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In Pragati: Book Review – Operation Red Lotus by Parag Tope

In late 1856, some strange practices began to surface in parts of north India. Red lotus flowers were circulated in garrisons which housed the Native Infantry. The subedar would line up the troops and then hand a flower to the first soldier, who would hold it and pass it down the line. The last one would leave the station with the flower. Elsewhere, a runner took a bundle of chapatis to a village and handed it to the chief or sentry, with instructions to send the chapatis on to the next village under English rule. In the midst of these lotus and chapati incidents, the soldiers’ slogan would change from “everything will become red” to “everything has become red.” Other unusual events included the announcement of an important yagya in Mathura (which never took place), and the habit begun by many women of offering their rolling pins to the river Ganga.

These signs were noticed by the British—Benjamin Disraeli even raised the question of the travelling chapatis in Parliament—but were dismissed as Indian superstitions.

These abnormal occurrences, ignored by almost every historical narrative on the 1857 uprising, assume significance when seen in the light of an important question: How did the Indian troops travel over a million miles, in the early months of the war, without a supply line? In a regular war, there were three camp followers for each soldier, but once the soldiers mutinied in 1857, who fed them? Case in point: How did the 17th Native Infantry march 140km from Azamgarh to Faizabad in just five days?

The answer may seem straightforward: The villagers fed the soldiers. However, there was an intricate strategy underlying the initiative. To feed thousands of soldiers, each village (comprising of a few hundred people) needed an approximate count. The count was provided by the lotus flowers, while the chapatis and the rolling pins were the means used to confirm the commitment of the villagers. The Mathura yagya was a ruse to facilitate the travel of priests who doubled as spies.

Thus, the Anglo-Indian War of 1857 was initiated by leaders who planned the war, conducted internal and external reconnaissance, and recruited soldiers—with the help of civilians.

Parag Tope’s Operation Red Lotus—through the analysis of instances such as the use of red lotuses and chapatis—fills the gaps and corrects the myths about the events of 1857. Relying on eyewitness accounts written in Marathi and letters in Urdu and Bundeli, Mr Tope, a fourth-generation descendent of Tatya Tope, sheds new light on the momentous event. Add to it his analysis of troop movements, supply lines, and logistics—and the tale of the 1857 Anglo-Indian War comes to life in hitherto untold, dramatic fashion.

The triad of freedoms

The leaders who spearheaded the 1857 operation included Nana Saheb, his Diwan, Tatya Tope, Begum Hazrat Mahal, and the Nawab of Banda. In 1858, Sitaram Baba, a priest in Nana Saheb’s court was arrested by the British. Baba confessed that the conspiracy had been initiated by Baija Bai Shinde two decades earlier, and that the real planning had started three years before. He also revealed information about the runners who had gone to each regiment, and the connection between the lotuses and chapatis. Letters, translated for the first time in this book, reveal that Tatya Tope was aware of military movements, logistics and provisions.

“It is important to note that the rising was neither planned nor stimulated by any patriotic move”, wrote Gregory Fremont-Barnes in Indian Mutiny 1857-58 (2007). What Fremont-Barnes and many other Indian historians often fail to mention is that the leaders of the 1857 revolt had a clear vision for the future. After the uprising’s initial success, Bahadur Shah Zafar made a proclamation, read by his grandson in Azamgarh. The proclamation promised a triad of invaluable freedoms: Political, personal and economic.

The crony-capitalist state run by the British East India Company had destroyed the free market system in India. Heavy taxation was the norm, while prices were enforced with the threat of punishment. Manufacturing capabilities were crippled, and the agricultural sector lost the ability to shield the country from the threat of famines. Due to India’s asymmetrical role in the global network, even as the country’s share in the world’s GDP fell from 25 percent to 12, Britain’s share doubled.

On the social front, William Bentinck’s educational policy, based on Macaulay’s Minute, destroyed the private education system that had previously created a society more literate than that of Britain. In a letter to his father, Macaulay claimed that if the new education policy was implemented, there would not be a single idolater left in Bengal.

