Did You Know About The Secret Chapati Movement That Freaked Out The British In 1857?

You’ll be surprised to know that once upon a time in Indian history, the British dreaded the sight of the humble freckled Chapati. No kidding.

It was 1857, around the time of the Sepoy Mutiny that the diet staple of many Indians somehow became a symbol of revolution and silent warfare.

It all started in February when a magistrate in Mathura named Mark Thornhill came into his office one morning to find four “dirty little cakes of the coarsest flour, about the size and thickness of a biscuit” lying on his desk.

They had been brought in by one of his Indian police officers, who had received them from a baffled village chowkidar.

Apparently, a man had come out of the jungle, given them to the watchman, instructed him to make more like them and pass them on to the watchman in the next village, with the same instructions.

Soon, hundreds of chapatis were making their way across the subcontinent, advancing at a rate somewhere between 100 and 200 miles a night. This was way swifter than the fastest British mails, and despite the magistrates’ efforts to stop it, the “culinary chain letter” endured.

Though urgent inquiries were made, the “movement” remained in most part, a mystery.

Even the Indians who baked and carried the bread from village to village “did not know why they had to run through the night with chapatis in their turbans.”

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One theory suggested that the chapatis might conceal “seditious letters” that were “forwarded from village to village, read by the village chief, crusted over with flour again, and sent on in the shape of a chupatty, to be broken by the next recipient.”

But an examination of the bread revealed no hidden messages, and no one was sure as to where they came from.

At first, the British guessed that it was an elaborate prank, but then began to understand it as a sign of some coming disturbance; an invitation to the whole country to unite for some secret objective.

That’s when the Angrez log began freaking out. They controlled the Indian subcontinent with a just a handful of men and well aware of just how outnumbered they would be in the event of a serious rebellion.

As panic and misapprehension spread, British officer Richard Barter wrote:

“Lotus flowers and bits of goats’ flesh, so it was rumoured, were being passed from hand to hand, as well as chupatties. Symbols of unknown significance were chalked on the walls of towns; protective charms were on sale everywhere; an ominous slogan, Sub lal hogea hai (‘Everything has become red’) was being whispered.”

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The Indian people, on the other hand, were freaking out for their own reasons.

One widely believed story proposed that the British were attempting the mass conversion of their subjects to Christianity by adulterating their flour with bone meal from cows and pigs, which was forbidden to Hindus and Muslims.
The diabolical endeavour was termed, ‘One food and one faith’, and many subsidiary rumours sprung up from it.

Now rumours, however unfounded, can have serious consequences if taken seriously. So what happened next comes as no surprise.

In the early months of 1857, a similar belief about the cartridges used in the Enfield rifles spread among the Indian sepoys stationed in the north.
Seen as yet another attempt by the British to defile Indian beliefs; the cartridges, greased with the fat of cows and pigs posed precisely the same threat as did adulterated flour.

Though the British never issued a single greased cartridge to any Indian troops, fears of the rumours took hold and resulted in the Indian Rebellion of 1857.

Thought of as the First War of Independence, it was the defining event in British imperial history.

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After that, considerable effort was made to investigate the Chapati “movement”, but no connection was found between the two events.

Looking back at it today, the Chapati Movement seems like a quaint anomaly, a strange coincidence that only historians seem to have any interest in.

In truth though, it was nothing more than an honest attempt to ward off the ravages of cholera in central India, as later discovered.

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