Bengal, in the beginning of the year 1857 was actually undergoing metamorphoses-the rent racked peasantry rioted in 1861. A question did arise during that time as to why did the same peasantry remain inert four years earlier. A peasant army led by a nationalist army zamindar somewhere close to Nadia had gathered together in 1857. The army's target was to reach Delhi to help Bahadur Shah Zafar and the sepoys in their monumental anti-British struggle.
The army had disintegrated by the time it crossed Bihar. There are however several stories woven leading to the several reasons why the force could not remain intact as a cohesive unit. But it was inspiringly Bengali in composition. Its recruitment followed a long period of propaganda that convinced people. The mass was surrounded by stolidity and fear that British rule was at an end.
Like any mass movement, 1857 had no head. It had a number of minds and personalities but no particular, representative face. India witnessed a number of peasant uprisings in the pre-1757 period. Beginning from the Bengal Sanyasi revolt in the 1760s and ending with 1856 Santhal Rebellion, these catalysts signified the classic serf skirmishes. All parts, from Tamil Nadu in the south to Karnataka, Goa, Assam, Orissa and Manipur, every state had their share of disturbances. Sepoy mutinies too had occurred and these followed a design not too dissimilar from happenings elsewhere.
However, there were two very Indian happenings that shuddered British rule for some time. One of course was the satyagraha or the dhama seen first in Benaras in 1809. In response to new town-chowkidari duties imposed by the authorities thousands of traders, shopkeepers, government employees and artisans came out in the streets. Squatting near the ghats in an organised manner, they refused to budge even after repeated administrative threats. The move remained peaceful with only a few stray incidents involving local hoodlums and a few policemen.
The British were perplexed; they had no idea how to deal with the situation. The people of Benaras were, however, following a tradition. Satyagraha is an old Indian tactic. Traders had resorted to dhama in Surat and Dacca in Mughal times.
The Benaras situation was diffused only when duties were withdrawn. Then came the Rohilkhand-Bareilly clash in 1815. More than anything else the Bareilly event illustrated an Asian armed mass movement.
Disturbances in the Indian state Bareilly began over a row over the rights of a Muslim Kazi. A British officer had humiliated him. Muslims gradually collected in the mosque. The administration panicked. Soon crowds had come out on the streets, there was a lot of slogan shouting. Then the police charged. The peaceful crowd began collecting arms (the population had not been disarmed). By night the city was on fire. Mobs were attacking governmental buildings. By the next day news reached the countryside. Rajput landlords and peasants congregated in the city forming a small peasant army and fought the British.
Communal harmony was there in the states, despite British attempts to sow religious divisions. What perplexed the Bareilly observers was the rapid nature of mobilisation, there was no visible agency or organisation. Yet within minutes the news had reached town interiors and the villages. By the next day, the British were facing an armed mass insurrection.
So four types of mass resistance defined pre-1857 Indian states: peasant counter-assaults, peaceful satyagraha, armed mass tactics combining the town and the countryside and sepoy mutinies. The fifth element-the resistance of local powers like the Marathas and Jat Raja of Bharatpur, which went on till 1849 and the last Sikh War, can also be added.
All elements came together in 1857. There was also the sixth element of a political coup achieved by Meerut mutineers. The mutineers had reached Delhi and performed the political act of freeing Bahadur Shah Zafar (also known as Bahadur Shah II) from British clutches and restoring him as India's emperor.
Satyagraha was used extensively in the pre-1757 period. Wajid Ali Shah, the last nawab of Oudh was the man par excellence of the hour. The nawab had initiated an unexpected mode of resistance. It looked eccentric at first, in tune with the image built of him by the British.
Immediately after Oudh's annexation, Wajid Ali decided on making a public show of leaving Oudh. This might have been normal in other circumstances, but it made the British jittery. The vidaai (ceremonial farewell) turned out to be a huge spectacle-exactly the kind of effect Wajid Ali intended. Hindus and Muslims thronged the Qaiserbagh gates, many of them weeping while the king stood helplessly consoling his people.
Some Britishers thought that the king was being humiliated. They had no idea of the spectacle's impact on the minds of the people. Wajid Ali Shah was a king people held in regard, who in turn valued their traditions and gave them a voice. And, he was being forced to leave like a castaway, from a city he had built. The British had offered transport and were quite willing to extend all hospitality. But Wajid Ali, who knew the Awadhian (Oudh) emotional make-up, wanted a showdown of a different kind. Lucknow citizens quoted the humiliation of their king during several later uprisings.
Earlier Wajid Ali had refused to sign on an annexation treaty despite a large amount being offered. The artful Wajid Ali was playing politics here. His very subservience was defiant. By refusing to sign the treaty while reiterating his family's close ties with the British, he was shifting the moral burden of Awadh's (Oudh) annexation to the British. In one stroke he was wiping away the charges of nepotism and misrule the British had used to annex his kingdom.
