On This Day, 150 years Ago

On this very date in 1857, the sepoys mutinied in Meerut. Sepoys of the 20th Native Infantry went on the rampage, setting bungalows on fire and massacring British families.

The immediate reason for the rebellion and eruption of violence was the court martial and sentencing of 85 sepoys of the 3rd Light Infantry on May 9, 1857 in the presence of all the troops in Meerut.

On April 24, they had refused to use the cartridges of the new Enfield rifle, which they suspected to be greased with the fat of pigs and cows.

After they were stripped of their uniforms and their ankles shackled, they were marched off to prison. Lieutenant Gough said, “As they passed our regiment, carrying their boots which had been taken off for the purpose of fixing their fetters, a number of them threw them at the Colonel, cursing loudly in Hindustani, and calling to their comrades to remember them. There was a good deal of murmuring in our ranks, and had it not been for the presence of the British troops it is impossible to say what might have taken place.”

Over the past few months, there had been signs of unrest across northern India. Sepoys had become increasingly disenchanted with British officers. It was not uncommon for British officers to address Indian soldiers as ‘niggers’ and ‘suar’ (pig).

There is another story too. On the evening of May 9, after 85 sepoys of the 3rd Light Infantry were publicly humiliated and sent to prison, some of their fellow soldiers were seen in the brothels of the Sadar bazaar. It was not uncommon for the sepoys, many of whom spent long periods of time away from their families, to show up at the brothels.

However, the prostitutes refused to entertain the sepoys and sent them packing. One of the prostitutes present there was Dolly, the widow of a British sergeant. She said, “We told the sepoys that we have no kisses for cowards. We asked them if they were really men to allow their comrades to be fitted with anklets of iron and led off to prison? And for what? Because they would not swerve from their creed!”

Another prostitute from Kashmir, Sophie, added that the unanimous cry among the prostitutes was: “Go and rescue your comrades before coming to us for kisses.”

Interestingly, a similar taunt – but by a low caste labourer – could have sparked the unrest in Bengal earlier that year. According to sources, in January 1857, a labourer asked a sepoy for a drink of water from his lota. The sepoy, a Brahmin from Awadh, refused saying he would lose his caste. The labourer then shot back, “You will soon lose your caste altogether. For the Europeans are going to make you bite cartridges soaked in cow and pork fat. And then where will your caste be?”

Naturally, there must be some or many reasons that infuriated the sepoys all over the country, otherwise it couldn’t have that widespread. It was certainly the first war of independence, but without any central leadership and common objective for the country as whole.

We must remember those who gave their lives with gratitude. Without that beginning or protests against the injustices, we would not have moved to the next stage.
———————-
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