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«THE REVOLT OF 1857 INTRODUCTION The revolt of 1857 forms one of the most important chapters in the history of the struggle of the Indian people for ...»

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The revolt of 1857 forms one of the most important

chapters in the history of the struggle of the Indian people for liberation

from the British rule. It shook the foundations of the British Empire in

India and at some points it seemed as though the British rule would end

for all time to come. What started merely as a sepoy mutiny soon

engulfed the peasantry and other civilian population over wide areas in

northern India. The upsurge was so widespread that some of the contemporary observes called it a national revolt.” The hatred of the people for the ferangis was so intense and bitter than one observer, W.H.

Russell, was forced to write:

In no instance is a friendly glance directed to the white man’s carriage… Oh! That language of the eye! Who can doubt! Who can misinterpret it?

It is by alone that I have learnt our race is not even feared at times by many and that by all it is disliked.

CAUSES How did the Revolt break out ? What were it causes? The main reason for this was the ruthless exploitation of the Indian people by the British.

The British rule which was formally established of the Indian people by the British. The British rule which was formally established after the Battle of Plassey in, 1757 in Bengal, strove to fill the coffers of the East India Company at the expense of the Indians. The East India Company was governed by greedy merchants and traders who could go to any extent to enrich themselves. The Company was formed in 1600, and was given a Royal Charter by Queen Elizabeth which conferred on it the exclusive privilege to trade with the East. Its main aim was to assume the trade monopoly in India. It was not an ordinary merchant company formed for trade but had its train of soldiers who fought battles with the Portugues and the French trading companies in the 17th and 18th centuries in order to establish its trade monopoly. After these rival powers had been defeated it also tried to humble the Indian traders who offered competition. When the Battle of Plassey was won in 1757, the British successfully imposed their trade monopoly over the area under their control, eliminated competition from the Indian traders and forced the artisans to sell their products to them. The artisans were now paid so low that they could hardly survive. The legend has it that the weavers of Dhaka cut their thumbs to protest against such low payments by the East India Company for their superb work on muslin renowned for its fine texture.

Exploitation of the peasantry Although the trade monopoly enriched the East India Company considerably, its main source of income was now derived from the land.

After entrenching itself itself in Bengal, it spread its power in India through wars and treaties. To extract as much money as possible it devised new systems of land settlements- Permanent, Ryotwari and Mahalwari each more oppressive than theother. The Permanent Settlement which was effective in Bengal Presidency and in large parts of north India did not recognise the hereditary rights of the peasants on land, which they had earlier enjoyed. The loyal Zamindars and revenue-collectors were now given the proprietary rights on land. The cultivators were reduced to the status of simple tenants. But even the newly created landlords were not given absolute rights. Their situation was also deliberately left very precarious. They had to pay to the Company 10/11th of the entire rent derived from the cultivators and if they failed to do so. Their property was sold to others.

The other land settlements were no better. In all of these the peasants had to pay beyond their means and any adverse natural shifts like drought or flood compelled them to go of loans to the money lenders who charged exorbitant interest. This made the peasants so heavily indebted that they were ultimately forced to sell their land to these money lenders. It is because of this that the money lenders were so hated in rural society. The peasantry was also oppressed by petty officials in administration who extracted money on the slightest pretexts.

If the peasants went to the law court to seek redress of their grievances, they were bound to be totally ruined. When the crop was good the peasants had to pay back their past debts; if it was bad, they were further indebted. This nexus between the lower officials, law court and money lenders created a vicious circle which made the peasantry desparate and ready to welcome any opportunity for change of regime.

Alienation of the Middle and Upper Strata of Indians It was not merely the peasantry that got alienated from the British rule, the middle and upper strata Indians also felt oppressed. During the period of the Mughals or even in the administration of the local princes and chieftains, the Indians served at all the places both lower and higher.

