Rambles and recollections of an Indian official!
Major-General Sir W. H. Sleeman, K.C.B.
Though no doubt very familiar to our ancestors during the Middle Ages, this is a thing happily but little understood in Europe at the present day. 'Bhūmiāwat', in Bundēlkhand, signifies a war or fight for landed inheritance, from 'bhūm', the land, earth, &c.; 'bhūmia', a landed proprietor.
When a member of the landed aristocracy, no matter how small, has a dispute with his ruler, he collects his followers, and levies indiscriminate war upon his territories, plundering and burning his towns and villages, and murdering their inhabitants till he is invited back upon his own terms. During this war it is a point of honour not to allow a single acre of land to be tilled upon the estate which he has deserted, or from which he has been driven; and he will murder any man who attempts to drive a plough in it, together with all his family, if he can.
The smallest member of this landed aristocracy of the Hindoo military class will often cause a terrible devastation during the interval that he is engaged in his bhūmiāwat; for there are always vast numbers of loose characters floating upon the surface of Indian society, ready to 'gird up their loins' and use their sharp swords in the service of marauders of this kind, when they cannot get employment in that of the constituted authorities of government.
Such a marauder has generally the sympathy of nearly all the members of his own class and clan, who are apt to think that his case may one day be their own. He is thus looked upon as contending for the interests of all; and, if his chief happens to be on bad terms with other chiefs in the neighbourhood, the latter will clandestinely support the outlaw and his cause, by giving him and his followers shelter in the hills and jungles, and concealing their families and stolen property in their castles.
It is a maxim in India, and, in the less settled parts of it, a very true one, that 'one Pindhāra or robber makes a hundred'; that is, where one robber, by a series of atrocious murders and robberies, frightens the people into non- resistance, a hundred loose characters from among the peasantry of the country will take advantage of the occasion, and adopt his name, in order to plunder with the smallest possible degree of personal risk to themselves.
Some magistrates and local rulers, under such circumstances, have very unwisely adopted the measure of prohibiting the people from carrying or having arms in their houses, the very thing which, above all others, such robbers most wish; for they know, though such magistrates and rulers do not, that it is the innocent only, and the friends to order, who will obey the command.
The robber will always be able to conceal his arms, or keep with them out of reach of the magistrate; and he is now relieved altogether from the salutary dread of a shot from a door or window. He may rob at his leisure, or sit down like a gentleman and have all that the people of the surrounding towns and villages possess brought to him, for no man can any longer attempt to defend himself or his family.
Weak governments are obliged soon to invite back the robber on his own terms, for the people can pay them no revenue, being prevented from cultivating their lands, and obliged to give all they have to the robbers, or submit to be plundered of it. Jhānsī and Jālaun are exceedingly weak governments, from having their territories studded with estates held rent-free, or at a quit-rent, by Pawār, Bundēla, and Dhandēl barons, who have always the sympathy of the numerous chiefs and their barons of the same class around.
In the year 1832, the Pawār barons of the estates of Noner, Jignī, Udgāon, and Bilharī in Jhānsī had some cause of dissatisfaction with their chief; and this they presented to Lord William Bentinck as he passed through the province in December.
His lordship told them that these were questions of internal administration which they must settle among themselves, as the Supreme Government would not interfere. They had, therefore, only one way of settling such disputes, and that was to raise the standard of bhūmiāwat, and cry, 'To your tents, O Israel!'
This they did; and, though the Jhānsī chief had a military force of twelve thousand men, they burnt down every town and village in the territory that did not come into their terms; and the chief had possession of only two, Jhānsī, the capital, and the large commercial town of Mau, when the Bundēla Rājās of Orchhā and Datiyā, who had hitherto clandestinely supported the insurgents, consented to become the arbitrators.
A suspension of arms followed, the barons got all they demanded, and the bhūmiāwat ceased. But the Jhānsī chief, who had hitherto lent large sums to the other chiefs in the province, was reduced to the necessity of borrowing from them all, and from Gwālior, and mortgaging to them a good portion of his lands.
