In Pragati: Book Review – Operation Red Lotus by Parag Tope

In late 1856, some strange practices began to surface in parts of north India. Red lotus flowers were circulated in garrisons which housed the Native Infantry. The subedar would line up the troops and then hand a flower to the first soldier, who would hold it and pass it down the line. The last one would leave the station with the flower. Elsewhere, a runner took a bundle of chapatis to a village and handed it to the chief or sentry, with instructions to send the chapatis on to the next village under English rule. In the midst of these lotus and chapati incidents, the soldiers’ slogan would change from “everything will become red” to “everything has become red.” Other unusual events included the announcement of an important yagya in Mathura (which never took place), and the habit begun by many women of offering their rolling pins to the river Ganga.
These signs were noticed by the British—Benjamin Disraeli even raised the question of the travelling chapatis in Parliament—but were dismissed as Indian superstitions.
These abnormal occurrences, ignored by almost every historical narrative on the 1857 uprising, assume significance when seen in the light of an important question: How did the Indian troops travel over a million miles, in the early months of the war, without a supply line? In a regular war, there were three camp followers for each soldier, but once the soldiers mutinied in 1857, who fed them? Case in point: How did the 17th Native Infantry march 140km from Azamgarh to Faizabad in just five days?
The answer may seem straightforward: The villagers fed the soldiers. However, there was an intricate strategy underlying the initiative. To feed thousands of soldiers, each village (comprising of a few hundred people) needed an approximate count. The count was provided by the lotus flowers, while the chapatis and the rolling pins were the means used to confirm the commitment of the villagers. The Mathura yagya was a ruse to facilitate the travel of priests who doubled as spies.
Thus, the Anglo-Indian War of 1857 was initiated by leaders who planned the war, conducted internal and external reconnaissance, and recruited soldiers—with the help of civilians.
Parag Tope’s Operation Red Lotus—through the analysis of instances such as the use of red lotuses and chapatis—fills the gaps and corrects the myths about the events of 1857. Relying on eyewitness accounts written in Marathi and letters in Urdu and Bundeli, Mr Tope, a fourth-generation descendent of Tatya Tope, sheds new light on the momentous event. Add to it his analysis of troop movements, supply lines, and logistics—and the tale of the 1857 Anglo-Indian War comes to life in hitherto untold, dramatic fashion.
The triad of freedoms
The leaders who spearheaded the 1857 operation included Nana Saheb, his Diwan, Tatya Tope, Begum Hazrat Mahal, and the Nawab of Banda. In 1858, Sitaram Baba, a priest in Nana Saheb’s court was arrested by the British. Baba confessed that the conspiracy had been initiated by Baija Bai Shinde two decades earlier, and that the real planning had started three years before. He also revealed information about the runners who had gone to each regiment, and the connection between the lotuses and chapatis. Letters, translated for the first time in this book, reveal that Tatya Tope was aware of military movements, logistics and provisions.
“It is important to note that the rising was neither planned nor stimulated by any patriotic move”, wrote Gregory Fremont-Barnes in Indian Mutiny 1857-58 (2007). What Fremont-Barnes and many other Indian historians often fail to mention is that the leaders of the 1857 revolt had a clear vision for the future. After the uprising’s initial success, Bahadur Shah Zafar made a proclamation, read by his grandson in Azamgarh. The proclamation promised a triad of invaluable freedoms: Political, personal and economic.
The crony-capitalist state run by the British East India Company had destroyed the free market system in India. Heavy taxation was the norm, while prices were enforced with the threat of punishment. Manufacturing capabilities were crippled, and the agricultural sector lost the ability to shield the country from the threat of famines. Due to India’s asymmetrical role in the global network, even as the country’s share in the world’s GDP fell from 25 percent to 12, Britain’s share doubled.
On the social front, William Bentinck’s educational policy, based on Macaulay’s Minute, destroyed the private education system that had previously created a society more literate than that of Britain. In a letter to his father, Macaulay claimed that if the new education policy was implemented, there would not be a single idolater left in Bengal.
Even the legal framework was skewed—Indians wanted freedom from missionaries who were working with the Government, and laws which favoured Christians.
By promising the triad of freedoms, the leaders were not advocating a novel or revolutionary idea. They were reverting to the foundations of the Indian polity, which not only guaranteed political, social and economic freedom, but kept them separate as well. In other words, the ruler did not act as a trader, but created an environment suitable for trade.
Fractional Freedom
