Why Did Sikhs Side With The British During The 1857 Mutiny?
Sikhing Answers - XXVII
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TODAY'S QUESTION - # 27
Why did Punjab's Sikhs side with the British in helping them quell the 1857 Indian Mutiny - a rag-tag series of events which has been inflated by modern-day Indian jingoism and given the overblown and fictitious description of a 'war of independence'?
How does 1857 relate to the so-called Anglo-Sikh Wars - in which soldiers from the rest of the sub-continent outside Punjab helped the British conquer the Sikh Kingdom, the last free country in the region - which concluded a mere 8 years earlier with the annexation of Punjab to the Raj?
Posted on May 25, 2012
Closing Date: June 1, 2012
Conversation about this article
1: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), May 25, 2012, 2:37 PM.
We had the greatest honour and pleasure of hosting the eminent historian, Dr. Ganda Singh's stay with us for a week in Seremban (Malaysia) when he was invited as the first most eminent guest of honour by the then newly established Sikh Naujawan Sabha of Malaysia in the late 1960s. I happened to be among the founder members. One of the hot topics was the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny, because the Govt. of India had begun touting a dishonest notion on 15 August, 1957 (100 years after 1857!) that it had been the 'First Indian War of Independence'. I remember clearly Dr. Ganda Singh's words: "It was neither a war nor anywhere near anything related to a demand for independence, nor by any stretch of the imagination a first step to further any national cause!" His treatise - which remains the definitive word on the subject to date - is available on the following site: http://www.sikhspectrum.com/082004/1857_mutiny_g_s.htm This was published in The Sikh Review in August, 1972 (and published in booklet form as well). Nobody then or since has refuted Dr. Ganda Singh's research and findings. But that newly-minted and fraudulent notion is still being touted as a 'Gita truth' by the desis!
2: Sunny Grewal (Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada), May 25, 2012, 3:41 PM.
There were many reasons why the Sikhs did not join the mutineers (they were mutineers, by the way, not freedom fighters). Many of the Sikh chieftains were aghast at the idea of a Mughal ruler returning to the throne of Delhi, especially since the throne was only held nominally by the Mughals for the century preceding the mutiny. Also, many Sikh nobles had sought support for the British as a way to remedy their declining holdings which had been the result of the collapse of Sikh rule in Punjab. I remember when I was in Punjab a few years ago, chuckling to myself when I saw a statue in a chowk in Jagraon commemorating the mutiny.
3: Gobinder Singh (U.S.), May 25, 2012, 4:30 PM.
The 1857 Mutiny was primarily led by poorbia soldiers. It was not a battle for independence as touted these days. Sikhs or the Khalsa army of Ranjit Singh and Poorbias had hostility towards each other. Therefore, the Khalsa army was not going to support them. The Sikh Princely states (Jind, Nabha, etc.) were friends of the British and they were not going to join the poorbia mutineers against the British. In fact, Jind was the first state to send troops against the mutineers.
4: Kanwarjeet Singh (Franklin Park, New Jersey, USA), May 25, 2012, 5:18 PM.
History is written by those who win or those are in power. 1857 was not the first struggle for independence, in fact it was not even fought for independence as India was not even a country in 1857. There were hundreds of small principalities, fiefdoms and kingdoms on the subcontinent with the Mughals and Sikhs constituting the largest independent kingdoms. The only battles that were fought to maintain sovereign dominiance were the Anglo-Sikh battles - which, interestingly, were lost by Sikhs due to the treachery of the Dogra Hindus in Sikh employ, and their selling their souls to the Brits in the 1840s. 1857 was simply an uprising by pockets of sepoys, who were sporadically aided by a few local fiefdoms who wanted to further their own, respective interests.
5: R. Singh (Surrey, British Columbia, Canada), May 25, 2012, 7:19 PM.
60% of the Mughal forces were also Rajputs. I think that this would also be a reason why Sikhs sided with the British - they knew that they would be oppressed again if they sided with the mutineers.
6: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), May 25, 2012, 7:29 PM.
The Sikhs sided with British because the British knew how to value the Sikhs and respected their right to practice their faith. Moreover, the mutineers were Hindus and Muslims fretting over newly introduced bullet-munitions with greased paper casings which had to be bitten off so that the bullet could be discharged, and the grease was rumoured to be from cows and pigs! This was the sole reason why the mutiny actually happened, nothing else. Thus, it was religious and sectarian! ... the same sort of thing that Hindus and Muslims quibble over today. Nothing loftier than that, and certainly not over any concept of, or appreciation of the idea of independence!
7: R. Singh (Canada), May 25, 2012, 7:47 PM.
There is a lack of, or complete neglect of monuments pertaining to the Anglo-Sikh wars. Nor is there any real mention of them in history books, except to tell us how the war was lost. The tale of the treacherous Hindu betrayers of the Sikhs who were rewarded for their treachery by being given rule over Kashmir, provides the real self-explaning story as to why Sikhs could not have supported people who had gleefully co-opted with the British when it suited them.
8: Amarjeet Singh (Napier, New Zealand.), May 25, 2012, 10:21 PM.
