Religion and the Revolt of 1857

Dr. Heena

Assault of Delhi and capture of the Cashmere Gate, 14 September 1857

Much ink has been spilled over the debate about the nature of the 1857 revolt against the British East India Company rule in India. Some scholars (William Muir, John Lawrence, Seeley, etc.) saw the revolt as a sepoy mutiny and some (like V.D. Savarkar, and Ashok Mehta) as the first war of Indian Independence while others (such as James Outram, Peter Hardy, and K.M. Ashraf) perceived it as an attempt of Muslims to restore the lost Muslim glory. I reject the arguments that explain the revolt in terms of communal or religious zealotry of one community against the other. The revolt was a collective effort of Hindus and Muslims to end the foreign rule. In this essay, I will focus on the writings of Maulvi Mohammad Baqar, the editor of Dehli Urdu Akhbar to make an argument that the invocation of a religious war (jihad) against the British was not necessarily a purely religious call in fanatical terms, rather it was a complex idea that included an economic critique of the British empire and a collective (Hindu-Muslim) call to end the injustice of a foreign power. Religion here was not just a matter of faith of the individual communities but it was a matter of collective mobilization.

The issue of religion and the uprising of 1857 began to be linked with the seminal piece of K.M. Ashraf on the role of Wahabis (a religious reformist movement initiated in India by Saiyid Ahmad Barelvi in the 1820s) in the revolt. He argued that Wahabi ideologues as well as their ranks and files actively participated in the revolt (Ashraf, in P.C. Joshi, 1957). William Dalrymple followed the line and pushed the discourse of religion to the farthest limits linking it with Al-Qa’ida and the rise of religious extremism in modern times. Dalrymple has opined that after the suppression of the 1857 revolt, the Indian Muslims divided themselves into two separate routes- one embraced and followed the western model to progress (this included people like Sir Saiyyid Ahmad Khan). The other rejected the west and turned back to traditional ‘pure Islamic roots’ (the group included the followers of Madarsa-e Rahimiyya). The latter group founded ‘depressingly narrow-minded Wahhabi-like madarsa’ at Deoband. It was out of Deobandi madarsat in Pakistan and Afghanistan that the Taliban emerged 140 years later. The Taliban created the most ‘retrograde Islamic regime’ which further facilitated the making of al-Qaeda (Dalrymple, 2007:485).

The connection built up here shows madarsat as the foundation ground for preparing terrorists. Dalrymple is correct that two groups emerged after 1857 taking different approaches to life and the education system. But the separation occurred not to turn back to ‘pure Islamic roots’ but to control the degeneration of traditional institutions at the hands of the British. Instead of forming ‘depressingly narrow-minded Wahhabi-like madarsa’ at Deoband, the latter group thought it necessary to establish institutions which could impart education in religious sciences and which could provide an alternative to Macaulay’s education system. The British policy of bifurcating education into religious and non-religious systems affected madarsat greatly: the religious institutions were to receive grants (waqf) from the government only if they were secular. This jeopardized the situation of madarsat and came as a threat to the survival of the traditional system of Muslim education. In response to this, madarsa at Deoband was established in 1866, not to produce bigoted and narrow-minded people rather to prepare scholars who could guide the community, save religious sciences and transfer it to the next generation.

Dalrymple labeled the revolt as a fight between two powers, a clash of religious fundamentalisms–—between evangelical Christians and Wahabis. According to him by the end of the siege, ‘the number of jihadis grew in Delhi to 1/4th of the total fighting force and included a regiment of ‘suicidal ghazis’ from Gwalior, who had vowed to not eat anything till they die at the hands of kafirs’ (Dalrymple, 2006:23). The very fact that Bahadur Shah accepted the leadership of the revolt does not make it a fight between two powers. Bahadur Shah was king only in name, he had no authority or power to challenge the British. The revolt began as a mutiny and gradually spread to almost all sections of society. This included soldiers, peasants from the Northwestern province, Mughal elites, local rulers, and religious groups. The Wahabis did join the revolt but they were not the sole group involved. Most of the rebel leaders, other than the erstwhile ruling houses, had Sufi antecedents like Maulavi Ahmadullah Shah of Lucknow, Syed Qutub Shah of Bareilly, and Maulavi Liaqat Ali of Allahabad. Wahabi themselves have changed their strategies: they agreed to fight under the leadership of the same Bahadur Shah Zafar whom they had previously considered as a dogmatist. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan in his Asbab-e Baghawat-e Hind (1858) mentioned that in the pre-mutiny Delhi, a group of Wahabi Maulavis considered it sinful to offer prayers in the mosques under the custodianship (tawliyat) of the Mughal Emperor.

