«In the Azamgarh district of UP there is a village called Majhauwa, which is predominantly inhabited by Dalit castes like Chamar, Pasi, Dhobi, Mali ...»
Identity and Narratives:
Dalits and memories of 1857
In the Azamgarh district of UP there is a village called
Majhauwa, which is predominantly inhabited by Dalit castes
like Chamar, Pasi, Dhobi, Mali and so on. Next to a narrow
footpath inside a field in this village there are four cemented
stones. These are called Shahid Baba by the villagers. The
Dalits of this village worship these stones with red powder;
they pour water on them and offer home-made sweets like ‘thekua’, etc. as a form of worship on them regularly. All newly married brides of these castes visit the Shahid Baba’s stones to offer prayers at them for their future happiness. On enquiring about the history of these stones, the village school master who is a Chamar by caste said that four Chamars of this village laid down their lives during the 1857 rebellion. These four men started appearing in the dreams of the villagers and conveying messages saying that if they prayed to these four martyrs they would all prosper. Since then they have been incarnated as gods in the eyes of the villagers, who constructed shrines in their memories and began to pray at them for happiness and prosperity.1 Around the village Shahapur in Arrah district of Bihar, a deity called Rajit Baba is worshipped by some lower caste communities of that region. His thaans (memorial stones) are usually found under peepal trees which are decorated with red loin cloths, red flag, red powder marks, incense sticks, home made sweets and so on. People of the villages pray for the fulfillment of their wishes at the thaans and after they are fulfilled, offer prasad there. It is said that Rajit Baba became a martyr while fighting against the British during the 1857 rebellion. He then became a god incarnate.2 These are only two examples which show how, in various regions of north India, martyrs of the 1857 rebellion belonging to lower castes have become integral components of the lives of the Dalits living there. This fact is interesting since a perusal of the mainstream academic history of the 1857 revolution shows that the role of the dalits is not even acknowledged in it. But the two examples given above show that they have given god-like status to their own heroes of the 1857 rebellion. Even today in many villages of north India where the revolution was concentrated one can find stories and myths popular among the dalit communities, centering around the 1857 revolt. For example, there is one myth that is narrated in the village Janaidih in Bihar which was an important center of the revolt. The story goes that there was once a man called Raghu Chamar in the village who was very skilled at using the katta (an indigenous knife like instrument). He was a soldier in Kunwar Singh’s army and fought against the British in the 1857 revolt, in which he lost his life. The day he died, the seeds of a guler tree, which is still there in the village, sprouted, but although the tree grew into a thick, tall one, no Guler flowers have ever been seen on it. However, the villagers believed that exactly at the stroke of midnight on full moon nights, one single flower is seen blooming on the tree. Many people claim to have seen it over the years, which has helped to establish the authenticity of this story.3 Another story that is popular among the dalits in the villages adjoining Bithoor in UP is that of Ganga Baba, a
local hero of the 1857 revolt. The story goes like this:
Gangu Baba was a youth living in a nearby village. It was said that he was so strong that he could change the course of rivers and chop off the heads of mountains. He could fight against two tigers together. Gangu Baba was as kind as he was brave. If he saw a hungry person he would give him his own bread to eat. If he saw someone shivering in the cold he gave his own blanket to wrap.
People also say that if he heard a deer crying at night he used to get so upset that he would go to the forest and break the bones of tigers. Although he was born in a low caste poor family, he commanded great respect in the village. Rich and influential landlords used to leave their chairs to embrace him.
Once Gangu Baba was returning from the forest with a dead tiger on his back, which he had killed unarmed single-handed. Just then Nana Saheb Peshwa, the king of Bithoor, passed by with his army. At that time Nana Saheb Peshwa had already blown the bugle of the battle against the British. When he saw the strapping young man walking nonchalantly with a tiger on his back, he stopped him and asked him to join his army. Gangu Baba was very happy to hear this. He joined the army and while there he once alone killed nearly 150 British soldiers with his sword. This enraged the British, who tried their best to catch him dead or alive. After immense efforts they succeeded in capturing him. Then the cruel British officers tied him to the back of a horse and dragged him all the way to Kanpur, which was a long way away. There they killed him by hanging him from a neem tree in Chunniganj, Kanpur. 4 This is the story of Gangu Baba, the brave youth of Bithoor, whose story is part of the oral history of the region about the 1857 revolt. To make sure that the story remains for posterity, the dalits of the region raised enough money to commission a statue of Gangu Baba.
