The Sepoys of the Great Mutiny of 1857, A Precursor to Al Qaeda?

William Dalrymple, in his new book The Last Mughal, suggests that the Great Mutiny of 1857, the Indian uprising against the British, contained precursors to Al Qaeda. In Outlook India, Irfan Habib responds. (Via

[The historian] Percival Spear and ‘Talmiz Khaldun’ were doubtless pioneers in English in trying to look at the Mutiny in Delhi from the eyes of the Delhi court, citizenry and the sepoys. The fact that the sepoys had to live and get the money out of the Delhi citizenry always created problems for a city under siege by an implacable enemy. This was a situation partly specific to Delhi. But even so the role of the mutineers in facing these difficulties has been well underlined by Prof Iqbal Husain, for example, in his essay on Bakht Khan.

The reference to Bakht Khan brings me to consider Dalrymple’s rather unfortunate assumption that the Wahabis and Muslim sepoys were somehow the precursors of Al Qaeda and the Taliban. This ignores the vital fact that religion in 1857 was the medium through which a growing resentment against the multiple inequities of the British rule was expressed. Ray brings this out fairly well. The Bengal Army sepoys throughout maintained a surprising inter-communal unity among them, a fact noted by Syed Ahmed Khan in his Asbab Baghawat-i Hind. He admitted that the Hindu and Muslim sepoys, having shed their blood together for their British masters for so long, were now so closely linked to each other in a common brotherhood that they could not but fight till the end once the uprising had begun. Such anti-colonial spirit suggests analogies as strong with Vietnam as with Iraq or Palestine. It would be too narrow to see it in a ‘jehad’ framework of our own creation.