An Analysis
The Sepoy Rebellion of 1857-59

(The first thirteen chapters of this book were serialised in DJ from July 1999 till October last year. This analysis covers the first 150 pages, and is now being serialised in DJ).

  Columnist A H AMIN re-interprets the so-called 1857 Indian Mutiny.

Punjab Loyalty

This is a much debated affair. The debate has degenerated in a very ugly manner into an irrational defence of Punjab loyalty by ardent modern Punjabi nationalists and misinterpreted in a very adverse manner by historians and thinkers with an anti Punjabi attitude. The job of the historian is not to defend or to condemn an action which was beyond the control of a nation or a leader at a particular time in history. The Punjabis were as much the prisoners of circumstances as the Madrasi or the Bengali or the Mahratta or the Rajput. The history of Punjab in the period 1707 to 1857 was actually more complex than the history of other parts of India. Leadership as far as the Muslims are concerned did not develop in Punjab because the Punjabi Muslim did not fit anywhere in the political expediency considerations of the Mughals. The Mughals preferred to recruit Muslims of Persian, Turk or Afghan descent. Among the non Muslims their first choice was the Hindu Rajput, particularly those from Rajputana proper since the Rajputs were the most dominant class in Hindu society. Later on, after 1689546 the emphasis shifted to the Mahrattas who were ennobled in large numbers by Aurangzeb as a political bribe to defeat Sivaji’s phenomenal rebellion.

Mughal historical record illustrate that the Punjabis by and large were very peaceful people. The region was prosperous and the weather and climate and fertility of soil contributed in making the inhabitants peace loving and easy to administer like most plain areas of India including the Gangetic plains etc. But the Mughals went wrong at one place and underestimated the resilience and moral force of a new religion which originated from Punjab in sixteenth century. Jahangir imprisoned the fifth Sikh Guru Arjun who died while being tortured under detention in 1606547. Aurangzeb the mild Stalin of India had the ninth Guru Tegh Bahdur executed in 1675548. Symbolically speaking this excess proved to be a major reason for the burning Sikh desire to destroy Delhi in 1857. But then it is an irony of history that Delhi has been burnt destroyed and looted by Muslims from Afghanistan, Iran and Rohailkhand much more by any non Muslim army except in 1857. Keeping in view the Mughal policy; the Sikh excesses at Delhi were a normal reaction of an aggrieved community. Till 1605 the Sikhs remained a peaceful religious group. But Arjun’s death while in prison turned a basically peaceful religious group into more serious dissidents. Thus Guru Har Govind adopted a more active policy unlike the previous Sikh Gurus. Thus the Sikhs brought into Punjab’s history a healthy tradition of manly and righteous resistance which had been missing in the region since Porus last opposed Alexander on the Hydaspes! Har Govind correctly assessed that without recourse to the option of militant resistance the Sikhs would be destroyed by the Mughals. Har Govind militarised the Sikhs and started a series of military actions which subsequently assumed the shape of a low intensity conflict or a guerrilla war against the Mughals. This low intensity war continued till Har Govind’s death in 1645. The Sikh resistance assumed more serious proportions once their Guru (Religions head) Tegh Bahadur was executed by Aurangzeb at Delhi in 1675. This execution proved to be a watershed in Sikh-Muslim relations and Sikhs from 1675 became vehemently anti Mughal and anti Muslim since they identified Mughals with Islam. The Mughals on the other hand were doing little more than manipulating religion for rationalising oppression as all kings of the world of that time did. There is no human passion as powerful as revenge in driving a man! Guru Govind Singh the son of Tegh Bahadur rightly decided to avenge his father’s death. Thus the Sikhs became a truly militarised sect under Govind. It is not our intention to discuss much more of Sikh history. But some background of this remarkable religious group is necessary for the layman.

