Journal : Alternate History

The British called its battles of 1857 in the Indian sub-continent, waged by native people, as “Sepoy Mutiny” or terms as dismissive, more or less : rebellion, revolt, uprising or subaltern war ( by sepoy cadres and junior officers in their own military ) ! For long now, after I came across compelling evidence of it being a far more concerted and coordinated affair, the historical lies and half-truths that continue to be taught in our schools and colleges has seemed so shocking and shameful to me. But that streaming propaganda flows unabated over the young minds to this day, despite corrections since suggested by very eminent minds and respectable historians. Why ? Are our people so naive, gullible, stupid or fast brainwashed ? Let me know …

The First War For India’s Independence : 1857

Academics have detailed the economic, socio-political and religious causes behind the war, and this essay would not recount them. What needs to be recalled is that the War was a continuation of British – Maratha hostilities that formally ended with Peshwa Bajirao II’s banishment to Bithoor, near Kanpur, but burned informally among close associates of Nanasaheb, the adopted but rightful heir to Maratha leadership. That circle included Tatya Tope and the Rani of Jhansi, leading generals behind the widespread uprising against British rule.

In January 1856, James Outram crossed the Ganges to depose the King of Oudh and take over the principality. Nana Saheb is reported to have travelled from Bithoor and met representatives of the Begum of Oudh, who was nursing her hurt and was well aware of the angst among the people against the British takeover. 

Situationally, the British invincibility was proving to be a myth and the seething simmer among the native people was palpable. The colonialists had suffered very heavy losses in the 1st Afghan War (1838) in north-west, in battles waged by Santhal tribes eastern provinces, and the Crimean War in Europe. It was also exactly a hundred years after the battle of Plassey (1757) with which victory the British had gained their status to power; the timing had filled the people with the hope that the end of alien occupation was near.

The British had forged very powerful alignments with select native rulers in the country such as the Scindias in Central India, the Sikhs in North, and the Nizam in South. But they had also antagonised very many others through their policies especially framed for reneging on treaties, denying agreed upon priviledges to heirs of erstwhile ruling families and not honouring grants conferred by them. They had pretexts for annexing independent principalities and taking over smaller fiefs of elite nobles, courtiers and commanders. 

On a yet wider scale, the people were extremely agitated by aggressive State policy for propagating Christianity and material reward to natives for conversion of faith. There were social and educational reforms that people resented being imposed upon. Money gathering from the smallest of farmers and traders through adhoc announcements were steep and economic depredation were putting vast numbers out of business. To sum, the vortex unleashed by the white men had disaffected the common people everywhere.

Historical Records And The Untold History

It is strange therefore that India’s post – colonial history remains a mere refurbished form of the same propagated by the British before the country’s independence. Considering the fact that the War was spread over 18 months, upto 36 in places, and involved hundreds of thousand of men, how would it have been waged as mere coincident local disruptions, without money and leadership distribution to a plan ? How does a march of millions of man – miles happen without food, horses and carts, armaments to fight with arguably the most powerful nation then on the earth ? The official account and event sketch by aquiescent historians fail to answer the questions.

At the outset, the officially stated cause triggers like greased cartridge, banishing Sati and Thuggee, abolition of female infanticide and child marriage … do not seem reason enough to start dozens of disparate armed battles against the occupiers at the same time over most of the northern half of the subcontinent. The mutinies had been going on for long but ruthlessly suppressed and completely hushed. Discontent had been brewing for several decades before the First war of Indian Independence over lack of respect shown by British officers to natives in the same army units.

It is questionable that before a single cartridge had been issued, before even one foot-soldier had been asked to defile himself by applying his teeth to the greased paper, the demeanour of the men of the four native regiments at Barrackpur had displayed unmistakable signs of the discontent ? The rage and ire of the natives was especially occasioned by the conduct and attitude of delusional greenhorns, recruited in a hurry, despite no military or administrative experience of value. Most were chicken hearts at single combat, catapulted to glorious fortunes. They could not stand in the sun, much less spill the blood of the fighting natives. What they had was the “system” partial to whites, to their culture and religion, all back-driven and bankrolled by oligarchs led by the Rothschilds. They had control over wealth and resources, the authority to punish and reward, and the mass produced weapons and ammunitions to shock and awe, kill and subdue.

There is material on Rothschild’s involvement in the siphoning off of India’s wealth but 99 times of that is yet unraveled. The Rothschild family owned the trading enterprise, British East India Company. It is they who used Robert Clive for land grabbing and removed him when their purpose was served. Clive was later court marshaled. After Tipu’s death in 1799, the Rothschilds made sure the entire gold was shipped off to their underground vaults in their own ships. Today, the Rothschilds own many times more wealth than the whole of Forbes 500 hold together. 

