Chapter 6 The Revolt of 1857


A mighty popular revolt broke out in northern and central India in I857 and nearly swept away British rule. It began with a mutiny of the sepoys, or the Indian soldiers of the Company’s army but soon engulfed wide regions and involved the massses. Millions of peasants, artisans and soldiers fought heroically for over a year and by their exemplary courage and sacrifice wrote a glorious chapter in the history of the Indian people.

General Causes

The Revolt of 1857 was much more than a mere product of sepoy discontent. It was in reality a product of the character and policies of colonial rule, of the accumulated grievances of the people against the Company’s administration and of their dislike for the foreign regime. For over a century, as the British had been conquering the country bit by bit, popular discontent and hatred against foreign rule was gaining strength among the different sections of Indian society. It was this discontent that burst forth into a mighty popular revolt.

Perhaps the most important cause of the popular discontent was the economic exploitation of the country by the British and the complete destruction of its traditional economic fabric; this both impoverished the vast mass of peasants, artisans and handicraftsmen as also a large number of traditional zamindars and chiefs. We have traced the disastrous economic impact of early British rule in another chapter. Other general causes were the British land and land revenue policies and the systems of law and administration. In particular, a large number of peasant proprietors, subjected to exorbitant land revenue demand, lost their lands to traders and moneylenders and found themselves hopelessly involved in debt. The new landlords, lacking ties of tradition that had linked the old zamindars to peasants, pushed rents up to ruinous heights and evicted them in case of non-payments. The economic decline of the peasantry found expression in twelve major and numerous minor famines from 1770 to 1857. Similarly, many zamindars were harassed by demands for higher land revenue and threatened with forfeiture of their zamindari lands and rights and loss of their status in the villages. They resented their loss even more when they were replaced by rank outsiders—officials, merchants and moneylenders. In addition, common people were hard hit by the prevalence of corruption at the lower levels of administration. The police, petty officials and lower law courts were notoriously corrupt. William Edwards, a British official, wrote in 1859 while discussing the causes of the Revolt that the police were “a scourge to the people” and that “their oppressions and exactions form one of the chief grounds of dissatisfaction with our government”. The petty officials lost no opportunity to enrich themselves at the cost of the ryots and the zamindars. The complex judicial system enabled the rich to oppress the poor. Flogging, torture and jailing of the cultivators for arrears of rent or land revenue or interest on debt were quite common. Thus the growing poverty of the people made them desperate and led them to join a general revolt in the hope of improving their lot.

The middle and upper classes of Indian society, particularly in the north, were hard hit by their exclusion from well-paid higher posts in the administration. The gradual disappearance of Indian states deprived those Indians, who were employed in them in high administrative and judicial posts, of means of livelihood. British supremacy also led to the ruin of persons who made a living by following cultural pursuits. The Indian rulers had been partrons of arts and literature and had supported scholars, religious preachers and divines. The displacement of these rulers by the East India Company meant the sudden withdrawal of this patronage and the impoverishment of those who had depended upon it. Religious preachers, pandits and maulavis, who felt that their entire future was threatened, were to play an important role in spreading hatred against the foreign rule.

Another basic cause of the unpopularity of British rule was its very foreignness. The British remained perpetual foreigners in the country. For one, there was no social link or communication between them and the Indians. Unlike foreign conquerors before them, they did not mix socially even with the upper classes of Indians; instead, they had a feeling of racial superiority and treated Indians with contempt and arrogance. As Sayyid Ahmad Khan wrote later: “Even natives of the highest rank never came into the presence of officials but with an inward fear and trembling.” Most of all, the British did not come to settle in India and to make it their home. Their main aim was to enrich themselves and then go back to Britain along with their wealth. The people of India were aware of this basically foreign character of the new rulers. They refused to recognise the British as their benefactors and looked upon every act of theirs with suspicion. They had thus a vague sort of anti-British feeling which found expression even earlier than the Revolt in numerous popular uprisings against the British.

