India celebrates the 150th anniversary next year of the Indian mutiny or “first war of independence”, when Indian soldiers of the British army rebelled against their colonial masters.
Conventional history says native Hindu and Muslim soldiers, known as sepoys, revolted against the British East India Company over fears that gun cartridges were greased with animal fat forbidden by their religions.
Not so simple, says internationally acclaimed writer and historian William Dalrymple.
In the first of a series of BBC interviews with newsmakers in South Asia, he says his research for a book on the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar threw up startling revelations.
Why do you say that the 1857 mutiny was primarily a war of religion when it has been widely regarded as a rising against British economic policies?
“It is rather remarkable that all these papers in the National Archives have never been properly explored before” -William Dalrymple
Up to now most of the data used by historians exploring 1857 has come from British sources. In the research for my new book, The Last Mughal, my colleague Mahmoud Farooqi and I have used the 20,000 rebel documents in Urdu and Persian which survive from the sepoy camp and palace in Delhi, all of which we found in the National Archives. In the rebels’ own papers, they refer over and again to their uprising being a war of religion. There were no doubt a multitude of private grievances, but it is now unambiguously clear that the rebels saw themselves as fighting a war to preserve their religion, and articulated it as such.
So was it less a rebellion against foreign domination as commonly believed?
The two are closely linked: but what the rebels most objected to in the foreign domination of their country was the way the British threatened their religions – the words din and dharma [the Urdu and Hindi words for religion] appear constantly in rebel proclamations, and were used as war cries by the combatants. They certainly appear far more regularly than secular declarations of the right to self-government or economic freedom, both of which are occasionally mentioned, but far less frequently than concerns over British intentions to impose Christianity on them.
Would you call it the first Indian jihad or holy war? The majority of sepoys who revolted were Hindu, weren’t they?
Between 65-85% of the sepoys in each regiment were upper-caste Hindus. But as the uprising spread and progressed, the sepoys were joined by large numbers of freelance jihadis, while in Delhi the failure to provide pay or food for the troops meant that the number of sepoys gradually diminished as August progressed and many returned home, hungry and disillusioned.
By the end of the siege of Delhi, several observers estimated that the jihadis made up at least half of the remaining resistance, and it was they who put up the stoutest resistance when the British finally assaulted the city on 14 September.
You say that the sepoys were revolting against the rapid inroads made by missionaries and Christianity in India?
That is certainly the grievance that is articulated most frequently in the rebel papers we have translated. It may well be that Delhi is a different case to the various other uprisings elsewhere in the country.
You say the first suicide fighters were born during the mutiny. How do you prove this?
I have never said these were the first. There are references to suicide jihadis among the Ismaeli Assassins of Syria and Persia from the 11th Century onwards. But there are clear and specific references among the Mutiny Papers to a regiment of jihadis arriving in Delhi from Gwalior who are described as “suicide ghazis” who had vowed never to eat again and to fight until they met death at the hands of the kafirs [infidels] “for those who have come to die have no need for food”.
You say that the flag of jihad was raised in Delhi and the mosque was at the centre of it. What was the reason for this “Islamist” uprising in Delhi?
It was much the same as the motivation behind the rising of the sepoys: a distrust of British intention with regard to the imposition of Christian laws, education and religious practices. In addition, there were those who believed they were following the Koranic injunction to turn the Dar ul-harb, the Abode of War, back into what they believed should again be the Dar ul-Islam, the Abode of Islam.
Do you have any idea of how many Hindus who converted to Christianity or Christians were cut down during the mutiny?
Yes. There are specific references to the sepoys hunting down and killing all the Christian converts they could find on the day they first took Delhi. The first to be killed was a very high-profile convert called Chiman Lal who used to run a hospital in Daryaganj and was an official of Bahadur Shah Zafar. His conversion to Christianity had been a huge scandal in 1852, and he was immediately pointed out to the rebel troops on the morning of 11 May.
Do you think Indian historians deliberately overlooked or ignored the historical evidence when researching the mutiny?
No, but it is rather remarkable that all these papers in the National Archives have never been properly explored before: I feel rather like an Indian historian would feel if he were to go to Paris and find almost unused the complete records of the French Revolution sitting in the Bibliotheque Nationale. I think the difficulty of the Urdu shikastah script, and the strange late Mughal scribal conventions must have deterred many researchers. And for cracking that I have to thank the skill and persistence of Mahmoud.
What kind of evidence have you sifted through over what period of time to come up with your “war of religion” thesis?
This has been a four-year project. As well as the material in the National Archives, remarkable material has turned up in London, especially in the India Office and the National Army Museum, in Rangoon and especially the Punjab archives in Lahore. I have also used two long, detailed and reliable first-person Urdu accounts of the uprising in Delhi that have never before been translated into English.
The most interesting of these is an account called the Dastan i-Ghadr of Zahir Dehlavi who was a young official in Bahadur Shah Zafar’s household. I have been able to make numerous discoveries simply because, strangely enough, very little serious work has been done on 1857 in Delhi.
Hindu nationalist and right-wing groups in India are still railing against conversions and many states are trying to ban them. Do you think the jihad continues and could there be a second uprising or rather huge social upheaval against Christianity in India?
No. Those conversions that take place today are fringe activities usually taking place among tribal groups and sponsored by American Baptist organisations. What happened in 1857 was an uprising across the length of Hindustan, the modern cow belt, against the suspected religious activities and aspiration of the central government in Calcutta. So what is going on today – such as the church burning in Dangs of Gujarat in 1998 – is on a very different, much smaller scale.
In view of your findings, don’t you find next year’s celebrations in India to celebrate the uprising slightly misplaced, in a sense?
Not at all – 1857 was a pivotal point in Indian history. It changed everything, and the disastrous course of the uprising dramatically highlighted the shortcomings of the old Mughal feudal order. When Delhi fell in September 1857 it was not just the city and Zafar’s court that was uprooted and destroyed, but the self-confidence and authority of the wider Mughal political and cultural world.
Only 90 years separated the British victory at the gates of Delhi in 1857 from the British eviction from South Asia through the Gateway of India in 1947. But while memories of British atrocities in 1857 may have assisted in the birth of Indian nationalism, it was not the few surviving descendants of the Mughals, nor any of the old princely and feudal rulers, who were in any way responsible for India’s march to Independence.
Instead the Indian Freedom Movement was led by the new Anglicised and educated colonial service-class who emerged from English-language schools after 1857, and who by-and-large used modern Western structures and methods – political parties, strikes and protest marches – to gain their freedom. Had 1857 not happened, modern Indian history might have taken a quite different course.
William Dalrymple was speaking to the BBC News website’s Soutik Biswas. His new book, The Last Mughal, is due to be published by Bloomsbury next month.