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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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One of the most remarkable things about the rebellion was its solid Hindu-Muslim unity. The Hindu sepoys of Meerut and Delhi, unanimously proclaimed Bahadur Shah as their Emperor. All the sepoys, whether Hindu or Muslim, accepted the suzerainty of the emperor and gave the call “chalo Delhi”(onward to Delhi) after their revolt: Hindus and Muslims fought together and died together.

Wherever the sepoys reached, cow-slaughter was banned as a mark of respect to the sentiments of the Hindus.

LEADERSHIP The storm-centres of the revolt were Delhi, Kanpur, lucknow, Bareilly, Jhansi and Arrah. All these places threw up their own leaders who for all practical purposes remained independent, even though they accepted the suzerainty of Emperor Bahadur shah.

Bakht Khan In Delhi Bahadur Shah was the leader. But the real power lay with the soliders. Bakht Khan, who had led the revolt of the soldiers at Bareilly, arrived in Delhi on 3rd July, 1857. From that date on he exercised the real authority. He formed a Court of soldiers composed of both Hindu and Muslim rebels. But even before that the soldiers showed little regard for the authority of the Emperor. Bahadur Shah deplored the army officers for their “Practice of coming into the Court carelessly dressed and in utter disregard to the form of respect to the royalty”.

Nana Saheb and Tantya Tope At Kanpur the revolt was led by Nana Saheb, the adopted son of Peshwa Baji Rao II, The rebellious sepoys also supported Nana Saheb and under his leadership both the military and civilian elements were united. They expelled the British from Kanpur and declared Nana Saheb Peshwa who acknowledges Bandur Shah as the Emperor of India. Most of the fighting was, however, carried on by Tantya Tope on his behalf, and was Tantya Tope who passed into the popular legend as a great patriod and anti-British leader The Begum of Awadh At lucknow the Begum of Awadh provided the leadership and proclaimed her son. Birji kadr, as the Nawab of Awadh. But here again, the more popular leader was Maulavi Ahmadullah of Faizabad, who organized rebellions and fought the British.

Rani Lakshmi Bai Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi was another great popular leader. She believed that she had been robbed of her ruling rights in defiance of recognized Hindu law Though she showed some hesitation at the initial stage, she fought valiantly once she joined the ranks of the rebels.

Kunwar Singh But the most representative and outstanding leader was Kunwar Singh of Arrah. Under his leadership the military and civil rebellion was so completely fused that the British dreaded him most. With a war band of about 5000 including about 600 Danpur sepoys and the rebellious Ramgarh state battalion he marched across hundreds of miles to reach Mirzapur, Banda and the vicinity of Kanpur. He reached up to Rewa state and it was thought that as soon as Rewa feel to the rebels, the British would be forced to move to the south. But, for some reasons, Kunwar Singh did not move southwards. He returned to Banda and then back to Arrah where he engaged and defeated the British troops. He was seriously injured and died on 27th April, 1858in his ancestral house in the village of Jagdishpur.

The Unknown Martyrs Apart from these acknowledged leaders who are remembered for their patriotism and courage, there were many unknown and unacknowledged but no less valiant leaders among the sepoys, peasantry and petty Zamindars. They also fought the British with exemplary courage to expel them from India. Peasants and sepoys laid down their lives for the cause of their country, forgetting their religious and caste differences and rising above their narrow personal interests.

DEFEAT The British captured Delhi on 20 September, 1857. Even before this the rebels had suffered many reverses in Kanpur, Agra, Lucknow and some other places. These earlier reverses did not dampen the rebel’s spirits.

But the fall of Delhi, on the other hand, struck did not dampen the rebel’s spirits. But the fall of Delhi, on the other hand, struck a heavy blow to them. It now became clear why the British concentrated with so much attention to retain Delhi at all cost. And for this they suffered heavily both in men and material. In Delhi, Emperor Bahadur Shah was taken a prisoner and the royal princes were captured, and butched. One by one, all the great leaders of the revolt fell. Nana Saheb was defeated at Kanpur after which the escaped to Nepal early in 1859 and nothing was heard of him afterwards.

