Context: Current Gujarat elections. (Extracts from ‘War of Civilisations: India 1857 AD’, by Amaresh Misra, Rupa, 2008)
The importance of Gujarat elections to the future of Indian democracy and the survival of India’s liberal-democratic-nationalist ethos cannot but be re-emphasized. However, in order to understand Gujarat’s political behaviour, it is important to view its social-class structures in a historical context.
Social-class structures are revealed best, during a great upheaval. Massive uprisings took place in Gujarat during the 1857-58 revolt against the rule of British East India Company (BEIC). The areas of these uprisings, the alliances made by social forces against British rule, can be co-related with the churning going on in Gujarat today–a look at 1857, therefore, offers a unique opportunity before nationalist democrats to re-shape aliiances on specific assembly seats as per the current situation.
BEIC rule began in Gujarat after the final defeat of Marathas in 1818. But Gaikwad, the Maratha ruler of Gujarat, had gone over to the British camp in early 1800s.
Right from the Mughal to Maratha times, broadly, ‘ten’ forces dominated Gujarat: the Kunbi-Patel-Patidar peasantry, indigenous Brahmins, and Waghers (sailors) of Saurashtra; present-day OBC, Khsattriya (Vaghelas and Thakores) of North Gujarat; Bhil and Koli Chiefs of Central and South Gujarat; the indigenous Banias (Zhaveris, Shroffs, a section of Desais) spread all over the state; Muslim Memons, Arab-Afghan warrior soldiers of fortune (Wilayetees), and Babis (ancestors of actress Parveen Babi), who were from a mixed Egyptian-Arab background. Apart from these, Siddis (sailors of Egyptian descent), Baluchi and Sindhi Makarani warriors (both Hindu and Muslim), Charans, Bohra Muslims, Surat Parsis were also influential.
BRITISH SOCIAL ENGINEERING
Following the policy of divide and rule, the British imposed a tiny Rajput (Jadeja-Gohel etc) elite over Kunbi-Patel-Patidar peasantry and Waghers in Saurashtra; Rajputs again over Vaghelas and Thakores in North Gujarat; and a mix of Rajput and a select, few Patidars, over Kolis and Bhils in Central-South Gujarat. The indigeneous Banias were replaced by Bania ‘outsiders’ subservient to the British. Warrior communities were forced to seek employment with the new princely states. Baroda under Gaikwad was declared the largest state.
In 1947, out of 500 plus princely states in India, the maximum (almost half) were located in Gujarat. Out of these, more than 100 were in Kathiawar (Saurashtra) agency. MahiKantha, RewaKantha, and Surat were the other three out of total four administrative agencies created by the British in this province.
Gujarat witnessed unparallaled prosperity under Mughals and Marathas. In fact, scholars have termed Gujarat as an incipient Asiatic bourgeois society, which if allowed to grow, could have initiated an Industrial revolution.
BRITISH FEUDALISM IN GUJARAT
But the British re-invented feudalism- ROLLING BACK FORCES OF PROGRESS AND MODERN DEVELOPMENT IN TRADE-INDUSTRY WAS THE PRIMARY REASON WHY SO MANY PRINCELY STATES WERE CREATED BY THE BRITISH IN ONE AREA! IN GUJARAT, THE BRITISH RE-INVENTED FEUDALISM!
Gujarat is still traumatised by the brutal, reactionary, post-1818 social engineering initiated by the British. That is why, 1857 upheaval in Gujarat took on a decidedly, anti-feudal character. Gujarat was perhaps the only place where the Bania played a revolutionary role.
During Shahjahan’s and Aurangzeb’s reign, Gujarati Banias not only gave huge loans to the Government; they also received loans. Gujarati Bania-Mughal State partnership, especially in shipbuilding and manufacturing, made many fortunes—wealthy Jain and Vani merchants erected magnificent temples and houses—they were not stingy like the Marwaris; in Mughal economy, the `middleman-broker’ role was minimal.