The Sikhs were the toughest opponents of the British in battles fought on abs the population of the area they ruled in Ranjit Singh’s time. But being a totally militarised religious group largely composed of the Jat caste of Punjab they were more integrated than the majority Muslims and Pathans of their empire. The Muslims were firstly divided into two distinct races the “Pathans and the Punjabis”. The Pathans although of a better fibre were further sub divided into a watertight tribal society of various tribes. The Punjabi Muslims till 1849 had a negligible role in the elite power groups which controlled Punjab. The Mughals who were ruling Punjab from 1526 to 1748 kept their own hand-picked governors, mostly of Turkish, Persian or Pathan descent. Merely being Muslim did not qualify the Punjabi for a respectable place in the Mughal hierarchy. There was no religious oppression since the Punjabis were Muslims by majority, but consequently the Mughals saw no need to cultivate the Punjabis by ennobling them. This was a strange paradox which is common in world history. Without oppression there is little resistance and since there was no “challenge” which the Punjabi Muslim faced unlike his Punjabi Sikh counterpart, there was no “response”. Thus we see two simultaneous trends. Racially the “Punjabi Muslim” and the “Punjabi Sikh” were the same people. The Sikhs belonging to one of the farming caste the “Jats” to which many “Punjabi Muslims” belonged. But their faith united them more closely than the “Punjabi Muslim” since the “Punjabi Muslim” suffered from no religious oppression. Thus the Sikhs who were as plainly Punjabi as the Punjabi Muslims became remarkably militant, while the Punjabi Muslim remained placidly submerged in his Lassi and routine life, without any religious cohesion or fervour that the vacuum which was left following the decline of the Mughal Empire in the Punjab was filled not by the majority Punjabi Muslim or the Pathan Muslim or the Martial Afghan but by the smaller but more effective Sikh, who was a Punjabi Jat by chance and a Sikh by choice.

Thus by 1799 the Sikhs were masters of Punjab and by 1823 they had driven the Afghans to where they belonged i.e. out of Peshawar. It may be noted that racially the Afghans and East of Khyber Pathans are one race but there are certain subtle but marked differences in the two as far as culture and history are concerned. The Sikhs were doing exactly what Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan were doing in Mysore. Mysore was a Hindu majority area ruled by Hyder Ali and his son Tipu Sultan. They challenged the EEIC for more than thirty years and effectively led a Hindu majority area from 1769 to 1799 defying all theories and notions about Hindu Muslim differences and rivalry. These two rulers were able to inspire a Hindu majority area into a willing participation in a series of wars which constituted a succession of most serious challenges to the existence of the EEIC in South India. It is an irony of Indo Muslim history that the toughest Muslim challenge to the EEIC came not from any Muslim majority region but from Mysore a predominantly Hindu area! Even the regions between Delhi and Benares which were the heartland of various Muslim Empires in India played no part in resisting the British after the militarily small battle of Buxar in 1764!

The Sikhs could not annihilate the Muslims since it was physically impossible but they did suppress them. This does not mean that there was absolutely no Muslim participation in the government or administration of the country. There were many Muslim governors and subsidiary Chiefs but mostly in barren unproductive areas of Khushab Kalabagh etc. There was the Muslim Fakir family of Lahore who provided many ministers to Ranjit Singhs government. But the Multani Pathans or the Chahttas or the Bhattis who had resisted the Sikhs were persona non grata. Many Muslim mosques were turned into powder magazines and stables. Today many Pakistanis do not know this and in the process of murder of history in Pakistan in order to prove outmoded obscurantist theories about our past history the Mughals are glorified. But few people know that in actual fact the Mughals were not equal opportunity employers and in this regard the Sikh attitude towards the Punjabi Muslims in connection with distribution of power and patronage was nothing new. The sore point about Sikh rule in Punjab was religious oppression. The Punjabi and the Pathan Muslim for the first time suffered religious oppression during the Sikh time from roughly 1780 to 1849. It is interesting to note that the highly pragmatic and opportunist Muslim Tiwana and Noon Rajputs managed to win Ranjit Singh by sophisticated sycophancy and served him loyally at a time when Muslim mosques were used as stables and magazines! I am convinced that had the Russians captured Pakistan following Afghanistan in 1979 these feudals would have joined the Russian Army also!

The EEIC defeated the Sikhs in two wars i.e. the First Sikh War (1845-46) and Second Sikh War (1848-49) and annexed Punjab in 1849. During the First and Second Sikh war both the Punjabi Muslim and the Pathan Muslim actively helped the EEIC since they viewed the Sikhs as oppressors and the EEIC as their liberator. This is a crucial and decisive aspect about the EEIC annexation of Punjab. The annexation was welcomed by the majority of the population since they viewed the EEIC as a liberator who deposed the unjust and tyrannical Sikhs. Hence, the Punjabi and the Pathan Muslim loyalty of 1857 to the EEIC during the near fatal period of the siege of Delhi. On the contrary the annexation of Oudh in 1856 was viewed by the Muslim elite and the Hindu majority population of Oudh as an act of injustice, because in Oudh there was no religious oppression. The Shia Muslim dynasty was benevolent and liberal with its majority Hindu subjects. Oudh had never been invaded unlike Punjab or Frontier or Delhi by any hostile army since 1550. Thus the people of Oudh were in real terms a free people unlike most parts of India of the period 1607-1857.

