On Sunday of 10th May 1857, on a tarried evening, the soldiers in Meerut rise in mutiny against their British officers.
The cry “Delhi Chalo” went up like wild fire everywhere.
This historic event was the first large scale uprising in its kind against British rule in India. Innocent men, women and children were done to death.
This rebellion marked the end of the old style monarchies and inaugurated a new idea of nationalism among many Indians.
Historians have held divergent views about the nature of the event. It has been described as a “Mutiny” confined to the army which did not have the command over the people in any manner. Many others described it as a religious war against the Christians. Some Indian nationalists have called it a well-planned national struggle and as the first war of Indian Independence.”
Ashok Mehta in his book “The Great Rebellion” proved that the rebellion was national in character. Vir Sarvarkar called it a planned war of national independence. Benjamin Disraeli, the contemporary conservative leader in England called it as a national rising. He was of the opinion that the so-called mutiny was no “sudden impulse but was the result of careful combinations vigilant, and well organized efforts occasioned by adequate causes”. It is difficult to believe the statement of L.E.R. Rees “that the revolt was a war of fanatic religionists against Christians.”
S.B. Chaudhuri summarized that the rebellion was widespread geographically and deep-seated socially and that 1857 constituted a vast upsurge of the people from all strata of the society. This became regular when the sepoys revolted in specific districts, local leaders set up independent governments, landed chiefs re-occupied their lands which they had lost under the British and the mass of peasants in the interior also rose in revolt.
Popular support was demonstrated by villagers to the rebel forces. Wage-earners supported the rebels destroying British owned factories. Social destitute made their slogans against Mahajans and Banias who were blindly backed by the British administration. According to Choudhuri this rebellion was a war against land grabbers by the rural classes thus becoming a social war. Having established a deep-rooted civil involvement in the rebellion; Choudhuri contends that its essence was anti-British; its aim was independence and its character patriotic and nationalist.
E. Stokes after a careful analysis district by district, concludes that the rebellion at the rural level was strongest and worked as primary resistance movement. He further said that the ideology of nationalism and the movements that were to evolve later in the Century were to derive from different social groups and from areas affected by the mutiny.
Dr. S.N. Sen believes after careful analysis of all available records both official and non-official that the rising of 1857 was a war of independence. Dr. R.C. Majumdar gave his analysis that the slogan of the Rani of Jhansi, “Mera Jhansi deyungi nehin” was not of national character. No doubt the Rani died a heroic death but at no stage did she indicate that her cause was the national cause. The Nawab of Oudh, the worthless debauchee never aspired to national leadership.
The majority of the people remained apathetic and neutral and the movement failed to enlist popular support except in Oudh and Shahabad district of Bihar. He argued that nationalism had yet to come and it remained a shining example for the next generation to accept against the British yoke. The Marxists interoperated this great event as a struggle of the solider-peasant democratic combine against foreign bondage but failed because a feudal betrayal.
To conclude we can say that this revolt of 1857 was basically anti-imperialist and the sepoys and the civilians wanted to throw out the imperial rulers. Broadly viewed this rebellion on such an extensive scale with an object of ending the alien rule in the country must appear as a “war of independence”.
To study about the factors responsible for this great historic event in India, one can visualize that the help of political frustration, social inequality, religious beliefs and the imbalanced economy were exploded by the match stick of greased catrigs and the discontentment of the sepoys.
The East India Company’s policy of gradual extension to the Indian native states looks a definite shape by the introduction of the subsidiary alliance system by Lord Wellesley. The logical culmination was made by Dalhousie who threw all codes of morality and political conduct after the use of Doctrine of Lapse. Dalhousie’s policy of annexation of Oudh disturbed many sepoys who came from that province and became unpopular with the men.
The mistreatment of Bahadur Shah II, the Mughal emperor offended a large number of Indians regardless of their religions. The Doctrine of Lapse had caused suspicion and uneasiness in the minds of almost all ruling princes in India. The right of succession was denied for the Hindu Prince and the guarantee of adoption to the throne was disallowed.
In case of disputed interpretation the decision of the East India Company became final as there was no Supreme Court to say anything whether wrong or right. Punjab, Pegu, Sikkim had been annexed by the right of conquest. Satara, Jaitpur, Sambalpur, Bhagat, Udayapur, Jhansi and Nagpur were annexed with the extension of the Doctrine of Lapse. On the allegation of the written administration, Oudh was annexed.
Titles of the Nawabs of the Carnatic and Tanjore were abolished. The annual pension of Peshwa Baji Rao II’s adopted son was stopped. These activities of the Company Government caused widespread suspicion among the people in general and the members of the royal families in particular. Report of the Government officials to England created a bad atmosphere and Indians started believing that the “British were playing the wolf in the garb of the lamb.”