THE GUJARAT REVOLUTIONARY CIRCLE
In the mid-19th century, Khanderao, the Baroda Gaikwad ruler, was pro-British. But four personalities–Bhao Saheb Pawar, Bhonsale Raja, Nihalchand Zaveri and Maganlal Bania of Patan–residing in Baroda–came to comprise the ‘revolutionary Gujarat circle’.
Bapu Gaikwad, Khanderao’s half-brother, located at Shahibag, Ahmedabad, was selected secretly as Baroda’s new prince. The plan was to take Baroda first and then move on to Ahmedabad; several Koli, Bhil, Muslim and even Rajput chiefs pledged support.
THE FIRST AHMEDABAD RISING
Along with two irregular cavalry regiments of Maratha and Gujarat Horse, the 7th Bombay Native infantry was stationed at Ahmedabad. One-third of 7th Infantry men were from Awadh in Uttar Pradesh. On 9th July, 1857, an agitation started by Lohar Ahir, the 7th Subedar, saw Gujarat Horse men killing British officers and throwing off the Company yoke. The 7th Infantry and Maratha Horse refused to march against the ‘rebels’. In September 1857, 7th Infantry and Maratha orgamized the second Ahmedabad rising.
Escaping the city, Gujarat horsemen moved towards Sarkhej, Lieutanant Pim hot on their trail. On the Ahmedabad-Dholka highway Captain Taylor joined Pim; Taylor had an Irregular Koli force but Pim’s horsemen refused to fight. Kolis also expressed reluctance; Captain Taylor was wounded by the bullet of a ‘rebel’ horseman.
In July 1857, rumours were rife in Gujarat about a large British force landing at Ghogha near Bhavnagar. Nihal Chand Zaveri left Baroda; Umeta and Bhadarava chiefs, as well as Khera and Mahikantha Patels, invited him to visit their respective places. The idea was to prevent the Ghogha British force from entering Ahmedabad; levies were raised for this specific purpose in the villages.
Magan Lal Baniya entered Kadi Taluka in Gaikwad’s domain to recruit men for the ‘rebel’ army; he was able to enlist 2000 foot and 150 horsemen. It was arranged that all revolutionaries would assemble on banks of the river Mahi, near the village of Partappur.
THE GODHRA-DOHAD UPSURGE
On 6th July 1857, pro Bahadur Shah Zafar elements raised the anti- BEIC banner at Dohad and Godhra. Tilydar Khan, a local hereditary Dohad Zamindar gathered armed men and held the city from 6th to 11th July. The BEIC Mamlatdar and other officers of the city were shut up in the fort.
On 8th July, Captain Buckle—four guns, three hundred infantry and Irregular Cavalary on board—started from Baroda; the object was to reach Dohad. Led by Hamir Khan, pro- Bahadur Shah Godhra forces attacked Buckle near Devgarh Baria. Earlier Tilyadar Khan had sent emissaries amongst the Bhils; a strong Bhil contingent reinforced Hamir Khan and Godhra fighters.
Devgarh Baria fight lasted for more than 48 hours; Muslims and Bhils, supported occasionally by Patels, kept harassing Buckle with hit and run tactics, killing one fourth of his force. Buckle’s Dohad march was delayed; reaching the town on 11th July, he found Tilyadar Khan’s men posted on houses, lanes, behind loopholed walls. Reinforced by more European forces Buckle fought his way inch by inch; Tilyadar Khan’s ammunition was soon expended; but by 15th July remnants of Hamir Khan’s force attacked the British detachment from the rear; consequently, Buckle retreated and kept hovering around without attempting an assault.
After another hard-fought battle, Tilyader and Hamir evacuated Dohad and Godhra. Buckle set the entire city of Dohad on fire. Thousands of civilians, men, woman and children, were burnt; Dohad was `laid waste’.
Buckle found Dohad-Godhara countryside seething with pro-Bahadur Shah Zafar feelings; revolutionaries were roaming around “enforcing persons to proclaim the King of Delhi the Emperor of India”.
LUNAWADA AND PANCHMAHAL
on 15th July, Suraj Mal, the Dakore landlord of Kheda, attacked Lunawada; proclaiming Dakore to be Bahadur Shah Zafar’s territory and the `bastion of Gujrati pride’, he instigated Lunawada people to rise against their pro-British Rajput prince.
