How the Ubiquitous Chapati Forged the First War of Indian Independence: An Unsolved Mystery

An intriguing and delightful anecdote of how mass distribution of chapatis played a mysterious role during the first war of Indian independence.
How the Ubiquitous Chapati Forged the First War of Indian Independence: An Unsolved Mystery

THE TRUISM THAT THE BIG EVENT is the final outburst of the millions of its moving parts reveals itself in kaleidoscopic patterns in the history of the first war of Indian independence. The monsters of the East India Company at their brutal worst till that fateful event could hardly anticipate that rumours that cartridges were greased with pork and cow fat would lead to near-disaster and threaten their very existence in India. However, apart from pork and beef, a relatively unknown factor also played some role in the train of events that led to the First War.

This was the ubiquitous chapati, a simple but profound food item that is perhaps as old as Bharatavarsha itself.

The British narrative record of the 1857 war cites chapati as an important evidence of and contributor to the climactic event. However, the actual role it played still remains a mystery. Yet the story should be told in some detail for the sake of posterity.

How the Ubiquitous Chapati Forged the First War of Indian Independence: An Unsolved Mystery
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Among others, G.B. Malleson, author of the infamous Red Pamphlet written at the height of the 1857 War and co-author of the History of the Indian Mutiny, devotes some space to the importance of the chapati in this episode. At this distance in time, it is clear that Malleson was vastly exaggerating and his entire “history” is written with the obvious intent to save the prestige of the nascent British Empire whose foundations were rudely shaken by Bharatiyas. However, the chapati episode was true.

At the start of the year 1857, what began as a trickle soon became a torrent. For some unknown reason, chapatis began to be distributed over a wide area in north India and the phenomenon soon reached even such faraway places as the Central Provinces, Elichpur, the Bombay Presidency, Nagpur and Hyderabad. The fact that chapati remains a staple food of north India is undisputed but its sudden and pervasive spread to rice-eating regions like Hyderabad alarmed the British, who thought that it was now being used as a form of rebel-communication.

Till date, scholars and historians are unsure where the phenomenon originated but it is generally agreed that its source was Oudh, the heart of the 1857 war of independence. Others assign the geography to Karnal, Panipat and Bundelkhand.

Various theories about chapati-distribution flew thick and fast from all quarters: the sepoys, Hindus, Muslims and the British. Initially, the British did not associate chapati-circulation as a harbinger of political revolt. Even the people at large who complied with the sudden request for making and distributing chapatis did not associate it with either politics or revolution or war.

The selfsame Malleson holds Maulvi Ahmadullah of Faizabad as the mastermind of the chapati-distribution conspiracy. In his words,

The Maulavi devised the scheme known as the chapati scheme, the circulation of which amongst the rural population of the North-West Provinces would notify to them that a great rising would take place on the first favourable opportunity.

We shouldn’t take Malleson seriously because he was saving the Empire’s face using torturous prose and facts and truth and evidence were the least of his concerns. Malleson’s compatriots blame the “miscreant Nana Sahib” for the chapati conspiracy.

On the Indian side, some folks thought that the sepoys had themselves designed the chapatis. However, one section of the sepoys themselves thought that the British Government had ordered the chapati-distribution in order to forcibly convert people to Christianity. Another section of their own brethren vehemently disagreed with them: it was the pious Hindus who actually started this chapati scheme to “preserve their Dharma from being polluted by the Government.”

How the Ubiquitous Chapati Forged the First War of Indian Independence: An Unsolved Mystery
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Yet another section of the Hindu population said that the chapati plan was a form of divine invocation. It would act as a Jadoo or charm. This was the masterplan of Sitaram (Dassa) Bawa, a follower of Nana Sahib.

The chapatis in question were a jadoo or charm originated with Dassa Bawa, who told Nana Sahib that he would make jadoo and, as far as these magic chapatis should be carried, so far should the people be on his side. Then he took the reed of the lotus or rumul, called mukhana and made an idol of it. Next he reduced the idol to very small pills and having made an immense number of chapatis, he put a pellet in each, and as far as the chapatis were carried, so far would the people determine to throw off the Company’s raj.

There was another method of circulating these chapatis. One of the Chowkidars of Kanpur ran to another Chowkidar in Fategarh, the neighbouring village. He placed two chapatis in his hand and directed him to prepare ten more of the same size and kind. After this, the Fategarh Chowkidar gave two chapatis to five other Chowkidars in five neighbouring villages. They were each in turn, directed to do the same with other Chowkidars. The distribution mechanism was remarkably efficient and brilliantly effective for its simplicity and speed. In just ten days, thousands of chapatis were being circulated throughout all villages across an extensive geography. By the close of the first half of 1857, the chapati wildfire had flamed out throughout India up to Hyderabad as we observed earlier.

However, in devising and implementing the chapati scheme, Indians were merely drawing from recent history. Before the apocalyptic Third Battle of Panipat, chapatis were distributed throughout north India. Much later, John Malcolm recorded,

There has been a mysterious circulation of sugar just before the mutiny of the Coast Army in 1806. There was also, in 1818, a very perplexing distribution of coconuts in Central India.

We can also recall the heroic Santhal revolt. As a forerunner to the episode, a branch of the Sal tree was sent to each village under the control of the Santhals.

How the Ubiquitous Chapati Forged the First War of Indian Independence: An Unsolved Mystery
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It is undeniable that the chapati-distribution scheme of 1857 had a clear, definitive and widespread organisation. Nothing else explains its success and its angry mention by Malleson & co. However, whether it was specifically used as a vehicle to stir and motivate and impel the 1857 war of independence remains a mystery as we have noted. The legendary historian R.C. Majumdar provides an intriguing and rather acceptable analysis of the phenomenon:

There is a practice in modern times which may be regarded as the nearest approximation to the circulation of chapatis. Many of us are familiar with a slip of paper containing a few lines which reaches an individual by post with a direction to make ten copies of it and send each to a friend. The addressee is threatened with dire consequences if he breaks the link by failing to comply with the directions. Instances are known where the same man has received such slips after…fifteen or twenty years…Something like this might have been the case with the chapatis.

Apropos to Dr. Majumdar. Indeed, until recent years, the famous Sai Baba email chain was a common guest in everyone’s inbox.

At any rate, whether the chapati scheme was actually designed as a weapon in the 1857 war is immaterial. If it was, then its masterminds deserve our fulsome praise. If it wasn’t, it simply shows yet another brilliant proof of the innate, subtle and awesome organisational capacity of the Hindu society.

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