Even the legal framework was skewed—Indians wanted freedom from missionaries who were working with the Government, and laws which favoured Christians.

By promising the triad of freedoms, the leaders were not advocating a novel or revolutionary idea. They were reverting to the foundations of the Indian polity, which not only guaranteed political, social and economic freedom, but kept them separate as well. In other words, the ruler did not act as a trader, but created an environment suitable for trade.

Fractional Freedom

Mr Tope argues that although the initial uprising was brilliantly planned and co-ordinated, the war was lost due to two reasons. Firstly, the British used their women and children as human shields, which resulted in gory incidents such as the Siege of Cawnpore. Secondly, they resorted to the use of extreme brutality—leaving aside their usual pretences to civilised behaviour—citing the case of Cawnpore (Kanpur).

Recognising the supply lines for the soldiers, British officials attacked those villages through which the chapatis were passed. A law was passed to allow the hanging of even those whose guilt was doubtful. British troops under Havelock and Neill did a death march, killing women, children, infants and the elderly. Sepoys were ritually stripped of their caste by having pork and beef stuffed down their throats before execution.

In books such as The Great Indian Mutiny (1964) by Richard Collier, or The Last Mughal (2008) by William Dalrymple, the British officials’ use of violence is regarded as a reaction to the carnage that took place in Kanpur. However, Mr Tope points out that the government’s brutality was unleashed even before that. British historians recorded that “guilty” villages were “cleared” so that India could be saved from anarchy.

In 1857, the strategy of violent repression was used by the British to secure time to redeploy troops from other countries to India. It was during this time that Tatya’s tenacity became evident. After establishing a command centre in Kalpi, he set up factories for producing ammunition, guns and cannons.

Despite the prospect of imminent defeat, Tatya worked to raise an army, and inspire civilians. When the British took over Delhi, the battle ground was moved to central India. When Rani Laxmibai, who grew up with Tatya, was held under siege, he created a diversion to help the Rani escape. Following the Jhansi massacre, the Indian chieftains who supported Tatya backed down, but he came up with a new strategy—to raise rebellions in regions where the spirit of freedom was strong.

The battles are explained with numerous maps, painstakingly plotted with English and Indian troop movements—a useful tool to interpret the events, and grasp the thinking behind the strategy. The maps, coupled with the detailed narrative and critical analysis, provide a valuable resource to better appreciate the holistic nature of the 1857 uprising.

Upon realising that the 1857 war had ignited the desire for total freedom, Queen Victoria dissolved the East India Company and transferred all powers to the Crown. In her proclamation, she did not give India political or economic freedom, but made an important concession: The English would no longer interfere with the native religions. Even Fremont-Barnes’ apologia acknowledges that successive viceroys took greater heed of India’s religious sensitivities. It was an important victory, writes Mr Tope, for it prevented large scale British settlement in India, and stemmed the destruction of Indian traditions.

The fight continues

Nevertheless, the signature elements of the 1857 uprising—secret messages, planning, and mass murders—were repeated again. In 1932, freedom fighters were warned of danger by Hindu women, who blew on conch shells when they spotted a policeman—the sound was relayed for miles by a network of women.

Madhusree Mukerjee records instances of a different nature in her Churchill’s Secret War (2010). During World War II, when the Japanese army reached Indian borders, Leopold Amery, secretary of state for India, wondered if it was necessary to revive ruthless punishments of 1857 to prevent a possible uprising. Winston Churchill’s policies, argues Ms Mukerjee, resulted in a famine in which three million Indians perished. Mr Tope describes the events of February 19, 1946, when 78 ships, going from Karachi to Chittagong, changed their name from HMIS (His Majesty’s Indian Ships) to INNS (Indian National Naval Ships) in a co-ordinated move.

Coming back to 1857: Why is it that Baija Bai Shinde’s 20-year conspiracy, Nana Saheb’s planning or Tatya’s Tope’s contribution do not feature prominently in our history books? This probably has to do with the historiography of the event. In the official version written a century later by Surendra Nath Sen, the 1857 War was seen as a spontaneous uprising by “conspirators”. Historian R C Majumdar questioned if it could even be called a “war” since India was not a nation, while Marxist historians connected the revolt to peasant uprisings in Bengal.

