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The Truth About The Indian Mutiny of 1857:
Part II





Continued from yesterday ...



The people of the Punjab were the worst and most recent sufferers at their hands.

In addition to the Poorbia sepoys who fought against them under the British in 1845-46 and 1848-49, it was the Poorbia soldiers of fortune, Tej Singh and Lal Singh - the Commander-in-Chief and Prime Minister of the Punjab - who had entered into secret agreements with the British and betrayed the Sikhs in the first Anglo-Sikh War.

Again, it was mostly with the help of the Poorbia regiments and Poorbia civilian subordinate officials that the Punjab was being held under British subjection, in 1857 when the mutiny took place. As such, the people of the Punjab, particularly the Sikhs, could not have looked upon them as worthy of their support in a cause which threatened them with the re-establishment of Mughal tyranny of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.


"The Sikhs," says Dr. Majumdar, "were the last defenders of the liberty of India". But "the sepoys (Poorbias') ... had not the least scruple to fight the Sikhs ... We have not the least evidence to show that the Indian leaders like Nana Sahib and others raised their little finger to help the cause of the Sikhs ... It is difficult to resist the conclusion,"' he continues, "'that the attitude and activities of the sepoys in 1849 certainly did not correspond to the patriotic fervour with which they are supposed to be endowed in 1857."

Moreover, the conduct of the mutineers and their leaders in Meerut, Delhi, and other places was not such as to give others the impression of the insurrection being anything like national or of common interest and of benefit to the people of the country at large.

The indiscriminate massacre of Indian Christians on the basis of their religion and of unsuspecting Englishmen, and their innocent women and children, were the worst type of blood-thirstiness that sent throughout the country a thrill of horror and hatred against the mutineers and alienated the sympathies of their prospective friends.

And when Bahadur Shah wrote to Indian princes on behalf of the mutineers, nobody took any serious notice of his letters, and some of them resolutely refused to identify themselves with the unscrupulous rebels.


Although the movement had begun as a military mutiny of the Bengal Army, that army itself did not as a whole join it, but a large section of it actively fought on the side of the government to suppress it. The Madras and Bombay armies took no part in it. The mutiny could not, as such, be called a general mutiny of the Indian Army.


With  the sepoys not having the overthrow of the East India Company's rule as their objective, nor any concerted plan of campaign, and their leaders being positively selfish and treacherous, playing a double game, it is a cruel misinterpretation of history to call it a war of Indian Independence. And it would be the height of injustice to accuse for its failure those who happened not to join this aimless, planless, and leaderless uprising.

The Punjabis were not alone in not joining the revolt. They could not have joined it for reasons that have been stated at some length.

The Bengalis, the Marathas, the Madrasis and the Malabaris, whose love for the independence of India has been in no way less than that of anyone else in the country, took no part in it. The Rajputs, the Jats, the Dogras and the Garhwalis kept studiedly aloof. The educated communities of Bengal and Madras openly condemned the rising and denounced the mutiny and the mutineers.

The  co-operation of the Sikhs with the mutineers could not have made much difference, nor could it have contributed much to their success. There were the Punjabi Musalmans, the Bahwalpuri Daudpotras, the Baluchis, and the Frontier Pathans who were dead opposed to the mutineers.

The strength of the East India Company's rule in India depended mostly on the naval power of England. The rising in the Punjab could not have placed any obstacles in the way of their reinforcements from West. A few more murders of Englishmen in the Punjab or even a military defeat of the British in that province could not have ended the rule of the Company in India and freed her from the British yoke.


"The Sepoy Mutiny was not a fight freedom," says, Sir Jadunath Sarkar. "It was not a rising of the people for political determination, but a conspiracy of mercenary soldiers (only of the North Indian army) to prevent the cunning destruction of their religion by defiling their bodies with pig's lard and cow’s fat which were used in lubricating the paper parcels of cartridges ..."

"A number of dispossessed dynasts, both Hindu and Muslim, exploited the well-founded caste-suspicions of the sepoys and made these simple folk their cat's paw in gamble for recovering their thrones. The last scions of the Delhi Mughals or the Oudh Nawabs and the Peshwa, can by no ingenuity be called fighters for Indian freedom" (Hindusthan Standard, Puja Annual, 195 p. 22).