Tatya Tope escaped into the jungles of central India where he carried on bitter guerrilla warfare until April 1859 when he was betrayed by a zamindar friend and captured while asleep. He was hurriedly tried and put to death on 15th April, 1859. The Rani of Jhansi died on the filed of battle on 17th June, 1858. By 1859, Kunwar Singh, Bakht Khan, Khan Bahadur Khan of Bareilly, Maulavi Ahmadullah were all dead, while the Begum of Awadh escaped to Nepal. By the end of 1859, the British authority over India was reestablished, fully and firmly.


There were many causes which led to the collapse of this mighty rebellion. Here we list some of them to you.

Lack of a Unified Programme and Ideology The rebellion swept off the British system of government and administration in India. But the rebels did not know what to create in its place! They had no forward-looking plan in mind. This made them rely on the outmoded feudal system with Bahadur Shah at its head. The other prominent leaders of rebellion like, Nana sahib, Begum of Awadh.

Lack of Unity Among Indians As mentioned above, no broad based unity among the Indian people could emerge. While sepoys of the Bengal army were revolting, some soldiers in Panjab and south India fought on the side of the British to crush these rebellions. Similarly, there were no accompanying rebellions in most of eastern and southern India. The Sikhs also did not support the rebels. All these groups had their reasons to do so. The possibility of the revival of Mughal authority created a fear among the Sikhs who had faced so much oppression at the hands of the Mughals.

Similarly, the Rajput chieftains in Rajasthan and Nizam in Hyderabad were so much harassed by the Marathas that they dreaded the revival of Maratha power. Besides this, there were some element of the peasantry that had profited from the British rule. They supported the British during the revolt. The Zamindars of Bengal Presidency were the creation of the British; and had all the reasons to support them. The same applied to the big merchant of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras who did not go over to the rebels but supported the British.

Lack of support from the Educated Indians The modern educated Indians also did not support the revolt because, in their view, the revolt was backward-looking. This educated middle class was the product of the British system of education and they believed mistakenly that the British would lead the country towards modernisation.

Disunity among the Leaders The main problem however, was lack of unity in the ranks of rebels themselves. Their leaders were suspicious and jealous of each other and often indulged in petty quarrels. The Begum of Awadh, for example, quarreled with Maulavi Ahmadullah, and the Mughal princes with the sepoy-generals. Azimullah, the political adviser of the Nana Saheb, asked him not to visit Delhi lest he be overshadowed by the Emperor Bahadur Shah. Thus. Selfishness and narrow perspective of the leaders sapped the strength of the revolt and prevented its consolidation.

Military Superiority of the British Another major factor for the defeat of the rebels was the British superiority in arms. The British imperialism, at the height of its power the world over and supported by most of the Indian princes and chiefs, proved militarily too strong for the rebels. While the rebels were lacking in discipline and a central command, the British continued to have a constant supply of disciplined soldiers, war materials and money from British. Sheer courage supply of disciplined soldiers, war materials and money from British. Sheer courage could not win against a powerful and determined enemy who planned its strategy skillfully. Because of illdiscipline the rebels lost more men and material than the British in every encounter. Many sepoys, seeing that the British had an upper hand, left for their villages.

These were the main factors responsible for the failure of the revolt.

IMPACT Despite the fact that the revolt of 1857 failed, it gave a severe jolt to the British administration in India. The structure and policies of the reestablished British rule were, in many respects, drastically changed.

Transfer of Power The First major change was that the power to govern India passed from the East India Company to the British Crown through an Act of 1858.

Now a Secretary of State for India aided by a Council was to be responsible for the governance of India. Earlier this authority was wielded by the Directors of the Company.