Gwālior is itself weak in the same way. A great portion of its lands are held by barons of the Hindoo military classes, equally addicted to bhūmiāwat, and one or more of them is always engaged in this kind of indiscriminate warfare; and it must be confessed that, unless they are always considered to be ready to engage in it, they have very little chance of retaining their possessions on moderate terms, for these weak governments are generally the most rapacious when they have it in their power.
A good deal of the lands of the Muhammadan sovereign of Oudh are, in the same manner, held by barons of the Rājpūt tribe; and some of them are almost always in the field engaged in the same kind of warfare against their sovereign.
The baron who pursues it with vigour is almost sure to be invited back upon his own terms very soon. If his lands are worth a hundred thousand a year, he will get them for ten; and have this remitted for the next five years, until he is ready for another bhūmiāwat, on the ground of the injuries sustained during the last, from which his estate has to recover. The baron who is peaceable and obedient soon gets rack- rented out of his estate, and reduced to beggary.
In 1818, some companies of my regiment were for several months employed in Oudh, after a young 'bhūmiāwatī' of this kind, Sheo Ratan Singh. He was the nephew and heir of the Rājā of Partābgarh, who wished to exclude him from his inheritance by the adoption of a brother of his young bride. Sheo Ratan had a small village for his maintenance, and said nothing to his old uncle till the governor of the province, Ghulām Husani, accepted an invitation to be present at the ceremony of adoption.
He knew that, if he acquiesced any longer, he would lose his inheritance, and cried, 'To your tents, 0 Israel!' He got a small band of three hundred Rājpūts, with nothing but their swords, shields, and spears, to follow him, all of the same clan and true men. They were bivouacked in a jungle not more than seven miles from our cantonments at Partābgarh, when Ghulām Husain marched to attack them with three regiments of infantry, one of cavalry, and two nine-pounders. He thought he should surprise them, and contrived so that he should come upon them about daybreak. Sheo Ratan knew all his plans.
He placed one hundred and fifty of his men in ambuscade at the entrance to the jungle, and kept the other hundred and fifty by him in the centre. When they had got well in, the party in ambush rushed upon the rear, while he attacked them in front. After a short resistance, Ghulām Husain's force took to flight, leaving five hundred men dead on the field, and their guns behind them. Ghulām Husain was so ashamed of the drubbing he got that he bribed all the news-writers within twenty miles of the place to say nothing about it in their reports to court, and he never made any report of it himself.
A detachment of my regiment passed over the dead bodies in the course of the day, on their return to cantonments from detached command, or we should have known nothing about it. It is true, we heard the firing, but that we heard every day; and I have seen from my bungalow half a dozen villages in flames, at the same time, from this species of contest between the Rājpūt landholders and the government authorities. Our cantonments were generally full of the women and children who had been burnt out of house and home.
In Oudh such contests generally begin with the harvests. During the season of tillage all is quiet; but, when the crops begin to ripen, the governor begins to rise in his demands for revenue, and the Rājpūt landholders and cultivators to sharpen their swords and burnish their spears. One hundred of them always consider themselves a match for one thousand of the king's troops in a fair field, because they have all one heart and soul, while the king's troops have many.
While the Pawārs were ravaging the Jhānsī state with their bhūmiāwat, a merchant of Sāgar had a large convoy of valuable cloths, to the amount, I think, of forty thousand rupees, intercepted by them on its way from Mirzāpur to Rājputāna. I was then at Sāgar, and wrote off to the insurgents to say that they had mistaken one of our subjects for one of the Jhānsī chiefs, and must release the convoy. They did so, and not a piece of the cloth was lost. This bhūmiāwat is supposed to have cost the Jhānsī chief above twenty lākhs of rupees, and his subjects double that sum.
