In the history of Indian freedom struggle, we come across numerous names that have inked their mark on the history of India. Their deeds were dedicated to the same goal, to get the nation free from the clutches of slavery and for the restoration of its prosperity.
Mangal Pandey is the name of one such valiant amongst men, who roared just once to carve an immortal niche in history. He was a brave soldier, who gave the first skirmish in the 1857 revolution.
Early Life of Mangal Pandey
Mangal Pandey was born on 19th July 1827 in a Brahmin family in Nagwa, a village of Ballia district in Uttar Pradesh. Not much is known about his parents except the fact that he was an upper caste Brahmin. Poverty had struck his family and there were mounting debts on his family became burdensome.
Mangal sought to remove the shackles of poverty that surrounded his family. He was aware of his hot temperament and wanted a job that suited him. Probably his education was average but he possessed a very sharp wisdom. He was also brave and courageous.
His family professed strong Hindu beliefs. As a result, Mangal vowed to follow and maintain Kshatriya Dharma for the rest of his life, enrolled himself as a Sepoy under the British government. By the year 1857, the roots of the reign of the British Government that had been long established, had penetrated deep.
All the Kings were reduced to mere dummies, running their government in proxy while the upper-hand was being maintained by the East India Company.
British Dominance and the Growing Resentment
The British dominance had begun to be established after the Battle of Plassey in 1757, but the real challenge for the Britishers was to lay down a solid foundation across the length and breadth of a vast country that India is and given its diversity of population and ways of living.
For this the Britishers adopted every possible trick of deceit, treachery and scheming.
While doing this, they not only gave up all the human considerations, but also behaved very brutally with Indians treating them all no less than an animal.
Before the arrival of Britishers, India was a prosperous nation. Villages form the heart of India. Each village was self-sufficient and self-reliant. There had been no necessity to export any goods from the outside.
All were organised based on the cooperation and good behaviour that villagers had for each other. A class or group existed for each profession. The farmers used to work in agricultural fields and only a part of the produce went out of the village in the form of state-tax.
There were carpenters and iron-smiths that made agricultural equipment and other tools. The Brahmins performed priestly and other education related duties. Weavers wove clothes, masons made houses, barbers, washer men; goldsmiths all performed their duties well.
Every village had a well-knit community. Britishers observed and took into account the fact that it won’t be easy to establish supremacy in India. The system was strong enough to meet the requirements of everyone.
Mutual unity and cooperation were the strengths of Indians which tied them in spite of difference of castes and religions. Therefore, the Britishers began to put in place, a number of repressive policies on the pretext of modern reforms so as to achieve their nasty motive.
Because of the British interference, the strength and income of the Indian kings and Nawabs got highly diminished. They lost their earlier influence and were reduced to mere symbolic kings.
The farmers were refrained from using good seeds, fertilizers and organic techniques. They couldn’t manage their own farms in accordance with their wishes. Land revenue was enhanced manifold and instead of grains, hard cash was demanded as land revenue.
Hence, farmers were forced to grow crops that could easily be sold in the market instead of crops that they really needed. The farmers who couldn’t pay the revenue were forcibly deprived of their plough, bullocks, land, seeds and grains. The providers and perpetrators of food grains ironically, were deprived of their own food.
Great atrocities were laid down on weavers too. The weavers were vehemently forced to weave type of cloth that British wanted and also to sell it to the British traders only. They were annulled to sell it to any other trader and if one secretly tried to do so, his spinning wheel and cloth was burnt down to ashes by the Sepoy’s.
There was a time when Indian cloth was in high demand in the international market but following such forcible vigilance and no due reward of their labour, many weavers had cut off their own thumbs to save themselves of such dire tyranny of the British.
There was considerable hatred brewing up among the peaceful Indians who regularly used to complaint against the policies and rights to implement administration over them by an alien rule. But none was voicing their opinions. The extent of the barbarity was crossed when the Britishers sought to hurt the religious sentiments of its own sepoys by whose power it used to curb the common men of India by their own fellow brethren.
The Britishers introduced greased cartridges. The grease was made from fat of cow and pig meat. The cartridges had to be bitten off to remove the cover, an act which was detested by both Hindus and Muslims because for Hindus, cow was sacred while for Muslims, even the touch of pig meat was haram.
The First Upsurge from the Regiment
The first notable issue of a revolt came from inside the British’s very own Bengal Presidency Army. The 34th native infantry regiment of the Army was the most anxious to start the rebellion. The regiment was stationed at Barrackpore, Wazir Ali Khan who stayed near Calcutta had bound the whole regiment by Oaths in favour of the uprising. Some sepoys of the 34th regiment had brought the whole 19th regiment under their influence of the revolt against greased cartridges.
The British hardly had any idea of this and decided to issue the greased cartridges first to the 19th regiment on an experiment basis. But this regiment boldly refused the use of new cartridges to preserve the pride of their religious merit. They made it clear to the British of their intention of drawing their weapons out, if necessary. The British had to quietly swallow their insult as there were hardly any white troops available in the province of Bengal to suppress the sepoys.
Consequently, white troops were moved from Burma and other places to Calcutta and orders were issued for the disbandment of the 19th regiment at Barakpore for 28th March 1857’s Parade. But the 34th regiment was in mood to see the 19th regiment being disbanded on the parade ground. For this, they patiently waited for a month and fixed a date for their upsurge against their foreign bosses.
But ferocious Mangal Pandey’s sword couldn’t keep waiting in the sheath for long. The love for his religion and country had entered his very blood and electrified him. He was immensely disturbed by the fact that his own fellow brethren would be insulted before him on the Parade ground.
