Pandey was born in the village of Nagwa in district Ballia (Uttar Pradesh). Families in Nagwa village claim Mangal Pandey to be their first ancestor and trace their family lineage to him.. Mangal Pandey was born in a Bhumihar Brahmin family to Divakar Pandey of Surhupur village of Faizabad district’s Akbarpur Tehsil. He joined the English East India Company's forces in 1849 at the age of 22, as per this account. Pandey was part of the 5th Company of the 34th B.N.I. regiment and is primarily known for attacking the officers of that regiment in an incident that was the first act of what came to be known as the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 or the First War of Indian Independence. Mangal Pandey was a devout Hindu and he practiced his religion diligently.
The English Sergeant-Major, Hewson, had arrived on the ground, summoned by a native officer, prior to Baugh. He had ordered the jemadar in command of the quarter-guard to arrest Mangal Pandey. To this, the jemadar expostulated that he could not take Pandey on alone. At this, Hewson ordered him to fall in his guard with loaded weapons. In the meantime, Baugh had arrived on the field shouting 'Where is he? Where is he?' Hewson called out to Baugh, 'Ride to the right, Sir, for your life. The sepoy will fire at you!' At that point Pandey fired, with the consequences outlined in the last paragraph.
Hewson had charged towards Pandey as he was fighting with Lieutenant Baugh. He then locked in combat with Pandey and was knocked to the ground from behind by a blow from Pandey's musket. The sound of the firing had brought other sepoys from the barracks; they remained mute spectators. At this juncture, Shaikh Paltu, while trying to defend the two Englishmen called upon the other sepoys to assist him. Assailed by other sepoys, who threw stones and shoes at his back, he called on the guard to help him hold Pandey, but they threatened to shoot him if he did not let go of Pandey.
On the order of the Jemadar of the troops, a man called Ishwari Prasad, the sepoys advanced and struck at the two prostrate officers. They then threatened Shaikh Paltu and ordered him to release Pandey, whom he had been vainly trying to hold back. However, Paltu continued to hold Pandey until Baugh and the sergeant-major had had time to rise. Himself wounded by now, Paltu was obliged to loosen his grip. He backed away in one direction and Baugh and Hewson in another, while being struck with the butt ends of the guards' muskets.
In the meantime, report of the incident had been carried to the commanding officer General Hearsey, who then galloped to the ground with his two sons. Taking in the scene, he rode up to the guard, drew his pistol and ordered them to do their duty by seizing Mangal Pandey. The General threatened to shoot the first man that disobeyed. The men of the guard fell in, and followed Hearsey in the direction where Pandey was still ranting and raving. Pandey, then realizing the situation he had put himself in, put the muzzle of the musket to his breast and discharged it by pressing the trigger with his foot. He collapsed burned and bleeding but not mortally wounded.
He recovered and was brought to trial less than a week later. When asked whether he had been under the influence of any substances, he admitted to having used bhang (cannabis) and opium of late. He pleaded to not knowing what he was doing when intoxicated. He stated steadfastly that he had mutinied on his own accord and that none had played any role in egging him on. When asked to defend himself, he said "I did not know what I was doing. I did not know who I wounded and who I did not. What more shall I say? I have nothing more to say. I have no evidence." He was sentenced to death by hanging along with the Jemadar. His execution was scheduled for April 18, but was carried out ten days prior to that date. The Jemadar Ishwari Prasad joined him on the gallows on April 21.
The 34th N.I. Regiment was disbanded "with disgrace" on May 6 as a collective punishment, after a detailed investigation by the Government, for failing to perform their duty in restraining a mutinous soldier and protecting their officer. This came after a period of six weeks in the course of which, petitions for leniency were examined in Calcutta. Shaikh Paltu was promoted on the spot to the post of Havaldar (native sergeant) by General Hearsey, for his gallant conduct. .
The cartridge was rumoured to having been greased with animal fat (primarily pig fat and cow fat, which animals are not consumed by Muslims and Hindus respectively, the former being abhorrent to Muslims and the latter a holy animal of the Hindus). The cartridges had to be bitten at one end prior to use. The mutineers were of the opinion that this was an intentional act of the British, with the aim of defiling their religions.
Commandant Wheeler of the 34th BNI was known as a zealous Christian preacher, and this may also have impacted the Company's behaviour. The husband of Captain Wilma Halliday of 56th BNI had the Bible printed in Urdu and Nagri and distributed among the sepoys, thus raising suspicions amongst them that the British were intent on converting them to Christianity.
Also, the 19th and 34th Native Infantry were stationed at Lucknow during the time of annexation of Oudh for mis-government by the Nawab on February 7, 1856. The annexation had another implication for sepoys in the Bengal Army (a significant portion of whom came from that princely state). Before the annexation, these sepoys had the right to petition the British Resident at Lucknow for justice—a significant privilege in the context of native courts. As a result of the annexation, they lost that right, since that state no longer existed. Moreover, this action was seen by the residents of the state as an affront to their honour, the annexation being done in violation of an existing treaty.