The period of the growth of discontent among the people coincided with certain events which shattered the general belief in the invincibility of British arms and encouraged the people to believe that the days of the British regime were numbered. The British army suffered major reverses in the First Afghan War (1838-42), in the Punjab Wars (1845-9), and in the Crimean War (1854-56). In 1855-56 the Santhal tribesmen of Bihar and Bengal rose up armed with axes and bows and arrows and revealed the potentialities of a popular uprising by temporarily sweeping away British rule from their area. Though the British ultimately won these wars and suppressed the Santhal uprising, the disasters they suffered in major battles revealed that the British army could be defeated by determined fighting even by an Asian army. In fact, the Indians made here a serious error of political judgement by underestimating British strength. This error was to cost the rebels of 1857 dear. At the same time the historical significance of this factor should not be missed. People do not revolt simply because they have the desire to overthrow their rulers; they must, in addition, possess the confidence that they can do so successfully.

The annexation ofAwadh by Lord Dalhousie in 1856 was widely resented in India in general and in Awadh in particular. More specifically, it created an atmosphere of rebellion in Awadh and in the Company’s army. Dalhousie’s action angered the Company’s sepoys, 75,000 of whom came from Awadh. Lacking an all-India feeling, these sepoys had helped the British conquer the rest of India. But they did possess regional and local patriotism and did not like that their homelands should come under the foreigner’s away. Moreover, the annexation of Awadh adversely affected the sepoy’s purse. He had to pay higher taxes on the land his family held in Awadh.

The excuse Dalhousie had advanced for annexing Awadh was that he wanted to free the people from the Nawab’s mismanagement and taluqdars’ oppression, but, in practice, the people got no relief Indeed, the common man had now to pay higher land revenue and additional taxes on articles of food, houses, ferries, opium, and justice. The dissolution of the Nawab’s administration and army threw out of jobs thousands of nobles, gentlemen and officials together with their retainers and officers and soldiers, and created unemployment in almost every peasant’s home. Similarly, merchants, shopkeepers, and handicraftsmen who had catered to the Awadh Court and nobles lost their livelihood. Moreover, the British confiscated the estates of a majority of the taluqdars or zamindars. These dispossessed taluqdars, numbering nearly 21,000, anxious to regain their lost estates and position, became the most dangerous opponents of British rule.

The annexation of Awadh, along with the other annexations of Dalhousie, created panic among rulers of the native states. They now discovered that even their most grovelling loyalty had failed to satisfy the British greed for territory. What is of even greater importance, the political prestige of the British suffered a great deal because of the manner in which they had repeatedly broken their written and oral pledges and treaties with the Indian powers and annexed them or reduced them to subordination and imposed their own nominees on their thrones. This policy of annexation and subordination was, for example, directly responsible for making Nana Sahib, the Rani of Jhansi and Bahadur Shah their staunch enemies. Nana Sahib was the adopted son of Baji Rao II, the last Peshwa. The British refused to grant Nana Sahib the pension they were paying to Baji Rao II, the last Peshwa, and forced him to live at Kanpur, far away from his family seat at Poona. Similarly, the British insistence on the annexation of Jhansi incensed the proud Rani Lakshmibai who wanted her adopted son to succeed her deceased husband. The house of the Mughals was humbled when Dalhousie announced in 1849 that the successor to Bahadur Shah would have to abandon the historic Red Fort and move to a humbler residence at the Qutab on the outskirts of Delhi. And, in 1856, Canning announced that after Bahadur Shah’s death the Mughals would lose the title of kings and would be known as mere princes.

An important factor in turning the people against British rule was their fear that it endangered their religion. This fear was largely due to the activities of the Christian missionaries who were “to be seen everywhere—in the schools, in the hospitals, in the prisons and at the market places”. These missionaries tried to convert people and made violent and vulgar public attacks on Hinduism and Islam. They openly ridiculed and denounced the long-cherished customs and traditions of the people. They were, moreover, provided police protection. The actual conversions made by them appeared to the people as living proofs of the threat to their religion. Popular suspicion that the alien government supported the activities of the missionaries was strengthened by certain acts of the government and the actions of some of its officials. In 1850, the government enacted a law which enabled a convert to Christianity to inherit his ancestral property. Moreover, the government maintained at its cost chaplains or Christian priests in the army. Many officials, civil as well as military, considered it their religious duty to encourage missionary propaganda and to provide instruction in Christianity in government schools and even in jails.

