First War of Independence or Sepoy Mutiny

Right from our school days, we knew of 1857 Sepoy Mutiny as the first war of independence. My teacher in village primary school narrated the story of Babu Kunwar Singh of Jagdishpur in our district of that time as one of the heroes of the mutiny. In high school days, my grandfather took me to show the historical movie Jhansi Ki Rani and I heard the local queen declaring ‘Main Apani Jhansi Nahin Doongi (I shall not hand over my Jhansi).’ Next year, India will be celebrating the 150 th anniversary of 1857 the first war for an Independence of India from British rule. However, recently, I read an article in ‘Outlook’ about the mutiny at Vellore Fort.

On July 10, 1806 at 2 a.m. at the Vellore fort, exactly two hundred years ago, Indian sepoys rose in a revolt against the East India Company’s garrison. Discontent over poor treatment, loss of erstwhile status, and poor pay, got provocated here again because of the introduction of a controversial new turban, viewed by Indians as a firangi topi (hat), and the implementation of new regulations over the sporting of caste marks on foreheads, earrings and facial hair.

Many members of Tipu Sultan’s family — twelve sons and eight daughters – were stationed in various mahals within the fort precincts since the fall of Srirangapatnam in 1799. A sizeable number were Tipu’s former soldiers, especially of officer rank had also joined the East India Company. They had not forgotten their attachment for their former masters. Some Mohammedan fakirs through puppet shows in Vellore Fort were lampooning the English and proclaiming their impending doom. The fakirs mocked the Hindus and Muslims in the army for accepting the new regulations, for sporting the turban, which comprised a leather cockade — thus inviting caste and religious ‘pollution’– and a turn screw resembling a cross to be worn next to the heart. The fakirs proclaimed that these would lead to the eventual conversion of all sepoys to Christianity.
At the time of the revolt, 1500 Indian sepoys and 370 Englishmen were located in the fort.

Fatteh Hyder, Tipu’s first son, was perceived to be of one of the key architects of the rebellion, besides Mohiuddin and Moizuddin, the third and fourth sons. Soon after the rebels took control of the Vellore fort on 10 July, they hoisted the flag of Tipu Sultan on the fort and Moizuddin promised to double the salary of the sepoys when the rebellion was completed. While Colonel Fancourt, commanding officer of the Vellore garrison, and Lieutenant Kerras, commanding officer of the 23rd Regiment, were shot at pointblank range, several officers escaped and hid themselves and passed word to the nearest British military station at Arcot. The revolt left 14 British officers and 100 soldiers dead.

Colonel Robert Rollo Gillespie’from Arcot led the 19th Dragoons and the 7th cavalry quite easily since three of the four outer gates of the fort were left unattended. With Col. Kennedy arriving with more reinforcements and the Indian sepoys running out of ammunition, the fort was as easily taken back as had been won by the mutineers. In under eight hours, the entire drama was over. Gillespie and his men spared the princes and others of Tipu’s family; the entire princely retinue was shifted to faraway Calcutta by January 1807.

In the counterattack, some 350, or 800 as per some account, Indian sepoys were killed. And the first major rebellion against the emerging British Empire in colonial India fizzled out.

Was the mutiny on July 10, 1806 at Vellore Fort was the first against the British? And the question seems to be pertinent. Why have we not given much importance to that mutiny?

I think many other small little mutiniest must have gone unnoticed by our historians till date. But the more noticeable are the controversies that relate to the government plans for celebrating the 150th anniversary of the 1857 revolution next year. The national committee is falling apart. Interestingly, the 68-member committee had two historians and the rest were politicians. Now, the only two historians on board have decided to opt out. Historian Ramchandra Guha says, “Historians who are an authority on the 1857 revolution have been kept out of it. I don’t understand that and I have decided not to be part of the committee.”

This is the way the government operates. Politicians wish to occupy the center stage everywhere. Unless the people revolt, the things will go their ways. They will make historians write the history in their own way as it used to happen in Mugal period.

Some Other Interesting Readings

India must discover elements of ‘soft power’
Emperor of steel

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