Mr Tope argues that although the initial uprising was brilliantly planned and co-ordinated, the war was lost due to two reasons. Firstly, the British used their women and children as human shields, which resulted in gory incidents such as the Siege of Cawnpore. Secondly, they resorted to the use of extreme brutality—leaving aside their usual pretences to civilised behaviour—citing the case of Cawnpore (Kanpur).
Recognising the supply lines for the soldiers, British officials attacked those villages through which the chapatis were passed. A law was passed to allow the hanging of even those whose guilt was doubtful. British troops under Havelock and Neill did a death march, killing women, children, infants and the elderly. Sepoys were ritually stripped of their caste by having pork and beef stuffed down their throats before execution.
In books such as The Great Indian Mutiny (1964) by Richard Collier, or The Last Mughal (2008) by William Dalrymple, the British officials’ use of violence is regarded as a reaction to the carnage that took place in Kanpur. However, Mr Tope points out that the government’s brutality was unleashed even before that. British historians recorded that “guilty” villages were “cleared” so that India could be saved from anarchy.
In 1857, the strategy of violent repression was used by the British to secure time to redeploy troops from other countries to India. It was during this time that Tatya’s tenacity became evident. After establishing a command centre in Kalpi, he set up factories for producing ammunition, guns and cannons.
Despite the prospect of imminent defeat, Tatya worked to raise an army, and inspire civilians. When the British took over Delhi, the battle ground was moved to central India. When Rani Laxmibai, who grew up with Tatya, was held under siege, he created a diversion to help the Rani escape. Following the Jhansi massacre, the Indian chieftains who supported Tatya backed down, but he came up with a new strategy—to raise rebellions in regions where the spirit of freedom was strong.
The battles are explained with numerous maps, painstakingly plotted with English and Indian troop movements—a useful tool to interpret the events, and grasp the thinking behind the strategy. The maps, coupled with the detailed narrative and critical analysis, provide a valuable resource to better appreciate the holistic nature of the 1857 uprising.
Upon realising that the 1857 war had ignited the desire for total freedom, Queen Victoria dissolved the East India Company and transferred all powers to the Crown. In her proclamation, she did not give India political or economic freedom, but made an important concession: The English would no longer interfere with the native religions. Even Fremont-Barnes’ apologia acknowledges that successive viceroys took greater heed of India’s religious sensitivities. It was an important victory, writes Mr Tope, for it prevented large scale British settlement in India, and stemmed the destruction of Indian traditions.
The fight continues
Nevertheless, the signature elements of the 1857 uprising—secret messages, planning, and mass murders—were repeated again. In 1932, freedom fighters were warned of danger by Hindu women, who blew on conch shells when they spotted a policeman—the sound was relayed for miles by a network of women.
Madhusree Mukerjee records instances of a different nature in her Churchill’s Secret War (2010). During World War II, when the Japanese army reached Indian borders, Leopold Amery, secretary of state for India, wondered if it was necessary to revive ruthless punishments of 1857 to prevent a possible uprising. Winston Churchill’s policies, argues Ms Mukerjee, resulted in a famine in which three million Indians perished. Mr Tope describes the events of February 19, 1946, when 78 ships, going from Karachi to Chittagong, changed their name from HMIS (His Majesty’s Indian Ships) to INNS (Indian National Naval Ships) in a co-ordinated move.
Coming back to 1857: Why is it that Baija Bai Shinde’s 20-year conspiracy, Nana Saheb’s planning or Tatya’s Tope’s contribution do not feature prominently in our history books? This probably has to do with the historiography of the event. In the official version written a century later by Surendra Nath Sen, the 1857 War was seen as a spontaneous uprising by “conspirators”. Historian R C Majumdar questioned if it could even be called a “war” since India was not a nation, while Marxist historians connected the revolt to peasant uprisings in Bengal.
This reluctance to deviate from the colonial narrative 150 years after the war and 60 years after obtaining political freedom is a telling sign about the state of historical study in India.
India’s proclamation of independence six decades ago has to be contrasted with the triad of freedoms promised in the Azamgarh proclamation. To the leaders of the newly independent polity, Indian traditions of the past did not guide the future. Their socialist mindset led to state control over education and restricted economic freedom, with the state itself becoming a trader—all of which had disastrous consequences.
Looking back, we know what our leaders tried to build and failed, but as well, what they knocked down.
(This version appeared in the February 2011 edition of Pragati)

