1857 in the Eyes of Marx and Engels

Arindam Sen

Even as we celebrate its 150th anniversary, a consistent and more or less unified appraisal of 1857 continues to elude India’s historians and the broader intellectual community. Whereas sections of them, both on the left and on the right, see it mainly as a feudal reaction, some others call it simply a “sepoy mutiny”. Also there is no dearth of so-called ‘balanced views’. Consider for example EMS Namboodiripad’s assessment in an article reprinted in the recent special number of People’s Democracy on1857:
“1. In the sense that it was the sepoys who played the main role in the anti-British revolt, it was a sepoy mutiny.
2. However, behind the ‘sepoy mutiny’ lay the intense discontent of the people. Therefore, when the sepoys rose in revolt (in certain areas even before the mutiny started), the rural poor revolted against the rulers who were ruining their lives, and against the nouveau riche who were fattening themselves with the backing of the rulers. … In this sense, the struggle of 1857-59 (at least insofar as the regions mentioned above) was a popular rebellion.
3. Except in this limited area, however, there was not only no popular support for the struggle, but it faced the opposition of the educated new generation, who stood behind the British government. For this reason one cannot say unequivocally that what took place in 1857-59 was the “first struggle for independence” as claimed by the government and the nationalist political leaders and historians. 
We have also to specially mention here that a predominant section of Indian soldiers stood with the British in 1857-59 to suppress the revolt and they outnumbered many times the sepoys who rose in revolt. … The bourgeois nationalists and nationalist historians are shutting their eyes to this truth when they characterise the 1857-59 struggle as the “first struggle for independence.””
In sharp contrast to this lingering confusion (not to deny the existence also of positive appraisals) stands the sparklingly clear and insightful assessment Marx and Engels made of the event right at the moment of happening. “The present Indian disturbance is not a military mutiny,” they asserted, “but a national revolt, of which the Sepoys are the acting instruments only.”   They had never been to India, and they had no contacts with the insurgents here. They did not have at their disposal even a fraction of the details available to us today and had to rely almost exclusively on the British press and parliamentary reports, which were extremely biased against “the mutineers”. And even from these scanty and partial facts they laboured to dig out the truth in a very convincing way. They narrated the progress of the struggle not as passive observers, but with the optimism of participants, much in the spirit of critical appreciation that would mark their later writings on the Paris Commune.
The holistic approach
Marx and Engels discussed the colonial question in general and 1857 in particular from the perspective of world revolution — as part and parcel of the national liberation struggle unfolding in the middle of the 19th century in many Asian countries like Persia, China, Afghanistan. Four years ahead of the uprising, Marx visualised the possibility of a national liberation movement in India overthrowing British rule:
“The Indians will not reap the fruits of the new elements of society scattered among them by the British bourgeoisie, till in Great Britain itself the now ruling classes shall have been supplanted by the industrial proletariat, or till the Hindus themselves shall have grown strong enough to throw off the English yoke altogether.”
The close link between revolutions in the colonial and metropolitan countries is brought out here in bold relief.
The great respect for India and Indians goes hand in hand with a deep hatred towards colonial invaders:                                           
“The profound hypocrisy and inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilization lies unveiled before our eyes, turning from its home, where it assumes respectable forms, to the colonies, where it goes naked.” (The Future Results of British Rule in India)
Basic causes and immediate context
Naturally, Marx and Engels saw the Indian uprising as a popular outburst against this oppression and exploitation, to which they referred again and again in numerous writings in early and late 1850s. According to Marx, 1857 was basically an attempt “to expel foreign conquerors who have so abused their subjects”. He cites the report of the Torture Commission at Madras and says:
“The universal existence of torture as a financial institution of British India is thus officially admitted, but the admission is made in such a manner as to shield the British Government itself. In fact, the conclusion arrived at by the Madras commission is that the practice of torture is entirely the fault of the lower Hindu officials, while the European servants of the Government had always, however unsuccessfully, done their best to prevent it. In answer to this assertion, the Madras Native Association presented, in January, 1856, a petition to Parliament, complaining of the torture investigation on the following grounds: 1. That there was scarcely any investigation at all, the Commission sitting only in the City of Madras, and for but three months, while it was impossible, except in very few cases, for the natives who had complaints to make to leave their homes; 2. That the Commissioners did not endeavor to trace the evil to its source; had they done so, it would have been discovered to be in the very system of collecting the revenue; 3. That no inquiry was made of the accused native officials as to what extent their superiors were acquainted with the practice.
