In 1858, the Sepoy Mutiny – or the First Indian War of Independence – was nearing its conclusion. Only the forces of Oudh were left and they would be defeated in the following year. As the year wore on, the writing was on the wall for the East India Company. In August 1858 the India Bill was introduced in Westminster which essentially nationalized the East India Company. On November 1 1858, the Crown formally took over the Company and Queen Victoria, to mark the occasion, issued a proclamation.
The Queen was quite concerned about the treatment of her to-be subjects by the Company Bahadur. When military victory was imminent, she instructed Lord Derby to draft a proclamation to her new Indian subjects. The instructions she gave Lord Derby are worth reproducing:
“The Queen would be very glad if Lord Derby would write it himself in his excellent language, bearing in mind that it is a female sovereign who speaks to more than 100 millions of Eastern People on assuming the direct Government over them after a bloody civil war giving them pledges which her future reign is to redeem & explaining the principles of her Govt. Such a document should breathe feelings of Generosity, Benevolence and Religious feeling, pointing out the privileges which the Indians will receive in being placed on an equality with the subjects of the British Crown & the prosperity following in the train of civilisation.
On November 1 1858, Lord Canning convened a meeting of the Princes in Allahabad and read out her proclamation. The proclamation made some very generous promises to her Indian subjects – Prince and Commoner:
“We hereby announce to the Native Princes of India that all Treaties and Engagements made with them…are by us accepted; and will be scrupulously maintained….We desire noextension of Our present territorial Possessions; and while We will permit no aggression upon Our Dominions…we shall sanction no encroachment on those of others;…We hold Ourselves bound to the Natives of Our Indian Territories by the same obligations of Duty which bind Us to all Our other Subjects and thoseObligations by the Blessing of Almighty God We shall faithfully and conscientiously fulfil.”
Note the key promise here, to treat Indian subjects the same as her English and other subjects, the key notion of equality for all citizens of the Empire. And then she goes on to say:
“We disclaim alike the Right and the Desire to impose our convictions on any of our subjects…none be in anywise favored, none molested or disquieted by reason of their Religious Faith or Observances; but that all shall alike enjoy the equal and impartial Protection of the Law.”
In other words, she promises there will be no proselytizing and that complete religious freedom will reign. Next, she promises equality of opportunity:
“…Our subjects of whatever Race or Creed be freely and impartially admitted to Offices in Our service…”
And finally, she promises to respect this ancient land:
“…We know and respect the feelings of attachment which the Natives of India regard the land;inherited by them from their ancestors; and we desire to protect them in all Rights connected therewith….and We will that generally, in Framing and Administering the Law, due regard be paid to the Ancient Rights, Usages and Customs of India”.
The proclamation was translated into several Indian languages and arrangements made to be read out to all people wherever possible.
Shortly after this Proclamation came out, one of the defeated rulers issued a counter-proclamation, which is prescient in anticipating the many arguments for ending British Rule. This was issued by Begum Hazrat Mahal, a former concubine who became one of the queens of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, the Nawab of Oudh, who played a key role in the Mutiny in order to secure the throne of Oudh for her infant son Birjes Qadr. She took to the battlefield in 1856 when the British deposed Wajid Ali Shah. Facing certain defeat, when she saw the Queen’s Proclamation, she issued her own defiant response in December 1858.
First, she asks, what has changed? All that has happened is that the same evil company has now become the Queen’s government.
“It is written in the proclamation, that the country of Hindoostan, which was held intrust by the Company, has been resumed by the Queen, and that for the futurethe Queen’s laws shall be obeyed. This is not to be trusted by our religious subjects; for the laws of the Company, the settlement of the Company, the English servants of the Company, the Governor General, and the judicial administration of the Company, are all unchanged. What, then, is there now which can benefit the people, or on which can rely?
Second, she questions the legality of the Company’s actions. By honouring those treaties made under the Company regime, is not the Queen perpetrating an unfair and illegal dispensation?
