Ghadar of 1857 - Greatest war of the 19th century

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 Tanjavur in the south.

Major cities of Ghadar

Important cities of Ghadar activities

The revolt covered more than 20 cities, which were the major centres of production in colonial India (see the map on the right). They included Rawalpindi, Gugera, Peshawar, Multan, Patna, Purnea, Jalpaiguri, Muzaffarabad, Sambalpur, Danapur, Sugauli, Chhotanagpur, Bareilly, Banaras, Jaunpur, Ayodhya, Faizabad, Chinglepet, Salem, Bhavani, Nargund, Mudhol, Surpur, Jamkhandi, Supa, Dandeli, Ulavi, Ankola, Mundargi, Tanjavur, North Arcot, Malabar, the coastal-Godavery belt, Adilabad, Warangal, Cuddapah, Nellore, Khandesh (Nasik-Jalgaon-Dhule), Gulbarga, Dharwad, Raichur, Udupi, Mangalore, Raigad and many others.

The detailed and meticulous organization, planning and synchronization of the revolt in various parts of the country, including the ingenous ways of dispatching messages, belie the interpretation propagated by the colonial historians that the Ghadar of 1857 was a spontaneous uprising based on rumours. These historians reduced the basis of the revolt to the revulsion of the sepoys against greased cartridges that they were made to use!

Even in early 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. The chapatis were carried by messengers from outside the village to the village headman, with instructions to make more chapatis and send them to the next village. In this way, the chapatis and through them the message travelled to thousands of villages.

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. When the red lotus flowers would arrive at the garrisons, the soldiers would proclaim, Sab lal ho jayega (everything will become red) indicating that they will be battle ready. Each soldier who plucked a petal from the lotus indicated his commitment. It is estimated that 50,000 Indian soldiers participated in the uprising and two to three thousand lotuses travelled to different garrisons.

Both the distribution of chapatis and lotuses to different actors in the rebellion displayed a masterful communication strategy in a situation where normal methods of communication would have immediately been detected by the 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.

An analysis of Indian troop movement during the Ghadar indicates a high level of planning. The selection of cities as well as the movement of troops displayed a clever military strategy. The war did not happen only in the garrisons where soldiers were stationed. There were a number of places where the regiments of the Bengal army were stationed. In each of them the soldiers, after defeating the enemy and seizing their arms, marched to well defined and specific destinations. Thus the war engulfed vast sections of people such as peasants, artisans, traders and even the zamindars who were disgruntled with the backbreaking taxes of the colonial administration.

Movement of rebel army

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

A typical troop movement would require camp followers. In the India of 1850s, three to five camp followers would accompany each soldier. In addition the troops would be accompanied by thousands of horses, camels, elephants, mules and bullocks which had to be fed. These camp followers and animals carried rations, clothes and medical supplies required for the soldiers, in addition to transporting pots and pans, and military equipment.

So, a war of this scale would have required meticulous planning of logistics for the movement of troops and organising supply lines. Over 50,000 Indian troops fought in this war. Just for one month, they would have needed nearly 1500 tons of grains, not including the food of the accompanying animals and camp followers. This would have been out of the question for soldiers organizing a rebellion in an army that belonged to the world’s largest and most ferocious empire. How did the war strategists of the Ghadar of 1857 overcome this problem? Where did the grains come from and who cooked the food?

The elaborately planned distribution of red lotuses among Indian troops and chapatis among Indian villages ensured an orderly troop movement, backed by a supply line consisting of thousands of villages coming forward to support the nearest regiment with food and medical supplies.

The insurgent soldiers began their action with a signal: in many places it was the firing of the evening gun or the sounding of the bugle. They first seized the bell of arms and the treasury. They then laid siege to government buildings – the jail, telegraph office, record room, bungalows. Everything and everybody connected with the colonisers became a target. 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.

The Figure below indicates the various troops that marched into Delhi in the few weeks after the war started.

Delhi was liberated followed by Kanpur, Lucknow, Gwalior and Banda. The dates were staggered, allowing for troop movements. Following the same pattern, 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 figure shows troop movements in May-July 1857, stretching over at least 1500 kms from north to south and 800 kms from east to west.

These facts establish the Ghadar of 1857 as the greatest war of the 19th century waged against the largest colonial empire.


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1857    History    Great Ghadar    Jun 16-30 2017    Voice of the Party    History    2017   

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