The Revolt of 1857 in India (Study Notes)

Causes of the Revolt:

a. Political Causes:

Lord Dalhousie was the Governor-General of India till 1848-1856. Under him the British followed an expansionist policy in India.

Dalhousie through his policies had added considerable territories to the British Empire in India.

The policy of annexation reached its climax when he implemented the policy of Doctrine of Lapse and annexed the Indian states on charges of mis-governance and absence of an heir. In the course of eight years Dalhousie annexed Satara (1848), Sambhalpur (1850), Jhansi (1853), Nagpur (1853), Jaipur (1849) and Bhagat (1850).

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This policy enraged the Indian rulers against the British government. As part of the Doctrine of Lapse policy, the titles and pensions of some Indian princes were confiscated. The pension of Baji Rao ll’s son Nana Sahib was discontinued after his father’s death and Rani of Jhansi had been deprived of her right to rule in violation of the recognized Hindu law. Dalhousie further proposed to abolish the title of the Mughal emperor after the death of Bahadur Shah II.

b. Economic Causes:

The economic policy of the British adversely affected every section of the Indian society. The British exploited the economic resources of India to their advantage and drained her wealth by crippling the Indian trade and industry. Under the British, India turned into a colonial economy to serve the British capitalist interests.

Indian resources were unabashedly exported to London to promote British industries. Consequently, the country was reduced to poverty as traditional handicrafts and industries were ruined. Many people were rendered jobless and there was overcrowding in the agrarian sector.

Further the high revenue demand crippled the agrarian sector. Both the peasants and the zamindars were pushed by the British to produce more to appropriate the maximum revenue. The various revenue settlements were designed to benefit the government and displayed total disregard for the cultivators.

In case of failure to pay the stipulated amount the lands of the zamindar were taken away by the government. A large number of zamindars were thus dispossessed of their lands and estates as part of this policy. These grievances left the Indian people dissatisfied of the British eventually turned out to be bitter enemies of the British.

c. Social and Religious Causes:


The British looked down upon the Indians as inferior race and discriminated with them racially at every step. Indians were not allowed at many places such as railway compartments and public places as parks and hotels as these were specially reserved for the Englishmen. This racial arrogance of the British hurt the Indian masses most and they began to regard the Englishmen as their worst enemies.

The attempt to bring about social reforms in India by the British was not liked by the general public. The social legislations on the evils as sati, infanticide, re-marriage of widows, etc. were considered as interference in the religious matters of Indians about which the Englishmen knew nothing.

The introduction of English education, the propagation of the work of the Christian missionaries and the changing of the Hindu law of property with a view to facilitate the conversion of Hindus to Christianity alarmed many orthodox Indians. They feared that these practices would upset the social and religious order of the traditional Indian society.

d. Military Causes:

Dissatisfaction was widespread among the military rank and file under the British. There was great inequality in treatment between the Indian and the British counterparts in terms of salary and other benefits. There was also a disparity in numbers between the Indian and European troops as the latter numbered far less than the Indians. Majority of the Indian soldiers were sent to Crimea, China and Iran to fight wars of the English.


The Indian soldiers were considered inferior and were ill-treated by high officers. The high ranks in the army were exclusively reserved for the Englishmen and the Indians were deliberately excluded from responsible positions.

What hurt the Indian soldiers most was the prohibition to wear caste and religious marks while serving that amounted to interference in their personal affairs by the British. The immediate cause of the revolt was the introduction of the new Enfield rifle and the greased cartridge. In loading the rifle the sepoy before inserting the cartridge had to bite off its top. It was believed that the grease was made out of the fats of cows and pigs. This was objectionable to the Hindus and Muslims alike.

This rumour sparked off fire of discontent against the British in the form of the revolt. The first sign of unrest appeared in 1857 at Barrack-pore in Bengal. A sepoy, Mangal Pandey on 29th March 1857, killed senior officers on parade and started the revolt.

Course and Spread of the Revolt:

The revolt spread to Berhampur in Bengal. On 24th April 1857 about ninety men of the Native Cavalry stationed at Meerut refused to accept the greased cartridges. Eighty-five of them were dismissed and sentenced to ten years imprisonment. On 10th May the revolt started at Meerut and the mutineers after killing some of their officials marched towards Delhi.



On 12th May Delhi was seized and Bahadur Shah II was proclaimed the emperor of India. The real command was in the hands of Bakht Khan who had led the revolt at Bareilly and brought the troops to Delhi.


Here the revolt was led by Nana Saheb who declared himself the Peshwa and governor of Bahadur Shah. Tantya Tope did most of the fighting. Rebels defeated General Windham outside Kanpur.


