Centers of the Revolt
On 9th May, 85 soldiers in Meerut refused to use the new rifles procured by the British. They were sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment. Soon there was a rebellion in the Meerut Cantonment. The Indian sepoys in Meerut murdered their British officers and broke open the jail. On May 10, they marched to Delhi.
In March 1857, Mangal Pandey, who served as a sepoy in Barrackpore, refused to use the cartridges and attacked his senior officers. He was hanged to death on 8th of April.
In Delhi the mutineers were joined by the Delhi sepoys and the city came under their control. Next day, on 11th May, the sepoys proclaimed the ageing Bahadur Shah Zafar the Emperor. But he was old and could not give able leadership to the sepoys. The British attacked Delhi in September. For six days there was desperate fighting. But by September 1857, the British reoccupied Delhi. Thousands of innocent people were massacred and hundreds were hanged. The old king was captured and later deported to Rangoon where he died in 1862.
In Jhansi, the twenty-two year old Rani Lakshmi Bai led the rebels when the British refused to accept the claim of her adopted son to the throne of Jhansi. She fought gallantly against the British forces. She was defeated but managed to escape. Later on, the Rani was joined by Tantia Tope and together they marched to Gwalior and captured it. Sindhia, a loyal ally of the British, was driven out. Fierce fighting followed. The Rani died, fighting to the very end. Gwalior was recaptured by the British.
Lucknow was the capital of Awadh. Here, the mutinous sepoys were joined by the disbanded soldiers of the old Awadh army. Begum Hazrat Mahal, one of the begums of the ex-king of Awadh, took up the leadership of the revolt. After the British forces captured the city, the queen escaped to Nepal.
In Kanpur the revolt was led by Nana Saheb, the adopted son of the Peshwa, Baji Rao II. He joined the revolt primarily because he was deprived of his pension by the British. He captured Kanpur and proclaimed himself the Peshwa. The victory was short- lived.
Kanpur was recaptured by the British after fresh reinforcements arrived. The rebels were either hanged or blown to pieces by canons. Nana Saheb escaped. But his brilliant commander Tantia Tope continued the struggle. Tantia Tope was finally defeated, arrested and hanged.
Impact of the Revolt
The direct effects were:
- The Revolt of 1857 exposed the dangers involved in allowing a commercial organization to rule over a country. Thus, the British government passed the Government of India Act, 1858, on August 2, 1858, according to which the power of the Company was snatched and direct rule was established. The Crown was now directly responsible for ruling India
- The supreme executive and legislative authority in India came to be known as the Governor-General, and the Viceroy, Lord Canning so far known as the Governor-General of India, became the first Viceroy.
- The British assured the people that there would be no more territorial expansions. They also assured that religious and social practices would be respected and not be interfered into.
- The proportion of Indian soldiers in the army was reduced and the number of European soldiers was increased.
- The ruling chiefs were assured that their territories would not be annexed. The Doctrine of Lapse was abolished, thus allowing rulers to pass on their kingdoms to adopted sons.
- Policies were made to protect landlords and zamindars, and give them the security of right over their land.
- The Muslims were considered to be responsible for the rebellion in a huge way. Their land and properties were confiscated on a large scale.
- A new agrarian policy was introduced to guarantee security of tenure and to fix the rent for the land. It freed the cultivators from tedious settlements and the excessive demands of the state. The financial system was also decentralized, by entrusting some items of taxation to the local governments.
- The Revolt of 1857 further widened the difference between the ruler and the ruled.
- In the post-Revolt period, the British rulers followed the policy of communal disharmony to maintain their supremacy. The seeds of communal discord planted by the English in India sprouted and bore fruits of communalism.
- After the revolt, the British did not followed the policy of territorial expansion in India, but the period was marked by a new era of economic exploitation of India.
- The British adopted a policy of opposing the educated middle class, and supporting the landlords and native princes.
Nature of the Revolt
The revolt of 1857 evokes passionate reactions. To the contemporary British analysts, it was a mutiny of a section of misguided sepoys. Charles Ball, John Kaye or Colonel Malleson all dwelled on the familiar theme of mutiny fomented by conspiratorial aristocrats.
On the other hand Indian nationalists have regarded the Revolt’s nature to be the early footprint of the freedom struggle. V.D. Savarkar called it India’s first war of independence.
This binary portrayal of the nature of the 1857 revolt continued even after independence. Dr. R.C. Mazumder found no trace of nationalist spirit in it. Sharply contradicting Mazumder’s views, Dr. S.B. Chaudhuri thinks the revolt had a national character. The active participation of different cross-sections of Indian society, all impelled by hatred for the British, and entitles it to be called a national uprising.
More recently, historians have focused on the revolt in its local and especially agrarian settings. They suggest that the participation of peasants provides the link between the military mutiny and the rural uprisings. The peasants participated in the Revolt for many different reasons in many different regions. As in Awadh, they made common cause with the talukdars against the common enemy. Hence they followed the lead given by the talukdars. But there are many instances where the peasants in revolt chose their leaders from the ranks of ordinary people. Thus the civil rebellions in the countryside were ‘more than simply a feudal reaction’.
In areas where the grievances of disgruntled aristocracy coincided with the outbursts of peasants and artisans, there were broad based insurgencies.
Nationalism in its developed form might not have motivated the rebels. But patriotism in the sense of a shared antipathy against the British was not altogether absent. And it is this that invests the Revolt with a new meaning. In the words of Eric Stokes, “To India, 1857 bequeathed a more living and enduring presence”.
Failure of the Revolt
Although the revolt was a big event in the history of India, it had very little chance of success against an organized and powerful enemy. The revolt was suppressed within a little over a year of its outbreak. There were many reasons for its failure.
- The revolt did not spread to all the parts of the country. Nor was it supported by all the groups and sections of the society. The southern and western parts of India remained largely outside the fold of the revolt. Many Indian rulers refused to help the rebels and some were openly hostile to the rebels, helping the British in suppressing the revolt. The middle and upper classes and the modern educated Indians also did not support the revolt.
- The revolt was unorganized. The rebels lacked any ideology or programmes which could be implemented in the captured areas. None of them knew what to do after the capture of the regions.
- The leadership was weak. Most of the leaders lacked a national perspective and were motivated by narrow, personal gains. They fought to liberate only their own territories. No national leaders emerged.
- The rebels were short of weapons and finances. Whatever few weapons existed were outdated and no match for the sophisticated and modern weapons of the British. They were poorly organized. The uprisings were uncoordinated. Often, the sepoys were an uncontrolled group of people. They were unable to carry through their early military successes.
The revolt of 1857 was a landmark event in the history of India. It was the first great struggle of the Indians for freedom from British imperialism. The period after the revolt saw major changes in British policies and in the administrative set-up of India. Broadly speaking, the revolt sowed the seeds of nationalism in the minds of the Indian masses.