Charans occupied a privileged position in Central Gujarat’s social system. Acting as mediators between princes and the people, or princes and the British, they were part of the `loyal’ Central Gujrat British network.
Kandas, the Charan Panchmahal chief, was Baroda Resident’s trusted ally. Following Suraj Mal’s attack on Lunawada, Buckle looked towards Kandas to garner Charan support for the British; this Panchmahal figure however raised Bahadur Shah Zafar’s banner; gathering Koli chiefs and retired sepoys from Panchmahal, he came to Surajmal’s aid. In response, Lieutenant Alban razed Pala, Kandas’ resident town, to the ground. Pala’s destruction was followed by the Khanpur Koli rising.
ANAND AND CENTRAL GUJARAT
The movement then spread to Anand; this was Patel-Kunbi country; lulled by the so called Hindu sympathies of Gujaratis Patels, the British hoped to pit them against Nayakads and Sibandhis, ex-district and revenue officials, of Bhil, Koli and Muslim origin, of the Mughal-Maratha era.
But the British communal card failed; led by Rupa and Kewal Naik, Nayakadas were under Bhau Saheb Pawar’s influence—the special task of organizing the Panchmahal revolution was entrusted to this Baroda Circle revolutionary.
BEIC officials arrested Ganpat Rao, Bhau Saheb Pawar’s emissary, after ‘disturbances’ at Narukot and Jambughoda. The movement was about to lose momentum when Arab/Pathan Wilayatees captured Champaner to revive the Narukot movement.
Jivabhai Thakore of Khanpur and Garbad Das Patel led peasant upsurge in Anand. Capturing nearby villages, Garbad Das’ militia declared Anand a liberated zone. Sent in haste, British forces were unable to proceed beyond Lotia Bhagol; joined by Malaji Joshi, Bapuji Patel and Krishna Ram Dave, Garbad Das blocked British access to the entire Anand district. From here the revolutionary communication line led straight to Kheda and Baroda.
KOLIS, BHILS AND THE MAHIKANTHA UPHEAVAL
Kheda fell in the Mahikantha agency covering Saberkantha and Mahisama—this area had more than 140 chiefs seething with discontent against their overlords. Anti-British resentment was at its peak. The Idar Raja was the biggest landlord of this area—he represented British power in Mahikantha. Helped by Muslim sepoys in Raja Idar’s pay, Chandup Koli revolutionaries expelled Raja’s officials; initial forces sent by Khande Rao from Baroda to help the British ally were repulsed. Soon, Dubara Kolis also raised the revolutionary standard.
The Chandup movement inspired Kolis of Kheralu, Vadnagar and Vijapur, falling under Gaekwad Mahikantha domains. Mohanpur-Khera Kolis joined in; living in a village shared by Gaekwad and Warsova chief, Lodara Kolis also decided to overthrow feudal rule.
At Vijapur, Hathi Singh and other government officials were in direct ‘rebel’ communication; both Bhil and Kolis had declared in Bahadur Shah Zafar’s favor; they were receiving regular payments from Delhi and Indore. A rumor that Nana Sahib would soon occupy Ahmedabad and reward Bhils and Kolis was doing the rounds; thousands were gathering each day in every village to defy authority.
The Thakur of Mandetti led the Rajput Mahikantha community; apart from Wilayatees, Sindhi Makaranis made up his militia. Related to the Jodhpur king, Mandetti chief regarded himself superior in clan and prestige to the Idar Rajput raja—he was ready, it was said, to sit, eat, and fight with Kolis, Bhils and Muslims rather than submit to Idar.
REWAKANTHA AND SURAT
In Rewa Kantha and South Gujarat, both close to Bombay, the center of BEIC power, risings began in May itself; from Broach, Surat and Navasari they stretched to Nandod and Rajpipala. On 12th June 1857, a three thousand strong pro-Bahadur Shah Zafar Muslim-Bhil militia gathered at Wagara and Amod; their intention was to attack Broach; British forces were posted both near Narmada and Mahi rivers; the militia however kept evading a direct engagement while making sorties.
