The Flying Spark : The 1857 war for freedom

– Neena Mukherjee

#The Communication:

‘The Electric Telegraph has saved us.’ – Donald Macleod, the financial commissioner of Punjab province. 

#10th May 1857, Sunday

“Just as Charles Todd, the Assistant-in-charge of the Newly set up Telegraph office, and his two Eurasian signallers Brendishand Pilkington were about to finish work and retire for the day, Brendish noticed the movement in Telegraph needle. The unofficial message from Meerut mentioned about the tension in the 3rd Light Cavalry on account of the sentence that had been passed on the soldiers refusing to use the new cartridges. It also stated that eighty men had been imprisoned and were to be gunned down. This had caused considerable discontent among their fellow soldiers.

On re-opening the office Todd discovered that the line to Meerut had been severed. They could signal back to the Delhi office but not towards Meerut.

#The cantonment under siege:

‘The Mutineers from Meerut – 3rd Light Cavalry- had cut off communication with Meerut, taken possession of the bridge of boats. 54th Native Infantry sent against them refused to act. Several officers killed and wounded. City in a state of considerable excitement. Troops sent down but nothing known yet.’

It was the last transmission from Delhi. Later that afternoon the signaller at Ambala noticed the telegraph needle moving as if someone was trying to send a message. From Ambala the news of the Delhi outbreak was flashed to Lahore, the capital of Punjab.

By enabling the authorities at Lahore to disarm the Native Troops before they had heard of the Meerut mutiny, the telegraph message played a key role in the preservation of British India. If Lahore had fallen to the rebels, Punjab, where the majority of the European troops were stationed, had been lost and British India might not have endured.”

The Fall of Awadh in 1856 February came as the last straw. The uneasiness simmering in homes, streets and bazaars of India among the common people came to forefront. Enough of atrocities, famines, poverty and subjugation under foreign rule, it had evoked a craving for independence like no other times.

Under the leadership of Nana Saheb, Laxmi bai and Tantya Tope and the flag of old Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar as a figure head, the movement started taking shape.

The underlying unrest among the Indian soldiers in British Army gave momentum to the movement. The proclamation of Badshah to become Shia in order to get support from Shah of Iran was published in local pamphlets and newspapers which sent the wave of excitement in people. They started discussing the onslaught of soldiers to take over the Redfort of Delhi in suppressed tones.

To start a revolution the seed of freedom has to be sown and nurtured in the minds of common people, the need to act only comes from the mind set to revolt. The people, who had lost sense of pride and independence needed to be awakened from their painful slumber. 

The Sanyasis and Maulavis, the Minstrels, the Bhikshusstarted going to public gatherings and soldier barracks to evoke the flame of independence. Just as Temples and Mosques were used as centres of mass communication, the teachers, gurus and preachers were also not left behind in spreading the fire. 

Poems and local songs were used by women to convey messages while doing their household chores or cutting grass. The local Vaidyas and also conveyed messages very easily while treating their patients. The public dancers – the Nautch girls and the prostitutes, who came in direct contact with British soldiers were a good source of information and used their art of dancing and singing to pass on the messages. 

Manki Bai in 1857 spreads message:

तोहे कोई मरद न समझि लै रे

पिया जल्दी मे मुछिया मुडाय लै रे

मोर लहंगा-चुनिरयां पहिर लै रे

पिया बैरिन से बदला चुकाई लै रे

The British officers, under the influence of alchohol enjoy dancing on the song while Manki Bai slips a note written by Rani Laxmi Bai in the hands of Indian soldiers.

Another song by local women:

बाँध ले बिस्तर फिरंगी राज अब जाने को है

जुल्म काफी कर चुके पब्लिक बिगड़ जाने को है ।

सुंदर सुभूमि भारत के रहे रामा

अब उन्हे कईले महान रे फिरंगिया

The soldiers played a vital role in 1857 First War of Independence. The cartridge issue had already created During the day they used to clean their guns, perform their assigned duty in the colonizer’s uniform, the arrival of night saw them gathered at a secret spot to pledge their lives for the nation. Some times a little flicker of doubt instigated their British officer to dis-arm them, they utilized those days to go to various soldier camps to deliver ‘Vachan-patras’. All these pledge letters in coded language, although illegible to others, conveyed the message clearly to the receiver.

