The Great Revolt of 1857 (also Indian rebellion of 1857, the Great uprising of 1857, the Great rebellion, Indian Sepoy mutiny) is regarded as India’s First War of Independence against the British rule. It was the most remarkable single event in the history of India after the establishment of British rule. It was the result of the century-old British rule in India. In comparison to the previous uprisings of the Indians, the Great Revolt of 1857 was of a greater dimension and it assumed almost an all-India character with participation of people from different sections of the society. This Revolt was initiated by the sepoys of the company. So it has been commonly termed as `Sepoy Mutiny‘. But it was not simply a revolt of the sepoys.
The causes of the Great Revolt of 1857 and Sepoy Mutiny may be studied in the following heads:
Political cause: Major political cause for the outbreak of the Revolt was the policy of annexation followed by Dalhousie. On application of the ‘Doctrine of Lapse’ or on the ground of mis-governance he annexed states after states deploring their rulers. Satara, Jhansi, Sambalpur, Nagpur, etc. fill victim in his aggressive policy. All these states came under British rule. In 1856, he captured Oudh on the plea of misrule. He looked the palaces of Nagpur and Oudh. Not only the ruling house, but also the employees and other dependent families were deprived of their livings for the policy of Dalhousie. His maltreatment towards the Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah-II hurt the sentiment of the Muslim community. Discontinuation of the pension of the Peshwa Nana Sahib shocked the Marathas. This discontent of royal families, army men and common people jointly exposed in the Great Revolt of 1857.
Economic cause: The Great Revolt of 1857 was also an outburst of grievances due to the economic exploitation of the company. India’s traditional economy collapsed as a result of the British ‘investment’ policies and revenue administration. The company’s trade policy destroyed Indian handicrafts. Huge numbers of Indians were thrown out of employment. The British, opened a new avenue of exploitation on the peasants By introducing permanent settlement. Exploitation of the Zamindars gave rise 10 landless laborers who became restless by and by. Thus out of discontent the artisans and peasantry joined hands with the sepoys in the mutiny.
Military cause: The sepoys of the company regiment had been feeling dissatisfied with the English for various reasons.
- Thus was a great disparity in salaries between the Indian and European soldiers.
- The Indian sepoys were treated with contempt by their European officers.
- The sepoys were sent to distant parts of the empire, but were not paid any extra allowance.
- Indian sepoys were refused promotion in service as like their European counterparts. Out of such discontent the Indian sepoys led to a mutiny.
Social cause: The English could not establish any social relationship with the Indians. The racial arrogance of the British created a difference between the rulers and the ruled.
Enactment of some Acts greatly offended the sentiment of the people. Some of these acts were taken as deliberate blow at the Hindu religion, custom and right of inheritance.
Direct cause: At that time, Enfield rifles were introduced in the army. The bullets of these rifles were covered by paper with grease like thing. The Sepoys were to cut the cover by teeth before using it. The Hindu and Muslim soldiers refused to cut the covers. They protested against this and were arrested. That ignited the fire.
Under the leadership of Mangal Pandey the agony of the Sepoys exposed at Barrackpore in Calcutta (March, 1857 A.D.). But the planned revolt started at Meerut (May, 1857 A.D.). Gradually it spread from Punjab in the north to Narmada in south, from Rajputana in the west to Bihar in the east. As the revolt was started by the Indian sepoys in the British army, the revolt became known as Sepoy mutiny. When the sepoys of Meerut reached Delhi there was huge upsurge. They declared old Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah as the Badshah of India. He was accepted as the symbol of Hindu-Muslim unity. With the outbreak of mutiny among Sepoys common men joined the revolt. Farmers and artisans put further force behind the mutiny. The second reason for this mass revolt was the unity among the Hindus and Muslims. On observing this historians thought that, up to this period there was no communal feelings among the masses.
