The Ghadar of 1857 was certainly the greatest war of the 19th century waged against the largest colonial empire.

Statement of Lok Raj Sangathan, 25 May, 2021

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The Ghadar of 1857, also called the First War of Independence, took place 164 years ago. It started with the rebellious Indian soldiers in the British colonial army stationed at Meerut arriving in Delhi on 10th May 1857. It was a massive uprising across the length and breadth of India, to assert the right of the Indian people to rule themselves by overthrowing the yoke of a foreign power. Today when people feel powerless against the failure of the Indian ruling establishment to protect the people from the ravages of the epidemic and their utter callousness, the lessons of this great uprising have immense validity, and the heroic feats of the rebels of 1857 provide inspiration and hope.

Colonial historians dismissed the momentous event of 1857 as a “spontaneous uprising based on rumours that sepoys were made to use cartridges greased with pig fat”. It was far from that. The revolt was executed with superb organisation, planning and execution, involved millions of people, and cut across divisions based on religion, caste, and region.

Even as early as 1856, after the annexation of Awadh, there were reports of chapatis being sent to villages as a form of communication to the people to get prepared for battle. In a similar manner, starting in late 1856, red lotus flowers began to appear in nearly all the military stations where the Bengal army was stationed, as a symbolic way of recruiting soldiers for the uprising. This was a masterful communication strategy in a situation where normal methods of communication would have immediately been detected by British spies. They were carried out right under the noses of British officers who dismissed them as a “strange native custom”.

Simultaneously, the leaders of the 1857 Ghadar sent their emissaries abroad to assess the condition of the English troops deployed in the vicinity of India and their vulnerabilities and also to look for possible allies In Turkey and Russia. The visit of Azimullah Khan to London as the emissary of Nana Saheb was one such attempt.

The Ghadar of 1857 spread over a massive geographical area of thousands of square kilometres from Dumdum in the east to Raigad in the west, from Peshawar in the north, to Thanjavur in the south. The revolt covered more than 20 cities, which were the major centres of production in colonial India (See map).

A clever military strategy guided the selection of cities as well as the movement of troops. The war spread outwards from the garrisons where soldiers were stationed to villages and towns bringing people into its fold. It soon engulfed peasants, artisans, traders and even the zamindars who were disgruntled with the backbreaking taxes of the colonial administration (See map below).

(Trails to Delhi (Movement of rebel army)
Source: Tatya Tope’s Operation Red Lotus, Rupa, 2010)

The uprising was a brilliant demonstration that people have the capability to wield power and take crucial decisions concerning their future. The insurgent soldiers who marched from Meerut and seized Delhi appointed Bahadur Shah Zafar, the Mughal ruler, as the representative of the new political power in place of the oppressive and alien power wielded by the East India Company. A Court of Administration was formed in Delhi, consisting of both civilians and army soldiers, whose decisions were binding on the king.  Bahadur Shah explicitly declared that he had been placed on the throne by the people and he was bound by their will. Stressing that British rule had no legitimacy and must be eliminated; he said, “As for the future, the people of India will decide”.

Over 50,000 Indian troops fought in this war which lasted several months. For a month alone, the troops would have needed nearly 1500 tons of grains, not including food for the accompanying animals and camp followers. This massive supply and logistics were organised while the war was being waged against the world’s largest and most ferocious empire.

On 12th May, Bahadur Shah issued the following shahi firman (royal decree):
“To all the Hindus and Mussalmans of India, taking my duty to the people into consideration at this hour, I have decided to stand by my people. … It is the imperative duty of Hindus and Mussalmans to join the revolt against the English. They should work and be guided by their leaders in their towns and should take steps to restore order in the country. It is the bounden duty of all people that they should, as far as possible, copy out this Firman and display it at all important places in the towns. But before doing so, they should get themselves armed and declare war on the English”.  He also issued another firman which warned the people:
“The English will try to raise the Hindus against Mussalmans and vice versa. Do not give heed to what they say, drive them out of the country”. A people’s council whose decision was binding on the king was established – something without precedent. This was profoundly democratic and ahead of its’ times.

Proclamations in Hindi, Urdu and Persian were put up in the cities calling upon the population, both Hindus and Muslims, to unite, rise and exterminate the firangis.

Delhi was liberated followed by Kanpur, Lucknow, Gwalior, and Banda. Regiment after regiment, stationed in dozens of towns and cities, first took up arms, defeated the British soldiers and officers, took control of their garrisons, and then began marching to pre-arranged destinations. Villages on the way, which had prior information, fed, and took care of the insurgent soldiers.

The British colonial rulers were petrified by the fact that Indian people had united in spite of all their efforts. The colonialists had tried their best to set Hindus and Muslims against one another. The British spread the lie that it was a “revolt of the Mussalmans”. In vain, they called the Ghadar a “sepoy mutiny”, so as to hide the widespread participation of people from all walks of life. They were able to crush the Great Ghadar uprising only after several months of war and unleashed brutal repression after that. Besides mobilising all their troops to reconquer North India, they passed a series of laws to crush the insurgency. A number of Acts were passed in May and June 1857, placing the whole of North India under martial law. Military officers and even British citizens were given the power to try and punish Indians on mere suspicion of their having been involved in the rebellion. There was only one form of punishment – death!

In large parts of present-day Uttar Pradesh, where big landholders and peasants had offered united resistance, the British tried to break up their unity. They seized the lands of the landholders who had fought against the British and handed them over as reward to the big landlords who were loyal to the British. The treachery of several Maharajas and Princes made the task of the colonial oppressors easier.

The Ghadar of 1857 was certainly the greatest war of the 19th century waged against the largest colonial empire. Even though the Indian patriots were defeated, for the people of our country, the Ghadar of 1857 and its clarion call, “Hum hain iske malik!” (India belongs to us; we are her master) remains a compelling call to action. Even 74 years after independence people remain powerless; they do not have a say in taking decisions that affect their lives; they are far removed from being the malik of society.  The call of our martyrs of 1857 enjoins us to work wholeheartedly for a new society and political process based on the principles that sovereignty belongs to the people; and that the State is duty bound to ensure prosperity and protection for all.

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