“In the proclamation it is written, that all contracts and agreements entered into by the Company will be accepted by theQueen. Let the people carefully observe this artifice. The company has seized on the whole of Hindoostan, and, if this arrangement be accepted, what is there new in it?
Our ancient possessions they took from us on pretence of distributing pay; and in the 7th. Article of the treaty, they wrote, on oath,that they would take no more from us. If, then, the arrangements made by the Company are to be accepted, what is the difference between the former and the present state of things? These are old affairs, but recently, in defiance of treaties and oaths, and notwithstanding that they owed us millions of rupees without reason,and on pretence of the misconduct and discontent of our people, they took our country and property, worth millions of rupees.
Next, she appears to ask a most profound question – what has the Rule of Law have to dowith whether or not someone is free to practice their religion, when the Queen makes her proclamation in the name of her Christian faith?
“In the proclamation it is written, that the Christian religion is true, but that no other creed will suffer oppression, and that the laws will be observed towards all. What has the administration of justice to do with the truth or falsehood of religion? That religion is true which acknowledges one God,and knows no other. Where there are three Gods in a religion, neither Mussulmann or Hindoo- nay, not even Jews, Sun-worshippers, or Fire-worshippers can believe it true.
And she anticipates the imminent destruction of culture and religion with the onslaught of Christianity supported by the Queen’s rule.
To eat pigs and drink- to bite greased cartridges, and to mix pig’s fat with flour and sweetmeats — to destroy Hindoos and Mussulman temples on pretence of making roads to build churches- to send clergymen into streets and alleys to preach the christian religion — to institute English schools , and to pay a monthly stipend for learning the English sciences, while the places of worship of Hindoos and Mussalmans are to this day entirely neglected; with all this, how can the people believe that religion will not be interfered with? The rebellion began with religion, and,for it, millions of men have been killed. Let not our subjects be deceived;thousands were deprived of their religion in the North-West, and thousands were hanged rather than abandoned their religion.
Profound questions to answer, from a statement issued in defiance, as the last of the Indian rulers prepared to fight what would be her last battle. Shortly after Begum Hazrat Mahal asked these questions, her forces were defeated and Lucknow captured on March 21 1859. Begum Hazrat and her son were driven into exile in the Terai. She died proud but lonely in Kathmandu in 1879. She had a small mosque built there and is buried there to this day.
Indians believed the Queen’s proclamation. It promised racial equality, not to Christianize India, to admit Indians as equal citizens of the Empire, and equality of opportunity in administering the Territories. The fairness of the Proclamation lead Indians to believe that Crown Rule would be one based on a charter of rights promised by the Great White Queen herself. One writer has referred to this document as India’s Magna Carta. Many Indians would learn to recite the Proclamation by heart. Loyalty to the Queen meant a belief in thepromise made to them via the Proclamation.
As we know, what came to pass was what Begum Hazrat Mahal had stated in her response to the Queen. Indians came to be treated as second-rate citizens. Christianizing India was not state policy but Christianity was a state-sponsored religion after 1857. The gulf between Indians and Europeans continued to grow.
The early Indian political activists always professed loyalty to the Queen: could it be that what they were asking for was a realization of the proclamation? Even the British Government in India found the proclamation tiresome for the promises it made to Indians. The increasing dissatisfaction with the reality of British Rule – that Indians were never going to be the equal of the British -ultimately lead to Independence.
Hazrat Mahal was a proud lady who refused to return to Lucknow, preferring to die a free person in an alien land than live as a second-class citizen in her own.
1 Empress: Queen Victoria and India: Miles Taylor, Yale University Press, 2018
2 Gazette of India Extraordinary, November 2 1908
3 Freedom Struggle in Uttar Pradesh: Source Material Vol I: ed By S A A Rizvi and M L Bhargava, Publications Bureau, Govt of Uttar Pradesh, 1957
4 Indian Mutiny: Saul David, Penguin, 2005