14 thoughts on “In Pragati: Book Review – Operation Red Lotus by Parag Tope

  1. “The leaders who spearheaded the 1857 operation included Nana Saheb, his Diwan, Tatya Tope, Begum Hazrat Mahal, and the Nawab of Banda.”
    Perhaps it’s time to call these people founding fathers rather than those that are presented currently although the latter “founding” was really a continuation of imperial law.

  2. A true eye-opener. How many mis-perceptions our textbooks and neo-establishment historians perpetuate. I’d never heard of the organizing and planning by Nana Saheb and Tatya Tope earlier.
    I think Indian History will remain full of hidden things, nuggets and treasures for a long time. Instead of ruminating over official history, our time is better spent extracting or stumbling upon such nuggets.

  3. Thanks for this post.
    What Fremont-Barnes and many other Indian historians often fail to mention is that the leaders of the 1857 revolt had a clear vision for the future. After the uprising’s initial success, Bahadur Shah Zafar made a proclamation, read by his grandson in Azamgarh.
    Firstly, is there any text available of the Azamgarh deceleration? Preferably on the Internet?
    Secondly, does any historian of 1857 argue that “the leaders of the 1857 revolt had a clear vision for the future”? I doubt it. While Zafar, being the Mughal emperor, was obviously a natural national symbol, to be honest, a deceleration by a baad shaah who wasn’t even in complete control of his own palace during the mutiny means precious little.

  4. Also, I’m very curious to know how this declaration got passed the Brits and their rampage post the Revolt. Most sources in Delhi and Lucknow at least were completely destroyed, to the best of my knowledge.

  5. Varnam – thanks for reviewing Operation Red Lotus.
    Hades – here are some thoughts related to your questions.
    Azamgarh declaration. Don’t think it is on the internet. The declaration was made on August 25, 1857. The English translation was published in the Delhi Gazette in October 1857 (Delhi had fallen in September). Very few books cover this. Charles Ball’s book published shortly after the War presents the English translation in its entirety.
    “HIstorians.” Not sure I understand what you mean. Do you mean whether they support the idea that Indian leaders had a clear vision? The question is do they even acknowledge that there were leaders? “Historians” on 1857 either are the Victorians or their loyalist Indian followers (Sen/Majumdar)- who either call it a “mutiny” or some variation. Mutinies by definition cannot have civilian leadership… and according to these “historians” Indian leaders were driven by “petty” concerns and they saw an “opportunity” in the “mutiny” for their personal benefit. The marxist/subalterns that emerged in the last few decades, have packaged 1857 as a “people’s war.” Both these categories, from their very nature of their prejudices ignore the significant role of the leaders. A simple evidence of their selective history writing is the complete lack of consideration of simple things such as logistics. Indian troops marched over a million miles in the early months of the war (see the interactive maps on Was a subhedar, who led no more than 25 men, capable of planning the troop movements and their logistics of over 58,000 men who marched the million man miles? SOMEONE did… the answers are in the red lotuses and chapatis.
    Bahadur Shah was “dotard.” Baija Bai was “petty” , “vexatious”. Nana Saheb’s father was “wicked.” These are phrases used by “esteemed” historians to describe the men and women who led the Indian war. One hardly can expect “historians” to be objective about the real role the Indian leaders played!
    About Bahadur Shah’s alleged inability to manage his palace. What about Zail Singh in the 1980s? Did it really matter? Bahadur Shah was a figurehead emperor, akin to the president of modern India. This was the model that was setup by Mahadji Shinde in the 1700s when the Mughal throne became a symbol and nothing more. All personal attacks on Zafar are moot and nothing more than irrelevant character assassination.
    How did the declaration get past the English. By August 1857, large parts of north India and central india were free with fully functional Indian run governments in place. The 125 urdu letters translated in the book demonstrate the functions played by these governments. Awadh, where this declaration was made, was largely under Indian control. The English counter-offensive during this period was limited to the east and the ganga-yamuna doab corridor.
    See the troop movement maps here.
    Parag Tope