Another five thousand strong Koli-Bhil-Muslim force gathered at Jambusar; while one section was to attack Begum Bari (magistrate’s bunglow), the other was to rush upon the jail and the treasury; another pro-Bahadur Shah Zafar Rajpipala contingent was to act a reserve force.
The Rajpipala situation replicated Lunawada—here too while the ruler supported the British, his army and people professed sympathy with `their Emperor’; Saiyyad Murad Ali of Nandod became the rallying point of Maikranis, Sindhis and Arabs; Rajpipala sepoys sent messages assuring support.
By July, Soonth Rewa Kantha Raja was sure that Arabs, Kabulis, Makranis and Sindhis in his service were all looking towards Delhi. In a letter to the British he wrote: “the sepoys openly gave out that they will plunder the country and proceed to Delhi….they have also taken up a threatening position….a rumor is prevelant that the British government has lost it’s Raj….consequestly I have become powerless…”.
By August the Soonth ruler was shivering with fright: “Wilayatees in my service have rebelled against me under the leadership of Jemadar Mustafa Khan….Bhils ….Kolis….local Mohamadens have also joined rebellion…”.
BEIC officials suspected Daiker Babu, a Bengali Surat man of influence, to be in correspondence with Gaikwad’s Hindustani Munshi; Surat police arrested Daiker and his associates after they returned from an Ahmedabad trip. After his release, the Bengali Babu was next seen in Maganlal Bania’s company—backed by Dwarkadas Shroff and Jetha Madhavji, Maganlal led his team into the Taranga hills of Mehsana.
Mehsana stretched to Patan, Maganlal’s home town, in North Gujrat; the Vaishnava Bania was successful in raising money even from Sharavak Jain Banias; Dwarkadas was the principal leader of the Shroff/jeweler community; Jetha headed the grocer’s association.
On reaching Kheralu, Maganlal, living now a difficult, revolutionary life, sent emissaries to Mansa, Satlasna, Katosan, Valasna, Sudasana, Bhalusna, Hadol, Palaj and Varsoda, the major Mehsana states—everywhere the courts were riven with anti and pro-Bahadur Shah factions; ruled mainly by local Rajputs, revolutionary sentiments were high especially in Varsoda, Sudasana and Katosan—the latter’s ruler was a Makwana Koli; he sent money to Kheralu.
In Mehsana, Sadhus helped Maganlal—emissaries of the pro-Zafar Dwarika Shankaracharya had done their work. By June1857, revolutionary Sadhus and Yogis occupied the Patan-Nasik stretch—while Shri Boriya Swami preached an anti-British war at Vijapur, Swami Ramgir and his disciples went to Patan houses; there, under the guise of begging alms, they instigated housewives to `taunt’ and goad their husbands to pick up the sword for Bahadur Shah Zafar.
At Patan, Vaghela Rajputs, especially the small landlords, offered help in case the revolutionaries take Ahmedabad or Baroda. Two energetic Waghela bands set forth on their own, one towards Kheralu and the other towards Okha in Saurashtra. Joined by Arabs and Makaranis, the Kheralu bound contingent went on passing the message of `liberation’ from village to village; Bania families along the Patan-Kheralu route sheltered the group offering womenfolk ornaments.
The Okha bound team stirred Saurashtra—here Nagar, Audich and Shrimali Brahmins were preaching war on Shankaracharya’s advice; three Nagar Brahmins were found `tampering’ with Okha Vaghers.
(Next Part will cover Saurashtra)
- ‘The Gujaratis: The People, their history, and Culture’, Krishan Mohan Lal Jhaveri, Vol 3, Cosmo, New Delhi, 2003
- ‘Gujarat in 1857’, Ramanlal Kakalbhai Dharaiya, 1970, University of Gujarat
- ‘Rashtrano Swatantrata Sangram Ane Gujarat’, Dr. Shantilal Desai
- ‘1857 Kranti ma Gujarat’, Ashutosh Bhat
- Surat Gazetteer, 1880, Mehsana Gazetteer, 1882, Ahmedabad Gazetteer, 1875