An Uncanny Strategy: The Chapati Movement Of 1857

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When we talk about the nationalism in India, we often tend to overlook the small scale movements and the struggles of common people who shook the British regime. There are numerous people and movements which played a remarkable role in the struggle for independence, yet remain underrepresented. With reference to this, let’s talk about one of the most successful nationalist movements, the Chapati Movement of 1857.

To even think that something as harmless and basic as a chapati could be used to bring reform, is extraordinary. Yes, the same chapati which we eat with dal at our home was a weapon to challenge the British Raj. It was March 1857 when British army surgeon Dr. Gilbert Hadow wrote a letter to the British government, informing them about a very strange movement:

“There is a most mysterious affair going on throughout the whole of India at present. No one seems to know the meaning of it. It is not known where it originated, by whom or for what purpose, whether it is supposed to be connected to any religious ceremony or whether it has to do with some secret society. The Indian papers are full of surmises as to what it means. It is called the chapati movement.”
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He described thousands of people handing out unmarked chapatis to one another. From small villages to cities, it was hard to not notice the pattern. He could not figure out whether it was a religious practice or a celebration but yes, it was prominent. During the night, these chapatis reached police stations, post offices, and other institutions by unknown men. Those who would receive these unmarked chapatis would start making more and continue the distribution. In a short span, the movement covered the entire country, starting from Narmada river in the south up to the Nepal border in the North.

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Mark Thornhill, the Magistrate of Mathura town found the situation unsettling and set up an enquiry for the same. Even after elaborate investigations, the officials had to satisfy themselves with nothing but self-cooked theories which lacked facts. Above all, the Indian police and Chowkidars were also involved in distributing unmarked chapatis around towns. In 2 months only, almost 90,000 of such policemen were involved.

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This strange war strategy before the outbreak of 1857, was started by Tantia Tope. More of a psychological warfare strategy, this movement was aimed to confuse and mentally defeat the British.

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