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The Great Revolt of 1857

One hundred years after the Battle of Plassey, anger against the unjust and oppressive British Government took the form of a revolt that shook the very foundations of British rule in India. The Revolt of 1857 had been preceded by a series of disturbances in different parts of the country from the late eighteenth century onwards.

The first expression of organised resistance was the Revolt of 1857. It began as a revolt of the sepoys of the Company’s army, but eventually secured the participation of the masses. Its causes lay deeply embedded in the grievances that all sections of Indian society nurtured against the British rule.

Causes of the Revolt

Political Causes

Lord Dalhousie had a major share in the outbreak of the Revolt. His Doctrine of Lapse created new tensions.

This doctrine refused to recognise the right of the adopted sons to succeed as heirs to a protected state, unless the adoption was approved earlier by the British. It was based on this doctrine he annexed Satara, Nagpur and Jhansi.

He also refused to recognise the titles of ex-rulers like the Nawabs of Surat and the Carnatic, and the Raja of Tanjore. He refused pension to the ex-rulers of India. The most important of these rulers was Nana Saheb, the adopted son of the ex-Peshwa Baji Rao-II.

He also decided that the Mughal successor to Bahadur Shah Zafar would have to shift from Red Fort to a more humble quarters in the outskirts of Delhi. This was greatly resented, for in the people’s mind Mughals were still considered as the rulers of India.

The culmination of Dalhousie’s imperialistic policies was the annexation of Awadh on the pretext of maladministration by the reigning Nawab, Wajid Ali Shah. This caused a great uproar in Awadh and caused the displacement of thousands of the ex-Nawab’s nobles and soldiers. It also led to the extension of British policies to Awadh. Thus Dalhousie’s policies had a great bearing on the outbreak of the revolt.

The other cause was the decision of Lord Canning in 1856 that henceforth Mughals would be merely princes and lose their title of kings. The reverses the British army faced during the First Afghan War (1838-42), the Punjab Wars (1845- 49) and the Crimean Wars lessened their authority and prestige.

Administrative and Economic Causes

Under the new administrative dispensation, all higher posts were reserved for Englishmen.

During Lord Cornwallis’ tenure he tried to ensure that all positions of authority were out of bounds for the Indians. The Indian middle and upper class, who served the native rulers, were the worst affected. They lost their only source of livelihood.

Furthermore the administration at the lower levels was corrupt. The judicial and police administration seemed to favor the landlords, rather than the poor farmers.

Another aspect of British administration was its foreigness. Unlike earlier invaders, the British never tried to became a part of the Indian society. They remained aloof and were more interested in exploitation rather than in the development of India.

The economic policies of the British were the primary reason for the Revolt. The British economic policies destroyed the traditional economic fabric of the country. They impoverished the vast mass of peasants, artisans and handicraftsmen.

The land revenue policies like the Permanent Settlement exorbitantly raised the land revenue demand. It led to the replacement of traditional zamindars by a new class of zamindars.

The new zamindars, mostly merchants, were merely interested in raising more money, than improving the standards of agriculture. Artisans and handicraftsmen were also affected by the import of cheap machine-made clothes from England. The mercantalist policies which followed also destroyed India’s external trade.

Social and Religious Causes

The social and religious causes played no minor role in the outbreak of the Revolt.

The people feared that the English rule was a danger to their religion. They thought that the English were always trying to convert them to Christianity, which was encouraged by the activities of the Christian missionaries who were seen almost everywhere in markets, schools, hospitals and prisons.

Vulgar attacks on Hinduism and Islam and on the centuries-old tradition and customs angered the people. Certain measures like the Religious Disabilities Act 1856 (which protected civil rights of the Hindu converts) and the law which enabled a convert to inherit his ancestral property added fuel.

The Government also taxed the lands belonging to temples and mosques or priests or charitable institutions. This was resented by the priests and maulavis for these lands were not taxed earlier. Priests were also affected by the disappearance of the native Indian rulers, who were their chief patrons. This made them the sworn enemies of the English.