Thus, it was quite natural that sepoys were affected by the general discontent which had been stirred up by the annexation. In February 1857, both these regiments were situated in Barrackpore.
The 19th Native Infantry Regiment is important because it was the regiment charged with testing the new cartridges on February 26, 1857. However, right up to the mutiny the guns had not been issued to them and the cartridges in the magazine of the regiment were as free of grease as they had been through the preceding half century. However, the paper used in wrapping the cartridges was of a different colour, arousing suspicions. The non-commissioned officers of the regiment refused to accept the cartridges on the 26 February. This information being conveyed to the commanding officer, Colonel Mitchell, he took it upon himself to try to convince the sepoys that the cartridges were no different from those they had been accustomed to and that they need not bite it. He concluded his exhortation with an appeal to the native officers to uphold the honour of the regiment and a threat to court-martial such sepoys as refused to accept the cartridge. However, the next morning the regiment rose in rebellion and it was only due to the persuasive powers of Colonel Mitchell and his sagacity that the sepoys were convinced to return to their barracks. A Court of Enquiry was ordered which after an investigation lasting nearly a month, recommended the disbanding of the regiment. The same was carried out on the 31 March. The 19th N.I. Regiment, far from being dismissed with dishonour, as is held by some, were allowed to retain their uniforms and provided by the Government with an allowance to return home.
The P-53 was officially known as the Pattern 1853 Enfield Rifle Musket. Introduced in the British Army by the War Department during 1854 in the Crimean War, they proved very effective at a range of 50 to . It was introduced in the Bengal Army by the East India Company in early-1857.
The rifle used a Metford-Pritchitt cartridge that required the use of a heavy paper tube containing 2½ drams (68 grains) of musket powder and a , pure lead bullet. As the bullet incorporated no annular grease rings like the French and American minié ball bullets introduced in 1847, it was wrapped with a strip of greased paper to facilitate loading. The cartridge itself was covered with a thin mixture of beeswax and mutton tallow for waterproofing.
To load his rifle, the sepoy had to first bite off the rear of the cartridge to pour the powder down the barrel. He then inverted the tube (the projectile was placed in the cartridge base up), pushed the end-portion into the muzzle to the approximate depth of the bullet and tore off the remaining paper. The bullet could then be easily rammed on top of the charge.
Since Hindus consider cows as sacred and Muslims regard pigs as dirty, native sepoys could be expected to have reservations in its usage. The company therefore kept this fact suppressed. Thus, when it came out as a rumour, it had an even more damaging effect, as all kinds of rumours started spreading. For instance, it was thought that the British planned to make their sepoys outcaste in the society in order to force them to convert to Christianity. Another rumour said the British had adulterated the wheat flour distributed to the sepoys with ground bone-dust of bullocks.
The matter could have been worsened by the fact that an overwhelming number of sepoys in the Bengal Native Infantry were Brahmins from Awadh, Purvanchal and Western Bihar. As Brahmins are generally devout Hindus and therefore vegetarians, they are not supposed to eat or touch meat, the resistance was even stronger.
The Commander-in-Chief, General George Anson reacted to this crisis by saying, "I'll never give in to their beastly prejudices," and despite the pleas of his junior officers, he did not compromise.
Later, the British contemplated reducing the discontent by allowing the sepoys to use their own grease made of ghee (clarified butter). Lord Canning sanctioned a proposal of Major-General Hearsey to this effect. However, the proposal was shot down by the Meerut-based Adjutant-General of the Army Colonel C. Chester, who felt it would be tantamount to an admission of guilt and could therefore worsen the matter. He falsely claimed that the sepoys had been using cartridges greased with mutton fat for years and that there was therefore no reason to give in now. This claim was however not correct as native sepoys had till then only used Brown Bess muskets for which unsmeared paper cartridges were employed. The Government let itself be convinced and rescinded the order allowing the usage of ghee.
A film based on the sequence of events that led up to the mutiny, entitled Mangal Pandey: The Rising starring Indian actor, Aamir Khan along with Rani Mukerji, Toby Stephens and Amisha Patel, produced by Bobbie Bedi and directed by Ketan Mehta was released in August 2005.
This was one of India's grandest and most epic movies to date, according to some, and had a historic opening week at the box office. At the time of release, it created controversy for apparently misrepresenting the character of Mangal Pandey, which led to small scale rioting in the hinterland of Northern India, in the native region of Mangal Pandey. The allegations however could not be substantiated and the director of the movie submitted evidence to the Delhi High Court on the matter. The fact however remains that the film dramatised the life and actions of Mangal Pandey in an extensive manner, for there is not really much information available about him except for the above-mentioned incident. In fact even his exact place of birth (village as well as district) is subject to controversy.
The life of Mangal Pandey was the subject of a stage play titled The Roti Rebellion, which was written and directed by Supriya Karunakaran. The play was organized by Sparsh, a theatre group, and presented in June 2005 at The Moving Theatre at Andhra Saraswat Parishad, Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh.