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Sipahi Rebellion - 1857

The fire that was burning slowly now turned into a wild conflagration. Even though the genesis of the rebellion of the Sipahis (No, it was not a mutiny. It was a full blown revolution, at worst, a rebellion in a grand scale) is ascribed to the cartridges of the Enfield rifles greased with the lard of pig or cow, sacrilegious to the Hindus and the Musalmans, the reason was actually far more deep and pervasive. Years of mistreatment, not giving the due respect, economic exploitation and plunder of their villages, treatment of the royalties, rebellion of affected people across the Nation, putting the lives of the native Sipahis at risk before that of  the Europeans, lack of promotion of higher ranks, paltry wages, sending to countries far and wide without the "batta" or allowance, insensitivity towards religious issues - all accumulated over a period of time to act as the fuel. In January 1857 the rumour spread that the Government introduced the rifle cartridges to convert people into Christianity. On 26th February 1857, the 19th Native Infantry stationed at Bahrampur, refused to parade. On 29th March, Mangal Pandey, a Sipahi in Barrackpore area near Calcutta, openly rebelled and asked his countrymen to come and join him. Mangal Pandey's fight was for protecting his religion but he gave his call and faced the consequences heroically. He attacked his Adjutant and gave in after a fight when European soldiers overpowered him. He was executed. The Infantries were disbanded. 

There appeared a mysterious Chapatti or unleavened bread, circulated among the Sipahis, which contained detail instructions about the revolt, throughout North India. The first open rebellion took place in Ambala in Punjab. There was a plan to attack the Europeans who would take part in a new Church opening ceremony on 10th May. When the ceremony was cancelled at the last moment the plan got a jolt but the Sipahis nevertheless arrested their European officers and threatened to shoot them. They were overpowered by their European counterparts. Later, General Henry Barnard granted unconditional pardon and there was no further trouble.

On 14th April, in Meerat, 85 troopers out of 90, of the Third Cavalry, refused to touch the cartridge. They were court martialed and on 9th May were paraded in shackles, disgraced and dishonoured, with their uniform taken away. They appealed to their countrymen to protest. On May 10, The Third Cavalry men released their own country men and two regiments of the Infantry also joined the rebels.  The Sipahis were joined by the criminals released from jail and they all set to destroy the Europeans. Apparently they killed indiscriminately, not even sparing women and children and indulged in  large scale plunder to avenge years of abuse and humiliation. The Sipahis deliberated and discussed on a course of action to march towards Delhi. Inexplicably the British Command Officer did not pursue them. The Sipahis of Meerat went to Delhi and met the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Jafar. The Emperor was asked to take over the reigns and after a great deal of hesitation he agreed. As more and more Sipahis arrived, the massacre of the Europeans began in  full steam. The rebels proceeded to the Cantonment where the local Sipahis joined them and killed their own British officers. Europeans hastily fled from Delhi. Fortified Delhi provided the security which the rebels needed. This was a strategic victory for the rebels and the British understood that to survive this first serious threat to their hegemony, they needed to reoccupy Delhi as soon as possible. 

The achievement of the Sipahis and the appointment of the Emperor roused the Sipahis across India. The rebellion spread to the different areas of India like Firozepur, Muzaffarnagar, but could be quenched easily. But as days passed by and the British showed no signs of recovering their power in Delhi, rebellions started elsewhere. Disturbances started in Punjab, in Avadh and other areas of United Province like Etawa, Mainpuri, Rurki, Etah, Mathura, Lucknow, Shahjahanpur, Bareilly, Moradabad, Azamgarh, Sitapur, Varanasi, Kanpur, Jhansi, Allahabad, Fatehpur, Hathras etc. The rebellions followed the pattern in Meerat as teh Sipahis killed their European officers and released prisoners from jail, set off for Delhi or joined local chiefs, even in some cases indulging in plundering. In many instances however the Sipahis spared their British Officers and allowed them to escape without harm. 

