Cannon fodder

For a triad of freedoms

How a war was planned, executed, fought, lost and won.

In late 1856, some strange practices began to surface in parts of north India. Red lotus flowers were circulated in garrisons which housed the Native Infantry. The subedar would line up the troops and then hand a flower to the first soldier, who would hold it and pass it down the line. The last one would leave the station with the flower. Elsewhere, a runner took a bundle of chapatis to a village and handed it to the chief or sentry, with instructions to send the chapatis on to the next village under English rule. In the midst of these lotus and chapati incidents, the soldiers’ slogan would change from “everything will become red” to “everything has become red.” Other unusual events included the announcement of an important yagya in Mathura (which never took place), and the habit begun by many women of offering their rolling pins to the river Ganga.

Cannon fodder
Image: Vasily Vasilyevich Vereshchagin/Wikimedia Commons

Operation Red Lotus
by Parag Tope
Rupa & Co, 2010, 468 pages

These signs were noticed by the British—Benjamin Disraeli even raised the question of the travelling chapatis in Parliament—but were dismissed as Indian superstitions.

These abnormal occurrences, ignored by almost every historical narrative on the 1857 uprising, assume significance when seen in the light of an important question: How did the Indian troops travel over a million miles, in the early months of the war, without a supply line? In a regular war, there were three camp followers for each soldier, but once the soldiers mutinied in 1857, who fed them? Case in point: How did the 17th Native Infantry march 140km from Azamgarh to Faizabad in just five days?

The answer may seem straightforward: The villagers fed the soldiers. However, there was an intricate strategy underlying the initiative. To feed thousands of soldiers, each village (comprising of a few hundred people) needed an approximate count. The count was provided by the lotus flowers, while the chapatis and the rolling pins were the means used to confirm the commitment of the villagers. The Mathura yagya was a ruse to facilitate the travel of priests who doubled as spies.

Thus, the Anglo-Indian War of 1857 was initiated by leaders who planned the war, conducted internal and external reconnaissance, and recruited soldiers—with the help of civilians.

Parag Tope’s Operation Red Lotus—through the analysis of instances such as the use of red lotuses and chapatis—fills the gaps and corrects the myths about the events of 1857. Relying on eyewitness accounts written in Marathi and letters in Urdu and Bundeli, Mr Tope, a fourth-generation descendent of Tatya Tope, sheds new light on the momentous event. Add to it his analysis of troop movements, supply lines, and logistics—and the tale of the 1857 Anglo-Indian War comes to life in hitherto untold, dramatic fashion.

The triad of freedoms
The leaders who spearheaded the 1857 operation included Nana Saheb, his Diwan, Tatya Tope, Begum Hazrat Mahal, and the Nawab of Banda. In 1858, Sitaram Baba, a priest in Nana Saheb’s court was arrested by the British. Baba confessed that the conspiracy had been initiated by Baija Bai Shinde two decades earlier, and that the real planning had started three years before. He also revealed information about the runners who had gone to each regiment, and the connection between the lotuses and chapatis. Letters, translated for the first time in this book, reveal that Tatya Tope was aware of military movements, logistics and provisions.

“It is important to note that the rising was neither planned nor stimulated by any patriotic move”, wrote Gregory Fremont-Barnes in Indian Mutiny 1857-58 (2007). What Fremont-Barnes and many other Indian historians often fail to mention is that the leaders of the 1857 revolt had a clear vision for the future. After the uprising’s initial success, Bahadur Shah Zafar made a proclamation, read by his grandson in Azamgarh. The proclamation promised a triad of invaluable freedoms: Political, personal and economic.

The crony-capitalist state run by the British East India Company had destroyed the free market system in India. Heavy taxation was the norm, while prices were enforced with the threat of punishment. Manufacturing capabilities were crippled, and the agricultural sector lost the ability to shield the country from the threat of famines. Due to India’s asymmetrical role in the global network, even as the country’s share in the world’s GDP fell from 25 percent to 12, Britain’s share doubled.

On the social front, William Bentinck’s educational policy, based on Macaulay’s Minute, destroyed the private education system that had previously created a society more literate than that of Britain. In a letter to his father, Macaulay claimed that if the new education policy was implemented, there would not be a single idolater left in Bengal.

Even the legal framework was skewed—Indians wanted freedom from missionaries who were working with the Government, and laws which favoured Christians.

By promising the triad of freedoms, the leaders were not advocating a novel or revolutionary idea. They were reverting to the foundations of the Indian polity, which not only guaranteed political, social and economic freedom, but kept them separate as well. In other words, the ruler did not act as a trader, but created an environment suitable for trade.

