Revolt of 1857: How Nana Sahib joined the uprising under duress
[Book extract] The best guess must be that, like the other disgruntled rulers who joined the uprising, the Peshwa ruler was reactive rather than proactive.
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The mutineers at Meerut on May 10, 1857, were not the first, and they were certainly not the last. Kaye and Malleson list over 80 separate mutinies as breaking out between May and the end of November and early December when the last eruptions reached faraway cities such as Chittagong and Dacca in what is now Bangladesh.
The immediate reaction to these terrible events which had rocked the empire — it was the single worst revolt in Britain’s imperial history — was to look for a conspiracy. There must have been a central ring of conspirators planning and directing operations, with an evil mastermind behind it all. One popular explanation was that the blundering of Carmichael-Smyth had caused a pre-mature detonation of this nation-wide conspiracy.
When colonel Malleson came to complete sir John Kaye’s great history of the mutiny, he too grasped at the idea of a mega conspiracy: "With Oudh disaffected, the chiefs and the territorial interest doubting and trembling, with the sipahis alienated and mistrustful, there needed but one other element to produce insurrection. The country, the army, the newly-annexed provinces were alike ready for the machinations of conspirators". Who exactly were these conspirators?
Surely it must be possible to name at least some members of the inner circle, the general staff of this enormous war against the infidels. Not so, says the colonel. "Who all these conspirators were may never certainly be known. Most of them died and made no sign."
If they made no sign, how can we know for sure that they ever existed? Malleson mentions only one by name, the maulvi Ahmadullah of Faizabad, a remarkable roving holy man, the friend and adviser of the deposed royal family of Oudh. This tall, beetle-browed, lantern-jawed charismatic was certainly a fine military leader: "No other man could boast that he had twice foiled sir Colin Campbell in the field". He had been wandering through Oudh in the spring of 1857 circulating seditious pamphlets for which he was tried and sentenced to death (the revolt broke out before he could be executed). But Malleson offers no evidence that he or any other named person had coordinated a national plot.
In the first volume, sir John Kaye offers another candidate for mastermind: Nana Sahib, the adopted son of the deposed Peshwa, Baji Rao II. Still aggrieved by Lord Dalhousie’s refusal to continue his father’s pension, Nana Sahib is supposed to have been at the root of it all. For months, years even, he and his Muslim consigliere Azimullah Khan "had been quietly spreading their network of intrigue all over the country. From one native court to another native court, from one extremity to another of the great continent of India, the agents of the Nana Sahib had passed with overtures, invitations, discreetly, perhaps mysteriously worded, to princes and chiefs of different races and religions, but most hopefully of all to the Marathas".
Again, it’s hard to see much evidence for this pre-planning. Apart from one visit to Lucknow in the spring of 1857, Nana Sahib seems to have been idling at Bithur in his English-style country house with its handsome park and menagerie, playing billiards with his European guests and allowing them to win. Nobody thought that he possessed any great skills, except at billiards. None of the British spies had any subversive material on him; nor was there any among the documents the British captured when they demolished the Nana’s palace. The best guess must be that, like the other disgruntled rulers who joined the uprising, he was reactive rather than proactive: A case of "I am their leader, I must follow them". Even the disputed accounts of his joining the rebels suggest that he did so under duress. One version says that a deputation from the rebels told him, "Maharaj, a kingdom awaits you if you join our cause, but death if you do not". To which the Nana speedily replied, "What have I to do with the British? I am altogether yours". And he placed his hands on their heads and swore to join them.The Tears of the Rajas; Simon & Schuster; Rs 799.
Reprinted with the publisher’s permission.