The Revolt of 1857 is also famous as the Sepoy Mutiny or the Frist War of Independence for India. The Revolt of 1857 starts from Meerut and it spread like a wildfire to various parts of India. Scholars have different views on the Revolt of 1857. There are few scholars who perceived the Revolt of 1857 as a National Movement. On the other hand, there are also scholars who view the Revolt of 1857 as Sepoy Mutiny. But, the causes of the Revolt of 1857 remains the same. The causes include many factors such as Political, Economic, Social, Religious and Military causes.
The causes of the Revolt of 1857
The British, under the East India Company, came to India purely as traders. But, later it acquired political power in India through different stages. Their policy of annexation of Burma, Assam, Coorg, Sind, the Punjab, and Oudh alarmed the whole princely order and their dependents.
The forceful annexation reached its highest degree during Lord Dalhousie. He evolved a policy of the Doctrine of Lapse. The new policy took over the Hindu states in the absence of natural heirs. His annexation of Oudh, on the plea of chronic misgovernment and removal of the title of the Mughal Emperor, hurt the Muslim sentiments. Also, Dalhousie’s refusal to continue the pension of Nana Shaheb agitated the Hindus. Such was the cause that agitated the Rani of Jhansi who was robbed of her ruling right after the death of her husband.
Likewise, some unhappy rulers and their supporters like Ahmad Ullah of Oudh, Nana Shaheb, Tantia Tope of Madhya Pradesh, Maulvi Azimulla Khan of Madras, Kunwar Singh of Bihar, conspired against the Company.
Also, the Indians were excluded from the policy of recruitment of all high posts in the service of the Company. Thus, it greatly hurt the Indians. It hurts not only the educated Indians in general but also the Muslims in particular. Also, the end of the administration of Lord Dalhousie in 1856 was marked by a heap of discontent. It fears the possible loss of a Hindu Empire by the Hindus and the Muslim Empire by the Muslims.
Social and Religious Causes
The conservative sections of the Indian population were alarmed at the rapid spread of English education. It created an imbalance in the traditional outlook of the people. Thus, they began to view that English Education will destroy the sanctity of Indian customs and Indian religion. There was also a rumor that Lord Canning the Governor-General will convert the Indian to Christianity.
Further, the Indians as a whole began to look upon the introduction of railways and telegraphs as clever devices. A Devices to break the traditional social order and caste rules. They took the reforms like the abolition of Sati, the Religious Disability Act, the Hindu Widows Remarriage Act as the step towards destroying the Hindu religion. Moreover, the refusal of the Company to recognize the caste system of the Indian society and to punish offenses for violation of caste rules hurt the feeling of the Hindus. Thus, we can say that the socio-religious reforms were other causes of the Revolt of 1857.
The Economic condition of India was other causes of the Revolt of 1857. The policy of the British Company to cripple the Indian trade and commerce by imposing heavy duties and import of the machine-made goods at a nominal duty was much against the wishes of the people. Thus, the machine-made British goods flooded the Indian market which finally ruined the Indian manufacture. The ruin of industry and manufacture made India purely an agricultural colony of the British manufacturers. Besides, the exorbitant rate of revenue completely ruined the peasantry. As a result, the peasantry had nothing for their food and clothing. Also, Lord William Bentinck‘s resumption of rent-free tenures dispossessed many landholders of their estates and reduced them to unemployment and poverty. The gradual famines further increase the economic crisis. Particularly in Bengal and Bihar which exhausted the patience of the general masses.
The other causes of the Revolt of 1857 were the military policies of the British. The British treat the Indian soldiers very differently from their counterparts. They cannot rise above the rank of Subedar. Also, other higher ranks were reserved for the English sepoys and not for the Indians. Moreover, their salaries and allowances were much lesser than English sepoys.
Indeed, all the political, economic and socio-religious discontent was soon spread among the Indian Sepoys who were already on the get-set line. The attitude of the Indian sepoys who had been a pillar of support for the British Raj became far from being friendly. Regular engagement of the Indian sepoys by the Company in distant places like Burma, Afghanistan, Persia, and China was not liked by the Indian sepoys that too without extra pay. As a result, the Indian sepoys became disloyal with the British Raj.
