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Monday, 16 January 2012


The Unsung Mutiny of Sehore

The Sipahi Bahadur uprising of 1857 has been unduly neglected, given that it yielded one of the first secular self-governments during the British Raj, finds Shalini Rai

MORE THAN 150 years ago, the Revolt of 1857 stirred the Indian conscience and pitched infant nationalism against established imperial might. Indian historians have described it as the First War of Independence and much has been recorded and written about this milestone on the road to freedom. And yet, few know of the Sipahi Bahadur uprising and the resultant, bloody death in 1858 — even though, in its five months of existence, Sipahi Bahadur provided one of the first instances of a parallel, secular Indian government within the British Raj. The event stands as a stark example of our official history’s impecunious memory.

The other Mangal Pandeys Ramjulal
Photos Courtesy: Swaraj Sansthan, Bhopal

The other Mangal Pandeys Ramjulal

Ninety years before the British left India, Sehore in Madhya Pradesh (about 30 km from Bhopal) declared independence from British rule. On 6 August 1857, Risaldar Wali Shah of the Bhopal Contingent Force led 356 soldiers in rebellion against Sikander Jehan Begum, the female Nawab of Bhopal who paid allegiance to the British. Shah exhorted his comrades stationed in Sehore — most notably Koth Havaldar Mahavir, Arif Shah, Ramjulal, Adil Mohd Khan and Fazil Mohd Khan — to take up arms, declaring: “The British are being hounded out of the whole of Hindustan. Not so in Bhopal state. We do not owe our lives to any Raja, Nawab or Begum.”

These soldiers’ grievances were common across the rebellions that fateful year — insufficient wages, sub-standard rations like stale rotis, shabby uniforms — yet this particular group did something exceptional. After overthrowing the forces of the British political agent Major Henry William Richards, the Indian soldiers set up their own government, complete with its own civil and criminal courts and an administrative council.

“Sipahi Bahadur was the beginning of serious attempts at a tryst with colonial modernity,” says Dr Biswamoy Pati, Associate Professor of History at the University of Delhi. Embittered by the Nawab’s callous attitude towards their daily concerns, and emboldened by the nation joining hands in 1857, these soldiers posed the biggest ever challenge to the viability of the Bhopal state. Dr Shriram Tiwari, Director, Culture, Madhya Pradesh says, “The rebel government was staunchly secular. It had two standards — Nishan-e- Mohammadi and Jhanda Mahaviri — that were raised together to symbolise Hindu- Muslim unity.”

By December 1857, the determined soldiers and their civilian supporters had garnered enough military resources and local support to lay siege to Gauhar Mahal, the Nawab’s residence. Sipahi Bahadur (as against Company Bahadur or the East India Company) differed from other uprisings of 1857 — its leaders knew any movement that resorted to violence to effect regime change would be shortlived, and so they installed their own government machinery, complete with civil and criminal courts, a council and a state emblem. Hemmed in by rebels in a landlocked state, Nawab Sikander Jehan Begum waited for the raging tide of nationalism to ebb and for the British to come to the rescue of the state of Bhopal, now shaken to its foundations.

General Hugh Rose led a combined force of the British military and the Bhopal state (under Bakhshi Baqi Mohd Khan) to rout Sipahi Bahadur. The movement was crushed brutally with the killing of the 356 soldiers on 14 January 1858 — shot en masse in Sehore. “It was the highest number of soldiers executed during the Revolt of 1857 in Madhya Pradesh. Of them, 195 were with the artillery unit, 159 were infantry soldiers,” says Dr Shambhu Dayal Guru, a historian based in Bhopal.

Sipahi Bahadur inspired the people of Sehore, Bhopal, Sagar and other areas under the erstwhile state of Bhopal to shrug off tyranny-induced apathy and replace indolence with audacity. Lending strength to their cause was the citizens’ unflinching faith in a shared culture and simmering resentment against the Nawab of Bhopal and her British cohorts.

Official mentions of the event in recorded history have been rare. Shaharyar M Khan, former foreign secretary of Pakistan and a descendant of Nawab Sikander Jehan Begum, discussed the event in his 1999 book The Begums of Bhopal: “In August 1857… Bhopal mutineers, under the banner of the Sepoy Bahadur revolt, attacked the British garrison in Sehore… the rebel forces… gained sufficient strength to declare an alternative government in Sehore which called itself the Sepoy Bahadur government. They took control of Sehore and even set up a military court.” Khan goes on to state, “The last bastion of rebel strength, Sehore, was recaptured… The state records state that 149 rebels lost their lives. Supporters of the rebellion claim that 356 ‘martyrs’ were either shot or hanged.” Back in 1880, the event found mention in Hayat-e-Sikandari, based on the life and times of Nawab Sikander Jehan Begum. It is also mentioned in the Delhi Gazette of 15 January 1858; in Volume 3 of the Bhopal State Gazetteer, 1907, edited by Captain Charles Eckford Luard; and in Central India During the Rebellion of 1857-58, edited by Thomas Lowe, Medical Officer, Corps of Madras.

General Hugh Rose’s forces crushed the movement with the killing of the 356 soldiers — shot en masse in Sehore

AS TESTIMONY to their sense of conviction, the radicals received support from Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi and the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar. While Lakshmi Bai wrote to the Nawab Begum of Bhopal thrice asking her to desist from taking British assistance to crush Sipahi Bahadur, Zafar lent moral support by sending personal notes of encouragement to the revolutionaries’ leaders.

When these bravehearts were alive, every effort was made to intimidate, entice, con and coax them into laying down arms and to crush their rebellion. A century-and-ahalf later, it is a tragedy made more poignant because it has suffered from decades of inattention. Sipahi Bahadur remains an unpleasant reminder of an uncomfortable relationship between the rulers and the ruled.


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