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Chapter: 10th Social Science : History : Chapter 7 : Anti-Colonial Movements and the Birth of Nationalism

The Great Rebellion of 1857

(a) Causes (b) The Revolt (c) Suppression of Rebellion (d) Causes of Failure (e) India Becomes a Crown Colony

The Great Rebellion of 1857

In 1857, British rule witnessed the biggest challenge to its existence. Initially, it began as a mutiny of Bengal presidency sepoys but later expanded to the other parts of India involving a large number of civilians, especially peasants. The events of 1857–58 are significant for the following reasons:

1. This was the first major revolt of armed forces accompanied by civilian rebellion.

2. The revolt witnessed unprecedented violence, perpetrated by both sides.

3. The revolt ended the role of the East India Company and the governance of the Indian subcontinent was taken over by the British Crown.


(a) Causes

i. Annexation Policy of British India

In the 1840s and 1850s, more territories were annexed through two major policies:

The Doctrine of Paramountcy. British claimed themselves as paramount, exercising supreme authority. New territories were annexed on the grounds that the native rulers were inept.

The Doctrine of Lapse. If a native ruler did not have male heir to the throne, the territory was to ‘lapse’ into British India upon the death of the ruler. Satara, Sambalpur, parts of the Punjab, Jhansi and Nagpur were annexed by the British through the Doctrine of Lapse.

ii. Insensitivity to Indian Cultural Sentiments

In 1806 the sepoys at Vellore mutinied against the new dress code, which prohibited Indians from wearing religious marks on their foreheads and having whiskers on their chin, while proposing to replace their turbans with a round hat. It was feared that the dress code was part of their effort to convert soldiers to Christianity.

Similarly, in 1824, the sepoys at Barrackpur near Calcutta refused to go to Burma by sea, since crossing the sea meant the loss of their caste.

The sepoys were also upset with discrimination in salary and promotion. Indian sepoys were paid much less than their European counterparts. They felt humiliated and racially abused by their seniors.


(b) The Revolt

The precursor to the revolt was the circulation of rumors about the cartridges of the new Enfield rifle. There was strong suspicion that the new cartridges had been greased with cow and pig fat. The cartridge had to be bitten off before loading (pork is forbidden to the Muslims and the cow is sacred to a large section of Hindus).

On 29 March a sepoy named Mangal Pandey assaulted his European officer. His fellow soldiers refused to arrest him when ordered to do so. Mangal Pandey along with others were court-martialled and hanged. This only fuelled the anger and in the following days there were increasing incidents of disobedience. Burning and arson were reported from the army cantonments in Ambala, Lucknow, and Meerut.

Bahadur Shah Proclaimed as Emperor of Hindustan

On 11 may 1857 a band of sepoys from Meerut marched to the Red Fort in Delhi.

The sepoys were followed by an equally exuberant crowd who gathered to ask the Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah II to become their leader. After much hesitation he accepted the offer and was proclaimed as the Shahenshah-e-Hindustan (the Emperor of Hindustan). Soon the rebels captured the north-western province and Awadh. As the news of the fall of Delhi reached the Ganges valley, cantonment after cantonment mutinied till, by the beginning of June, British rule in North India, except in Punjab and Bengal, had disappeared.

Civil Rebellion

The mutiny was equally supported by an aggrieved rural society of north India. Sepoys working in the British army were in fact peasants in uniform. They were equally affected by the restructuring of the revenue administration. The sepoy revolt and the subsequent civil rebellion in various parts of India had a deep-rooted connection with rural mass. The first civil rebellion broke out in parts of the North-Western provinces and Oudh. These were the two regions from which the sepoys were predominately recruited. A large number of Zamindars and Taluqdars were also attracted to the rebellions as they had lost their various privileges under the British government. The talukdar–peasant collective was a common effort to recover what they had lost. Similarly, artisans and handicrafts persons were equally affected by the dethroning of rulers of many Indian states, who were a major source of patronage. The dumping of British manufactures had ruined the Indian handicrafts and thrown thousands of weavers out of employment. Collective anger against the British took the form of a people’s revolt.

Prominent Fighters against the British

The mutiny provided a platform to aggrieved kings, nawabs, queens, and zamindars to express the anti-British anger. Nana Sahib, the adopted son of the last Peshwa Baji Rao II, provided leadership in he Kanpur region. He had been denied pension by the Company. Similarly, Begum Hazrat Mahal in Lucknow and Khan Bahadur in Bareilly took the command of their respective territories, which were once ruled either by them or by their ancestors.

Another such significant leader was Rani Lakshmi Bai, who assumed the leadership in Jhansi. In her case Dalhousie, the Governor General of Bengal had refused her request to adopt a son as her successor after her husband died and the kingdom was annexed under the Doctrine of Lapse. Rani Lakshmi Bai battled the mighty British Army until she was defeated.

Bahadur Shah Jafar, Kunwar Singh, Khan Bahadur, Rani Lakshmi Bai and many others were rebels against their will, compelled by the bravery of the sepoys who had defied the British authority.


(c) Suppression of Rebellion

By the beginning of June 1857, the Delhi, Meerut, Rohilkhand, Agra, Allahabad and Banaras divisions of the army had been restored to British control and placed under martial law.


(d) Causes of Failure

There is hardly any evidence to prove that the rebellion of 1857 was organised and planned. It was spontaneous. However, soon after the siege of Delhi, there was an attempt to seek the support of the neighboring states. Besides a few Indian states, there was a general lack of enthusiasm among the Indian princes to participate in the rebellion. The Indian princes and zamindars either remained loyal or were fearful of British power. Those involved in the rebellion were left with either little or no sources of arms and ammunition. The emerging English-educated middle class too did not support the rebellion.

One of the important reasons for the failure of the rebellion was the absence of a central authority. There was no common agenda that united the individuals and the aspirations of the Indian princes and the various other feudal elements fighting against the British.

In the end, the rebellion was brutally suppressed by the British army. The rebel leaders were defeated due to the lack of weapons, organisation, discipline, and betrayal by their aides. Delhi was captured by the British troops in late 1857. Bahadur Shah was captured and transported to Burma.


(e) India Becomes a Crown Colony

The British Parliament adopted the Indian Government Act, in November 1858, and India was pronounced as one of the many crown colonies to be directly governed by the Parliament. The responsibility was given to a member of the cabinet, designated as the Secretary of State for India.

Changes in the Administration

British rule and its policies underwent a major overhaul after 1857. British followed a cautious approach to the issue of social reform. Queen Victoria proclaimed to the Indian people that the British would not interfere in traditional institutions and religious matters. It was promised that Indians would be absorbed in government services. Two significant changes were made to the structure of the Indian army. The number of Indians was significantly reduced. Indians were restrained from holding important ranks and position. The British took control of the artillery and shifted their recruiting effort to regions and communities that remained loyal during 1857. For instance, the British turned away from Rajputs, Brahmins and North Indian Muslims and looked towards non-Hindu groups like the Gorkhas, Sikhs,and Pathans. British also exploited the caste, religious, linguistic and regional differences in the Indian society through what came to be known as “Divide and Rule” policy.


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