The disappearance of these Indian states and their replacement by the British administration deprived the Indians of higher posts which were now taken mainly by the British. Further more than cultural personnel like poets dramatists writers, musician’s etc. Who were earlier employed by the native states were now thrown out. The religious men like Pandits and Mauves also lost all their former power and prestige.

Annexation of Princely States The East India Company did not spare even former allies. The native state of Awadh was annexed by Dalhousie in 1856 on the pretext that Nawab Wazid Ali Shah was mismanaging the state. Even before this he had annexed Satara in 1848 and Nagpur and Jhansi in 1854 on the pretext that the rulers of these states had no natural heir to succeed them after their death. This annexation embittered the rulers of these states, making Rani of Jhansi and Begums of Awadh Staunch enemies of the British. Further the British refusal to pay pension to Nana Sahib, the adopted son of Peshwa Baji Rao II worsened the situation. The annexation of Awadh was also resented by the sepoys as most of who came from there. This action hurt their patriotic loyalty and sense of dignity. Moreover, since their relatives had now to pay more taxes on land, it adversely affected the purses of the sepoys themselves.

The Alien Rule Another important reason of the unpopularity of the British was the alien nature of their rule. They never mixed with the Indian people and treated even the upper class Indians with contempt. They had not come to settle in India but only to take money home. So the Indians could never develop any affinity towards them.

Impact on the Sepoys The revolt of 1857 originated with the mutiny of the Sepoys. These Sepoys were drawn mainly from the peasant population of North and North-West India. As we have seen, the rapacious policies followed by the East India Company were impoverishing and ruining the peasantry.

This must have affected the Sepoys also. In fact, most of them had joined the military services in order to supplement their fast declining agricultural income. But as the Years passed, they realised that their capacity for doing so declined. They were paid a monthly salary of 7 to 9 Rupees out of which they had to pay for their food, uniform and transport of their private baggage. The cost of maintaining an Indian Sepoy was only one –third of his British counterpart I India. Moreover, the Indian Sepoy was treated roughly by the British counterpart in India.

Moreover, the Indian Sepoy was treated roughly by the British officers.

They were frequently abused and humiliated. The Indian Sepoy, despite his valour and great fighting capacity, could never rise above the rank of a Subedar while a fresh recruit from England was often appointed his superior overnight.

Threat to Religion Apart from degrading service conditions, another factor inflamed the feeling of the sepoys. An impression was created among them that their religion was being attacked by the British. This belief was also shared by the general civilian population. The proselytizing zeal of the missionaries and some of the British official instilled fear in the minds of the people that their religion was in danger. At several places conversions to Christianity were reported to be made. The Government maintained the Chaplains at its own cost and in some cases also provided police protection to the missionaries. Even the army maintained chaplains at state cost and Christian propaganda was carried among the sepoys. Furthermore, the sepoys were forbidden to wear their caste marks, and in 1856 and Act was passed under which every new recruit had to give an undertaking to serve overseas, if required. The conservative beliefs of the sepoys were thus shaken and they sometimes reacted strongly. For example I 1824, the 47th Regiment of sepoys at Barrackpore refused to go to Burma by sea-route because their religion forbade them to cross “black water”. The British reacted ruthlessly, disbanded the Regiment, and put some of its leaders to death.

In 1844, seven battalions revolted on the question of salaries and batta (allowance). Even during the Afghan War from 1839 to 1842 the soldiers were almost on the verge of revolt Like sepoys, the people of India had also risen in revolt against the oppressive British rule. The most important of these uprisings were the Kutch rebellion (1816-32), the Kol uprising in 1831 and the Santhal uprising in 1855-56. The main point with regard to the 1857 challenge, however, was that both the military and civilian revolts merged and this made it really formidable.

