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1st War of Independence – Revolt of 1857

1. Causes of Revolt

The revolt of 1857 witnessed in large parts of North and Central India was an armed rebellion triggered due to number of political and economic policies of British.

1.1 Political Causes

Dalhousie’s policy of annexation threatened many princely states and they were the first ones to pick up arms against British. It threatened more than 40 Indian princely states, with annexation on a variety of grounds such as the Doctrine of Lapse (Zansi, Satara, Sambalpur, Udaipur, Zansi, Nagpur) or on grounds of ‘mis-governance and corruption’ (Awadh in 1856).

1.2 Economic Causes

Exploitative policy of British as discussed above.
High burden of taxation imposed by the British land revenue policies caused much discontent amongst the peasantry which were willing to protest against British, given the land alienation that they suffered as a result of British policies.
In Oudh, about 21,000- taluqdars were confiscated of their estate to suddenly find themselves w/o a source of income. They seized this opp to take revenge.

There was racial discrimination within the British army. Indians could not rise above the position of Subedar. The opportunities of promotion were also greatly limited and payment was inadequate.

Moreover, there were strict restrictions against open display of religious and caste symbols. This was coupled with presence of Christian missionaries in army. All this created fear in minds of Indian soldiers about the British interference with their religious beliefs.

Annexation of Awadh in 1856, which contributed more than 50% of the troops also led to the much discontent. Large number of soldiers came from agrarian background and annexation had direct impact on soldiers’ families back home.

The introduction of Enfield Rifle and the rumours of greased cartridges using beef and pork fat led to attempts by soldiers in Meerut to revolt against their European seniors in May 1857 and it became the immediate trigger in the revolt of 1857.

1.4 Social Causes

Introduction of new legislations such as Abolition of Sati Act 1829, Lex Loci Act 1850, Widow Remarriage Act 1856 were seen as deliberate interference with the Indian religious practices. This led to many religious leaders to argue for an overthrow of British rule.

(Lex loci act 1850 – Right to inherit property even after conversion.)

Thus the presence of underlying social and economic discontent with British colonial policies took the form of the revolt of 1857.  And the incident of greased cartridges served as an immediate trigger for the uprising.

CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

2. Causes of Failure of Revolt

  • Poor coordination-no quick system of communication
  • Merchants, Intelligentsia & native princes supported British and even provided help to their forces.
  • The revolt was marked by poor leadership with few exceptions like Laxmibai & Kunwar Singh.
  • The uprising was marked by lack of definitive vision of the future. The most prominent feeling was just to gain the lost privileges.
  • Limited Territorial spread. The revolt was centred mostly in northern India and east, south and western India was unaffected.
  • Indian soldiers also did not possess sufficient arms and instruments to fight British. Swords & spikes were primary weapons.

3. Impact of Revolt on British Policies

The British Crown looked towards tightening its colonial grip over the Indian colony. It introduced GOI Act 1858, and took away all administrative powers from East India company. The company policies were held responsible for the revolt. A new position of Viceroy was introduced to manage Indian affairs from India. And a post of Secretary of State for Indian Affairs (like special foreign minster for India) introduced as a head of the Board of Control.

These actions represented the British Crown’s complete takeover of Indian affairs from East India Company.

With respect to the princely states, British gave up the policy of annexation and adopted the policy of subordination. Under new policy, Indian princely states could retain their rule, perks and privileges but largely as agents of British crown. This ensured that the British could now cultivate Indian Princely rulers as Junior partners of the British rule.

Within the army, a reorganisation was brought about, under which the intake of European officers was increased from 1:3 to 2:3. This was done to enable effective supervision of Indian troops. (Europiniazation of Indian army).

Morever British reorganized the army along the lines of caste and regional identities e.g. Rajput regiment, Gorkha regiment, Sikh regiment etc. This would enable the British to use the regiments from one region against another. e.g. Rajput regiment to crush an uprising in the Awadh region. This would also prevent the emergence of a larger national identity or a sense of nationalism within Indian troops.

Moreover the British introduced the conception of ‘Martial races’ to justify the diversification of troops away from the Awadh region towards the Sikh and Gorkha region.

Finally the British adopted the policy of non-interference in religious issues and largely stayed away from introducing any further socio-legislative reforms.

British also discriminated against Muslims after the revolt and discouraged their recruitment in the army. Since they thought that Muslims were largely responsible for outbreak of revolt.

To what extent revolt of 1857 was 1st national war of independence?

  • V D Savarkar wrote book in 1902 and called revolt of 1857 as 1st National War of Independence because:
  • The revolt represented the biggest coordinated armed revolt against the British rule.
  • It also affected large parts of North and Central India.
  • Number of historians argue that the revolt.
  • Some scholars (primarily British) hesitate to call it War of Independence, because:
  • Was one of the many armed revolts witnessed against British during the 19th century e.g. Santhal uprising (1854-56), Munda uprising (1850s and also in 1899) which were also armed tribal uprising.
  • Movement was largely limited to North and Central India and lacked pan Indian character i.e. it was regional in nature.
  • The revolts limited objective was to overthrow British and restore princely rule and privileges.
  • Thus the revolt could be termed as driven by narrow aims as well.

Was it mutiny or revolt?

  • More than a mutiny but less than revolt.
  • Mutiny is an act of rebellion/indiscipline within the army.
  • Revolt is done against and oppressive govt.
  • The uprising of 1857 has been termed by many British historians as the sepoy mutiny or armed mutiny, signifying or emphasizing the uprising as an act of indiscipline within the army. Such an assertion views the uprising as limited in scope only to the armed forces and tries to portray it as triggered by a few disgruntled soldiers.
  • However Indian historians have pointed out that the 1857 uprising was an act of rebellion against an unjust British rule which though started from the army, soon spread to involve other social classes as well, emphasizing the underlying discontent with the British rule.
  • This view thus understands the uprising as an attempt to overthrow the unjust British rule or the revolt of 1857.
Surrender of Bahadur Shah Jafar II after the suppression of revolt
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