In those days, Jewish banking families made it a practice to marry their female offspring to spendthrift European aristocrats. In Jewish law, the mixed offspring of a Jewish mother is Jewish. And male heirs always marry Jews. Churchill’s mother was a Rothschilds. His rise to First Lord of Admiralty and Britain’s Prime Ministership was well manoeuvred by his in-laws. The daughter of Jewish banker Ernest Cassel, Pamela, married Lord Louis Mountbatten, who was related to Queen Victoria and Prince Philip. 

Back to the soldier’s “mutiny,” the one at Vellore took place as early as July 10, 1806, in which more than 200 British officers were killed. Soldiers had revolted at Barrackpore in 1824 and in 1852, in North-western Provinces in 1844, and in Punjab in 1849-50. Events reflect the uneasy relationship between the officers and their men, who displayed an obstinate determination to break with their masters rather than continue service on terms that could be disregarded at superiors’ pleasure. 

As was common, Christian missionaries were encouraged and supported by the administration to convert the natives in their units, often by hook or crook. The armymen were made to sit though their preaching everyday. Punishments administered on the men included whipping, corporal torture and making them stand under the blazing sun till they fainted.

Bread And Lotus

Any discussion on the historical events in 1857 must keep in focus the scale it involved : over a million man-miles in just the early months of the War. It would involve elaborate planning and provisioning to sustain the war for about two years. Which is how the mysterious ‘chapati’ and ‘red lotus’ movement, widely reported all over Northern India in late 1856 and early 1857, should be analysed – from the effect they had in serving to keep the native revolutionaries informed and in a state of preparedness. Recent studies, especially in Parag Tope’s Operation Red Lotus, describe in detail very planned troop movements before and after the battles, with illustrated maps.

The book by Parag Tope, a direct descendent of Tatya Tope – the executive mastermind behind the ’57 War of Indian Independence – details the logistical issues that were overcome to allow the Indian troops to march. Hundreds of never before published Urdu letters, written to Tatya during the War, were translated in this effort. The letters provide an insight into Tatya’s administrative acumen in running a full-fledged independent government and demonstrates that the leaders of the war had a clear vision for a free India. His chess like moves and counter moves in the military chronicle, the book sketches, are both a revelation and a fascinating account. 

Maulavi Ahmadullah was another intriguing character, amongst many, in the centre of British attention. He travelled over the Northwest Provinces on a mission which was a mystery to European authorities. It followed that he stayed for sometime at Agra and visited Delhi, Meerut, Patna and Calcutta; and, in April 1857, shortly after his return, he circulated seditious papers throughout Oudh. The executive at Lucknow, alarmed at his progress, despatched a body of troops to seize him. Taken prisoner, the Maulavi was tried and condemned to death but before the sentence could be executed, the War broke out. He escaped from prison and became a confidante of the Begum of Lucknow, the trusted leader of the rebels. 

“That this man was the brain and the hand of the conspiracy there can, I think, be little doubt,” wrote a British contemporary. It was believed that during his travels he devised the scheme of passing on chapatis or unleavened bread over the country far and wide, as a means of spreading awareness of an impending all-out war against the British and a signal to all concerned to be in a state of preparedness.

But no one knew for sure and the British officials were in a tizzy over the chapatis that were arriving everywhere, without any overt sign or script and delivered by messengers who were only bidding as instructed by another equally cipher delivery man. As harmless as it might look, the freckled brown, round chapati — an eternal Indian culinary favourite — caused fear and loathing among the British officers in 1857.

Chapati running’ adopted by the police chowkidars was used as an effective psychological warfare against the British officers. The police chowkidars handed over chapatis, two inch in diameter to other colleagues. They would, in turn, ask them to make some more and pass it on to their counterparts in neighbouring villages. There were around 90,000 policemen who participated in the activity. It was also discovered that the chowkidars obtained receipts after handing over the chapatis. Every  chowkidar  was told that the chapatis were to be given to the hakims (officers) in case they asked for them.

The first mention of this novel strategy was made by G F Harvey, the then commissioner of Agra. While recounting the incidents of 1857-58, he revealed that once while passing through the Mainpuri district of Uttar Pradesh, the village zamindars told him about this mysterious phenomenon. The Friend of India, an English newspaper, reported in its March 5, 1857 issue that panic spread among British officers when they found that the chapatis had made their way into every police station in the area.

The newspaper wrote that all possible conjectures were made regarding the purpose behind the phenomenon. Some even thought it could be a new system of parcel mail. Inquiries made in the Avadh area about the mysterious distribution of chapatis revealed that they were being sent from the east to the west, and right up to Delhi. The exercise baffled the Britishers to a great extent. The then collector of Gurgaon, M R Ford, wrote an official letter to the commissioner of Delhi, Simon Frazer, pointing out that this was some sort of a signal being sent from village to village in his district. The objective of which, however, could not be ascertained.

Rare documents of the revolt of 1857 indicate that by March 5, 1857, the chapatis had reached far and wide: From Farrukhabad to Gurgaon and from Avadh to Rohilkhand on to Delhi. The chapati rumour resulted in an uneasy atmosphere and prevailed all over the area. The police and the administration were left clueless as the Indian soldiers staged the first armed revolt in Meerut on May 10, 1857. The commissioner of military police, northwest region, W H Kerry, in his report on the uprising quoted the then tehsildar of Meerut, Ganga Prasad, as saying that the mysterious chapatis had reached the southeastern region early that year.