The Muslim sentiments had been badly disturbed when Bahadur Shah II the old Mughal Emperor, was dishonored and in his place Faqirud-Din was accepted as the successor. These acts greatly unnerved the Indian Muslims who thought that the British Government wanted to humble the House of Timur.
The absentee soverigntyship of the British rule in India was an equally political factor which had tremendous impact on the minds of the Indians. Indians believed that they were being ruled from England and the resources of the country being drained very exhaustively. The people who were entirely living on plunder and when they were deprived of their livelihood they formed the nucleus against the British.
The annexation of Indian states resulted in depriving Indian aristocracy of the power and high positions. They found little chance to gain the same old position in the new administrative set up under the British rule. In the military services, the highest posts attainable by the Indians were that of a Subedar on a salary of Rs. 60 or Rs. 70 to the maximum. Under the British rule, all high posts Civil and Military were reserved for the Europeans. British officers were in regular practice of treating the natives with violence and often with cruelty. The Character Act of 1833 could not change the policy of the British officers towards their subordinates in any manner.
The administrative set up of the East India Company was inefficient. The land revenue policy introduced by Cornwallis was most unpopular. The Company administration even used force to collect land revenue. In the newly annexed states, the Company Government had ignored the rights of the middlemen and established direct contract using force. Many holders of the rent-free tenures were dispossessed and large number of estates was confiscated.
As a result, the aristocracy turned pauper. The peasant was pushed to the mercy of the money lenders. It was quite but natural on the part of the peasantry, aristocracy and the service tenure holders to agitate against the administration of the East India Company.
The newly introduced British Economic policy in India worked against the interest of Indian trade and commerce. Small industrial houses were closed. Company employees used force to destroy Indian handicrafts. They worked as intruder who broke out the Indian handloom industry and destroyed the spinning wheel. The Company Government imported machine-made finished cloth to the Indian markets.
Millions of weavers who used to supply cloth to crores of people lost their hereditary jobs and turned dependents on agriculture when agricultural sector was not prepared to accommodate these surplus unemployed weavers. Lord Bentinck himself admitted in the words that “The misery hardly finds a parallel in the history of commerce. The bones of cotton weavers are bleaching the plains of India.”
The introduction of the British policy “drain of wealth from India to Britain” hammered the backbone of the Indian economy. They carried raw materials in huge quantities, produced machine-made goods in these raw materials and flooded the Indian markets with them.
This led to the decline of the village and indigenous industries in India. India’s internal and external trade received a death blow. India’s poverty began to grow rapidly. Abeysmal poverty became the fate of India for all these factors. Thus the pre-British rich India turned an economically backward in every respect. That accelerated the incoming of this historic event.
The Britishers engaged in the administration became rude and arrogant towards Indians. They said that the Hindus were barbarians and the Muslims as bigots, cruel and faithless. They committed indiscriminate criminal assaults on the Indians. The European judges could try cases of English criminal and as such awarded light or no punishment to them.
The British conquest of India was followed very quickly by Western influence on Indian society. Many changes began to appear. In some cases, the Western influence became useful but the conservative society was not in readiness to accept such new ideas.
William Bentinck introduced many social reforms like Sati system etc. but to the orthodox Indians those reforms were unwanted. Orthodox Indians complained that the Government has no right to interfere with the Hindu social customs. The reform of Dalhousie like widow remarriage shocked many conservative Indians greatly.
The Western education began to spread. It influenced educated Indians. They began to criticise the orthodox. There began a silent mental hostility between the conservative and the progressive Indians. Many started believing the Britishers as enemies. Gradually a social discontent began to grow. John William Kaye, the English historian, regarded Dalhousie’s encouragement of female education as one of the causes of the mutiny.
The introduction of railways, telegraph system and other reforms of Dalhousie alarmed the Indian mass to a great extent. On the whole, the Western ways and modes of life disturbed the orthodox minds of India which helped the great event to come quickly.
From the beginning of the British rule the missionaries tried to preach Christianity among the people. Gradually, their activities began to grow. The Government permitted the Christian missionaries to come in large number from England to spread the English way of life embracing Christianity. With the extension of the British Empire, the missionaries began to move all over the country.
They established schools at many places. By the help of English education they began to draw the Indians towards Christianity as best as they could. In many places they criticized other religions to impose the superiority of their own religion.
To the orthodox Indians, the missionary activities appeared very dangerous. In times of natural calamities like famine and high flood, the missionaries helped the destitute with food and shelter. Such work also shocked the Indian conservatism. Hindus converted into Christian were not allowed to inherit their paternal property. But at the time of Dalhousie the converts were allowed to enjoy that right of inheritance by law. As a result, a fear spread that the Government would convert India into a Christian country.
A rumour was spread that the British mixed the powder of animal bones with salt only to destroy the religion of the Hindus. It was also said that the flesh of pigs and cows was thrown into wells. By the by religious sentiments of Muslims and Hindus were greatly hurt by such stories. Indians became fearful of their religion being destroyed.
