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The Skull of Alum Bheg, An Excerpt

In 1963, a human skull was discovered in a pub in Kent in south-east England. The skull is a troublesome relic of both anti-colonial violence and the brutality and spectacle of British retribution.The Skull of Alum Bheg: The Life and Death of a Rebel of 1857 offers a critical assessment of British imperialism that speaks to contemporary debates about the legacies of Empire and the myth of the ‘Mutiny’.
Here’s an excerpt.

As a havildar, Alum Bheg received a pay of 14 rupees per month, double that of ordinary sepoys, and this had been the rate for more than half a century, even as the prices of commodities increased over time.After 16 and 20 years’ service, sepoys would receive an extra bonus of one or two rupees per month, which according to one Indian officer, made a big difference: ‘A prudent sepoy lives upon two, or at utmost three rupees a month in seasons of moderate plenty; and sends all the rest to his family. A great number of the sipahees of our regiment live upon the increase of two rupees, and send all their former seven to their families.’ A substantial part of their salaries were indeed sent back to the sepoys’ villages, as Sleeman explained: ‘They never take their wives or children with them to their regiments, or to the places where their regiments are stationed. They leave them with their fathers or elder brothers, and enjoy their society only when they return on furlough. Three-fourths of their incomes are sent home to provide for their comfort and subsistence, and to embellish that home in which they hope to spend the winter of their days.’

The close link to a particular region and the ties between the sepoys and the villages, was an outcome of the unique recruitment practices of the Bengal Army as they had developed over the past century. As the East India Company became increasingly involved in politics during the second half of the eighteenth century, the nature of British rule in India gradually assumed all the trappings of a sovereign power. The Company was thus transformed from primarily a trading venture to a colonial state in its own right, which by 1818 derived most of its income from land revenue rather than trade. In order to maintain and expand its territorial possessions, the Company depended on local Indian soldiers led and trained by British officers along European military principles. At the time, however, the British were still an emerging power and had to compete with both Indian and European rivals, who were also offering similar service to local soldiers. Before the advent of the ‘civilising’ impulse, much of the Company’s legitimacy as a state power was, in fact, derived through the continuation of pre-colonial practices, which included the establishment of an army of high-caste Hindu sepoys. Out of sheer necessity, the Company in Bengal thus tapped into the military labour market of northern India and relied on existing networks of patronage and caste-ties to recruit peasant regiments directly from the zamindars or landholders of Awadh and Bihar. Accommodating high-caste usages and practices within its regiments was an effective means by which the East India Company could become an attractive and legitimate military employer in India during this period. The Company thus managed to establish a loyal base of recruitment by employing the rhetoric of high-caste status as well as the promise of regular pay and pension. The British recruited directly from the villages of Awadh and Bihar, and when sepoys returned from furlough, they would bring younger family members back to their regiment as prospective recruits. This dynamic reinforced the links between the regiment and the village and meant that parts of the Bengal Army functioned as a sort of extended kinship network. The end-result was a uniquely homogeneous body of sepoys in the Bengal Army, composed mainly of high-caste Brahmins, Bhumihars, and Rajputs.

The religious identity and social status of Alum Bheg and his fellow sepoys, however, did not simply pre-date colonial rule or reflect Indian traditions that were then merely adopted within the Bengal Army—the social status of the sepoy was itself a product of service within that army. A number of the religious and social identities linked to military service, the status of which was taken more or less for granted by 1857, had actually only emerged during the preceding century and were thus ‘invented’ traditions rather than timeless castes. The decline of the Mughal Empire had caused significant political and social turmoil, but it had also enabled groups such as the Rajputs and Bhumihars, or so-called agricultural Brahmins, of eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, to establish a high-caste status through military service. This entailed a combination of the warrior ideal with the ritual purity and social privilege of Brahmins, and the observance of strict dietary rules associated with priestly Hinduism. At the same time, the indigenous military labour market was becoming increasingly constricted as the British, with the help of the sepoys expanded their sphere of influence. By 1818, the Company had established an effective monopoly of power on the subcontinent, having defeated or pacified most rival Indian states that would otherwise have provided employment for thousands of Indian troops. The Bengal Army, which constituted the military force throughout the newly ceded and conquered territories in north India, provided the perfect frame within which the reinvented high-caste military traditions of the Bhumihars and Rajputs could be formally institutionalised. It presented the sepoys with the opportunity to improve and secure their new-found status and by endorsing and encouraging the high-caste status of the sepoys, the British were better able to control their troops and ensure continued support from the local landowners in the regions that supplied recruits.


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