The revolt was led by Hazrat Mahal, the Begum of Awadh. She had proclaimed her young son Brijis Kadiras the Nawab of Awadh against the wishes of the British. Henry Lawrence, the British resident was killed at Lucknow.


After some initial vacillations, Rani Laxmi Bai assumed the leadership of the mutiny. After being defeated at Jhansi, she captured Gwalior with the help of Tantya Tope and Afghan guards.


Khan Bahadur Khan proclaimed himself as the Nawab and led the revolt there. The other centres of the revolt were Benaras, Allahabad, Gwalior, Nasirabad in Rajputana, Indore, Aligarh and Kota. At all these places the sepoys killed the senior officers and other Europeans on whom they could lay their hands, in many cases not even sparing women and children. They also released prisoners from jail, plundered the treasury and burnt land records at many pieces.

However the superior British forces soon suppressed the revolt. Bahadur Shah II proved to be a weak leader. Delhi was recaptured on 20th September 1857 by John Nicholson. Bahadur Shah was arrested and deported to Rangoon where he died in 1862. The rebels were defeated by General Havelock in Kanpur. Nana Saheb after being defeated refused to surrender and escaped to Nepal. At Jhansi Hugh Rose suppressed the revolt and Rani Laxmi Bai died on the battle field. Benaras, Bareilly and Gwalior were also recaptured by British officers.

Causes of the Failure:

(a) The revolt was highly localized and restricted to North India. Regions beyond the river Narmada in the south remained largely undisturbed.

(b) The revolt failed to embrace all the sections of the society. Many of the native rulers and the big zamindars refused to join the revolt against the British. They extended an active support to the British to suppress the revolt. Modern educated Indians were suspicious of the rebels. They feared the opposition of the rebels in bringing about social reforms.

(c) The revolt was poorly organized and lacked coordinated planning amongst the leaders.

(d) The rebels lacked a common cause and had different goals. At most places the rebels were encouraged to revolt against the local zamindars and money-lenders and did not have a larger goal to pursue. They lacked a spirit of nationalism.

(d) The British had better resources and succeeded in suppressing the revolt. They had vast resources at their disposal and were helped by the modern means of transport and communications. They also had the services of capable generals as Havelock, Outram, and Lawrence available who could plan the suppression of the revolt well and win back their lost regions.

Nature of the Revolt:

Historians have described the nature of the rebellion of 1857 variously. Some call it a sepoy mutiny since the initial thrust of the revolt in the form of the cartridge episode was given by the soldiers. These scholars also contend that the revolt was not related to the general people so much as the sepoys and they formed the bulk of the rebels.

Nationalists as V.D. Savarkar opine that the revolt was the first war of independence. They feel that the revolt sparked off the discontent of the Indians towards the foreign rule and they fought bitterly to drive away the foreigners from their homeland. According to them, the Hindus and Muslims participated equally in the revolt and displayed a new bond of unity against the British.

The Marxists view the revolt as a soldier-peasant struggle against feudal bondage. They contend that the Indian soldier was a peasant in uniform and wanted to throw away the feudal domination infused by the British.

On the whole one may look at the revolt as a product of the accumulated discontent of the people against the foreign government.

Impact of the Revolt:

(a) Policy Change:

The Queen’s Proclamation of November 1858 announced the policy of the British government to be followed from now on in India. It announced that the policy of territorial extension was to be abandoned. The native rulers were assured of the safety of their territory, rights and honour if they cooperated with British.

The right of a ruler to adopt a child in the absence of a natural heir was accepted. The government regarded the native rulers as the bulwark against the masses and henceforth followed a policy of protecting this reactionary segment of the Indian society.

A policy of divide and rule was actively pursued to keep the Hindus and Muslims divided.

(b) Administrative Changes:

On January 1st 1877 Queen Victoria was proclaimed as the Queen Empress of India and the administration of India was transferred the East India Company to the British Crown. India was to be administered by the Secretary of State and his fifteen-member council through the Viceroy. The Governor-general became the viceroy and the representative of the Crown in India.

(c) Reorganization of the Army:

The army was re-organized to strengthen British control over the country and avert any further rebellions in future. The number of British soldiers was increased and all the higher posts and key positions were filled up by the British.

(d) Communal and Racial Bitterness:

The revolt of 1857 created a big gap between the different religious communities especially the Hindus and the Muslims as each blamed the other for its failure. The Indians, however, developed a deep racial bitterness towards the English and opposed the inferior status granted to them.

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