Changes in Military Organisation The second drastic change was effected in the army. Steps were taken to prevent any further revolt by the Indian soldiers. Firstly, the number of European soldiers was increased and fixed at one European to two Indian soldiers in Bengal Army and two to five in Bombay and Madras armies. Moreover, the European troops were kept in key geographical and military positions. The crucial branches of the army like artillery were put exclusively in European hands. Secondly, the organization of the Indian section of the army was now based on the policy of divide and rule. Regiments were created on the basis of caste, community and region to prevent the development of any nationalistic feeling among the soldiers.

Divide and Rule This policy of “divide and rule” was also introduced in the civilian population, since the British thought that the revolt was a conspiracy hatched by the Muslims the latter were severely punished and discriminations made against them in public appointment and in other areas. This policy was later reversed and a belated appeasement of Muslims began. A policy of preferential treatment of the Muslims was adopted towards the end of the 19th century. These policies created problems for Indian freedom struggle and contributed to the growth of communalism.

New Policy towards the Princes Another important change was in the British policies towards the Princely states. The earlier policy of annexation neither was nor abandoned and the rulers of these states were now authorized to adopt heirs. This was done as a reward to those native rulers who had remained loyal to the British during the revolt. However, this authority of the Indian rulers over particular territories was completely subordinated to the authority of the British and they were converted into Board of Privileged dependents.

Search for New Friends Besides these changes, the British now turned to the most reactionary groups among the Indians, like the zamindars, princes and landlords, for strengthening their fortune in the country.

ASSESSMENT Having discusses various aspects of the rebellion, let us, in the end, see how the events of 1857 have been interpreted by the contemporary officials as well as by subsequent scholars.

The nature of the 1857 uprising aroused fierce controversy from the very outset. The official British explanation was that only the Bengal army had mutinied and civil disturbances were caused by the breakdown of law and order machinery. Many officials thought that it was only a mutiny. But this view was challenged by Benjamin Disraeli, the

conservative leader, in July 1857. He said:

“The decline and fall of empires are not affairs of greased cartridges. Such results are occasioned by adequate causes, and by the accumulation of adequate causes”

Them he querried:

“Is it a military mutiny or is it a national revolt?” The official view was challenged by a section of the British community in India also. Colonel G.B. Malleson, who later completed J.W. Kaye’s History of the Sepoy War, challenged the official theory of simple mutiny: “ The crisis came: At first apparently a mere military mutiny, it speedily changed its character, and became a national insurrection.

V.D. Savarkar, who gave a nationalist interpretation to the uprising, asserted in 1909 that it was the “Indian War of Independence.” Savarkar’s views were supported by S.B. Chaudhary, who in his writings demonstrated that 1857 was a “rising of the people”. In fact, the historiographic tradition in India soon accepted this line of argument.

A discordant note was however, struck by R.C. Majumdar. He refused to recognize 1857 as a War of Independence. His view was that “to regard the outbreak of 1857 as either national in character or a war of independence of India betrays a lack of true knowledge of the history of Indian people in the nineteenth century”.

Some historians have held that the Muslim elite was responsible for inciting the trouble. Outrum regarded the revolt as a “Muslim conspiracy exploiting Hindu grievances”. Yet another school of thought believes that during the revolt the people were fighting not only against the British but also against the feudal structure. The backsliding of these feudal chiefs led to the collapse of the revolt. Talmiz Khaldun wrote:”It was crushed so easily because of betrayal by the propertied classes” Later Historiography, though accepting the popular character of the Revolt, laid emphasis on its backward-looking character. Bipin Chandra

has stressed this point:

“The entire movement lacked a unified and forward looking programme to be implemented after the capture of power” Tara Chand was more explicit when he wrote that the “Revolt of 1857 was the last attempt of an effete order to recover its departed glory” Percival Spear added, “And it has been asserted to have been a purely military outbreak produced jointly by the grievances and indiscipline of the Indian troops and folly of the British military authorities. It is in fact an anachronism to describe the mutiny as the first essay towards modern independence. It was rather, in its political aspect, the last effort of the old conservative India”.

These, however, are only some of the interpretations offered. The debate is still going on. We hope to be enriched and enlightened by future research on the rebellion of 1857.

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