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India Marks 150th Anniversary of Major Revolt Against British Rule

India has held celebrations to mark the 150th anniversary of a landmark revolt against British rule. From New Delhi, Anjana Pasricha reports, marches, speeches and concerts have been held to commemorate the 1857 Mutiny, which is often billed as the country's first war of independence.

Performers enacted scenes from the 1857 uprising against British rule, poets recited verses, and the country's top leaders gathered at Delhi's historic Red Fort Friday. It was all to pay homage to the Indian soldiers who took part in the revolt.

Memories of the country's former colonial rulers were not left out of the celebrations. Men dressed as British soldiers waddled like penguins at the Red Fort, while a huge balloon shaped like a demon had the Union Jack printed on it.

In recent days, thousands of marchers holding colorful banners have been retracing the steps of the foot soldiers, or "sepoys," who set out 150 years ago from the town of Meerut to capture Delhi.

The immediate cause of the revolt was rumors that gun cartridges supplied by the British were greased with cow or pig fat - religious taboos for the Hindus and Muslims who made up the British-led Indian Army. But discontent with British rule had been building for a long time.

The soldiers reached Delhi, but the rebellion was ruthlessly crushed. Thousands died on both sides. Afterward, the British government formally took control of the subcontinent from the East India Company, which had acted as a virtual government over much of India until then.

However, historians say the uprising laid the seeds of a popular revolt, which - 90 years later, in 1947 - finally led Britain to grant independence.

On Friday, Indian leaders used the anniversary of the 1857 mutiny as an occasion to remember the heroes of the past, and to emphasize the need for unity in a vast country where religious issues continue to trigger tension.

Speaking from the ramparts of the historic 17th century Red Fort, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called the rebellion a shining example of Indian unity.

The prime minister reminded Indians that during the 1857 mutiny, people had stood together shoulder to shoulder to fight the British, irrespective of their religion or community. He emphasized the need to draw a lesson from this, and called on the people to build an India marked by national unity and harmony between communities.

It was a sign of the times, however, that tight security was required for Friday's celebrations. Hundreds of soldiers were deployed across Delhi, which has experienced terrorist attacks blamed on Islamic militant groups.

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