The conservative religious and social sentiments of many people were also hurt by some of the humanitarian measures which the government had undertaken on the advice of Indian reformers. They believed that an alien Christian government had no right to interfere in their religion and customs. The abolition of the custom of sati, the legalisation of widow remarriage, and the opening of Western education to girls appeared to them as examples of such undue interference. Religious sentiments were also hurt by the official policy of taxing lands belonging to temples and mosques and to their priests or the charitable institutions which had been exempted from taxation by previous Indian rulers. Moreover, the many brahman and Muslim families dependent on these lands were aroused to fury, and they began to propagate that the British were trying to undermine the religions of India.

The Revolt of 1857 started with the mutiny of the Company’s sepoys. We have therefore to examine why the sepoys, who had by their devoted service enabled the Company to conquer India, and who enjoyed high prestige and economic security, suddenly became rebellious. Here the first fact to be kept in view is that the sepoys were after all a part of Indian society and, therefore, felt and suffered to some extent what other Indians did. The hopes, desires, and despairs of the other sections of society, especially the peasantry, were reflected in them. The sepoy was, in fact, a ‘peasant in uniform’. If their near and dear ones suffered from the destructive economic consequences of the British rule, they, in turn, felt this suffering. They were also duly affected by the general belief that the British were interfering in their religions and were determined to convert Indians to Christianity. Their own experience predisposed them to such a belief. They knew that the army was maintaining chaplains at state cost. Moreover, some of the British officers in their religious ardour carried on Christian propaganda among the sepoys. The sepoys also had religious or caste grievances of their own. The Indians of those days were very strict in observing caste rules, etc. The military authorities forbade the sepoys to wear caste and sectarian marks, beards or turbans. In 1856, an Act was passed under which every new recruit undertook to serve even overseas, if required. This hurt the sepoys’ sentiments as, according to the current religious beliefs of the Hindus, travel across the sea was forbidden and led to loss of caste.

The sepoys also had numerous other grievances. A wide gulf had come into existence between the officers and the sepoys who were often treated with contempt by their British officers. A contemporary English observer noted that “the officers and men have not been friends but strangers to one another. The sepoy is esteemed an inferior creature. He is sworn at. He is treated roughly. He is spoken of as a ‘nigger’. He is addressed as a ‘suar’ or pig. … The younger men … treat him as an inferior animal.” Even though a sepoy was as good a soldier as his British counterpart, he was paid much less and lodged and fed in a far worse manner than the latter. Moreover, he had little prospect of a rise; no Indian could rise higher than a subedar drawing 60 to 70 rupees a month. In fact, the sepoy’s life was quite hard. Naturally, the sepoy resented this artificial and enforced position of inferiority. As the British historian T.R. Holmes has put it:

Though he might give signs of the military genius of a Hyder, he knew that he could never attain the pay of an English subaltern and that the rank to which he might attain, after some 30 years of faithful service, would not protect him from the insolent dictation of an ensign fresh from England.

A more immediate cause of the sepoys’ dissatisfaction was the recent order that they would not be given the foreign service allowance (batta) when serving in Sindh or in the Punjab. This order resulted in a big cut in the salaries of a large number of them. The annexation ofAwadh, the home of many sepoys, further inflamed their feelings.

The dissatisfaction of the sepoys had in fact a long history. A sepoy mutiny had broken out in Bengal as early as 1764. The authorities had suppressed it by blowing away 30 sepoys from the mouths of guns. In 1806 the sepoys at Vellore mutinied but were crushed with terrible violence, with several hundred men dying in battle. In 1824, the 47th Regiment of sepoys at Barrackpore refused to go to Burma by the sea-route. The Regiment was disbanded, its unarmed men were fired upon by artillery, and the leaders of the sepoys were hanged. In 1844, seven battalions revolted on the question of salaries and batta. Similarly, the sepoys in Afghanistan were on the verge of revolt during the Afghan War. Two subedars, a Muslim and a Hindu, were shot dead for giving expression to the discontent in the army. Dissatisfaction was so widespread among the sepoys that Fredrick Halliday. Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal in 1858, was led to remark that the Bengal army was “more or less mutinous, always on the verge of revolt and certain to have mutinied at one time or another as soon as provocation might combine with opportunity”.