The mutiny of 1857 failed not because the Sikhs, or the people of the Punjab, or of any other State or province, did not join it, but because it had no noble sentiment behind it, no plan to guide it and no sincere leader to see it through.

"The failure of the outbreak," according to Dr. Majumdar, "may also be attributed to the fact that neither the leaders, nor the sepoys and masses were inspired by any high ideal. The lofty sentiments of patriotism and nationalism, with which they are credited, do not appear to have any basis in fact. As a matter of fact, such ideas were no yet familiar to Indian minds."


"In the light of the available evidence, we are forced to the conclusion," says Maulana Abul Kalam Azad [India's first Minister of Education and a scloar in his own right], "that the uprising of 1857 was not the result of careful planning, nor were there any master-minds behind it ... As I read about the events of 1857, I am forced to the conclusion," he continues, "that the Indian national character had sunk very low. The leaders of the revolt could never agree. They were mutually jealous and continually intrigued against one another ... In fact these personal jealousies and intrigues were largely responsible for the Indian defeat."


History takes no cognizance of the sentiments of people coming a century after the event, twisting and molding it, mixing politics with history, to give it the color and appearance which never belonged to it.

My conclusions are based on fact which have not so far been controverted by anyone. They are not only my conclusions. They are also the conclusions of the greatest authorities on the history of India - Dr. Sir Jadunath Sarkar, Dr. Romesh C. Mazumdar and Dr. Surendranath Sen. They are scholars of international fame and are acknowledged as the leading educationists of India. They have been the Vice-Chancellors of the Universities of Calcutta, Dacca and Delhi. Their conclusions have not only been accepted, but also supported by the late Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, the Education Minister of the Government of India, and other men of sound learning and judgment.

One of my critics thinks that I have 'derisively' referred to the soldiers of the Bengal Army as 'Poorbia'. Not at all. If he were to refer to contemporary records of the Central and provincial governments and to the regimental histories of the then Bengal Army, he would find the words 'Poorbia' and 'Hindoostanee' then commonly used for men from beyond the Jamuna. (See MacMunn's The Armies of India, The Punjab Mutiny Reports, and Regimental History of the 54th Sikhs).

And in the Punjab, the word Poorbia was more commonly used than Hindoostanee as it continues to the present day, and there is no derision attached to it.


According to regimental records, there was only one Sikh Regiment at Dera Ismail Khan when the Mutiny broke out at Meerut on May 10, 1857, and that was the 3rd Sikh Infantry. Although it carried a Sikh name, it was not completely Sikh in its composition. Like the other three Sikh regiments, it had 50 per cent Panjabi Muslims from Jhelum and Rawalpindi, Pathans from across the Indus, Dogras from the Shivalaks and Hindoostanees (Poorbias) from the other side of the Jamuna. It was among the last named Hindoostanee sepoys of the 3rd Sikh Infantry (and not among the Sikhs, the Panjabi Mussalmans, or the Dogras) that the plot to murder British officers was discovered. To quote from the regimental history:

"In July it came to the notice of the Commanding Officer that some of the Hindoostanees had been talking in a very mutinous and insubordinate manner regarding the disturbances in Hindoostan, and all efforts failing to discover the ringleaders, he determined to disarm the whole, which was accordingly done…They consisted of 4 native officers, 12 Havildars, 26 Naiks, 60 Privates" (Hist. Rec of 3rd Sikhs, pp.10-11).

This is supported by the Punjab Mutiny Report by R. Montgomery, pp. 67-68, paragraphs 107-08. Another conspiracy reported at Dera Ismail Khan was amongst the 39th Native Infantry composed exclusively of the Poorbia sepoys who had quietly surrendered their arms.

The  argument that 'the democratic Press of the various European countries hailed the 1857 uprising as a national revolt of the Indian people' carries no weight with a man of history. It was nothing more than political propaganda of the jealous anti-British European countries against England, and was meaningless as the present-day propaganda of several European and American countries against the Soviet Union, and China.