The message that the king did not sign the treaty and went on to disband his army had an electrifying effect: "In a fit of petulance, the King had ordered all his troops, at the capital, to be at once paid up, and discharged, from the 24th of this Mahomedan month... .As the peace of the city might be disturbed in consequence of this measure...." The British were apprehensive of the king's conduct. They felt that he was acting against his own interests.
Secretly Wajid Ali had left Hazrat Mahal behind with instructions to resist when the time came. Many propagandists sent by him were active along with Bahadur Shah's men in keeping the movement alive. Sepoys (soldiers) were sour over Awadh's (Oudh) annexation. It was their country and was now under white rule.
In Barrackpore, Indian sepoy troops were in the habit of encroaching upon peasant lands, destroying crops during target practice or marches. One such instance somewhere in the month of February 1857 made the peasants come out. The gang was led by the local priest. They sat on a dharna in the local town-square. The police could not remove them. Soon shopkeepers and traders joined them, listing their own grievances.
Sepoys were sent to scatter the satyagrahis. It was a British policy to use sepoys, to quell internal disturbances. But the policy could also backfire.
Beginning in 1764, the constant mutinies of the Bengal Army showed that there was something seriously wrong with the basis on which it was organised. The 1824-25 mutinies in Barrackpore and Rangpore clearly revealed the sepoys (soldiers) as having a mind of their own.
On the fateful Barrackpore day, Mangal Pandey, the legendary freedom fighter, had held back his comrades saying too much was at stake. They could not continue oppressing their own countrymen. Mangal Pandey was a sipahi (soldier) in the 34th Regiment of the Bengal Native Infantry (BNI). He was part of the 5th Company. He was the very first man to manifestly revolt against the British forces in Barrackpore. Being a staunch Hindu, he was terribly furious about the cartridge that had been issued to the soldiers to be loaded into the newly-issued P-53 Enfield Rifle. The cartridge was rumoured to have been waxed and greased with cow and pig fat. As cow was considered sacred by the Hindus and pigs the same for Muslims, Mangal Pandey had tried to incite his fellow sipahis to revolt against such defilement. As a consequence, Pandey had to meet the shattering wrath of English rulers. Mangal Pandey was clearly speaking the language of a mass movement propagandist. He mentioned the sepoy suppression of the Santhal Rebellion. Later during 1857 proper, Jharkhand tribes were to join up with the sepoy units in Hazaribagh and Ranchi.
The role of a ringleader, in preparing his men for a revolt, to articulate the right things at the right time without revealing his plans, is exemplary. By linking two separate instances, the Santhal happening and Barrackpore, Mangal Pandey had performed a political act of providing perspective.
The immediate impact of Mangal's tirade was not very encouraging. Sepoys did not listen and though they did not harm the satyagrahis, they made them leave with a show of arms.
Nakki Khan, Mangal Pandey's long trusted boyhood companion and Mangal had a long conversation after the Barrackpore town event. Nakki was particularly angry at the attitude of Bihar Muslims and the difficulties faced by the Walliullah-ites. Nakki also mentioned how Azimullah Khan, Nana Sahib's secretary, was sending money to Bihar and Hyderabad. But beyond Kunwar Singh, the fiery Rajput leader, the Bihar Rajas were unwilling to join the move. In Hyderabad where a young Nawab has just come to power, a pro-British party was influencing Salar Jung, the Nawab's Vizier and Hyderabad's effective ruler.
Clearly times were not encouraging. The sepoy, though sullen and disaffected, needed a spark. 1857 after all was not a coup by a military top brass. It was a stratagem brought about by the people with ordinary soldiers as their vanguard. Sepoys were dependent, doubly on their officers, as they did not have senior ones from their ranks. Even those who entertained the idea of a mutiny were unsure as to who was going to command once the officers were killed.
There was an inevitable clash of values and relations. The clash was reaching the point of strain. But the negatives cancelled out the positives in favour of revolution.
People realised that something else and something more dramatic had to be done. Torch lit meetings were held and lots of options were discussed. Some favoured a general attack on Calcutta by Behrampore and Barrackpore regiments. While others went the glib way, arguing for their grievances being put before the white officers, to fool and later attack them. Money became a major consideration. Nana Sahib was reputed not to have enough hard cash. The Lucknow sahukars had raised money in Kathiawar and Bhuj. In proper Bengal, where perhaps the initial strategy of attacking Calcutta was still strong, there was the question of contacting the regiments as far as Assam and Dacca (presently in Bangladesh).
It was soon realised that someone would have to come forward to bell the cat. It was imperative for a martyr to emerge. Someone who could lead by example, break the miscellaneous sepoy hesitations and crack the bond that existed between the black Sepoy and the White officer.