The Sepoy Mutiny After 150 Years

This week marks the 150th anniversary of the first Indian war of Independence, also known as the Sepoy Mutiny.

Breaking out in Meerut on May 10, 1857, the uprising soon spread all across northern and central India. The English in Hindustan, early ex-pats in a blithe existence, enjoying luxuries they could scarcely have imagined at home, were rousted from their tranquil lives and suddenly found themselves on unfamiliar terrain (in every sense), quarries in a bizarre fox hunt. The future Empire teetered for a moment. By the time it was all over a couple of years later, both Indians and British had perpetrated unimaginable horrors, and both Indians and Englishmen were scratched their heads, the former at how they had ended up losing their country, the latter at the absent-minded folly of leaving a huge country like India in the charge of a private company. Queen Victoria moved to establish Britain’s administrative rule in place of the Company’s.

Everyone woke up to the fact that it was a corporation that had been ruling India all these years! Its name was The East India Company, a player wrapped up in America’s history too. The American Revolution was fought partly against the Company’s monopoly — it was the Company’s tea that was dumped into Boston Harbor. However, its connection to America long predates the Boston Tea Party — few people know that the Mayflower belonged to the East India Company.

Unlike the American Revolution, the 1857 rising failed to oust the English. There would be no Yorktown in India. In fact, after surrendering to Washington, Cornwallis went on to serve two terms as Governor General of India!

But back to the Mutiny. It is relevant to ask if the Pax Britannica established over India following 1857 did not allow for the growth of a native middle class, and generally paving the way for Modern India. In fact, a book by a well-known Indian executive and civil servant is called, “Punjabi Century — 1857 to 1947” (occasioning some unkind chuckles in India about the numerical abilities of those from the land of the five rivers). The book extols the steadying hand of a series of dedicated post-mutiny English administrators allowing Punjabis, after centuries under Oriental despotism and caprice, to flourish as never before. To a lesser or greater degree, the same was true of many other parts of India. Indeed, I was just reading that Hitler, meeting with the Indian nationalist Subhas Chandra Bose in Berlin in May 1942, declined Bose’s offer of an armed insurrection against Britain, telling him that what India needed was 50 more years of British rule on its road to modernity and freedom. The notion of the white man’s burden was one shared by Churchill and Hitler alike — and by George W. Bush and Tony Blair — or even Marx.

Could not one draw a parallel between today’s chaos in Iraq with the human tragedy and barbarism on all sides, and the slaughter during the Mutiny? Is it not fair to ask if Bush and Blair’s impulses, of offering to bring order and democracy to a backward and lawless region, do not have some merit? Such a comparison is superficial, overly facile, and dead wrong. If anything, Iraq is India in reverse.

The East India Company came to India to trade, having been granted rights to do so by the English Crown. This was in the 1600’s. Over the next 150 years, under a succession of rapacious if capable personalities such as Robert Clive, the Company increased its foothold, going from a few ‘factories’ along the coastline to raising and maintaining armies, arbitrating in internecine quarrels amongst native rulers, to building the first Indian cities (Calcutta was founded by Job Charnock and Madras, by Francis Day and Andrew Cogan) to becoming in 1757, after defeating the Nawab of Bengal at Plassey, the dominant political and military force in India, a replacement for Mughal Empire which had entered its rump period some fifty years earlier. It was still another 100 years to the Mutiny, and 90 more to Independence.

Whereas in India, what began as commerce morphed, first into political intervention and then eventually (almost reluctantly) into the British Raj, America’s Iraq Project was from the start given an overtly political agenda, albeit the exact story (dislodging Saddam, dismantling WMD’s, bringing democracy…) varied with to the mood du jour. In India, what started as unabashed profiteering (both Robert Clive and Warren Hastings were impeached by Parliament for corruption) was brought under control by establishing an Indian State, a civil service and an army. In contrast, an existing Iraqi state was dismantled, its armed forces disbanded, the rule of law bade farewell on Day One of American Rule, when the American forces stood on the sidelines and watched the ransacking of the National Museum, and the Defense Secretary untroubled by it all, remarking that “stuff happens”. The architects of chaos, instead of being impeached, were reelected and given medals of honor. In hard commercial terms, India was a profit center for the British. Iraq has put the United States 500 billion dollars deeper in debt. The one common thread is the unabashed private profiteering, which continues across the times. Plus ça change…

In India, conscientious British administrators (with eminent Indian leaders) brought an end to the practice of sati, the live burning of widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands. In Iraq, a womanhood that was perhaps the freest in the Arab world (a perverse fact, Saddam’s biological weapons project was said to be headed by a woman) has been pushed back into the home, forced into wearing scarves and veils.

Lenin wrote that imperialism was the highest stage of capitalism. An Indian writer identified the difference between colonialism and imperialism. A colony is where you get cheap raw materials and sell goods to, whereas imperialism is a matter of making a cultural impress. Britain’s colonial rule of India left India was bled white (no pun intended). Her imperialism gave India the notions of a free press, democracy, elections, parliament, habeas corpus… Bled, yes, but whitened too? As for America, in 1857 she produced much of what she consumed. America today is a classic colony, home to raw materials, consumer of everything from abroad.

But the key difference is, of course, that 2007 is not 1857. In 1857, the nation state was in the ascendant, today it is withering away. In 1857, the British Crown was dismissing the East India Company and taking over its reigns. (In fact, the Crown had to permit the Company to trade in India. Today companies can move entire operations abroad without even informing the government!) In 2007, the American Government is giving over not only parts of Iraq but even parts of the United States (New Orleans, if Greg Palast is to be believed) to an East India Company of our times — Blackwater (a curious coincidence: Kala Pani, or black water, was the name given to the oceans in medieval India, to discourage people from traveling abroad).

In those times Lord Bentick had no qualms about abolishing sati, an established custom in an alien land. Today’s state countenances talk of separate courts for different communities. The Empire is striking back, and fittingly for a broadband age, in double quick time, across both history and geography. It is apt that as he announced his retirement today Tony Blair used the word ‘Blowback’.

In the end, whatever roles the Bushes, Blairs or Blackwaters might have played, it is we the people that determine their freedom and sovereignty, by their own actions. No one understood this complicity better than Gandhi, and there is no better way to remind ourselves on this or any other anniversary of British rule:

“The English have not taken India; we have given it to them…They had not the slightest intention (when they first came) to establish a kingdom. Who assisted the (East India) Company’s officers? Who was tempted at the sight of their silver? Who bought their goods? History testifies that we did all this. In order to become rich all at once we welcomed the Company’s officers with open arms. If I am in the habit of drinking bhang and a seller thereof sells it to me, am I to blame him or myself? By blaming the seller, shall I be able to avoid the habit? And, if a particular retailer is driven away, will not another take his place?

…That corporation (East India Company) was versed alike in commerce and war. It was unhampered by questions of morality. Its object was to increase its commerce and to make money. It accepted our assistance, and increased the number of its warehouses. To protect the latter it employed an army which was utilized by us also. Is it not then useless to blame the English for what we did at the time?”

(Hind Swaraj, 1909)

NIRANJAN RAMAKRISHNAN is a writer living on the West Coast. He can be reached at

1. The Irony of Imperium by NIRANJAN RAMAKRISHNAN
2. Who’s changing Whom? by NIRANJAN RAMAKRISHNAN
3. The Partition of America by NIRANJAN RAMAKRISHNAN
4. Conscience Takes a Holiday by NIRANJAN RAMAKRISHNAN




/>Niranjan Ramakrishnan is a writer living on the West Coast.  His book, “Reading Gandhi In the Twenty-First Century” was published last year by Palgrave.  He may be reached at