Should we reject both ‘mutiny’ and ‘war of independence’ in favour of ‘War of Religion’? There were religious issues in the military environment, such as the cartridges and caste threatening expeditions 'across the dark sea', and there were many other religious disputes which existed in the world beyond the barracks of which the sepoys were well aware (such as the activities of Christian missionaries and the generally contemptuous attitude of the British towards non-Christian religions). It was not just a war of religious independence because there were so many non-religious issues in it, but the French Wars of Religion had constitutional, social and economic overtones, and the Crusades themselves were equally diverse in origin. Even as far as religion was concerned there was not unity. Some point to the fraternal spirit between the Maulvi Ahmedullah and the Hindu Begum of Awadh during the siege of Lucknow as evidence of a national unity transcending religious differences, but this ecumenism never had to stand the acid test of success. Would inter denominational peace and love have survived the peacemaking if the British had lost? The ecumenism, too, excluded the Sikhs, who supported the British at several crucial moments in the early stages (for example during Havelock’s original push towards Kanpur), and the recriminations can still be read in the Indian press to this day.
For Marxists the phrase 'economic causes' is tautologous, since all causation in history is in their eyes economic. On the other hand Marxists were originally diehard ‘internationalists’ who should have regarded a ‘National War of Independence’ as just another convulsion arising from the contradictions inherent in capitalism: a bad trip, they might say, on the opium of the masses. Following William Blake, one might say that they subsequently noticed that the tigers of patriotic wrath were wiser than the horses of dialectical instruction. Finding the opportunities for world-wide revolution somewhat limited, the Marxists adjusted the pure milk of Marxian doctrine so that they could ride to power on a wave of patriotic emotions which they privately despised, as Lenin, Stalin and Mao famously did. Nevertheless one must agree with the Marxists that there were a number of economic issues in the revolt: there were legions of Indians disadvantaged by the economic arrangements of the Raj. Farming for food had been reduced in favour of farming for cash crops such as indigo and, infamously, opium. The East India Company was a major player in this trade as was Jardine Matheson; but their profits made India more vulnerable to famine. Indian crafts and industries, particularly textile industries, were deliberately and significantly disadvantaged by tariffs in favour of British products. In many areas Indian options were reduced to a choice between working in the opium or indigo plantations or joining the British army. Where these factors operated there was anti British feeling on a large scale. Besides these there were numerous special groups such as the Nawab of Awadh's jugglers and former soldiers, and zamindars whose fortunes ebbed and flowed as the British tried different ways of getting more 'tax Britannica' out of the Indians. Some of these grievances were felt very widely, but the Scindia of Gwalior was not going to take up arms for an indigo planter and nor, given a choice, would Bahadur Shah have done; tax farmers and tax payers had very different grievances. It would be hard to find any example in history where a national rising was exclusively motivated by economic considerations. We can agree that the causes of the rising went wider and deeper than simply military issues, but that in the economic sphere there were several different ‘wars of independence’ being fought, none of them national and not all of them against the British.
There were many social grievances felt by the Indians against the British: at a low level the experience of arrogant racism could not fail to give offence, even when it took a quiet form in the separation of the British into cantonments and clubs from which most Indians were excluded. Indian scholars, especially those whose teaching was through the medium of Urdu, found themselves progressively excluded by the advance of English medium education. No doubt in Pune the Brahmins were apoplectic about Macaulay's contemptuous dismissal of Indian culture, but they did not take up arms over it, and even at this early stage there were Indian scholars, like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, who looked at the Enlightenment and liked what they saw (and looked at sati and the caste system and did not like what they saw). Some of the huffing and puffing in Bombay had to do with the caste-neutral carriages, but more of it was from the commuters, three years into their love affair with the train, rushing to claim their seats. They would have been as mystified as the ferenghi to hear how mutineers in Bengal peppered locomotives with musket fire (from a safe distance) as agents of evil powers. Brahmin grievances did not move dalits, who generally sided with the British. Anglophile attitudes predated 1857 and are well entrenched today, nation or no nation. One did not have to be a maharajah with a British pension to admire British technology, British organisation, British justice or even the penny post. Once again, though, one has to admit that Indian divisions do not disqualify the actions of those who took up arms as ‘a war (or wars) for independence’.
Constitutionally the rising would have been a rebellion rather than a mutiny had it been undertaken by British subjects against the British crown. Since it was carried out by subjects of various states under a kind of suzerainty of a trading company which was only de facto an arm of the British state, it falls short of being a rebellion properly so-called. However insofar as the participants were seeking independence from that company’s authority there seems no point in denying that they were engaged in war for independence, even if that means agreeing with Karl Marx! It then seems something of a quibble to point out that there were several distinguishable wars of independence going on each with different (and often incompatible) constitutional agendas. The sepoys at Gwalior, if their conversations with the wily Scindia strayed on to constitutional matters, would have had to use different language from that used by the Ranee of Jhansi, (‘Jhansi-ist’) the Nane Sahib (Mahratta), Bahadur Shah (Mogul) and the Muslims seeking to restore the Caliphate. If they had won the war the subsequent settlement would have involved debates far more complex than the ones at Putney following the Roundheads’ victory in the English Civil War. At that point the difference between ‘War’ and ‘Wars’ of independence might well have proved to be more than just a quibble, as was the case at Putney in 1647 and, bloodily, in 1947.
Wars of National Independence are often associated with great leaders. One thinks of Simon Bolivar, William Tell, William of Orange and Garibaldi. All these men managed to draw together various strands within their nations and present a united front which enabled them to overcome respectively their Spanish and Austrian enemies. In 1857 such a leader was not found: the Mogul, the Mahratta, the Maulvi, the Ranee, the Begum, the general (Tantia) and the hajji Ferozh Shah all failed the test. But we do not deny that the Welsh were engaged in a War of Independence because Llywelyn and Owain Glyndŵr failed, nor the Saxons because Hereward the Wake did not remove William the Conqueror.
Historians have a duty to inform, but they speak to the uninformed. For the uninformed a label assumes disproportionate significance because it acts as an emotional doorway to the truth. If one is emotionally committed to a view of things, one will not willingly enter by a doorway marked with words which seem to promise that an objectionable alternative view lies within. The handful of British chauvinists who gave offence by presenting themselves at Lucknow in 2007 may be the last with any shred of an emotional commitment to the word ‘Mutiny’. There are far more who want to cherish the phrase ‘War of Independence’ because, like a national flag, it provides a decent covering to an undignified jostling of heroes and scoundrels propelling bandwagons of every description. What technically began as a mutiny developed into several unsuccessful ‘Indian wars of independence’.
H.D.J.Nicklin Page of
unless it is shown that they were co-ordinated by the chapatti master plan, in which case we are back to ‘a mutiny’
We have to exclude the little local difficulty between the Ranee and her neighbours for this to be true.