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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 1

On 150th Anniversary of 1857 Revolt: Sepoy Mutiny and Indian Patriotism

Tuesday 25 December 2007, by A K Biswas

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS) broadside in its mouthpiece Panchjanya against the patriotic pretensions of Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje Scindia has laid bare an interesting chapter in the history of the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857-58.1 The focus on the incontestable truth that Maharaja Jiwajirao Scindia had joined the East India Company as a faithful ally when Rani Lakshmibai fought valiantly against the British forces and died a heroic death on the battlefield is indeed embarrassing. The whole truth, extremely galling though, has by and large remained under a thick carpet.

Royal Salute for Maharaja Scindia of Gwalior for his Loyalty and Unsolicited Support against the Mutineers

DEEPLY impressed by the exhibition of unsolicited loyalty and spectacular support of the Maharaja of Gwalior during the most critical period in 1857-58, Governor-General Lord Charles John Viscount Canning had passed an extraordinary fiat, reproduced below from The Calcutta Gazette, June 26, 1858, to buttress the point:

The Hon’ble Governor General has the highest gratification in announcing that the Town and Fort of Gwalior were conquered by Major-General Sir Hugh Rose, on the 19th instant, after a general action, in which rebels, who had usurped the authority of Maharajah Scindia, were totally defeated. On the 20th June, the Maharajah Scindia, attended by the Governor General’s Agent for Central India, and Sir Hugh Rose and escorted by British Troops was restored to the palace of his ancestors, and welcomed by his subjects with every mark of loyalty and attachment. It was on the 1st June that the rebels, aided by treachery of some of Maharajah Scindia’s troops, seized the Capital of His Highness’ Kingdom and hoped to establish a new government under a pretender in His Highness’ Territory. Eighteen days had not elapsed before they were compelled to evacuate the Town and Fort of Gwalior and to relinquish the authority which they had endeavoured to usurp. The promptitude and success with which the strength of the British Government has been put forth for restoration of its faithful Ally to the capital of his territory, and the continued presence of British Troops at Gwalior to support His Highness in the re-establishment of his administration, offer to all convincing proof that the British Government has the will and the power to befriend those who, like the Maharajah Scindia, do not shrink from their obligation or hesitate to avow their loyalty.

The Right Hon’ble Governor General, in order to mark his appreciation of the Maharajah Scindia’s friendship, and his gratification at the re-establishment of His Highness’ authority in his ancestral dominions, is placed to direct that a Royal Salute shall be fired at every principal station in India.2

The aforesaid order appeared in The Calcutta Gazette under the signature of G.F. Edmonstone, Secretary to the Government of India. Why and how was the Imperial Government so enamoured to confer such an extraordinary distinction on the Maharaja of Gwalior? In a letter dated May 25, 1857 The Home Secretary to the Government of India, Sir Cecil Beadon, who rose to be the Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal [1862-67] discloses that “The Maharajah of Scindia and other chiefs, unsolicited, have given prompt and powerful support to the Government…”3 Note the words “unsolicited”, “prompt and powerful support” for the beleagured East India Company. Needless to stress, this came at a very critical time. These chiefs along with feudal landlords not only sustained the exploitative domination of the British but also gave it a new lease of life for another nine decades till 1947. There was genuine reason, as a result, for the British rulers to be grateful to the Maharaja of Gwalior and their ilks. We may not err to guess that the new avatar of Gwalior continued to receive the Royal Salute whenever he visited the principal stations, for example, Dacca, Calcutta, Cuttack, Patna, Madras, Bombay, Lahore, Karachi, etc. till the British sun set over India.

In all fairness it needs to be added that Mahtab Chand, the Maharaja of Burdwan, a zamindar of the sprawling estates in Bengal, too had ingratiated himself to the British authorities for similar distinction, of course, on a lesser scale. A Bengal Civilian C.E. Buckland reveals that

[….] at the Imperial Assembly at Delhi on 1st January 1877 he was granted as a personal distinction, the right to receive a salute of 13 guns. At the time of Santhal Rebellion in 1855 and again in the mutiny [1857-58] the Maharaja did everything in his power to help the Government by placing elephants and bullock carts at the disposal of the authorities and by keeping open the communications throughout his property.4

Era of Feudal Loyalty Well Anticipated

THE colonial masters, let us admit without ifs and buts, had studied the character of the Indian feudal class carefully. Lord William Bentinck, whose name will shine for eternity in the galaxy of great men for his unflagging determination to stamp out the shameful Hindu ritual of widow burning, had observed:

If security is wanting against extensive popular tumult or revolution, I should say that the Permanent Settlement, though a failure in many other respects, has this great advantage at least of having created a vast body of rich landed proprietors deeply interested in the continuance of the British dominion and having command over the mass of the people.5 (Italicised by the author)

That the landed proprietors or zamindars would come up to their expectation in the dark days was not a mere conjecture. It was a foregone conclusion based on his appreciation of the class character and sense of aggrandisement. These were, therefore, the people who were earmarked for reward and recognition by the authorities after the Mutiny was suppressed with brutal force. The Englishman, July 10, 1857, published from Calcutta, to cite one prominent instance, reported that Raja Soorut Singh of Benaras “received from the Government for himself and his legitimate heirs [male] an allowance in perpetuity of rupees 400 and a Khillat of Rs 5000”.6 Recipients of rewards or recognition for loyalty to the British looked neither beyond their own interest or that of their family. Nor did they ever know the meaning or connotation of patriotism.

