The Ghadar of 1857 saw people uniting as one fist to overthrow the colonial rulers, overcoming differences in religion, language and region. Hindu, Muslim and Sikh religious organizations and individuals played a stellar role during the uprising.
Swami Vrijanand, Swami Omnanand, Swami Purnanand, Dayanand Saraswati, Shirdi Saibaba, the Dwaraka-Badrinath-Puri-Sringeri Shankaracharyas all played crucial roles. The religious Shaiv, Vaishnav and Naga akhadas played a major role. Lalpuri Gosain, the descendant of Anupgiri, a major 18th century leader of an entrepreneur/ascetic order, fought in Nana Saheb’s army. From Delhi to Hyderabad, via Deoband and West UP, the Muslim Ulema and Waliullahites, played a memorable role. They acted as propagandists, organisers and fighters. The then Sikh leaders of the later Namdhari-Kuka movement supported the revolution.
Not everywhere were the leaders people of the court – ranis, rajas, nawabs and taluqdars. Often the message of rebellion was carried by ordinary men and women and in places by religious men too. From Meerut, there were reports that a fakir had appeared riding on an elephant and that the sepoys were visiting him frequently. In Lucknow, after the annexation of Awadh, there were many religious leaders and self-styled prophets who preached the destruction of British rule.
Elsewhere, local leaders emerged, urging peasants, zamindars and tribals to revolt. Shah Mal mobilised the villagers of Pargana Barout in Uttar Pradesh; Gonoo, a tribal cultivator of Singhbhum in Chotanagpur, became a rebel leader of the Kol tribals of the region.
Bahadur Shah Zafar appealed to all his praja, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, to unite disregarding their religious differences, to throw out the treacherous British and defeat their divide and rule policy. Though belonging to the orthodox Chitpavan Brahmin family, Nana Saheb’s firmans in Persian were popular among all communities across India. Several Urdu akhbars in Delhi cautioned against the splittist tactics of the British and appealed to people during the siege, to ignore rumours and provocations spread by British agents.
People from different professions and strata joined the Ghadar like bees drawn to a flower. Artisans and peasants joined in the rebel armies and gave them logistical support. Large number of weavers joined the armed uprisings.
Adivasis fought shoulder to shoulder with Hindus. Santhals, Chuars, Kols in Jharkhand and Chhota Nagpur militated against the enemy. Gonds in Nagpur and Bhils and Ramoshis in Karnataka and Maharashtra joined the Ghadar.
Zafar’s proclamations and the 1857 Flag Song mentions Sikhs along with Hindus and Muslims, as patriotic Indians. It is not commonly known that two sepoys of the Bombay infantry, one Hindu and one Muslim, were blown apart from a cannon’s mouth, in what is today known as Azad Maidan in Mumbai. Nearly every Indian district, whether in the UP-Bihar-MP belt, or Orissa, or Assam-Bengal, or West India, showcases an amazing pattern of “one Hindu, one Muslim” martyr. In Jharkhand, a plaque in Chatra can be seen even today, commemorating the exploits of Jaimangal Pandey and Sheikh Nadir Ali.
In Maharashtra, Pathans and Arabs figure prominently in the 1857 Khandesh (Nasik-Jalgaon-Dhule) struggles launched by Bhils and Kolis. In Karnataka, the Gulbarga, Dharwar, Raichur risings saw Lingayat-Ramoshi-Maratha-Muslim participation. Above all, in Ayodhya, at the site where the Babri Masjid was demolished, Mahant Ramdas and Maulavi Amir Ali, as well as Shambhu Prasad Shukla and Achchan Khan, two religious Hindus and two religious Muslims, were hanged side by side.
Religious forms were used to mobilize the masses against the British rule. Religious congregations were used to spread the message of Ghadar and to organize in some areas. The symbols of roti and kamal with religious connotations played a major role in spreading the message of the uprising from village to village, especially in Awadh.
From the above events it is clear that the colonial interpretation of the 1857 Ghadar, as being motivated by narrow religious aims, is totally perverse, as also their interpretation that it was driven by feudal elements and was just a localised rebellion with no mass support.