THE REBELLION OF 1857
“The Rebellion of 1857 was not pre-planned; it was not engineered by any political party in India or any foreign power hostile to England. It had its origin in sepoy discontent and derived its strength from the widespread dissatisfaction among the civil population.” -Dr SN Sen
As the years rolled by, the political uneasiness in the country reached a crucial stage, when everyone was feeling irritation. In particular, the sweeping annexations and the summary application of the Doctrine of Lapse by Lord Dalhousie invited the resentment of both—the Muslims and the Hindus. The attempt of Lord Dalhousie to evict the Mughal emperor from the Red Fort and the annexation of Oudh contrary to an earlier agreement stunned the Muslim community. The refusal to grant pension to Nana Saheb, the adopted son of the last Peshwa, Baji Rao II roused the wrath of the Hindus. This political dissatisfaction was aggravated by the demobbed soldiers. Added to this, haughty behaviour of Coverly Jackson in Oudh exasperated the nobility.
The spread of the British Raj and the increasing liberal tempo in England led to certain measures being passed by the British Raj which hurt the sentiments of the people. The motives of the British Raj were beyond reproach but the affected parties attributed sinister designs to all these steps. William Bentinck’s resumption of rent-free lands made enemies, the big landlords. The Inam Commission of Bombay, after enquiring into the title-deeds of the land confiscated about 20000 acres of lands. The introduction of railways and telegraph were looked with suspicion, particularly the latter being called ‘the accursed wire that strangled us’ as remarked by the mutineers. Added to this, the spread of English education, prohibition of sati and infanticide, legalization of widow re-marriage and the activities of the missionaries made the rulers blameworthy in the eyes of the people.
The third factor that caused a steep rise in the mounting tension was the increasing grievances of the Indian troops. As some of the regulations of the army hurt the social customs and religious sentiments of the people, four mutinies had already occurred in 1844, 1849, 1850 and 1852. And after with the arrival of Lord Canning, the General Service Enlistment Act worsened the situation. Recruits to the Bengal army just like those of Madras were expected to serve wherever required, particularly when the Bengal army was composed of many Brahmins. At this moment Enfield Rifle with special cartridges was introduced which were said to be greased with animal fats, particularly with those of the cow and the pig. As the cartridge was to be bitten at its ends before being used, both Hindus and Muslims were alarmed. “On this inflammable material the true story of the cartridges fell as a spark on dry tinder.” Mysterious chupatties were sent from village to village during 1856. Then the storm broke out, Mangal Pandey, a sepoy, on 29th March, 1857 killed a European officer at Barrackpore. The revolt primarily centered round five regions: Delhi, Lucknow, Kanpur, Rohilkhand, Central India and Bundelkhand. In May 1857, the sepoys at Meerut revolted and marched to Delhi and soon occupied it. They installed Bahadur Shah II on the throne. This lead was quickly picked up by the sepoys in the province of Agra although the city of Agra remained with the British. Delhi was reoccupied by the British in September, 1857. This reoccupation was primarily facilitated by the loyalty of the Sikhs and the energetic steps taken by John Lawrence. Bahadur Shah was tried and exiled in Rangoon, where he died in 1862 and a British officer treacherously murdered his two sons and a grandson.
At Lucknow, Sir Henry Lawrence lost his life and the residency was besieged by the mutineers. Although a relief force was sent to Lucknow and it was evacuated. It was reoccupied by Sir Colin Campbell in March, 1858 and the mutiny of Oudh had failed.
In Kanpur, the British people suffered much. The mutineers led by Nana Saheb murdered the British civilians and troops. Kanpur was occupied by Campbell in December, 1857.
In Rohilkhand, the revolt started in May 1857, the Nawab of Rampore remained loyal to the British and Bareilly was reoccupied in December, 1957.
Finally the mutiny in Central India and Bundelkhand was led by Rani Lakshmibai assisted by Tantia Tope with the capture of Gwalior in June, 1858 and with the death of the Rani in the field the trouble came to an end. Incidentally, there were rebellions in Bihar and also in some parts of Rajputana and the Maratha Territory.
The immediate consequence of the mutiny was the assumption of the Government of India by the British Crown. This assumption led to two consequences. First, it meant the end of the Mughal rule and with the disappearance of the Mughal emperor the Muslim community felt depressed. Besides, as the English suspected the mutiny to be a Muslim conspiracy, the Muslims became a suspect community in the eyes of the English. It was from this depressed state that Sir Syed Ahmed helped the Muslim community by establishing the Upper India Muslim Association. The second consequence of it was the name of Queen Victoria became a myth as potent as that of the Company Bahadur but was more personal and gracious. Queen Victoria as the empress of India “supplied for the masses a maternalism to which the Indian mind was peculiarly susceptible.”
