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How The Ghost Of 1857 Haunted The British In India


The backbone of the British Empire was the army it created in India. It had one of the best cavalry and armed soldiers amongst all its colonies comprising of Indian and British soldiers. The British Army ensured that the subjects and the slaves lived in constant fear and retribution. Hence, the 1857 ‘War of Independence’ and the 1946 naval ratings  uprisings gave a jolt and rattled the empire to the core.

“The British Indian Army is the only instrument in the hands of the British Government to maintain internal peace and quell external aggression.” Umer Hayat Khan (1929)

On 1857, a shot rang out at the Barrackpore cantonment in what is today Bengal. It was the spark that lit a fire that had been simmering under the surface for quite some time.

The East India Company (EIC) had painstakingly built its empire in India, gaining victory in various battles across the country. In the process it had also laid the foundations of the modern Indian army. Indian sepoys had been drafted into British style battalions and regiments, which in 1857, to the horror of the EIC, had risen against them. The reasons were varied, with the beef and pork cartridge paper just being the trigger, not the main reason. This work doesn’t intend to explore questions such as ‘was it really a national uprising?’ or ‘was it haphazard or well co-ordinated?’ Or ‘how would India have fared as a nation if the British had left?’  Instead, the author opines on how threatened did the British Empire feel owing to the events of 1857.

In 1857, the power of the East India Company lay solely in its soldiers. It had captured territory after territory either by destroying big rival armies – like that of Daulatrao Scindia and Bajirao II or it had completely defanged Rajas and princely states by stationing soldiers to ‘protect’ thee new found allies; the Mughal emperor himself for example. Thus, when the 1857 uprising happened for the British it felt like their strongest arm had reached for their throat. A good measure of how dangerous a threat is perceived to be is to analyse the quantum and quality of the resources used to counter it. The British viewed the 1857 threat very, very seriously and the same can be concluded from  two facts:

a.  The caliber and experience of military officers sent to India to quell the 1857 Uprising.

b.  The brutality adopted to crush the uprising.

The local British officers alone were not considered sufficient to quell the uprising of Nana Sahib, Tatya Tope and at a later stage, Rani Laxmibai. To defeat her alone, and secure Bundelkhand, General Hugh Rose was sent from England. He came and took over the Central India Field Force at Mhow (Madhya Pradesh). Previously, he had served in various battles in the Crimean War and in Syria. When he arrived in India, he already had a military career of over thirty five years! Another important British Officer in the fray was General Wheeler, who had served in the Afghan War and the Sikh War in recent years.

As to the brutality unleashed in suppressing the Uprising, there was no limit. More than a million were killed in the Ganga – Jamuna doab. Dozens were hanged or shot dead and the death count in Delhi alone went to a lakh. Delhi was considered the epicenter of the War of Independence of 1857 by the Britishers and in order to crush the Uprising and create fear they even toyed with the idea of flattening the city to the grounds. Complete annihilation of a micro civilization was the retribution for fighting for Independence.  Many buildings were indeed razed and the Mughal aristocracy brutally annihilated. Why indeed go to this extent of brutality if their rule over India was not seriously threatened? At no other point in India’s freedom struggle was such annihilation repeated on this scale.

Lord Canning called it “A storm which would have otherwise swept over us in one great wave”, alluding to help given to the British by Indian princes which saved the day.

Administrative changes:

The first and major change was to transfer control of India from the East India Company to the British Government at London. The EIC had more or less put India in its pocket by 1818. Sindh (1843) and Punjab (1849) were the only major regions to be annexed later. It had done so via some excellent military commanders such as General Lake and General Wellesley. Still, the events of 1857 compelled a change of management. An even more monumental change took place in the military structure. At the time, the Indian Army consisted of three separate “Presidency” armies – Bombay , Bengal and Madras. They would be united into the current “Indian Army” much later, in 1903.

As of 1857, the Bengal army was the largest, drawing from Bengal, Bihar, Awadh, and others. It also led the revolt against the British. The administrative response was to come up with a ‘martial race’ theory. Those who had supported the British were ‘martial race’, those who had not, were not. The British cited hardiness, mountainous terrain as reasons, but the coincidence with 1857 is hard to miss!

It goes without saying that the Bengal regiments were by and large disbanded. The focus of the army almost overnight shifted to the Punjab and other provinces.  In 1858, over eighty percent of the troops in the Bengal Army were being recruited from the Punjab!

How important was the army from the British stand point?

The British Indian Army was a very important part of the British Empire. Not only external , but even internal security problems were regularly handled by the army.  In just three years – 1899 to 1901 – it had been called upon sixty eight times to solve problems facing the British Empire from within India. The British Empire liberally used its armed forces on civilian populations – such as at the Jallianwala Bagh massacre or the bombing of the North West Frontier Province in 1940s. Both times to crush the freedom struggle.

So long as they controlled the army , the British empire felt secure. Even the Quit India movement had been suppressed by using the army.  When it came to the question of devolving power to Indians , via the Cripps Mission of 1942 , the British Government insisted that the Army should not be let out of British hands. They would not tolerate an Indian here. The army protected the subcontinent from a Russian invasion and had at an earlier juncture given England strategic depth in the important region of Afghanistan.

 Ghosts of 1857:

The British rattled as they were by the happenings of 1857, sought to downplay it in various ways by calling it a rag tag mutiny or by ensuring that no public dissemination about the Uprising happened amongst the subjects. When Savarkar’s book on War of  Independence of 1857 was to be published – it was banned! This was a good fifty years after the event, and the book was banned even prior publication! Perhaps the British feared a repeat of the events fifty years past? Any suggestion to have the slightest civilian control over the army was quickly dispatched to the dustbin. The British created Provincial Governments and Constituent Assemblies, but Defense and budgeting of defense always remained a military concern.