Gopāl Singh, a Bundēla, who had been in the service of the chief of Pannā, took to bhūmiāwat in 1809, and kept a large British force employed in pursuit through Bundēlkhand and the Sāgar territories for three years, till he was invited back by our Government in the year 1812, by the gift of a fine estate on the banks of the Dasān river, yielding twenty thousand rupees a year, which his son now enjoys, and which is to descend to his posterity, many of whom will, no doubt, animated by their fortunate ancestor's example, take to the same trade. He had been a man of no note till he took to this trade, but by his predatory exploits he soon became celebrated throughout India; and, when I came to the country, no other man's chivalry was so much talked of.
A Bundēla, or other landholder of the Hindoo military class, does not think himself, nor is he indeed thought by others, in the slightest degree less respectable for having waged this indiscriminate war upon the innocent and unoffending, provided he has any cause of dissatisfaction with his liege lord; that is, provided he cannot get his land or his appointment in his service upon his own terms, because all others of the same class and clan feel more or less interested in his success.
They feel that their tenure of land, or of office, is improved by the mischief he does; because every peasant he murders, and every field he throws out of tillage, affects their liege lord in his most tender point, his treasury; and indisposes him to interfere with their salaries, their privileges, or their rents. He who wages this war goes on marrying his sisters or his daughters to the other barons or landholders of the same clan, and receiving theirs in marriage during the whole of his bhūmiāwat, as if nothing at all extraordinary had happened, and thereby strengthening his hand at the game he is playing.
Umrāo Singh of Jaklōn in Chandērī, a district of Gwālior bordering upon Sāgar, has been at this game for more than fifteen years out of twenty, but his alliances among the baronial families around have not been in the slightest degree affected by it. His sons and his grandsons have, perhaps, made better matches than they might, had the old man been at peace with all the world, during the time that he has been desolating one district by his atrocities, and demoralizing all those around it by his example, and by inviting the youth to join him occasionally in his murderous enterprises.
Neither age nor sex is respected in their attacks upon towns or villages; and no Muhammadan can take more pride and pleasure in defacing idols—the most monstrous idol—than a 'bhūmiāwatī' takes in maiming an innocent peasant, who presumes to drive his plough in lands that he chooses to put under the ban.
In the kingdom of Oudh, this bhūmiāwat is a kind of nursery for our native army; for the sons of Rājpūt yeomen who have been trained in it are all exceedingly anxious to enlist in our native infantry regiments, having no dislike to their drill or their uniform.
The same class of men in Bundēlkhand and the Gwālior State have a great horror of the drill and uniform of our regular infantry, and nothing can induce them to enlist in our ranks. Both are equally brave, and equally faithful to their salt—that is, to the person who employs them; but the Oudh Rājpūt is a much more tameable animal than the Bundēla.
In Oudh this class of people have all inherited from their fathers a respect for our rule and a love for our service. In Bundēlkhand they have not yet become reconciled to our service, and they still look upon our rule as interfering a good deal too much with their sporting propensities.
1. Since the author's time conditions have much changed. Then, and for long afterwards, up to the Mutiny, every village throughout the country was fall of arms, and almost every man was armed. Consequently, in those tracts where the Mutiny of the native army was accompanied by popular insurrection, the flame of rebellion burned fiercely, and was subdued with difficulty. The painful experience of 1857 and 1858 proved the necessity of general disarmament, and nearly the whole of British India has been disarmed under the provisions of a series of Acts.
Licences to have and carry ordinary arms and ammunition are granted by the magistrates of districts. Licences to possess artillery are granted only by the Governor-General in Council. The improved organization of the police and of the executive power generally renders possible the strict enforcement of the law. Some arms are concealed, but very few of these are serviceable.
With rare exceptions, arms are now carried only for display, and knowledge of the use of weapons has died out in most classes of the population. The village forts have been everywhere dismantled. Robbery by armed gangs still occurs in certain districts (see ante, Chapter 23, note 14), but is much less frequent than it used to be in the author's days.