Revolt of 1857

When soldiers of the Bengal army mutinied in Meerut on May 10,1857 , tension had been growing for quite some time. Over the past years the upper caste sepoys had found their religious beliefs in conflict with their service conditions due to various circumstances:

  • In 1806 the replacement of the turban by a leather cockade caused a mutiny at Vellore.
  • In 1824 the sepoys at Barrackpore refused to go to Burma because crossing the sea would mean loss of caste
  • In 1844 there was an outbreak of the Bengal army sepoys for being sent to far away Sind. Crossing the Indus was perceived as causing loss of caste.

In addition there was discontent with conditions of service:

  • An infantry sepoy got only seven rupees per month, and a cavalry sawar 27 rupees, out of which he had to pay for his uniform, food and the upkeep of the horse
  • There was racial discrimination in matters of promotion, pension and terms of service,
  • Annexations had deprived the sepoys of batta (extra pay) for foreign service.

The immediate cause of military disaffection was the deployment of the new breech-loading Enfield rifle, the cartridge of which was allegedly greased with pork and beef fat. When Muslim and Hindu troops learned that the tip of the Enfield cartridge had to be bitten off to prepare it for firing, a number of troops refused, for religious reasons, to accept the ammunition. These recalcitrant troops were placed in irons, but their comrades soon came to their rescue. They shot the British officers and moved towards Delhi, where there were no British troops. The Indian garrison at Delhi joined them, and by the next nightfall they had secured the city and Mughal fort, proclaiming the aged titular Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah II, as their leader. This chain of events led to the revolt of 1857. There, at a stroke was an army, a cause, and a national leaderthe only Muslim who appealed to both Hindus and Muslims.

Nature and Causes of the Rebellion

This movement became much more than a military mutiny. There has been much controversy over its nature and causes. The British military commander Sir James Outram thought it was a Muslim conspiracy, exploiting Hindu grievances. Or, it might have been an aristocratic plot, set off too soon by the Meerut outbreak. But the only evidence for either of these was the circulation from village to village of chapatis, a practice that, though it also occurred on other occasions, was known to have taken place at any time of unrest. The lack of planning after the outbreak rules out these two explanations, while the degree of popular support argues more than a purely military outbreak.

The general factors that turned a military mutiny into a popular revolt can be described under the headings of political, economic, social, and cultural Westernisation. Politically, many princes of India had retired into seclusion after their final defeat in 1818. But the wars against the Afghans and the Sikhs and then the annexations of Dalhousie alarmed and outraged them. The Muslims had lost the large state of Awadh; the Marathas had lost Nagpur, Satara, and Jhansi. Further, the British were becoming increasingly hostile toward surviving traditionals and contemptuous of most things Indian. There was therefore both resentment and unease among the old governing class, which fanned in Delhi by the British decision to end the Mughal imperial title on Bahadur Shah’s death.

Economically and socially, there had been much dislocation in the landholding class all over northern and western India as a result of British land-revenue settlements, setting group against group. There was thus a suppressed tension in the countryside, ready to break out whenever governmental pressure might be reduced.

Their educational policy was a Westernising one and the use of English instead of Persian as the official language alienated the old elites. Western inventions such as the telegraph and railways aroused the prejudice of a conservative society. Even more disturbing to traditional sensibilities were the interventions, in the name of humanity, in the realm of Hindu custom-e.g., the prohibition of suttee, the campaign against infanticide, the law legalising remarriage of Hindu widows. Finally, there was the activity of Christian missionaries, by that time widespread.

Summary of the Factors behind the Revolt

Among the broader factors in the Revolt were follows:

  • Indians were excluded from well paid, higher administrative posts. Racial discrimination was widespread and was mentioned in several rebel proclamations.
  • Artisians and handicraftsmen were hit both by the promotion of British manufactured goods and the loss of patronage due to the annexations of Indian states.
  • The land revenue settlements meant loss of estates to the landholders and heavy revenue assessments for different strata of rural society.
  • Annexations of several princely states using the doctrine of lapse led to widespread resentment.
  • There was a growing suspicion among orthodox Hindus and Muslims that the British were trying to destroy their religion and culture through social legislation.