It was a common knowledge that British officers raided postoffices to open letters received and written by soldiers. Thus, utmost care was taken while writing and sending the letters.

#The Red Lotus:

In such times of secret messaging, the red lotus, the symbol of purity and light, became the symbol for invoking fire of freedom amongst people. The soldiers from different barracks greeted each other with “Sabkuchh laal Hoga”; this secret greeting not only enthused the other person with bravery, it also had deeper meaning.

Nana Saheb and Tantya Tope were monitoring the movement secretly. Beginning of 1857 Nana visited Delhi, met the leaders there and inspected the on-going preparations satisfactorily. 

Lucknow was the centre of all activity while Delhi waited patiently. 

On 18th of April Nana came to Lucknow. That morning Lucknow witnessed throwing a shower of mud balls on the carriage of Chief Minister Sir Henry Lawrence by common people. Had Nana come there specially to plan and execute this act to the perfection? With this arose a wave of confidence and excitement all over the region. 

While the leaders sketched plans, drew maps and directed such activities, the messengers found new ways to convey messages and lit the fire in the hearts of each Hindustani. 

#The Chapati Movement:

The chapatis had already been successfully used during the uprising in Vellore almost fifty years back. Once again, the Chapati movement caught momentum. The chapatis became the wordless messengers, the birds without wings, that flew from one place to another, from one hand to another without being noticed. No one knew from where these chapatis made of wheat flour or Bajra, came and where they went, but as soon as anyone laid hand on it, his blood flow accelerated, he felt a hyperphysical sensation in his veins and became a part of the movement. Thousands of chapatis were carried and changed hands every night, travelling up to 300 kms. From the banks of Narmada up to Nepal, from Farrukhabad, Awadh to Delhi via Rohilkhand, to every village, city and even police outposts.

Every village-head received chapatis, he would take a bite from it and pass it on to the rest of the villagers. Then they made equal number of chapatis and sent to the next village, thus invoving all in the unknown secret mission.  

The Runners who carried Chapatis through jungles, crossing rivers and dark paths were themselves clueless of the message and its purpose but the urgency with which these were distributed convinced everyone that something important was going to happen. 

The movement first came to notice in February 1857. Upon being caught, the British soldiers tore each chapati to bits and pieces to unearth the plan but found nothing, not a word written nor a script conveyed through it, they were just left in a tizzy. The confusion multiplied to find out that most often the chapati runners were the police chowkidaars. It is estimated that there were around 90,000 police men who were engaged in this ordeal. 

For about two years before May 1857 this Lotus and Chapati movement puzzled the British officers. In March 1857, Dr.Gilbert Hadow, an Army Surgeon, wrote a letter to his sisterin Britain, 

“There is a most mysterious affair going on throughout the whole of India at present, No one seems to know the meaning of it. It is not known where it originated, by whom or for what purpose, whether it is supposed to be connected to ant religious ceremony or whether it has to do with some secret society. The Indian papers are full of surmises as to what it means. It is called the Chapati Movement.” 

10th May 1857 saw the country rise and revolt against the atrocious British Rule. The uprising continued for a year and a half and shook the foundation of East India Company.  What is the truth of Revolt of 1857? Was it just a Sepoy Mutiny as propagated by the British reports? Or was it a well-planned operation that could have changed India’s history? 

The book ‘Operation Red Lotus’ by Parag Tope, direct descendent of Tantya Tope, the executive master mind of 1857’s war of independence, goes on to prove that it was a very detailed, planned attempt to free India from the clutches of British colonizers. As does the then banned book By Veer Savarkar on the subject and many other recent researches. 

But alas, the movement could not attain its intended goal and it pushed India’s independence to another 90 years of colonial rule.



The Indian Mutiny – Saul David

Indian War of Independence 1857 – Vinayak Damodar Savarkar

Bharat mei Angrezi Raaj -2 – Sunder Lal 

1 Comment
  1. Swapan Mukherjee 8 months ago

    Extremely well documented about such an ingenious system of communication 👏

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