This reluctance to deviate from the colonial narrative 150 years after the war and 60 years after obtaining political freedom is a telling sign about the state of historical study in India.

India’s proclamation of independence six decades ago has to be contrasted with the triad of freedoms promised in the Azamgarh proclamation. To the leaders of the newly independent polity, Indian traditions of the past did not guide the future. Their socialist mindset led to state control over education and restricted economic freedom, with the state itself becoming a trader—all of which had disastrous consequences.

Looking back, we know what our leaders tried to build and failed, but as well, what they knocked down.

(This version appeared in the February 2011 edition of Pragati)

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In Pragati: An Outdated Syllabus

(Photo: Justin Gaurav Murgai)

(a shorter and sweeter version of this article appeared in the Nov 2010 issue of Pragati)

Recently M. Night Shyamalan kicked off a race row with his latest movie The Last Airbender (2010). In the TV series, the characters, Aang, Katara, Sokka are Asian, but in the movie, they were portrayed by white actors; the casting call specifically asked for Caucasian actors. Shyamalan was accused of “whitewashing” and “racebending.” Another movie which attracted similar attention was Walt Disney’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010) where actor Jake Gyllenhaal played an Iranian Prince. But in this case, most Iranians were pleased that a fair skinned actor played the role because it accurately represented how “Aryan” Iranians looked before Islam was forcibly imposed.

In Iran, the external Aryan ancestry is a non-issue, but in India it is a matter of angry controversy. The fact that it is a source of controversy in India has been bothering scholars in Western universities. In his course, History of Iran to the Safavid Period, Prof. Richard W. Bulliet, an Iranian specialist at Columbia University ridicules the people who oppose Aryan invasion theory and tells students that Indians believe that proponents of the Aryan Invasion Theory are members of CIA who want to portray India as a wimpish state; he specifically mentions members of BJP as belonging to this group.

In the first lecture he mentions the similarities between Old Iranian and Vedic and their relation to the Indo-European languages. For him, this similarity indicates invasion, and this invasion theory is supported not just by philologists, but also by archaeologists and historians. This Grand Canyon wide gap between scholarly consensus and what is being taught in American universities is not surprising. Last Fall, in a course titled  History of India, at University of California, Los Angeles, Prof. Vinay Lal lectured about rejected 19th century racist concepts like “subdued snub-nosed and dark skinned people known as the Dasas” and how forts and citadels were attacked by the invading Aryans.

These professors are wrong — about the Aryan Invasion Theory, about race, about the people who dispute it and the reason they dispute it. Though nationalism and sometimes Hindu nationalism is blamed, the reason why Indians are suspicious of colonial theories will become obvious as we look at an example where “scientific” European minds applied pseudoscience and divided the Indian population.

First, let us look at the Aryan Invasion Theory. In his book The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate (2004), Prof. Edwin Bryant who looks at both sides of the Aryan debate concludes that, “there is general consensus among South Asian archaeologists that, as far as archaeological record is concerned, clear, unambiguous evidence of invading or immigrating Aryans themselves is nowhere to be found either in central Asia or in the Indian subcontinent.” Romila Thapar writes in Early India: From the origins to the AD 1300 (1995), that, “The theory of an Aryan invasion no longer has credence.”

Second, when it is mentioned that only members of the BJP are against the Invasion Theory, it is incorrect. Edwin Bryant is not an Indian; Romila Thapar is an antagonist of Hindu Nationalists. Truth is the casualty when he says that opponents of Aryan Invasion Theory have been ignoring archaeological evidence for Prof. Bryant’s survey shows that it is the lack of archaeological evidence, among other things, which prompted many historians to re-think. Instead of the invasion theory, many scholars now believe in a migration theory.