The Revolt and its Aftermath

The dramatic capture of Delhi turned mutiny into full-scale revolt. There were essentially three phases:

  • The summer of 1857 the British, without reinforcements from home, fought with their backs to the wall and were on the verge of total defeat.
  • The second phase concerned the operations for the relief of Lucknow.
  • The last phase was the successful campaign of Sir Colin Campbell and Sir Hugh Henry Rose in the first half of 1858. Mopping-up operations followed, lasting until the British capture of Tantia Tope in April 1859.

Prominent Leaders of the Revolt

  • The Rani of Jhansi who died fighting in June 1858
  • Nana Saheb, the adopted son of the last Peshwa, Baji Rao 11, who led the mutiny at Kanpur and escaped to Nepal in the beginning of 1859
  • Kuer Singh of Arrah who had carved a base of himself in Azamgarh and Ghazipur and died fighting in May 1858
  • Begum Hazrat Mahal who escaped to Nepal
  • Maulvi Ahmadullah who carried on the revolt around the borders of Awadh and Rohilkhand till his death in June 1858
  • Tantia Tope, uprooted from his base on the Jumna at Kalpi, reached Gwalior in June 1858, crossed the Narmada in October and was captured and put to death in 1859.

Spread of Revolt

By the first week of June mutinies had broken out in Aligarh, Mainpuri, Bulandshahr, Etawah, Mathura, Lucknow, Bareilly, Kanpur, Jhansi, Nimach, Moradabad, Saharanpur etc.

By mid-June and September 1857 there had been mutinies in Gwalior, Mhow and Sialkot and in Bihar, in Danapur, Hazaribagh, Ranchi and Bhagalpur, and Nagode and Jabalpur in central India. However by September-October it was clear that the revolt would not spill across the Narmada. North of the Narmada the main axis of the revolt was represented by the river Ganga and the Grand Trunk Road between Delhi and Patna.

Some attempts were made to organise the rebels and mobilise more support.

  • After the capture of Delhi, a letter was sent to rulers of all the neighbouring states of Rajasthan soliciting their support.
  • In Delhi, a court of administrators was set up.
  • Of the 10 members, 6 were from the army and four from other departments. Decisions were taken by majority vote.

Such attempts at organisation were made at other centres too. In Awadh, Birjis Qadar, a minor, was crowned price by consensus, immediately after the British defeat at the battle of Chinhat on 30th June 1857.

The rebels laid down conditions such as:

  • Orders from Delhi were to be obeyed
  • The wazir would be selected by the army
  • Officers of the army would be appointed after the consent of the army.

The Awadh rebel executive structure comprised two separate decision-making bodies:

  • One consisting of bureaucrats and court officials to oversee organisation and finances
  • The ‘military cell’ composed of sepoys and a few court officials.

Factors in Ultimate Failure of the Revolt

  1. The revolt was limited in scope and did not spread to all parts of the country. South and West India remained largely outside its fold.
  2. It did not receive the support of all groups and sections of the Indian society. Many Indian rulers refused to help the rebels and were even hostile to the rebels and helped the British in suppressing the revolt. The middle and upper classes and the modern educated Indians also did not support the revolt.
  3. The revolt was an unorganised effort. The rebels lacked a plan of action and a programme which could be implemented in the captured areas. 4. The leadership of the movement was weak and possessed a very limited perspective and was often motivated by narrow, personal considerations.
  4. No national leadership emerged to coordinate the movement and give it an overall direction and consequently there was lack of organisation.
  5. The rebels were short of weapons and finances. Whatever few weapons existed were outdated and no match for the sophisticated and modern weapons of the British. They also had a poor system of communications. Often the sepoys were undisciplined and uncontrolled and thus were unable to carry through their early military successes.
  6. The British were far more resourceful, organised and coordinated in contrast to the rebels.

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