Certain social reforms instituted on demand by the Indian social reformers were not liked by the conservative section of the society.

The people viewed the reforms as if the government was deliberately tampering with their age-old customs.

The abolition of sati, legalisation of widow remarriage, and the opening of Western education to women were regarded as instances of deliberate infringement of the government on people’s customs.

Military Causes

A major part in the outbreak of the Revolt of 1857 was undoubtedly played by sepoy discontent. Discrimination was a way of life in the English East India Company’s army.

The principle of equal pay for equal work or rank had no place. Indian sepoys were paid less, lodged and fed far inferior to their British counterparts. They were always insultingly addressed as ‘niggers’ or ‘suars’ or ‘pigs’. They also had no avenues for promotion, and an Indian could utmost become a subedar.

Unlike earlier times the soldiers no longer won any jagirs for their work. And as more and more parts of India were conquered, the sepoys lost their batta (foreign service allowances). This was a huge cut in their salary. The new rulers also hurt their religious sentiments. The General Services Enlistment Act of 1856 necessitated them to serve beyond the seas. This was against the prevalent Hindu belief that overseas travel would deprive a person of the caste status. They were also forbidden to wear their caste marks.

Further the sepoys were also not immune to the economic changes brought about by British conquest. As has been said, a sepoy was only a “peasant in uniform”. He too felt the destruction of the traditional socio-economic structure by the British.

Spread of the Revolt

On 29th March, a sepoy of the 34th Native Infantry, Mangal Pandey, broke the lines and fired at Lieutenant Baugh. He was arrested and executed.

At Behrampur, sepoys who had disobeyed the authorities were disbanded.

The first major outbreak that led to the Revolt of 1857 occurred at Meerut. Following the court martial of eighty five sepoys of the Cavalry Regiment for refusing to use the greased cartridges, on 10th of May, the sepoys broke out in open rebellion, shot their officers, released their fellow sepoys and marched towards Delhi.

And on the 12th of May, the sepoys captured the city of Delhi, occupied the palace, and Bahadur Shah II was proclaimed as the Emperor of India.

Within a short period, the revolt spread to Lucknow, Kanpur, Agra, Jhansi, Central India, Bihar, Orissa, and many other places. The Indian rulers remained loyal to the British and rendered valuable service in the suppression of the revolt.

The British were on the defensive during the early part of the revolt. First of all, they made a sustained effort to recapture Delhi from the sepoys. In September 1857, Delhi was recaptured. Emperor Bahadur Shah II was arrested and exiled to Mandalay, Burma, where he died a few years later. Two of his sons and a grandson were shot dead.

The sepoys besieged the Residency at Lucnow. Sir Henry Lawrence and some loyal sepoys lost their lives while defending the Residency. In March 1858, British forces captured Lucknow with the help of the Gurkha Regiment.

Nana sahib, the adopted son of the ex-Peshwa, Baji Rao II, led the sepoys at Kanpur. He was joined by Tantia Tope. After the recapture of Lucknow, General Campbell occupied Kanpur on 6thof December 1857. Tantia Tope joined Rani Lakshmi Bai, the widow of Raja Gangadhar Rao, in the fiught against the British. The British under Sir Hugh Rose occupied Jhansi.

Rani Lakshmi Bai and Tantia proceeded to Gwalior where the Indian soldiers joined them. The British recaptured Gwalior in June 1858, and the Rani of Jhansi died fighting heroically. Tantia Tope was captured and put to death a year later. Nana Sahib fled to Nepal where he died in due course.

In Rohilkand, the revolt began at Bareilly in May 1857. Muhammad Hasan Khan led a force of about 10,000 men. Rana Beni Madho Singh of Saharanpur had a personal following of about 15,000 and Gajadar Singh of Gorakhpur commanded a force of 51,000 men. All of them attacked the British positions in their respective regions and rallied round Begum Hazrat Mahal.

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