  6. Parag,
    Located the declaration. This link contains the text of the ishtihaar in addition to commentary by Ball (in which he puts the unfair annexation of Awadh and the treatment meted out to the Royal Family as a major cause which is interesting given how so many British sources seek to trivialise the reason for the Revolt as nothing more than driven by barbaric religious practices).
    And the ishtihaar is fascinating I’ll admit, largely because it acknowledges the people—and here I specially refer to the section on the emancipation of artisans—as important enough to be appealed to in the first place. The appeals to religion and holy men—both Islam as well as Hinduism are included by the princeling—are interesting as well.
    And while it does promise economic betterment for all and sundry, right from the zamindar to the artisan, I at least could not locate any political or personal freedoms being offered. The ishtihaar in fact promises a return to Mughal rule as well as reassuring zamindars that they will have “absolute rule” in their own zamindaari (this 2nd point might be less damning in the original Urdu though).
    And of course if it was published in the Delhi Gazette then the farangi did not even want to destroy it; which to me is odd.
    Regarding the larger point of the characterisation of leaders. It is interesting that RC Majumdar and the subalterns agree on something. But yes that was my point: there is a remarkable confluence of opinions on the fact(?) that the leaders of 1857 did not have a vision. I’m not so sure charactering this as a “prejudice” would help explain it though. And while the Azamgarh declaration is fascinating, maybe it was too local to have any proper impact on how we would characterise the leaders? Unless, there are any similar prounoncements from Delhi, Lucknow etc.
    About the marching logistics, I’m afraid I’ll have to read up a bit more to agree or disagree with you there. I am OTOH a somewhat acquainted with the Delhi theatre of the Revolt and one of the main reasons for why Delhi fell as quickly as it did was precisely because of the lack of any strong, intelligent military leadership. The sepoys had no experience actually planning/directing battles and of course the rest of the Dehlee citizenry had no experience with anything. This is also why the sieges in Lucknow/Kanopur lasted as long as they did in spite of the overwhelming numerical superiority of the sepoy/Hindustani forces.
    I find your point about Zafar being the ‘figurehead” interesting. As the events of 1857 point out, there was certainly an astonishing amount of goodwill for the Timurid Dynasty. It’s an interesting ‘what if’ if we assume that the revolt would have succeeded. And of course, I was mounting no personal attack on Zafar. 🙂 Even though you predate the emasculation of the Mughals—I think till 1748 Delhi was still able to hold its own, even if only just, against the Duranni Empire—there is no doubt about the fact that in 1857 all the poet had left to cling onto was his name.

  7. Hades –
    There are several broader aspects that you point to which reflect the existing context of the various narratives on 1857. ORL changes the context – My best suggestion would be for you to read ORL.
    Here are a troop movement table from the appendix of the book that might help you start your journey to look beyond the Majumdars/subalterns/dalrymples et al…
    Drop me a line at paragtope at gmail dot com any time.
    Parag Tope

  8. May be, Indian novelists should start working on fictions related to alternate history. Only then a critical analysis of events in Indian history would be demanded and such hidden gems would appear in the light. So far our history reading is simply limited to reading a bunch of dates and names – heck, even telephone directory is more interesting. Only a critical analysis of why the events occurred the way they occurred can help us understand history’s lessons…. at least the history of last few centuries.
    People like jk should help there, if we keep relying on JNU types all we would get is the same rehashing of Marxist crap which is neither original nor ground-breaking.

    1. our history, post briton era has been written by marxists/nehruvian/socialists/liberalist who had a vested interests..what you can expect from them? they even forced us to accept TURK as a native indian rule and must give respect to iltutmish, khilji, adil shah we pay respect to LORD RAM,KRISHNA,shivaji, bhoj raja, krishna deva raya..must accept mullahs in line with shankracharyas etc..

  9. This different [true-r] representation of events and leaders, with insight and values, corrects ‘his-story’ based on vested interests; especially in these times and in the context of ‘brown-british’ managers of economical interests, devoid of moral and/or spiritual substance, having replaced the ‘white-british’ who call themselves political leaders.

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