Finally, Prof. Bulliet says that opponents of the invasion might take refuge in the writings of his colleague Edward Said, the author of the seminal book Orientalism. On this point, he is absolutely right. It was the colonial historian who gave us the concept of race. 19th century Europe was the center of racial studies; scientists measured the volume of the skull for various races and found that the white race was the largest and hence of superior intellect.

From 1891, the British official, Herbert H. Risley defined 2378 castes as belonging to 43 races on the basis of their nasal index. Also, Indo-European, Dravidian, Austro-Asiatic, Tibeto-Burman linguistic groups were identified as different races with Indo-European speakers or Aryans at the top of the tree. Based on this mythology, the skeletons found in Mohenjo-daro were classified as belonging to various races, mostly non-Aryan.  Coming to the Vedic texts, a racial interpretation was assigned to various passages. The dark skinned and nose-less Dasyu was considered of a different race than the fair and high-nosed Aryan. This racial identification was objected to by Indian scholars like Srinivas Iyengar as early as 1914, but such dissenting voices were not the ones writing history.

Following World War II, Western anthropologists realized that race cannot be scientifically defined, based on cranial size or nasal index. According to Prof. Kenneth A. R. Kennedy, who has studied the Harappan skeletal remains extensively, “Biological anthropologists remain unable to lend support to any of the theories concerning an Aryan biological or demographic entity.” According to Prof. Gregory Possehl, an anthropological archaeologist at the University of Pennyslvania, “Race as it was used in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries has been totally discredited as a useful concept in human biology.” Thus there is nothing to distinguish the invaders from the natives; in short, there is no Aryan or Dravidian race.

A century after Indian scholars raised objections, Western scholars are realizing that the racial interpretation was based on over reading soft evidence; it was a consequence of the 19th century racial insanity that ruled Europe. In 1999, Hans Hock reexamined the supposedly racial Vedic material and found them either to be mistranslated or open to alternative non-racial interpretations. Among multiple interpretations, the racial one was preferred because it favoured colonialism. Still the Professor at UCLA still talks about the snub-nosed Dasyus, even though Indian scholars have interpreted that the Vedic word means one devoid of speech, not nose.

Over the years, historians have accepted that various language groups are just that — language labels — and does not map to racial identity. In the 11th Neelan Thiruchelvam Memorial Lecture given in Colombo on Aug 1, 2010, Prof Romila Thapar made this very clear. According to her the notion of separate Aryan and Dravidian racial identities has no basis in history. According to Prof. Thomas Trautmann, “That the racial theory of Indian civilization still lingers is a matter of faith. Is it not time we did away with it?” But even in the last general elections, the Dravidar Kazhagam party leader exhorted his followers to reject “Aryan” candidates.

It is such non-benign theories and their consequences that has caused Indian scholars to view Western theories with suspicion. Prof.  Edwin Bryant writes, “I argue that although there are doubtlessly nationalistic and in some quarters, communal agendas lurking behind some of this scholarship, a principal feature is anti-colonial/imperial.” Thus the issue is not what members of BJP believe or do not believe; the issue is what is the latest scholarly consensus and why is it not being taught to students. Maybe the Prince of Persia can investigate if the CIA is involved.


  1. Michel Danino, The Indus-Sarasvati Civilization and its Bearing on the Aryan Question
  2. Michel Danino, Genetics and the Aryan Debate, Purtattva, Bulletin of the Indian Archaeological Society No. 36 (2005- 06): 146-154.
  3. Edwin Bryant, The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate (Oxford University Press, USA, 2004).
  4. History of Iran to the Safavid Period, Columbia University (Podcast, Lecture 1)
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Takshashila: 2 Kings & a King Maker

(The glorious battle of Alexander, King of Macedon, and Porus, King of India. Russian lubok via Wikipedia)

In early 327 BCE, half of Alexander’s army marched through the Khyber Pass and reached the shores of Indus. After subduing the hill tribes, Alexander and rest of the army joined them in 326 BCE at Ohind at the border of Takshashila — a large and prosperous city between Indus and Jhelum. Alexander’s activities, mostly invasion, produced different reactions from three people — two kings (Ambhi & Porus) and a king maker (Chanakya).