Thus widespread and intense dislike and even hatred of foreign rule prevailed among large numbers of Indian people and soldiers of the Company’s army. This feeling was later summed up by Saiyid Ahmad Khan in his Causes of the Indian Mutiny as follows:

At length, the Indians fell into the habit of thinking that all laws were passed with a view to degrade and ruin them and to deprive them and their compatriots of their religion…. At last came the time when all men looked upon the English government as slow poison, a rope of sand, a treacherous flame of fire. They began to believe that if today they escaped from the clutches of the government, tomorrow they would fall into them or that even if they escaped the morrow, the third day would see their ruin. … The people wished for a change in the government, and rejoiced heartily at the idea of British rule being superseded by another.

Similarly, a proclamation issued by the rebels in Delhi complained:

First, in Hindustan they have exacted as revenue Rupees 300 where only 200 were due, and Rupees 500 where but 400 were demandable and still they are solicitous to raise their demands. The people must therefore be ruined and beggared. Second, they have doubted and quadrupled and raised tenfold the Chowkeedaree Tax and have wished to ruin the people. Third, the occupation of all respectable and learned men is gone, and millions are destitute of the necessaries of life. When any one in search of employment determines on proceeding from one Zillah to another, every soul is charged six pie as toll on roads, and has to pay from 4 to 8 annas for each cart. Those only who pay are permitted to travel on the public roads. How far can we detail the oppression of the Tyrants! Gradually matters arrived at such a pitch that the government had determined to subvert everyone’s religion.

The Revolt of 1857 came as a culmination of popular discontent with British policies and imperialist exploitation. But it was no sudden occurrence. For nearly a century there had been fierce popular resistance to British domination all over India. Armed rebellions began as British rule was established in Bengal and Bihar, and they occurred in area after area as it was conquered. There was hardly a year without armed opposition or a decade without a major rebellion in one part of the country or the other. From 1763 to 1856, there were more than forty major rebellions and hundreds of minor ones. These rebellions had been often led by rajas, nawabs, zamindars, landlords and poligars, but their fighting forces had been provided by peasants, artisans and ex-soldiers of the deposed Indian rulers and dispossessed and disarmed zamindars and poligars. These almost continuous rebellions were massive in their totality, but were wholly local in their spread and isolated from each other. They were also localised in their effects.

The Immediate Cause

By 1857, the material for a mass upheaval was ready, only a spark was needed to set it afire. The episode of the greased cartridges provided this spark for the sepoys and their mutiny gave the general populace the occasion to revolt.

The new Enfield rifle had been first introduced in the army. Its cartridges had a greased paper cover whose end had to be bitten off before the cartridge was loaded into the rifle. The grease was in some instances composed of beef and pig fat. The sepoys, Hindu as well as Muslim, were enraged. The use of the greased cartridges would endanger their religion. Many of them believed that the government was deliberately trying to destroy their religion and convert them to Christianity. The time to rebel had come.

The Beginning and Course of The Revolt

Was the Revolt of 1857 spontaneous and unplanned or the result of careful and secret organisation? It is not easy to answer this question with certainty. A peculiar aspect of the study of the history of the Revolt of 1857 is that it has to be based almost entirely on British records. The rebels have left behind no records. As they worked illegally, they perhaps kept no records. Moreover, they were defeated and suppressed and their version of events died with them. Lastly, for years afterwards, the British suppressed any favourable mention of the Revolt, and took strong action against anyone who tried to present the rebels’ side of the story.

One group of historians and writers has asserted that the Revolt was the result of a widespread and well-organised conspiracy. They point to the circulation of chappattis and red lotuses, propaganda by wandering sanyasis, faqirs and madaris. Other writers equally forcefully deny that any careful planning went into the making of the Revolt. They point out that not a scrap of paper was discovered before or after the Revolt indicating an organised conspiracy, nor did a single witness come forward to make such a claim.

The Revolt began at Meerut, 58 km from Delhi, on 10 May 1857 and then, gathering force rapidly, it cut across northern India as if like a sword. It soon embraced a vast area from the Punjab in the north and the Narmada in the south to Bihar in the east and Rajputana in the west.

