In Pragati: The missing prophets of 1857

The ruins of Sikandar Bagh palace showing the skeletal remains of rebels in the foreground, Lucknow, India, 1858
The ruins of Sikandar Bagh palace showing the skeletal remains of rebels in the foreground, Lucknow, India, 1858

From the late eighteenth century to mid-nineteenth century, as the world changed through conquest, colonialism and capitalism, a set of people rose around the world, reacting against such changes. Ironically, global historians – historians who look beyond regional and local causes – call these men prophets in an ode to Abrahamic religions. During this period of encounters and social changes, these charismatic leaders revitalised traditional ways and reorganised societies to challenge foreign institutions and ideas. Garnering support of broad swaths of society, they promised to restore lost harmony, bring in a new moral order, and a bright future. While global historians were able to find leaders for such movements in China, Middle East, United States, Mexico and Europe, they missed the leaders of the First War of Independence in India and fell back on the same old narratives.
As we look at examples from around the world, we get to see some of the qualities and methods of these leaders who influenced fields as diverse as economics, politics and religion. Due to encounters with the Western world, new ideas circulated in the Islamic world and alarmed by the lax religious practices and attempts by rulers in Saudi Arabia and sub-Saharan Africa to model their administration along European lines, leaders arose to return Islam back to its pure form. In Saudi Arabia, this led to the rise of Wahhabism under the leadership of Ibn abd al-Wahhab (1703 – 1792) whose work still influences the modern world. In West Africa, Usman dan Fodio (1754 – 1817) too attacked unbelievers and false religions and his movement led to Islam becoming a majority religion in the Nigerian region.
 Tecumseh portrait

During this period, leaders also provided political leadership and created larger states from tribal clans. As Africa became overpopulated and there was competition for cattle-grazing and farming lands, small family clans found themselves overwhelmed. This traditional structure which had existed for centuries could no longer cope with the changes brought by long distance trade. It was the right moment for a cruel and powerful leader like Shaka (1787 – 1828) to rise up, wipe out other clans and unite the winners into a large monarchy, which in turn led to the creation of the Zulu kingdom. In the United States of America, Native Americans had to compete for land with the European colonisers who forcefully took over their land. As a reaction, groups under leaders like Tenskwatwa (1775 – 1836) and Tecumseh (1768 – 1813) exhorted their followers to renounce European goods and shun the missionaries. They tried to forge unity among native Americans, but were eventually betrayed by the British and left to perish.
In China, after a humiliating defeat in the Opium War that forced the country to open other ports to foreign merchants, there rose a fear of western power. During that period, as the rulers became inefficient, masses of people joined what is known as the Taiping Rebellion, motivated by a Christian leader named Hong Xiuquan (1813 – 1864). Like the Islamic leaders in Saudi Arabia and Nigeria, his goal was to return China to an era before it was corrupted by human conventions. Their war was not against the Europeans, but against the Chinese leaders who they thought were the main obstacle in obtaining God’s kingdom on earth. Hong came up with a radical new system which basically countered all the established Chinese traditions, but in the end it was defeated.
Analysis of these prophetic movements across the world show that whenever there is a structural change – in religion or rebellions – it is triggered by a leader. These revolutions were not accidents, but the result of planned action by certain individuals who inspired the masses through messages, symbols and charisma. In the pantheon of prophets we see leaders like Jacinto Pat and Cecilio Chi who led the Mayans in 1847 by blending Christian rituals with Mayan beliefs, Charles Fourier who had a utopian socialist vision and Karl Marx who inspired many nations and their leaders with this theory of proletarian revolt. While many such movements were defeated, the ideas they created lived longer.
 Tantya Tope,  after his capture in 1859
Wikipedia says this picture is Tantya Tope, after his capture in 1859, but this is a fake(See note 2)

When global historians evaluate the “Rebellion of 1857” in this context, it is mentioned as an uprising which was sparked by the greased cartridge controversy. Compared to the other global revolutions, this one was not triggered by any prophet, but was a spontaneous uprising or mutiny and it was after the uprising happened that leaders came up. But if one asks questions like how thousands of Indian soldiers marched successfully to Delhi without a supply line, it is evident that something is missing from the known narrative.
New, as well as ignored evidence now tell us that the Anglo-Indian war of 1857 was a carefully planned operation. Leaders like Baija Bai Shinde, Nana Saheb and his Diwan Tatya Tope, Begum Hazrat Mahal, and the Nawab of Banda were involved in the planning using red lotus flowers and chappatis to count the number of soldiers and ensure the commitment of the villages along the army path. Letters translated for the first time in Parag Tope’s “Operation Red Lotus” reveal that Tatya Tope was aware of military movements, logistics and provisions.
Global historians alone cannot be blamed for this lapse because Indian historians themselves have not accepted this view. Then, misrepresentation of the war of 1857 is not new. Depending on the bias of historians, it had many interpretations. According to the official version by Surendra Nath Sen, it was a spontaneous uprising. Marxist historians marginalised the leadership and saw it as a peasant revolt. Another Indian historian wondered how it could be a war at a time when India was not a nation. Now we know that the leaders of the war of 1857 used symbols (red lotus) and messages (Azamgarh proclamation) similar to the prophets of China and USA, and promised a new moral order where people would have political, religious and economic freedom.
Thus, the Anglo-Indian war of 1857 doesn’t have to be relegated to a secondary status in the global prophetic narrative as it satisfies the criteria met by the others.

  1. This was adapted from an assignment I did for “A History of the World since 1300”  by Princeton University. It was first published at Pragati
  2. Personal communication with Parag Tope


  1. Tignor, Robert, Jeremy Adelman, Stephen Aron, Stephen Kotkin, Suzanne Marchand, Gyan Prakash, and Michael Tsin. Worlds Together, Worlds Apart: A History of the World: From 1000 CE to the Present (Third Edition).W. W. Norton & Company, 2010.
  2. Tope, Parag. Tatya Tope’s Operation Red Lotus. Rupa & Co., 2010.

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