Fractional freedom
Mr Tope argues that although the initial uprising was brilliantly planned and co-ordinated, the war was lost due to two reasons. Firstly, the British used their women and children as human shields, which resulted in gory incidents such as the Siege of Cawnpore. Secondly, they resorted to the use of extreme brutality—leaving aside their usual pretences to civilised behaviour—citing the case of Cawnpore (Kanpur).

Recognising the supply lines for the soldiers, British officials attacked those villages through which the chapatis were passed. A law was passed to allow the hanging of even those whose guilt was doubtful. British troops under Havelock and Neill did a death march, killing women, children, infants and the elderly. Sepoys were ritually stripped of their caste by having pork and beef stuffed down their throats before execution.

In books such as The Great Indian Mutiny (1964) by Richard Collier, or The Last Mughal (2008) by William Dalrymple, the British officials’ use of violence is regarded as a reaction to the carnage that took place in Kanpur. However, Mr Tope points out that the government’s brutality was unleashed even before that. British historians recorded that “guilty” villages were “cleared” so that India could be saved from anarchy.

In 1857, the strategy of violent repression was used by the British to secure time to redeploy troops from other countries to India. It was during this time that Tatya’s tenacity became evident. After establishing a command centre in Kalpi, he set up factories for producing ammunition, guns and cannons.

Despite the prospect of imminent defeat, Tatya worked to raise an army, and inspire civilians. When the British took over Delhi, the battle ground was moved to central India. When Rani Laxmibai, who grew up with Tatya, was held under siege, he created a diversion to help the Rani escape. Following the Jhansi massacre, the Indian chieftains who supported Tatya backed down, but he came up with a new strategy—to raise rebellions in regions where the spirit of freedom was strong.

The battles are explained with numerous maps, painstakingly plotted with English and Indian troop movements—a useful tool to interpret the events, and grasp the thinking behind the strategy. The maps, coupled with the detailed narrative and critical analysis, provide a valuable resource to better appreciate the holistic nature of the 1857 uprising.

Upon realising that the 1857 war had ignited the desire for total freedom, Queen Victoria dissolved the East India Company and transferred all powers to the Crown. In her proclamation, she did not give India political or economic freedom, but made an important concession: The English would no longer interfere with the native religions. Even Fremont-Barnes’ apologia acknowledges that successive viceroys took greater heed of India’s religious sensitivities. It was an important victory, writes Mr Tope, for it prevented large scale British settlement in India, and stemmed the destruction of Indian traditions.

The fight continues
Nevertheless, the signature elements of the 1857 uprising—secret messages, planning, and mass murders—were repeated again. In 1932, freedom fighters were warned of danger by Hindu women, who blew on conch shells when they spotted a policeman—the sound was relayed for miles by a network of women.

Madhusree Mukerjee records instances of the same nature in her Churchill’s Secret War (2010). During World War II, when the Japanese army reached Indian borders, Leopold Amery, secretary of state for India, wondered if it was necessary to revive ruthless punishments of 1857 to prevent a possible uprising. Winston Churchill’s policies, argues Ms Mukerjee, resulted in a famine in which three million Indians perished. Mr Tope describes the events of February 19, 1946, when 78 ships, going from Karachi to Chittagong, changed their name from HMIS (His Majesty’s Indian Ships) to INNS (Indian National Naval Ships) in a co-ordinated move.

Coming back to 1857: Why is it that Baija Bai Shinde’s 20-year conspiracy, Nana Saheb’s planning or Tatya’s Tope’s contribution do not feature prominently in our history books? This probably has to do with the historiography of the event. In the official version written a century later by Surendra Nath Sen, the 1857 War was seen as a spontaneous uprising by “conspirators”. Historian R C Majumdar questioned if it could even be called a “war” since India was not a nation, while Marxist historians connected the revolt to peasant uprisings in Bengal.

This reluctance to deviate from the colonial narrative 150 years after the war and 60 years after obtaining political freedom is a telling sign about the state of historical study in India.

India’s proclamation of independence six decades ago has to be contrasted with the triad of freedoms promised in the Azamgarh proclamation. To the leaders of the newly independent polity, Indian traditions of the past did not guide the future. Their socialist mindset led to state control over education and restricted economic freedom, with the state itself becoming a trader—all of which had disastrous consequences.

Looking back, we know what our leaders tried to build and failed, but as well, what they knocked down.

Jayakrishnan Nair is a resident commentator on the Indian National Interest and blogs at Varnam