The statue is installed in Chunniganj, where he had been mercilessly killed by the British as a punishment for his brave act of killing so many of their fellowmen.5 The existence of such kinds of myths centering around dalit heroes of the 1857 revolt and the deification of many of them proves that there is a wide gap between people’s history and mainstream academic history writing in which dalits have not been acknowledged as agents and actors of the revolution who decided the course of the events that took place at that time. Their role in the revolution has been mentioned in passing by saying that they functioned as soldiers, stick wielders and guards of the feudal landlords and kings like Rani Laxmibai, Tatya Tope and Nana Saheb Peshwa, who were the persons chiefly in command of the revolution.
However, a reconnaissance of many villages of north India shows that the 1857 episode is still quite popular among many dalit castes. 6 The rebellion was concentrated in the north Indian Gangetic belt beginning from Delhi to Bengal. It began in Meerut on 10 May after news spread that the garrisons in Delhi had revolted and expelled the British. It soon spread to other parts of UP like Aligarh, Etawah, Mainpuri, Etah and so on (Mukherjee 2001: 65). In this way it moved to other parts of UP and Bihar like Kanpur, Awadh, Banaras, Azamgarh, Gorakhpur, Gonda, Bahraich, Sitapur, Ghazipur, Sultanpur, Western Bihar and finally to Bengal. In Upper India it was more in the form of a turbulent agrarian upheaval gathering together a wide variety of discontents.
The rebellion commanded extensive popular support, especially in Oudh, throughout the North Western Provinces and western Bihar. Sepoy discontent was an essential ingredient of the rebellion but the mutiny derived its strength from the civil population (Metcalf 1990: 60). Peasants, political sadhus (Pinch 1996: 9), local kings and most importantly the conservative sections of society, who had suffered greatly under the British rule, became united against fighting colonialism.
The British Government put up a stiff resistance to the rebellion. Their retribution was harsh and deadly. Village after village were burnt or felled with cannon balls to quash the rebellion. Thousands of rebels were hung from gallows and an equally large number were hung from trees as instant punishment. The rebellion left a deep imprint in the minds of the common people that was very different from the scanty recorded history of that period. Recorded history only told the stories of rich feudal landlords, and kings and queens like Rani Laxmibai and Tantya Tope, but the stories of unsung heroes who played their role behind the curtain of written history were circulated only in oral history in rural north India, especially among the marginalised dalit castes and communities.
Dalits and Memories of 1857
The Dalits have an emotional link with the 1857 War of Independence for they believe that it was initiated by them.
They claim that the Soldier Revolt by the mostly Dalit Indian soldiers in the British Army that took place in Jhansi in 1857, snowballed into the War of Independence. It was a War of Independence since the Dalits were fighting for their motherland rather than to gain power. The War was led by Bhau Bakshi and Puran Kori and with them was Jhalkaribai who fought bravely against the British for the sake of her motherland (Dinkar 1990: 62). The Dalit narrative of the first freedom struggle is filled with stories about brave women martyrs belonging to suppressed communities like Jhalkaribai, Avantibai, Pannadhai, Udadevi and Mahaviridevi (Dinkar ibid: 27). According to them, the 1857 War of Independence, which the elites claim was started by Mangal Pandey, was actually inspired by Matadin Bhangi. The story is narrated in such a manner that Matadin Bhangi emerges as the source of inspiration for the revolt.