The Immediate Cause The atmosphere was so surcharged that even a small issue could lead to revolt. The episode of greased cartridges, however, was a big enough issue to start the rebellion on its own. Dry tinder-box was there and only a spark was needed to set it ablaze. Cartridges of the new Enfield rifle which had recently been introduced in the army had a greased paper cover whose end had to be bitten off before the cartridge was loaded into rifle. The grease was in some instances made of beef and pig fat. This completely enraged the Hindu and Muslim sepoys and made them believe that the government was deliberately trying to destroy their religion. It was the immediate cause of the revolt.


What kind of organization did the rebels employ in order to raise their banner against the British? On this question there has been a good deal of controversy among historians. One view is that there was a widespread and well-organised conspiracy, while another view maintains that it was completely spontaneous. The fact seems to be that some kind of organized plan was in existence but it had not matured sufficiently when the revolt broke out.

But the stories which have come down to us talk about the red lotuses and Chappatis. Symbolising freedom and bread, being passes from village to village and from one regiment to another. Besides these means speeches were also delivered and quite preaching conducted by the roaming sanyasis and fakirs to mobilise and rally anti-colonical forces. All these stirred the sepoys to revolt.


On 29 th March, 1857, young soldier, Mangal Pandey, stationed at Barrackpore. Revolted single-handedly attacking his British officers.

He was hanged, and not much notice was taken of this event. But it showed the resentment and anger aroused among the sepoys. Less than a month later, on 24th April ninety men of the Third Native Cavalarly, stationed at Meerut, refused to use the greased cartridges. Eighty – five of them were dismissed and sentenced to ten years imprisonment on 9 the May. The rest of the Indian sepoys reacted strongly to this, and the next day, on 10th May, the entire Indian garrison revolted. After freeing their comrades and killing the British officers, they decided to march on to Delhi. This shows that they did have in mind some sort of alternative to the British.

Another thing which makes it clear that it was not merely army mutiny was that the people from surrounding areas began to loot the military bazaars and attacked and burnt the bungalows of the British as soon as they heard the shots fired by the sepoys on their officers. The Gujars from the surrounding villages poured into the city and joined the revolt.

Telegraph wires were cut and horsemen with warning messages to Delhi were intercepted. As soon as the sepoys from Meerut reached Delhi.

The Indian garrison also revolted and joined the rebels. They now proclaimed the old Bahadur Shah, as the Emperor of India. Thus in twenty-four hours, what began as a simple mutiny had swelled into fullscale political rebellion.

In the next one month the entire Bengal Army rose in revolt. Whole of North and North West India was up in arms against the British. In Aligarh, Mainpuri, Bulandshahr, Etwah, Mathura, Agra, Lucknow, Allahabad, Banaras, Shahabad, Danapur and East Punjab, wherever there were Indian troops, they revolted. With the revolt in army the police and local administration also collapsed. These revolts were also immediately followed by a rebellion in the city and countryside. But in several places the people rose in revolt even before the sepoys.

Wherever revolt broke out, the government treasury was plundered, the magazine sacked, barracks and court houses were burnt and prison gates flung open. IN the countryside, the peasants and dispossessed zamindars attacked the money lenders and new Zamindars who had displaced them from the land. They destroyed the government records and money lenders account books. The attacked the British established law courts, revenue offices, revenue records and thanas (police stations). Thus the rebels tried to destroy all the symbols of colonial power.

Even when the people of particular areas did not rise in revolt, they offered their help and sympathies to the rebels. It was said that the rebellious sepoys did not have to carry food with them as they were fed by the villagers. On the other hand, their hostility to the British forces was pronounced. They refused to give them any help or information and on many occasions they misled the British troops by giving wrong information.

In central India also, where the rulers remained loyal to the British, the armyt revolted and joined the rebels. Thousands of Indore’s troops joined in Indore the rebellious sepoys. Similarly, over 20000 of Gwalior’s troops went over to Tantya Tope and Rani of Jhansi. In the whole of north and central India the British power was limited only to the towns of Agra, and Lucknow. Elsewhere the entire British army and administration fell like a house of cards.

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