Recalling 1857: The First War of Indian Independence

How the humble Chapati functioned like today’s social media

By Neera Kuckreja Sohoni

On May 10, 1857, imperialism faced an historic challenge when India’s presumably imbecile impotent ‘natives’ rose to rebel against the British occupiers of India. Respectfully addressed as “Company Bahadur”, the East India Company which had entered India as a trader had maneuvered to annex and rule over large portions of the country for almost a century. Its rule now was dealt a deathblow by Indian ‘mutineers’.

The uprising leading to several ferociously fought battles lasted for a year ending in the dissolution of the company and the transfer of its ruling powers over India to the British crown. Previously known as Governor General, the crown’s representative in India was designated henceforth as the Viceroy of India.

Compassion or bias has led many to suggest that the British regime, like its intentions, was benign, seeking to bring enlightenment to the backward colony destined to be celebrated as ‘the jewel in the British crown’.

Among its claimed boons to India were an end to land grabs and kingdom annexations, admitting Indians to the lower echelons of civil service, and through education policies helping breed a class of Indians more accepting of Western tenets of governance and culture. As in other colonies, this inevitably led to a chunk of natives brown or black in color but white in spirit.

Westernization remained an unstated goal and a handy tool to keep the natives enlightened but chained to the ruling country. It took several decades and tireless efforts of hundreds of enlightened patriotic leaders from all faiths and callings, and Gandhi’s arrival on the Indian political firmament to turn the servile educated elites and more importantly the uneducated submissive but extraordinarily courageous masses to visualize themselves as a free people and nation.

Throughout history, colonization has failed whenever and wherever it has sought to challenge and demolish indigenous beliefs, mores and social systems. Colonial missionary zeal to reform India and make it more akin to British perceptions of what constitutes a cultured society and enlightened polity was destined to fail – much like American attempts to modernize and westernize Iraq, Iran or Afghanistan. Indians understandably felt gravely threatened when their culture and age-long traditions came under attack. 

It was one such maliciously provocative act that lit the spark to cause the eruption that led Indians of all faiths and callings to rise against the Company.

A deeply offensive rumor that soon turned into a belief was that for the new rifles, the cartridges assigned to Indian soldiers required them to bite off the cartridge’s edges that were lubricated with grease that was a mixture of pig’s lard and cow’s tallow. Oral contact with the animal grease was and is taboo – pig to Muslims and cow to Hindus. That knowledge enraged initially the soldiers who considered it a frontal attack on their faith but soon spread like wildfire to engulf the masses.

An enchained people suffering under the hardships of alien rule were quick to rally behind the soldiery.

In mobilizing them, it was the humble Indian chapati that played a central role. Symbolizing a call for revolt, chapatis were widely circulated across India causing much bewilderment among the British. In a letter written in March 1857 mailed to England, a British doctor wrote, “There is a most mysterious affair going on throughout the whole of India at present. No one seems to know the meaning of it….it is not known where it originated, by whom or for what purpose, whether it is supposed to be connected to any religious ceremony or whether it has to do with some secret society. The Indian papers are full of surmises as to what it means. It is called ‘the chupatty movement’.”

Among the earliest to encounter the ‘chapatti movement’, was a British magistrate serving in Mathura. In February 1857, seeing his office littered with some “dirty little cakes” and puzzled at finding no coded message hidden inside them, he proceeded to look further into their circulation. His inquiry revealed that hundreds of chapatis with lotus were passing not only through his district, but through other parts of India ranging from River Narmada to the Nepal border and several hundred miles to the north.

The spectacular speed at which that culinary chain letter was spreading – like a tweeted meme of today, led a British official in Agra to remark that “a wave of chapattis was advancing across his province at a rate somewhere between 100 and 200 miles a night!” Safely hidden in their turbans, they were being delivered by carrier-runners racing from one village and settlement to the next.

Like any occupying power, the company failed to sense the impending doom, basically dismissing the possibility of a servile captive people uniting to challenge alien rule. Yet, that is exactly what transpired.

Sadly, even after the uprising was quelled which took an entire year of violent battles, murderous slaughters and skirmishes erupting across a huge chunk of India, the extensive revolt, instead of being recognized as a large-scale movement encompassing British ruled territories and many of those ruled by maharajas, was dismissively cast as a “sepoy mutiny”.

And that is how it remained in our history textbooks even well after India became free.

It took the bold thinking patriot, activist and writer Savarkar to challenge and change the lexicon when he dared to define the mutiny as India’s First War of Independence in his bombshell book surreptitiously published in 1907 on the 50th anniversary of the ‘mutiny’.  In the book he uniquely presented the 1857 event as a unified and national uprising of India united as a nation against British authority, with Hindus and Muslims working together for “freeing their country”.

Fifty years later, as young high school students we felt the pride and thrill of celebrating the centenary of the 1857 movement – India’s First War of Independence – with several of us making presentations on the role of its key leaders including Mangal Pandey, Nana Saheb Peshwa, Tantia Tope, Rani Lakshmi bai, Begum Hazrat Mahal, and dozens of others. But beyond the leaders lie the untold stories and the willingly shed blood, sweat and tears of millions of Indians — peasants and landlords, traders and business owners, priests and maulavis, upper and under-class, and not least possibly, the chapati making women and girls.



Neera Kuckreja Sohoni is a published author based in California. A Ph.D. in Economics from Pune University, she was an affiliated research scholar at the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at Stanford University.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are not necessarily those of The South Asian Times 


Images courtesy of (Image: iStamp Gallery) and Provided

Share this post