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Chapatis and 1857 uprising!

The revolt of the sepoys of the army of the East India Company ruling the subcontinent in 1857 is considered a watershed in the history of both Britain and the subcontinent.

It came as a shock to the confident ruling company and forced the British government to take over its power to rule.

Some historians are of the view that for Britain it came as a greater shock than the loss of the American colonies and prompted reprisals that were later condemned widely.

Before the mutiny broke out it was known that the Company’s armies had been making preparations for the introduction of a new sort of ammunition for a new model of Enfield rifle.

This cartridge required to be torn open while being loaded so that the powder it contained could be poured down the barrel of the muzzle-loading gun. In the process, the soldier had to tear it with his teeth as his hands were full and then ram the bullet down the rifled barrel. The cartridges were greased with tallow that in the UK was made of beef and pork fat. The emotions of the sepoys were badly inflamed when they learnt of this method of greasing cartridges making the British mindful of the risks of issuing them but by then things got out of control.

The British were deeply suspicious of any communication in the subcontinent that they could not understand. The colonial administration well understood that rumours, however unfounded, could have serious consequences and there were plenty of notably more dangerous urban legends about.

One popular story, widely believed, suggested that the British were attempting the mass conversion of their subjects to Christianity by adulterating their flour with a bone meal from cows and pigs, which was forbidden to Hindus and Muslims.

In the consistently tense atmosphere, the British could not understand the hidden message behind the movement and distribution of many thousands of Chapatis—unleavened bread—that were passed from hand to hand and from village to village throughout the “mofussil” (interior) of the subcontinent.

The Chapatis were real but no one knew for sure what they were for. The British guessed that the breads were a piece of mischief-making on the part of the local elements though opinion was divided as to whether the breads came from the East, North or centre of the country.

Extensive inquiries into the meaning of the breads produced plenty of theories but few facts; even the runners and watchmen who baked them and carried them from village to village did not know why they had to run through the night with Chapatis in their turbans but they took them nevertheless.

Numerous explanations were considered. A few suggested that the Chapatis might conceal seditious letters forwarded from village to village, read by the village chief, again crusted over with flour and sent on in the shape of chapati to be broken by the next recipient but an examination of the bread revealed no hidden messages.

Some of the more knowledgeable British officials linked the spread of the Chapatis to an effort to prevent the outbreak of cholera in central India and added that, since the incidence of the disease was associated with the movement of the Company’s armies, there was a widespread belief that the British were, in fact, responsible for the disease. Another official suggested that the chapati movement had been initiated somewhere in central India by dyers, anxious that their dyes were not clearing properly or were the product of some spell-work aimed at protecting crops against hail.

All in all, the British were extremely spooked by the spread of the Chapatis. They considered their Indian empire vital for their interests but they had little British manpower to control the vast subcontinent.

They were just about 100,000 in all operating at a given time and half of them were soldiers. Such a small band was ruling over 250 million people through the dint of the local manpower they had trained as their army. Another difficulty was the declining number of British officers who understood the subcontinent, spoke local languages fluently or had any real sympathy for the people whom they ruled. The aloof colonial hierarchy remained perpetually jittery and closeted in specific areas outside main cities and towns. The Chapati movement created tremendous worries and the British could feel a certain disquiet in the early months of 1857.

As was later proved the message conveyed through Chapatis did have a sombre meaning and it helped in creating a furore that proved very damaging to the British company’s rule. A mutiny subsequently broke out in April 1857 that saw massive tumult in the subcontinent.

Though the British were successful in quelling the rebellion but it left deep scars on their psyche.

Fed by resentment born of diverse perceptions, including invasive British-style social reforms, harsh land taxes, summary treatment of some rich landowners and princes as well as scepticism about the improvements brought about by British rule, the mutiny was a massive indication of the resentment harboured by the locals against their rule.

Violence was inflicted on both sides and sometimes it was very cruel. Large cities and towns were laid to waste during and after the hostilities and changed the context of British rule for good.

This article originally appeared on The Weekender and has been reproduced with permission

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Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are solely of the author and do not represent ARY policies or opinion.