Any person trying a repeat of 1857 was dealt with severely. For example , soldiers of the Garhwal rifles refused to board buses that were being sent to quell Khuda-e-Khitmatgars protesting at Qissa Qahani Bazar, Peshawar.  It was the first time since 1857 that army units had done such a thing – and the repurcussions were harsh. There was a belief that the Civil Disobedience movement had perhaps affected the Army. Apparently, the British government was more scared of army units turning nationalist than peaceful nationalist movements themselves!  The fate of the Indian National Army was also similar.  It is unfortunate, that with the British themselves repeatedly saying that 1857 was nearly the end for them and getting spooked with anything remotely resembling 1857 appeared on the horizon, Gandhiji and others stuck to the view “How can we ever hope to rid the British by force of arms? We are poor, uneducated, unarmed people – we can never fight the British.”

Congress Party as a safety valve:

The genesis of the Congress party is an interesting story.  It generally doesn’t find mention in popular memory when we talk of the grand old party.  The only recollections, if any, people will have are a few paragraphs from the school textbook.  But the Indian National Congress was established precisely to act as a buffer against a 1857 like event (which as we have seen, was an earth shattering event).  It is a fact that Allan Octavian Hume and Lord Dufferin played a central role in establishing the Congress party.  AO Hume himself called it “a safety valve for the escape of great and growing forces”. What were these great and growing forces? Hume was alluding to a possible armed uprising. Creating Indian National Congress put an Indian buffer between them and the British.

1946 and the effect of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose

I am not too keen to start talking about a period  after which British rule would have ceased in India. I feel that day is very remote.” –Lord Linlithgow , 1939.

“ This is the first occasion an anti British politician has acquired a hold over substantial number of men in the Indian Army and the consequences are quite in incalculable” – Lord Wavell , 1944

It is interesting to note that the Cripps Mission (1942), which came up with a plan to devolve power substantially to Indians, insisted on keeping Defense with the British! Even as late as 1946, the importance of the army had not been lost on the British Empire. In those few years, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose raised the Azad Hind Fauj (INA) – drawn up from Indian PoWs of the World War and volunteers from Singapore and Malay islands, who were mostly Tamils. The INA proceeded to evict British rule from many parts of South East Asia and also won Andaman and Nicobar islands. They then proceeded towards Imphal and Kohima – where twenty thousand soldiers of the INA were martyred fighting British armies. But for the British Government, these were Indian soldiers fighting against their own government! Trials followed – the famous Red Fort trial of the INA. Bose had intended to cause a 1857 like event by entering Bengal via the north east. Sadly, that was not to be. But his aim of inspiring men against the empire was fulfilled by the Red Fort trials.

The trial directly led to the mutiny by the Indian Naval ratings at Bombay and Karachi. Soon it spread elsewhere to the Signallers and other departments. It spread to Calcutta and Pune. At its height in February 1946 it involved 78 ships , twenty shore establishments and twenty thousand sailors. There was extreme panic in London and Delhi. The legs of the Empire had given way ! Subhash Chandra Bose was triumphant finally.

Effect of Red Fort trials:

The treatment of the INA severely divided the British Indian Army. A large number of soldiers believed that the INA had been dealt with rather harshly. Contrast this with the hundred percent faith put in them to quell the Quit India movement of 1942. In a report prepared by the British Intelligence officer O’Brien, it is mentioned that the Indian soldiers of the Royal Indian Navy, Royal Indian Air Force, Signalers, Ancillaries and many others could no longer be counted upon. This was April 1946. An exit plan was hastily drawn up. It had been just seven years since Linlithgow had said “I do not see the end of British rule”. What changed? The stance of the British Indian Army!

Thus, we see that it was the Army that was the backbone of British rule in India. This backbone nearly broke in 1857 and all efforts of the British, henceforth, were to prevent a recurrence. The Congress Party was established as a ‘safety valve’ and soldiers kept loyal by recruiting from certain castes and classes only. It obviously did the job, because as late as 1939 the Viceroy was confident of holding on to India forever! But when this foundation wobbled heavily in 1946, British rule became untenable. This is not to say that other freedom fighters were not brave or sincere. They definitely were , and their nationalism and sacrifice is inspiring indeed. But as far as India getting freedom is concerned , it was the activities in the Defense department that proved most crucial. The book “ Bose – An Indian Samurai” by Maj Gen GD Bakshi gives a brilliant exposition of this and is a must read book for anyone wanting to understand our freedom struggle from nationalistic lens.

In the words of Lt Gen S.K Sinha

“ There was considerable sympathy for the INA within the Army. It is true that fears of another 1857 had begun to haunt the British in 1946”

References :

  1. Punjabisation in the British Indian Army 1857-1947 and the Advent of Military Rule in Pakistan– Syed Hussain Shahid Suhrawardy
  2. Contribution of the Armed Forces to the Freedom Movement in India – Gen VK Singh
  3. Bose , An Indian Samurai – Maj Gen (Dr) GD Bakshi
  4. 1857 War of Independence – VD Savarkar
  5. The Last Mughal – William Dalrymple

Aneesh Gokhale

1 Comment

  1. A Sunder Rajan says

    Netaji and his Indian National Army Dealt a Big Blow, that Broke the British Rule Forever, their Resolve was forever gone.No wonder, that, Lord Mountbatten hastened and hurried Forward the Date of Indian Independence from June 1948 to August 1947 .The British, did Not want to be caught up in Another Mutiny of The Indian Army and the other Indian Defence Forces, The Royal Indian Navy and The Royal Indian Air Force.

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