Why were Muslims considered a big reason for the Revolt of 1857?

By Sunil Kumar

Muslims were one of the reasons behind the 1857 Revolt; which is called “The First War of Indian Independence” in India; and rather uncharitably as “The Mutiny” by British historians.

Now; consider India circa 1857. The mighty Mughal empire on its deathbed; with a poet Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar more interested in pigeon-fights and the only land in his possession; Delhi and a few areas around it.

Most of India(after the defeat of the Sikhs and the Marathas) is now under the control of the East India Company; which operates mercenary armies with Indian sepoys(both Hindu and Muslim). Most of the Hindus are drawn from what was then referred to as Oudh(Avadh); congruent with the present-day state of Uttar Pradesh.

The British have abandoned their initial kowtowing to Indian customs and traditions(Hindu and Muslim) and as they have become masters with a hugely servile population; and now are extremely arrogant.

Browbeating the Indian people with a mostly “desi” army is not a wise choice; but easy victories over such a huge landmass have made the Scottish Dalhousie(Governor General from 1848 to 56) hugely condescending to Indians. He flatly refuses even “justified” claims which follow colonial law to the “letter”; in the hope of grabbing more land for the Empire.

Macaulay’s revamp of the country’s education system closing all gurukuls and madrasas and attempt to foist English education, values and Christianity on a huge population of Hindus and Muslims is resented by all concerned.

Islamic theology is generally more straight in condemning people it does not agree with; with the moulvis and “Mirzas” now facing a great decline in respect and funds; with most of India under the British.

In the mosques of the time; there were sermons against the nasranis(the British); and calls for a jihad to reclaim their lost glory.

Over in Avadh(Oudh); most Hindu sepoys(largely upper-caste) feared a loss of caste if they crossed the seas(the British had conquered Burma and as in all their campaigns then and later were using Indians to fight their wars(the brown man’s burden).

The last Nawab Wajid Ali Shah was more fond of “kathak”, frolic and pigeon-fights rather than worry about the devious East India Company.(The best movie on the Lucknow of the period is Satyajit Ray’s “Shatranj Ke Khiladi”).

His second wife Begum Hazratmahal is more political and courageous than her husband. Known as “Iftikhar-un-Nisa”; she is incensed as the British seize more two-third of Avadh’s lands and send her husband to Calcutta(then capital of British India).

As rebellion breaks out in towns across North and Central India(Meerut, Jaunpur, Benares, Sultanpur, Gonda); Hazratmahal urges Hindus and Muslims to take up arms against the East India Company

The British concoct stories about Hazratmahal’s loose character; like the Rani of Jhansi who is termed a “Jezebel” as their only crime is rebellion against a foreign power now firmly entrenched in India.

However; to be objective; all the kings and queens were naturally interested in hanging on to their land. Another notable Muslim in the 1857 struggle is Krantidoot Azimullah; the dewan(prime minister) to Nanasaheb Peshwa; the last vestige of the Maratha empire.

Azimullah’s intelligence and charm are invaluable in planning the revolt as he is sent to London by Nanasaheb. With his knowledge of English and French; he becomes a part of the social circuit; but the governing powers in London are unimpressed and dump any legal cases fought by him for himself and Nanasaheb.

On his way back to India; Azimullah is glad when he witnesses the British defeat at Sevastopol by Tsarist Russia.(This battle is also the inspiration for a famous English poem “Charge of the Light Brigade”).

Reportedly; Azimullah is also involved in creating a network of spies in all the kingdoms and principalities of the period for Nanasaheb Peshwa. In the early days of the revolt; mysterious “chapatis” arrive at British cantonments warning English officers of an inherent rebellion; telling them to pack up and head back home.

With Muslims owning substantial land(mostly in Avadh); they are very angry with British policies; and they also resent the East India Company for attempting to foist an alien culture, the English language and Christianity in a land where Persian and Sanskrit before that was the language used in the elitest circles.

Hazratmahal disbelieved British promises; as the East India Company’s true objectives were now clearly visible. Also; the PR attempt at promising all Indians freedom of worship was mocked;

Her words:“To eat pigs and drink wine, to bite greased cartridges and to mix pig’s fat with sweetmeats, to destroy Hindu and Mussalman temples on pretense of making roads, to build churches, to send clergymen into the streets to preach the Christian religion, to institute English schools, and pay people a monthly stipend for learning the English sciences, while the places of worship of Hindus and Mussalmans are to this day entirely neglected; with all this, how can people believe that religion will not be interfered with?”

The 1857 revolt was however not pan-Indian and crushed with the help of Sikhs and Gurkhas who relished the attempt to avenge previous slights by invading Delhi; the erstwhile capital of the Mughals.

Treachery abounded; and loyal sycophants(Hindus and Muslims) of the Empire along with neutral states helped the British to regain control. The only notable result was India passing to the Crown; with Victoria becoming “Empress of India” in 1858; and the East India Company losing its importance. Not to downplay the “First War of Indian Independence” as it remains the largest anti-colonial uprising in the world.

Now; all of the above illustrates that Muslims were a “big” reason in the 1857 revolt; but other factors; mainly cultural, religious and land-related were even more instrumental.

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