Even before the outbreak at Meerut, Mangal Pande had become a martyr at Barrackpore. Mangal Pande, a young soldier, was hanged on 29 March 1857 for revolting single-handed and attacking his superior officers. This and many similar incidents were a sign that discontent and rebellion were brewing among the sepoys. And then came the explosion at Meerut. On 24 April, ninety men of the 3rd Native Cavalry refused to accept the greased cartridges. On 9 May, eighty-five of them were dismissed, sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment and put into fetters. This sparked off a general mutiny among the Indian soldiers, stationed at Meerut. The very next day, on 10 May, they released their imprisoned comrades, killed their officers, and unfurled the banner of revolt. As if drawn by a magnet, they set off for Delhi after sunset. When the Meerut soldiers appeared in Delhi the next morning, the local infantry joined them, killed their own European officers, and seized the city. The rebellious soldiers now proclaimed the aged and powerless Bahadur Shah, the Emperor of India. Delhi was soon to become the centre of the Great Revolt and Bahadur Shah its great symbol. This spontaneous raising of the last Mughal king to the leadership of the country was recognition of the fact that the long reign of the Mughal dynasty had made it the traditional symbol of India’s political unity. With this single act, the sepoys had transformed a mutiny of soldiers into a revolutionary war. This is why rebellious sepoys from all over the country automatically turned their steps towards Delhi and all Indian chiefs who took part in the Revolt tended to proclaim their loyalty to the Mughal emperor. Bahadur Shah, in turn, under the instigation and perhaps the pressure of the sepoys, and after initial vacillation, wrote letters to all the chiefs and rulers of India urging them to organise a confederacy of Indian states to fight and replace the British regime.

The entire Bengal army soon rose in revolt which spread quickly. Awadh, Rohilkhand, the Doab, the Bundelkhand, central India, large parts of Bihar, and the East Punjab all shook off British authority. In many of the princely states, rulers remained loyal to their British overlord but the soldiers revolted or remained on the brink of revolt. Many of Indore’s troops rebelled and joined the sepoys. Similarly over 20,000 of Gwalior’s troops went over to Tantia Tope and the Rani of Jhansi. Many small chiefs of Rajasthan and Maharashtra revolted with the support of the people who were quite hostile to the British. Local rebellions also occurred in Hyderabad and Bengal.

The tremendous sweep and breadth of the Revolt was matched by its depth. Everywhere in northern and central India, the mutiny of the sepoys triggered popular revolts among the civilian population. After the sepoys had destroyed British authority, the common people rose up in arms often fighting with spears and axes, bows and arrows, lathis and sickles, and crude muskets. In many places, however, the people revolted even before the sepoys did or even when no sepoy regiments were present. It is the wide participation in the Revolt by the peasantry, the artisans, shopkeepers, day labourers, and zamindars which gave it real strength as well as the character of a popular revolt, especially in the areas at present included in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Here the peasants and zamindars gave free expression to their grievances by attacking the moneylenders and new zamindars who had displaced them from the land. They took advantage of the Revolt to destroy the moneylenders’ account books and records of debts. They also attacked the British-established law courts, revenue offices (tehsils) and revenue records, and thanas. It is of some importance to note that in many of the battles, commoners far surpassed the sepoys in numbers. According to one estimate, of the total number of about 150,0 men who died fighting the English in Awadh, over 100,000 were civilians.

It should also be noted that even where people did not rise up in revolt, they showed strong sympathy for the rebels. They rejoiced in the successes of the rebels and organised a social boycott of those sepoys who remained loyal to the British. They showed active hostility to British forces, refused to give them help or information, and even misled them with wrong information. W H. Russel, who toured India in 1858 and 1859 as the correspondent of the London Times, wrote that:

In no instance is a friendly glance directed to the white man’s carriage…. Oh! that language of the eye! Who can doubt? Who can misinterpret it? It is by it alone that I have learnt our race is not even feared at times by many and that by all it is disliked.

The popular character of the Revolt of 1857 also became evident when the British tried to crush it. They had to wage a vigorous and ruthless war not only against the rebellious sepoys but also against the people of Delhi, Awadh, North-Western Provinces and Agra, central India, and western Bihar, burning entire villages and massacring villagers and urban people. They had to fight and reconquer many parts of northern India, village by village. They had to cow down people with public hangings and executions without trial, thus revealing how deep the revolt was in these parts.