The annexation of Punjab in 1849 introduced a very stable and efficient government in Punjab after ten years of absolute anarchy which had followed the death of Ranjit Singh. The EEIC administrators were very fair and effective and the province which had witnessed tremendous anarchy and bloodshed for a continuous decade became the most tranquil and prosperous province of India. The Sikhs were chivalrously and benevolently rehabilitated. The disbanded soldiers of the Sikh army were re employed, existing canals were improved and new canals were excavated. The whole country was systematically disarmed and all fortifications dismantled. The various Muslim mosques used as powder magazines and stables were restored to the Muslims. Most significant of these being the famous Badshahi Mosque of Lahore which was restored to the Muslims of Lahore after considerable efforts by John Lawrence the Chief Commissioner of Punjab in 1856.

The estates of many Muslims confiscated by the Sikhs were restored. The Muslims were recruited in the army, police and civil administration which were previously inaccessible to the Muslims. Many Muslims who had switched to the EEIC side were elevated to the status of feudal lords! It may be noted that Sikhs employed loyal Muslims mostly in the artillery only.

Thus when the rebellion broke out in 1857 the populace of the Punjab by and large felt little justification to participate in it. They correctly viewed the EEIC as a liberator as far as the Muslims were concerned and a just neutral party as far as the Sikhs were concerned. What sympathy could the Muslims have with the Mughal eighty two year old Emperor in Delhi whose ancestors had failed to protect the majority Muslim population of Punjab and trans Indus frontier from the depredations and excesses committed by plundering hordes of Persia, Afghanistan and the Sikhs from 1739 to 1849? The Sikhs on the other hand got a golden opportunity to destroy the accursed city of Delhi!

Every region of the Indo Pak subcontinent in 1857 was different. Leaders of one region were viewed as oppressors in another region. The EEIC was viewed as an oppressor in Oudh, Jhansi and in the Bengal, but as liberator in Punjab, Frontier and Rajputana. The India of 1857 was not organised on communal lines as much as the India of 1947 and merely being Muslim or Hindu could not make anyone a traitor by virtue of fighting on the EEIC side. If that was so the Bengal Sepoy was also a traitor for the hundred years before 1857. The word “traitor” does not suit the Indo Pak region because the region consists of various nations and religious groups. A more correct word for the natives fighting on EEIC is “subsidiary Collaborator”. A subsidiary collaborator fought for the EEIC for economic necessity. Speaking in nationalistic terms what “nationalism” could, the Hindustani fighting for the EEIC in the First Sikh war feel for the Sikh. What similarity was there to make the average Punjabi of 1857 identify with the Hindustani soldier of Bengal Army. Nationalism or “Pan Islamism” or any other “issues” came into existence in Indo Pak society once the people of Indo Pak subcontinent read Rosseau and Voltaire in the British created colleges and universities in the late nineteenth century. Even today what is similar between the Punjabi Rangers sepoy or policeman and the common man in Sindh or Karachi?

We may conclude that there was nothing abnormal in Punjab loyalty of 1857. The Punjabis were prisoners of their time and it was a twist of fate which placed the EEIC in the role of saviour of Punjabi and Frontier Muslim; and a chivalrous and religiously unbiased and liberal friend of the minority Punjabi Sikh. The Hariana Hindu Jat or Hindu Rajput was more politically aware since he had known more stability by virtue of EEIC rule since 1803. It is but a human characteristic that when man’s basic needs are satisfied, he wants higher things like sovereignty and independence. The Hariana and North West Provinces had know stability and peace since the EEIC annexed them in 1801 and 1803. They also in 1801 and 1803 welcomed the EEIC just like the Punjabi’s welcomed the EEIC in 1849. Because the EEIC in 1801 and 1803 had liberated the North West provinces and the Delhi area from the oppressive and predatory Mahrattas, Jats, Gujars, Mewatis and Rohillas. But that was 1803. In 1857 the people of North West provinces aspired for more. The Bengal Army sowar of 3rd Light Cavalry by resorting to the short cut of armed insurrection then was consciously fulfilling the aspirations of the people South of Ambala. The current of history in 1857 dictated that people of Indo Pak had to wait for nine more decades. There was nothing abnormal in the failure of the rebellion of 1857. The Indo Pak people failed where European subject nations like the brave Boers and the sturdy Irish had also failed. The commendable fact remains that a rebellion was attempted in 1857. On the other side the Punjab loyalty of 1857 had also its reasons. It can be best approached by being understood as it was rather than being despised or defended. The Punjabis squarely speaking cannot be blamed for their attitude in 1857. However, they also must not condemn the Hindustanis both Hindus and Muslims for having rebelled in 1857; as many Punjabis are doing today. Both the groups had different historical experiences and both behaved in an understandable and predictable manner.