It appears from the British historical account that Bahadur Shah as emperor was weak and submissive. He was regarded as a Sufi saint. He had numerous wives and concubines and had atleast fifty sons and daughters. He had no real control on the Sipahis who carried out plunder and the city of Delhi descended into chaos. It seems that Bahadur Shah even carried out secret negotiations with the British. He protected the English fugitives from the wrath of the Sipahis and allowed some of them to escape. He also sent secret messages to the British informing them about the rebellion in Meerat and Delhi. He was loyal to the British. While the Sipahis were carrying out fighting out in his name, making him the titular Emperor, Bahadur Shah was carrying out secret negotiations and intrigue through an agent named Ahsanulla, with the British General,  offering to admit the British secretly into the fort if only they agreed to restore him to his old position. His queen and the princes also carried out similar intrigues with Greathed, the Political Agent of the Lt. Governor of N.W.P (Dr. R.C Majumdar, History of Freedom Movement Vol 1). The conduct of the Sipahis was also deplorable. With no leader in charge they apparently became plunderers rather than protectors and the citizens of Delhi began to look upon them as an invading army rather than fighting for freedom. The cruelty of the Sipahis were displayed even in their dealing with fellow Indians. All trades were suspended. The Sipahis found out all Europeans and Indian Christians and massacred them, not sparing even their women and children and plundered the houses of those who sheltered them. Anybody in suspicion of collusion with the English was treated with cruelty and the titular monarch was helpless to prevent the situation. Private armies were raised by wealthier classes to protect them from the Sipahis. Extortions were rampant. Rich shops and business were looted and businessmen harassed and confined for payment. Bahadur Shah alleged that none of the Sipahis paid any respect to him or listened to him. They threatened to depose him and kill his queen. Bahadur Shah alleged that he was virtually the prisoner of the Sipahis who had set up a council of their own. The Sipahis executed a number of Europeans in front of his eyes but he did not have the power or courage to stop the killing.

As per the evidence the Sipahis cared more for money than for the country and its freedom. They even tried to outrage the modesty of Hindu women and targeted mainly the rich Hindu businessmen. Such incidents and the fact that their commanders were mostly Muslim names like Mohammed Bakht Khan, and Mahbub Ali Khan indicates that the Sipahis were mostly the Mohamedans who not only targeted the Europeans but also the Hindus, although the communal nature of the rebellion is not immediately evident owing to the valour and bravery of Queen of Jhansi and other leaders who selflessly fought for freedom. The soldiers also quarreled among themselves, like soldiers of Delhi with that from Meerat, over the plunders. The Sipahis had no trust on the Emperor and his forces. They accused the royal family of intrigues with the English and of sheltering fugitives, and also supplying information to the British forces. The Emperor's queen Zinnat Mahal was the prime suspect in this respect of carrying out secret intrigues with the British an d truly so as later events revealed, that she colluded with the British in return for personal favours and her proposals carried weight among the English. The Sipahis threatened to take the queen hostage and kill the Emperor's chief assistants - Ahsanullah and Mahbub Ali Khan. The Sipahis were correct as many chiefs who joined them were playing a double game like Bahadur Shah. Raja Nahar Singh of Ballabhgarh  and Nawab of Jujhnur for instance sent supplies and men to support the rebels but also assured the British of his staunch friendship. Many local chiefs joined the revolt to serve their personal goals.

The British army from Meerat advanced towards Delhi. Sipahis took up their position on the banks of Hindon river, on the outskirts of Delhi, but were defeated by a superior battle strategy of the British forces. The Sipahis took up their position on the Delhi Ridge which commanded the whole of the walled city and also Badli ka Sarai. British troops, with a numerically less number of people, could still defeat the Sipahis owinng to their coordinated assault and the lack of proper leadership, battle strategy and coordination from the Sipahis. British reinforcements from the Punjab poured in. Sipahis could not stop the reinforcement and supply lines. By 14th September the British launched a full scale assault on Delhi. On 20th September the city fell to the British and Red Fort was breached. Bahadur Shah, who had taken refuge in Humayun's tomb, surrendered. After a brief, farcical trial, in which his chief aid Ahsanullah, who had been his emissary to the British, betrayed and testified against him in return for a pardon for himself. He was sent to Burma along with his queen Zinnat Mahal. While looking back at his beloved Red Fort the poet in him penned the following verse immortalized in the following lines - "Ghaziyoñ meñ bū rahegī jab tak imān kī Takht London tak chalegī tegh Hindostān kī" - The sword of Hindustan will flash in London as long as the warriors carry in their heart the essence of integrity. He later died in Burma and his tomb was put up there. It is to be noted that Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose with his INA men visited the tomb and paid respect to the last Mughal Emperor and esp. recited the above mentioned verses. Major Hodson who had captured him, also shot dead his two sons and a grandson.

