In March 1857, Dr. Gilbert Hadow, an army surgeon in the employ of East India Company, wrote the following lines describing a strange movement afoot in 1857, in a letter to his sister in Britain.
“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.”
Dr Hadow was describing the bizarre and inexplicable distribution of many thousands of chapatis that were passed from hand to hand and from village to village throughout the country in 1857.
As can be seen by his words, the freckled, round and harmless looking chapatis had British officials in quite a tizzy during the mutiny of 1857.
In 1857, tensions in British-occupied India were at an all-time high. Discontented Indians, sick and tired of an exploitative British rule, were quietly planning a rebellion. In February of that year, a strange thing began to occur.
Thousands of unmarked chapatis were distributed to homes and police outposts throughout India by runners at night, and the people who accepted the offerings would quietly make more batches and pass them on.
The movement was uncovered by Mark Thornhill, magistrate of the town of Mathura, who did some investigating and found that chapatis were travelling up to 300 kilometres every night – everywhere from the Narmada river in the south to the border with Nepal several hundred miles to the north. This mysteriously rapid distribution of the humble chapati was enough to convince him that something was going on.
Extensive enquiries into the meaning of this bizarre distribution produced plenty of theories but few facts. As there was not a word written on or sign made on the chapatis, the British were livid at being unable to find grounds for stopping or arresting the chapati runners who were quite often police chowkidars themselves!
Oddly enough, when the chapati runners were later questioned about the significance of carrying the bread from one home to another, they were absolutely clueless as to the purpose of their actions. The chapatis were real but no one, not even the runners, knew for sure what they were for. The police chowkidars would bake and hand over the chapatis, two inches each in diameter, to their colleagues. The colleagues would, in turn, make some more and pass them on to their counterparts in neighbouring villages.
Rare documents of the revolt of 1857 indicate that by March 5, 1857, the chapatis had reached far and wide – from Avadh and Rohilkhand to Delhi.
Panic spread among British officers when they found that the chapatis had made their way into every police station in the area and that around 90,000 policemen were participating in the activity. The fact that the chapatis were moving more swiftly than the fastest British mail was particularly disconcerting to them.
Even though there was no conclusive evidence, the baffled British suspected that the chapatis were some kind of a code, heralding a call to revolt against colonial rule. Opinions were divided as to whether the bread came from the east, near Calcutta (Kolkata), or from Avadh in the north, or from Indore, in the centre of the country.
All in all, the entire chapati ‘movement’ left the British Empire shaken to the core. The British controlled India with a relatively small number of men (100,000 in all), subjugating a huge population of 250 million, so they were well aware of just how inadequate these numbers would be in the event of a serious rebellion. Perpetually on the edge as a result, they regarded any type of communication by the locals they could not understand with deep suspicion, bordering on paranoia.
Rumours about the anomalous chapati chain resulted in an uneasy atmosphere prevailing all over the country in 1857. When the revolt broke out that year, with the first armed rebellion at Meerut on May 10, it was widely believed that the circulation of the chapatis had been planned by an underground movement that had put it into motion.
Years later, in the book Life During the Indian Mutiny, J W Sherar admitted that if the objective behind the strategy was to create an atmosphere of mysterious restlessness, the experiment had been very successful.
The mysterious chapati deliveries of 1857 that put the British into such a tizzy turned out to be an effective weapon of psychological warfare against colonial rule.
It is said that chapatis were also a staple in the army of Tantia Tope and Lakshmi Bai when they moved around during the revolt. Kunwar Singh, the doyen of guerrilla fighting, also travelled with a handful of soldiers and would only stop at villages to fill his sacks with ghee laden chapatis, gur and water.
Recent studies have theorised that the circulation of chapatis may have been an attempt to deliver food to people afflicted with cholera. However, in the face of inconclusive evidence, it can only be said for now that the chapatis were just that, chapatis, and not secret messages or warnings of impending revolt.