Secondly, the mutiny caused a financial crisis of the East India Company. Hence, with the transfer of authority from the Company to the Government of England, a number of experts were sent to India. These experts introduced annual budgets, income tax, revenue tariff a 10% on all imports and paper currency. Soon this was followed by granting permission to the Government of India to borrow money from the money-markets for productive purposes. All these efforts ended the deficits of Indian budgeting in 1864. Thus, the financial history of modern India came in the wake of the mutiny.
Thirdly, before the mutiny Dalhousie described the Princes as ‘obsolescent survivals of the past age’, but the first Viceroy, Canning, described them as “breakwaters of the storm”. It was the company’s policy of annexation that triggered off the mutiny and the consequent civil unrest that followed it. Naturally in the post-mutiny era, the British Raj took all steps to make the sepoys strategically weak and harmless. They also tried to conciliate the princes by recognizing the right of adoption and guaranteeing their existing territories. “Subordinate isolation was transformed into subordinate partnership.” A further offshoot of this policy was the formal declaration of suzerainty of the Crown of England over the whole of India.
Fourthly, another immediate consequence of the mutiny was a general distrust between the rulers and the ruled. The atrocities committed by both sides during the mutiny were remembered for a long time. In order to keep away from the generality of people, the British Raj in India deliberately encouraged the aristocratic sections of the community. The Royal Titles Act of 1876 by which Queen Victoria was proclaimed the Empress of India was explained by Lord Lytton as the beginning of a new policy by virtue of which the Crown of England should henceforth be identified with the hopes, the aspirations, the sympathies and interests of the powerful native aristocracy. This policy encouraged the autocracy and tyranny of the Indian princely rulers and also their alignment with the British rulers against their own people.
Fifthly, reorganization of the army was also an immediate consequence of the mutiny. The proportion of British soldiers was increased and artillery was practically reserved for them. Various groups were so organized in the army to inhibit any sentiment of national unity that might grow. For that matter they wanted to isolate the sepoys by forbidding them to read the Indian newspapers. The changes made in the army also led to restrictions on the use of fire-arms by civilians.
Sixthly, the British officialdom also changed its attitude after the mutiny. The officials of the British bureaucracy became less sympathetic to the people and became more aloof. With the transfer of authority to the Crown, all restraints on the British officials in India were removed resulting in the bureaucracy usurping the functions of the Government of India. True, the bureaucracy was highly efficient and they also meant to do good to the people as they understood it but it was failure because they showed contempt for the educated Indians, rank ignorance of the real wants of the people and were guided by the set ideals of subordinating the interests of India to those of England. The general behaviour of the official community and thereby the British Raj in India, confirms the comment on the English character that they shut the stable door after the horse escapes.
In the post-mutiny era the British Raj concentrated mostly on the past errors and therefore, failed to think of the future policy. This obsession with the past made the British Raj oblivious of the significance of the national movement and other reform movements. The British Raj started respecting
unduly the Indian tradition and discounted Indian regeneration on Western lines. Further, the British Raj’s honeymoon with the progressive changes in society (Abolition of Sati, Widow Remarriage Act, etc) gave place to the humdrum activities of the post-mutiny era like construction of a few dams or
improvement of roads. This general attitude made the British Raj in India so sceptical that they did not think of the future. This attitude blurred their political vision of India because they failed to appreciate the demands of the educated classes. Further the demands of the educated classes could not be
understood. “The British looked at the old leaders to lead in the westernizing process, believing that the rest of India would follow them. No such lead came and the British looked no further. They could not bring themselves to take seriously the new class which was dependent upon their own institutions the,
product of their own education. They were subordinates; it was thought, despised by their own leaders. For this political, myopia heavy penalties were later to be exacted.”
Finally, the end of the Company’s rule endangered the economy of India. India became a field of exploitation not for a single trading concern (the East India Company) but for the entire British people as well. Prior to the assumption of authority by the Crown, the activities of the Company were scrutinized by the home authorities, but once the British people became masters, this critical attitude was lost and the whole political power was utilized to further the interests of all the Englishmen who came to India. India became in the post mutiny era a dumping ground for British manufacturers and an inexhaustible field for investment of capital. A large number of Englishmen came to India for purpose of trading and to earn more money.
Thus, it may be said that as the use of force failed in 1857, the dynamic section of Indian community turned more and more toward peaceful means. “The last embers of the chaos and confusion bequeathed by -the political disintegration of the 18th century were finally extinguished. A new era began in Indian history.”