It is a 40 year war, waged relentlessly by poor peasants led by sanyasis clad in Bhagwa. It is a forgotten war, obscured by time and malicious history. It is a war ‘India’ refuses to remember. But we owe it to our patriots and to our unborn generations that this story be told, their sacrifices, remembered & the patriots respected.

Contrary to common historical narrative, 1857 was NOT Hindustan’s first war of independence from British rule. The first true war of independence was a 4 decade long war fought between 1763-1800 by the SANYASIS – sadhus & saints of Bengal. This war shook the new born British empire to its core & extracted a horrific price in blood from the new rulers of Hindustan.

But was the sanyasi revolt a new revolt? Or was it a continuation & expansion of an ongoing revolt against the last ruling islamist Nawab of Bengal, Siraj ud Daula? To answer this question let us look further back into the past. Let us go to that period in time when Siraj ud Daula ascended the throne (masnad) of Bengal. In 1756, Siraj ascended the throne upon death of his maternal grandfather, Alivardi Khan. While Alivardi Khan’s reign was marked by a grudging acceptance of all faiths within it borders, Siraj was cast in a different mold. He was greatly influenced by hardline islamists like Shah Waliullah and upon his ascension he let loose a reign of terror so brutal that in 1 year the Hindus of Bengal sought help from Jagat Seth Mahtab Rai who in turn petitioned and financed the British to overthrow the despot nawab. But during the years before Siraj’s rise to power his jihadists beliefs had already alienated a number of Hindu subject who had risen in revolt. The sadhus and sanyasis have for long been regarded as men of authority and in these sanyasis, the downtrodden, oppressed Hindus sought leadership. The peasants and working class Hindus were already up in revolt against the jihadist marauders of the nawab. Victory of British brought no respite and the oppression of the people only became widespread and pervasive.

THE THREE HARBINGERS OF DOOM

1. THE BRITISH EAST INDIA COMPANY

The East India Company had established itself in Calcutta in 1688 but the year 1765 was a landmark year in the history of India & the East India Company. It was in 1765 that the East India Company (EICo) established its first Diwani in Bengal. With this they became incharge of revenue collection and administration of the Bengal (Undivided Bengal, Assam, Orissa). Like a bull in a china shop the British, with their biblical beliefs of their innate superiority, set about dismantling the age old customs and economic systems. They destroyed the relationship that existed between the owner (zamindar) of the land and men who worked it (the ryot – farmer). The farmer paid his dues either in kind or cash….usually it was in kind (crop). The farmer supplemented his income with the sale of various items that he produced in the villages (Handicrafts). While paying his taxes the farmer would hold back a portion of the crop for his own use that he would either sell in open market, barter it for other useful items or consume it himself. This unique relation of the ryot with agriculture & handicrafts enabled him to live comfortably and a vibrant barter economy prevailed in the villages. But the British destroyed this system. They forced the ryot to pay his dues in cash. A bad situation was made worse by forcing the ryot to sell only to the East India Company. The company would by the crop at ridiculously low prices, force the farmer to pay (in cash) his tax to the company. With no food reserves left, the farmer was forced to buy food grains from the East India Company. The EICo would then sell the same food grains at ridiculously high prices to the poor farmers, impoverishing them further

Deprived of their crops, forced to buy back the crop at a premium and forcibly stopped from using their skills to make and sell handicraft items ruined the village economy. The perversion of the British did not stop even during the famine of 1770. They did not refrain from torturing the farmers to force them to pay their taxes even during the famine.

To worsen matters, the British continued the practice of taxing Hindu pilgrims. They even increased the taxes on religious pilgrimage which further curtailed the religious life of Hindus.

2. THE NAWABS – a STUDY IN OPPORTUNISM & RELIGIOUS HATE

During the later half of the 18th century, Bengal was not a peaceful place. Siraj-ud-Daula was a religious fanatic who hated the British as much as he hated his Hindu subjects. His religious bigotry antagonized both Hindu and British. His inexperience led him to overestimate his ability to fight the British forces. His successor, Mir Jafar was a bumbling idiot who antagonized the ascendant British EICo. This led to his removal from the masnad of Bengal and Mir Kasim was out on the masnad. After sometime, the EICo got frustrated by his corrupt incompetence and once again, replaced him with Mir Jafar.

Angered, Mir Kasim sought help from the Nawab of Oudh. Both of them attacked the EICo and at the Battle of Buxar (1764), Hector Munro finally defeated and affirmed British Rule in India.

3. THE FAKIRS

Muslim dervishes and maulvis were a privileged class and they were the third player in the cesspool of discontent, that was Bengal in the 18th century. Belonging to the faith of the rulers and employing power of religious authority over the rulers, the muslim fakirs, dervishes and maulvis were a power center unto themselves. These fakirs & dervishes provided manpower to the armies of the rulers. Call of Jihad given out by these sects would drive the normal muslim follower to take up arms against whosoever was branded a kafir. These fakirs were protected by law and no action could be taken against them. Violence against them was often punishable by death.

Example:- 1659, a sanad was granted to fakir Janab Shah Sultan Hasan Muria by Prince Shah Shuja enabling him to confiscate property, bear arms, force people to provide rations, money etc. No taxes could be charged. And they were protected by law. They killed the Hindu sanyasis, saints, ransacked temples and forcibly converted Hindus. Anyone who resisted was killed and no action could be taken against them. Even retaliation by sanyasis was prohibited. Th British continued with this system allowing the muslim dervishes to murder and maim Hindus, unchecked.

