The Resistance of the Sepahis - prior to 1857

The British East India Company had two structures - one consisting only Englishmen in the rank and file, and the other in which the commissioned officers were all British but the ordinary soldiers were Indians - called Sepoys (Sepahis or soldiers). There were armies of the provinces of Bengal, Madras, Bombay. The Bengal army became the army of the Central Government and its Commander in Chief became the head of the military establishment. The British also recruited troops from sections that had fought against the British like the Gurkhas and the Sikhs. Under the treaty of Subsidiary Alliance, the Indian States also maintained armies that fought for the British. The Bengal army consisted of a hotchpotch from different regions of India  - Rajputs, Jats, Sikhs, Muslims and from other provinces. The soldiers had a native commander but British officers were at the helm and thus the army offered no career to the aristocracy or the learned section of the Indians. The pay was meagre and despite the better knowledge of battles, an Indian sepahi would never get the recognition due to him. The discriminatory treatment meted out to en European soldier who never tasted the rough  life of an ordinary Indian soldier and lived in affluence and also got paid much higher than the Indian counterpart, contributed to the resentment. Moreover that small salary that he received was spent for illegal gratification of the European superiors. Sepahis had to pay for their uniform and had to get their own ration, often by borrowing. His food was normal dal roti and salary, only a few rupees at the end of the month. Sepahis were also affected by the economic exploitation, as they or their immediate family members in the village belonged to the farming class, apart from those who had warfare as their occupation, like the Gurkhas and the Jats.

The Sepahis generally remained faithful to the foreign masters despite all the misbehaviour and the mistreatment, unless there was a gross affront to their religion. In 1806 the Sepahis in Vellore rebelled when an order came that the soldiers should not wear marks of caste upon their forehead or that they should shave their beard or wear turbans with leather cockades. The soldiers got the backing of the imprisoned sons of Tipu Sultan. The revolt lasted one full day during which the mutineers seized the Vellore Fort and killed or wounded about 200 British troops. The soldiers killed their commanding officers and hundreds of the soldiers of the 69th Regiment and raised the flag of Tipu Sultan of Mysore at dawn. Tipu's son Fateh Hyder joined the mutineers. One British officer escaped to alerted the garrison in Arcot. The British forces under Gillespie broke through the defence and about 100 of the rebel soldiers were summarily executed. The British ruthlessly crushed the rebellion as the surviving rebel soldiers were captured and court martialed. Of them six were blown away by the guns, five were shot dead, eight were hanged and five were transported for life (source: Wikipedia). The orders that were offending to the religious sentiments, were cancelled and the people responsible for giving such orders were called back to England. The Tipu Sultan's sons were transferred to Calcutta.

Mutiny in Barrackpore - 1824

Another mutiny of serious nature broke out in Barrackpore near Calcutta, in 1824 when the soldiers of 47th Native Infantry were supposed to take part in the Burmese war. This was also related to non payment of allowances and the rough treatment received in the hands of the superior officers when allowances were sought for transfer of luggage. The soldiers refused to take part in Burmese war unless they were paid more and in a parade in November, broke out in open violence. European troops were brought from Calcutta and when the Indian soldiers refused to comply with the order to ground arms, the European soldiers fired at them from the rear. Atleast 60 were killed and many had to escape. They were taken prisoner, court martialed and a large number were sentenced to death. Native officers were dismissed from service. The real reason was religious because the Sepahis were forbidden from boarding a ship that would cross the ocean. Also the prospect of the Burmese war was dreadful. Added to these were factors like want of transportation, bad knapsacks and irregular promotion. The ringleader of the mutiny was a Brahmin of 27th Regiment Native Infantry, on whose execution spot a banyan tree was planted by the sepahis. His articles of worship were carefully preserved.  The mutiny and the memory of the martyrs to its caused stayed with the Sepahis for a long time, until 1857 when Mangal Pandey, another Brahmin, was the first to declare open revolt from Barrackpore, and was executed.

Other rebellions

In 1825 disturbances broke out in Assam. Grenadier Company refused to march on the pretext of bad climate. Ringleaders were executed while other sepahis were discharged. In 1838 and 1839 non payment of fees or bhattas led to the rebellion in the ranks in Solapur, Secunderabad, Hyderabad, Malegaon, and Kota. Some of the regiments were disbanded and the rest were pardoned. Discontent brew during Anglo Afghan wars when the Hindu soldiers were forced to cross Sindh and Muslim sepahis were forced to fight against their own religious brothers. Their leaders were shot dead by the British Army officers for expressing their dissatisfaction. In 1844 similar rebellion broke out when the armies were stationed in Sindh as they were expecting higher pay and did not get. Again the ringleaders were all executed ruthlessly or were imprisoned for life. After this treatment the sepahis agreed to march to Sindh unconditionally.  Sporadic mutinies took place in 1849 and 1850 in Punjab in a company under Charles Napier. To Napier's credit, he did not execute with anyone but imprisoned them and also took a sympathetic view by providing compensation at a higher rate. For this he was severely reprimanded by Dalhousie, the Governor General, and resigned his post in disgust.

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