Itihaas
April, 120th, 1998 
Akhilesh Mithal

How the British Justified
Their Brutality




Like armed burglars, the British  were unwelcome intruders into India who just would not leave.

 

 

 

The 1857 Uprising continues to be called ‘Mutiny’ even by Indians although more than 50 years of freedom have been enjoyed by them.

 

 

Everyone has to, ultimately, live with their own conscience. A murderer, rapist, embezzler, kidnapper, arsonist or looter has to justify the act. The instinctive or ‘classic’ defence is to ‘Blame the Victim’.In rape, for example, the woman outraged is frequently made out to be an agent provocateur.

Worse, she is said to have quite enjoyed the experience. Imagination, creativity and gender or racial prejudice can thus transform a horrible deed into just retribution. The ‘shifty, lying, mean and concupiscent Indian’ was a creation of the 18th/19th century English. They had military power.

Like armed burglars, they were unwelcome intruders into India who just would not leave. During their rule (190 years from Plassey in 1757 to Partition in 1947) they succeeded in converting what had been the richest country in the world from prehistoric times until the 18th century, into a cesspool of want, misery, ignorance and poverty.

The beggared inhabitants forgot a glorious past in which they had given the world it’s first organised philosophic-religious system (Buddhism), concepts like zero and infinity, the decimal system and place value for numerals, prayer halls such as the rock-cut temple of Shiva at Gharapuri (Elephanta) and the Jama Masjid in Shahjahanabad Dillee, amongst a whole array of many splendoured achievements.

The greatest formula for life and living was in the Indian toleration of “the different from what was one’s own”, the ‘Unity in Diversity’, the ‘Sulh-i-Kul’ (Peace with All). This consensual, coexistentional Indian identity was smashed and the fractures given a jagged, sharp, hurtful and injurious-to-touch shrapnel-like Hindu, Muslim and Sikh ‘identity’. It is not only bad money which drives out good money.

Bad anything drives out it’s ‘good’ form. The bad Hindu, Muslim and Sikh identity created by the British for their hitherto Indian subjects obliterated the earlier positive and wholesome identity. As Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, under British tutelage, perceived each other as ‘enemies’, India was partitioned in 1947. It was not a total success for British designs.

Only the self-proclaimed ‘Muslims’ got power in one part (Pakistan). The bulk of the country gave it’s nod to the Indians, who wanted to recover the pre-1857 identity. Subhash Chandra Bose linked the Independence movement of the 1940s to the 1857 struggle.

He visited the grave of Bahadur Shah ‘Zafar’, the last Emperor of India, in Rangoon and promised that after Independence his remains would be returned home to Delhi with all honour. This has not been done and with the self-proclaimed Hindus, the redoubtable RSS, coming to power in India in 1998, the likely events do not include the return of a hero of 1857.

For, the ‘Spirit of 1857’ and the attitudes, ideas and ideals that informed it, mean nothing to the Muslims’ reviling sanatan dharma-hating RSS in power today. The present political situation in the ‘subcontinent’ or what used to be ‘India’, must fill the little hearts of British foreign policy-makers with joy.

The spirit of James Mill who decreed the Hindus ‘thesis’, the Muslims ‘anti-thesis’ and the Brits ‘synthesis’ must be dancing and gambolling, pirouetting and cavorting at the sight of Muslim Pakistan and Hindu India glaring at each other across a tense border.

For his idea has found fulfillment!We return to 1756/77 when India was inhabited by Indians and not a motley of mutually hostile communities. After the Nawab Nazim of Bengal, Sirajuddowlah attacked and conquered Calcutta to punish the East India Company for defying his orders and fortifying their factory.

He appointed a Hindu, Mohanlal, governor of Calcutta and left for Murshidabad. The scene changed next year (1757). Clive bought three out of four generals of the Nawab. At the Battle of Plassey only the cavalry remained loyal.

Mir Madan charged the guns, collected a cannon ball in his belly (they were solid in those days) and returned to die in the Nawab’s tent. The independence of India was at an end in Bengal. The plunder from Murshidabad made Clive the richest man in the United Kingdom.

The capital transferred to the British economy from India made the Industrial Revolution possible. Such enormous and momentous events have to be justified and made acceptable.The 1757 conquest of Bengal was justified as retribution for an outrage called ‘The Black Hole of Calcutta’.

The perpetrator, 20 or 22 years old Sirajuddowlah, was condemned to obloquy as if he were a Caligula. A monument to the victims was erected at City Centre, Calcutta. All this was disproved in the 20th century, but text books continued to carry the fabrication as history.

The 1857 Uprising continues to be called ‘Mutiny’ even by Indians although more than 50 years of freedom have been enjoyed by them. It was put down with startling, vicious and ferocious brutality by the British. The justification was provided by a new myth, another ‘Tale of The Never-Ending Wrong.’

This atrocity of the Indians was the abduction, rape and the massacre of British women and children at the Ganges near Kanpur by the cruel oriental potentate, Nana Dhondho Pant, the adopted son of the Peshwa, Baji Rao II.