End of the Revolt
The British government came out with all the powers to suppress the revolt. The sepoys fought the battle with their limited strength for four months. Then, the sepoys had to retreat. On 25th September British troops regained Delhi. Bahadur Shah was arrested. Nana Saheb lost the battle of Kanpur. His commander Tantia Topi continued the fight up to April, 1859 A.D. and surrendered to the British force. Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi lost her life in the battleground. Kunwar Singh, Bakht Khan of Bihar, Bahadur Khan, Moulavi Ahmed of Faizabad lost their lives one after the other. By the end of 1859 A.D. the British power was reestablished in troubled areas.
Reason of failure of the revolt
There were several reasons behind the failure of this revolt.
- There was no central organization of the sepoys. There was no unified action also. Bahadur Shah, Nana Saheb, Lakshmi Bai, no one had acceptance as a real leader. They had different goals and times again they had contradictions.
- The British had a huge number of forces. New groups of soldiers were sent to India after the end of Crimean war. Fresh army men came from Singapore. As a result of these, in the middle of the revolt the strength of the British force was doubled. The chance of a win became remote.
- The sepoys had no improved arms with them. On the other hand, the British force had huge and improved armory. They could not match improved guns and rifles with their old model musket, spears and sword. So the defeat was almost certain.
- Further the leaders of this revolt could not get the support of several native states like Holker, Scindia and Rajput sardars and kings. They supported the British. Educated middle-class people also were behind the British power.
Nature of the Great Revolt of 1857
There are differences of opinions amongst historians about the character of this great revolt. Some historians are of opinion that the revolt in the North-Western province was a lawless revolt by a group of sepoys.
On the other hand, some historians believe that it was more than just a sepoy mutiny as it had a large mass base. Though in the beginning it was like sepoy mutiny, but later on it turned out to be a real mass upsurge.
Karl Marx in his several essays described this revolt as nationalist fight for independence. Marxist writers looked at this event as uprising of peasants against feudal system of exploitation. V.D. Savarkar, the great revolutionary, described this revolt as the first struggle for independence. M.N. Roy said that it was the reaction of the feudal against capitalism.
On the centenary of the great revolt Dr. Ramesh Chandra Majumder wrote and published a book entitled ‘Sepoy Mutiny’ and ‘Revolt of Eighteen Fifty Seven’. Dr. Majumder thought that this was nothing but a revolt of the sepoy. He also said that in some places few non-military persons came out in support of the sepoys but they were local landlords, talukdars and feudal leaders. In his opinion it was nothing better than feudalistic reaction of the revolt.
But many historians are of opinion that the Great movement of 1857 A.D. cannot be termed as narrow, isolated and reactionary. The sepoys established a symbol of Hindu-Muslim unity by electing Bahadur Shah as the Emperor of India. In the Ajamgarh declaration a call was given to people of all classes of mass to unite against the British rule. It may be righty that they had no idea about national government, but nationalism was there. So it can be called a national movement.
Importance and Outcome of the Great Revolt of 1857
It can be said that the great revolt of 1857 A.D. was a failure, but was not fruitless.
- United Effort: From this revolt, we can have a picture of India’s struggle for keeping the rights. There were several revolts before this, but there was no feeling of Indian-ness in those revolts. The revolt of 1857 A.D. was a collected effort of different sections of people.
- Awakening of Peasants class: The peasants joined this revolt which was out and out against the British. This was unique.
- Development of National Feeling: Dr. K. M Panikkar wrote that though the sepoys had limitations and weaknesses, but their efforts to make India free from British rule was patriotic work and a progressive step. If we do not consider any historical event on the basis of its success then the revolt of 1857 A.D. was never a tragedy. Even inspite of failure that served a great purpose, it was a source of inspiration in India’s freedom struggle.
- End of Company Rule: The political result of this great revolt was the end of company’s rule in India. By a new act introduced in the British Parliament British government took the charge to rule India. From then onward a Viceroy as a representative of British King ruled India.
- Queen’s proclamation: The Queen’s Proclamation showered many promises in 1858 A.D. Government service was promised irrespective of cast, religion and on the basis of merit only. Ill framed “doctrine of lapse” of Lord Dalhousie was cancelled. New recruitment policy of the army men was announced to see that they could not organize any revolt. In the important positions of the government no native people (Indian) was given any chance.