MORE THAN 150 years ago, the Revolt of 1857 stirred the Indian conscience and pitched infant nationalism against established imperial might. Indian historians have described it as the First War of Independence and much has been recorded and written about this milestone on the road to freedom. And yet, few know of the Sipahi Bahadur uprising and the resultant, bloody death in 1858 — even though, in its five months of existence, Sipahi Bahadur provided one of the first instances of a parallel, secular Indian government within the British Raj. The event stands as a stark example of our official history’s impecunious memory.
Ninety years before the British left India, Sehore in Madhya Pradesh (about 30 km from Bhopal) declared independence from British rule. On 6 August 1857, Risaldar Wali Shah of the Bhopal Contingent Force led 356 soldiers in rebellion against Sikander Jehan Begum, the female Nawab of Bhopal who paid allegiance to the British. Shah exhorted his comrades stationed in Sehore — most notably Koth Havaldar Mahavir, Arif Shah, Ramjulal, Adil Mohd Khan and Fazil Mohd Khan — to take up arms, declaring: “The British are being hounded out of the whole of Hindustan. Not so in Bhopal state. We do not owe our lives to any Raja, Nawab or Begum.”
“Sipahi Bahadur was the beginning of serious attempts at a tryst with colonial modernity,” says Dr Biswamoy Pati, Associate Professor of History at the University of Delhi. Embittered by the Nawab’s callous attitude towards their daily concerns, and emboldened by the nation joining hands in 1857, these soldiers posed the biggest ever challenge to the viability of the Bhopal state. Dr Shriram Tiwari, Director, Culture, Madhya Pradesh says, “The rebel government was staunchly secular. It had two standards — Nishan-e- Mohammadiand Jhanda Mahaviri — that were raised together to symbolise Hindu- Muslim unity.”These soldiers’ grievances were common across the rebellions that fateful year — insufficient wages, sub-standard rations like stale rotis, shabby uniforms — yet this particular group did something exceptional. After overthrowing the forces of the British political agent Major Henry William Richards, the Indian soldiers set up their own government, complete with its own civil and criminal courts and an administrative council.