The year 1857 shook India’s political and social scenario forever. And to this day, the repercussions vibrate through our cultural fabric.
Indians, who had joined the British Army, had revolted against their officers and a full-scale mutiny was in effect.
But this was not the first mutiny that the British had to face in India. Half a century ago, the Englishmen had already experienced something on similar lines, but at a much smaller scale. It was then that they realised how important it was to break the back of India’s unity.
In the 16th century, the Vijaynagara kings built a stronghold in the town of Vellore, that now lies in the state of Tamil Nadu.
It was later ruled by the Bijapur kings and when it came under the control of the Marathas, they strengthened it further, making it one of the most strategic forts in the region.
In 1750, the fort went under the control of the East India Company, after passing through the hands of the Mughals. When Tipu Sultan was killed, his sons, daughters, wife, and mother were imprisoned in this fort. Even the last king of Sri Lanka was imprisoned here with his entire family for 17 years, till 1815.
In 1806, this fort became the epicentre of an uprising. Early that year, the Commander-in-Chief of the Madras Army, General John Craddock, issued an order regarding the uniform of the native soldiers. He ordered that the hair must be trimmed and beard shaved.
This irked the Muslim soldiers. At the same time, he also prohibited any religious marks on the body, making Hindu soldiers wearing the tilak extremely uncomfortable.
Then came the real deal-breaker. The headgear was to be replaced with the English hard-hat, made of leather.
Hindus were aware that cow leather was used to make the hat. They refused to remove their turbans and a few Muslim soldiers also joined their brothers in protest.
The rebels were summoned to Fort Saint George, Madras, and punished publicly with lashes. The incident shook every soldier to core. Sons of Tipu Sultan, who were captive at the Vellore Fort, used this opportunity to provoke others to raise their voice against the atrocities of the East India Company.
On July 9, 1806, one of Tipu Sultan’s daughters got married. The conspirators used the wedding celebrations to enter the fort and hid there till midnight.
The Madras Units were also by a stroke of luck required to sleep inside the fort on the same night. At sunset, the gates of this strong fortification were closed for outsiders.
Two hours after midnight, the sepoys attacked the English barracks. They killed 14 officers of the three Madras infantries and 115 men of the 69th Regiment of Foot. As the first ray of the sun touched the massive ramparts of the Vellore Fort, most Englishmen, including the commander of the fort, were killed or gravely wounded.
A small surviving group was confined to one corner, while the mutineers had taken most of the fort. At dawn, the flag of Mysore was raised from the fort and Tipu’s second son, Fateh Hyder, was declared King.
In the midst of all this, Major Coopes, a British officer, managed to escape and reach Arcot, 26 km away. A small group of British soldiers from arcot left for the fort, with more joining the force later on the way.
The mutineers were not able to stand the sudden attack and around 350 were killed. Another 100, who survived the early fireworks, were made to stand against the wall and shot on the spot.
A similar number of sepoys were either wounded, or caught, trying to flee the fort, and tried in the court later.
In days to come, the three Madras battalions involved in the mutiny were disbanded. The order related to the change in uniform was cancelled and the governor of Madras was recalled and the royals of the Mysore family were transferred to Calcutta.
The East India Company declared that they would never interfere with the religious customs of the Indian sepoys. However, this turned out to be one of the early examples of fake news.
Strengthened by the knowledge how united Indians are despite their diverse beliefs, the British realised that the only solution was to instigate a religious divide.
This, they were sure, would ensure Indians keep fighting among themselves and never bother the administration again.
What worked in the favour of the British—who ended up ruling India for almost a century—is now keenly followed by many as a sure shot way of maintaining the status quo.
The divide-and-rule policy that the British pushed driving a wedge in the cultural fragment of India has had a far-reaching consequence. Even in 2020, we are witness to many moments that take us back to one of the gravest ills the British brought on to this country.
Author, Educator, Heritage Activist Twitter: @DelhiHeritage