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The Revolt of 1857

The mass upsurge of 1857 known variously as Sepoy Mutiny, First war of Indian Independence was a result of culmination of discontent against the British policies. The last 100 years the East India Company had created dissatisfaction and discontent among different sections of the society. The revolt was mistaken to be a mere mutiny of the soldiers. However, the rural society was North India was also severely affected. Therefore, the causes of the revolt lay in the changes in the social and economic structure. The 1857 revolt marked the end of an era of domination by English East India Company.

The causes for the revolt are:

Political causes:

  • Doctrine of Lapse: The policy was introduced by Lord Dalhousie according to which, Kingdom of Indian rulers with no natural heir was to be annexed by the British.
  • In the course of 8 years, Dalhousie annexed 8 states. The states of Satara (1848), Jaipur (1849), Nagpur, Sambhalpur and Bhagat (1850), Udaipur (1852), Jhansi (1853).
  • The abolition of titles and pensions by British caused resentment among Indian rulers. Lord Canning declared that the title of Mughal ruler would be abolished after death of Bahadur Shah.

Social and Religious causes:

  • There was a widespread belief that the Indians would be converted to Christianity.
  • The suppression of Sati, legislation of widow remarriage, promotion of western education was interference into religious beliefs of Indian.

Economic causes:

  • The economic exploitation of the country, the drain of wealth from Bengal and the destruction of its industry impoverished one of the richest countries in the world.
  • The British deliberately crippled Indian trade and manufacture by imposing protective duties in Britain while British goods were imported into India at a nominal duty. The machine made British goods flooded the Indian markets and ruined Indian manufacturers.
  • The agrarian policy of the company ruined the cultivators as well as the zamindars. The peasants suffered because of the high revenue demand from the state. The land revenue system introduced by the British (Zamindari, Mahalwari and Ryotwari) disrupted the existing agrarian structure.   

Military causes:

The Indian soldiers were dissatisfied because of the following reasons:

  • Indian soldiers had very less pay than the European soldiers for the same type of military duties. The Indian soldiers were also mistreated by British soldiers.
  • The British military authorities never trusted Indian soldiers. They were apprehensive of the possible uprisings on the part of Indian soldiers.
  • Another cause of resentment among the Indian soldiers was that they were denied promotions to higher ranks in the army.
  • The policy of sending Indian soldiers to foreign countries caused great dissatisfaction among the Hindu soldiers as they faced the risk of being ex communicated from their caste.
  • The soldiers were also distressed that Awadh was annexed by the British.

The Immediate cause:

  • The immediate cause for the revolt was connected to the newly introduced Enfield rifle in the army. The catridges of the rifle had a greased paper cover and had to be bitten off before the catridge was loaded into rifle. It was believed that the grease was composed of beef and pig fat.
  • The Hindu as well as Muslim sepoys were enraged because the use of greased catridges was against their religious beliefs.
  • These made them believe that the company was deliberately trying to destroy their religion and convert them to Christianity. This infuriated the sepoys and they broke out into a mutiny at Barrackpore and later Behrampore in Bengal.

The Revolt: On 10 May, 1857 in Meerut, the sepoys broke out in open rebellion, shot their officers and released their fellow sepoys. The soldiers headed towards Delhi and it was seized on 12 May 1857 Bahadur Shah was declared as the Emperor of India. The revolt quickly spread to Northern and Central parts of India at Lucknow, Allahabad, Kanpur, Bareilly, Benaras and to parts of Bihar, Jhansi and other places. The important leaders of the revolt include:

  • Delhi: Bahadur Shah II and General Bakht Khan. The last Emperor of Mughals was deported to Rangoon where he died in 1862. His sons were shot dead.
  • Kanpur: Nana Sahib, Tantiya Tope and Azimullah Khan. Nana Sahib escaped to Nepal and Tantiya Tope was captured and executed on April on 15th April in 1859.
  • Bihar: Kunwar Singh of Jagdishpur
  • Lucknow: Begum Hazrat Mahal from Awadh and Maulvi Ahmadullah of Faizabad. Begum Hazrat Mahal escaped to Nepal.
  • Jhansi: Rani Laxmi Bai. She died in the battle field.

  • Delhi: Bahadur Shah II and General Bakht Khan. The last Emperor of Mughals was deported to Rangoon where he died in 1862. His sons were shot dead.
  • Kanpur: Nana Sahib, Tantiya Tope and Azimullah Khan. Nana Sahib escaped to Nepal and Tantiya Tope was captured and executed on April on 15th April in 1859.
  • Bihar: Kunwar Singh of Jagdishpur
  • Lucknow: Begum Hazrat Mahal from Awadh and Maulvi Ahmadullah of Faizabad. Begum Hazrat Mahal escaped to Nepal.
  • Jhansi: Rani Laxmi Bai. She died in the battle field.

In many other states the rulers remained loyal to British government but their soldiers revolted. But by July 1858 the revolt was completely suppressed. Lord Canning gathered British troops at Calcutta and sent them to free Delhi. On 21 September 1857, Delhi was recaptured and the Emperor was deported to Rangoon (Burma). The other sites of rebellion Kanpur, Allahabad and Benaras were re captured by the British. By early 1859 the regions of Lucknow, Gwalior, Awadh and central India was taken over. Both the sides unleashed violence. The British used brutal methods such as hanging the rebels and burning entire villages. The rebels also resorted to killing of white civilians.

Causes for the failure of the revolt:

  • The areas of revolt remained limited. The whole of India did not participate in the revolt and those who participated did not have any solidarity among themselves.
  • The British had better resources than the rebels. The English possessed good artillery while the rebels either lacked it or could not utilize it in battlefield. The rural peasants with primitive weapons were poorly matched with the British.The British also had unlimited supply of men and money at their disposal.
  • Many native rulers provided useful support to the English
  • The rebels had neither general plan of action. Bahadur Shah was only a figure head. Tantya Tope, Rani Laxmi and Kunwar Singh could not have conducted the war on a national scale. On the other hand the English commanders such as Lawrence, Outram, Havelock, Edwards and Nicholson were able to organize and capture back the territories. The revolt also highlighted the British national character, better leadership quality and military strategies.

Result of the Revolt:

  • The mutiny marked the end of rule of British East Company. The rule of the British Crown commenced in 1858 when Queen Victoria made her famous proclamation on 2 August of 1858.
  • The Queen’s proclamation promised non-interference in the religious affairs of the people. The government would respect the religious affairs of the people. The government would respect the religious customs, traditions and usages.
  • The proclamation declared Queen Victoria as the sovereign and provided for appointment of Secretary of State for India.
  • British Army was reorganized. The Europeans treated Indians with contempt and the gap between them widened.
  • The strength of the Indian army was reduced by half. The artillery was placed only in the hands of Europeans and Indians were excluded. Important military positions and strategic areas was placed in the hands of Europeans.

Nature of the revolt:

  • It cannot be called a mutiny because the military discontent was a minor cause. The civilians played a major role and leadership was with them.
  • It cannot be called as First War of Independence as the concept of nationhood had not emerged. The idea of complete independence emerged only in 1929. Geographically, the revolt remained confined only to parts of North India only. Even in North India Jats, Marathas, Rajputs remained aloof. The anti-British sentiment was more dominant than nationalist feelings.   

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