Mangal Pandey (c. 19 July 1827 – 8 April 1857) was a sepoy (soldier) in the 34th Regiment of the Bengal Native Infantry (BNI) of the English East India Company. He is widely seen in India as one of its first freedom fighters. The Indian government has issued postage stamps commemorating him as freedom fighter and his life and actions have been adapted to the silver screen.
Mangal Pandey was born on 19 July 1827 in the village of Nagwa in district of Ballia (Uttar Pradesh), at that time administrative headquarter of Ghazipur in a [Bhumihar Brahmin] family of Ghazipur division. He joined the English East India Company’s forces in 1849 at the age of 22. Pandey was part of the 5th Company of the 34th Bengal Native Infantry and is primarily known for attacking officers of that regiment in an incident that was the first act of what came to be known as the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 or the First War of Indian Independence. It is said that Mangal Pandey was a devout Hindu and that he practiced his religion diligently.
Revolutionary Activities and Execution
Mangal Pandey was 22 years old when he joined the Bengal Native Infantry (BNI) in the 34th Regiment. However, his joining in the army was entirely unplanned. Duringhis visit to Akbarpur, a regiment that was marching towards Benaras recruited him on the road. He willingly gave his consent. However, his move was not entertained by his friend Nakki Khan. Although his father, Divakar Pandey had agreed to it with impassivity.
The Barrackpore Unrest was primarily a joint venture of the 34th Native Infantry, 2nd Native Infantry and the 19th Native Infantry. Mangal Pandey was part of the 34th N.I. It was in Barrackpore that the first news of natives arising to revolt had reached the British generals. Mangal, along with his trusted band of followers in the two remaining regiments had decided upon to revolt against the callousness of Lt. Wheeler. He was pivotal in inciting men from different parts of the country to unite and make the call a success. Mangal had become furious after hearing the issue of the greased cartridge in Barrackpore, which at first was taken as a rumour by all. He was the sole man to opt for extreme measures to stand alone in his crusade. Things were not that much promising in the passing stages of the unrest episodes, and Mangal had cause to feel downcast. In spite of several threats from English rulers, he did not budge.
The Calcutta-Patna Conspiracy was planned in gigantic proportions beginning from Bengal and reaching the extremities of northern India. Mangal Pandey, in the beginning was not interested much to join such outcries, he was too engulfed in his private issues. However, his boyhood companion, Nakki Khan had induced him to the problem. Gradually, after meeting several zamindars from Bengal, Mangal was convinced that the conspiracy could be turned into a huge conspiracy. Men from Patna and other parts of Bihar started to collaborate with the ousted Maharajas of the princely states like Baji Rao or Nana Sahib. In his enterprises, Mangal Pandey had several allies to assist him. The Walliullah-ites (also known as the Wahabis) were such a bunch noted for their valiancy.
The 34th BNI Regiment was disbanded “with disgrace” on May 6 as a collective punishment, after an investigation by the Government, for failing to perform their duty in restraining a mutinous soldier and protecting their officer. This came after a period of six weeks in the course of which, petitions for leniency were examined in Calcutta. Shaikh Paltu was promoted on the spot to the post of Havaldar (native sergeant) by General Hearsey, for his conduct during the incident.
The Indian historian Surendra Nath Sen notes that the 34th B.N.I. had had a good recent record and that the Court of Enquiry had not found any evidence of a connection with unrest at Berhampur involving the 19th BNI four weeks before (see below). However Mangal Pandey’s actions and the failure of the armed and on duty sepoys of the quarter-guard to take action convinced the British military authorities that the whole regiment was unreliable. It appeared that Pandey had acted without first taking other sepoys into his confidence but that antipathy towards their British officers within the regiment had led most of those present to act as spectators rather than obeying orders.
The primary motivation behind Mangal Pandey’s behaviour is attributed to a new type of bullet cartridge used in the Enfield P-53 rifle which was to be introduced in the Bengal Army that year.
The cartridge was rumoured to have been greased with animal fat, primarily from pigs and cows, which could not be consumed by Muslims and Hindus respectively (the former being abhorrent to Muslims and the latter a holy animal of the Hindus).The cartridges had to be bitten at one end prior to use.The Indian troops were of the opinion that this was an intentional act of the British, with the aim of defiling their religions.
Commandant Wheeler of the 34th BNI was known as a zealous Christian preacher, and this may also have impacted the Company’s behaviour. The wife of Captain William Halliday of 56th BNI had the Bible printed in Urdu and Nagri and distributed among the sepoys, thus raising suspicions amongst them that the British were intent on converting them to Christianity.
Also, the 19th and 34th Bengal Native Infantry were stationed at Lucknow during the time of annexation of Oudh because of alleged misgovernment by the Nawab, on February 7, 1856. The annexation had another implication for sepoys in the Bengal Army (a significant portion of whom came from that princely state). Before the annexation, these sepoys had the right to petition the British Resident at Lucknow for justice — a significant privilege in the context of native courts. As a result of the annexation, they lost that right, since that state no longer existed. Moreover, this action was seen by the residents of the state as an affront to their honour, the annexation being done in violation of an existing treaty. The sepoys were accordingly affected by the general discontent which had been stirred up by the annexation. In February 1857, both these regiments were situated in Barrackpore.
The 19th Bengal Native Infantry Regiment is important because it was the regiment charged with testing the new cartridges on February 26, 1857. However, right up to the mutiny the new rifles had not been issued to them and the cartridges in the magazine of the regiment were as free of grease as they had been through the preceding half century. However, the paper used in wrapping the cartridges was of a different colour, arousing suspicions. The non-commissioned officers of the regiment refused to accept the cartridges on the 26 February. This information being conveyed to the commanding officer, Colonel Mitchell, he took it upon himself to try to convince the sepoys that the cartridges were no different from those they had been accustomed to and that they need not bite it. He concluded his exhortation with an appeal to the native officers to uphold the honour of the regiment and a threat to court-martial such sepoys as refused to accept the cartridge. However, the next morning the sepoys of the regiment seized their bell of arms (weapons store). The subsequent conciliatory behaviour of Colonel Mitchell convinced the sepoys to return to their barracks. A Court of Enquiry was ordered which after an investigation lasting nearly a month, recommended the disbanding of the regiment. The same was carried out on the 31 March. The 19th BNI were allowed to retain their uniforms and provided by the Government with an allowance to return home.