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A Lottery-funded film on the Indian Mutiny shows the rebels as heroes – and (surprise, surprise) the British as sadists. In fact, the mutineers were ruthless butchers…

TO THE steady beat of drums, the captured mutineers were first stripped of their uniforms and then tied to cannons, their bellies pushed hard against the gaping mouths of the big guns. The order to fire was given. With an enormous roar, all the cannons burst into life at once, generating a cloud of black smoke that snaked into the summer sky. When the smoke cleared, there was nothing left of the mutineers’ bodies except their arms, still tied to the cannons, and their blackened heads, which landed with a soft thud on the baking parade ground. It was a terrible way to die and a terrible sight to witness, but the minds of the British soldiers and loyal Indian troops who solemnly attended these executions were still scorched by the even greater horrors they’d encountered in the suppression of the Mutiny that had raged since the previous summer.

Horrors like the old well at Cawnpore (now Kanpur) in north-eastern India, filled with the remains of 200 women and children who had been hacked to pieces in a tiny single-storey house known as the Bibigarh.

It had taken five men, some of them professional butchers, an hour to finish this grisly work on the order of rebel leader Nana Sahib.

Later, when the British recaptured Cawnpore and discovered the well, they forced the mutineers they’d captured to lick the dried blood off the floors and walls of the Bibigarh.

Then they hanged them – a manner of execution that was considered much more degrading than the old Mughal method of being blown apart by a cannon.

Whether it is the women and children dismembered at Cawnpore, or the mutineers executed in the ferocious and often indiscriminate reprisals that followed the uprising, the imagery of the Indian Mutiny of 1857 (in which between 100,000 and 150,000 people died) is still extraordinarily lurid in its bloody horror. Jan Morris, the great popular historian of the British Empire, rightly called it ‘this most horrible of imperial wars’.

The savage mass murder of Europeans by the native soldiers of the Bengal Army was matched by the fury of the British and their Sikh and Ghurka allies after the rebellion was put down.

Their vengeance became known as the Devils’ Wind. Whole villages were burned and their inhabitants hanged.

And when it was all over, relations between the Britons of the Raj and the people of India would never be the same, and the East India Company, the private trading corporation that had governed two-thirds of India for a hundred years, would finally transfer all its powers to the British Crown.

Now a new film made in India, and currently on release in Britain, has ignited controversy once more with its depiction of the Mutiny’s beginnings.

The Rising: The Ballad Of Mangal Pandey, which stars British actor Toby Stephens and Bollywood leading man Aamir Khan, purports to tell the story of Pandey, an Indian soldier in the army of the British Raj, who was one of the first mutineers and whom the film depicts as a heroic socialist revolutionary leader in the mould of Che Guevara.

Nationalist myths are blatantly presented as historical truth, grotesquely misrepresenting the way the East India Company ruled India and the real causes of the Indian Mutiny.

And what makes the anti-British propaganda all the more galling is that the film was partially funded by the UK Film Council with £150,000 from Lottery funds.

The Indian Mutiny started in May 1857 in the town of Meerut, after 85 Indian soldiers or Sepoys in the Bengal Army – one of the East India Company’s three private armies which were under the command of British officers – were arrested for refusing to use the new rifle cartridges they’d been provided with.

They believed the cartridges had been greased with pig or cow fat, and that it was therefore against their religion to touch them.

The Sepoys were sentenced to ten years’ hard labour but were freed from jail by their comrades.

Open revolt followed with the massacre of the Europeans in the town before the mutineers headed to Delhi, where they appealed to Bahadur Shah, heir to the old Mughal Empire and King of Delhi, to become their leader.

The Sepoy garrison in Delhi joined the Mutiny, slaying their European officers and any Christian civilians they could find. Fifty British, Indian Christian and mixed-race prisoners, mostly women and children, were taken to a dungeon in the famous palace known as the Red Fort and cut to pieces in front of Bahadur Shah.

Following the fall of Delhi, most of the Indian regiments of the Bengal Army joined the revolt.

It didn’t help that the myth of British military invincibility had been progressively tarnished in the preceding years, first by the retreat from Kabul in 1842 and then by the news of British disasters in the Crimean War.

The mutiny spread to the garrison towns of Cawnpore and Lucknow, where British soldiers and civilians were besieged by Sepoys.

In Cawnpore, they surrendered after three weeks, only to be massacred. The city was recaptured three weeks later and the butchery of the town’s European women and children in the well uncovered.

In Lucknow, the Europeans took refuge in the official residence and managed to hold out until a relief force arrived in August, which was then itself besieged.

Lord Colin Campbell eventually recaptured the city with a largely Ghurka force in March 1858. Delhi was retaken by the legendary cavalryman John Nicholson, leading a force of fierce Sikhs and Pathan troops from the newly- conquered Punjab, some of whom worshipped him as the demigod ‘Nikal Seyn’.

After the relief of Lucknow, the British slowly retook all the areas of central India they had lost.

To their relief, the Mutiny never spread to the south or to any of the country’s great cities – Madras, Bombay and Calcutta.

Indeed, the great majority of Indians either stood neutral or actively helped the British.

The immediate cause of the Mutiny had been a rumour. This rumour, so powerful and persistent that it may have been deliberately spread, was that the East India Company was forcing Sepoys to use rifle cartridges greased with pig and cow fat.

If this were true, it would have meant that both Muslims and Hindus would be defiled by the ammunition, because to load the new rifles the soldiers had to bite off the tops of the paper cartridges and then pour powder down the gun barrel.

Pork is considered impure by Muslims, while Hindus venerate cows and will not touch beef. But the rumour wasn’t true.