As most accounts are by the victorious and avenging British, Nana Saheb has had no chance of having his story heard. We have a contemporary, near eye-witness account in the travelogue of Vishnu Bhatt Shastri Godshe. A scholar of the Vedas, Vishnu was a professional priest adept in arranging rituals requiring proof of the scriptures.

Poverty and indebtedness drove him from Warsai in Maharashtra to Mathura in the North as he hoped to get a large dakshina or offering which would relieve his financial straits. Unfortunately for him his travel was overtaken by the events of the Great 1857 Uprising.

What he collected was not money, but memories of encounters with looters who relieved him of his meagre earnings and poor belongings. White soldiers confronted him with guns and he escaped with his life by a whisker on two or three occasions.

The beneficiaries of his ordeals are the readers who get entry into momentous events and encounter the personalities of 1857 such as Nana Dhondho Pant and Rani Lakshmibai (Chhabeelee) in the flesh. A glimpse is provided by Vishnu Bhatt of life in India before it’s impoverishment in all it’s aspects and dimensions such as material, emotional, spiritual and artistic.

We shall quarry this rich treasure in future, but now give Vishnu Bhatt’s account of the Kanpur (Cawnpore) and Bitthour tragedy.“In Brahmavarta (Bitthour: residence of the Peshwa-in-exile, Baji Rao II and then his adopted son, Nana Dhondho Pant) around 60 European women and some children were held prisoner.

Twenty five soldiers kept guard on them. Every day they were led to the river bank to perform their daily ablutions by the guards and brought back to the prison after they were fresh.One woman prisoner was clever in the ways of the world and of the politics.

She bribed one of the cleaning women with two gold mohars and subverted her loyalty. She conspired to send a letter to Prayag (Allahabad) where there was a British force garrisoning the fort.Thinking the coast clear and everything ready, the Mem (madam or English woman) wrote her letter one night and made the agreed signal to the cleaning woman when she went to the river bank for her ablutions the next day.

After the English woman came away the cleaning woman went into the secluded spot. This being unusual, excited the suspicion of the guard. He followed and caught the cleaner as she was picking up the letter.The soldier arrested the cleaning woman and the European woman and presented them with the seized letter to Nana Saheb. A great tumult ensued.

An English knowing person deciphered the message. It said, ‘Because of their victory in Kanpur, the enemy have started great celebrations and are indulging in continuous song, dance and revelry. The army is lax and unprepared for battle. If you attack now victory will be yours’.

The Kaalee Paltan (Black army: as the English and following them everyone else called the Indian troops) were infuriated and went out of control. They asked, ‘Are these women so clever? So wicked that they can conspire to send a letter out of the place of confinement and all the way to Prayag (Allahabad) in order to make sure of our destruction?

We can be betrayed by these viragos at any time!’ Nana Saheb, seeing the soldiers intent on killing them all tried to intervene. He ordered, ‘It is not right to kill women. Only the one who made mischief ought to be punished. She should be shot and the rest not harmed.’ No one listened to him as the soldiers were beside themselves with rage.

They stormed the prison and massacred all the inmates.”The authenticity of the above account is proved by the comments of Vishnu Bhatt which follow the narrative.“The terrible massacre of women and children is an unpardonable act and Nana Saheb’s involvement or opposition does not in any way mitigate it’s awfulness.

Hindus have never indulged in such a shameful act. When the country was under the domination and rule of Marathas, this kind of event never occurred. When the fort of Kalyan was won, there were 52 Muslim women in it. Shivaji treated them with great respect and had them escorted back to their menfolk.

Cheemaajee Aaghaa, at the conquest of the Warsai fort, had the lone Muslim woman taken prisoner there, given a suit of new clothes and sent back to her people. We have always protected the life and the honour of all women irrespective of whether they were our own or those of the enemy.

The Kanpur (Bitthour) incident has besmirched the fair name of Hindustan and Nana Saheb will carry the blot for all time!” On hearing of the tragedy, old and wise men said, ‘We had surmised that the Revolt would drive the firanghee white (goras) out of India and back to their own country.

We had thought that the rule of Hindus and Muslims, the rule of yore would return. Alas! we can no longer hope for this to happen. The sin of killing women and children is a terrible one (mahapaap). Even if a woman commits the most awful, the most horrible of crimes, our lawgivers (Shashtras and Smritis) do not decree the taking of her life in expiation and retribution.

After this mahapaap there can be no hope for victory!’The British alleged the abduction and rape of women prisoners in order to make the incident even more repulsive. The tommies and the subalterns let loose on the rural and the urban population of India by the British when they finally won were to burn whole habitations with the populations trapped by a ring of musketeers shooting anyone trying to flee the flames.

The terror they established in the hearts of the Indians combined with undernourishment, disease and illiteracy to make British rule last a further 90 years (1857-1947). The second “Tale of the Never-Ending Wrong” had, like the first one about the Black Hole, done the trick of justifying the intrusions, the brutality and exploitation.

Akhilesh Mithal, 1991-1998. All rights reserved.
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