Much of the strength of the Revolt of 1857 lay in Hindu-Muslim unity. Among the soldiers and the people as well as among the leaders there was complete cooperation as between Hindus and Muslims. All the rebels recognised Bahadur Shah, a Muslim, as their emperor. Also the first thoughts of the Hindu sepoys at Meerut was to march straight to Delhi. The Hindu and the Muslim rebels and sepoys respected each other’s sentiments. For example, wherever the Revolt was successful, orders were immediately issued banning cow- slaughter out of respect for Hindu sentiments. Moreover, Hindus and Muslims were equally well represented at all levels of the leadership. The role of Hindu-Muslim unity in the Revolt was indirectly acknowledged later by Aitchison, a senior British official, when he bitterly complained: “In this instance we could not play off the Mohammedans against the Hindus.” In fact, the events of 1857 clearly bring out that the people and politics of India were basically not communal in medieval times and before 1858.

The storm-centres of the Revolt of 1857 were at Delhi, Kanpur, Lucknow, Bareilly, Jhansi, and Arrah in Bihar. At Delhi the nominal and symbolic leadership belonged to the Emperor Bahadur Shah, but the real command lay with a Court of Soldiers headed by General Bakht Khan who had led the revolt of the Bareilly troops and brought them to Delhi. In the British army he had been an ordinary subedar of artillery. Bakht Khan represented the popular and plebeian element at the headquarters of the Revolt. The Emperor Bahadur Shah was perhaps the weakest link in the chain of leadership of the Revolt. His weak personality, old age and lack of qualities of leadership created political weakness at the nerve centre of the Revolt and did incalculable damage to it.

At Kanpur the Revolt was led by Nana Sahib, the adopted son of Baji Rao II, the last Peshwa. Nana Sahib expelled the English from Kanpur with the help of the sepoys and proclaimed himself the Peshwa. At the same time he acknowledged Bahadur Shah as the emperor of India and declared himself to be his Governor. The chief burden of fighting on behalf of Nana Sahib fell on the shoulders of Tantia Tope, one of his most loyal servants. Tantia Tope has won immortal fame by his patriotism, determined fighting and skilful guerrilla operations. Azimullah was another loyal servant of Nana Sahib. He was an expert in political propaganda. Unfortunately, Nana Sahib tarnished his brave record by deceitfully killing the British garrison at Kanpur after he had agreed to give them safe conduct.

The revolt at Lucknow was led by Hazrat Mahal, the Begum of Awadh, who had proclaimed her young son, Birjis Kadr, as the Nawab of Awadh. Helped by the sepoys at Lucknow, and by the zamindars and peasants of Awadh, the Begum organised an all-out attack on the British. Compelled to give up the city, the latter entrenched themselves in the Residency building. In the end, the seige of the Residency failed, as the small British garrison fought back with exemplary fortitude and valour.

One of the great leaders of the Revolt of 1857, and perhaps one of the greatest heroines of Indian history, was the young Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi. The young Rani joined the rebels when the British refused to acknowledge her right to adopt an heir to the Jhansi gaddi, annexed her state, and threatened to treat her as an instigator of the rebellion of the sepoys at Jhansi. The Rani vacillated for some time. But once she decided to throw in her lot with the rebels, she fought valiantly at the head of her troops. Tales of her bravery and courage and military skill have inspired her countrymen ever since. Driven out of Jhansi by the British forces after a fierce battle in which “even women were seen working the batteries and distributing ammunition”, she administered the oath to her followers that “with our own hands we shall not our Azadshahi [independent rule] bury”. She captured Gwalior with the help of Tantia Tope and her trusted Afghan guards. Maharaja Sindhia, loyal to the British, made an attempt to fight the Rani but most of his troops deserted to her. Sindhia sought refuge with the English at Agra. The brave Rani died fighting on 17 June 1858, clad in the battle dress of a soldier and mounted on a charger. Beside her fell her life-long friend and companion, a Muslim girl.

Kunwar Singh, a ruined and discontented zamindar of Jagdishpur near Arrah, was the chief organiser of the Revolt in Bihar. Though nearly 80 years old, he was perhaps the most outstanding military leader and strategist of the Revolt. Maulavi Ahmadullah of Faizabad was another outstanding leader of the Revolt. He was a native of Madras where he had started preaching armed rebellion. In January 1857 he moved towards the north to Faizabad where he fought a large-scale battle against a company of British troops sent to stop him from preaching sedition. When the general revolt broke out in May, he emerged as one of its acknowledged leaders in Awadh.

