Vande Mataram owes its origins to a peculiar uprising that took place shortly after the East India Company assumed their rule over Bengal. In the 1760s-1770s, thousands of Sannyasis and Fakirs led a revolt against the British agents and their landlords.
Sannyasis are Hindu ascetics who have renounced the world. Their counterparts were the Fakirs, dervishes of the Sufi faith who were renowned for their miraculous abilities – such as sleeping on nails or walking on fire. Myths around India often positioned the country as a land of fakirs and sages; making the ensuing rebellion a nightmare for the British.
History is divided on the nature of the revolt. Early nationalist accounts – such as Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s ‘Anandamath’ – portrayed it as a Hindu-driven uprising in the name of Mother India against the East India Company. Later Marxist historians portrayed it as anti-imperialist and anti-feudal struggles.
Archival research confirms that they were neither – instead, the fakirs and sanyasis were merely rent-seekers who had been ousted of their ability to collect revenue by the British-appointed Zamindars. Against the backdrop of the first great famine under British rule; they made their move.
Starvation amidst plenty
In 1757, the East India Company decisively won the Battle of Plassey against the Nawab of Bengal (supported by the French). It cemented the Company’s standing in India; giving them control over both the land and the revenues of the zamindaris who regulated it. Following the Battle of Buxar, the Company won the right to collect revenue from the people. This was in 1765.
In the years leading up to 1770, the British revenue collectors had stretched farmers far beyond their means. Despite the outbreak of famine, the Company under Warren Hastings maintained high revenue extraction. It was a tipping point for revolution; where many Sannyasis and Fakirs had already been in revolt.
The Fakirs were primarily of the Maladari community – nomads with little regard for standard Islamic practise. They drank wine and often spoke in riddles. They travelled from Darga to Darga, performing feats of fire-walking – and seeking cash donations from those who lived nearby. From their many pilgrimages, they knew the terrain on India inside-out.
The Sannyasis, on the other hand, hailed from ancient maths – that over time, transformed into places of commerce and moneylending, particularly those of the Giri sect. Through vast landholdings and extensive money-collection agencies, they had both zamindars and peasants in debt to them. They developed an extensive trade of silks through Nepal and Tibet. But the Company’s slow throttling of the South Asian silk industry affected Sannyasi profits severely. When the Gurkhas of Nepal raised customs across the border, the Sannyasis were forced into other occupations – blaming the British for their loss.
The British dented the money-collection agencies of both the Fakirs and the Sannyasis. On top of this, pilgrims were also then being taxed for their pilgrimages.
The Fakirs were no ordinary pilgrims; they had land and often carried arms – travelling in large groups. Hastings disapproved of this practice, and ordered their arrest or disarming; which the Fakirs vociferously refused. Armed clashes had already begun by the 1760s; culminating in an incident in 1771 where over 150 Fakirs were killed “without reason” according to a Majnu Shah (a Maldari Fakir leader).
The Fakirs were not alone in being disgruntled. The Sannyasis, similar in many respects, were also at odds with the British. But initially, the two did not necessarily get along. From Akbar’s time, there have been armed clashes between Fakir and Sannyasi – that continued well into Company Rule. In the rebellion that followed, they did not fight together as much as the Fakirs employed Sannyasis as mercenaries, in some cases paying them up to Rs. 1,500 a month.
The reason behind the mercenary culture is that the British had disbanded the armies of the Mughals, resulting in many unemployed soldiers seeking work and money. Their solution was not so much an uprising. It was a raid. But altogether, the Sannyasis were not as involved with the rebellion as the narrative suggests.
Majnu Shah’s letter to the Maharani of Mathore gives us a rare insight into the sentiments of the fakirs.
Formerly the Fakirs begged in separate and detached parties but now we are all collected and beg together. Displeased at this method they [the British] obstructed us in visiting the shrines and other places… this is unreasonable. You are the ruler of the country. We are Fakirs who pray always for your welfare. We are full of hopes.
Against this backdrop, there were several sparks. In 1763, the renowned Muslin weavers of Daccas banded together with the Fakirs and captured a factory from the British. The same year, a factory in Rampur was plundered by Sannyasis. And well until the end of the 18th century, they kept alive a determined resistance.
The period during and after the Bengal famine saw the most fighting. Between 1770-71, famine had killed one third of the population of Bengal – about ten million people in total. With nobody donating to their cause, the Fakirs were desperate. Between 1770 and 1800, the Fakirs were involved in several attacks against the British, Zamindars and peasants. They would attack factories, villages and police stations – collecting revenue illegally.
Fighting the forces of Patric Robertson in 1776, Majnu Shah injured several sepoys before escaping into the bushes. Over the years, the fakirs led several attacks from the hills; escaping into safety with ease. They recruited outsiders into their fold – such as “disbanded north Indian Rajput sepoys, barkandazes, people from Telinga communities and hillmen from Nepal and Bhutan.” In places like Morung, they were even led by Gurkhas (the Fakirs enjoyed a pact with Raja Rana Bahadur of Nepal and the Gurkha chief of Morung, who supported their anti-British activities).
The British deployed resources in every town against the Fakirs. When it became clear that they were losing, the Fakirs swiftly retreated to the jungles they were familiar with. To counter this, the Company employed spies in many villages and towns – many of whom were peasants – who were promised huge rewards (up to Rs.4,000) for ratting out the Fakirs. Many prominent leaders were captured in this process. By 1802, the uprisings were largely crushed.
The untrained sadhus and fakirs stood little chance against the Company’s militaries. When the rebellion failed, history forgot them – until ‘Anandamath’ rebranded them as Hindu nationalists, fighting Empire for the sake of mother India. Anandamath’s story paints a tale of a Hindu rebellion against unjust British and Muslim rent-extractors. As part of its narrative, the song “Vande Mataram” was composed, later adopted as India’s ‘National Song’.
While the archival view of the Fakirs and Sannyasis as economic raiders is the current one, it is still fascinating to delve into the many historical narratives around the Fakir and Sannyasi rebellion. But ultimately, it was to the peasant’s benefit that both the British and the rent-extracting Fakirs disappeared from the subcontinent.
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