Their narrative is as follows:
'There was a factory in Barrackpore where cartridges were manufactured. Many of the workers of this factory belonged to the untouchable communities. One day one of the workers felt thirsty. He asked a soldier for a mug of water. That soldier was Mangal Pandey. Mangal Pandey, a Brahmin, refused him water because the worker was an untouchable. This was very humiliating for the worker. He retaliated to the Brahmin soldier saying, " Bara awa hai Brahaman ka beta. Jin kartuson ka tum upayog karat ho, unpar gaaye or suar ki charbi lagawal jaat hai, jinhe tum apan daatun se torkar banduk mein bharat ho. O samay tomhar jati aur dharam kahan jawat. Dhikkar tumhare is brahmanatwa ka " [You claim to be a highly respectable Brahmin, but the cartridges which you bite with your teeth and insert in your guns, are all rubbed with the fat of cows and pigs. What happens to your caste and religion then? Curse on your Brahminism]' 'Hearing this soldier was taken by surprise. That untouchable was none other than Matadin Bhangi, who opened the eyes of the Indian soldier and ignited the first spark of India's independence in the Cantonment. The words of Matadin Bhangi spread like wildfire through the Cantonment. Very soon the torch of independence was lighted. On the morning of 1 March 1857, Mangal Pandey broke the line during the parade. Accusing the British of hurting their religious sentiments, he started firing indiscriminately at them. This was the moment when the first battle lines against the British were drawn.
Mangal Pandey was arrested in an injured condition.
He was court-martialed, and in 1857 he was hung from the gallows before all the soldiers. Mangal Pandey's sacrifice became an inspiration for all the soldiers. On 10 May 1857, the floodgate of the independence movement burst in Barrackpore in which many brave sons of India became martyrs. In the chargesheet that was made, the first name was that of Matadin Bhangi, who was later arrested. All the arrested revolutionaries were court-martialed.
Matadin was charged for treason against the British.' (Dinkar op cit : 37).
Nath (1998: 12) in his book ‘1857 Ki Kranti Ka Janak:
Nagvanshi Bhangi Matadin Hela’ also narrates a similar story in which Matadin Bhangi has been claimed to be the father (janak) of the 1857 rebellion. In these narratives, Matadin Bhangi is presented as the moving force behind the 1857 Revolt. They also try to show how the forward class refused to hand a glass of water to the untouchables although they bit cartridges rubbed with cow's fat. Thus, these narratives, along with a description of the nationalist movement, questions the hierarchical structure of the Indian society. The rigid structure in which the untouchables are not allowed to go near the forward castes because of their low birth and ritual ‘dirtiness’ has been strongly criticised. To prove the historicity of this event, a book written by one Shri Acharya Bhagwan Deb called ‘The immortal revolutionaries of India’, has been quoted by Dinkar (Dinkar op. cit.: 38).
The memory of Matadin Bhangi and his contribution to the nationalist movement is celebrated in a number of ways by the Dalits. Many songs have been composed in his honour that are sung in rallies and functions, both cultural and political. Plays are staged at commemorative functions held in his honour in towns and villages. Special issues of magazines are brought out with articles by eminent writers highlighting his contributions. A fortnightly newspaper Dalit Kesri published a special issue on the 1857 Revolt 7 in which the lead article was on Matadin Bhangi. Anarya Bharat, another Dalit newspaper that is published from Mainpuri in UP, brought out a special feature on the contribution of Dalits to the 1857 Revolt. In all these publications they projected Matadin Bhangi as a pioneer of the First War of Indian Independence. Himayati, a Dalit literary magazine, in its May 1996 issue celebrating the memory of 1857 published a special feature and lead article on the contribution of Matadin Bhangi. Dr. Sohanpal Sumanakshar wrote very strongly in the same issue that the first person who sowed the seed of the 1857 revolution was Matadin Bhangi but unfortunately historians have forgotten his contribution. 8 In this manner, the elite nationalist history has been subverted by the Dalits in their favour. Kuar Singh, Tatya Tope and Nana Saheb do not figure in the Dalit narrative of the 1857 freedom struggle. The people who figure are Jhalkariibai, Udadevi, Avantibai, Mahaviridevi, Pannadhai, Chetram Jatav, Ballu Mehtar, Banke Chamar and Vira Pasi, who were born in the lower stratas of society. Although the elite nationalist heroes are not negated, they are completely ignored. Their emphasis is on the sacrifice of the Dalit martyrs for the nation in spite of their low birth and poor socio-economic status. Their brave confrontation with the British has also been highlighted. The story of Balluram Mehtar and Chetram Jatav has been described in the
'Although the dalits were born in the lowest caste of the Indian caste hierarchy and suffered great hardship because of their poor socio-economic status, they never sold themselves for their country. No one can accuse a single dalit of doing so. Whenever the need arose, they sacrificed their lives for their motherland.