This article belongs to With a Grain of Piquant Salt column.

The 1857 War of Independence or Great Mutiny has been directly seared into the national psyches of many countries and impacted a great many more countries indirectly.


The Great British Empire, on which the sun never set, arose properly right after 1857 and lasted for about a hundred years before disintegrating extremely rapidly. I just finished reading William Dalrymple's latest Magnus Opus, The Last Mughal, (ISBN0747587264) which tells the story of Delhi before, during and after the mutiny; describes the work of the major protagonists; the searing indictment of how religion was used and misused; outlines how one empire collapsed and another was born from the ashes; tells of the atrocities and ideals; explains the impact on royalty as well as on the common man and the pitiful end of the Last Great Mughal.


Needless to say, this is a very powerful book and made a deep impact on me for a whole host of frequently contradictory emotions and reasons. A British Old Soldiers Association few weeks ago tried to pay respects to the British Soldiers killed in 1857 and buried in Meerut in 1857 and ended up with protests and vandalism of the graves. That's how emotive this subject is. An ex-serviceman site in the UK expressed extreme surprise at the emotions and exclaimed rather naively, "surely they have forgotten about it by now?". No, Sir, they have not forgotten.


I have talked before about how the same event can be looked at differently by different people, relating to their national biases, their education systems, their national ethos and a lot of other factors. And I have yet to see any event other than the 1857 war which has so many different interpretations. The English saw 1857 as a great mutiny, but also that an accidental empire wasn't really the way to go about it. It got rid of the East India Company and ruled India by direct rule.


Also the sheer size of the British India Army, as well as the huge economy, gave a further fillip to the Empire building in Africa, South East Asia, China and other places. Pakistan does not like it at all; the 1857 event was the final nail in the coffin of the over-lordship of Muslims over India. An entire culture, way of life, history and everything was swept away, leaving a civilisational chasm from which the Muslims have never really managed to recover. Despite now having two Muslim countries crafted out of British India, both are frankly in the dregs.


The seeds of their collapse and current sad state were sown, fertilised and watered during this war. Bangladesh does not like it either, as the war put into motion the steps which finally lead to the Bengal Partition and the final burial of the idea of a 'Greater Bengal'. Afghanistan was also impacted and does not like it either, as the war gave rise to a need for secure western borders, and the definite bugaboo of the Soviet Bear emerged, as well as the beginning of the Great Game in Central Asia.


The Pathans loved it, as they managed to get a big foot inside the door of the British Indian Army. India loves the idea of this war, as it provides a definite statement on how both Muslims and Hindus simultaneously rose up against the hated foreigner and how nation building started from that moment on, leading directly to Independence in 1947. Nepal liked it, as it provided the Gurkhas with a chance to serve in the British Indian Army, a tradition which continues on to this very day.


Broadly speaking, from a religious perspective, the reactions were significantly different. Muslims dislike it as the entire edifice of Muslim intelligentsia was toppled. The mushaira; the rentier economy; the purdah system; the agrarian society; the high culture of poetry, gazals, painting, dance; epicurean delights, indolence, the idea of large families; the pomp and show of royal households; the Sufi traditions; a four century old tradition of Muslim rule, all were unceremoniously swept away in the aftermath of the rebellion. Christians love it, because this allowed them to finally nail the madrassah system of education.


Proselytisation got its second breath, the missionary system became entrenched, Christianity got as close as possible to be a state religion and elements of Christianity and the Christian moral framework were incorporated into Indian society such as sati abolition, monogamy, Puritanism, etc. Sikhs also loved it, as they got a chance to get their revenge against the Mughals, who had killed two of their revered gurus and they also got to establish a foothold in the British India Army. More importantly, this war of independence gave them a route for their nation to survive after Maharaja's Ranjit Singh's Sikh Kingdom was subsumed within the British Empire.


Along with the Pathans, the Sikhs and the Gurkhas dislodged the common Muslims and high caste Hindus from the East India / British Army. The Hindus loved it too, as it provided them with opportunities to be educated and to learn from the British (history, education, legal system….) to provide the administrative framework for British rule. The Dalits were all over this event (see for example: 'Dalit Movement in India and its Leaders (1857-1956)' by R.K. Kshirsagar, M.D. Publications (1994) New Delhi, ISBN: 8185880433 or Dalit Movement in South India : 1857-1950 by Swapna H. Samel. New Delhi, ISBN 81-86771-39-5 or Women Heroes And Dalit Assertion In North India: Culture, Identity and Politics by Badri Narayan. Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2006.) This is crucial from the perspective of the Dalits forming their own identity and political envelope. They had to construct a history, a culture and identity and by linking it to India's first war of independence, it allowed them to establish the separation from the common Congress / Hindu narrative which looks at 1857 as the Indian Nation's fight for Independence.