The reader may feel that an out proportion attention has been given to the background of the Punjab loyalty of 1857. But this aspect of 1857 is relevant for us even today. We have to understand and digest this fact that belonging to the same religion cannot overcome the differences created by virtue of different perceptions produced due to different historical experiences or because of cultural and ethnic differences. The Muslim leaders of post 1940 Indo Pak sub continent managed to temporarily galvanise the Muslims in 1946 into sinking regional and cultural differences and establish a multi ethnic state but mere rhetoric and euphoria cannot make various ethnic groups a nation unless the political system is based on equality and mutual respect rather than mutual distrust and political manipulation based on ulterior designs. The result then is nothing but “Bangladesh! And perhaps many more “Deshes” “tans” and “lands” if the Neo Mughals of Delhi and Islamabad do not learn from history.

Was The Rebellion Inevitable

The rebellion was not inevitable but was the result of a series of administrative and policy decisions made in a period of two decades. Dalhousie’s basic policy was sound. He was administratively annexing regions which had been politically and militarily conquered and defeated long ago. But Dalhousie’s pace of annexation was fast. His modus operandi of routine administration and dealing with the Indian native princes as well as the British officials was rash. His treatment of the CinC Charles Napier was unjust. His perceptions regarding Oudh were by and large correct but the manner in which he dealt with Oudh was not correct. Being the man on the spot he should have actively decided that immediate annexation was not the answer. But he suggested to the Directors of EEIC a number of options including annexation which they selected. Thus he made the Directors take a decision about which they had little first hand knowledge. Sleeman had prophetically warned Dalhousie that annexation of Oudh would have a very negative effect on the sepoys who were almost 50 to 60% part of the Bengal Infantry.

Despite all this we must not forget that the foundation of an educated and aware Indian middle class was laid essentially by Macaulay and Dalhousie rather than by any Indian Hindu or Muslim. The three universities of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras were foundations of an Indian educated middle class. The British had resolved to introduce western education in India before 1857 and both Hindus and Muslims were to acquire if, even if Sayyid Ahmad Khan had died fighting for the rebel cause at Bijnor!

The greased cartridges case was an administrative lapse. Here the main fault lay with the Directors of EEIC who did not co-ordinate with the civil and military authorities in India about the religious implications of the cartridges.

The conduct of 3rd Light cavalry troopers was the most decisive factor of the whole affair. Their seizure of Delhi was the most tangible and concrete part of the whole affair. By occupying a militarily and politically crucial city they effectively transformed what was only a military mutiny caused due to an inadvertent lapse on part of the EEIC authorities in introducing a weapon system which was correctly perceived by the soldiers as an attack on their religion. The Oudh factor was important but was overplayed later on. Oudh took two more months after the Delhi affair for going into full rebellion. The crucial factor was the seizure of Delhi. Casualty wise and in number of concentration of rebel regiments; three fourth of 1857 was decided at Delhi in September 1857. If there is any event which may have turned the scales, it was a British defeat at Delhi. The British came very close to it, but perhaps men like Nicholson saved the day; just like Kemal at Gallipoli!

Equally crucial and decisive was the indecisiveness of General Hewitt and Brigadier Archdale Wilson at Meerut. These two individuals were the only two Britishers who could have prevented the Meerut Sepoys from capturing Delhi, keeping in view the means at their disposal and the time and space factors as on 10 and 11 May 1857. If this could have been successfully done and 3rd Light Cavalry effectively annihilated by the Meerut European units the Delhi garrison could have been disarmed and Delhi secured by the British. Without Delhi in rebel hands more sepoy units may still have mutinied but would have had no safe haven to withdraw to. Thus the EEIC could have effectively contained the sepoy units within four or five months. The loss of Delhi was the green signal for the Bengal Army to be bold, audacious and to perform the heroic act of rebellion, armed insurrection etc.!

There is nothing inevitable in history. There is by and large no good or bad luck or fate or destiny but consequences. The fall of Delhi was not an act of historic destiny but a simple result of a spinster like behaviour on part of two senior and responsible British senior military commanders! It is not the office but the man who holds it that matters ! Or, conversely it was an act made possible by the supreme elan and audacity of the sowars of 3rd Bengal Native Light Cavalry!

