There is no unanimity among scholars regarding the nature of the revolt of 1857 and a debate took place between 1950-1960 focusing attentions on three perspectives: sepoy mutiny, national struggle or first war of independence or a manifestation of feudalist revival.
All the British historians, in particular. Sir John Lawrance and Seelay are of the view that it was a sepoy mutiny as the sepoys refused to use the greased cartridges of the Enfield rifles and opposed the move.
An anxious conscious attempt on the part of the British to minimize the grievances of Indians and to restrict it only to a section of army’s revolt.
Further, the British tried to portray civil disturbances as the actions of selfish vested interests of the landholders and the princes.
Their attempt was to prove that the colonial rule, if not welcomed, was not detested, as many Indian historians argue. L.E.R. Reese viewed it as a religious war against Christianity. J.R. Holmes expressed the opinion that it was a conflict between civilization and barbarism. Sir James Outram, W. Taylor and others are of the view that it was a conspiracy hatched by the Hindus and the Muslims against the British.
Contesting the British interpretation as that of sepoy mutiny only, the nationalist historians and in particular V.D. Savarkar in his banned book. The Indian War of Independence of 1857, published anonymously in 1912 argues that it was the first war of Indian independence inspired by the lofty ideal of self-rule by Indians through nationalist upsurge.
Ashok Mehta in his book The Great Rebellion expressed the view that the revolt was national in character. Bishewswar Prasad observes “as the end of the alien rule was the essential object and the chief purpose and in this sense the revolt of 1857 may be termed a national war for freedom, though the sentiment of nationalism in the modern sense had not taken deep roots in the soil of India at that movement”.
Tara Chand described it as “War of Nation’s Independence” in his book. History of Freedom Movement in India. Contradicting the above views of nationalist motivated perceptions, R.C. Majumdar concludes that it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the so-called first national war of independence of 1857 is neither the first, nor national, nor a war of independence as it was not preplanned and was limited to certain pockets in North India.
Surender Nath Sen is of the view that: “The mutiny became a revolt and assumed a political character when the mutineers of Meerut placed themselves under the king of Delhi and a section of the landed aristocracy and civil population declared, in his favour. What began as a fight for religion ended as a war of independence for there is not the slightest doubt that the rebels wanted to get rid of the alien government and restore the old order of which the king of Delhi was the rightful representative”.
Since 1970, the historical perspective has shifted from the study of ‘sepoy mutiny’ or ‘national revolt’ to the examination of social roots of the revolt by understanding specific area studies. As a result of such studies, it is now established that the relationship between land revenue settlement and the revolt is very minimum. Further, it is now suggested that the roots of the revolt are traceable to the pockets of relative poverty due to ecological factors such as less fertile soil and severe revenue assessments imposed on arable land caused undue misery to the cultivator.
It is believed that it is very difficult to make generalization of the 1857 event as the response of the people varied from one area to another and as such it is argued that the revolt of 1857 was not one movement but many. The nature of the 1857 event has become so emotive that it gave scope to multiple perspectives.
Results of the 1857 Revolt:
The 1857 revolt though failed and crushed by the superior military force of the British was a significant event of far-reaching consequences in the history of British rule in India. It marks the end of an era of mercantile capitalism and early colonial rule and the beginning of direct imperial hegemony of the British crown. While in the first century, i.e., from 1757 to 1857, the British crown indirectly ruled India, in the second century, i.e., from 1858 to 1947, the British crown directly ruled India through the Viceroy appointed by the Monarch.
The results of the 1857 revolt may be subdivided as:
(i) Constitutional changes,
(ii) Changes in the army,
(iii) Religious, judicial and diplomatic effects, and
(iv) Social effects.
The most significant result of the mutiny was the transfer of power from a trading company to a sovereign power of Britain by the Government of India Act of 1858. This Act of 1858 completed the process initiated by the Charter Act of 1853. In the place of the President of the Board of Control, the Secretary of State for India was appointed. The Secretary of State for India was assisted and helped by a 15-member body of India Council. Out of the fifteen, eight were appointed by the crown and the rest were to be appointed by the court of the directors.
The designation of the Governor General of India was changed to Viceroy. In case of the rulers of the Indian states, the crown made categorical announcement that all the treaties and agreements entered into by the East India Company will be honoured and respected and made it clear that no renewal was necessary.
The British crown gave up the policy of subordinate isolation and advocated a policy of subordinate union in respect of native states. The administrative apparatus in India was centralized effectively due to the improvement in communications. The British crown reinstated the Taluqdars of Oudh to their old positions. They gave up the idea of the ruthless expansionist policy of their territorial boundaries in and outside India.
Changes in the Army:
Before the revolt of 1857, the army of the British in India was divided into two major divisions – king’s forces and company’s troops. As a result of the revolt the two forces were united and called king’s forces and one-third of it should consist of the Europeans.
The artillery section was exclusively kept under the British. As a consequence of more European soldiers in the army, the expenditure on the army doubled up. The Bengal Army was virtually abolished. They reduced the Brahmins from the army and recruited Gurkhas, Sikhs, Jats and Rajputs of the Punjab.
Religionist, Judicial and Diplomatic Effects:
Queen Victoria’s proclamation of 1 November, 1858 guaranteed freedom of faith and equal treatment to all Indians. The Queen made it clear that there was to be no distinction between one individual and another on the pretext of race, religion, sex and creed.
The British crown agreed to provide employment to the Indians in the bureaucratic structure of the times, which was denied previously. In the sphere of judiciary, the Sadar courts and Crown’s Supreme Court were amalgamated into High Courts which were established in the presidency towns of Madras, Bombay and Calcutta. In the sphere of diplomatic ties between India and Britain, now there was a change and the British began to show greater interest in the internal development of India than in foreign affairs.
In the sphere of social relations, the gulf between the Europeans and the Indians not only widened but animosity and hatred between the two social groups became marked, and there was definite social estrangement between Indians and Europeans.
Detestation, contempt, ferocity and vengeance became marked features of the British in India in the post-mutiny period. The Indians too did not lag behind in maintaining social distance. What we notice in this period was abandonment of social and educational welfare measures by the British purposefully and willingly.
As if it is not sufficient, orthodoxy, religious superstitions, communal, caste and religious discrimination began to be practiced by the Indians. The British who were quite aloof in the beginning realized their mistake and changed their policy with 1861 Indian Council Act.
A very disturbing feature of post-mutiny period in India was the growth of social distance between the Hindus and Muslims which ultimately led to communalization of social life and partition of India on communal lines.
The post-mutiny period also witnessed setback to Muslim renaissance and efforts of modernity. At the end, we may conclude by agreeing with Tarachand: “imperialist Britain treated India as a satellite whose main function was to sweat and labour for the master, to sub-serve its economy and to enhance the glory and prestige of the empire”.