The importance of Gujarat elections to the future of Indian democracy and the survival of India’s liberal-democratic-nationalist ethos cannot but be reemphasized. 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 best revealed during a great upheaval. Massive uprisings took place in Gujarat during the 1857-58 revolt against the rule of the British East India Company. The areas of these uprisings and the alliances made by social forces against British rule can be correlated with the churning going on in Gujarat today. A look at 1857, therefore, offers a unique opportunity to nationalist democrats to reshape alliances on specific assembly seats in the current situation.

Origins

The British East India Company’s rule began in Gujarat after the final defeat of the Marathas in 1818. But the Gaekwads, the Maratha rulers of Gujarat, had gone over to the British camp in the early 1800s.

Right from the Mughal to the Maratha times, broadly, “10” forces dominated Gujarat: the Kunbi-Patel-Patidar peasantry, the indigenous Brahmins, and Waghers (sailors) of Saurashtra; present-day Other Backward Classes (OBCs), the Kshatriyas (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 (Wilayatees), 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 and 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 the Kunbi-Patel-Patidar peasantry and Waghers in Saurashtra; Rajputs again over the Vaghelas and Thakores in north Gujarat; and a mix of Rajput and a select few Patidars over the Kolis and Bhils in central-south Gujarat. The indigenous Banias were replaced by Bania “outsiders” subservient to the British. Warrior communities were forced to seek employment with the new princely states. Baroda under the Gaekwads was declared the largest state.

In 1947, out of 500-plus princely states in India, the most (nearly half) were located in Gujarat. Out of these, more than 100 were in the Kathiawar (Saurashtra) Agency. Mahi Kantha, Rewa Kantha and Surat were the other three out of a total four of administrative agencies created by the British in this province.

Gujarat witnessed unparalleled prosperity under the Mughals and the Marathas. In fact, scholars have termed Gujarat an incipient Asiatic bourgeois society, which, if allowed to grow, could have initiated an industrial revolution.

British feudalism in Gujarat

But the British reinvented feudalism. Rolling back forces of progress and modern development in trade and industry was the primary reason why so many princely states were created by the British in one area—in Gujarat.

Gujarat is still traumatised by the brutal, reactionary, post-1818 social engineering initiated by the British. That is why the 1857 upheaval took on a decidedly anti-feudal character in Gujarat. Gujarat was perhaps the only place where the Banias played a revolutionary role.

During Shahjahan’s and Aurangzeb’s reign, Gujarati’s Banias not only gave huge loans to the government, they also received loans. The 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 the Mughal economy, the middleman-broker role was minimal.

The Gujarat revolutionary circle

In the mid-19th century, Khanderao, the Baroda Gaekwad 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 Gaekwad, Khanderao’s half-brother, residing at Shahibaug in Ahmedabad, was selected secretly as Baroda’s new prince. The plan was to take Baroda first and then move on to Ahmedabad, and 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 the 7th Infantry men were from Awadh in Uttar Pradesh. On 9 July 1857, an agitation started by Lohar Ahir, the 7th Subedar, saw men of the Gujarat Horse killing British officers and throwing off the Company yoke. The 7th Infantry and the Maratha Horse refused to march against the “rebels.” In September 1857, the 7th Infantry and the Maratha Horse organized the second Ahmedabad rising.

Escaping the city, the Gujarat horsemen moved towards Sarkhej, with Lieutenant 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. The 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 Mahi Kantha 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 Gaekwad’s domain to recruit men for the “rebel” army; he was able to enlist 2,000 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 6 July 1857, pro-Bahadur Shah Zafar elements raised the anti-British East India Company banner at Dohad and Godhra. Tilyadar Khan, a local hereditary Dohad zamindar, gathered armed men and held the city from 6-11 July. The British East India Company mamlatdar and other officers of the city were shut up in the fort.

On 8 July, Captain Buckle—with four guns, 300 infantry and irregular cavalry on board—started from Baroda with the object of reaching Dohad. Led by Hamir Khan, pro-Bahadur Shah Godhra forces attacked Buckle near Devgadh Baria. Earlier, Tilyadar Khan had sent emissaries amongst the Bhils; a strong Bhil contingent reinforced Hamir Khan and the Godhra fighters.

The Devgadh 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 11 July, he found Tilyadar Khan’s men posted at houses, in lanes and behind loop-holed walls. Reinforced by more European forces, Buckle fought his way inch by inch. Tilyadar Khan’s ammunition was soon expended; but by 15 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 Khan and Hamir Khan 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 the Dohad-Godhra 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 15 July, Surajmal, the Dakor landlord in Kheda, attacked Lunawada. Proclaiming Dakor to be Bahadur Shah Zafar’s territory and the “bastion of Gujarati pride,” he instigated the people of Lunawada to rise against their pro-British Rajput prince.

