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The First War of Independence: The Mutiny of 1857

St James' Church Photo, Delhi, India

For a country that holds its independence very dear (and which doesn’t?), India didn’t make too much of a fuss over the 150th anniversary of the First War of Independence. True, there were some fairly stodgy parades; politicians went about giving speeches, and my father got involved in setting up a Mutiny Museum in Meerut. The museum idea fizzled out; not too many people turned up at the parades; and nobody – as usual – listened to the politicians. In 2007, India is too wrapped up in the twenty-first century to think too much about 1857.

1857, however, marks a watershed in Indian history. This was the year when entire battalions of native soldiers in the British army in India mutinied. The Mutiny began in early summer – May 1857 – at Meerut, about 60 km from Delhi. The British had shortly before introduced a new cartridge for the Lee-Enfield rifle that the soldiers (the `sepoys’ – derived from the Hindi word sipahi) used. A rumour soon spread that the paper covering the cartridges was greased with animal fat, primarily that of pigs and cattle. Since the paper had to be torn off by using one’s teeth – and pork was taboo for Muslims, beef for Hindus – this amounted to a gross neglect of the religious sentiments of the sepoys.

Today, many scholars disagree about the fat; but back in 1857, the already oppressed native soldiery was willing to grab at any pretext to revolt against the British. Extortionist taxation and a leaching away of wealth to England, coupled with `affronts to native religion’ – including reforms like the abolition of the gruesome sati practice – combined to create mass resentment against the East India Company. The Mutiny, as some say, was just waiting to happen.

On May 10th, 1857, a group of sepoys in Meerut declined to use the Lee-Enfield cartridges and declared, in no uncertain terms, that they were turning against their British overlords. Interestingly enough, two of the main areas in the Meerut Cantonment are even today known as Laal Kurti (`red coat’) and Kaali Paltan (`black platoon’).

By the next day, the mutineers, now dubbed the Rebel Army, had marched to Delhi. Here they reached the Red Fort and stood below the balcony at which the Mughal emperor Bahadurshah Zafar appeared daily before his subjects. When the rebels petitioned Bahadurshah Zafar to become their leader in the uprising, the old man – who in any case was powerless and a mere pawn of the British – flatly refused. Turned away by the emperor, the rebels entered the city of Delhi and made their way to Daryaganj. Within a very short time, they were joined by large crowds, consisting to a large extent of thieves for whom love of country came a poor second to love of money. The looting and pillaging that ensued and continued over the next few months left Delhi a wreck.

In the first couple of weeks, the British fled – but by June, they were back. Having defeated the Rebel Army at Badli ki Sarai, the British regained the strategically important Delhi Ridge on June 8th. The Ridge, bare and unforested, offered an eagle’s eye view of the surrounding landscape; also, since it was free of vegetation (and consequently mosquitoes), it was also fairly free of malaria – and being considered healthy, had been the site of the cantonment since the British had captured Delhi in 1803.

Over the next three months, the British erected batteries across the Ridge and hauled up guns onto all the tall buildings they could find. These often included unusual monuments like Pir Ghaib, a former hunting lodge, tomb and observatory; the Chauburja mosque; and even the House of Hindu Rao. Hindu Rao, the brother-in-law of Daulat Rao Scindia (the ruler of Gwalior) was a wealthy politico who had been exiled to Delhi and had bought William Fraser’s mansion on the Delhi Ridge. In 1857, the British more or less took over Hindu Rao’s house, camping there and using it as a base for their battles agains

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