Much later, in his book Life during the Indian mutiny, published in 1910 from London, J W Sherar drew some conclusion about chapati running. He admitted that if the objective behind the strategy was to create an atmosphere of mysterious restlessness, the experiment has been successful.

The chapati movement was set in motion by a cunning group of determined conspirators who had begun plotting the rising months, if not years, in advance. The rapid spread of disorder in 1857– when regiment after regiment had mutinied, and revolts against British rule had sprung up throughout most of northern and central India– made it almost impossible to believe that the rebellion could have been spontaneous.

Lotus flowers and bits of goats’ flesh, so it was rumoured, were also passed from hand to hand during the period. Symbols of unknown significance were chalked on the walls of towns; protective charms were on sale everywhere; an ominous slogan, Sub lal ho gaya hai ( ‘Everything has become red’ ), was being whispered.

The irony is that all this effort actually supplied historians with evidence that the chapati movement had nothing at all to do with the outbreak of disorder some months later– and that the circulation of the breads early in 1857 was nothing more than a bizarre coincidence. But Kim Wagner, who has made the most recent study of the phenomenon, concludes that the movement had its origins in Indore, a princely state still nominally independent of British rule, and that it began as an attempt to ward off the ravages of cholera.

The geographic circulation of the chapattis was not systematic or exponential; their transmission was erratically linear and different ‘currents’ moved at different speeds. Some currents simply ran cold, while others moved in parallel, or paused before continuing. Thus, long after the chapattis reached their northern-most point of Meerut, there was another northwards distribution from Kanpur to Fatehgarh, which was widely reported in the newspapers… The circulation took place along well-established routes of transmission, which followed the main trade and pilgrimage routes between the bigger cities.

At some point the chapattis passed beyond the limits of their meaningful transmission and simply continued through the country as a “blank” message. This allowed different meanings and interpretations to be attributed to them, and the chapattis became an index of people’s thoughts and worries.

Furthermore, the superstitious impulse that still encourages the transmission of chain letters clearly applied in 1857 : Although the original specific meaning of the chapattis had been lost early in the distribution, the dire consequences of breaking the chain of transmission remained, and thus ensured their successful circulation over an immense area. In the event, the chapattis were not ‘harbingers of a coming storm.’ They were what people made them into, and the significance attributed to them was a symptom of the pervasive distrust and general consternation amongst the Indian population during the early months of 1857.

Seen from a distance of 150 years, the chapati movement can appear a quaint anomaly, a strange and colorful rumor of interest mostly to historians and psychologists. And yet it’s just as possible to see the bloody results of the mutual incomprehension between the British and native communities in India as a potent reminder that mistrust and panic can have serious consequences. These are deep waters that we trawl in, and dangerous ones, too.


In The Aftermath

One major gain for the natives from the 1857 War was that the British backed away from their proselytising efforts after and due to this fierce expression of disaffection. Not due to any innate goodness in the British hearts, or any ‘religious’ and ideological ‘liberalism’ that the modern-day Western narrative trots out. 

Administratively too, under the Crown after 1857, the British were forced to reassess their own doings until then : there were more than 75 battles, skirmishes, revolts, mutinies, involving thousands, up to lakhs of Indians across India. And more than double that many conspiracies, plots, hold-ups, explosions, bombings, which were unorganised. These more than 200 violent actions have been completely glossed over by post-colonial Indiaan historians. 

To Indians raised on an official narrative of caste-religion matrix, the 1857 War had a cast of characters that would surprise us : it had kings and common men, hindus and muslims, upper and lower castes. There was Nana Sahib, Azimullah Khan, Tatya Tope, Babu Kuvwar Singh, Rani Laxmibai, Begum Hazrat Mahal, Bhakt Khan, Khan Bahadur Khan, Liyakat Ali, Mangal Pandey, Bahadur Shah Zafar, Ishwari Kumari Devi, Chaudhary Kadam Singh, Mufti Nizamuddin, Rao Tula Ram … The countrymen rose as one against the alien occupiers, their malacious but disguised depradations and their projected superiority.

As the Anglo-Indian War of 1857 continued and wound down, the three leaders, Nana Sahib, Tatya Tope and Feroz Shah disappeared. No one knew what happened to them or where they went. It is usually accepted that the Tatya Tope ‘executed’ by the Colonial Raj as was a straw figure. 

After winning the war at Delhi and presenting the heads of three of his sons to Bahadur Shah Zafar on a platter at Khooni Darwaza, Rothschild’s agents organised an extravagant ball at the Red Fort, even while vandalising the Taj Mahal. The solid gold coated spires  were prised out and replaced with brass imitations. They also prised out the diamonds, saphire, rubies and emeralds, and replaced them with coloured quartz. 

The oligarchs always win.

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