The Muslims of Tamil Nadu in the uprising of 1857

The government of India on the event of the 150th anniversary, depicted the mutiny of 1857 as the “First war of Indian Independence”, a description used by Karl Marx1, There is a lot of discussions and debates over naming the tragic events of 1857. Historians call it as mutiny, revolt, rebellion, insurrection, uprising, insurgence, first war of independence etc., whatever it may be the out breaks were against the British authority for the atrocities committed on the social and economic fronts. The Hindus and Muslims participated in the revolts on many common grievances but the Muslims were held responsible for many of these uprisings and punished.

          The decline of the Mughal Empire resulted in the rise of a number of small independent states. They were always in conflict with each other, providing an opportunity to the Europeans to play one against the other. The Portuguese were the first to arrive on the west coast of India in 1498. The Dutch, the French and the English followed and established commercial settlements along the coast and interfered with the internal politics of the local rulers. The native rulers had to depend upon one or the other European power. There was a political polarization leading to hostilities amongst the European powers, liberally assisted by the local rulers and chieftains. In that context, the English emerged stronger by 1761-63 and in due course, spread the tentacles of their imperialism and reduced India to a vassal state of England. By 1803 all local chiefs were deprived of their powers. However, the British remained immune to the political aspirations of Indians. The British ascendancy in the southern region of India excited strong reactions. Subordinate chieftains, the Poligars and Zamindars resorted to isolated disturbances during the early periods. Mutinies of troops and Commanders and pretests by people had also been reported right from the last quarter of the 17th century. The most formidable of these rebellions occurred in Tamil Nadu.

          Under the British, taxes were oppressive, the exaction of the taxes was violent. Trade and industry were disrupted famines added misery to the people. People felt that the  scared customs of the land were violated. The political melody and economic tragedy caused popular bittemess, which manifested itself in a severe reaction Alignments and leagues of political forces, directed against the British domination, came into existence but these seemed ineffective as they were neither organized nor properly coordinated. It cannot be denied that the local grievances and personal dissatisfaction too played their natural role in the organization of the defiant leagues, yet their exalted political will served as a driving force of the entire movement.           The outbreak in 1857 has not happened all in a sudden the growing discontent was felt from the late halt of the 17th century of all among the political events anterior to 1857.        

The uprising of 1857.

Role of Muslims:

          The uprising of 1857 had its origin in the general discontent of the people and the native army against the British rule. The greased cartridges was said to have sparked the fire and the regiment stationed at Barrackpore in Bengal fired the first shot of revolt. It was quickly suppressed. Next, the sepoys of Meerut, Mathura, Kanpur, Lucknow and Allahabad also revolted. The people also took advantage of the military mutiny to redress their grievances as a result of harsh policies adopted by the British government. The old royal houses and aristocracy entered the fry to reassert their authority. Both, the Hindus and the Muslims were in protest against the mistreatment meted out to Bahadur Shah II, the Mughal Emperor of Delhi by the British. The disintegration of the Mughal rule brought economic disasters to the population of North India. After long battles and large scale killings on both sides, the revolt was suppressed mercilessly.

          The events of the 1857 revolt in North India have caught the attention of the historians resulting in the publication of numerous works. But they have unfortunately left out the role of South India. An impression has been created as if the South India remained indifferent to the uprising. As a matter of fact, it was not confined on North India alone. Its impact was felt throughout India especially on the socio-political front of the respective regions. South India was not insular, the people and the military revolted in many places. Suffice to note here that the total number of men tried by court martial in the Bengal Army, the Bombay Army and the Madras Army during the 1857-88 disturbances were 1954,  1,213 and 1044 respectively2. One can see  that the Madras Army as compared with Bengal to Bombay Armies did not lag behind in this respect Muslims were the majority to be punished. The Madras, Presidency contributed its due share to this important struggle. The Muslims in the Presidency participated in the uprising in a large number.

