The Mysterious Chapati Movement of 1857

The Chapati Movement saw India's farmers used food as a novel form of protest that overcame British Raj surveillance. During the early months of 1857, widespread discontentment among Indians gathered momentum, leading to a secret plan for a revolt. 

The Chapati Movement began in Mathura, near Agra, during this time as protestors began making and distributing Chapatis in the evenings and early mornings. This distribution was conducted by village chowkidars and also included local policemen. The movement continued to grow, and it is estimated that approximately ninety thousand police constables joined the movement. The chapatis were delivered by night to homes across India. Reports from villages across North India told of thousands of chapatis being passed around the countryside. The villagers were unsure of where the chapatis came from, or what they were trying to convey. But it was becoming clearer that something was afoot. Thousands of chapatis, two inches each in diameter, were distributed to homes and police outposts across India by runners at night, and the people who accepted these chapatis would make more such batches and pass them on to neighboring villages. 

As more reports emerged, the administration was spooked. Mark Thornhill, a magistrate in Mathura, walked into work one morning to find four “dirty little cakes of the coarsest flour, about the size and thickness of a biscuit” on his office desk. An Indian police officer had received them from another puzzled chowkidar. He explained that “A man had come out of the jungle with them and given them to the chowkidar (watchman) with instructions to make four like them and to take these to the watchman in the next village, who was to be told to do the same.” 

Thornhill conducted an investigation and found that some of these chapatis were travelling up to 300 kilometers every night, and in several directions- from the Narmada River in the south to the Nepal border several hundred kilometers to the north. The rapid spread of these massive numbers of chapatis all at once roused his suspicion that something unusual was going on.

Investigations yielded no concrete results. Were the chapatis meant to convey secret messages? But they had no words or symbols on them. The fact that many policemen, who were in their employ, were directly involved in this inexplicable development only unsettled them further. But they had no grounds to make any arrests. Some of the runners or couriers were questioned later, but even they had no clue what the intent behind the mass chapati movement was. Soon, there were chapatis in nearly every police station in the region between the Narmada and Nepal, and the tension within British ranks was palpable. By this time, the chapatis were moving across the region faster than most of the mail. 

The authorities suspected it was a signal of trouble to come, that the chapatis were some sort of code, or the medium for a secret code, calling for a revolt against them. Given the small number of Europeans (100,000) that sat atop the colonial administration in a country with nearly 250 million Indian, the British officials feared they'd be outnumbered in case a serious rebellion broke out. 

When the revolt finally kicked off on May 10th, 1857, at Meerut, there was reason to believe that the chapati movement may have been a part of the planning. Writing in the book Daily Life during the Indian Mutiny, the collector of Fatehpur, JW Sherer, recalled in the 1890s that if the objective behind the chapati movement was “to create an atmosphere of mysterious restlessness, the experiment had been very successful.” This gained a bit of credence because such chains were known to occur in times of trouble. Back in 1818, Mike Dash notes in the, “coconuts had passed at great speed from village to village in central a time when the mofussil was being ravaged by large bands of merciless looters known as the Pindaris...some very similar rumors (to the rumors of beef and pork fat in 1857) had once been recorded far to the south, in the Madras Presidency in 1806, at the time of a serious outbreak of mutiny among Indian soldiers stationed at Vellore.”

Another theory claims that the chapati movement was simply an effort to prevent a cholera outbreak across central India in 1857. The incidence of cholera was tied to the EIC army’s movements, and many Indians may have blamed the British for the spread of cholera. Kim Wagner, a Danish-British historian of colonial India and the British Empire, explained that the movement began as an attempt to ward off the ravages of cholera. Regarding the claims it was part of the rebellion, he wrote "the chapattis were not ‘harbingers of a coming storm.’ They were what people made them into, and the significance attributed to them was a symptom of the pervasive distrust and general consternation amongst the Indian population during the early months of 1857.”