Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Tatia Tope - (1814-1857)

Tatia Tope was a hero of the Indian Mutiny which broke out in 1857 (which should more fittingly be titled as The 1st Indian War of Independence). His role in this achieved him international fame. Tatia was born in a place named Yeswale, near Nasik in Maharashtra. He was the second of eight children. His father’s name was Pandurand Pant. His own name was Raghunath. The Peshwa (Prime Minister) liked the bright boy, and on one occasion gave him a topi (hat) bright with jewels.

"Tatia" is a term of affection in Marathi. People near and dear to Raghunath used to call him Tatia, and because he always used to wear the hat, he acquired the name Tatia Tope, which was to stay with him till the end and beyond. The vast Maratha Kingdom fell in 1818. The disposed Peshwa, and some of his loyal people moved to Brahmavarta. Despite the loss of kingdom, the spirit of the young generation who lived in Brahmavarata was very much grounded in the memory of freedom and a desire to regain it. Many of Tatia’s young friends achieved fame as martyrs in 1857.

In 1851, Nana Saheb, adopted son of Baji Rao II, became Peshwa. He was a much more fiery character than his father and was happy with his family living comfortably on a British pension. Lord Dalhousie became the Governor of India, and was far more oppressive than his predecessors. He plundered India’s wealth, robbed young princes of their crowns, and brought in a large number of Christian missionaries with the express aim of eradicating the "vile culture of the land."

The flame of discontent in the minds of the people, who were born in free India, was ready for an insurrection. A careful plan was hatched to totally drive the British out of India. Tatia and others took the task of enflaming the hearts of the Indians fighting under the pay of the British (such soldiers were termed "sepoys"). It was ordained that 31 May 1857 was the date when many Indian regiments across India would simultaneously rise in revolt. But a famous unplanned incident set of the revolt 2 months before this date, in a costly but brave blunder. The Indian soldiers got the word that their new cartridges for their rifles were greased with cow fat and pig fat. This enraged Hindus and Muslims. A regiment in Barrackpore refused to load their rifles. The British were adamant and said that any soldiers who did not comply would be stripped of their arms. One Mangal Pande could not take these insults and fired at the British captain. The revolt was now on.

Other regiments joined the revolt and moved to the capital with the cry of "Chalo Delhi." They soon captured it. Nana Saheb and Tatia Tope bided their time. they were summoned to help the panicking British, in the city of Kanpur. There they called reinforcements, and at midnight on June 4th 1857 they struck, taking the city and booting out the British. For a time Kanpur was a stronghold of the revolt, but on July 16th the British called in reinforcements and retook it. The morale of the Indian soldiers began to flay. They couldn’t stand up to the superior technology and organisation of the British, and were demoralised that many of their countrymen did not join the freedom movement, particularly the Sikhs. Tatia Tope was entrusted with the momentous task of reinvigorating the Indians, which is when he really came into his own.

Tatia went to Shivarajpur and gathered what forces he could. He fell upon the forces of General Havelock, who was marching from Kanpur to Lucknow, using the infamous guerilla techniques of the Marathas to inflict heavy losses. Tatia’s eyes then fell of Kalpi, which was strategically situated between Jhansi and Latehapur. The wrath of India descended upon the fortress and captured it. It was made into a workshop to manufacture arms. A new life was breathed into the War of Independence. In a swift swoop he captured a series of forts. He secretly reached the Scindhia regiment at Morar, whom he won over to the side of revolution, further reinforcing it. Then Tatia received the encouraging news that Major Windham of Britain, who was in charge of Kanpur was short of troops and resources. Not being one to miss an opportunity, Tatia collected his men, crossed the Jamuna and confronted Kanpur. A pitched battle was fought on the banks of the Pandu, which was eventually won. Tatia’s fame by now had reached all of Europe. His name was in nearly every newspaper. He was a household name of terror in England.

The British media were trying to portray him internationally as a vile evil fiend. True, he had affected the slaughter of a large number of British, but it was little compared with what Britain inflicted upon India, and indeed the other countries it was busy trying to colonise. Tatia Tope was a symbol of the indomitable spirit of India, a symbol of the reason why the Hindus out of all ancient peoples have survived through the long ages and continue to thrive even today.

However, the tide was to soon turn against Tatia and the rest of the rebels. The British retook Kanpur, but Tatia was beyond their reach, and arrived at Kalpi. He tried to again breath new life into the revolt, by trying to win over the native rulers and Princes to the side of freedom. However, most were scared. A few agreed to help in secret. Some stayed neutral. But others were actually rude and arrogant, insulting Nana Saheb, Tatia’s leader. Tatia resolved to teach these rulers a lesson, starting with the ruler of Charkhari. The ruler appealed to the British for help but the forces from Jhansi, commanded by Rani Lakshmibai blocked them, enabling Tatia to score a crushing victory, gaining money and ammunitions. But news of a crushing blow to the rebellion soon reached Tatia’s ears. Delhi fell, and its ruler, Bahadur Shah was taken prisoner. The forces at Delhi should have followed Tatia’s policy and continually harass the British without becoming complacent. But Bahadur Shah got too encouraged with the victory at the capital. This helped the British by allowing them to regroup, and gave them a single, unmoving target to attack.

Still, the brave Rani Lakshmibai kept the flag of freedom flying at Jhansi. Tatia was very proud of the young girl whom he remembered as a child. Even Jhansi was soon besieged. Tatia answered the call for help, marching with a force, but it was of no avail. The remaining forces, including Rani Lakshmibai had to retreat to Kalsi. The rebellion was reaching its final stage, its spirit being gradually crushed. But not the spirit of Tatia Tope. He reached the kingdom of Gwalior, which was formerly part of the Maratha confederacy. He incited another revolt. Those ministers who opposed the revolt had to flee. It is said that Gwalior reverberated with war drums. But it was not to last. The British assault came and a grim battle was fought and lost by Tatia and the forces of Gwalior. Rani Lakshmibai fell in this battle.

All the Indian rulers were now terrified into submission, but the British were not happy, as Tatia was still elusive. They never knew when he would incite another revolt. They launched a mammoth search for him for months. Tatia was now alone. The British offered "pardon" to Indian soldiers who gave up their arms. Many did so. At this hour of despair, Tatia remembered his old friend, Man Singh, a leader in the Gwalior army, who was now hiding with a band of men. Tatia had felt that Man SIngh was the one of the only men he could trust. Tatia was offered a place to stay and protection. The British had caught scent of Tatia’s plan. They contacted Man Singh, offering him pardon, riches and land. The temptation could not be resisted and thus Man Singh was won over.

It was midnight of April 7th 1859 when the lion was caged, in his sleep. Tatia Tope was put on trial, at the camp of General Meadle at Shivpuri. Tatia scoffed at the charges against him. "I am not your servant. I have obeyed the orders of my Peshwa, who is my master. I have shed no innocent blood. I do not ask for any mercy...blow me to pieces on the mouth of a cannon or hang me to death from the gallows."

On April 18th 1859, 2 years after the outbreak of the war, Tatia was hung. He was totally undaunted and unbroken at the time of death. He even put the rope around his own neck to show how unphased he was. He had fought more than 150 battles. Thus passed a very brave and heroic Indian, who lived and died as a lion.


Note, Tatia is sometimes written as "Tantya" or "Tantia"

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