After a 30 day rest, Alexander crossed the Indus into “the country of Indians” and on the other side he was met by an army in battle formation. This was highly unexpected. The king of Takshashila, Ambhi or Oomphis, had sent word that he would not oppose Alexander and would fight on his side. When it looked as if Ambhi had reneged on his promise, Alexander ordered his army to get ready.

Ambhi rode up alone towards the Greeks and he was met by Alexander who too rode up alone. Realizing that what came from Alexander’s mouth was all Greek, interpreters were summoned. Ambhi explained that he had come to put both his army and the kingdom at Alexander’s disposal. He also gifted elephants, large sheep and 3000 bulls to Alexander prompting the Greek to ask Ambhi if he as into husbandry. A satrap — Philip of Machatas — was appointed to govern.

Enjoying Ambhi’s hospitality, Alexander sent word to the neighboring kings to meet him and pay tribute. While few did, one king stayed away: Porus, who was not going to follow Ambhi’s foot steps. When Alexander’s envoy met Porus and asked him to meet the emperor and pay tribute, Porus replied that he would definitely come to meet the emperor, but with an army. Thus in the spring of 326 BCE the two armies met on the banks of Jhelum.

We only have the Greek account of the battle and hence the exaggeration has to be discounted. 20,000 infantry and 3000 cavalry of Porus was killed. All his chariots were destroyed, his generals were killed, so were two of his sons. According to the Greek historians — Diodorus, Arrian, Plutarch — the Greek losses were not so high. But still Porus was praised: “his courage matched his body vigor”, “he exhibited great talent in battle performing deeds not only of a general but also of a valiant soldier.” This battle, Battle of the Hydaspes, was immortalized by Western painters like André Castaigne ,Charles Le Brun and artists in Russia.

Finally the two met. In the meeting Alexander asked Porus how he wished to be treated and Porus replied, “As befits a king”. This reply under adverse conditions impressed Alexander and he returned Porus back to the throne and turned him into an ally.

So was Ambhi a traitor for aligning with a foreigner? In his book India: A History John Keay mentions that though Porus surrendered only after giving Alexander a good fight, calling Ambhi  who surrendered without a fight a traitor is  harsh judgement. An argument is that there was no concept of India as a nation and if a king like Ambhi took help from Alexander to be safe against attacks by Porus, can he be blamed?

That argument would have held, if not for the efforts of Chanakya, who saw the cultural unity among the various kingdoms. As a teacher in Takshashila, he saw students — brahmin youth, princes, sons of rich merchants — come from far away places along the uttarapatha to learn the Vedas, arts (archery, hunting, elephant lore, political economy) law, medicine, and military science. This tradition went back to Buddha’s time. Jotipala, the son of a Brahmin priest in the court of the King of Benares returned after graduating in archery and military science and was appointed the commander-in-chief. Jivika, Bimbisara’s physician who cured Buddha, learned medicine in Takshashila. Prasenajit, the king of Kosala, who too was associated with Buddha was educated in Takshashila.

Chanakya wanted to convert this cultural unity into political unity against the invader. For him, kingdoms of Ambhi and Porus, had to unite against the foreigner. He condemned foreign rule as exploitation; for the foreigner the conquered country was not his own, but a place to tax and extract wealth. He also realized that the reason Alexander was able to advance was because there was no united front: there was no leadership or pooling of resources. Alexander was able to exploit this division and was stopped only by a mutiny in his camp.

One of the first activities of Chanakya and his protegé Chandragupta was to organize resistance against the Greeks satrapies. We know this because of the writings of Justin, who was describing the return of Seleucus Nicator, an officer of Alexander  to India to expand the Greek kingdom.

Justin identified the leader of the rebellion as  Sandrocottus or Chandragupta Maurya.

There were six satrapies: three on the West of Indus and three on the East. Following Alexander’s departure, the satrapies he established started collapsing. At the same time, under the leadership of Chandragupta, a war was declared. The satraps Philip and Nicanor were assassinated and by 323 BCE, India was free of Greeks.