British revenue surveyor J.J. Pemberton described these fakirs as demi-barbarous prone to violence and beggars in name only

SANYASIS LEAD THE FIGHT BACK

The fightback of the poor downtrodden mass of impoverished brutalized Hindus was inevitable and it was the sadhus and sanyasis who provided the leadership. Emotionally wrecked, financially ruined and religiously persecuted the Hindus of Bengal were too broken to fight back or so the muslim overlords & british rulers thought. The roaming bands of Sadhus especially The Naga, The Giri & The Puri sects provided emotional support and succor. It was the sanyasis of these sects that took up arms against the muslim & British oppressors. The sanyasis of these sects provided the leadership to the oppressed Hindus and led them to rise against oppression.

The Revolt – The earliest records of concerted action by Sanyasis speaks of writings of Watt & Howitt (Revenue Surveyors – EICo). They reported attacks by Maratha forces accompanied by the Sanyasis on the treasuries of Kishenghur (Kishangarh) & Burdwan (Bardwan). They report concerted attacks on convoys of the John Company (EICo), preventing them from collecting taxes from farmers and also of punitive raids on camps of John Company. The bands of sanyasis mentioned in the reports are those of the Naga Sadhus. The EICo militia was chased away and forced to seek refuge in Calcutta (Kolkatta).

Another record (1763) written by Warren Hastings speaks of bands of Sanyasis travelling through the country side in Backergunge (Barrakgunj) and captured Hastings’ tax collector Mr. Kelly. He was released after great difficulty. Hastings sought action against the sanyasis but by the time forces could be mustered, the sanyasis had disappeared into the country side.

The same year is also know for the infamous siege of EICo’s Dacca Factory (Dhakka). The Dacca District Gazetteer mentions this siege prominently. The factory acted as headquarters for the EICo and stored the company’s treasures in its godowns. Following the attack on the convoy of Kelly, the sanyasis moved towards Dacca (Dhaka) and laid siege on the factory. The manager Ralph Leycester tried to fight but seeing the imminent danger of being overrun by the sanyasi led revolutionaries, he decided to abandon the factory. He tried to take with him the treasure stored their and left the sepoys without orders. The sepoys abandoned the factory and soon it was taken over by the sanyasis. The sanyasis allowed the surrendering sepoys to return home. The retreating manager had left the wounded along the way as he needed soldiers to carry the treasure. These wounded included English and Hindustani soldiers & non combatants. The sanyasis, in the time honoured traditions of Hindustan, treated them and allowed them to return to their lines/homes.

Another instance is of note – the attack on the factory at Rampur Boalia. The attack on this factory remains a mystery as to who attacked it. But the outcome makes clear as to the identity of the attackers. The factory was attacked, looted and its manager Bennett along with other Englishmen were taken prisoner and sent to Mir Kasim, who murdered them.

3 years after this was a period of relative calm. It was this period that the sanyasis tried to take on the Zamindars & English puppets who were as brutal as the British EICo. Sometimes skirmishes also happened between the mendicant Fakirs & Sanyasis. These were triggered due to the jihadist actions of these Fakirs – usually the followers of Majnu Shah & the Madary clan. Driven by religious zeal, these clans would attack the sanyasis and Hindu peasants. But sanyasis had taken up arms and took the battle to the strongholds of these jihadists.

Once again the revolt flared up in 1766. An EICo officer Captain Makenzie exploited the weak zamindars & the public in general. He would force the Hindu zamindars & landed farmers to take loans at exorbitant rates and then force them to pay back by imprisoning, torturing and looting the Hindu victims. The Sanyasis took up arms against him and they forced him to return back to Calcutta. Following this in 1766 Barwell, the company resident at Malda, sent his officer Martyel to the region to buy Fir Trees at easy rates. The exploitation unleashed by him forced the sanyasis to once again take up arms. They killed Martyel. In retaliation, the British sent an expeditionary force under the command of Captain Mackenzie. The sanyasis in the meantime had retreated into the forests of Jalpaiguri where they took refuge in an old mud fort. 1769 Lieutenant Keith got information of presence of sanyasis in the forests of Morung. He led his forces into the forest where in a fierce battle Keith along with his men were defeated and killed. This defeat shook the men of John Company to the core. The company supervisors of Dinajpur, Rangpur, Purania etc panicked and retreated to their forts. From there they sent out frantic messages to Calcutta for reinforcements.

It was now 1770 and the great famine was spreading fast on the once fertile plains of Bengal. As deprivation took hold the atrocities by the British also increased. The sanyasis (500) came out of their jungle abodes and laid siege on the Kandua ghat on Kosi river in Purania. The supervisor of the district G. G. Ducarel sent out his forces under command of Lieutenant Sinclair against the sanyasis. The sanyasis after a brief fight surrendered. The surrendered sanyasis were taken to the fort in Purania. Once inside the fort, the sanyasis claimed to be innocent pilgrims. As their interrogation was going on 5000 sanyasis attacked the fort. The sanyasis inside immediately took up arms and attacked their captors. Under attack from inside and outside the British were defeated and the fort was taken over by the sanyasis.

The stories are many. Each story is full of valor of the sanyasis – people who had renounced the world. The Naga Sanyasis were the legend that gave sleepless nights to the British. As I run short of space, I beg the readers indulgence as I leave so many tales untold.

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