Barrackpore: the cradle of the quake
The Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 was one of the most remarkable events that took place in British India, especially during the rule of the East India Company. It indeed was the first mass uprising against the foreign rule in the country. Historians may have doubts and conflicts regarding the nature of the revolt and the reasons behind its failure, but it cannot be denied that the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 actually marked the beginning of a new era in Indian history. It was the strongest reason behind the end of the Company’s rule and the transfer of power to the British throne, which happened in the subsequent year.
Various factors however are accounted for the instigation to the revolt. Lord Dalhousie’s policies of annexation of the native states and an ever-increasing discontent among the sepoys, the Indian soldiers appointed by the East India Company, are believed to be two of the most important factors behind the outbreak of the mutiny. Other subsidiary reasons like introduction of western education in the country and denigration of the native religions by the European missionaries are also held responsible for the turmoil. But what is beyond doubt is that the very initial ignition to the fire was provided from an apparently inconspicuous place called Barrackpore. Situated a little away from what now is the northern boundary of Kolkata, Barrackpore during that period was a base of the East India Company’s army, and quite unusually, had a legacy of revolting against the authorities.
Some 33 years before the great mutiny broke out in 1857, Barrackpore experienced a revolt by the sepoys of the 47th Native Infantry of the Company’s army along with soldiers of a few other troops. It was on the thresholds of the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824 – 1826) that the soldiers of the unit, then stationed at Barrackpore, were asked to reach Chittagong, from where onwards they were supposed to sail down to Rangoon. A rather strange rule implemented by the Company during the period required Indian soldiers to provide for their own transport while going to or coming back from the war fronts. Barrackpore to Chittagong was quite a long and tedious journey then, and what was to follow the end of the journey was dreaded by most of the Hindu people during that time. It was crossing of the sea. The common belief was that crossing the “Kalapani” incurred loss of caste for a Hindu. Both these factors along with a general ill-treatment of the Indian soldiers by their British colleagues and superiors led to a rebellious disobeying of orders by the soldiers of the 47th Native Infantry. Under the leadership of Bindse Tiwari, a sepoy of the regiment, the others stood still as their officers instructed them to march. Their stubbornness was considered to be outrageous enough by the Company, and the rebellious soldiers were fired open upon.
This incident took place in 1824, and had no substantial connection with the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. Neither did it evoke much of a stir in the contemporary society, because at that early phase of British rule in the country, there was hardly any mass reaction towards the East India Company’s internal affairs. But as far as the venue of the incident was concerned, Barrackpore that is, it has immense significance in the first organized rebellion against the foreign rule in India – the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, as recorded by history.
Discontents were rising all the while among the sepoys, the soldiers of the East India Company forces because of ill-treatment inflicted upon them by their British superiors and colleagues. The feelings were further aggravated by the annexation policies of the Indo-British government, especially the Doctrine of Lapse, which was utilized to the fullest extent by Lord Dalhousie to annex princely states like Satara, Jaipur, Sambalpur, Udaipur, Jhansi and a few others. To add to all these factors, the new Enfield cartridge was introduced in the artillery, which had a reputation of being greased with animal fat, that of the cow and the pig. The soldiers were required to break the seals of these cartridges with their teeth, and this was beyond their toleration, as eating these animals was strictly forbidden then both in Hinduism and in Islam. It invoked the final fire…
It was on the 29th of March 1857 that a sepoy of the 34th Native Infantry named Mangal Pandey declared open revolt against the authorities. He injured the European adjutant of his regiment, and was captivated while attempting suicide with his own rifle. He had to do it as none of his colleagues responded to his call for a revolt. But neither did they try to stop him, ignoring the orders of their officers. Mnagal fought a valiant duel with Baugh, the European Seargent, defeated him, and was stopped from killing him by Shaikh Paltu, one of his colleagues. It was General Hearsay who intervened and ordered the troop to seize him, when he attempted the suicide, but was unsuccessful.
Unlike the earlier incidence in 1824, the splinters of this fire spread out fast all over the country. The situation was favorable for the outburst, and so it happened. The East India Company, however, understood the significance of the incident, and took a hasty decision to hand Mangal Pandey on the 8th of April, a few days prior to the scheduled date of his execution, in order to avoid further disputes regarding the matter.
But it was already too late. The fuel had accumulated all over the country, and the Barrackpore incident provided the ignition to it. On 10th May 1857 the sepoys revolted in Meerut. They marched to Delhi the following day, and proclaimed Bahadur Shah II as the emperor of India. Wars broke out in many places across central north and western India. Nana Saheb, the adopted son of the deposed Peshwa Baji Rao II was declared Peshwa at Bithur near Kanpur, and Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi led the revolt in Bundelkhand, eventually killing every European that fell into her hands. The foundations of the mighty British empire in India were shaken up to the root.
But with all their military and administrative superiority, it did not take the British too long to organize a suppression of the mutiny. Discrepancies among the different units of the mutineers themselves aided in it, and the revolt died out within a few months, the British thus reconfirming their supremacy in the country. But what did not die out were the names of Mangal Pandey and Barrackpore. Throughout the period of the reconciliation, wherever the British subdued the rebellious troops, it became their common practice to refer to the events as “Pandey Bash”. Along with royal personae like Nana Saheb, Rani Lakshmi Bai and Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal himself, the name of an unknown and apparently inconspicuous soldier became synonymous with the great mutiny, and in its own turn, it immortalized the name of Barrackpore in Indian history.