Sitaram Pandey: The Fascinating Memoirs of a British Indian Sepoy

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    Sitaram Pandey would have lived and died in anonymity just as every other Subedar did, but he chose to leave behind the story of his life, thereby becoming immortal in the pages of history. He wrote a memoir, a practice that was then rare largely restricted to the elite.

    From Sepoy to Subedar (1861) is the only published account by an Indian soldier, of his experiences serving in the army of the British East India Company. The book records the fascinating life of Pandey, who was born and raised in rural Awadh and rose from the position of a Sepoy to that of a Subedar. A Sepoy being the lowest position in the army, similar to that of a Jawan and the position of a Subedar, parallel to that of a Captain.

    It was upon the insistence of a Lieutenant-Colonel James T Norgate, under whom he had served in the 12th Punjab Infantry during the Revolt of 1857, that Pandey began writing his memoir. Although fluent in Persian and Urdu, he chose to write his memoirs in his mother tongue, Awadhi, a dialect of Hindi spoken in central Uttar Pradesh.

    Even after writing his memoirs, Pandey was unwilling to submit a copy of it to Norgate , and as Norgate mentions in the book’s preface, it “occasioned a great trouble and a great amount of assurances had to be given before the Soobadar (Sitaram Pandey) could part with his memoirs; so afraid are the natives, particularly those receiving pension of saying a word which might be considered to censure government.”

    A year after he retired from the army, in 1861, Pandey finally did submit a copy to Norgate, who translated it into English. The memoirs, according to Norgate, were first published in an Indian periodical, which soon wound up its operations. Norgate did not name the periodical. In 1873 and 1880, respectively, subsequent editions of the memoirs were published. The account, which spans more than 40 years of active service, received much critical acclaim and was hailed as a fine account of the British occupation of India from the perspective of a junior officer.

    In 1910, Lieutenant D C Phillott, a British Indian army officer and a scholar of Hindi, Urdu and Persian, translated Norgate’s version into simple Urdu and it was published in a serialised format in the Indian Army’s official newspaper, Fauji Akhbaar. Later, it was also published as a book titled Khwab-O-Khayaal (Dreams & Thoughts). Phillott also recommended his own translation as a standard textbook for the Higher Standard Examination in Urdu. Due to this academic importance, the book won many more readers.

    The Man and his Account

    Sitaram Pandey was born in Tilowee (present-day Tiloi) in what was then the Kingdom of Awadh, in present-day central Uttar Pradesh, in 1797. Tiloi is now a subdivision or tehsil of Amethi district in Uttar Pradesh. He was born into a Brahmin family, which was relatively prosperous and owned large agricultural land holdings. Sitaram attended a village school and learnt to be a farmer from his father.

    Pandey’s maternal uncle was a Jemadar or a Lieutenant, in the Company’s troops. It was an honourable post, one rank below that of a Subedar or Captain. He would occasionally visit the family and narrate fascinating tales about his time and exploits in the army. These tales made a strong impression on the young Sitaram, who became determined to follow in his uncle’s footsteps and join the Company ‘Bahadur’, a suffix that became attached with the Company owing to its rapid geographic expansion and military might.

    At the age of 17, Pandey announced his decision to join the army and his family only reluctantly agreed. On 10th October 1814, he left home to pursue a life in the Company barracks. He says in his memoirs that his possessions on this journey consisted of his “pony, a bag of Ashrafis (sovereign gold coins), a lota (portable metal pot), a string, three brass dishes, one iron dish and a spoon, two changes of dress, an easy turban, a dagger called ‘bichhwa’, and a pair of shoes”.

    Thus, began Pandey’s tempestuous journey of the next 48 years, during which time he fought the Gurkhas, the Pindaris, the Afghans and the Sikhs. While in service, he received seven serious injuries, he was awarded six medals, he found the love of his life, and was even sold as a slave on one occasion!

    Throughout his memoir, Pandey assumes an authentic and unbiased tone. He doesn’t mince words when he pulls up the Company administration or Indian society. He is spontaneous, raw and curious. The book is laden with opinions which give the reader an insight into the author’s world view and those of the sepoys of his time.

    Views on Caste and Tradition

    The Bengal Army in which Pandey served, majorly consisted of upper caste Rajputs and Brahmins from Awadh, and intra-caste hierarchies and parochialism were strongly prevalent when Pandey joined the Company troops. However, the Company’s armies openly encouraged inter-caste interaction, dormitories and common dining. As a result, the army of ‘Company Bahadur’ was seen by many orthodox sanatani (Orthodox) Hindus as a ploy to destroy the institution of caste!

    Interestingly, when he writes about his admission into the army, Pandey does not make any comment or observation with regard to intermixing of castes or common dwelling. When he first arrived in the cantonment area, he was enamoured of the European ways of life and seemed too busy to get embroiled in questions of caste purity. On certain occasions in his memoirs, he assumes a rather cynical and even critical view of tradition and caste purity.

