Pandey Neither a Martyr Nor a Hero: Revisiting the 1857 Mutiny
What is more important than Pandey’s motive and agency is the British failure to read the sepoys’ minds across north India’s different cantonments where they rose once the mutiny broke out in Meerut on 10 May 1857.
What is more important than Pandey’s motive and agency is the British failure to read the sepoys’ minds across north India’s different cantonments where they rose once the mutiny broke out in Meerut on 10 May 1857.(Photo: The Quint)

Pandey Neither a Martyr Nor a Hero: Revisiting the 1857 Mutiny

(This article was first published on 8 April 2016. It has been reposted from The Quint’s archives to mark the birth anniversary of Mangal Pandey.)

A hundred years after the 1757 coup d’etat in Murshidabad, the formidable British intelligence-gathering system had collapsed.

The 1757 coup was executed with such perfection by Robert Clive that it enabled the East India Company to acquire the diwani of Bengal, Bihar and Odisha.

Lord Clive meeting with Mir Jafar after the Battle of Plassey. (Photo Courtesy: <a href="http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw01347/Robert-Clive-and-Mir-Jafar-after-the-Battle-of-Plassey-1757">National Portrait Gallery</a>)
Lord Clive meeting with Mir Jafar after the Battle of Plassey. (Photo Courtesy: National Portrait Gallery)

But the collapse was palpable. When a nascent mutiny plot in Barrackpore was exposed by sepoy Mangal Pandey (of the 34th Bengal Native Infantry) in a drug-hazed stupor, the British failed to detect the rumblings that would take most of north India by storm.

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The onset of the 1857 mutiny has been interpreted by historians of all shades as the first war of independence, a peasant-and-elite backlash against the underhand means employed to take over Awadh. Widely considered to have begun with the shots fired by (sepoy No 1446) Pandey at his British superiors on the parade grounds of the Barrackpore cantonment on the afternoon of 29 March, the mutiny has also been interpreted as a violent reaction to the loss of sepoys’ privileges and even the centrality of religion and caste.

Pandey’s rebellious act was followed by a two-day court martial which ordered that he be hanged. The ruling was duly carried out on 8 April in the gallows of Barrackpore cantonment. A few days later, his uncle Issuri Prasad was also hanged for complicity.

Neither a Martyr nor a Hero

Pandey’s martyrdom has been questioned by the foremost 1857 historian, Rudrangshu Mukherjee, for whom “There is no evidence to justify the view that this sepoy was a martyr and hero who decided to die with honor, betraying none of his co-conspirators, and expressing no regret or remorse.” It is Mukherjee’s case – and rightly so – that there was no causal relationship between Pandey’s solo rebellion and the more concerted action of the sepoys in Meerut.

While it is certain that Pandey “had no notion of patriotism or even of India,” he appeared to have been fired by two factors: the imminent arrival of the 19th regiment of the 34th BNI to Barrackpore for disbandment (for refusing to use the so-called greased cartridges) and some bare knowledge that something violent was brewing in the sepoys’ barracks. The British failed to read the cryptic messages in Pandey’s invective-peppered outburst.

A group photograph of 21st (Punjab) Regiment of Bengal Native Infantry. (Photo Courtesy: Punjab Regimental Centre, Mardan – now in Pakistan)
A group photograph of 21st (Punjab) Regiment of Bengal Native Infantry. (Photo Courtesy: Punjab Regimental Centre, Mardan – now in Pakistan)

Intelligence Failure

What is more important than Pandey’s motive and agency is the British failure to read the sepoys’ minds across north India’s different cantonments where they rose once the mutiny broke out in Meerut on 10 May 1857.

In his compelling argument, CA Bayly says that the “dramatic onset of the Rebellion of 1857” was an “acute failure” of British intelligence gathering and analysis, especially after the informational success achieved in their campaign against thugees and other criminal conspiracies through the first four decades of the 19th century.

Bayly suggests that by the 1840s and 1850s, East India Company officials in northern India had eschewed human intelligence, gathered by “resourceful harkaras and influential munshis” and had begun to rely more on statistical surveys, court papers and the vernacular press.

The new generation of young military officers were “ignorant” and “found it more difficult to communicate” with the older generation of Indian “subalterns” or non-commissioned officers in the employ of John Company. It was the yawning difference and disconnect between officers and soldiers that left the British high and dry on the intelligence front.

British officers being surrounded by mutineering Indian soldiers. (Photo Courtesy: Illustrated London News, 1857)
British officers being surrounded by mutineering Indian soldiers. (Photo Courtesy: Illustrated London News, 1857)

Inability to Interpret Messages

“By the 1850s, Anglo-Indian society was more isolated and obsessed with events in England”, as military officers stationed in northern India struggled to come to grip with “Indian mentalities”.

As Bayly writes, “The inability of officials and soldiers to interpret or respond to the messages of unease which came in from so many sources during the 1850s was at least as important as the lack of accurate intelligence.”

While the massive failures of intelligence was the outcome of “two generations of social disruption and official insensitivity,” the British must be credited with responding to failure by quickly taking counter-measures, even as they and the insurgent sepoys struggled to take control of the telegraph wires which at the time was the fastest means of communication over hundreds of miles.

Mastery over Telegraph Wires

It was the British military’s quick recovery from the great failure of January-May 1857 and subsequent near-complete mastery over the telegraph wires, though belated, coupled with postal surveillance, that prevented its rout on the scattered battlefields across the Gangetic plains.

But like every failure and lessons learnt from them, the 1857 conflagration, which dragged into 1859 in some parts of north India, threw up important institutional changes even as the old order perished. First, the suppression of the great uprising led to the quick demise of the East India Company as the Indian dominion passed to the British crown.

Image of map of India under the British East India Company, comparing 1837 with 1857. (Photo Courtesy: Imperial Gazetteer of India, Oxford University Press, 1907)
Image of map of India under the British East India Company, comparing 1837 with 1857. (Photo Courtesy: Imperial Gazetteer of India, Oxford University Press, 1907)

Second, the British in India, now acting under and governed by the crown, but under stricter watch of their parliament, institutionalised police operations by codifying crime and punishment in the shape of the Indian Penal Code of 1860. Sedition was a key provision.

Today, 160 years after the great uprising, when democracy runs across the length and breadth of the country, why must the sedition law survive?

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