  1. Abraham Eraly, Gem in the Lotus: The Seeding of Indian Civilisation, 2005.
  2. A. Dani, Historic City of Taxila (Bernan Press(PA), 1986).
  3. Radhakumud Mookerji, Chandragupta Maurya and his times, 3rd ed. (Motilal Banarsidass, 1960).
  4. John Keay, India: A History (Grove Press, 2001). 
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The Forgotten American Ice Trade

In the winter of 1846 – 47, Henry David Thoreau looked out of his small self-built house in Walden and saw a hundred Irishmen with their American bosses cutting ice slabs from the pond. On a good day, he noted, a thousand tonnes were carted away. These ice slabs went not just to New Orleans and Charleston, but also to Madras, Bombay and Calcutta. Thoreau was amused: here he was sitting in America reading the Bhagavad Gita and the water from his well was being taken to the land of the Ganges.

A Business Opportunity

In 1831, a Boston businessman named Frederic Tudor, who wanted to make money without physical effort, came up with an idea. He would speculate on coffee prices; coffee consumption in United States was increasing and prices were going up at the rate of 20 to 30 percent. What could go wrong?

Within three years, this speculation would put him deep in debt of more than $210,000. He did not know that in 1833 when he met Samuel Austin, a Boston merchant. Austin’s ships regularly went from Boston to Calcutta, but on the trip to Calcutta it did not carry cargo, but empty ballast. Austin wanted to know if Tudor wanted to ship American Ice at a low freight rate.

If there was one person in United States who had the expertise to export ice to the opposite side of the globe, it was Tudor. He had  invented the ice trade in 1806 by exporting ice, cut from frozen lakes in Massachusetts, to the French colony of Martinique. At that time he had faced ridicule — from his father, relatives, and other Boston merchants — but ignoring them he proceeded. No merchant was willing to carry his cargo, but he overcame that by buying a brig for $4000. Inventing various techniques required for the safe transportation of ice, he delivered ice not just to Martinique, but also to Havana, New Orleans, Charleston and Savannah.
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Gama's Eastern Christians

An iconic scene during the Portuguese arrival in Malabar in 1498 is when the ex-convict Joao Nunes stepped into land and met two Moors from Tunis. The Moors greeted the ex-convict, “The Devil take you! What bought you here.” He replied, “We came to seek Christians and spices”.

While the Portuguese search for a direct trade route to India bypassing the Muslims is well known, less mentioned is this search for Christians. They searched for the Eastern Christians in Africa and India and interestingly found them everywhere they looked. They also encountered Muslims; encounters which did not go well. The joyous news of the discovery of Eastern Christians was duly reported to Dom Manuel.

Vasco da Gama’s king, Dom Manuel, over a period had developed a messianic streak, due to the death of a large number of people who had preceded him. He believed that he was chosen by the Holy Spirit to confront the powerful. He wanted to take over the Holy Land and destroy Mecca to claim the title — the Emperor of the East. But he could not do it alone: to attack the Egyptian Mamluks, for instance, he needed help and for this the lost Christian kingdoms of Asia could become useful.

To understand this Portuguese obsession with finding Eastern Christians, we need to go along with Vasco da Gama on his first Voyage to Malabar and experience his encounters with people of other faiths.

In Search of Christians

(Prester John)

After navigating the Cape, the fleet reached Mozambique Island in March 1498 where men belonging to the “sect of Mohammed” told them that Eastern Christians lived on a nearby island. The other half of the island where the Christians lived was populated by Moors and there were constant battles among them. Then they were told that Prester John — the mythical Christian king — lived nearby in the interior and he could be reached by a camel trip. Though they were happy to hear about Prester John, they did not attempt to visit him.

During a conversation, the Sultan of Mozambique asked Nicolau Coelho, one of the captains in Gama’s fleet, about Turkey and their religious books. Then Coelho realized that the Sultan had assumed them to be Turks and not Christians. The Portuguese wanted to conceal their identity since they did not know how the reaction would be. Hence for celebrating mass, they would go off to an island.

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