Rebellion or Mutiny

Pedantic historians have debated for long and devoted a considerable amount of energy to prove that the rebellion of 1857 was a mutiny of soldiers. We understand the British point of view in calling it a mutiny just like the Turks called the Greek war of independence the Greek revolt. But we are surprised that many Indo Pak historians are convinced that the rebellion of 1857 was a mutiny or an event of limited significance. Some historians don’t like it because the Bengalis did not participate in it, some are rabidly condemning it because the Punjabis played no part in it. The Britishers were the most disturbed because the rebellion proved that the Indians were not as docile as the British wanted them to be. The Indian historians who are against the rebellion and who dismiss it as an insignificant act forget that had it succeeded whole of India may have benefited. Even in its failure the rebellion influenced British perceptions in such a way that the process of introducing local self government etc. was speeded up. Just because all the nationalities of India did not join the rebellion still does not reduce its significance. For that matter even the subsequent elections in 1935 were an illusion since only 10% of the population of India was eligible to vote and out of these less than half did not vote549! The sepoy of 1857 was more politically aware and less docile than the Indian Army soldier who fought in the First or Second world war! Religion was used to galvanize the people in 1857 but against the white colonial ruler, not against each other as in the holocaust of 1947 massacres. The so called resistance campaigns of 1919 or 1920-21 or 1930-31 or 1942 were pin pricks compared with the great battles fought at Delhi, Lucknow or in rural Oudh. Today the official historians and commercial historians who write for their livelihood are trying very hard to portray the achievement of acquiring independence as the outcome of a physical struggle against the British! The Indians should instead thank Kaiser Willhelm II and Hilter for starting the two world wars and the British liberal traditions of parliamentary democracy!

The simple fact is that when the Sepoys seized Delhi and set up Bahadur Shah Zafar as their head; a mutiny had been transformed into a war aimed at making Indo Pak sub continent an independent country. The fact that the rebellion was confined to certain areas still does not reduce its magnitude to that of a mutiny or a local outbreak. If this is the yardstick then how should historians define the French revolution of 1789 which was initially only an affair confined to the Paris mob! The Russian revolution of 1917 succeeded because the mutiny of the Imperial Russian army succeeded and it took four years of civil war before the Bolsheviks succeeded in controlling whole of Russia. ‘Failure is an orphan but success has many fathers!’ The Independence that both India and Pakistan gained in the year 1947 had many fathers including Kaiser Willhelm II, Adolf HItler and British war exhaustion !! But official propaganda in both the countries wants people to believe that there were only three fathers, and all three of these were from the Indian Sub Continent!!

Impact on Future Indo-Pak History

The rebellion failed but it decisively convinced the British about the need for reform and of bringing the Indians as junior partners in the higher decision making process.

A carefully conceived policy regarding respect for the various religions followed in India was adopted. Non interference in religious matters and careful consideration in not interfering with the religious rituals were enforced as a strict policy. In the short term the Indians suffered immediately in the first decade following 1857 but in the long term their position improved. All inspiration was provided to all future movements directed towards independence and the British also became conscious about the Indian aspirations about political freedom and equal rights.

Chances of Success

There is a school of thought who is convinced that the Sepoys were bound to fail. But again there is nothing that is inevitable in history. Before 11 May 1857 no one could have believed that one regiment composed of Ranghars and Hindustani Pathan troopers could seize Delhi and wind up the EEIC hold on India for good! No one before 10 May 1857 would have believed that “2028” European soldiers at Meerut could not effectively disarm “2057” Native Sepoys. The layman reader should not underestimate what “2028” Europeans meant in India in 1857. the EEIC forces consisting of some 2300 native sepoys and just about 500 European troops from HM 22 Foot captured Sind in 1843550! In September 1842 General Nott using just about two European infantry battalions and some seven Bengal and Bombay Army native units captured Kabul the capital of Afghanistan.

Those who understand Indo Pak military history of 19th Century were thus naturally surprised the way the British at Meerut behaved. Even the 3rd Light Cavalry troopers were surprised to witness such masterly inaction on part of the European troops at Meerut. It was only when they were convinced that the Europeans had sunk into absolute inertia and inactivity that they regained enough resolution to move towards Delhi. The sepoys had a fair chance of success till September 1857. Had they destroyed the British force at Delhi they would have gained moral ascendancy and the British position may have become more critical. We have already seen that the British position at Delhi was never comfortable till the city was finally captured.