The Bengal Army stationed mostly at the North-Western Frontier which formed a major bulk of the British forces that came from Oudh and adjoining provinces of Uttar Pradesh. It contained high caste men, Brahmins, and Rajputs. The feeling of discontent brewing among them like the civil population was intensified by Lord Canning’s decision of the General Service Enlistment Act in 1956 which required all recruits of the Bengal army to march and serve whenever order whether in India or outside India. A belief was incited at this point of time in the minds of the Indian sepoys, particularly among the Bengal army that England was in a critical situation and the British Army, purely depend on the Indian sepoys. Thus, a consciousness of pride and power had grown to boost the courage of the army men to revolt against the British.
It was at this time that the cartridge episode brought the latent spirit of revolt into action. The introduction of the Enfield Rifle kindled the embers of discontent equally among the Hindus and the Muslims. More fury was that the British greased the cartridges with the fat of pigs and cows. The sepoys have to bite the ends of the cartridges. The rumor of the greased cartridges was fanned by most unhappy partisans. These unhappy partisans include Nana Shaheb in Uttar Pradesh, the Rani in Jhansi, Tantia Tope in Central India, Kanwar Singh in Bihar. The embers of anger and unrest soon spread like a wildfire everywhere in the country. Thus, it set ablaze the whole country from the Sutlej to the Narmada in 1857.
Thus, from the above discussion, we can say that the main causes of the Revolt of 1857 were due to various policies introduced by the British, the rapid spread of English education, imposing of heavy duties. Also, the import of British Machine to India, the exclusion of Indian sepoys at higher ranks in the military, etc. All these factors create feelings of discontent among India. As a result, the Indian people revolt back to the British to fight for Independence.
Nature of the Revolt of 1857
There are different views among the scholars on the nature and character of the Great Revolt of 1857. Most of the European writers, and some contemporary Indian writers like MJ Lal. D Bandhyopadhaya, SA Khan express that the Great Revolt of 1857 was a military rising of few sepoys and nothing more. There were no native leaders and mass support.
The scholars further argued that only the Bengal army, station at Oudh and Delhi revolted. The other Indian sepoys of the Sikhs, the Rajputs, and the Gurkhas in the North and the Marathas in the South did not join the revolt.
On the contrary, they fought on the side of the British to suppress it. They further advance their view that there was neither a single national cause nor it was a motivation of any sentiment of national character. The Revolt was concentrate in the north mostly in Oudh and Delhi. Also, in some parts of Central India. This group of Indian writers including the eminent historian Dr. RC. Mazumdar does not subscribe to the view that the Great Revolt of 1857 was a national movement. They observe that it was not carefully planned and there was also no mastermind to lead it.
Also, the Bengalees, the Punjabis, the Hindusthanis, the Maharashtrians, the Madrasis, etc. never thought that they belong to one and the same Indian nation.
But, some European writers like Sir James Outram, W. Taylor, and other writers do not agree with the view that the Great Revolt of 1857 was a Sepoy Mutiny. They described it as an outcome of Hindu-Muslim conspiracy. The Muslims simply took and made capital advantage out of the Hindu grievances for their benefits.
On the other hand, Vir Savarkar, Ashok Mehta, Dr. SN Sen, etc. believe that the Great Revolt of 1857 was the first organized war of Indian independence against the British Rule. They, particularly Dr. Sen contended that revolutions were mostly the works of a minority like the American War of Independence and the French Revolution. A large number of the American colonists or settlers remained loyal to the British Crown during and after the War. So was the case with the French Revolution too. Many loyalists sided with the monarchy. So, the Revolt of 1857 could not claim a national movement, in the beginning. But it ended as a war of independence later with the mass support.
There was glaring evidence of a common harmony between Hindus and Muslims against the British and it was not merely a sepoy mutiny. Though started as a mutiny, it soon assumed a national character when the mutineers of Meerut placed themselves under the Mughal Emperor of Delhi. Besides, a section of the landed aristocracy, civil population and the Maratha chiefs including Nana Shaheb, Tantia Tope, Azim Ullah Khan declared their loyalty to the Emperor and the mutineers. They also said that the revolt ended as a war of independence to get rid of the alien government of the English. Taking all the above reasons, the Great Revolt of 1857 may be described as the War of Indian Independence
The generally accepted view is that although the rising of 1857 started as a revolt of Indian sepoys. Some sections of the Indian society join the revolt. Later it became mixed with the dormant element of the national struggle for independence to end the English colonial rule. The Government of India, with great joy, celebrates the 100 anniversary of the event of Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 in May 1957.
Source: B.Sm. Sarma & B.R. Sharma
History of Modern India, Book
Note: There are some changes in the Length and Text of the Article.
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