          A mine of information is available on the historical events of the Uprising of 1857 in the Madras Presidency in the records of the military, judicial and political departments, Fort St.George Gazette, Madras Almanac, administration reports of the capital city, dispatches and state papers preserved in the Tamil Nadu archives.3

          At the outbreak of the revolt the educated pro British Hindus and Muslims presented a loyal address to Lord Harris governor of Madras on 2 July 1857 expressing their aberrance of the atrocities by their fellow countrymen in Madras and other parts of the country and they pledged support and warm attachment to the Raj4. More than one hundred Muslim merchants signed a letter of loyalty and sent it to the Collector of Tanjore who forwarded it to the government..5 The leading merchants of Thiruvannamalai expressed their joy at the success of the British army against the mutineers in Bengal and other places.6 The Muslims of Nagore and Nagapattinam presented an address of loyalty; the Government expressing their gratitude  and loyalty and good will.7 There were expressions of loyalty from Muslims in other parts of Tamil Nadu also. So during the great uprising of 1857, the Muslims in Tamil Nadu were by and large faithful to the British. The pro British memorials were published in the government gazette and a meeting of the citizens, who were pro British  was convened and  resolutions were passed in support of the government. A voluntary Guard of cavalry of 700 armature civilians was formed to assist the law enforcing officials.

The meeting was held under the aegis of the government and cannot be considered to be representative of the views held by the entire community. Based on this a resolution of the government in September 1857 observed that “the inflammable situation was so deep and it was learnt that a large Musllaman population would  participate in these feelings and at Madras itself and the towns of Arcot, Vellore and Trichirappalli animosity was shown in consequences of extinction the Nawabsherip of carnatic”. Further the government published in the press the refutation of the loyal sepoys about the greased cartridges, but the publication in vernacular press had become late andit had a deleterious effect on the Native community. The policy of annexing Native States on the absence lineal mall heirs was also justified.8 These facts reveal that it is far from correct to mention that the educated community ranged itself on the side of law and order and condemned the rising in unambiguous terms. It is also said by the government that conspiracies were discovered in various parts of Madras presidency and European infantry had been dispatched to overawe the Mohammadans. The letter of Lord Dalhousie reveals that the Mohammadans of the Madras Presidency were not entirely indifferent to the happenings in the North.9               Though it looked as if the Muslims were peaceful the situation at large was inflammatory.

          The resolution of September 1857 further added that in Masulipattinam a green flag and a proclamation urging the slaughter of the English were seized on the 10 July and it was reported that prayers were offered in mosques, for the success of the king of Delhi. Nizam and his ministers were urged to begin a holy war in which the people were ready to join. It was also said that some soldiers and their emissaries from Bengal have intruded in to Madras regiments to spread mischievous designs. Thus the government was well aware of the feelings of the army and general public.

          When the Uprising of 1857 broke out a Barrackope in North India on 31 March 1857, the news spread like wildfire throughout India. The Governor General directed the Governor of the Presidency to take effective measures to prevent the sepoys from participating in the revolt. As a mark of protest against the British the natives in the city of Madras and other places in the Presidency raised the banner of revolt.

          From the early days in 1857 Madras Presidency became an important centre of South India where anti-British activities both in army and among the civilians were organized. Many activities from Chennai also urged the people in other areas to join the revolt.

          Sultan Baksh, a member connected with the royal family of Bahadur Shah, Emperor of Delhi and enjoying a pension in that capacity, came to Chengulpet in July 1857 to help in organizing anti-British uprising there in cooperation with the local activist Arunagiri and Krishna, the two leader who were leading the revolt in Chengulpet. They held secret meetings with the local revolutionaries. Their main target was to cut telegraph wires thereby to disrupt communication system. They also intruded into the jails and prepared the prisoners to rise and make them useful auxiliaries when the outbreak occurred. Sultan Bakhsh was apprehended by the police and brought to Chennai and he was warned that he would forfeit his pension if he continued to indulge in anti-British activities. He was ordered to remain in Chennai. The government ordered the Magistrate of Chengulpet to take suitable action against the Mohammadans of Chengulpet for organizing secret meetings with the guidance of Sultan Bakhsh. The Chengulpet uprising was eventually suppressed by the British with a heavy hand. Those who participated in the revolts  were charged with treason under Act 14 of 1857.10

          In North Arcot, even before the rebellion started, secret meetings were held for ogranising war against the British, as early as January 1857. It is on record that one, Syed Kussa Mohamed Auguzay Hussain, held talks in this connection with the Zamindars of Punganur and Vellore. Kussa was apprehended by the British in March 1857. At Ranipet there were commotions among the people from the beginning of the outbreak of rebellion. The government issued orders in July 1857, to dispossess the parties in the garb of fakirs moved around the town preaching anti-British feelings. The fakirs were prevented from entering Madras and those who were suspected were arrested. They were apprehended and were identified as Bengali Hindus. In February 1858 at Ranipet, a serious ‘grain riot’ (a riot against the scarcity of food grains) occurred manifesting dissatisfaction of the peasants and the people against the British administration. Mohinuddeen Sahib of Ranipet was tried and convicted on charges of ‘openly using highly contemptuous and inflammatory language’ against the measures taken by the British government11.

