Many of us don’t realise that before 1900 there was quite an opposition to the British Rule in India. This article is about a revolution not known to many that took place in 1857 against the British making it our first war for freedom. British have tried to underplay this revolt as just a Sepoy mutiny but this is marked by us as India’s show of rebellion against their rule.
The revolt was antedated by a series of disruptions from various parts of the Bengal, the Chunar rebellion in Bihar and Bengal etc. This revolt may not have overthrown the British but this revolt led to other uprisings which eventually led to our Independence revolution.
This revolt was the first expression of organised resistance it may have at the beginning just been of the revolt of sepoys but it eventually acquired the involvement of masses.
The causes of the revolt lay in almost all the sections of the Indian society under the British Raj.
1. Religious and Social Causes: In 1850 an act was passed which enabled a Hindu to inherit his ancestral properties even after he converted to Christianity and this was against the law. Many acts such as the permission of missionaries to change to Christianity, the abolishment of acts such as sati, female infanticide, and the legislation legalizing widow remarriage presented the British as a threat to the traditional social structure.
2. Political Causes: The British policy of expansion through the Doctrine of Lapse and direct annexation caused many chiefs and Indian rulers to be displaced thereby making other rulers anxious about their fate. Regions like Satara, Nagpur, Jaitpur, Sambalpur, Jhansi and Udaipur were annexed. The adopted son of Rani Lakshmi Bai was not allowed onto the throne, the adopted son of Baji Rao II was refused to continue the pension and Bahadur Shah II the descendants of the titular Mughal Emperor was not allowed to live in the Red fort such events hurt the sentiments of the people
3. Economic Causes: Heavy taxes were demanded of the peasants and zamindars in rural areas and people unable to pay this tax lost their land under heavy debt causing major resentment against the British Raj. As many Sepoy’s had relatives in such rural areas this affected them too. The economic exploitation by the British did not end there, Indian handicrafts were replaced by cheap British machine made products and India was transformed into a supplier of raw materials and a consumer of goods manufactured in Britain. All the people unemployed as they depended on royal patronage for their livelihoods bore a profound complaint against the British.
4. Military Causes: Even though the British troops contain 87% of Indian sepoys, they were considered inferior and were paid less than a European sepoy of the same rank. As the British Empire was vast many sepoy’s were deployed far away from home and acts such as General Services Enlistment Act in 1856 required the sepoys to be ready to serve even in British land acoplross the sea. Men from high caste communities in Awadh was recruited to form the ‘Bengal Army’, these soldiers refused to cross the ocean as it was against Hindu religious beliefs. The Nawab’s army was demobilized after the annexation of Awadh making many soldiers unemployed and turning them against the British.
The revolt broke due to an incident of greased cartridges. The cartridges of the new Enfield rifles were rumoured to be greased with the fat of cows and pigs and the sepoys needed to bite off the paper on the cartridges before loading these rifles, but Hindu and Muslim sepoys refused to use these cartridges. The damage was done even though amends were tried to be made by withdrawing the cartridges.
At Barrackpore, in March 1857, a sepoy named Mangal Pandey refused to use the cartridges and attacked his senior officer which led him to be hanged to death on 8th April as a punishment. This was followed by 85 soldiers on 9th May in Meerut were sentenced to 10 years imprisonment when they refused to use the new rifle.
Main Events of the 1857 Revolt
The Revolt of 1857 began with The Meerut Mutiny (May 9, 1857). British officers were murdered and jail was broken open by Indian sepoys in Meerut and they marched to Delhi on May 10.
Delhi: Delhi sepoys joined the mutineers in Delhi and they took the city under their control. The sepoys proclaimed the ageing the Emperor of Hindustan Bahadur Shah Zafar on May 11th. But due to old age Bahadur Shah was unable to provide leadership leaving the sepoy’s leaderless.
In September British finally attacked Delhi; the fight lasted for six days. Thousands of innocent people were massacred and hundreds were hanged after British reoccupied Delhi in September 1857. The imperial dynasty of the Mughals was eliminated after the old king was deported to Rangoon and his sons were shot dead.
In the entire area from the neighbourhood of Patna to the borders of Rajasthan revolt had spread. Namely Kanpur, Lucknow, Bareilly, Jhansi, Gwalior and Arrah in Bihar were six main centres of revolt in these regions.
Lucknow: In Awadh’s then capital Lucknow, old Awadh army’s disbanded soldiers joined the mutinous sepoys there and were led by Begum Hazrat Mahal, one of the begums of the ex-king of Awadh. But finally the British forces captured Lucknow and the queen escaped to Nepal.
Jhansi: When her adopted son’s claim to the throne of Jhansi was refused Rani Lakshmi Bai led the rebels though she fought gallantly, she was ultimately defeated by the English. Rani escaped and joined Tantia Tope together they marched to Gwalior and captured it. Rani fought fiercely and died on the battle field leading Gwalior to be recaptured by the British.
Kanpur: The adopted son of Peshwa Baji Rao II, Nana Saheb led the revolt in Kanpur as he was deprived of his pension by the British. He proclaimed himself the Peshwa after capturing Kanpur but his victory was short- lived. After fresh reinforcements arrived and Kanpur was recaptured by the British, the revolt was overpowered with terrible retaliation. Nana Saheb escaped but Tantia Tope his commander fought on and was eventually arrested and hanged.
Bihar: Kunwar Singh led the revolt in Bihar
The revolt lasted for more than a year and was suppressed by middle of July 1858. Peace was finally established by Canning on July 8, 1858 in Meerut.
Though unknown to many the great uprising of 1857 was an important landmark in the history of modern India, it marked the beginning of the end of the British Raj. Queen Victoria took over Indian administration which meant the British Parliament and Viceroy replaced the Governor General’s office. But this revolt also paved way for our future struggle for freedom.