The Revolt of 1857 is one of the most significant events in India’s history. Also known as the First War of Independence, it marked the beginning of the end of British colonialism in India. There are various names for the revolt of 1857 – India’s First War of Independence, Sepoy Mutiny, etc. It is a crucial topic for IAS preparation, and in this article, we will cover the events that led to the Revolt of 1857, its impact on Indian society, and how to prepare for it in the IAS exam.
The Revolt of 1857
The Revolt of 1857 was an armed rebellion against British colonialism that began in May 1857 and lasted for almost a year. The uprising was primarily centered in northern and central India, but it also spread to other parts of the country.
The revolt began on May 10, 1857, at Meerut as a sepoy mutiny. It was initiated by sepoys in the Bengal Presidency against the British officers.
The revolt of 1857 marked a significant turning point in the history of India, which was a result of years of discontent among the Indian people against the British rule. Several factors contributed to this uprising, and it is essential to understand all of them if one wants to gain a better understanding of this important event. This article will delve into the causes of the 1857 revolt in detail and attempt to provide a clearer picture of what led to this momentous event.
The Causes of the Revolt of 1857
The British East India Company’s expansionist and imperialist policies had negative consequences for all segments of Indian society, including rulers, peasants, and traders. The reasons for the 1857 revolt were not limited to a specific policy or event but were instead due to a combination of political, economic, administrative, and socio-religious factors.
There were various causes that led to the Revolt of 1857. These causes can be broadly classified into economic, political, and social causes.
We will briefly explore these causes below: –
Economic Causes: –
The first economic cause was the British policy of exploiting the Indian economy. The British East India Company had imposed high taxes on Indian goods such as cotton and silk, which made them uncompetitive in the international market and ended completely by the mid-nineteenth century.. Moreover, the British had destroyed the traditional Indian handicraft industry, which was a significant source of livelihood for millions of Indians.
The second economic cause was the British policy of land revenue. The British had introduced the Zamindari system, which was exploitative and led to the impoverishment of the farmers. The British also introduced the Ryotwari system, which gave them complete control over the land and the produce, leading to further exploitation.
Political Causes: –
The British policy of annexation and the Doctrine of Lapse was a significant political cause of the Revolt of 1857. The Doctrine of Lapse allowed the British to annex the Indian princely states if the ruler did not have a biological heir. Under this policy the British East India Company did not accept the adopted children of rulers as legal heirs, thereby denying their right to succession. This policy caused outrage among rulers like Nana Sahib and Rani Lakshmibai, who opposed the unjust policies of the British. This policy was seen as a direct attack on Indian sovereignty.
Lord Dalhousie annexed Awadh by citing maladministration, which resulted in thousands of nobles, officials, retainers, and soldiers losing their jobs. This decision transformed Awadh, which was a previously loyal state, into a center of unrest and political scheming. Similarly, those rulers, who lost their states to the British, were naturally against the British and took sides against them during the revolt.
There was resentment when Canning’s Government passed the General Service Enlistment Act, which stated that the future recruits of the Bengal Army should be prepared to serve anywhere as demanded by the British Government. By the mid-1800s, a significant number of Indians, including some sepoys, were dissatisfied with living under the control of the East India Company (EIC). The intolerable conditions included excessive taxation, mismanagement, discriminatory regulations, and a lack of regard for local and religious customs. In 1857, a series of uprisings erupted in and around several military stations, expressing the various grievances that had affected many communities for decades.
Another military cause was the employment of Indians in lower positions in the administration. The Indian soldiers were paid lower wages and were given fewer opportunities for promotion. Moreover, the British officers often insulted the Indian soldiers, which created resentment among them. The British policy of discrimination against Indians was another important factor that led to the revolt. The British favoured Europeans over Indians in all aspects of life, which led to a feeling of resentment among the people.
Also the cartridges of the Enfield rifle introduced by the British were greased with beef and pig fat. This was deeply offensive and affected the religious sentiments of both Hindus as well as Muslims. This led to be the immediate military cause of the revolt of 1857.
Social Causes: –
The British policy of Westernization was a significant social cause of the Revolt of 1857. The British tried to impose their culture and values on the Indians, which was deeply resented by the Indian society. Moreover, the British had introduced new laws, which were seen as an attack on Indian customs and traditions. The abolition of practices like sati and female infanticide, and the legislation legalizing widow remarriage, were believed as threats to the established social structure. Introducing western methods of education was directly challenging the orthodoxy for Hindus as well as Muslims.
The caste system was another social cause of the Revolt of 1857. The British tried to use the caste system to their advantage by recruiting soldiers from the martial castes and using them to suppress the other castes. This policy created resentment among the other castes and led to the Revolt.
The Immediate Cause of the Revolt of 1857
The immediate cause of the Revolt of 1857 was the introduction of the new Enfield rifle, which used cartridges that were greased with animal fat. The cartridges had to be bitten off before use, and it was rumored that the grease used was made of cow and pig fat. As the pig is taboo in Muslims & the cow is sacred in the Hindu religion, soldiers refused to use the cartridge. This was deeply offensive to both Hindu and Muslim soldiers, who considered cows and pigs as sacred and unclean respectively.
When the soldiers in Meerut were asked to use these cartridges, they refused and were subsequently jailed. This led to a mutiny among the Indian soldiers, who were joined by civilians in large numbers. The uprising quickly spread to other parts of India, and the British were caught off guard.