I don't think they managed to pull it off, specially since the Dalits' desire was to share in a great portion of the nation's resources as well as make sure it remains. So they had to establish Brahmanism as the enemy, while making sure they remained part of Hinduism. On the other hand, the accusation from the Brahmins is that the Dalits sided with the British against the Indians (the counter argument is that the Dalits wanted to get rid of the Hindu zamindars, rajas and kings who were oppressing them!). Quite complicated, but interesting days lay ahead.


But caste was a very big factor in the 1857 war. Do not forget that one of the reasons for the East India Company Jawans to rebel was the idea that the soldiers would be asked to work outside of India and they would have to cross the seas. That would make the high caste soldiers lose their caste. Also other ill-judged initiatives such as common cooking utensils, recruitment of soldiers from other regions and not from old regular villages, etc. all pointed to the Hindu soldiers getting worried that the British wanted to destroy their caste status.


And then we all know how the issue around Pig fat greasing the cartridges caused the Hindu and Muslim soldiers to rebel. Mangal Pandey is famous for this, but he was a Brahmin and the Dalits point to Mata Deen as the main person responsible for the war. I always thought that Bahadur Shah Zafar was much to blame, but I changed my mind quite a bit after reading this book. As people say, civilisations and kingdoms usually start rotting from the inside out and the end of the Timurid Empire in India, which had great luminaries, ended with a whimper. Come the moment, and the man didn't come. I am not surprised. For sixty years, all he knew was a tiny patch of land in and around Delhi, which he directly ruled. The rest of Hindustan, Pakistan, Afghanistan and other places were already outside the Mughal Empire.


He became the Badshah at sixty years of age, an age where people retire and tend their roses or worry about their backs and creak at every joint. And he was supposed to throw off sixty years of conditioning and of spending most of his time with poetry, songs and artistry to suddenly become a great military leader? No way, José. He wasn't even able to manage his own harem with his own women running around with other men nor was he able to manage his own sons. Heck, he wasn't even able to manage his own city with petition after petition (from ordinary citizens being terrorised by rebel soldiers) being fruitlessly addressed to him. So he was unsure and unable to take decisions.


The presence and actions of the Jihadis was very interesting and new to me. As it so happens, the book claims that these Jihadis were the most effective in the rebellion against the British. And there are so many parallels to the current day. The similarities between how the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban as well as how the various fundamentalists in North India reacted after the fall of the Lal Masjid and the reactions after the rebellion is quite fascinating. Now we have suicide bombing, and back then they went out to die in suicide charges under the rifles of the British soldiers. We read about how they all piled into Delhi from all over North India, how they nearly came to blows with the Hindu soldiers and how they defended Delhi with their madcap bravery.


Very little is known about this part of the struggle, but for people who think that jihadis emerged all of a sudden after Osama Bin Laden had an "idea" or America created him need to read this book to see how this phenomena of jihad's has a long pedigree (another example is that of Khartoum but that's another essay). The sheer incompetence of the military leadership of the Indians, the corruption, the robbery of the Delhi citizens, the sheer complex and interesting British intelligence service run through the Indians, the machinations of Bahadur Shah's wives and sons, the tragic end of Bahadur Shah in far off Rangoon, the absolutely detestable legal trial which is the biggest blot on the United Kingdom's history, but far too common unfortunately (one can legitimately argue that it was the British who rebelled against their liege!), and so on and so forth.


The huge draw of the Mughal Empire was also a surprise. So many Hindus and Muslims went straight to Delhi (Chalo Dilli – Lets go to Delhi) all hoping that their emperor will throw these detested foreigners out and go back to the safe old ways. This aspect is sort of underplayed in all the South Asian narratives. They didn't want independence, they wanted a return of the Mughal Empire. And most of the other heroes joined into the fight, mainly because of their personal position as rulers, kings, and assorted tin pot rajas was threatened or removed by the British. At end of the book, I sat back and thought through the entire book.


I guess the overall conclusion was that I was disappointed to have been given a wrong impression of the 1857 fight for independence. I was disappointed that India did not put up a stronger fight and that the British were so bloodthirsty and worse, and carried out a historical legal grotesque miscarriage of justice in putting Bahadur Shah on trial and condemning him. I am also disappointed that a scorched earth policy was adopted by the British and nearly succeeded in eradicating the history, library, archives, and architecture of India in various cities, but mainly in Delhi. I am also disappointed that despite so many people dying for various different motives, we are still arguing over that event. And the final disappointment was that it was a savage little war/mutiny and nobody comes out of it with any good reputation.


I am reminded of the quote by M. F. K Fisher that "War is a beastly business, it is true, but one proof we are human is our ability to learn, even from it, how better to exist." But it has been 150 odd years now and we still haven't learnt. All this to be taken with a grain of piquant salt!