Bias is inherent and endemic in history writing. Any narration, for that matter history to be specific, would be composed through the prism of the author or historian. Yes, as Partha Chatterjee opines that history is not fiction, surely, yet proclivities of the historian are embedded in the narration itself. To interpret is the job of the historian – if not duty. However before one interprets; piecing together data, evidence, facts is the quintessential function.
‘Unbiased’ data, facts, factoids – is it possible to have them? If one lends credence to Carr, the basic database in itself is supposed to contain seeds of contamination. Then up to which depth is the historian supposed to delve into? Will the narrator/interpreter have the privilege to conduct first hand interviews of the actors? In some cases, it may be possible, based on certain factors, viz. administrative and logistic, among others and depending on the timeline up to which the research dates back. In most cases, however, it would not be a practicable scenario.
The Letters, Despatches and Other State papers of the Military Department of the Government of India pertaining to 1857-58, edited by George W. Forrest assume monumental importance in this context. Chapter 1 of Volume one of the documents provides a fresh insight into the genesis of the rebellion of 1857. Interestingly, major historical discourses have hardly highlighted this phase of the mutiny and mostly concentrated on the beginning of the mutiny on the late afternoon of Sunday, 29 March 1857 when an otherwise quiet Barrackpore cantonment in the suburbs of Calcutta [now Kolkata] woke up to the shouts of a soldier of the 34th Native Infantry:
“Come out, you bhainchutes, the Europeans are here!........
……..It’s for our religion…..
You have incited me to do this……”
Whether Mangal Pandey or Mungul Pandy as his name was spelled by the colonial officers, was under the influence of bhang or not hardly makes any difference as far as effects of the rebellion is concerned. The discussion on his state of mind and health may only be relevant to the historiography of 1857-8.
However, the point of focus over here is that Rudrangshu Mukherjee in his monograph ‘Mangal Pandey – brave martyr or accidental hero’, sets up the event on that fateful Sunday of 29 March by referring to imperialist historiographer John Kaye’s scenic description of the serenity close to the banks of the Hooghly River at Barrackpore cantonment.
It is germane to stress on the words allegedly spoken by Pandey on 29 March :
“You have incited me to do this…..”
Was he referring to his comrades of the 34th Native Infantry? And indeed if his comrades had incited him, then who were they? Did they plan a mutiny themselves or were there some external elements that sowed the seeds of rebellion? How does one attempt to discern these aspects after over 150 years of the actual set of events?
Forrest’s collection of Papers could aid in throwing some light on these untouched aspects of one of the greatest events of Indian history. The doyen of Subaltern historiography, Ranajit Guha has warned the posterity and especially the historians, in his by now cult-status holder ‘The Prose of Counterinsurgency’ that imperialist school of historiography is beset with the obvious bias of being tilted towards the ruling imperial elite, in howsoever an ‘objective’ manner they are written. From that perspective, narratives from Kaye and Malleson to Christopher Hibbert and Saul David suffer from that malaise.
Though the State Papers were compiled and edited by then ruling elite, yet they provide the ‘purest’ form of primary source that is available to historians as on date considering the fact that the collection is devoid of interpretations, rather contains a series of submissions and correspondences. It may so happen that certain documents have been ‘deliberately’ omitted or the submissions are ‘coloured’, yet with the set of records at disposal, and with the corroborative research carried out by imperialist as well as Nationalist, Marxist, subaltern and post-structuralist historians, a fresh narrative can always be crafted.
23 January is a memorable day for the Indians. It is the birthday of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. On the same day, but forty years before Netaji’s birth, a highly interesting thing happened at the northern rim of the city, in Calcutta’s Dum-Dum area. The officer commanding the depot of musketry wrote an official missive to the station staff officer at Dum-Dum regarding an issue which according to him should have raised alarm bells.