“The origin of this coercion,” say the petitioners, “is not with the physical perpetrators of it, but descends to them from the officials immediately their superiors, which latter again are answerable for the estimated amount of the collection to their European superiors, these also being responsible on the same head to the highest authority of the Government.”
Shortly afterwards, Marx returns to the subject:
“However infamous the conduct of the Sepoys, it is only the reflex, in a concentrated form, of England’s own conduct in India, not only during the epoch of the foundation of her Eastern Empire, but even during the last ten years of a long-settled rule. To characterize that rule, it suffices to say that torture formed an organic institution of its financial policy. There is something in human history like retribution: and it is a rule of historical retribution that its instrument be forged not by the offended, but by the offender himself.
The first blow dealt to the French monarchy proceeded from the nobility, not from the peasants. The Indian revolt does not commence with the Ryots, tortured, dishonored and stripped naked by the British, but with the Sepoys, clad, fed, petted, fatted and pampered by them. To find parallels to the Sepoy atrocities, we need not, as some London papers pretend, fall back on the middle ages, not, even wander beyond the history of contemporary England. All we want is to study the first Chinese war, an event, so to say, of yesterday. The English soldiery then committed abominations for the mere fun of it; their passions being neither sanctified by religious fanaticism nor exacerbated by hatred against an overbearing and conquering race, nor provoked by the stern resistance of a heroic enemy. The violations of women, the spittings of children, the roastings of whole villages, were then mere wanton sports, not recorded by Mandarins, but by British officers themselves.
Even at the present catastrophe it would be an unmitigated mistake to suppose that all the cruelty is on the side of the Sepoys, and all the milk of human kindness flows on the side of the English. The letters of the British officers are redolent of malignity….” (The Indian Revolt)
While the unbearable tax burden and extortions prepared the ground of popular rebellion over the decades, an immediate provocation came in the shape of certain changes in the methods of rule, particularly in the role of the native army:
“With the conquest of Sindh and the Punjab”, wrote Marx in The Revolt in the Indian Army,the Anglo-Indian empire had not only reached its natural limits, but it had trampled out the last vestiges of independent Indian States. All warlike native tribes were subdued, all serious internal conflicts were at an end, and the late incorporation of Oudh proved satisfactorily that the remnants of the so-called independent Indian principalities exist on sufferance only. Hence a great change in the position of the East Indian Company. It no longer attacked one part of India by the help of another part, but found itself placed at the head, and the whole of India at its feet. No longer conquering, it had become the conqueror. The armies at its disposition no longer had to extend its dominion, but only to maintain it. From soldiers they were converted into policemen, 200,000,000 natives being curbed by a native army of 200,000 men, officered by Englishmen, and that native army, in its turn, being kept in check by an English army numbering 40,000 only. On first view, it is evident that the allegiance of the Indian people rests on the fidelity of the native army, in creating which the British rule simultaneously organized the first general centre of resistance which the Indian people was ever possessed of. …”
Drawing on Benjamin Disraeli’s speech in the British Parliament, Marx pointed out:
“Until the last ten years, he affirmed, the British empire in India was founded on the old principle of divide et impera — but that principle was put into action by respecting the different nationalities of which India consisted, by avoiding to tamper with their religion, and by protecting their landed property. The Sepoy army served as a safety-valve to absorb the turbulent spirits of the country. But of late years a new principle has been adopted in the government of India — the principle of destroying nationality. The principle has been realized by the forcible destruction of native princes, the disturbance of the settlement of property, and the tampering with the religion of the people.”
In the face of growing financial difficulties, the East India Company took recourse to annexation of independent native principalities and Kingdoms in violation of officially recognized treaties. This enraged a section of the propertied classes and it led to increased hardships for the masters of annexed. “Mr. Disraeli ends the list of forcible annexations with Oudh, which brought the East India Government in collision not only with the Hindus, but also with the Mohammedans.”
