India celebrates 150th year of its First War of Independence

By V. Mohan Rao

May 7 to 11, 2007 will be historic days for India in the celebration of 150 years of its First War of Independence that had claimed thousands of freedom fighters in 1857 for the cause of their motherland. The commemoration of the days will also cast a new light on the hidden pages of the history of India’s freedom struggle. The UPA government has organized a yearlong programme across the country to pay tributes, particularly, those who gave a kick-start to the initial momentum to free the country from the clutches of the British rule. According to majority of the historians, the revolt by Sepoys against their British masters in Meerut (Uttar Pradesh) in May 1857 is considered to be the First War of Independence of India. The fact remains that the events in Meerut gave an instant inspiration to the people to launch a revolt against the century-old despotic rule of the British.

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The Beginning

The revolt began when some of the Sepoys of the 3rd Cavalry regiment refused to use the greased cartridges. Their refusal to use the greased cartridges was regarded by the British authorities as an action of insubordination and was punished accordingly. On March 29, 1857 the Sepoys at Barrackpore refused to use the greased cartridges and one Brahmin Sepoy – Mangal Pandey, attacked and fired at the Adjutant. He is described as the first martyr of India’s Independence.

The regiment was disbanded and Sepoys found guilty of rebellion punished. At Meerut in May 1857, 85 Sepoys of the 3rd Cavalry regiment on their refusal to use the greased cartridges were court-martialled and sentenced to long terms of imprisonment. On 10th May, the Sepoys broke out in open rebellion, shot their officers, released their fellow Sepoys and headed towards Delhi. General Hewitt, the Officer Commanding at Meerut had 2,200 European soldiers at his disposal but did nothing to stem the rising tide. The rebels had seized Delhi on 12th May 1857. Lieutenant Willoughby, the officer-in-charge of the magazine at Delhi, had offered some resistance, but was overcome. The palace and the city were occupied. Some European inhabitants of Delhi were shot dead. Bahadur Shah II was proclaimed the Emperor of India.

The loss of Delhi was a serious loss of prestige to the English. Very soon the rebellion spread throughout Northern and Central India at Lucknow, Allahabad, Kanpur, Bareilly, Banaras, in parts of Bihar, Jhansi and other places. However, the most outstanding leader of the revolt was Rani Laxmi Bai of Jhansi, who had fought valiantly and died while fighting the British forces. The historians say although the rebellion was completely suppressed in July 1857, the momentum continued to serve as the main source of inspiration for the people, who vigorously fought the British to free their motherland.

Youth Rally From Meerut To Delhi

The UPA government had chalked out a National Youth Action Plan for the commemoration of the event. The Nehru Yuva Kendra Sangathan (NYKS), an autonomous organization under the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports, is carrying out the initiatives of the commemoration plan. Elaborate arrangements have been made for a National Youth Rally to be flagged off on the morning of 7th May 2007 from Meerut in Uttar Pradesh to the capital city of Delhi symbolizing the march of Sepoys, who had revolted against the British imperialism at this time in 1857.

Over 30,000 youth from across the country will walk from Meerut to Delhi covering a distance of 80 km in five days. This is in addition to 20,000 youth who will be joining the rally in Delhi. A series of village level programmes are underway in preparation to the five-day National Youth Rally. Various programmes will be organized in the transit at places like Modi Nagar, Muradanagar, Ghaziabad, Meerut and Delhi. They include special programmes at Meerut and Red Fort. A series of village level programmes like conventions, meetings, competitions, wall writings, film shows, exhibition, nukkad natak etc., will be organized by youth organizations in the country. A large number of people, intellectuals, writers and historians will also be a part of the celebrations.

The Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh has taken the lead to organize commemorative functions. While addressing the three-day convention of Nehru Yuva Kendra Sangathan, in May 2006, Dr. Singh said “Since Meerut is the holy ground marking the first outbreak of the uprising of 1857, it would be appropriate if our youth take out yatras from every village and town to converge at Meerut and then march further from Meerut to Lal Quila in Delhi…â€? The Prime Minister also added, “The striking feature of the revolt of 1857 was that both Hindu and Muslims assiduously organized the front against the foreign rule. Hindu-Muslim unity was visible among soldiers and people as well as among leaders.â€?

Stating that the sense of historic solidarity only underlined the great diversity that has made India what it is today, Dr. Singh asked the NYK activists to stand committed to the ideals enshrined in the Constitution and to be vigilant in safeguarding the unique and vibrant diversity. He said it is necessary to continuously ensure that the various communities that make up the mosaic of India live together in peace and harmony. The frustrated elements that seek to disturb the ethos of communal harmony must not be given any scope for having their aims achieved. Dr. Singh said celebrating the event through a yearlong campaign – “SANJHI VIRASAT AND SANJHI SHAHADAT,� youth would work for the Nation-building activities in a more effective and committed manner.

National Committee On Commemoration Of 150th Anniversary

The first meeting of the National Committee on Commemoration of the 150th Anniversary of the First War of Independence, under the Chairmanship of the Prime Minister, Dr. Singh, held on July 13, 2006, had considered a number of proposals like identification, restoration and beautification of all buildings and sites associated with the First War of Independence, publication of an authorized detailed account of the First War in all scheduled languages besides Hindi and English, an authoritative film on 1857 War of Independence. The proposals also included coordinating the celebrations with the Governments of Pakistan and Bangladesh as well as at the level of historians, artists and media of the three countries so as to provide an appropriate sub-continental dimension to the event, setting up of a National Museum on the freedom on the freedom movement reflecting various aspects of the freedom struggle covering the period from 1857 to 1947 and organizing various other events at the local, state and national levels with a view to enthuse public and inculcate in them, particularly among the younger generations adequate awareness and the spirit of patriotism.