    Throughout his service in the Company Bahadur, Pandey claims that he ‘lost his caste’ on two occasions, and it was only after performing prolonged and onerous rituals that he was able to ‘regain’ his caste. The first time was when on one of his expeditions, he was perturbed by fatigue and thirst. He ended up begging for water from a girl belonging to the Dom Caste, where he was considered to be ‘untouchables’. The second time was when he participated in the First Anglo Afghan War, for which he crossed the Indus which was a forbidden act for orthodox Hindus.

    When he returned from Afghanistan, after participating in the First Anglo Afghan War (1839-42) he lamented the loss of his caste and found himself helpless. He writes, “All this time, I was treated by the Brahmins as an outcaste, and could only associate with Musalmans and Christian drummers and musicians, who were the only people who would speak to me. But as I had no money, I could not regain my caste just then.”

    Soon after his induction into the army, Pandey was married to a woman chosen by the elders of his family. He had no say in this matter and was not even allowed to see his wife before marriage, a fact he deeply resented. He writes, “You must know, my Lord, that this (the choice and decision of marriage) is done by our parents and until the night of our marriage, we are not allowed to see the faces of our wives.” In India, ‘arranging’ a marriage was the order of the day and we can therefore assume that his resentment stemmed from his exposure to the European way of life.

    When Pandey re-joined his regiment, he was dispatched to Rajputana, and from where he moved towards Nagpur to take on the Arab mercenaries of Appa Saheb, the ruler of Nagpur. But in a dramatic turn of events, when the army launched a raid at a village called Ahunpura, bustling with Arab mercenaries, Pandey came across a woman in distress and saved her from an Arab mercenary. She begged Pandey for refuge since she had been kidnapped by the Pindaris and sold to an Arab, and now her family would not accept her back as she had apparently lost her honour and caste.

    The girl was not a Brahmin but a Thakur by caste, and Pandey fell for her, granted her refuge even against the wishes of his senior officials, and married her some time later. A second marriage amongst North Indian Brahmins was not a common occurrence during those days. While Maharajas, Nawabs and Jagirdars kept multiple legitimate and illegitimate partners, the common people at large in Awadh practised monogamy. Even today, an inter-caste love marriage for the upper castes in India remains a bold and courageous step and so one can imagine how bold a step Pandey had taken then!

    Views on Sahibs, Memsahibs and Corruption

    As one flips through the pages of Pandey’s memoirs, one can’t but help but notice his admiration for a professional and regularly paid standing army. This was the early-18th century, when the Mughal Empire had crumbled and large pockets across the plains of India were crippled with anarchy and disorder perpetrated by roving bands of thieves and bandits such as the Thugs and the Pindaris. At such a time, Pandey looks towards his employers as the only force which could restore order in its true sense.

    He writes in his memoir, “Hindustan was at this time tormented by demons from the lowest hill. I cannot describe the horrors of those days: Ram, Ram, Seetaram! - may they never come again! The very names of Pindaris, or of Cheeto, their chief, was accursed. Merchants trembled when they heard it, young women wept; no one felt safe.”

    Pandey considered the army of the Company Bahadur as the most formidable fighting force in the region, not because they were best trained or equipped with the best arms, but because they fought for an institution and not for an individual.

    “In my opinion, the reason why the English are invincible is that they do not care for defeat… A wonderful thing is they do not get in confusion when their leader is killed - another officer takes his place and the men obey just the same. Now in a native army, if a sirdar is killed, the whole army falls into confusion and generally takes to flight. And the chief reason for this difference is, the Rajahs and Nawabs generally fight for their own benefit… Another reason is, few princes of Hindustan ever regularly pay their troops, and when an army is allowed to pay itself by plunder, there can be no real discipline. The sirkar’s (Government) officers fight, but their whole object is not plunder alone – the strict rules of the army prevent this to any great extent; they receive their pay regularly and feel sure they will get it.”

    Perhaps Pandey gave his employers far more credit than they deserved, with history being replete with references to the English indulging in ruthless plunder. But the other point he makes, about authority, hierarchy and command, is pertinent. Conversely, Pandey does not mince words when he underlines the flaws in the army. Despite their effective army, the Sahibs (European employer or superior in colonial India) often lived in their own cocoon and were difficult to approach. Thus, there was a lack of communication between the European officers and Indian sepoys.

    Among us, there is great dislike to the new ways; one Sahib upsets what the other has done and we do not know what to do because what we are taught one day is wrong the next,” Pandey notes.

    During the Afghan expedition of 1839-42, Pandey realised quite early that the mission was headed for imminent doom. He saw no reason the Indian army should get involved in a succession dispute in Afghanistan.

    “As we began to approach Candahar (present-day Kandahar), the truth began to come out, that in spite of all the assurances that the Shah had given to us in Hindustan, that the Afghans were longing his return, in reality they did not like him as their ruler. Now again fear and remorse attacked the hearts of Sepoys... (but) the Sahibs did not know the real state of affairs and could not contradict any reports circulated in the bazaar,” Pandey records in his memoirs.

    On Disillusionment, the Revolt of 1857 and Islamophobia

    According to Pandey, the disaster of the first Anglo Afghan War (1839-42) was the beginning of the unease among the sepoys. Pressure had started building as early as 1844/45, but the English continued to look the other way rather than address the concerns of the sepoys. He goes on to make an explosive claim, which indicates that the Revolt of 1857 may have, in fact, been planned as early as a decade before it occurred.

