened Shaikh Paltu, and ordered him to let go his hold on Pandey. That faithful sipahi, however, continued to cling to him until Baugh and the sergeant-major had had time to rise.
Meanwhile rumour, as quick as lightning on such occasions, had brought to General Hearsey an account of the proceedings at the lines. That gallant officer, writing hurried notes to the officers commanding at Dam-Dam (present day Dum Dum
) and Chunchura
, galloped to the ground, accompanied by his two sons. The scene that met his gaze was unprecedented even in his long experience. He saw Mangal Pandey, musket in hand, striding up and down in front of the quarter-guard, calling upon his comrades to follow his example. He saw the sipahis crowding about the guard, waiting apparently for a leader to respond to their comrade's call. He saw the wounded Baugh, and the bruised sergeant-major, the commanding officer of the 34th, who had arrived just before him, and other English officers who had hastened or were hastening to the spot. The moment was a critical one. It depended upon his action whether the Barrackpur sipahi brigade would then and there break out in open mutiny. But Hearsey was equal to the critical conjuncture. Riding straight to the guard, he drew his pistol, and ordered them to do their duty by seizing Mangal Pandey, threatening to shoot the first man who should display the smallest symptom of disobedience. For a second only was there hesitation. But a glance at Hearsey's stern face, and at his two sons by his side, dissipated it. The men of the guard fell in, and followed Hearsey in the direction where Pandey was still reproaching them for their cowardice in leaving him unsupported. Then the mutinous sipahi recognised that with him the game was up. Turning then the muzzle of the musket to his breast, he discharged it by the pressure of his foot, and fell burned and bleeding to the ground.
Hearsey then addressed the men, and reproached them with their passive demeanour. The excuses they made, that Mangal Pandey was mad, that he was intoxicated, that he had a loaded musket, ought to have convinced Hearsey that the hearts of the men were no longer with their British officers. He felt, indeed, that the situation was becoming greatly strained. The 19th N. I. was actually marching from Barhampur to be disbanded at Barrackpur. And now the sipahis of the four regiments of the Barrackpur brigade had displayed indiscipline at least equal to that for which the 19th were to be punished in their presence. Rumours of all kinds filled the air-the rumour that the outbreak of Mangal Pandey had been preconcerted, but had broken out too soon; another that the arrival of the 19th would be the signal for a general rising; a third, a day or two later, that a conference between emissaries from the 34th and the 19th had taken place on the 30th, at Barasat, one march from Barrackpur. It is possible that these rumours were true. But the mutinous army had no leader at Barrackpur, and for want of a leader, and in the presence of divided counsels, action collapsed.
On the 30th of March the Government concentrated in Barrackpur the newly arrived 84th foot, a wing of the 53rd, two batteries of European artillery, and the Governor-General's Bodyguard, which, though composed of natives was then believed to be loyal. The next morning the 19th N. I. marched towards Barrackpur. There, in presence of the English regiments and the English-manned guns, and of the native brigade, the order of the Governor-General, stating their crime, and declaring their fears for their religion as absurd, was read out to them. They were then ordered to pile their arms, and to hang their belts upon the piled bayonets. They obeyed without a murmur. They were then marched to a distance from their arms, and the pay due to them was distributed. They were allowed, mistakenly as it turned out, to retain their uniforms, and the compliance of the Government went so far as to provide them with carriage to convey them to their homes. The Government, despite all that had occurred, was still in a fog. One or two circumstances showed the temper of the Government at this juncture. The gallant conduct of Shaikh Paltu, on the morning of the 29th of March, had presented so great a contrast to that of his comrades that Hearsey, with a true soldier's instinct, had then and there promoted him to be a Hawaldar, or native sergeant. For this act, which, though 'ultra vires,' was justified by the special circumstances of the case, he was reprimanded by the Government. The general impression prevailed that the disbandment of the 19th would produce so beneficial an effect throughout India that it was announced to the whole army in terms which, displayed an absolute ignorance of the real feelings of the sipahis. The Government thought that that disbandment had closed the chapter of the Mutiny, when in reality it was only the first page of the preface.
The wound of the mutinous sipahis Mangal Pandey had not proved mortal. He recovered, was brought to trial, and hanged. The Jamadar who had incited the sipahis of the quarter-guard to refrain from assisting their officer met the same fate a little later (April 22). Meanwhile, the Government had made a generalised searching enquiry into the conduct of the men of the 34th N. I. And after much hesitation, moved also by events at Lakhnao (present day Lucknow), Lord Canning came to the determination to disband that regiment also (May 4). Two days later the seven companies of that regiment which were at Barrackpur were paraded in the presence of the 84th foot, a wing of the 53rd, and two batteries of European artillery, and were disbanded. They were not allowed to keep their uniforms, but were marched out of the station with every show of dishonour. Thus five hundred insurrectionists, embittered against the Government, were turned loose on the country at a very critical period.