HARKING BACK: Why cartridges, ‘chapattis’ and feudals are linked

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, Oct 13, 2014


There may seem no connection between rifle cartridges, simple wheat ‘chapattis’ and the emergence of feudal power in Punjab, but then do not bullets, food and our feudal politicians still rule over our lives. Give it a thought.

Life surely is a series of what seems like unconnected events. That is never the case. Let me start this piece by taking you on a visit to the St. Mary Magdalene’s Church of Lahore, the one at Girja Chowk in the Lahore Cantonment where shops are sealed every time a VIP piffling passes by. Inside the church is a plague that says: “Sacred to the memory of Brigadier Isaac Handscombe, Major Robert Spencer and Sergeant Major John Potter, who were barbarously murdered by the mutineers when nobly attempting to recall their men to their duty, the first fell at Lucknow on the 31st May and the two last at Meean Meer on the 30th July 1857.” A second tablet says: “To the memory of Ensign John Tierney Davidson who was killed at Delhi on 14th September 1857.”

In the Cathedral church on The Mall plaques remembering two other 1857 victims who fell in Saddar Bazaar, Lahore, don the walls. In the remote British graveyard east of R.A. Bazaar dozens of 1857 victims rest in ‘eternal peace’. Let us string together a few facts and try to understand how the events of 1857 moulded the lives we live today.

On the 1st of January, 1857, the new Lee-Enfield rifle was issued for the first time in India to the 60th Queen’s Royal Rifle at Meerut. With it came the new greased cartridge manufactured in Dum Dum near Calcutta. The gun powder and ball were wrapped in waterproof paper that was waxed and greased. By the 27th of January, 1857, these rifles and the cartridges were issued to ‘native’ regiments at Dum Dum, Sialkot, Ambala and Meerut. An intelligence report dated 22nd January, 1857, says that at Dum Dum ordinance factory workers were talking negatively about the cartridge. On the 6th of February, 1857, the Lee-Enfield rifle and the cartridges were issued to native soldiers in Lahore. As a few refused to bite this ‘greased’ cartridge, orders were passed to tear the cartridge with their fingers.

Parallel to this development was the ‘chapatti’ phenomena. An English magistrate in Gurgaon reported that ‘chapattis’ were being passed on by chowkidars. This was seen as an indication of preparing for an uprising. The first ‘chapatti’ intelligence from Lahore’s Saddar Bazaar, so the record in Cambridge University’s archives tell us, came on 11th of April, 1857, exactly three days after Mangal Panday of the 34th Bengal Native Infantry was hanged for revolting. He was also accused, among other things, of passing on ‘chapattis’. The British saw this connection as a very valid one.

On the 10th of May, 1857, the various regiments in Meerut revolted. The Sepoy Mutiny was well and truly on. On the 13th of May the four native regiments in Lahore – the 16th, the 26th and the 49th Native Infantry, and the 8th Native Cavalry – were disarmed. This disarming was followed by similar disarming of native regiments in Peshawar, Amritsar, Multan and Ferozepur. Punjab had been secured. The British had moved fast.

On the 23rd of May, 1857, a Major Hodson, a Trinity College, Cambridge, graduate was ordered to set up an elite cavalry regiment. It surely might interest the reader to know that all the top feudal landlords of Punjab, especially those living in Lahore, participated in assisting the British set up regiments in Lahore, like the 1st Punjab Infantry (Coke’s Regiment), the 4th Punjab Regiment, the 5th Punjab and Hodson’s Horse at Walton Cantonment. Archives in British libraries provide exact details of those who assisted with money, men and horses to assist the threatened East India Company.

One document observations says: “It is surprising how eager the loyal landlords of Punjab and Lahore are willing to support our cause”.

For Hodson’s Horse alone a Lahore family which still has ‘havelis’ inside Mochi Gate provided half of the money, horses and men to Major Hodson. A rich land-owning ‘maulvi’ served as a Principal Adviser and provided Hodson with land at Walton near Lahore to house the regiment headquarters. I am leaving out detail lest their families feel they are being targeted. We clearly see that the Muslims of Lahore in particular, and the Punjab in general, armed Hodson’s Horse. The infamous major was to go on to arrest Emperor Bahadar Shah Zafar, and to kill in cold blood his son and two grandsons in the Red Fort in Delhi.

Among the other feudals who actively assisted the British in their attack on Delhi was the grandfather of a former Pakistani prime minister, while to the utter surprise of the British a Sheikh trader raised two entire cavalry troops from Kucha Chabakswaran inside Mochi Gate. The list of supporters can even today read like a ‘who’s who’ of Lahore’s elite.

This assistance cemented a permanent place for the feudals of Punjab, whom the British awarded still more lands and special rights, ones they still hold on to. These feudals initially opposed the creation of Pakistan, but once assured of their ‘rights’ they backed Mr. Jinnah after he guaranteed that Land Reforms would not dent them. That promise still holds, and is the primary reason the cartridge, the ‘chapatti’ and the feudals hold sway in this land of ours.

We may not acknowledge it, but all of us, to varying degrees, have feudal mindsets and tend to want the status quo to remain. Only education can solve this problem, and being that we are almost the most illiterate on Mother Earth, that day is not near. There is more to history than apparently unrelated facts.

Published in Dawn, October 13th, 2014




Back To Majid Sheikh's Columns

Back To APNA Home Page