Thus the orthodox and the Brahmins could not like the rule of the British on the ground of religion being polluted by the Christian Missionaries. Religious grievances against the British could unite all sections of Indian people to fight out the onslaught of the British administration.
The Indian Sepoys employed in the British army gradually became restless because of the discriminating attitude of the Company Government. The Indian Sepoys were the defenders of the country and they were the backbone of the imperial strength. The empire rested on their loyalty but for several reasons the Sepoys became angry and thus disloyal.
The British officers of high rank did not behave the Sepoys inhumanly. They maintained a feeling of superiority. The arrogant manners, rough language, contemptuous behavior of the army generals displeased the Sepoys. As the British maintained on racial hatred towards the Indian soldiers, the Indian Sepoys also developed the same kind of hatred towards their officers. The Indian Sepoys were sent to fight for the imperial Government in distant places like Burma.
In those days, the high caste Hindus had the belief that they would lose their religion by crossing the seas. Many high caste Hindus in the army therefore did not want to go on sea voyages. On the other hand, the Government made it compulsory for all irrespective all any caste, creed or religion. This new law alarmed the Hindu Sepoys, particularly the Rajputs.
The Sepoys were paid very low salary. In many occasions they prayed for the increase of their pay packets but their prayer was never granted. Brave Sepoys were never rewarded for their courage in the battle fields. There were no promotions for them. Instead they were suspected and some-times were removed from service. The privilege of free postage enjoyed by the Sepoys was withdrawn.
The high castes Hindu Sepoys used to put on their foreheads ‘tilak’ as a religious mark and were using their head-dresses of their respective areas. They were ordered not to do so and were asked to put the military caps containing leather strips. The orthodox Sepoys did not like to use such military caps. On the other hand, a rumour was spread among the Sepoys that they might be compelled to embrace Christianity.
In fact some officers publicly preached Christianity in the army headquarters. This type of administrative orders in the regiments created a sense of frustration among the Sepoys, which made them bold enough to think of a revolution. They under-estimated the English soldiers when they lost the battle in the Cremean War.
Finally, there occurred an incident which sparked off the revolt. The introduction of the Enfield rifle with the Greased cartridges created a sensation among the Sepoys. It was said that the cartridge contained some animal fat on it. The soldier was asked to open the cartridge using his teeth. It was spread, on this ground, that the British Government deliberately brought these cartridges for use only to spoil the religions of the Indians. It made the Sepoys furious.
The British authorities very well realized the sentiment of the Indians but did not care for it. Instead they forced the Sepoys to use the cartridge as it did not contain the fat of cows or pigs. The Sepoys thought it to be a big conspiracy to destroy the religious faiths of Indians. Thus the greased cartridge signalled for a military revolt.
The secret agents of Rani Laxmi Bai and Nana Sahib were busy to foment the trouble among the angry Sepoys for an uprising. When the Sepoys raised the banner of revolt, the princes and the people joined their hands with them. The mysterious bread and the lotus from hand to hand worked as the symbol of revolution carrying the clarion call for all to join.
All the above factors at last culminated in the most memorable blood-bath in modern Indian History.
Course of the Revolt:
The first symptom was marked at Barrackpore on 29th March, 1857 when Mangal Pandey, one Brahmin Sepoy refused to use the greased cartridge and fired at Adjutant. On 10th May, 1857, the open revolt of the Sepoys broke out at Meerut. The Sepoys killed their English generals burnt down their houses and released the prisoners. They headed towards Delhi. On 12th May, they seized Delhi. The Europeans at Delhi were killed.
Bahadur Shah II was proclaimed the emperor of India. The news of the fall of Delhi spread quickly to different capitals and army centres. The loss of Delhi was a serious throughout Northern India and Central India at Lucknow, Allahabad, Kanpur, Bareilly, Banaras, in parts of Bihar, Jhansi and other places very quickly. From river Sutlej to river Narmada the fire of revolution spread.
The Rajput’ Warrior Kunwar Singh directed the movement in Bihar. Nana Saheb gave best possible direction from Kanpur. Kanpur was lost and Nana Saheb was proclaimed the Peshwa. His gifted Lieutenant Tantia Tope created a romantic history destroying the British regiments. The followers of Nana Saheb even killed some women and children making a reign of terror over Kanpur.
This killing is popularly known as Kanpur Messacre and Nana Saheb was held responsible for this incident. In the beginning of June, the troops of Jhansi mutinied under the leadership of Maharani Laxmi Bai. She was proclaimed the ruler. After the fall of Kanpur Tantia Tope joined the Rani and marched towards Gwalior.
At Bareilly, Khan Bahadur Khan had proclaimed himself the Nawab Nazim. At Banaras a rebellion had been organized which was mercilessly suppressed by Colonel Neill. The revolt became successful at several places but fortune was on the side of the English. The English fought desperately and changed the course of the war.