The 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 Gujarat British network.

Kandas, the Charan Panchmahal chief, was the Baroda residents’ trusted ally. Following Surajmal’s attack on Lunawada, Buckle looked towards Kandas to garner Charan support for the British. The 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’s 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, into Patel-Kunbi country. Lulled by the so-called Hindu sympathies of Gujaratis Patels, the British hoped to pit them against the Nayakads and the 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, the Nayakads were under Bhao Saheb Pawar’s influence—the special task of organizing the Panchmahal revolution was entrusted to this Baroda Circle revolutionary.

British East India Company officials arrested Ganpat Rao, Bhao 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 a peasant upsurge in Anand. Capturing nearby villages, Garbad Das’s militia declared Anand a liberated zone. Sent in haste, the 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 Mahi Kantha upheaval

Kheda fell in the Mahi Kantha Agency covering Sabarkantha and Mehsana—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 Mahi Kantha. Helped by Muslim sepoys in Raja Idar’s pay, Chandup Koli revolutionaries expelled Raja’s officials; initial forces sent by Khanderao from Baroda to help the British ally were repulsed. Soon, Dubara Kolis also raised the revolutionary standard.

The Chandup movement inspired the Kolis of Kheralu, Vadnagar and Vijapur, falling under Gaekwad Mahi Kantha domains. The Mohanpur-Khera Kolis joined in. Living in a village shared by Gaekwad and Warsova chief, the Lodara Kolis also decided to overthrow feudal rule.

At Vijapur, Hathi Singh and other government officials were in direct “rebel” communication. Both the Bhils and the Kolis had declared in Bahadur Shah Zafar’s favour; they were receiving regular payments from Delhi and Indore. A rumour that Nana Sahib would soon occupy Ahmedabad and reward the Bhils and the Kolis was doing the rounds; thousands were gathering each day in every village to defy authority.

The Thakur of Mandetti led the Rajput Mahi Kantha community; apart from the Wilayatees, the Sindhi Makaranis made up his militia. Related to the Jodhpur king, the 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.

Rewa Kantha and Surat

In Rewa Kantha and south Gujarat, both close to Bombay, the centre of British East India Company power, risings began in May itself. From Bharuch, Surat and Navsari, they stretched to Nandod and Rajpipla. On 12 June 1857, a 3,000-strong pro-Bahadur Shah Zafar Muslim-Bhil militia gathered at Wagara and Amod; their intention was to attack Bharuch. British forces were posted both near the Narmada and the Mahi rivers. The militia, however, kept evading a direct engagement while making sorties.

Another 5,000-strong Koli-Bhil-Muslim force gathered at Jambusar. While one section was to attack Begum Bari (the magistrate’s bungalow), the other was to rush upon the jail and the treasury. Another pro-Bahadur Shah Zafar Rajpipla contingent was to act a reserve force.

The Rajpipla 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. Rajpipla sepoys sent messages assuring support.

By July, the 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 rumour is prevalent that the British government has lost its raj….consequently, 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…”

British East India Company officials suspected Daiker Babu, a Bengali Surat man of influence, to be in correspondence with Gaekwad’s Hindustani munshi; the 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.


North Gujarat

Mehsana stretched to Patan, Maganlal’s home town, in north Gujarat. The Vaishnava Bania was successful in raising money even from Shravak Jain Banias. Dwarkadas was the principal leader of the Shroff/jeweller community; Jetha headed the grocers’ association.

On reaching Kheralu, Maganlal, now living 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 who sent money to Kheralu.

In Mehsana, the sadhus helped Maganlal—emissaries of the pro-Zafar Dwaraka Shankaracharya had done their work. By June 1857, 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, where, under the guise of begging for alms, they instigated housewives to “taunt” and goad their husbands to pick up swords for Bahadur Shah Zafar.

At Patan, the Vaghela Rajputs, especially the small landlords, offered help in case the revolutionaries took 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 women-folk 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.

This is the first in a two-part series. The next part will cover Saurashtra.

Amaresh Misra is the author of ‘War of Civilisations: India AD 1857’ (Rupa, 2008). The views expressed are his own.

Sources:

The Gujaratis: The People, Their history and Culture, Krishanlal Mohanlal Jhaveri, Vol. 3, Cosmo, New Delhi, 2003

Gujarat in 1857, Ramanlal Kakalbhai Dharaiya, 1970, University of Gujarat

Rashtrano Swatantra Sangram ane Gujarat, Dr Shantilal Desai

1857 Kranti ma Gujarat, Ashutosh Bhatt

Surat Gazetteer, 1880; Mehsana Gazetteer, 1882; Ahmedabad Gazetteer, 1875