Marx further quotes Disraeli to expose the various methods of usurping the properties and incomes (like pensions) of native estate holders and concludes, after Disraeli, that
 “the present Indian disturbance is not a military mutiny, but a national revolt, of which the Sepoys are the acting instruments only.” (The Indian Question)
Character of the insurrection
The above observation was repeated by Marx in other articles too:
“At Benares, an attempt at disarming a native regiment was resisted by a body of Sikhs and the Thirteenth irregular cavalry. This fact is very important, as it shows that the Sikhs, like the Mohammedans, were making common cause with the Brahmins, and that thus a general union against the British rule, of all the different tribes, was rapidly progressing….
By and by there will ooze out other facts able to convince even John Bull himself that what he considers a military mutiny is in truth a national revolt.” (Dispatches from India)
The militant unity of the people cutting across religious lines was regarded as highly important:
“It is the first time that sepoy regiments have murdered their European officers; that Mussulmans and Hindus, renouncing their mutual antipathies, have combined against their common masters; that “disturbances beginning with the Hindus, have actually, ended in placing on the throne of Delhi a Mohammedan Emperor” (Marx in The Revolt in the Indian Army)
“As to the talk about the apathy of the Hindus, or even their sympathy with British rule, it is all nonsense. The princes, like true Asiatics, are watching their opportunity. …It is a curious quid pro quo to expect an Indian revolt to assume the features of a European revolution.”
And further:
“the great difficulties the English meet with in obtaining supplies and transports – the principal cause of the slow concentration of their troops – do not witness to the good feelings of the peasantry.” (Ibid)
In the article “Annexation of OudhMarx focuses once again on the broad popular involvement:
“…let us hear what pretexts – grounds we cannot call them – Lord Canning, in the name of the British Government, sets forth for this unheard-of proceeding:First, “The army is in possession of Lucknow.” Second, “The resistance, begun by a mutinous soldiery, has found support from the inhabitants of the city and of the province at large.” Third, “They have been guilty of a great crime, and have subjected themselves to a just retribution.” In plain English: Because the British army have got hold of Lucknow, the Government has the right to confiscate all the land in Oudh which they have not yet got hold of. Because the native soldiers in British pay have mutinied, the natives of Oudh, who were subjected to British rule by force, have not the right to rise for their national independence.
The above quotes, particularly the phrase italicised by us, leave no doubt whatsoever that Marx and Engels considered 1857 as an uprising/war (at least in one place Engels actually described it as “the war in India”, as we shall see below) of national independence and not simply as a reaction of disgruntled feudals. The overall picture that emerges from their running commentary, so to say, is one of a war of national independence, with the peasantry and artisans as the main motive force, the sepoys as the military core and organised the vanguard of the uprising, and the princes and feudal chiefs divided in their opposition/allegiance to the British Raj.
On the ups and downs, twists and turns
“... the rebels at Delhi are very likely to succumb without any prolonged resistance”, wrote Marx in the first article he penned on the topic ( The Revolt in the Indian army, June 30, 1857). In the very next article, however he writes:
“... the fall of Delhi, though it may throw consternation among the ranks of the Sepoys”, will not “suffice either to quench the rebellion, to stop its progress, or to restore the British rule.” (The Revolt in India)
Gradually the situation seemed to turn in favour of the soldiers occupying Delhi:
“The delay in the British operations has not only allowed the besieged to concentrate large numbers for the defence, but the sentiment of having held Delhi during many weeks, harassed the European forces through repeated sallies, together with the news daily pouring in of fresh revolts of the entire army, has, of course, strengthened the morale of the Sepoys.” (State of the Indian Insurrection)
Anyway, the British recaptured Delhi in late 1857 and Lucknow in early 1858. Engels described the new situation in May 1858 in the following words:
“In spite of the great military operations of the English in the capture first of Delhi and then of Lucknow, the successive headquarters of the Sepoy rebellion, the pacification of India is yet very far from being accomplished. Indeed, it may be almost said that the real difficulty of the case is but just beginning to show itself. So long as the rebellious Sepoys kept together in large masses, so long as it was a question of sieges and pitched battles on a great scale, the vast superiority of the English troops for such operations gave them every advantage. But with the new character which the war is now taking on, this advantage is likely to be in a great measure lost. The capture of Lucknow does not carry with it the submission of Oudh; nor would even the submission of Oudh carry with it the pacification of India. The whole Kingdom of Oudh bristles with fortresses of greater or less pretensions; and though perhaps none would long resist a regular attack, yet the capture of these forts one by one will not only be a very tedious process, but it will be attended with much greater proportional loss than operations against such great cities as Delhi and Lucknow.