The greatest heroes of the Revolt were, however, the sepoys, many of whom displayed great courage in the field of battle and thousands of whom unselfishly laid down their lives. More than anything else, it was their determination and sacrifice that nearly led to the expulsion of the British from India. In this patriotic struggle, they sacrificed even their deep religious prejudices. They had revolted on the question of the greased cartridges but now to expel the hated foreigner they freely used the same cartridges in their battles.

The Weaknesses of The Revolt and Its Suppression

Even though it was spread over a vast territory and widely popular among the people, the Revolt of 1857 could not embrace the entire country or all the groups and classes of Indian society. It did not spread to south India and most of eastern and western India because these regions had repeatedly rebelled earlier. Most rulers of the Indian states and the big zamindars, selfish to the core and fearful of British might, refused to join in. On the contrary, the Sindhia of Gwalior, the Holkar of Indore, the Nizam of Hyderabad, the Raja of Jodhpur and other Rajput rulers, the Nawab of Bhopal, the rulers of Patiala, Nabha, Jind, and other Sikh chieftains of Punjab, the Maharaja of Kashmir, the Ranas of Nepal, and many other ruling chiefs, and a large number of big zamindars gave active help to the British in suppressing the Revolt. In fact, no more than one per cent of the chiefs of India joined the Revolt. Governor-General Canning later remarked that these rulers and chiefs “acted as the breakwaters to the storm which would have otherwise swept us in one great wave”. Madras, Bombay, Bengal and the western Punjab remained undisturbed, even though the popular feeling in these provinces favoured the rebels. Moreover, except for the discontented and the dispossessed zamindars, the middle and upper classes were mostly critical of the rebels; most of the propertied classes were either cool towards them or actively hostile to them. Even many of the taluqdars (big zamindars) of Awadh, who had joined the Revolt, abandoned it once the government gave them an assurance that their estates would be returned to them. This made it very difficult for the peasants and soldiers of Awadh to sustain a prolonged guerrilla campaign.

The moneylenders were the chief targets of the villagers’ attacks. They were, therefore, naturally hostile to the Revolt. The merchants, too, gradually became unfriendly. The rebels were compelled to impose heavy taxation on them in order to finance the war or to seize their stocks of foodstuffs to feed the army. The merchants often hid their wealth and goods and refused to give free supplies to the rebels. The zamindars of Bengal also remained loyal to the British. They were after all a creation of the British. Moreover, the hostility of Bihar peasants towards their zamindars frightened the Bengal zamindars. Similarly, the big merchants of Bombay, Calcutta and Madras supported the British because their main profits came from foreign trade and economic connections with the British merchants.

The modern educated Indians also did not support the Revolt. They were repelled by the rebels’ appeals to superstitions and their opposition to progressive social measures. As we have seen, the educated Indians wanted to end the backwardness of their country. They mistakenly believed that the British rule would help them accomplish these tasks of modernisation while the rebels, led by zamindars, old rulers and chieftains and other feudal elements, would take the country backward. Only later did the educated Indians learn from experience that foreign rule was incapable of modernising the country and that it would instead impoverish it and keep it backward. The revolutionaries of 1857 proved to be more far-sighted in this respect; they had a better, instinctive understanding of the evils of foreign rule and of the necessity to get rid of it. On the other hand, they did not realise, as did the educated intelligentsia, that the country had fallen prey to foreigners precisely because it had stuck to rotten and outmoded customs, traditions and institutions. They failed to see that national salvation lay not in going back to feudal monarchy but in going forward to a modern society, a modern economy, scientific education and modern political institutions. In any case, it cannot be said that the educated Indians were anti-national or loyal to a foreign regime. As events after 1858 were to show, they were soon to lead a powerful and modern national movement against British rule.

Whatever the reasons for the disunity of Indians, it was to prove fatal to the Revolt. But this was not the only weakness from which the cause of the rebels suffered. They were short of modern weapons and other materials of war. Most of them fought with such ancient weapons as pikes and swords. They were also poorly organised. The sepoys were brave and selfless but they were also ill-disciplined. Sometimes they behaved more like a riotous mob than a disciplined army. The rebel units did not have common plans of military action, or authoritative heads, or centralised leadership. The uprisings in different parts of the country were completely uncoordinated. The leaders were joined together by a common feeling of hatred for the alien rule but by nothing else. Once they overthrew British power from an area, they did not know what sort of political power or institutions to create in its place. They were suspicious and jealous of one another and often indulged in suicidal quarrels. Similarly, the peasantry having destroyed revenue records and moneylenders’ books, and overthrown the new zamindars, became passive, not knowing what to do next.