The officer J A Bontein submits that in the evening of Thursday, 22 January, after the evening parade, when he preferred to listen to any grievances or complaints from the sepoys,
“At least two-thirds of the detachment immediately stepped to the front, including all the native commissioned officers. In a manner perfectly respectful they very distinctly stated their objection to the present method of preparing cartridges for the new rifled musket. The mixture employed for greasing cartridges was opposed to their religious feeling, and as a remedy they begged to suggest the employment of wax and oil in such proportions as, in their opinion, would answer the purpose required.”
This letter was a clear indication of the magnitude of the problem since 2/3 rd of the detachment had grievances regarding the greased cartridges to be used in the newly introduced Enfield Rifles having ‘rifled bore’ and hence greasing was necessary. It is evident that the gravity of the problem was duly measured by the Officer Commanding of the Musketry as he concludes his letter thus:
“I have felt it my duty to bring this circumstance to the knowledge of the officer commanding the station, and I would further request that my report may be forwarded through the appointed channel for the consideration of his Excellency the Commander-in-Chief.”
Bontein in his letter had referred to an accompanying report from J A Wright, Commanding the Rifle Instruction Depot to the Adjutant at Dum-Dum, dated 22 January 1857, in which Wright mentioned:
“…..there appears to be a very unpleasant feeling existing among the native soldiers who are here for instruction, regarding the grease used in preparing the cartridges…..”
The apparently innocuous yet alarming incident referred to in his letter by Wright was related to a certain khalasi attached to the magazine at Dum-Dum. The (unknown) khalasi had asked a sepoy of the 2nd Regiment, Native (Grenadier) Infantry to provide him with water from his lota. But the sepoy had refused, clearly reflecting the caste-hierarchy existing in the sub-continent in that period. At that, the apparently disgruntled khalasi retorted that the sepoy would ‘soon lose his caste as he would have to bite cartridges covered with the fat of pigs and cows’.
Wright further informed his superior that the sepoys confided to him that the news regarding the greased cartridges ‘has spread throughout India’ like a wildfire and even if the grease is not made up of pig and cow fat, as purportedly being told, their friends (supposedly other sepoys) will not believe them. The sepoys in conversation with Wright further suggested that they may be allowed to make the grease themselves so that any iota of doubt is removed.
Wright also concluded his letter by recommending the suggestions of the soldiers in allowing them to make the grease themselves so that ‘any misunderstanding regarding the religious prejudices of the natives in general will be prevented’.
Incidentally, there is no mention of the name and whereabouts of the khalasi in contention who is supposed/alleged to be the only link to the conflagration of 1857.
It may also happen that the sepoys had concocted the story of the khalasi so as to shield their actual motives in rising against the English East India Company. Or it is quite likely that the khalasi being the subaltern of the most insignificant category, was not considered to be documented by the colonial masters. It was as if all khalasis were treated equally (or unequally but similarly) but as indistinguishable individuals. However, if the khalasi had indeed triggered the rebellion by infusing the thought process in the mind of the caste-afflicted, religiously-prejudiced Indian sepoy, then two questions apparently arise:
a. Did the khalasi himself frame the idea of loss of caste for the sepoys and in the process acted as an agent in igniting the dialectical process in history? If yes, then was the news related to the grease a reality?
b. Was the khalasi being used by some external agents and naturally expected not to have any consciousness of his own?
Even if the khalasi framed the idea of loss of caste on his own based on the substance used in the grease, which he obviously could, that might have been based on some hearsay, if not reality because the actual content of the grease was never brought to the fore and like the khalasi, has remained outside the realm of historical documentation.
Could there be external agents inciting the rebellion by poisoning the minds of the sepoys? Such a possibility did exist. Major-General Hearsey, commanding the Presidency Division at Barrackpore, in his letter dated 28 January 1857 to Deputy Adjutant-General of the Army expressed that in all likelihood “the Brahmins or agents of the religious Hindu party in Calcutta (the ‘Dhurma Subha’)” are spreading the rumour that the sepoys would be coerced to embrace Christianity.