          Triplicane in Madras the seat of the Nawab of Arcot, was the pivot of the uprising in 1857. People in general and Muslims in particular, were unhappy over the ill treatment of the Nawab of Arcot by the British. The sudden exit of the Nawab from the political arena had a disastrous effect on the socio-political life of the Muslims at Madras and other places. They expressed their resentment against the British by making seditious propaganda.

          The Triplicane Muslims declared by pasting wall posters, “we are ready to fight against the frangi kafirs. The British had unleashed a reign of terror and treating us as slaves. People should rise for an armed rebellion; we declare that this is a jihad for our freedom. Those who fight against the frangi will enter the portals of heaven and those who slumber will go to hell”. A tense situation prevailed throughout the year in Triplicane area. A report from Fort.St.George quotes that Triplicane looked like a magazine and people were ready to march. About 15,000 protesters could come out at a time. The Government was alert and took all precautions to keep the agitators at bay. Activists of Madras, Gulam Gouse and shaik Mannu were arrested for sticking posters of highly treasonable character and transported for life to Tennaserrim and later transferred to Andamans12. Some more indiscriminating literature were seized from the inhabitants in various parts of Madras city.13

          Protest and revolt in many parts of the Presidency was reported. In Chengulpet district, Pallavan was another centre of the revolt. The agitators cut the communications links like the telegraphic lines and others. Muslim participation was considerable in this place. In Coimbatore, one Sheikh Abdullh was imprisoned for instigating the soldiers in the regiments to revolt. In Bhavani (in Erode) people in large numbers came out in protest. Puducherry and Cuddalore were tense warranting the attention of the authorities14. Syed Kasim alias Syed and Sheikh Imam were arrested in connection with the revolt at Cuddalore.

          There were revolts at Salem and many other places in the district in 1857. Hyder, a peon in the government service, was apprehended for his ‘seditious’ remarks against the Union Jack. Muslim fakirs were prevented from entering the town. Fakirs from Srirangam, Madurai and other southern towns were on the move in Salem. At Madurai, in March 1858, there were cases of revolutionary activities. Thus, throughout the period of the uprising, excitements, commotion, movement of activists and their arrest prevailed in different parts of Tamil Nadu15.

          Educated persons spread the message of revolt to the people in the remote villages and also among the soldiers. At Chengulpet, Syed Hameed Jaleel, Munshi an employee in the court at Chengulpet distributed revolutionary reports containing the incidents that happened in Bengal and other parts of India. The killing of the Eruopean soldiers and English officials as well as the torturing and killing of native sepoys were recorded in these reports. He collected the information from newspapers and other sources pertaining to the uprising of 1857 in North India and conveyed to the soldiers in Madras and Chengulpet. He was arrested on the charge of sedition and sentenced to seven years imprisonment with hard labour under section I of Act XIV of 1857.16

          The anti – British activities also prevailed at Coimbatore, Malabar, Canara and the northern districts of the Madras Presidency. For suppressing the revolt, the Governor  General in Council enacted anti-revolutionary act (Act XV of 1857) to regulate the establishment of printing books and papers. Pamphlets and posters, arousing what they called seditious activities against the British, were distributed and displayed by the revolutionaries. Along with this, on 30 May 1857 the Governor  General  hurridly passed an Act (Act No. XI of 1857) for the prevention of offences against the state17. This was followed by another Act (Act No.XVI of 1857) empowering Commissioners to court marshal and punish all heinous offenders in disturbed districts18.

