History is around us in that the street signs of our cities are like time capsules. Driving along the Western Main Road, one passes Lucknow Street and Delhi Street. Both these suburban streets recall an awful period in the ‘History of the British Raj’, as the domination of the Indian subcontinent by the British was romantically called.
“There is a most mysterious affair going on through the whole of India at present,” an English medical officer wrote home to his sister towards the end of March 1857. “No one seems to know the meaning of it, whether it is religious or if it has to do with some sort of secret society. It is called the ‘chupatti movement’.”
The British were in India almost by default. Their conquest, if it could be called that, had more to do with their wresting control from the French trading interest, than with conquering armies. Their own trading company, the East India Company, had established a powerful hegemony over many of the Indian states by the mid-1700s. It monopolised trade and took control over the administrative apparatus of the princely states in the waning of the former illustrious Mogul empire.
The East India Company had a huge bureaucratic organisation in place and a standing army to force its controls. Indeed, it had grown so powerful, that by an act entitled the ‘India Act of 1784’, passed by parliament, the British government sought to control the officials of the company, and had in fact established a governor general in Calcutta.
The armies controlled by the company were manned by native infantry men, known as ‘sepoys’, and by native cavalrymen, sowars. There were also native officers in each regiment, though the most senior amongst them were subordinate to the most junior British officer and could not give orders even to a British sergeant major.
It was in these regiments of the East India Company that the unrest which manifested itself in the mysterious portent of 1857 first broke out in violence. The mystery surrounded a strange action that seemed to suddenly start. Chupattis, a sort of alloo or flour-based soft bread, began to be passed from hand to hand. Through the night, men were running through the jungle, across the grasslands, from village to village, with bundles of chupattis in their turbans, handing them over to village watchmen, who in turn passed them on.
No one had a clue where this had started, or who had started it. It was followed by a mysterious slogan ‘Sub lal hogea hai’ (Everything has become red) whispered in the bazaars. Fakirs, holy men, were roaming all over the countryside, gathering anxious crowds about them, warning of the designs of the foreigners, had upon them the threat to their lives, their families and their faith.
The British administration had evolved over the 100 years of its presence in India from benign and accommodating to domineering and arrogant. The native army felt oppressed. Many had real grievances and fears. This was shared by the population at large and had its origins in land reforms, imposed by the East India Company and the governor general.
These reforms impacted on the Indian princes and affected the farmers and peasants. They had to do with inheritance and sought to prevent adopted sons from inheriting lands in which case the property, sometimes as big as, let’s say, Scotland, would fall to the British Crown. These reforms served to unite Hindus and Muslims.
There were other threats. In a desire to modernise, temples and mandirs were often demolished to give way to roads or telegraph lines, which were meant to bring all people together, as the British said. But there was a danger in bringing people together. It might put an end to the caste system, and without caste, how could a man be rewarded for his acts in a previous incarnation?
The other problem was that the Christian missionaries were in perpetual pursuit of converts. This was difficult for the Hindus to understand, as the Hindu religion does not seek adherents and by its very nature could not accommodate converts. Holy men of the various faiths felt affronted to be described as ‘woefully ignorant’ and superstitious and worshipers of heathen gods. Indians began to feel that the English were out to convert the entire country.
In various ways, the new laws impacted on the army, for example the regulation that recruits were required to serve overseas. This meant an impossibility for the devout Hindu, who would be unable while aboard a ship to cook his own food as his religion required, and who would find it difficult to perform the prescribed rituals of daily ablution, having no idea of where the water came from or who had handled it.
These were all minor concerns, however, when compared to the alarm a new rifle cartridge caused. This cartridge was introduced into the Bengal army. The end of it had to be bitten off, so that the charge could ignite when it was pushed down the bore of the muzzle. To make this easier, the paper of the cartridge was heavily greased with tallow. Tallow was offensive to the Hindus if it contained beef fat, and to the Muslims if it contained pig fat. When the new cartridges, together with new Enfield rifles, were issued, it soon unleashed the ‘Devil’s Wind’, which swept across Bengal.
The alarm, the concern and the fear that was felt by tens of thousands of men upon hearing the news of this new cartridge is difficult to grasp today. Experienced officers immediately realised that there was much amiss in the ranks. When, however, an enlisted man, drunk, attacked his officer, hacking him to death.