In fact, the weakness of the Revolt went deeper than the failings of individuals. The movement had little understanding of colonialism, which had overpowered India, or of the modern world. It lacked a forward-looking programme, a coherent ideology, a political perspective or a vision of the future society and economy. The Revolt represented no societal alternative to be implemented after the capture of power. The diverse elements which took part in the Revolt were united only by their hatred of British rule, but each of them had different grievances and differing conceptions of the politics of free India. This absence of a modern and progressive programme enabled the reactionary princes and zamindars to seize the levers of power of the revolutionary movement. But the feudal character of the Revolt should not be stressed over much. Gradually the soldiers and the people were beginning to evolve a different type of leadership. The very effort to make the Revolt a success was compelling them to create new types of organisation. For example, at Delhi, a court of administrators, consisting of ten members, six armymen and four civilians, was established. All its decisions were taken by a majority vote. The court took all military and administrative decisions in the name of the emperor. Similar efforts to create new organisational structures were made in other centres of the rebellion. As Benjamin Disraeli warned the British government at the time, if they did not suppress the Revolt in time, they would “find other characters on the stage, with whom to contend, besides the princes of India”.

The lack of unity among Indians was perhaps unavoidable at this stage of Indian history. Modern nationalism was yet unknown in India. Patriotism meant love of one’s small locality or region or at most one’s state. All-India interests and the consciousness that these interests bound all Indians together were yet to come. In fact, the Revolt of 1857 played an important role in bringing the Indian people together and imparting to them the consciousness of belonging to one country.

In the end, British imperialism, with a developing capitalist economy and at the height of its power the world over, and supported by most of the Indian princes and chiefs, proved militarily too strong for the rebels. The British government poured immense supplies of men, money and arms into the country, though Indians had later to repay the entire cost of their own suppression. The Revolt was suppressed. Sheer courage could not win against a powerful and determined enemy who planned their every step. The rebels were dealt an early blow when the British captured Delhi on 20 September 1857 after prolonged and bitter fighting. The aged Emperor Bahadur Shah was taken prisoner. The Royal Princes were captured and butchered on the spot. The emperor was tried and exiled to Rangoon where he died in 1862, bitterly lamenting the fate which had buried him far away from the city of his birth. Thus the great House of the Mughals was finally and completely extinguished.

With the fall of Delhi the focal point of the Revolt disappeared. The other leaders of the Revolt carried on the brave but unequal struggle, with the British mounting a powerful offensive against them. John Lawrence, Outram, Havelock, Neil, Campbell, and Hugh Rose were some of the British commanders who earned military fame in the course of this campaign. One by one, all the great leaders of the Revolt fell. Nana Sahib was defeated at Kanpur. Defiant to the very end and refusing to surrender, he escaped to Nepal early in 1859, never to be heard of again. Tantia Tope escaped into the jungles of central India where he carried on bitter and brilliant guerrilla warfare until April 1859 when he was betrayed by a zamindar friend and captured while asleep. He was put to death after a hurried trial on 15 April 1859. The Rani of Jhansi had died on the field of battle earlier on 17 June 1858. By 1859, Kunwar Singh, Bakht Khan, Khan Bahadur Khan of Bareilly, Rao Sahib, brother of Nana Sahib, and Maulavi Ahmadullah were all dead, while the Begum of Awadh was compelled to hide in Nepal.

By the end of 1859, British authority over India was fully re-established, but the Revolt had not been in vain. It is a glorious landmark in our history. Though it was a desperate effort to save India in the old way and under traditional leadership, it was the first great struggle of the Indian people for freedom from British imperialism. It paved the way for the rise of the modern national movement. The heroic and patriotic struggle of 1857, and the series of rebellions preceding it, left an unforgettable impression on the minds of the Indian people, established valuable local traditions of resistance to British rule, and served as a perennial source of inspiration in their later struggle for freedom. The heroes of the Revolt soon became household names in the country, even though the very mention of their names was frowned upon by the rulers.

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