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A Tale Of Two Revolts by Rajmohan Gandhi

Two wars––the 1857 Revolt in India and the American Civil War— seemingly fought for very different reasons, occurred at opposite ends of the globe in the middle of the nineteenth century. But they were both fought in a world still dominated by Great Britain and the battle cry in both conflicts was freedom.

I had the pleasure of attending book signing lecture recently. The one-third of the book, according to Mr Gandhi (grand son of Mahatma Gandhi and son of Rajaji’s daughter), deals with American civil war and the rest with the 1857 Indian Sepoy revolt. Some very well-known now but not so known then, people like Leo Tolstoy and Karl Marx both of who were correspondents in Russia and England, respectively appear at various stages in the book.

Abraham Lincoln apparently knew of the Indian revolt but elected not to say anything publicly, probably not wanting to antagonize the British.

Mr Gandhi narrates story of five extraordinary inhabitants of India—Sayyid Ahmed Khan, Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar, Jotiba Phule, Allan Octavian Hume and Bankimchandra Chatterjee. For reasons not quite understood only Jyotiba Phule from Maharashtra elected to support the efforts to free slaves.

The reasons for the failure of the revolt were many – this was not a united national revolt, it was based on personal reasons not on any national agenda, participants were mostly lower caste Indians, intellectuals were not sold on this idea, it was limited to northern part of India.

At one point Mr Gandhi said that he studied in detail entire history of 1857 revolt and learned a great deal about opposing the British which he later implemented well in India’s struggle for Independence. He said that his grand father in 1905 while in South Africa, described Abraham Lincoln as the person he admired most.

Westwood expansion by the Americans was based on manifest destiny, same way as it was for East India company and its point man Dalhousie. A teenager Edvin Blood from Boston who went to India to work as clerk has stated in his journal that applying his ‘doctrine of lapse’ took over Jhansi, Satara and Nagpur around 1854 because these rulers did not have a biological heir, hence their right for an independent state ‘lapsed.’ He also annexed Avadh along with its elegant capital Lucknow and this did not sit well with most sepoy army. One off-shoot of Avadh annexation was discontinuation of his pension for Mirz Ghalib from King of Avadh and put him in financial hardship.

Dalhousie in 1855 was soon scheduled to return to England and believed he had achieved many accomplishments during his term in India, he founded Indian Railway,Indian post/telegraph, Universities were established, roads, canals and bridges were built.

The reasons for the 1857 Revolt.

* A spurt in Christian religious activities in Delhi displeased many Muslims and Hindus alike. (Under pressure from English clergy,
East India company reluctantly agreed to allow missionary work.) 

* The suspicion in Bengal army that gun cartridges were tainted with beef and or pig blood. This was taken to assume that the British were trying to pollute entire Hindu and Muslin population. In order to use the cartridge, it had to be bitten off by mouth.  A Sepoys (soldiers) were caught between hard place and a rock.  If he disobeyed, he would be dismissed, if he did not, he will be polluted.

* ” A doctrine of Lapse” was implemented by Dalhousie in 1850 which enabled him to take over any princely state lacked a biological
male heir. Adopted son was not accepted by British as heir. This policy infuriated many princes, especially in the state of Jhansi where prince had died and an adopted heir by warrior princess
Laxmibai was not accepted by the British. Although all these states were governed by the princes, the de-facto rulers were the British
who provided protection to these states (sounds like Mafia to me!)

* Reforms like abolition of  practice of “Sati” (a widow would kill herself on their husbands’ funeral pyres), reforms allowing widows
to remarry. These went against the then strong religious beliefs.

*   “Avadh” a territory between Delhi and Bengal. The ruler had signed a treat in 1837 with the British not to annex the kingdom and acted as a buffer between hostile Delhi and British controlled Bengal in addition to supplying a very large number of Muslim and Hindu soldiers to the British army. In spite of this Dalhousie annexed it in 1856 alleging that king Wajid Ali Khan was unfit to rule. A majority of Muslim and Hindu soldiers from Avadh who served in the British Army did not like it.

The annexation hit “Talukdars” the hardest who were mostly      Muslims or high caste Rajputs whose control over peasants was curtailed. The most of the sepoys were also of the same high social status as Talukadars and were also very unhappy. 

This was the British excuse for westward expansion towards Delhi (sounds familiar it should because same excuse of christian manifest destiny was used by advancing Americans into westward expansion.

* In Maharashtra, Nana Sahib had asked for most of his adoptive father’s pension but was denied.

* In 1856 a vernacular school was founded which included 2 girls.
Affluent community leaders were forced to pay for the school. A school for low-caste children was founded by Jyotiba Phule who himself belonged to low-caste community and was honored by the British which did not sit well with the Brahmins.


There were several reasons why the revolt of 1857 failed.

* Mostly it was local with local grievances and reasons.

* There was no national guidance or leader.

* Sheikhs in Delhi were unhappy with rebelling Bengali solders who had fought for the British during earlier comparing against Delhi
clan C
chiefs. During the revolt (or Mutiny as the British called it)
they helped hunt down rebels and helped British army.

* The rulers of Maharashtra, Hyderabad and other parts of India,
elected not to take part sensing that eventually the British will be winners and did not want to jeopardize their relation.

* Many high-caste soldiers did not want to fight side-by-side with other low-caste ones.

Aftermath of the revolt.

* Queen Victoria signed a proclamation  pledging not to impose christianity. (Idea behind this was that any move to push Christianity would only unite Muslims and Hindus which was the last thing the British wanted)

* Annexation was forsworn, adoption of heirs was allowed.

* The idea of levelling Indian society was given up.

* Respect for customs and rights of Indians were upheld.


Vijay Joshi ‘word-hunter’