Most school books of India list non-participation of Sikhs as one of the main reason for the failure of the 1857 Mutiny, some of them even go so far as to blame Sikhs for the failure.
Question then arises – Why didn’t Sikhs join the 1857 mutiny?
To understand the answer, one must re-visit the area from 1818 onwards; and the time period before the 1857 mutiny.
By 1818, entire India was defeated by the British, but one area stood sovereign – all alone on the North West frontier of India – the Sikh kingdom of Ranjit Singh. Sikhs had over the years defeated the Mughals rulers several times, pushed away the Afghans, and the British did not dare to attack them as long as Ranjit Singh was alive.
In 1838, Ranjit Singh died. Ranjit Singh was succeeded by his son, Maharaja Sher Singh, who took the kingdom to Laddakh and beyond. The Britishers could only watch in frustration as the Sikh armies stormed into Tibet and won parts of it. However, due to infighting amongst Sikhs there were a succession of assassinations of the rulers and a 9 year old son of Ranjit Singh, Duleep Singh, was hoisted as the king under the regency of his mother Maharani Jinda.
- the British started attacking the Sikhs. Sikhs fought hard to retain their freedom. The Bengal Army of the British consisted of Bihari, Oudhi and Bengali soldiers from the Gangetic Plains. These soldiers of the British Bengal Army were known then in Punjab as Poorbias (or Hindustanis).
- In the First Anglo Sikh war – the Sikhs were defeated and their territories in the Jullunder Doab were taken away by the British. The child Maharaja was made answerable to the Company Sarkar
- Sikhs under Maharani Jinda did not bend down to the British and refused to kowtow to the British. By 1849, the situation between the Sikhs and British India had become untenable and the Sikhs challenged the British into an open war. If you ask me, I feel that Second Anglo Sikh War was an assertion of independence by the 12 year old Maharaja Duleep Singh and his mother, Maharani Jinda. (Why is it not called the First War of Independence? )
- It was fought bravely, but a governor of Khalsa kingdom, appointed by Ranjit Singh as incharge of Jammu and Kashmir, was bought over by the British, on promises of his own kingdom. At the Battle of Gujrat, the Sikhs were defeated decisively, the battle that marked the end of the Second Anglo Sikh war. After that defeat, the remaining Sikh soldiers were bitterly insulted by the Poorbias of the victorious British Bengal Army; their beloved horses were taken away by the Poorbias, Kirpans and Guns put into furnaces. It was a sad event in the Sikh psyche. Sikh cannons and soldiers were captured and paraded in Calcutta. After this war; the last independent kingdom of Indian sub-continent was ‘annexed’ to the British Empire.
Reasons for Sikhs not joining the mutiny are many:
Sikhs had nursed a justifiable grudge against the Poorbias who, despite the Sikhs having never given them any cause for offence, had by their betrayal and other overt and covert acts, helped the British during the Anglo-Sikh wars and later in the annexation of Punjab. The only battles that were fought to maintain sovereign dominance were the Anglo-Sikh battles – which, interestingly, were lost by Sikhs to the Purbias (Biharis, Bengalis and Oudhis).
The 1857 Mutiny was primarily led by Poorbia soldiers. The British used the Sikh grievance against Poorbias (the Divide and Rule mainfestation). Kavi Khazan Singh in his work, ‘Jangnama Dilli‘, written in 1858, mentions that
the Sikh participation against the Poorbia soldiers was in reaction to their boast that they had vanquished the Sikhs in 1845-46 and in 1848-49. Another contemporary observer noted: “The animosity between the Sikhs and the Poobias is notorious. The former gave out that they would not allow the latter to pass through their country. It was, therefore, determined to take advantage of this ill feeling and to stimulate it by the offer of rewards for every Hindostanee sepoy who should be captured. The bitter memories of Poorbia co-operation with the British were so fresh in Sikh minds that any coalition between the two became impossible.”
In the above background, the reasons
- The people who now claimed to be fighters for freedom were the same ((comprising Mangal Pandey’s 34th Bengal Infantry)) who, eight years earlier, had actively helped the British to usurp Sikh sovereignty, and to suppress Sikhs when the Sikhs were fighting for independence.
- Sikhs had no leadership, after their kingdom was annexed and the Maharani was imprisoned while the twelve year old Maharaja had been kept isolated, almost in house-arrest under British guardians and later sent to England.
- Moreover, Sikhs had fought for uprooting of Mughal rule for over 100 years from 1700s to 1800s. There was no way that they were going to support foisting up of a Mughal Emperor over them again in the shape of Bahadur Shah Zafar.
1857 was simply an uprising by pockets of sepoys, who were sporadically aided by a few local fiefdoms who wanted to further their own, respective interests. Also, one must not forget as summarised by Prof. Ganda Singh in “The Indian Mutiny Of 1857 And The Sikhs – Dr. Ganda Singh”
“not only did the people of the Punjab, the Hindus, the Muslims, and the Sikhs kept aloof from the mutineers, but the people of Bengal, Madras, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Sindh, Rajasthan, Jammu and Kashmir and the North-Western Frontier Province also did not join them. Some of them actually opposed them. Not only this. Out of the three Presidency Armies — Bengal, Madras and Bombay — it was only a part of the Bengal Army that had mutinied. The other parts fought on the side of the British Government to suppress it. The Madras and Bombay armies remained quiet and loyal. Evidently, the Poorbia soldiers had failed to win the sympathies of their own class of people in the south and south-west as in the west and north- west”.
In his writings and speeches Jawaharlal Nehru maintained that “the revolt of 1857 was a feudal outburst headed by feudal chiefs, and their followers and aided by others”. He did not deny the popular character of the revolt, though he did not call it national.
R.C. Majumdar, in his study “The Sepoy Mutiny and the Revolt of 1857” (1857) proclaimed that
“the revolt of 1857 was neither national, nor war nor of independence”.
If not for Poorbia support to British in 1849, the war of independence of Sikhs would have invigorated and liberated rest of India in 1849 itself. If not for Sikh support to British in 1857, the liberation process would have been accelarated too. However, one must appreciate that our ancestors, be they from the Hindi heartland, or from Punjab – they tried to do their best in protecting their families, their lands, their businesses and their livelihoods in the midst of the world collapsing around them. There is no point in assessing their actions, or inactions, wearing the coloured glasses of today.
They did not have the hindsight wisdom of history, they lived in that present. And hence, while Poorbias need to be empathised and condoned for their relentless support to British in 1846-1849, Sikhs need to be empathised and condoned for their support to British in 1857.
A. After the war the Punjab was annexed to the East India Company’s territories and Duleep Singh was deposed to Britain, where he again rebelled. Who knows about his rebellion? Anyone?
B. Also the questions that arise, if one cares to ask:
- Why did Rajputs not participate in 1857?
- Why did Marathas help British in defeating Tatya Tope?
- Why was the revolt limited to parts of Uttar Pradesh and Delhi only?
- Why did’nt Kerala participate in the mutiny?
- and so on…Hyderabad? Mysore? Oriyas?
- Why only single out the Sikhs as a reason for the failure of the mutiny?