The fact that the rebellion was confined to certain areas still does not dismiss it as a mutiny, revolutions never breakout simultaneously to cover whole of a country. The French Revolution of 1789, 1830 and 1848 was largely the work of the Paris mob but were called the French Revolution. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 was initially confined to Petersburg but ultimately by 1921 the Bolsheviks were controlling whole of Russia.

The only real hope for the sepoys lay in simultaneous uprising all over India. But this was too ambitious a possibility and since no deliberate conspiracy seems to have been at work this was a very utopian and nearly impossible possibility.

Intervention by Afghanistan and Nepal may have seriously tilted the balance against the EEIC. In NWFP at least there would have been a general uprising in case Afghans had decided to invade India. But Nott and Ochterlony had taught such a lesson to Afghanistan in 1842 and Nepal in 1816 that both the countries rulers were too keen to please the EEIC to the best of their ability!. India was not a country and it was this on ground reality which made the British task very simple. The rebellion remained regionalised and the people of the sub continent as a whole lost a very good opportunity to become independent.

Sepoy Strength Exaggerated by the British writers

Since there was no military account written by the “Rebels” of 1857, all we are left with are the British accounts. These too are again based on military records despatches and reports written by participants who were mostly very keen to win the newly introduced “Victoria Cross”! In this exercise these participants indulged in an effort to inflate sepoy strength in each and every action.

We have earlier discussed how Michael Edwards, an otherwise respectable historian tried to fit 30,000 Rebels in a space which was not more than 600 or 700 yards wide as per the British Survey Map of the battle in case of the Battle of Badli Ki Serai!

The sepoys were essentially plain soldiers led by the Subedars and Risaldar Native Officers, and were without any officer cadre or the shackles of military discipline. Two factors played an important part in reducing the strength of every sepoy unit. The first was that many soldiers after a successful mutiny and the initial looting spree deserted their regiments and retired to their villages. This happened immediately after every outbreak. The most glaring out of all these was the case of the 10th Native Infantry at Fatehgarh which after rebelling and looting simply dispersed to their villages; with the exception of very few individuals who went to the Nawab of Farkhabad. This was a fairly documented fact; and thus when the 41th Native Infantry reached Farkhabad in September 1857; the Nawab gave them the colours of the old 10th Native Infantry to carry551. The second major problem was that with the passage of time as it became more and more clear that the British are winning; particularly after the recapture of Delhi; many soldiers deserted and simply went to their villages. Thus it is most likely that but the time the British launched their assault on Delhi the sepoy strength at Delhi may not have been greater than 6,000 or 7,000.

Many regiments came to Delhi from distances exceeding 200 to 300 miles; some came from as far as 500 miles. Many of these regiments were pursued or obstructed on their way to Delhi by British troops or loyal troops; specially those who came from Ferozepur Jallandhar and Phillaur. These we have the example of the 3 Nl, 36 NI, 61 Nl and 6th Light Cavalry who crossed the Sutlej on their way to Delhi from Jallandhar *36 Nl, 61 Nl, 6 LC) and Phillaur (3 Nl) in July 1857. Keeping in view their total on paper, strength theoretically should have consisted of some 3,500 men (3,000 infantry and 500 cavalry). As per the British account however; which is this case in somehow factual the strength of these regiments was 1,600 552.

In any case no unit of a army has complete strength at all times; since many men are on long leave (which in India as a policy was compulsarily given for economy measures for a period of two to three months annually). Even Fortescue who was a very conservative and pro establishment historian observed at many places in his History of British Army that the Sepoy strength was exaggerated by many British officers who fought against the sepoys in 1857.

Another aspect of the whole affair was the motivational aspect. Every regiment had a hard core of men who stayed together till the end; but similarly every regiment had a hard core of men who stayed together till the end; but similarly every regiment had many who simply preferred the safety of their village; after the initial outbreak was over. This is a very simple aspect in a rebellion in which the coercive authority of a stable peacetime state to apprehend deserters has lapsed.