Not only Sufis and Wahabis but Hindus too joined the revolt against the British. One Pandit Hari Chandra cited examples from the Mahabharat and tried to convince Hindus of Delhi to leave their shops and join the fight (NAI, 62:84 cf. Dalrymple, 2006:12). Maulvi Mohammad Baqar (the editor of Dehli Urdu Akhbar) gave a call of jihad to Hindus and Muslims asking them to form a joint front against the British. The editorials of the newspaper opined that the British being Christians and with a belief in the Trinity of God are held to be polytheistic and infidels, while the Hindus being believers in Adi Purush share the basis of belief in one God with Muslims. Because of this proximity in belief, it is just to revolt and destroys the British Christians (Moosvi, 2008). Maulavi Baqar alluded to the historic events of the Hindu-Muslim past. On the one hand, he reminded Muslims of Jang-e khandaq (Battle of the Trench, A.D.627), where only 3,000 Muslims faced 12,000 armed men, and yet could manage to win (Dehli Urdu Akhbar, 12 July 1857). On the other hand, he asked Hindus to remember that Ram (who once got defeated by Rawan, the king of Lanka) emerged victorious against the same Rawan with the help of God. He reiterated that the only thing to be trusted upon is God and the king (Bahadur Shah Zafar) (Dehli Urdu Akhbᾱr, 14 June).

For Dalrymple, Maulvi Mohammad Baqar was working to inflate the cry of jihad only among Muslims. He stressed the fact that Baqar was not just a journalist but also a theologian of the Shia’ sect of Islam.  The Shia’ theory of jihad is at some variance with the Sunnis, believing that jihad is possible only under the leadership of Imam Mahdi who is yet to return in the world. Yet Maulvi Baqar supported the religious nature of the war being waged during this uprising. However, Baqar’s attempt to go beyond the tenets of Shia’ theology offers a justification for his broadmindedness. His call for jihad was not directed exclusively to Muslims (or Shia’) but also included Hindus. For Baqar, the jihad during the revolt was a fight against injustice and for the restoration of a shared moral world. The newspaper condemned a Wahabi type argument and considered religion as a binding factor.

Maulvi Baqar did not only write about religious dissatisfactions but also showcased the economic impacts of the British rule in India. Baqar expounded on the economic degradation of the country. He mentioned that the prices of daily-use articles went high and out of reach. While earlier people used to have the best items, now they were not able to get even the foulest things: two ser (about two kilograms) poor quality of ghee was available for a rupee, which was earlier available at the rate of four sers a rupee. Wheat flour, fine flour (maida), and Semolina (rava) had become rare, almost impossible to find. People were now forced to accept any type of eatables including the smelly items and things they used to reject even for the animals. Grinding wheat had become a big problem: the grinder agree to grind it only after a thousand excuses, and often they come back saying that it had been looted. The condition of the vegetables was the same: vegetables like pumpkin (kaddu) and eggplant (baingan) were difficult to procure, potatoes were rotten and available at very few places. The city people were fond of the beetle leaf (paan) and now it was difficult for paan-eaters to access it. (DUA, 14th June 1857, No.24, Vol. 19)

Maulvi Baqar gave the rudimentary theory of the drain of wealth much before it was systematically explained by Dadabhai Nauroji in his Poverty and Un-British rule in India (1867). In the newspaper issue of 21 June 1857, he made it clear that the British objective behind the subjugation of India was to secure the revenues which were used as investments for purchasing Indian products. These Indian products were further traded throughout the world. Likewise, the private wealth gained by the Englishmen from high salaries, privileges, and misuse of power in India was continuously transferred to England. The newspaper explained that the colonial government had reduced the country to its lowest position by reducing India as the centre of extracting raw materials as well as of treating it as a market for the Western finished goods. The argument was later developed by Dadabhai Nauroj, R.P.Dutt and others.

Maulvi Baqar also managed to present a few solutions to the economic problems. He asserted that English officers had saved thousands or lakhs of rupees and take it back to their homeland with them; therefore their money was of no benefit to our Hindustan, and we derived no advantage from their savings and profits. While on part of Indians, the habits of indolence and craving for comfort acted as a barrier to progress. The editor advised peoples to give up the careless attitude and encouraged them to adopt resolution and courage. The editor opined that people in India lacked skills as compared to countries like Turkey and Persia where each individual was skilled in at least two or three professions. He encouraged people to learn the art of war along with their other expertise. This way they could stand with the soldiers when needed and the country will face no lack of fighters. People should show a positive response to all the crafts and immediately pick up the flourishing art. The deliberate ignorance towards the business activities, trading efforts, and shop keeping should be stopped. He advised that except for forbidden professions, people should engage in trade and business. The editor noticed a decline in the traditional and ancestral profession in India, particularly due to the import of Western materials. Ignoring the possibilities of traditional crafts such as ironsmith and considering it inferior was one of the reasons behind the decline of the economy. He pushed that each profession is inferior only until the time when it is at its lower stage (21st June 1857, No.25, Vol. 19).

Both foreign intervention and local despair had caused a lack in the financial set up of India. the Colonial Government reduced the country to its lowest position turning India into the centre of raw material and of the market. Extracting a large amount of money in form of revenue and other home charges, the Indian money has been drained out from the country. The Azamgarh Proclamation issued by Prince Firoz Shah in August 1857 gave much space to complaints made against the British for overtaxing the landholders, monopolizing all the superior posts in the civil and armed services, and ousting Indian artisans from the business by flooding the Indian market with cheap British imports. The material question was a crucial factor for the rebels which is constantly underpinned in their writings. Religion or religious threat was indeed a rallying cause in the rebellion but its role was more to mobilize the two communities together, and it was not an exclusive or fanatical discourse. One could see the signs of proto-nationalism which led people to fight against the domination of the foreign rule.