Raja Sekhar Vundru

Raja Sekhar Vundru's Writings

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Location: New Delhi, India

Ph.D on Dr.Ambedkar's Electoral System from the National Law School, Bangalore (NLSUI) Currently working as Deputy Director General, UIDAI, Government of India , New Delhi +911123752322 (office)

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

1857: The untouchable story

Published in Times Of India, New Delhi, 25 August, 2005

1857: The untouchable story

Any historic event properly dramatised would make a good film, be it
Clive of India (1935, USA) or Mangal Pandey — The Rising (2005,
India). The transformation of the military history of the Sepoy
Mutiny into the social history of the First War of Independence has
already taken a good deal of historians' time. Still, the underlying
facts need re-examination.

On February 11, 1857, Major General J B Hearsey, commanding the
Bengal Presidency Army reported an incident from Barrackpore to
Colonel R J H Birch, military secretary to the East India Company: A
high-caste Brahmin sepoy was stopped by an untouchable khalasi
employed at the ammunition depot. The thirsty untouchable sought
some water from the Brahmin's lota. The Brahmin sepoy refused, as
the untouchable's touch would defile the vessel. The khalasi taunted
the sepoy, "You think much of your caste, but wait a little, the
saheb-log will make you bite cartridges soaked in cow and pork fat,
and then where will your caste be?"

Soon, the rumour about the cartridges for the new Enfield Rifle
spread in the Bengal Army. The high-caste Brahmin sepoys who
dominated the army refused to use the new cartridges. The Muslim
sepoys were equally enraged.

Unlike the Bombay Army, which had a predominance of untouchable
Mahars (with a pre-colonial military history) or the Madras Army
with its Pariah and Mala untouchables, the Bengal Army had a high
presence of Brahmins. Lord William Bentick in 1826 was highly
critical of the Bengal Army, which had only a few low-caste sepoys,
and was an inefficient and expensive army.

Sir Charles Napier, the commanding officer of the Bengal Army in
1850, noted that if high-caste Hindoos were to opt between their
caste and military discipline, they would sacrifice the latter. Fear
of loss of caste prompted the Bengal Army's high-caste sepoys to
refuse to travel overseas, bury their brethren in the war fields and
eat food cooked by low-caste untouchables (who were traditionally
the company's cooks with no qualms in handling beef and pork).

B R Ambedkar, from a Mahar military lineage, argued in the 1930s
that the British established its rule in India with the help of
valorous untouchable soldiers. The Bengal Army, which fought the
Battle of Plassey, was largely composed of Dushads. The Anglo-
Maratha wars, which let the British into western India were won by
Mahars of the Bombay Army. The Madras Army, which defeated Tipu
Sultan in the south, was of untouchable Pariahs and Malas.

But the social composition of the company's army changed after
the British raised 74 regiments of Native Bengal Infantry, between
1757 and 1825. High-caste Hindoos chiefly Brahmins, drawn from the
military labour markets of Awadh and Bihar, dominated all these new

Soon the British realised the role of caste vis-a-vis
loyalty, valour and discipline. Hence they recruited 24 regiments of
Punjabi Infantry between 1846 and 1857, mostly from untouchable,
Mazabhi Sikhs to balance the caste composition of the army.

For sepoys like Mangal Pandey and other high-caste men, caste
came before their military career. Biting cartridges coated with cow
fat was a dreadful prospect that led to loss of caste. Such fears
ignited the Mutiny or the First War of Independence. Caste and
religious loyalty once again took precedence over military
discipline 127 years later, when a few Sikh soldiers deserted Indian
Army after the 1984 Operation Bluestar.

But the savage massacre of British women and children on July
15, 1857 by sepoys at Bibi-Ghar, Cawnpore, which Karl Marx compared
to the practices of the Christian Byzantine Empire, was a pointer to
the ritualistic killings done by high caste men when confronted with
a threat to their caste. A modern day analogy would be the
butchering of lowcaste women and children by Ranvir Sena.

Finally, it was the untouchable Mazabhi Sikh soldiers who broke
the sepoys' siege of Delhi on September 15, 1857. The Mahars and
Pariahs from Bombay and Madras armies were pressed into service.

A re-reading of history could even bring out poetic justice in the
great historic moment — events that began with the refusal of water
to an untouchable by a high-caste Brahmin sepoy, were put to an end
by untouchable soldiers. So much for the `rising' of Mangal Pandey.

The writer is an IAS officer.


Blogger sita said...

Thanks for this article.History needs to be revisited and corrected especially along the caste lines in this country. Such articles should be prescribed for study in colleges and debated upon to break myths of upper caste valour, and honesty.

8:53 AM  
Blogger வேயுறுதோளிபங்கன் said...

Well written.

9:57 AM  

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