It is true that the Punjabis were not devoid of patriotic fervor. I would be the last man to say that. But what they could not believe was that the Poorbia soldiers, who had been the most devoted henchmen of the British for a hundred years, who had helped the British to subjugate the Marathas, the Rajputs, the Jats, the Gurkhas, the Pathans and Sikhs, and were garrisoning the Punjab for the British even during the mutiny, could have turned patriots overnight.

Such a movement for which various mutual fraternities of Indian people had not been consulted and taken into confidence, and which was openly denounced by the people of Bengal and Madras, and was not joined by the people of Maharashtra, Bombay, Gujrat, Sindh, and Rajasthan, could not according to the Punjabis be a national movement.

The Poorbias alone did not constitute the Indian nation, nor was nationalism the name of whatever they did, whether it was the indiscriminate murder of innocent women and children, the plunder and spoliation of their own countrymen, or secret negotiations with the British to further their personal interests.


There is no denying the fact that there was no understanding between the Hindus and Muslims. It is true that the majority of the Poorbia soldiers were high-caste Hindus and they sought shelter under the banner of the Mughal emperor who was raised to the throne. The emperor was practically a helpless puppet in the hands of his sons and of Muslim lieutenants, who had all the power and authority in their own hands. The efforts at Hindu-Muslim unity were mostly one-way traffic.

Having broken with the government, and not supported by either Hindu Rajput, Maratha, Dogra, and Gurkha princes or the people, the Hindu sepoys were left with no alternative other than following the Muslim leaders who saw in the success of the Mutiny the revival of Muslim rule in the country.

Emperor Bahadur Shah favored them with the prohibition of cow slaughter in Delhi on the occasion of Id, and Khan Bahadur Khan of Bareilly also offered to prohibit cow-killing, not for Hindu-Muslim unity or for respect for Hindu sentiments, but only as a bargain for killing Englishmen. 'If the Hindoos will come forward to slay the English,' said he, 'the Mohamedans will from that very day put a stop to the slaughter of cows.' This needs no comments.

The unfurling of the green flag of the holy jihad, and the plunder and massacre of Hindus in Delhi, Bareilly, Bijnor, Moradabad and other places were certainly not the symbols of Hindu-Muslim unity. Nor was the Muslim attempt to hoist the "green flag" on the Hindu temple of Bisheshwar at Benaras the result of friendly regard for the Hindus.

"The communal hatred," says Dr. Majumdar, "led to ugly communal riots in many parts of U.P. The green flag was hoisted and Muslims in Bareilly, Bijnor, Moradabad, and other places the Muslims shouted for the revival of Muslim kingdom." 

On the authority of the Bidrohi Bengali of Durgadas Bandyopadhyaya, an eye-witness, Dr. Majumdar tells us: "the demon of communalism also raised its head. The Muslims spat over the Hindus and openly defiled their houses by sprinkling them with cows' blood and placing cows' bones within the compounds. Concrete instances are given where Hindu sepoys came into clash with Muslim hooligans and a complete riot ensued. The Hindus, oppressed by the Muslims, were depressed at the success of the Mutiny, and daily offered prayers to God for the return of 'the English.' " This was the foretaste of the feared revival of the Muslim rule.

In spite of this all, if some people wish to live in a state of hallucination and believe that there was a complete friendly understanding and great communal harmony between Muslims and Hindus at all stages in the Mutiny, they are most welcome to do so, but they should not expect a student of history to be one with them. Past history has to be recorded as it was and not as we wish it to be presented a century afterwards. It cannot be written to order, or molded and remolded, according to the changing times.


That the mutineers behaved worse than bands of plunderers and professional dacoits is proved by a large numbers of petitions submitted to Emperor Bahadur Shah, and his instructions and orders issued thereon to the military and police authorities.

According to the evidence on record, the mutineers took law into their own hands and helped themselves with whatever they wished to take away. "The bad examples set by the Mughal princes and rebel leaders encouraged the soldiers to enter any house in and outside the city of Delhi, billet themselves on whomever they wished and carry away whatever they liked. There is nothing on record to support the argument advanced to defend or to explain away the conduct of the mutineers, that the rebels harmed only those (Indians) who either refused to give supplies to them or were suspected of being in league with the British."