    “The sepoys were discontented... they complained that the Sirkar had not performed, that promises which were made to induce them to go Afghanistan, and now they had returned, they had gained nothing; neither promotion nor inam (reward)... Several emissaries from the court of the Badshah of Delhi (Bahadur Shah Zafar) came into our lines, and tried to find out the temper and general feeling of the army... I reported all this to my Quartermaster Sahib, who only laughed at me, and I went to the Colonel Sahib, who listened to me very attentively, but he said he was afraid I had brought the accusation against the regiment in spite, and warned me not to talk to him on such a subject again,” Pandey writes in his memoirs.

    Similarly, the annexing of Awadh by the East India Company and the needless dethroning of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah on the grounds of alleged of “maladministration” in 1856 did not go down well with the sepoys. A large number of sepoys in the armies of the Company came from Awadh and the dethronement of their beloved Nawab was difficult for them to accept.

    “In my humble opinion, I consider that the minds of the sepoys were by these measures (takeover of Awadh) made to feel distrust and were induced to plot against the Sirkar by this seizing of Oudh. Agents of the Nawab of Lucknow and also of the King of Delhi were sent all over India to try the temper of the Army. They worked upon the feelings of the men telling them how treacherously the Feringhees (foreigners) had behaved to their King; they invented 10,000 lies and promises to induce the soldiers to mutiny and turn against their masters – the English, with the object of restoring the throne to the Emperor of Delhi which they maintained was quite within the power of the army if it would only act together and do what they advised,” says Pandey.

    With tensions still running high, the infamous ‘greased cartridge’ incident came to light and further added fuel to the fire. This incident refers to the alleged rumour that the sepoys’ rifle cartridges had been greased with cow fat and pig fat, which was religiously unacceptable to Hindus and Muslims, respectively. To use these cartridges, the sepoys had to first tear them open with their teeth.

    In April 1857, Pandey left for his village on vacation. Only a few weeks later, the sepoys rose in revolt and anarchy swept the northern plains of India. Pandey was critical of the revolt, and although he was handcuffed and compelled by a group of rebellious sepoys to join the revolt, he refused to do so and was later rescued by an English officer.

    In line with the popular English notion at the time, Pandey put the blame of the revolt on the Muslims. This idea was in line with the theory of Major JF Harriot of The 3rd Cavalry and the president officer of trial of Bahadur Shah Zafar (the last Mughal Emperor, reign 1837 – 1857), first suggested (during the trial) that the revolt was essentially an attempt by the Muslims to re-establish an Islamic dynasty in India.

    “The Musalmans were the first instigators of the mutiny; and the Hindus followed, like a sheep over the bank of a river... Let the English Sirkar look well after its Hindu servants; remove as much as possible all causes of complaint, and they will not resist it; besides which they seldom commence a rebellion. . With whatever pretences they (Muslims) may come forward, however earnestly they may assert they are faithful and well-wishers of the English Raj, let the Saheb never trust them,” Pandey opines.

    Perhaps Pandey was merely expressing the opinions of his employers as there is no doubt that upper-caste Hindus, especially Brahmins and Rajputs, had also taken part in the Revolt wholeheartedly and it wasn’t confined to Muslims.

    Man Or Myth?

    According to Lt-Col Norgate, the English translator of Pandey’s autobiography, the original manuscript of Pandey’s memoirs, composed in Awadhi, were lost. A copy had been sent over to Norgate by the son of Pandey, after the latter had retired from service and settled down in his village. No other copy has ever surfaced. While the noted ICS officer and later Indian diplomat, Sir Girja Shankar Bajpai claimed to have read the original manuscript, his son later denied having any such knowledge when the son spoke to James Lunt, the editor of a subsequent edition based on Norgate’s translation that was published in 1970.

    Scepticism has thus arisen with regard to the very existence of Sitaram Pandey. Lord Sidmouth, a military historian who closely scrutinised Pandey’s memoirs pointed out inconsistences in the events mentioned and in the regiments in which Pandey claimed to have served. However, another historian, Sir Peter Cadell, says the references to Indian society and Hindu customs would have been impossible for someone like Norgate to invent. In his own defence, James Lunt points out that although on certain occasions Pandey cannot accurately remember years and dates, that was because he had not maintained a diary or a journal.

    In the same vein, well-known historian William Dalrymple, who relied on the memoirs of Pandey for his books The Last Mughal (2006) and Return Of A King (2012), finds himself “inclined to believe the authenticity of the text” after having read and compared the content with multiple letters written by other Company sepoys.

    Regardless of its criticisms, Sitaram Pandey’s memoir is the only account by a sepoy which still survives. In a country as large as India, it would be naive to assume that only one sepoy put into words the story of his life. Perhaps there are other such memoirs still locked up in museums or in the basements of the government archives, left to the mercy of termites, humidity and floods, waiting to be discovered.


    Shashank Shekhar Misra is an alumnus of National Law University, Lucknow, and an advocate at the High Court of Allahabad. He has a penchant for Indian history. He tweets at @shashank109.

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