175 Years

1857 from TOI archives: The great rising

When Mangal Pandey turned the gun on two British Army officers at Barrackpore on March 29, 1857, he wasn't doing something the Raj had never ever seen. The first recorded mutiny in the Bengal Army was in 1757 after the Battle of Plassey. European soldiers staged this — over field allowances, arrack and a fresh supply of boots. But a Bombay newspaper that had few feet on the ground caught the difference between Pandey's brazenness and other such past acts.

The Times of India, then the Bombay Times and Journal of Commerce, picked up the first signs of discontent. In an early January report, it talked of dissonance in an army unit at Peshawar. Days later, it reported a revolt in the Madras army at Vizianagram and in no time refractory troops at Behrampore refused to use greased Enfield Rifles cartridges. The Bombay Times was spot on, in an age when it had to bank on local newspapers for regional reports and the telegram was the equivalent of an email.

In the months before the fire leapt from cantonment to cantonment, The Bombay Times was analyzing what was wrong with the army, the soldiery and the command structure. It printed letters and lengthy opinion pieces on how regiments were under-officered and commanders barely knew their soldiers and vice versa, how there was hardly any pride left in soldiering . Many sepoys regretted joining the ranks, because half their time was wasted guarding the majestic person of their superior officer as he nodded off on a blistering summer afternoon. He'd much rather make a living as a school teacher.

Soon after the first disturbance was noticed in Barrackpore — before Pandey picked up the gun — the paper narrated the banter between a "khalassy" and a soldier over a "lota" of water. Through this story the paper waded into the dispute over the new cartridges, reportedly smeared with pig or buffalo fat. The TOI, though it never acknowledged the Rising as anything more than a military happening, did report the widespread disruption in the countryside, telegraph lines being snapped, jails being broken and convicts freed, local landlords joining in, thousands fleeing towns like Barrackpore, the chapatti rumours, the hush-hush night meetings of sepoys. The reverberations of the uprising were felt as far as Chittagong, North Bengal and the Northeast.

TOI's columns evidence 1857 as an uprising — our first war of independence — a phenomenon that started as a military event but took villagers, the gentry, the nobility in its enormous sweep. Seeing this signature event through TOI's eyes, one finds a narrative as contemporary as historical.

When Sepoy 'Mangloo' lit the flame

The fat question

Recent occurrences ... scarcely understood. Rumours have created unnecessary degree of alarm. The matter appears to have commenced by a khalassy asking a sentry at the DumDum depot for a draught of water. The sentry refused to lend his lotah, as he was ignorant of the applicant's caste. "Caste" was the taunting reply, "who are you to talk about caste? You are all going to eat bullock's fat". The men on enquiry found that the new cartridges were to be greased with bullock's fat. The news flew like wildfire through the cantonments... some sepoys, who catch up the idea that they are to be made Christians, declared that this was the beginning of the end. Nocturnal meetings were said to have been held... wild dreams discussed. The officers were to be put to death, the fort seized, the treasury plundered... high degree of caste feeling had been excited. Government directed an enquiry, and found that mutton fat had been exchanged by the contractor for bullock fat. It did not signify a jot, as the end to be greased is not the end to be bitten off, but it is never expedient to quarrel on a caste question...

Fat's in the fire

The disaffection of native troops at Barrackpore... taking a serious form. Several native officers, who appear to be the ringleaders ... now under arrest. It seems certain that former instances of insubordination were instigated by these officers,... the fat cartridge affair was only a cover to their real designs.

Mangloo Panray's attack

Very serious intelligence reached Agra on April 3 by telegraphic message from Calcutta —" Things are in a very unsettled state at Barrackpore. On Sunday last, a sepoy shot at a sergeant". The full report a day on: Sunday last, at three o clock, sepoy Mangloo Panray having drugged himself, ran amuck and shot at Lt Baugh... The shot missed the rider. ... The sepoy attacked him with his bayonet.... Sepoys were looking on, without offering assistance... On a guard approaching, the sepoy threw himself on the ground and shot himself through the jaw with his musket, the trigger of which he pulled with his toes.