It is not difficult to imagine that the reward and recognition were commensurate to the loyalty the recipients exhibited during the darkest hour of their Imperial masters. This naturally underscores that the reward and recognition depended solely on the extent the Indians so officially honoured had betrayed the cause for which the sepoys shed their blood. The bigger the reward for loyalty the greater was the treachery against the nation. The scholar-statesman, Pandit Nehru, candidly observes in his Discovery of India,
The villain of the British India is often a hero to Indians, and those whom the British have delighted to honour and reward are often traitors and Quislings in the eye of the great majority of the Indian people. That taint clings to their descendants.7

Rewards for Traitors and Quislings of the Mutiny

INDIA has proved Pandit Nehru out and out wrong. The well-merited stigma did not visit the traitors, that is, Meer Zaffars and Quislings, or their descendants for their collaboration with the colonial masters. The administration of India passed into the hands of the Queen Empress Victoria from the East India Company after the Mutiny. The Indian Councils Act was passed in 1861 and the Legislative Council of the Governor General created thereunder. The Act authorised him “to establish a Legislative Council for the Bengal Division of the Presidency of Fort William”.8 The first meeting of the Bengal Legislative Council was held on the February 1, 1862. The Indian Members in the Legislative Council of the Governor General or of the Lieutenant Governor of Bengal were nominated exclusively from amongst the loyal allies during the Mutiny. Names of a few (along with the year of nomination in parenthesis) who graced the Councils are given here: Maharaja Sir Lachmesvar Singh Bahadur, KCIE, of Darbhanga [1880, 1893, 1895 and 1897]; Maharaja Sir Harendra Kishore Singh Bahadur, KCIE, of Bettiah, Champaran [1891]; Moulvi Syed Fazl Imam Khan Bahadur of Patna [1892]; Maharaja Sir Ravaneshur Prasad Singh Bahadur of Gidhour, Monghyr [1893, 1895]; Maharaja Mahtab Chand of Burdwan [1864]; Maharaja Jotindra Mohan Tagore [1870, 1872], Maharaj Jagadindranath Roy, Natore, Rajshashi [1894, 1897] etc.9

Proclamations of rewards for apprehension of two prominent rebels merit our attention in this context. The Governor General had offered reward of Rs 25,000 for the arrest of Babu Kuer Singh of Shahabad, Bihar, and Rs 50,000 for Moulvi Ahmadullah Shah of Fyzabad, Qudh.10 The former has been duly recognised in history for his anti-colonial role during the Mutiny. The historiographers have, however, shied away from focusing on the Moulvi, who was far more dangerous for British rule. But this fearless freedom fighter and matchless strategist met his tragic end at the hands of a traitor for the fabulous pecuniary reward.

The Moulvi wanted Raja Jagannath Singh of Pawain, a zamindar in district Shahjahanpur (UP), to join the anti-colonial war. With prior appointment, he went to meet the zamindar in his fortress-like a house. On arrival at the gate, he was greeted with a volley of gunshots from Jagannath Singh’s brother and retainers. The Moulvi breathed his last on the spot as a result. The martyr’s head was severed and carried in a piece of cloth with blood still oozing from it to the District Magistrate, Shahjahanpur by the zamindar. The District Magistrate was at lunch with his friends. But the depraved feudal lord rushed in and presented the severed head of the hero on the dinning table of the District Magistrate. With the reward of Rs 50,000 he returned home, flying atop the flag of loyalty.11 Thus came the bloody end of a revolutionary, whom Holme, a contemporary Army officer, described as “the most formidable enemy of the English in north India”. He further added that when the news of the Moulvi’s death reached “England, the Englishmen and women heaved a sigh of relief”.12

The villains of Indian freedom did not suffer during the colonial era. They enjoyed the patronage of their masters. Their descendants captured the centre-stage of the political and administrative spaces and managed it to their exclusive advantages, of course, with pretentious display of concern occasionally for the ignorant masses. Generations of Quislings and traitors have been enjoying the loaves and fishes of power and authority in independent India to their heart’s content!

NOTES AND REFERENCES

1. Ananda Bazar Patrika, Kolkata, September 30, 2007.
2. Calcutta Gazette, June 26, 1858, No. 51, p. 1819.
3. A Hindu, The Mutinies and the People, 1859, Calcutta, p. 110. This was a work under pseudonym. Reseachers, however, are of the view that it was compiled by Shambhu Chandra Mookerjee, who was an editor of a journal too.
4. Buckland, C.E., Bengal Under the Lieutenant Governor, Vol. 1, Calcutta, 1902, p. 77.
5. Nehru, Jawaharlal, The Discovery of India, Oxford University Press, p. 290.
6. A Hindu, op.cit., p. 110.
7. Nehru, op.cit., p. 304.
8. Buckland, op.cit. p. 230.
9. Ibid., vol II, pp. 1090-1094.
10. The Calcutta Gazette, April 14, 1858 vide government proclamation no. 580 of April 12, 1858 for arrest of the Moulvi and 581 of the same date for Kuer Singh.
11. Gupta, Rajanikanta, Sipahi Yuddher Itihas (Bengali), vol. 5, 1897, pp. 270-273.
12. Holme, Rice T., A History of Indian Mutiny, 1898, p. 539.

The author is a former Vice-Chancellor, B.R. Ambedkar University, Muzaffarpur, Bihar. He can be contacted for comments and observations at: atul.biswas@ gmail.com

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