A forgotten hero reconstructed

Operation Red Lotus is a book written by Parag Tope, with inputs from the contemporary elements of the Tope family on India’s first war of freedom from the British in 1857. The book gets its name from the red lotus used by the participants in this war. Aside from memories of the family patriarch Prabhakar Tope, what makes the book unique is that it uses several otherwise unknown and forgotten pieces of info on the war, which include original and untranslated letters in Urdu, Bundeli, eye – witness accounts in Marathi, a revised view of English reports on the war to give a dramatically different story.

There are many positives in this book, most particularly, the very large number of myths destroyed by the book. One of the biggest myths laid to rest are that this war had no creative component that could prepare for the future of India after the war. This view was also expressed by Savarkar, whose work on 1857 I had previously looked upon as an important assessment of war. This is laid to rest in the book by presenting a translation of one of those many Urdu letters that were part of communication between the field officers and Tatya Tope. In the run up from the third Anglo – Maratha War (1818) to this war (1857), the British slowly crushed India’s economy. Local industry was shut down, people heavily taxed and overt forms of evangelization viz. converting to Christianity for less taxes, violence on temple premises, etc. were rampant. Indian officials in the British Government couldn’t get promoted beyond the rank of a Subedar. The leaders of the revolution recognized all of these as part of the tyranny and oppression of the British rulers and the war was originally based on a promise to uproot these, and restoring a liberty in personal life, trade and properties (ref: Azamgarh declaration, Delhi Gazette, 28th September 1857).

The book also deserves credit for decoding the previously unknown code of the red lotuses and chapatis used in the war. The petals of the red lotus are explained as soldiers ready to participate, while the stalk of the lotus flower represented a platoon. Each platoon had about 25 – 30 soldiers. Conveniently, a red lotus also has 25 – 30 petals! Each soldier was made to pluck a petal. The number of petals remaining on the stalk would indicate the percentage of the soldiers in a platoon not participating. Chapatis received by a particular village represented that only that village that was selected to provide food for the travelling armies. A complete system of communication, involving recruitment and logistics was thus the objective of these hitherto unexplained symbols during the war.

As a general of Nana Saheb, Tatya Tope was the man instrumental behind planning the whole operation. Nana Saheb coordinated with other leaders such as Bahadur Shah, Begum Hazrat Mahal, Baija Bai Shinde and Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi. They collaborated so as to keep the planning and preparations as covert as possible, and some leaders such as Baija Bai continued to feign neutrality throughout the war while covertly supporting it to the hilt. Capital was sourced from civilian landlords and bankers such as Seth Lakshmichand of Mathura.

The mission of the operation was to mobilize Indian soldiers of the English East India Company (EEIC), to overrun their garrison, and capture a predetermined location (a city and neighboring villages). Following a liberation of a sufficient part of the country, the goal was to create a government that would represent the India that the leaders of the operation wished to create. The war started on the 29th of March, 1857 with the outburst from Mangal Pandey and for the next few months, the revolutionaries notched up a string of victories. Delhi was liberated on the 10th of May, followed by Kanpur, Lucknow, Gwalior and Banda. On 4th, 5th and 6th June 1857, Azamgarh, Varanasi and Allahabad were liberated. Faizabad, Daraiabad/Barabanki, Salan, Sultanpur and Gonda were liberated by 11th June 1857. At around the same time in Central India, Jhansi, Naugaon, Gursarai, Banpur and Orai were also attacked and the English were on the backfoot in these towns. Kanpur by 27th of June and Lucknow by the 5th of July. An Indian government under the name of Bahadur Shah Zafar was in place by the 25th of August 1857. This government would funciton until the May of 1858.

While all of this is relatively well known, what is relatively less known is how the war was lost. The answer lies in the English realization that it was the Indian villages that received the Chapatis that were responsible for providing for the troops. The English then simply flattened these villages and left them without any human trace. In particular, the area chosen for clearing was that of the Grand Trunk Road. Regions where villages were ‘cleared’ now became no – go areas for the Indian troops (w/o a caravan of supplies), and became a convenient passage for English supplies and reinforcements and a springboard for their attacks into territories captured by the troops. The Indian loss was more because of the inability to guess the depths to which the English could stoop down to preserve their power. Possibly millions of Indians died in this campaign of the English which created a sanitized corridor from Calcutta right upto Kanpur. The irony is that two islands in Andaman and Nicobar are even today named after the commanders of this massacre, Brigadier General Havelock and Lieutenant Colonel Neill. One wonders if the outcome of the war could have been different if the leaders of the revolution had invested more time and more men at understanding British history of war and knowing the English capacity for genocide and mass destruction while at the same time remembering lessons from previous encounters with Muslim barbarians like Temur Lang.  The villages might then have been protected against massacres by the English and some of the damage could have been averted, possibly increasing the efficiency of the revolutionaries’ maneuvers against the English.

There is also a good description of the later phases of the war. After the fall of Delhi (through a British siege causing starvation of the troops stationed there), Tope established a second HQ at Kalpi and with covert support of Baija Bai Shinde rebuilt his war machinery, developed extensive logistic lines (which hitherto did not exist as the revolutionaries’ plan A was to rely on villagers), and executed brilliant battles most importantly that of Kanpur in November-December 1857 in which he succeeded to recapture Kanpur briefly and reinforce Lucknow to lighten the pressure on Nana Saheb and other who were holed up there. Other important battles of this phase included Tope’s protection of Lakashmi Bai from Hugh Rose and the siege of Charkhari.Tope was also successful to enlist support from the Gwalior contingents, which proves false erstwhile theories of the inactivity of Scindia leading to the defeat in the war.

Human shields used by the English troops, gory details of wanton massacres by the English and their Scottish and Irish mercenaries, elaborate battle maps and troop movements, a detailed description of Tatya’s strategic moves at extending the War to other theaters, the massacre at Jhansi after Rani Laxmibai’s escape, previously unknown roles of other heroes in the war and a new proposal of the date and manner of Tatya Tope’s death are other noteable facets of the book. The book has also captured the global repercussions of the 1857 war and has drawn a possible link between the revolution in India and the American Civil war. On the flip side, it appears in some sections that there is a vendetta between the author and establishment historians that he is seeking to prove wrong. For instance at page 156:

“For R.C. Majumdar who for some is India’s ‘greatest historian’, Bahadur Shah was a ‘dotard’, a senile old man. Majumdar was obviously not very impressed with Bahadur Shah, who ‘dared’ to rise against the English, when he was supposed to be nothing more than a ‘puppet in their hands’. ”

The same book by another author might be excused, but given that the author is related biologically to the subject matter of the book, i.e. Tatya Tope, one expects higher standards from him. Due to this, there is a risk that some readers might believe that the book is performing some kind of hagiography. It also robs the hope that the book can be used as a history textbook on the subject, which is the need of the hour and which in my opinion has to be completely emotionless. Nevertheless, for the large amount of new data that the book brings forth, it is a first of its kind and is a must have for history wonks from all sides of the spectrum as a stepping stone towards getting the final history of India’s first war of freedom.

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