The Company was well aware of Muslim and Hindu sensitivities after commanding Indian soldiers for more than a century and a half, and it made sure that only European troops were issued with cartridges greased in animal fat. The Sepoys were given ones greased with beeswax.

However, the rumour was unstoppable, partly because it reinforced the existing fear that the British were plotting to impose Christianity on India, a fear deepened by the growing number of missionaries arriving there.

But in the new film, the old lie about the cartridges is resuscitated and treated as historical truth.

Indeed, it shows British commanders deliberately forcing thousands of Sepoys to use the cartridges.

It’s a dishonest twisting of history akin to depicting a French victory at Trafalgar.

And that’s just one of the grotesque distortions in this crudely nationalistic epic, crammed with anachronisms – and, incidentally, the most expensive movie ever made in India.

Juvenile anti-British caricatures are par for the course in Indian films and books that deal with the Raj, and many Indians know their own history only in terms of the nationalist myths fabricated by the independence movement of the 1940s.

But The Rising goes further. In its casual rewriting of history, the film belongs to the more reprehensible category of historical reconstruction – similar to Mel Gibson’s movie Patriot in 2000, which had British redcoats behaving like the German SS, herding civilians into a church and setting it on fire.

You would never guess from The Rising that the Mutiny left two thirds of the subcontinent untouched, that two of the East India Company’s three huge armies remained loyal, and that the Mutiny was much closer to an Indian civil war than to a revolution.

Certainly, there is no hint in it that the Sepoys committed terrible atrocities, or that their motives for mutiny were often distinctly unromantic and far from progressive.

For one thing, being high caste Brahmins, many of the Bengal Army Sepoys resented the new British policy of recruiting Sikhs and Pathans from the Punjab.

At the same time, strict British rules governing promotion on grounds of seniority also made it hard for talented Indian officers to rise in the service.

They also feared that their days of (relatively) high wages bolstered by plunder were coming to an end now that almost all the subcontinent was united under British rule.

In the film, Pandey and his comrades are outraged when evil British officers buy Indian slave girls for army brothels and destroy villages for trying to break a British monopoly on opium production.

In truth, slavery had been banned by the British in India. Where it did exist, it was practised only by Indians. As for villages destroyed for the sake of the East India Company’s opium profits, there is no record of such a thing ever taking place.

It was the new large-scale cultivation of tea, not opium, that made fortunes for the Company.

However, a crude Marxism pervades the script. There’s much talk about the way the Indian peasants are oppressed by the East India Company’s monopolies (‘They call it a free market,’ one of the characters says sarcastically).

But the East India Company had actually lost its monopoly on trade from India 25 years before the mutiny.

In fact, one of the underlying reasons for the Mutiny was the way that British reformers had undermined traditionally powerful groups such as Brahmin landowners and zamindar moneylenders in favour of the poor peasants. The high caste Sepoys resented this.

Also – and the film does admit this, in one of its rare moments of honesty – the British had angered conservative Hindu opinion by banning suttee (the practice of forcing widows to die in the funeral fires of their husbands) and female infanticide, and by encouraging widespread Western-style education.

At times, the film’s distortions are almost comical. The Sepoys are portrayed as being appalled at the thought of firing on their fellow countrymen.

In fact, fighting other Indians was all Indian soldiers had done for centuries. And not only did the British retain the loyalty of the vast majority of their Indian armies during 1857-8, they could not have put down the Mutiny without the assistance of thousands of Indian troops. After all, there were only about 45,000 British soldiers in India even after reinforcements arrived in 1858.

As for Mangal Pandey himself, in the film he is shown killing several British officers and leading an armed rebellion. He never, in fact, killed anyone. Nor did he lead a revolt. He was responsible for a one-man mutiny on March 29, 1857, when he shot at his European sergeant major and wounded an English officer before trying and failing to commit suicide. After a court martial by his fellow Indian troops – not by British officers as shown in the film – he was hanged, and his regiment, the 34th Native Infantry, disbanded.

‘Pandey’ became British Army slang first for mutineers and later for Indian soldiers in general Although The Rising claims the Indian Mutiny was the ‘bloodiest rebellion in human history’, this is historical illiteracy. At the very worst, 150,000 people may have died, while the Taiping Rebellion in China in the same period killed almost 20 million.

Some measure of the real arithmetic of the conflict can be gained from the fact that only 2,757 British troops were killed in battle, while 8,000 died from sunstroke and diseases. And this was one war in which British troops did not have superior weapons or tactics to those of their enemy.

The film’s contention that the Mutiny inspired Gandhi’s independence movement is also nonsense: he saw it as violent and reactionary, and was inspired by the peaceful reformers of the period. [Perhaps the creepiest sequence in the film comes at its climax. After Indian peasants enraged at Pandey’s hanging hurl themselves on his executioners, you see them set a Christian church on fire. The whole scene is an invention. And given the recent spate of murders of Christian missionaries and priests by Hindu fanatics in India, and by Muslim fanatics in Pakistan, there’s something troubling and repellent about the filmmakers’ evident approval of the destruction of a Christian house of worship. ‘ ]

For the most part ‘The Rising’ is history as Leftwing Indian nationalists wish it to have been, not as it really was.

As Saul David, the acclaimed author of The Indian Mutiny has pointed out, the film invents a ruthless fantasy-Raj, against which patriotic Indians of all religions, ethnicities and castes unite to fight for freedom, thanks to Mangal Pandey’s supposed vision of a free, democratic India.

The truth is very different, and it is sad that even as India rises to become a modern world power, its filmmakers remain stuck in a post- colonial time warp, depicting their country’s fascinating past in such a crude, dishonest and simplistic way.

 

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