Revolt at other places

The news of the mutiny in Jhansi caused the soldiers of Gwalior regiment to revolt on 10th June. They killed as many Europeans as possible but let go the womenfolk unharmed. They had remained idle in Gwalior with the hope that Scindia will lead them against the British. The long wait made their participation in the last moment ineffective.  In Indore, troops belonging to the Holkars mutinied and a company of three hundred Bhils and two companies of Bhopal cavalry, were brought to oppose them. But they sided with the mutineers, murdered the Europeans and lotted the treasury. The mutiny in Indore was followed by that in Mhow. At Dhar, the Arab and Afghan mercenaries in service of the Rajah, rose in revolt. Scindia's troops occupied Manadasor and were joined by a part of the Gwalior contingent and other insurgents like the Afghans and the Mekrani Muslims. Their leader was Shahzada Firoz Shah, a direct descendant of the Mughul emperors, who had declared a jihad against the British. Firoz Shah's troops, numbering about eighteen thousand faced the British forces under Henry Durand and were defeated and Shah fled from Mandasor.  In Rajasthan the revolt was limited to a few places like NAsirabad and Nimach and the Rajput chiefs like the Raja of Jodhpur, helped the British. However Thakur Kusal Singh of Ahua, defeated the troops of Jodhpur and the British force under Captain Mason. Ultimately he had to surrender. Bengal was largely unaffected except sporadic outbursts in Chattogram and Dhaka. The Chattogram troops were defeated by the loyal native troops and they did not get any local support. They proceeded to Kachar and were joined by discontented Manipur chiefs. But they could not enter Manipur as its ruler, at the behest of the British sent his troop and captured a number of rebels, who were handed over to the British.

Kunwar Singh of Arrah

One of the formidable leaders of Sipahi revolution was zamindar Kunwar Singh of Arrah. In Bihar, the most important army base was in Danapur near Patna. The Sipahis remained loyal until June and July and then suspicion grew among their European superior officers and they are disarmed. At this teh Sipahis broke into mutiny and joined the army of Kunwar Singh. Kunwar Singh was the Rajput zamindar of Jagdishpur. Like Nana Saheb, he was also inimical to the English. As per Dr. R.C Majumdar, as per the statement of Taylor, the commissioner of Patna, Kunwar Singh was all along a friend of the British but afterwards was driven to rebellion by the shortsightedness of the Bengal Government. This points to the refusal of Bengal Government in 1857 to save Kunwar Singh from bankruptcy and ruin by undertaking the management of his landed estates, although this proposal was strongly recommended by two commissioners of Patna. Kunwar Singh was also forced to join the rebel Sipahis, according to the account of his attendant Nishan Singh. Sipahis from Danapur looted Arrah and threatened to loot Jagdishpur if Kunwar as not brought to them. In Arrah Kunwar joined the Sipahis and together their forces attacked the house of the European residents protected by a garrison of fifty Sikhs. The small besieged garrison, esp. the Sikhs fought bravely against the rebel Sipahis and were not moved either by religious or by racial sentiment. A small detachment under Captain Dunbar sent from Patna for the relief of the garrison at Arrah, was attacked, and was heavily defeated. Kunwar Singh proclaimed himself to be the ruler of the country and set up his own administration. It was shortlived. Vincent Ayer advanced towards Arrah on 3rd August and was opposed by Kunwar Singh. Ayer defeated his forces in Gujrajgunj, and sacked Jagdishpur, defeating Kunwar in his home. Kunwar now proceeded with his retainers to Sasaram. In the meanwhile the rebellious spirit had affected the local population and under the local Rajput chiefs, sporadic acts of rebellion continued. Rebellions broke out in Rohilkhand and in Gaya. Hyder Ali Khan of Rajgir drove away the Government servants and declared himself as the Rajah. Other local leaders similarly declared the independence of there provinces and refused to pay taxes to British.


Other rebellions


A wave of insurrections swept through Chota Nagpur plateau as the military of Hazaribagh revolted on 30 July, 1857. Ramgarh battalion revolted on 1st Aug, the infantry in Lohardaga on 2nd Aug. Ranchi and Doranda fell under the Sipahis who looted the treasury and released the prisoners. Some of the local zamindars helped the mutineers while others helped the British. The tribes of Santhals, Kols also rose in revolt under Raja Arjun Singh of Porhat. The Kols bravely fought until the capture of Arjun Singh in 1859. The Cheros and Khairwars of Palamau rose under the leadership of two brothers Pitambar and Nilambar Shahi. They were defeated by the feudal lord of Dalton Ganj who had collaborated with the British. By end of November the whole country was up in arms. It was difficult to put down the revolt in dense jungles and hills and therefore as a retribution the British Government took to sever repression. Villages were destroyed, goods and cattle were seized and the estates were confiscated by the state. But the insurrection continued throughout 1858 and the army under Nilambar and Pitambar fought in a guerrilla tactics with the formidable British forces. Ultimately the brothers were captured and hanged in 1859 and thus the rebellion came to an end. The revolt was completely suppressed by 1859. 

In Sambalpur Surendra Sai continued his rebellion that he had started in 1827 and then in 1839 as his claim to the throne of Sambalpur was rejected by the British. He was sentenced to life imprisonment but was released from the prison by the mutineers and until 1862 he remained in a state of constant war with the Government running a parallel administration of his own. He surrendered in 1862 but his lieutenants continued with the battles atleast until 1864.

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