Another immediate cause of the revolt of 1857, a sepoy named Mangal Pandey from the 34th Bengal Native Infantry (BNI) revolted against his commanders and shot a British officer. He was court-martialed and hanged along with an accomplice a few days later, and the regiment was disbanded. Many sepoys believed that Pandey’s punishment was unfair, which further fueled their anger towards the British. In Meerut, a large cantonment housed over 2000 Indian soldiers. On April 24th, the commanding officer of the 3rd Bengal Light Cavalry ordered his troops to parade and fire their rifles as part of their drill. Except for five, all the men refused to do so. On May 9th, 85 sepoys were court-martialed and sentenced to ten years of imprisonment. The accused soldiers were publicly stripped of their uniforms and shackled in front of the entire unit. The very next day, the remaining soldiers mutinied and freed their 85 comrades from prison. They also killed several European officers. The revolt then spread to the city of Meerut.
The Course of the Revolt of 1857
The Indian sepoys’ dissatisfaction with the British East India Company was aggravated when they were ordered to use greased cartridges. They refused to do so, and the British officials considered it an act of disobedience. Consequently, they started giving severe punishments to the sepoys, which further fueled their anger. This led to the start of the revolt of 1857.
Now, let’s have a brief discussion about how the revolt of 1857 unfolded. The Revolt of 1857 can be divided into three distinct phases: – the Uprising in Delhi and North India, the Uprising in Central India, and the Uprising in Bengal.
The Uprising in Delhi and North India
The Uprising in Delhi and North India was the most significant phase of the Revolt of 1857. It began in May 1857, when Indian soldiers stationed in Meerut refused to use the Enfield rifle cartridges. The mutiny quickly spread to other parts of North India, and the Indian soldiers captured Delhi on May 11, 1857.
The Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar was proclaimed the leader of the rebellion, and the British were forced to flee from Delhi. The Indian soldiers and civilians fought bravely against the British, but they were ultimately defeated in September 1857.
The Uprising in Central India
The Uprising in Central India began in June 1857 when the Indian soldiers stationed in Jhansi rebelled against the British. Rani Lakshmibai, the Queen of Jhansi, led the rebellion and fought bravely against the British. The rebellion quickly spread to other parts of Central India, including Gwalior, Indore, and Nagpur.
The British were initially caught off guard, but they quickly regained control of the region. Rani Lakshmibai was killed in battle, and the rebellion was crushed by December 1858.
The Uprising in Bengal
The Uprising in Bengal began in July 1857 when the Indian soldiers stationed in Barrackpore refused to use the Enfield rifle cartridges. The mutiny quickly spread to other parts of Bengal, including Calcutta and Dacca.
The British were able to suppress the rebellion in Bengal quickly, and the Indian soldiers and civilians were severely punished. The British also used the opportunity to settle old scores and attacked the Indian nobility, who were suspected of supporting the rebellion.
The British Response to the Revolt of 1857
The British response to the Revolt of 1857 was brutal. They used all means at their disposal, including violence, deceit, and divide-and-rule tactics, to crush the rebellion. The British were able to regain control of India by the end of 1858.
The British also used the opportunity to implement several policies that would prevent another uprising in the future. These policies included the annexation of Indian princely states, the recruitment of soldiers from non-rebellious regions, and the establishment of a modern police force.
Causes of Failure of The Revolt of 1857
The revolt was eventually not successful in ousting the British from the country because of several factors, as follows: –
- The sepoys did not have a single leader, but rather, there were many. Additionally, they could not offer effective leadership to the movement as a whole.
- The revolt was localized and lacked the participation of masses across the country. It was largely confined to North India, while the south, east and west parts of the country did not participate.
- The British had more advanced weapons and equipment, including Enfield rifles, while the Indian sepoys mostly used swords and spears.
- Nana Saheb, Begum Hazrat Mahal, General Bakht Khan, Khan Bahadur, Kunwar Singh, Rani Laxmibai, Shah Maal, Maulvi Ahmadullah, being the main leaders of the Revolt of 1857 and brave enough, they could not match the experience and organizing ability of the British officials.
- Indian rulers who aided the revolt did not envision any plan for the country after the British were defeated.
The Impact of the Revolt of 1857 on Indian Society
The Revolt of 1857 had a profound impact on Indian society. It marked the beginning of the end of British colonialism in India and paved the way for Indian independence. The major impact was the introduction of the Government of India Act, 1858 which abolished the rule of British East India Company and the administrative control over India was transferred from the British East India Company to the Crown. The Revolt also led to the emergence of several nationalist leaders, including Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Dadabhai Naoroji, and Bal Gangadhar Tilak.
The strength of British troops in India increased greatly, whereas the number of Indian troops was reduced. It was arranged to end the dominance of the Bengal army. Britishers deliberately began to pursue the divide-and-rule policy in order to strengthen their position in India.
The Revolt also had a significant impact on Indian culture and society. It exposed the deep-seated grievances of the Indian people against British colonial rule and sparked a renewed sense of pride in Indian identity and culture. It also led to the development of a new form of Indian nationalism that would ultimately lead to the Indian independence movement.
The Revolt of 1857 also had a significant impact on the British Empire. It led to a reassessment of British policies towards India and the eventual transfer of power from British colonial rule to Indian self-rule. It also marked the beginning of the end of the British Empire, as other colonies and territories around the world began to seek independence.
The Revolt of 1857 was a significant event in Indian history and marked the beginning of the end of British colonialism in India. It exposed the deep-seated grievances of the Indian people against British colonial rule and sparked a renewed sense of pride in Indian identity and culture. It also had a significant impact on the British Empire and marked the beginning of the end of British colonial rule in India.