Daily Archives: 2 March 2020

1857: Uprising as Class Warfare

From The Last Mughal, by William Dalrymple (Knopf Doubleday, 2006), Kindle pp. 154-155:

Whatever its causes, the response to the Uprising fractured along distinct class lines. From the morning of 11 May onwards, the most enthusiastic insurgents among the people of Delhi were the workmen of the lower middle class—especially the Muslim weavers and textile merchants—and the same Punjabi Muslim manufacturing and merchant class who had long supported the mujahedin movement. It was these people who immediately swelled the ranks of the initially very small number of sepoys who had arrived in the Mughal capital, creating a panic and allowing many of the poorer Delhiwallahs to set off on an orgy of looting.

In contrast, the Delhi elite, both Hindu and Muslim, remained divided on the merits of joining the Uprising, and were from the start dubious about playing host to large numbers of desperate and violent sepoys from the east of Hindustan. According to one angry eyewitness, the nobleman Abdul Latif: “The teachings of all religions were ignored and violated; even the poor women and children were not spared. The elite and the respected gentry of the city were appalled at the actions [of the insurgents] and were seen pleading with them. Ah! An entire world was destroyed, and as a result of these sins this city was struck down by the evil-eye.” Ghalib was also quite clear that he didn’t like the look of what was happening: “Swarming through the open gates of Delhi, the intoxicated horsemen and rough foot soldiers ravished the city,” he wrote. …

For Ghalib, the Uprising was more about the rise of the rabble of the lower classes than it was about the fall of the British. For him the most terrifying aspect of the revolution was the way his own courtly elite seemed to have lost control to a group of ill-educated ruffians of dubious ancestry: “Noble men and great scholars have fallen from power,” he wrote,

and nameless men with neither name nor pedigree nor jewels nor gold, now have prestige and unlimited riches. One who wandered dust-stained through the streets as if blown by an idle wind, has proclaimed the wind his slave … In its shamelessness the rabble, sword in hand, rallied to one group after another. Throughout the day the rebels looted the city, and at night they slept in silken beds … The city of Delhi was emptied of its rulers and peopled instead by creatures of the Lord who accepted no lord—as if it were a garden without a gardener, and full of fruitless trees … The Emperor was powerless to repulse them; their forces gathered around him, and he fell under their duress, engulfed by them as the moon is engulfed by the eclipse.

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