The Chapati Chain must have been India’s first chain letter that waged a psychological warfare on the British government back in 1857. An inseparable part of North India’s diet, the innocent-looking round chapati became a dreaded weapon for many officials of the British Raj.
As India was readying for the Rising, mysterious chapatis started circulating. Like today’s chain mails, nobody knew from where the chapattis emerged. Rumours started flying thick that it had hidden messages that Indians were sending from one place to another. Some believed it was part of a religious cult. Whatever be the conjecture, nobody dared break the chain, lest they become the victim of someone’s wrath.
As early February of 1857, British officers across Northern India in the Doab area, located between the Ganga and Jamuna, reported that village chowkidars and policemen were circulating chapatis. The mystery deepened, when on questioning the men said they were equally clueless as to the reason or origin of the food. The first chapatis were made of flour and lotus seed, and soon the rumour fragmented and stories of circulation of lotus blooms started circulating soon.
Mainodin Hassan Khan, a Delhi policeman in his book Khodang Godur (Mutiny Game), mentions the mysterious incident in 1857 while in charge of Pahargunge (now Pahargunj) police station. A constable asked Khan how to deal with the chapatis arriving in the villages.
The modus operandi was simple. An unknown man would run up to the village headman, hand over a chapatti in haste, asking him to make five such more and send it five other villages with strict instructions to continue the ritual. According to Khan, people mostly illiterate villagers, wouldn’t break the chain for fear that some ill omen will befall them.
Andrew Ward chronicled the incident in his book Our Bones Are Scattered. Ward’s experiences, mainly drawn from Cawnpore (now Kanpur) during 1857, say that the Brahmin viewed the chapatis as the idea of Dassa Bawa, Nana Sahib’s guru, who foretold “that Nana’s suzerainty would one day extend as far as the chupatties reached”.
Yet another view of the chapattis was expressed by Colonel GB Malleson, who chronicled the Rising. He says the chapatis were the weapon chosen by Maulavi Ahmadullah to psyche up the British. The Maulavi from Faizabad devised the way to show the growing discontent among Indians and the prelude to the Rising.
Due to the rapid expansion of the chain, chapatis were arriving everywhere, but without any obvious sign or script. ‘Chapati runners’ waged a psychological warfare against the British. As many as 90,000 policemen had forwarded chapattis, and obtained receipts after handing over the chapatis.
The Friend of India, an English newspaper published from Srirampur, reported in its March 5, 1857 edition that British officers were left confused and equally scared when chapatis arrived in every police station in the area. The chapatis had travelled wide; from Farrukhabad to Gurgaon, from Avadh via Rohilkhand to Delhi.
In all likelihood, the chapati movement was started by a clever group who dispensed the idea of a conspiracy as they readied for the Rising in advance. Whatever the origin, the guesses remained wild and till date, not even a single person knows what was the purpose of the chapatti.