But it is not alone the Kingdom of Oudh that requires to be conquered and pacified. The discomfited Sepoys dislodged from Lucknow have scattered and fled in all directions. A great body of them have taken refuge in the hill districts of Rohilkhand to the north, which still remains entirely in possession of the rebels. Others fled into Gorakhpore on the east – which district, though it had been traversed by the British troops on their march to Lucknow, it has now become necessary to recover a second time. Many others have succeeded in penetrating southward into Bundelkhand.” (The Revolt in India)
As he pointed out in his next article, written a fortnight later,
“The insurrection, it is true, has lost most of its capacity for pitched battles; but it is far more formidable in its present scattered form, which compels the English to ruin their army by marching and exposure. Look at the many new centres of resistance. … (The British Army in India)
Within a month or so, Engels could write with renewed optimism,
“The war in India is gradually passing into that stage of desultory guerrilla warfare, to which, more than once, we have pointed as its next impending and most dangerous phase of development. The insurgent armies, after their successive defeats in pitched battles, and in the defence of towns and entrenched camps, gradually dissolve into smaller bodies of from two to six or eight thousand men, acting, to a certain degree, independently of each other, but always ready to unite for a short expedition against any British detachment which may be surprised singly. The abandonment of Bareilly without a blow, after having drawn the active field force of Sir C. Campbell some eighty miles away from Lucknow, was the turning point, in this respect, for the main army of the insurgents; the abandonment of Kalpee had the same significance for the second great body of natives. In either case, the last defensible central base of operations was given up, and the warfare of an army thereby becoming impossible, the insurgents made eccentric retreats by separating into smaller bodies. These movable columns require no large town for a central base of operations. They can find means of existence, of re-equipment, and of recruitment in the various districts in which they move; and a small town or a large village as a centre of reorganization may be as valuable to each of them as Delhi, Lucknow, or Kalpee to the larger armies. …
While Campbell was thus engaged on the frontiers of Rohilkhand, Gen. Hope Grant marched his troops backward and forward in the South of Oudh, without any result, except losses to his own force by fatigue under an Indian Summer’s sun. The insurgents were too quick for him. They were everywhere but where he happened to look for them, and when he expected to find them in front, they had long since again gained his rear. Lower down the Ganges, Gen. Lugard was occupied with a chase after a similar shadow in the district between Dinapore, Jagdishpore and Buxar. The natives kept him constantly on the move, and, after drawing him away from Jagdishpore, all at once fell upon the garrison of that place. …
Thus the whole district from the Himalaya to the Bihar and Vindhya mountains, and from Gwalior and Delhi to Joruckpore and Dinapore, is swarming with active insurgent bands, organized to a certain degree by the experience of a twelve months’ war, and encouraged, amid a number of defeats, by the indecisive character of each, and by the small advantages gained by the British. It is true, all their strongholds and centres of operations have been taken from them; the greater portion of their stores and artillery are lost; the important towns are all in the hands of their enemies. But on the other hand, the British, in all this vast district, hold nothing but the towns, and of the open country, nothing but the spot where their movable columns happen to stand; they are compelled to chase their nimble enemies without any hope of attaining them; and they are under the necessity of entering upon this harassing mode of warfare at the very deadliest season of the year. (The Indian Army)
Insurgents’ Weaknesses
Their great enthusiasm for the Indian uprising did not, however, prevent Marx and Engels from pointing out the weaknesses and mistakes of the heroic fighters. Between them Engels was considered more knowledgeable on military matters and so, upon Marx’s request, the former took up the pen more often in analysing the later phase of the struggle. Towards the end of the article from which we have just quoted, Engels talks of the absence of good cavalry as a major weakness in a vast country like India and adds:
“Beside the organization of cavalry, there are two more points of importance. As soon as the cold weather sets in, guerrilla warfare alone will not do. Centres of operation, stores, artillery, intrenched camps or towns, are required to keep the British busy until the cold season is over; otherwise the guerrilla warfare might be extinguished before the next summer gives it fresh life. … Secondly, the fate of the insurrection is dependent upon its being able to expand. If the dispersed columns cannot manage to cross from Rohilkhand into Rajpootana and the Mahratta country, if the movement remains confined to the northern central district, then, no doubt, the next winter will suffice to disperse the bands, and to turn them into dacoits, which will soon be more hateful to the inhabitants than even the pale faced invaders.” (Ibid)
This he wrote in early July 1858 and in mid-September went ahead with the following critical comments:
“If it was the interest of the British to rest during the hot weather, it was the interest of the insurgents to disturb them as much as possible. But instead of organizing an active guerrilla warfare, intercepting the communications between the towns held by the enemy, of waylaying small parties, harassing the foragers, of rendering impassable the supply of victuals, without which no large town held by the British could live — instead of this, the natives have been satisfied with levying revenue and enjoying the leisure left to them by their opponents. Better still, they appear to have squabbled among themselves. Neither do they appear to have profited by the few quiet weeks to reorganize their forces, to refill their ammunition stores, or to replace the lost artillery. The bolt at Shahganj shows a still greater want of confidence in themselves and their leaders than any previous defeat. In the mean time, a secret correspondence is carried on between the majority of the chiefs and the British Government, who have after all found it rather impracticable to pocket the whole of the soil of Oudh, and are quite willing to let the former owners have it again on reasonable terms. Thus, as the final success of the British is now beyond all doubt, the insurrection in Oudh bids fair to die out without passing through a period of active guerrilla warfare. As soon as the majority of the landholders come to terms with the British, the insurgent bodies will be broken up, and those who have too much to fear from the Government will turn robbers (dacoits), in the capture of whom the peasantry will gladly assist.
South-west of Oudh the Jagdishpur jungles appear to offer a centre for such dacoits. These impenetrable forests of bamboo and underwood are held by a party of insurgents under Amar Singh (younger brother of the legendary Kunwar Singh – A Sen), who shows rather more activity and knowledge of guerrilla warfare; at all events, he attacks the British whenever he can, instead of quietly waiting for them. If, as it is feared, part of the Oudh insurgents should join him before he can be expelled from his stronghold, the British may expect rather harder work than they have had of late. These jungles have now for nearly eight months served as a retreat to insurgent parties, who have been able to render very insecure the Grand Trunk Road from Calcutta to Allahabad, the main communication of the British.” (The Revolt in India)
Towards the end of the same article, Engels admits that collapse of the organised resistance is near at hand, but even then he does not miss the rays of hope:
“…for the present, the British have reconquered India. The great rebellion, stirred up by the mutiny of the Bengal army, is indeed, it appears, dying out. But this second conquest has not increased England’s hold upon the mind of the Indian people. The cruelty of the retribution dealt out by the British troops, goaded on by exaggerated and false reports of the atrocities attributed to the natives, and the attempt at confiscating the Kingdom of Oudh, both wholesale and retail, have not created any particular fondness for the victors. On the contrary, they themselves confess that among both Hindus and Mussalmans, the hereditary hatred against the Christian intruder is more fierce than ever. Impotent as this hatred may be at present, it is not without its significance and importance…”
Our cursory survey of the first Marxist appraisal of the first national war of independence in India has to come to an end here, with this sharp pointer to its lasting significance, and hence begins the work of revolutionary Marxists today.

Yes, the spirit of 1857, in spite of systematic attempts to drown it in the quagmire of comprador and religious nationalisms of the exploiting classes, has continued to live on to this day in the shape of an interrupted chain of popular uprisings against imperialism and feudalism. And we are here, as the most authentic, most advanced inheritors of this precious revolutionary legacy of the people of India, to carry it to consummation.