It is important in this regard to refer to what Benoy Ghosh has to write:
“In the beginning of 1857, the whole society was in ferment in Bengal. The orthodox Hindus and the general mass of ignorant and superstitious people got alarmed at the spectacular successes of the reformers. The citadel of orthodox Hinduism was now actually on the point of collapse. Some of its massive pillars were being pulled down one by one by Rammohan, the Derozians, the Brahmo Sabhaites and the Vidyasagarites. The Dharma Sabhaites looked upon this as nothing but a conspiracy of the British rulers and their agents, the missionaries, to convert the entire people to Chiristianity by subverting their own religion.”
Ghosh also informs that ‘brilliant young men of the day like Krishnamohan Banerjee (of the Young Bengal movement) and the famous poet Madhusudan Dutt were converted to Christianity’ thereby denting the prestige of the respectable families of Calcutta. Even the authorities of the Hindu College (later Presidency College) raised alarm. The fear of ‘conversion to Christianity’ had caught a feverish mood among the entire spectrum of the elites of Calcutta in the 1840s and 50s, writes Ghosh. The situation appeared so problematic that the liberal Brahmo Sabha planned to forge a united alliance with their ideological counterparts, the conservative Dharma Sabha, under the umbrella of the Tattvabodhini Sabha of Debendra Nath Tagore (father of Nobel laureate Rabindra Nath Tagore).
A view of the opposite polarity is worth noting here as Bates and Carter mention Coopland’s opinion that ‘as this is completely a Mahomedan rising, there is not much to be feared from the Hindoos of Benares, who are, moreover, cowardly, unwarlike Bengalees’.
Similarly, Ghosh cites the Hindoo Patriot of 4 June 1857 that ‘the Bengalees never aspired to the glory of leading armies to battle…….their pursuits and their triumphs are entirely civil.’
With all it’s allegedly emasculated image nevertheless, the Bengali dominated Dharma Sabha still had the potential to ignite the fire among the sepoys – the inevitable backbone of the organism called the Company, as the Hindoo Patriot avers:
“A strong and versatile intellect enables them [Bengalees] to think deeply and to think farsightedly…..”
And it surely required no great thinking that a caste-conscious and religion-sensitive Bengal Regiment has the potential to explode if the ‘story’ of the cow and pig fat laden grease is somehow spread. It may not be simply a coincidence that the ignition took place at Dum-Dum, territorially in close proximity to Shovabazar in north Calcutta, the residence of Raja Radhakanta Deb, the founder of Dharma Sabha in 1829.
The Sabha was founded as a reaction against the liberalizing forces of Brahmo Sabha by Rammohan Roy et al. and especially the overt radicalism of Henry Derozio through his Young Bengal movement. No doubt, the prohibition of Sati in 1829 was the immediate cause for the conservative elites of Calcutta to huddle under the umbrella of Dharma Sabha (connoting that Hindu Dharma was in danger from both within as well as without and hence its revival and re-establishment was necessary through an organisation), it seems rather implausible that prohibition of Sati could have been a raison d’être for igniting the rebellion through the modus operandi of spreading the ‘rumour’, if at all, of the substance used in the grease. Similar inference has been drawn by Andrea Major as she alludes to Ainslee Embree’s mentioning of the 1850 Act that made it possible for converts to Christianity to retain their inheritance and inherit ancestral property which caused widespread resentment among the Indians than the prohibition of Sati brought in almost three decades ago.
Toward the beginning of 1857, there existed an overall atmosphere of fear of being converted to Christianity. Such a thesis holds firm ground as Benoy Ghosh refers to Syed Ahmed Khan (one of the key witnesses to the 1857 revolt) that the Christian missionaries frequented mosques and temples and preached their religion, and in certain districts they had the luxury of being escorted by a policeman of the thana – ostensibly flexing the administrative muscle that definitely aided their proselytizing activities and consequently exacerbated the fear among the Indian population. After all, it was through the Charter Act of 1813 that the Christian missionaries made their way into India and by 1856-7, a series of legislations from Sati to Widow remarriage had been passed by the colonial-utilitarian government. Moreover, the government of Dalhousie and/or Canning did nothing to assuage the prevailing apprehension. It was thus not unnatural for the population to think that religious persecution would soon reach its pre-designed climax and before the missionaries could be successful in their insidious machinations, it was incumbent upon the religious/conservative elite to hit at the nerve centre of the Company Raj – the Bengal Army.