The Sikh Kingdom was different from the rest of the subcontinent. As well, what the mutineers at the time did, i.e., massacre innocent British women and children (a la the "Black Hole of Calcutta" saga), was against the tenets of Sikhi. That is why the Sikhs did not side with them. Also, there was no valid basis for the mutiny; vested interests had started rumours regarding the cartidge grease, giving different fibs to different groups for the purpose of fomenting a rebellion, but in order to achieve their own selfish ends. Thus, for example, the Hindu sepoys were told the grease had cow fat, the Muslims that it had pork grease. Both, predictably, reacted in knee-jerk fashion. Sikhs refused to be drawn into their pettiness.
9: Dr Manjit Singh Saren (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), May 26, 2012, 5:50 AM.
I am in my 70s. I remember my late father mentioning that 1857 was not a fight for freedom, rather stemming from the dissatisfaction of using greased bullets using pork/cow fat. This angered the sipahis and hence the mutiny.
10: Jagjyot (Bilimora, Surat, Gujarat, India), May 26, 2012, 7:25 AM.
If we want the answer to this question, we have to go back 8-10 years before the events of 1857, when Punjab was being annexed by the British. The whole population of British India sided with the British in helping them conquer Punjab. The second reason is the Treaty of Lahore in which there was a provision for the return of power to Maharaja Duleep Singh when he attained the age of majority; it didn't make sense for Sikhs to be helping the very people who had assisted the British in the defeat of Duleep Singh's rule in the first place. Furthermore, 1857 was no more than a minor revolt, certainly not a war of independence! It was merely a conflict based on the religious sentiments of Hindu and Muslim soldiers. Finally, the specter of bringing back a Mughal to rule over them all was not acceptable to Sikhs even though it was convenient for the rest of the subcontinent.
11: Charandeep Singh (Chandigarh, Punjab), August 08, 2012, 12:52 PM.
1857 mutiny was to bring the Mughals back to the throne. Mughals were as alien as the British, and worse tyrants. How could Sikhs side with their old oppressors who believed in and practiced forced conversions, imposed unfair taxes as jaziya and were dead against Sikhs. It is said that in the jungles of Machhiwara, when all of Guru Gobind Singh's sons had been martyred, he had foretold the end of the Mughals.
12: Vinny Bains (USA), March 16, 2014, 1:44 PM.
Everyone brings up good points, but another vital reason why the Sikhs helped the British was because of their own ego in a way. The Sikhs of Panjab viewed themselves as better than the Bengali and Eastern Indians ('Poorbis"). Many simply wanted revenge because of the participation of the Poorbis during the Anglo-Sikh wars in aiding the British. Also, the 'mutiny' had a symbolic backing of the decaying Mughal Empire which the Sikhs had hostility towards.
13: Narindar Singh Dhesi (United Kingdom), March 26, 2014, 6:48 AM.
"The Sikhs in the background of their rule in Punjab and egalitarian tradition could hardly be expected to side with Muslim and Hindu princes to regain their kingdoms, nor could religious taboos which affected Hindu and Muslim sentiments, against many of which the Sikh Gurus had led a crusade, in any measure inflame Sikh sentiments." [Khushwant Singh]
14: K. Sekhar (Chennai, India), June 14, 2014, 10:16 AM.
The 1857 mutiny was disorganized, the mutineers indulged in mindless violence, many of the rulers who participated in it were retrogrades and both the Hindu and Muslim sepoys were engrossed in one-up-man ship ...
15: Amarjit Singh Gill (Kingston, Ontario, Canada), March 12, 2015, 4:13 PM.
1857 conflict started at Calcutta when one Sepoy Pandey revolted against the authorities and was shot. I am not going into reasons of this uprising as we all are aware of it. We must be clear in our mind that any military operations which are conducted are planned , organized and equipped well in advance before they can be launched. Even military campaigns against Guru Gobind Singh by the Hindu hill chiefs were organized and planned with the help of the Mughal rulers at Delhi. The 1857 mutiny by the local Indian units at various places was most unorganized and took the shape of a mob. There is no other term to describe this uprising other than to call it a mutiny. To call it the 'first war of independence' is a bit of a stretch. Without any command and control or leadership it was a mob robbing and murdering innocent British women and children. The rulers of various kingdoms of Punjab maintained small state forces (mostly Sikhs). Keeping in mind the state of communication, time and space, how could these Rajas launch their troops on hearing that some Indian troops from Ambala are heading towards Delhi to dislodge the British? In 1857 there was but a single telegraph line to Ambala and Simla. Since the uprising had nothing to do with Punjab, the Sikhs did not care who was fighting who as long it did not have adverse effect on their state. I don't think there is any other reason as to why the Sikhs did not take part in this uprising.
16: Gurpreet Singh (Bahrain), December 06, 2015, 6:58 AM.
Since Panjab was annexed just 8 years before. Moreover, the British were still in the process of taking full control of Punjab as there were rebels already fighting for lost freedom. Bhai Maharaj Singh was captured in December 1849 and sent to Singapore where he died in July 1856. There was no point for Sikhs to join the sepoys in the mutiny, because they had been instrumental in assisting the British in the annexation of Punjab.