On the very fateful day, he consumed cannabis(bhang) and opium and under the influence of intoxication, the young and valiant soldier’s spirit became uncontrollable. He seized the opportunity and loaded his musket and began pacing on the parade ground, shouting “Rise brethren Rise! Why do you hold back? Come, Rise and bind yourselves with the oath of your religion”.
With such words, he began calling upon his fellow soldiers to follow him. English Major Sergeant reached the ground and ordered Jemadar Ishwari Prasad, the Indian officer in command of the quarter-guard to arrest Pandey. Ishwari Prasad denied stating ferociously, “No sepoy shall even touch Pandey”.
Sergeant Major Hughson was taken aback since none of the sepoys even moved to arrest Pandey at his order. A single shot from Pandey’s weapon killed Hughson. Furious at Pandey’s nuisance on the parade ground, General Baugh buckled himself and came in riding a horse with a sword and a pistol.
Pandey, seeing Baugh riding towards him, shot from his musket, the bullet missed Baugh but it struck the prancing horse. Both Baugh and his horse fell on the ground, Baugh immediately disentangled himself, all this while, Pandey was busy in reloading his musket to fire another shot. Immediately Baugh fired at him from his pistol but the bullet missed Pandey.
Both now drew their respective swords and marched towards each other. Meanwhile, a white soldier came pacing towards Pandey in order to attack but an Indian sepoy smashed his head. A shout rose among the sepoys, “Don’t touch Mangal Pandey”.
Colonel Wheeler was then summoned to the scene. He too ordered an arrest of Pandey to the guards. Another shout rose in chorus from among the sepoys, “We will not touch the hair of this Brahmin”. Colonel Wheeler helpless at the sight of blood of a white man and being a witness of the sepoys’ mood immediately paced towards General Hearsay’s residence.
A vivid illustration of a mutiny, breaking on the parade ground reached the ears of the then, commanding officer, General Hearsay who galloped to the ground along with his two officer sons. Pandey continued waving his hands and was shouting, “Rise brethren, Rise”.
General Hearsay at this juncture hurriedly collected white soldiers and officers and rode hastily towards Pandey. General began to threaten the guards on the Parade ground.
He took out his pistol and aimed it on one of the guards saying, ‘Arrest Pandey’ while warning to kill any guard who disobeyed him. The guards gave in to Hearsay’s commands and began marching with the British soldiers towards him.
Pandey on seeing he falling into the clutches of the white men, put the muzzle of the musket on his chest preferring death over being imprisoned by the whites. He got badly wounded, got overpowered and was taken to a nearby hospital. After he was treated, and started recuperating, a date for his trial was set, 18th of April.
Aftermath and Martyrdom
The 34th regiment of Bengal Presidency Army was disbanded on the context of Mangal Pandey’s mutiny and the failure of Sepoy and quarter-guard to follow orders.
It appeared that Pandey acted without considering other men of his regiment because none was participating as actively as was he alone but the Britishers realized that there must be a growing antipathy in the regiment for the Sepoy turned into mere spectators and none cared to arrest Pandey when commanded to do so.
Pandey was tried at the court of law and was condemned to be hanged. During the enquiry, he utterly refused to reveal the name of conspirators while even denying the consumption of alcohol, opium or cannabis.
While he made it clear to the court that all he did was to safeguard his religious merits and that he had no ill-will towards the officers that he had killed. His sword came out of his sheath to defend his religion and for the honour of his country.
On the morning of fated, 8th April 1857, Mangal Pandey was brought to the scaffold and given an ultimatum to tell the name of conspirators else face hanging.
He retorted them by denying them the names, the moose dropped and the great valiant rebellion was hanged till death. What a plight would have been drawn upon those who loved him dearly and followed him with all his heart!
This was the first skirmish that led to the Revolt of 1857. Mangal Pandey was gone but his undaunted spirit spread throughout the ranks of Bengal Presidency Army, Barrackpore to Ambala, Multan and Peshawar. He gave up not only his life but also left his name for the rebellion.
According to Lord Roberts, “Pandey’s name was the origin of sepoys who joined the First War of Independence in 1857, calling themselves, ‘Pandeys’”. What happened on 29th March was followed by an upsurge in the regiments stationed at Meerut on 10th May. Pandey’s rising against the torture act as a catalyst that inspired the ones sharing the feelings of hatred towards the British for their atrocities.
Film, stage, literature and commemoration
A film based on Mangal Pandey’s life, starring Amir Khan was released in 2005, entitled ‘Mangal Pandey: An Uprising’. However, the sequences of the mutiny were all based on true incidences, the film portrayed Mangal’s character in a negative light, by displaying him of having an affair and being alcoholic.
It was an utter disgrace on the director’s part to infiltrate the life of a heroic figure. Veer Savarkar remarked on Mangal Pandey, “Mangal Pandey was pure in private life and undaunted on the battlefield”.
Besides a movie, Mangal Pandey’s life was carved into a stage play entitled, “A Roti Rebellion” that received accolades from all over the fraternity. Also, had been published a novel entitle, “White Teeth” portraying Mangal’s life and character and the influence he had over the author.
The Government of India commemorated Mangal Pandey, the forgotten hero, by issuing a postage stamp bearing his image on 5th October 1984. A park named Shaheed Mangal Pandey Udayan had been constructed to commemorate Mangal Pandey for his contributions, at the place where he first attacked the Britishers and where he was hanged later at Barrackpore.