From the 24 Pargannas North, where Barrackpore is located, for the time being our narrative would have to shift its location to Raniganj – about 200 km away from Kolkata, in the Paschim Bardhaman district of today’s West Bengal. Could it be a mere coincidence, as Major-General Hearsay asked in his letter to Mathew, that the bungalow belonging to a sergeant at ‘Raneegunge’ was burnt down by an incendiary. Interestingly, at that point of time, according to the words of Hearsey, Raniganj housed a wing of the 2nd Regiment, Native (Grenadier) Infantry – the same regiment whose sepoy was allegedly derided by the khalasi at Dum-Dum, few days back.
As if to clearly cast the spells of the bad omen and impending violence, there were three incendiary fires at Barrackpore in a span of four days between 22nd and 27th January, reports Hearsey. And one of the fires was at the electric telegraph bungalow – an idea which by all reasonable probability ought to have shot from a tactical mind with a strategic-cum-military vision.
Further, definite signal of synchronized activity by an active group of mutineers could be deciphered from what Hearsey continues to aver:
“…..Chamier of 34th Regiment, Native Infantry, having taken a lighted arrow from the thatch of his own Bungalow – has confirmed in my mind that this incendiarism is caused by ill-affected men, who wish thus to make known or spread a spirit of discontent, and induce the sepoys to believe they are all laboring under some grievances…..”
Niladri Chatterji in his doctoral dissertation refers to the submission of Indian police officer Moinuddin Hasan Khan that ‘burning of telegraph office would immediately be communicated along the line from Calcutta to Punjab, rapidly spreading the news of the arson attacks to other sepoy regiments stationed across northern India.’
In the wake of these incidents, the Company deemed it expedient to conduct a Special Court of Inquiry at Barrackpore on 06 February 1857, duly presided by Colonel S G Wheler of 34th Regiment, Native Infantry. As many as ten witnesses (sepoys) were summoned. None of the witnesses could posit with clarity the exactitude of the problem regarding the greased cartridge to be used in the Enfield Rifle. Fundamentally, they referred to ‘bazar reports’ that there was ‘some fat in the paper (making the cartridges)’.
For instance, Havildar Bheekun Khan could not discuss the contentious issue of cow and pig fat allegedly being used in the greased cartridges with his officer since it was ‘merely a bazaar report’. Bheekun’s submission point towards an interesting position – though the sepoys might have treated the ‘cow and pig’ story as a rumour, yet a considerable trust deficit existed between the sepoys and the military administration.
Havildar-Major Ajoodiah Singh’s testimony on the other hand indicates peer pressure on him. Though on one hand he was rational enough to subject the cartridge paper to few tests in oil and water and then arrive at the conclusion that ‘there was no grease in it’, yet on the other he was reluctant to bite off the cartridge since by doing it, “the other men would object to it”.
One witness Chand Khan of the 7th Company, 2nd Regiment, Native (Grenadier) Infantry continued to oppose the use of the paper saying that ‘everyone is dissatisfied with it on account of it being glazed, shining like wax-cloth’, even though he agreed in front of the committee that there was no smell of grease in the cartridge paper after a paper was burnt in the court itself. Jemadar Buddun Singh too expressed his discomfiture at the cartridge paper. Jemadar Ram Singh of the 2nd Regiment, Native (Grenadier) Infantry referred to the magazine khalasis in Calcutta from whom he thought the report about the grease had spread. According to Ram Singh, there could have been a number of khalasis, who reported the news related to the greased cartridges. In fact, it is quite natural that if one khalasi knew or spread the information, his comrades, at least some of them would also be privy to it.
Disclaimer : this is a Work-in-Progress
Disclaimer : this is a Work-in-Progress