          The Madras administration made all possible resistance to prevent the spread of the uprising. Fort St.George Gazette (Started in 1838), the official publication of the government was used to make frequent announcements not only to threaten the revolutionaries but also to encouraged the officials who were supporting the government.18  To encourage the European officials  to quell the revolutionaries, awards and promotions were announced, accordingly on 1 October 1858 two English officials, namely, Monay and Hollings were honoured for their role in saving the lives of  English military officials. Monay was promoted and Hollings was given increments in his salary.20

          In June 1857, the 8th Cavalry of Madras Brigade from Bengaluru, which had to make its march to Madras for proceeding to Bengal, revolted against the British officials during their camp at Sriperumpudur near Kanchipuram. They hoisted the green flag on the temple tower. Most of the soldiers in the cavalry were Muslims. The native officers were also Muslims such as, Subedar Major Syed Peer, Subedar Mohamad Wazir, Subedar Mohmaed Imam, Subedar Syed Mohideen, subedar Syed Anser, information officer Fazil khan, Havildar Major Shaikh Hussain. All of them were court marshaled. The British tactfully suppressed the revolt by removing their fire arms and horses. The native officials and sepoys were dismissed. During the revolt about 1044, soldiers of the Madras Reginment were court marshaled. Out of the 800 prisoners, deported to Andaman, Some 250 were from South India, most of them being from Madras Presindency Sheikh Ibrahim of Thanjavur one of the soldiers, was hanged for his anti-British activities21.

          Thus the events in 1857, the mutiny in the army, for reasons of  ill treatment of the native soldiers on various counts and the uprising of the general public for suppression of personal liberties, will go to show the disaffection on the rule of the British East India company. Though the Indian Communities in general both Hindus and Muslims – participated in the revolts, the Muslims were singled out for worst treatments and it intensified the divide and rule policy of the British which pose threat to  the peaceful living of the Muslim to this day.


In Tamil Nadu as in other parts of India the early expression of opposition to the English East India Company took the form of localized rebellions and uprisings in that the role of Muslims was considerable and it was a real challenge to the company rule.

The 1857 Uprisings which is said to be a prelude to infuse a sense nationalism among Indian population.


1. Commemoration stamp First war of Indepnedance 1857, issued in 1988, by the government of India.

2. British Parliamentary Papers 1859 Session II vol.23, p. 467, Tamil Nadu Archives.

3. M.Sundraraj, “Madras in 1857 Revolt as reflected in the Madras records, proceedings of the 58th session of Indian Record Commission – Repair 25,26 April 2003; N.Rajendran, “The Revol of 1857, Rebellions prelude and Nationalistic Response in Tamil Nadu” in Rethinking 1857, (ed) Sebaya sachi Bhatacharya, orient and longman, New Delhi 2007.

4. Madras Almanac and compendium of Intelligence in 1858, Madras Assylum Press-1858 p.554 (Tamil Nadu Archives)

5. 29-30 political, 19 January, 1858. Taminadu Archives

6. 33-34, political, 15 Sep 1857; 26-27, pol., 13 Oct., 1857.

7. Government of Bengal, Judical Department proceedings, No. 49 of  June 1869..

8. Tamil Nadu Archives Judicial proceedings 3 September 1857.

9. J.G.A.Baird (ed), Private Letters to Marquees of Dalhousie, London, 1911), p.357.

10. Madras Judicial Department G.O.No. 1081/A  30 September 1857; Judicial Consultations, No.71 of 4.8.1857

11. Fort St.George, Judicial Consultaions, 30.06.1857

12. N.Srinivasan Viduthalai Poril Viyapputtum Nikalchigal (Tamil) (History of Freedom movement – Some incidents) Alliance, Chennai 1988 pp. 236-240 Judicial consultation F.S.G.` No.16 G. February 1858 (TNA)

13.  B.S.Baliga, Madras in the Struggle for Independence, p.2

14.  Judicial consultation F.S.G.` No.16 G. February 1858 (TNA)

15. Fort St.George Judicial Consultaions 20.10.1857, 10.11.1858

16. G.O.1127 Judicial Department Ist September 1857

17. Madras Almanac 1858 p.183

18. Ibid P.550

19. Fort St.George Gezette, Madras, Friday 1 October 1858, p.75 87

20. Madras Almanac 1858, pp.533-568

21. Report of the commander in chief of the 8th light cavalry of the governor and council. August 1857; G.O. No. 294 of 1857 3, September- Judicial Department.

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