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!
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.
Lotus flowers and bits of goats’ flesh, so it was rumoured, were also passed from hand to hand during the period. Symbols of unknown significance were chalked on the walls of towns; protective charms were on sale everywhere; an ominous slogan, Sub lal ho gaya hai ( ‘Everything has become red’ ), was being whispered.
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.