Another very simple calculation of sepoy strength which may have been initially available on the first day of each regiments successful rebellion is as following:-

a.         Total Bengal Army Native Troops Strength       -118,663 553
b.         Sepoy Strength in Bengal                                      -29,000 554
c.         Sepoy Strength in Punjab                                      -65,478 out of which 37,257 were Hindustanis.
d.         Total Remaining Sepoy Strength
            excluding those in Bengal and Punjab                 - 24, 185

Calculation of number of Rebels which may hypothetically have fought against the British:—

a.         Punjab:— A total of 6 Infantry and 2 Cavalry units rebelled and successfully reached Delhi to fight against the British. This comes to a figure of a maximum of 4,100 men as per the following calculation:-

(1)        Jullundhur Brigade and Phillor Rebels:— These were four units i.e. 3 Nl 36 Nl, 61 Nl & 6 Light Cavalry ------------------ 1,600556

(2)        Ferozepur Brigade:— These were two units i.e. 45 Nl & 10 Light Cavalry And these could not have been more than 1,500 if we being very liberal to the British unrealistically agree that all posted strength rebelled and all reached Delhi some 300 miles away!

(3)        Ambala Brigade:- 5 Nl and 60 Nl rebelled towards September but a large Number as per the Gazetteer were killed or jailed557 and two companies of the 5th Native Infantry never rebelled. If we are very liberal we may state the figure of rebels which reached Delhi from Ambala at 1,000 men!

b.         Bengal:- As per the Cambridge History, above quoted there were 29,000 Sepoys in Bengal. Out of these as per our calculation four infantry and two cavalry units successfully reached Rebel Held areas. This meant that a maximum of 4,800 men out of the total of 29,000 could have fought against the British at Lucknow, Banda or Cawnpore.

c.         Total Hypothetical Maximum Strength of Rebel Sepoys:— 24,185+ 4,100 + 4,800 = 33,085. A Total of 33,085 regular troops could have possibly fought against the British in total, if we believe the figures advanced by the Cambridge History and Lord Roberts as true!

Summary of all units of Bengal Army and major state force units behaviour in 1857

Type of Unit Loyal Loyal but Disarmed Disbanded or destroyed Part Rebelled and part loyal Successfully rebelled and fought later
Regular Infantry 74 Units 4 6 27 2.5 34.5
Irregular Infantry 35 Units 23 - - 0.5 11.5
Total Infantry 27 6 27 3 46
Regular Cavalry - - 5 - 5
Irregular Cavalry 9 3 4 1 10
Total Cavalry 9 3 9 1 15
Total Bengal Army 36 9 36 4 61
State Infantry Units - - - 1 7
State Cavalry Units - - - - 2
Total State Units - - - 1 9
Grand Total Units 156 Units 36 9 36 5 70

  J.W Fortescue the author of the classic is “A History of the British Army” and a very pro Establishment and conservative historian admitted the fact that many British accounts about 1857 were highly exaggerated. Fortescue thus said; “This impression, moreover, is heightened by the accounts of the hundreds of engagements with various forces of the rebels. Their numbers were always superior, they had plenty of guns, they had the climate in their favour, and they frequently fortified positions or buildings for a resolute defence. Yet, a commander had only to attack them otherwise then as they desired to be attacked (which was not very difficult), and they invariably gave way without inflicting any great loss. We hear frequently of their stubborn resistance, yet the lists of the British casualties rarely, if ever, suggest any severe struggle”.558

Around 2,500 cavalry at Delhi, around 8,000 infantry and around 3,000 cavalry at Lucknow and around 3,000 infantry and 400 cavalry at Cawnpore. The figure for Delhi is comparatively lower keeping the total number of regiments in view; however this is so because the rebels arrived at Delhi more slowly and from far off places and in between a long period involving four months; figure at Lucknow is comparatively more stable; because most of the regiments which came to Lucknow came from a 100 mile radius around Lucknow; stretching at the maximum to 200 miles with the exception of the Dinapur brigade or the Segowlee cavalry. The strength at Cawnpore is comparatively higher; since 3 out of four regiments which fought at Cawnpore were part of the Cawnpore garrison and did not march from anywhere outside Cawnpore.

  • It is human to exaggerate the odds against a unit in order to magnify the battle performance of a unit or an individual commands.

  • In order to perpetrate the “White man’s superiority” myth. They succeeded in doing so at least till the Russo Japanese invasion of Malaya!

  • To get the newly instituted Victoria Cross!

Block Region wise analysis Summary of Bengal Army units behaviour in  1857-58

Region Total Regiments Rebelled & Fought Disarmed Disbanded or loyal
Cavalry Infantry Cavalry Infantry Cavalry Infantry
Bengal Bihar & Orrissa 3 19 3 3.5 - 15.5
Benares Region 1 7 - 1.5 1 5.5
Oudh and Rohailkhand 6 21 5.5 17.5 0.5 3.5
Doab & Agra 2 11 2 8 - 3
Delhi Region 1 4 0.5 4 0.5 -
Punjab & Frontier 21 38 2 4 19 34
Central India & Rajputana 5 17 5 15 - 2
Total 39 117 18 53.5 21 63.5

Note:-- Where a unit has partly rebelled it has been assumed for simplicity that half of it remained loyal and half remained.


Table showing regions of original location and regions where rebel units fought in 1857

Location where the regiment initially fought in the rebellion

Original Location Total Regiments involved Delhi Lakhnow Cawnpore Kalpi Banda
Cav Inf Cav Inf Cav Inf Cav Inf Cav Inf Cav Inf
Bengal Bihar and Orrissa 3 3.5 - - 1 3 - - 1 - 0.5 0.5
Benares Region - 1.5 - - - 1 - - - - - -
Oudh & Rohailkhand 5.5 17.5 0.5 5 5 12.5 - - - - - -
Doab & Agra 2 8 1 3 - - - - - - - -
Delhi Region 0.5 4 0.5 4 - - - - - - - -
Punjab & Frontier 2 4 2 4 - - - - - - - -
Central India & Rajputana 5 15 2 7 - - - - 3 6 - 2
Total 71 Units 18 53.5 6 23 6 16.5 1 5 4 6 1 2.5

Summary of Bengal Army unit behaviour-1857

Region Total Regiments Rebelled Successfully Loyal & also those who were loyal but were disarmed

Destroyed or disarmed and later disbanded or immediately disbanded

Punjab 38 21 4 2 14 12 20 7
New Provience 43 10 31 8 7 1 5 1
Central India and Rajputana 17 5 15 5 2 - - -
Bengal 19 3 3.5 3 11 - 4.5 -
Total 117 39 53.5 18 34 13 29.5 8
End Notes
546Page-30-The Mughal Nobility under Aurangzeb-Op Cit.
547Page-364-Concise Oxford History-Op Cit.
549Pages-221 & 222-Nehru-A Tryst with Destiny-Stanley Wolpert-Oxford-New York-1996.
550Pages-196 & 197 -Lieut F.G Cardew-Op Cit and Page-286-J.W Fortescue-Volume XII-1839-1852-Op Cit. Out of the total 2800 available British-Indian Troops, only 1,800 actually participated in the battle. The British Indian casualties were 62 Killed (including 6 British officers), and 194 wounded (including 13 British officers).
551Page-93-Indian Infantry Colours-Captain H. Bullock - The Times of India Press - 1931.
552Page-265-Lieut F. G Cardew-Op Cit.
553Pages-344 and 345-Incidents in the Sepoy War-General Sir Hope Grant-Op Cit.
554Page-35-Cambridge History-The Indian Empire-1858-1918-Op Cit.
555 The Punjab Mutiny Reports earlier quoted gave the total strength of Native Troops in Punjab as 59,656, out of which on paper 35,900 were Hindustanis (including 2,000 who were actually Punjabi) while 13,430 were Punjabi Irregulars out of which as per the Mutiny reports “full one fourth” were Hindustanis i.e. 3,357. Thus I have calculated Hindustanis as 33,900 Regulars, after having excluded 2,000 Punjabis added with 3,357 Hindustanis who were one fourth of the Irregular Troops. Lord Roberts who was a more reliable authority than the Mutiny Reports placed the Native Strength in Punjab at 65, 478 men (Page-88-Forty One Years in India-Volume One-Op Cit) i.e. 5,822 more than the Mutiny Reports.
556As calculated by Lieut F.G Cardew on Page-265-A Sketch of the Services of the Bengal Native Army up to 1895-Op Cit.
557Pages-30 & 31-Ambala District Gazetteer-Punjab District Gazetteers-Volume-VII-Part-A- Compiled and Published under the Authority of the Punjab Government-Superintendent Government Printing Press Punjab-Lahore-1925.
4b This is an absolutely original table. Compiled by the author through study of a large number of books. It may not be wholly accurate, but is basically an attempt to illustrate the general trend.
558Pages-389 & 390-J.W Fortescue-Vol-XIII-Op Cit.
558aAppendix-Incidents in the Sepoy War-Op Cit.
558bPage-307-Lucknow and Oudh in the Mutiny - Lieutenant General Mc Leod Innes-London-1895
558cPage-836-Henry Beveridge-Volume-III-Op Cit.
558dPage-307-Mcleod Innes-Op Cit.
558ePages-391 & 392-J. W Fortescue-Vol-XIII-Op Cit.