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Last Updated: Tuesday, 11 July 2006, 12:58 GMT 13:58 UK
Tamils dispute India mutiny date
By LR Jagadheesan
BBC News, Madras

Tamil Nadu says that its place in history should not be ignored

When did the first mutiny against British rule take place in India?

If you accept the version of most historians and the Indian government, it was in 1857, when Indian soldiers of the British army rebelled against their colonial masters in what was known as the "sepoy mutiny" or the "first war of independence".

In fact so convinced is the Indian government of the date that it is now drawing up elaborate plans to commemorate the 150th anniversary in a grand manner next year.

But not everyone agrees that 1857 is the right date.


The Chief Minister of the southern state of Tamil Nadu, M Karunanidhi, argues that the first mutiny in fact began during the early hours of 10 July 1806.

So convinced is he that he has issued a commemorative postal stamp which depicts the first "sepoy mutiny" as happening in the fort in the town of Vellore, 130km (80 miles) from the state capital Madras.

Tipu Sultan
Tipu Sultan was at the forefront of resistance to British rule

That is 51 years before the better-known "sepoy mutiny" of 1857.

Mr Karunanidhi's contention has much sympathy in the south of India, where historians and politicians complain that when it comes to recording Indian history, the north of the country often ignores or overlooks events in the south.

One of their greatest grievances is that south India's participation in the Indian independence struggle is neither recognised nor recorded - hence the debate over when the first "sepoy mutiny" took place.

Dress code

According to them, the Vellore revolt was the first organised uprising faced by the British involving Indian soldiers in the British army.

After the death of Tipu Sultan in 1799, the British detained his family members at the fort in Vellore.

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi (right) with the stamp
Mr Karunanidhi says recognition of the revolt is better late than never

In 1806, the British introduced a dress code for its mostly Indian soldiers which required them to remove caste-marks, earrings and beards.

Instead the soldiers were ordered to wear newly designed turbans with leather embellishments.

Most of the Indian soldiers resented this, and by May 1806, the British authorities in Madras came to know of their simmering resentment.

They identified some of those troops expressing dissent and punished them by publicly lashing some and sacking others.

But the rebelling soldiers did not relent.

Seized control

Using the marriage of one of Tipu Sultan's daughters - scheduled on 9 July - as a pretext, they gathered at Vellore fort.

Vellore fort
The rebellion began at Vellore fort

According to Madras-based historian S Muthiah, many of the 1,500-strong Indian garrison at the fort took part in the uprising, which began at 0300 the following morning.

More than 100 of the 350 European soldiers on garrison duty were killed, and by mid-morning the rebels had seized control of the fort.

But they made a fatal mistake. The celebrating sepoys failed to close the gates of the fort securely, and later that morning the British and Madras Cavalry - based 20 miles (32km) away in Arcot - charged through them.

A massacre ensued, with more than 350 of the rebels killed and an equal number injured before the British finally recaptured the fort.

The British suspected the Mysore princes of having instigated the rebellion and transferred them to Calcutta.

Chief Minister Karunanidhi says that after 200 years, the move by the Indian postal department to bring out commemorative stamps has at last given "due recognition" to India's "first war of independence".

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