The Emperor forwarded the petitions of helpless sufferers to Prince Mirza Mughal for affording protection. But finding that his orders were not obeyed, the Emperor wrote to his son, Mirza Mughal, on June 18 : "It is surprising that, up to the present time, no arrangements should have been made ... It. is the business of the Army to protect, and not to desolate and plunder."

On 19 June, the residents of Jaisinghpura and Paharganj complained that "the Troops of the State ... oppressing the shopkeepers forcibly take away their wares, without the payment of prices, and also, entering the dwelling houses … forcibly carry away all such articles ... that they can lay hands on, and wound with fire-arms and swords those who may supplicate their forbearance." 

In his order of June 27, the Emperor wrote to Princes Mughal and Khair Sultan: "Not a day has elapsed since the arrival of the army, and its taking up quarters in the city, that petitions from the towns-people have not been submitted, representing the excesses committed by numerous Infantry sepoys ... You, our sons, are directed to take all proper steps to prevent the men of the Army from plundering and desolating the city."

Syed  Abdulla, priest of the shrine of Hazrat Sheikh Muhamad Chisti, petitioned on June 29 that 'the whole of the autumnal crop of sugarcane, chmreg, etc. ... has been totally devastated, and more than this, the very implements of agriculture, such as ploughs, woodwork on wells, have all been carried away, in plunder by soldiers.'

Similarly, petitions from all types of people, rich and poor, Hindus and Muslims, came in from all quarters of the capital, and from towns and rural areas, complaining against the depredations of the mutineers. In his orders to Prince Mughal, the Emperor tells him 'that Troopers of Cavalry come from Jodhpur have picquetted their horses in front of the shops and have taken possession of a number of them,' and that the rebel Gujjars of Aliganj, Mallanji, Hasangarh and Alapur 'are now engaged in highway robbery and in plundering the country'.


But who cared for the wishes and orders of poor Bahadur Shah, a helpless puppet in the hands of the mutineers?

They only meant to use his name to have their own way. And, when they found that his wishes clashed with their own, they just ignored him. Openly disobeyed and insulted by the mutineers, Emperor Bahadur Shah, in disgust, threatened to abdicate and leave the capital and commit suicide, as is evident from his memoranda August 9, 1857, addressed to the officers of the Army at Delhi. He says:

"If you are not disposed to comply with these requests, let me be conveyed, in safety, to the shrine of Khwaja Sahib, I shall there sit and employ myself in the occupation of mujavir (sweeper) and, if this even is acceded not to, I shall relinquish every concern, and go away. Let those who think they can detain me attempt to do so. Not having been killed by the hands of English, I shall be killed by yours. Further, the oppression that is at present inflicted on the people, it is inflicted on me. It is incumbent on you all to take measures to prevent it. Or let me have my answer, and I shall swallow a diamond and kill myself."

Even this had no effect, and there was no improvement in the attitude and conduct of the mutineers. Emperor Bahadur Shah, therefore, resolved to discard the world, to adopt the garb of a faqir and go to the shrine of Khwaja Kutb-ud-Din and thence proceed to the holy city of Mecca. One can hardly imagine the agony and mental torture to which the helpless Emperor was subjected by the misbehavior of the mutineers and their leaders.

The following extracts from the order of Bahadur Shah addressed to his son, Mirza Mughal, speak volumes for themselves and leave no ground for any further comments on the point under discussion:

'Repeated injunctions have been issued prohibiting plunder and aggression in the city, but all to no purpose; for although ten days have now elapsed, the same evils are prevailing to the present time ... Regiments of Infantry have thoroughly desolated several of the bazaars. Moreover, without reference to night or day they enter and plunder the houses of inhabitants on false pleas ... They force open locks and shop-doors, and they forcibly loose the horses of cavalry and take them off ... A notification, under special seal was issued publicly proclaiming that courts of justice had been established in the city, and prohibiting acts of violence on the part of solidery. This even had no effect …

'They now clamorously demand allowances daily, and above all, daily take allowance for more men than are present … Under these circumstances, how it is to be believed that these people can have the welfare of the state at heart, or that they cherish and desire to yield subjection and obedience to the royal authority? … Wearied and helpless, we have now resolved on making a vow to pass the remainder of our days in service acceptable to God ... assuming the garb of a religious mendicant, to proceed first and stay at the shrine of Saint Khwaja Sahib, and, after making necessary arrangements for the journey, to go eventually to Mecca.'

Men such as these who would observe no discipline, recognize no authority, and obey no orders, even of the supreme head of the State, and who would indulge in cold-blooded murder of women and children, despoil their own countrymen, and rob their own exchequer by fraud and dishonesty, are a disgrace to any movement, and cannot, in truth, be hailed as champions of a national cause.


The Sikhs according to one calculation, formed hardly 10 per cent of the population in the Punjab, at the time of the Mutiny, and the remaining 90 per cent of the Punjabis were Hindus and Muslims. If the Sikhs had, for some reasons, kept aloof from the mutineers, why did not the Hindus and Muslims of the Punjab join them?

One may ask! The 90 per cent majority could have easily ignored the 10 per cent or brushed them aside. In the all-India calculation, the Sikhs would hardly be 1 per cent, and they could not have successfully opposed the 99 per cent majority of the Hindus and Muslims, if they were all united and there was complete harmony amongst them, as claimed by a certain writer.

The  truth is that not only the people of the Panjab (the Hindus, the Muslims, and the Sikhs) kept aloof from the mutineers, but the people of Bengal, Madras, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Sindh, Rajasthan, Jammu and Kashmir and the North-Western Frontier also did not join them. Some of them actually opposed them. Not only this, out of the three Presidency Armies - Bengal, Madras and Bombay - it was only a part of the Bengal Army that had mutinied.

The other parts fought on the side of the British to suppress it. The Madras and Bombay armies remained quiet and loyal. Evidently, the Poorbia soldiers had failed to win the sympathies of their own class of people in the South and South-West as in the West and North-West.

Surely there was, then, something fundamentally wrong with the Mutiny and its leaders that kept the majority of the Indian people and army away from them.

In the first place, the movement had nothing national or patriotic about it. The idea of India being one nation had yet to grow in the country. The conduct of the mutineers and their leaders in Delhi, Meerut and other places was not such as to convey to others the impression of the Mutiny being anything like national or of common interest and benefit.

The cry of din and dharma, raised by the mutineers and Emperor Bahadur Shah, carried no weight with the people at large. Beyond this, there was no common popular aim to appeal to and attract the people.

The past record of the Poorbia soldiers was not creditable enough to win the confidence of the non-Poorbias. Then, there was no plan for the Mutiny on an all-India basis. The non-Poorbias had not been consulted nor invited.

And, lastly, the mutineers failed to produce from among themselves, or win over from amongst the people, sincere and selfless leaders who could command respect and obedience.

There was no mutual understanding between the Hindus and Muslims, and between the various social, economic and geographic fraternities of the country for a joint effort against the British. The exhibition of blood thirstiness in the murder of women and children sent throughout the country a thrill of horror and hatred against the mutinous sepoys and alienated the sympathies of their probable friends.

All this put together was responsible for the failure of the Mutiny of 1857.




Dr. Ganda Singh was a celebrated historian (1900 - 1987), who by his sustained and pioneer work in the field of historical research initiated new trends in historiography. The Government of India honoured him with the award of Padma Bhushan in 1983. The Indian History Congress honoured him in November 1987 as one of the "five distinguished historians of India". 

May 27, 2012



Conversation about this article

1: Joan E. Freyer (San Diego, California, U.S.A.), June 21, 2012, 6:33 PM.

I am writing a historical novel on 1857 and I like your take on the events. As a Yank I am familiar with civil wars and am writing about 1857 based on the view of 1857 being a civil war between loyalists and rebels much like the American Civil War. Stressing the civil war angle means no one is right or wrong or a traitor or stooge but simply divided by tragic counterviews. 1857 was a turning point for India: go forward and modernize or go back in time. Saying 3/4ths of Indians were traitors/stooges for opposing the rebels seems wrong to me. As a Yank I admit the South was romantic but ultimately it was flawed and while the sepoy rebels were romantic, ultimately they were embracing the same sort of romantic nostalgic tunnel vision of a past as well. I find a lot of paradox in discussions of 1857 that as a Yank I cannot understand. But I suppose a lot of Indians might find the American Civil War a paradox as well.

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Part II"

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