The Revolt of 1857
The revolt of 1857 was a product of the character and policies of rule.
The cumulative effect of British expansionist policies, economic
exploitation and administrative innovations over the years had adversely
affected the positions of all— rulers of Indian states, sepoys,
zamindars, peasants, traders, artisans, pundits, maulvis, etc. The
simmering discontent burst in the form of a violent storm in 1857 which
shook the British empire in India to its very foundations.
The causes of the revolt emerged from all aspects— socio-cultural,
economic and political—of daily existence of Indian population cutting
through all sections and classes. These causes are discussed below.
The colonial policies of the East India Company destroyed the traditional
economic fabric of the Indian society. The peasantry were never really to
recover from the disabilities imposed by the new and a highly unpopular
revenue settlement (see chapter on “Economic Impact of British Rule in
India” for details). Impoverished by heavy taxation, the peasants
resorted to loans from moneylenders/traders at usurious rates, the latter
often evicting the former on non-payment of debt dues. These
moneylenders and traders emerged as the new landlords. While the scourge
of indebtedness has continued to plague Indian society to this day.
British rule also meant misery to the artisans and handicraftsmen. The
annexation of Indian states by the Company cut off their major source of
patronage. Added to this, British policy discouraged Indian handicrafts
and promoted British goods. The highly skilled Indian craftsmen were
forced to look for alternate sources of employment that hardly
A Brief History of Modern India
existed, as the destruction of Indian handicrafts was not accompanied by
the development of modern industries. Karl Marx remarked in 1853: “It was
the British intruder who broke up the Indian handloom and destroyed the
spinning-wheel. England began with depriving the Indian cottons from the
European market; it then introduced twist into Hindustan and in the end
inundated the very mother country of cotton with cottons.
Zamindars, the traditional landed aristocracy, often saw their land
rights forfeited with frequent use of a quo warranto by the
administration. This resulted in a loss of status for them in the
villages. In Awadh, the storm center of the revolt, 21,000 taluqdars had
their estates confiscated and suddenly found themselves without a source
of income, “unable to work, ashamed to beg, condemned to penury”. These
dispossessed taluqdars seized the opportunity presented by the sepoy
revolt to oppose the British and regain what they had lost.
The ruination of Indian industry increased the pressure on agriculture
and land, the lopsided development in which resulted in pauperization of
the country in general.
The East India Company’s greedy policy of aggrandizement accompanied by
broken pledges and oaths resulted in loss of political prestige for it,
on the one hand, and caused suspicion in the minds of almost all ruling
princes in India, on the other, through such policies as of ‘Effective
Control’, ‘Subsidiary Alliance’ and ‘Doctrine of Lapse’. The right of
succession was denied to Hindu princes. The house of Mughals was humbled
when on Prince Faqiruddin’s death in 1856, whose succession had been
recognized conditionally by Lord Dalhousie. Lord Canning announced that
the next prince on succession would have to renounce the regal title and
the ancestral Mughal palaces, in addition to renunciations agreed upon by
The collapse of rulers—the erstwhile aristocracy—also The Revolt of 1857
adversely affected those sections of the Indian society which derived
their sustenance from cultural and religious pursuits.
Rampant corruption in the Company’s administration, especially among the
police, petty officials and lower law courts, and the absentee
sovereigntyship character of British rule imparted a foreign and alien
look to it in the eyes of Indians.
Racial overtones and a superiority complex characterized the British
administrative attitude towards the native Indian population. The
activities of Christian missionaries who followed the British flag in
India were looked upon with suspicion by Indians. The attempts at socioreligious
reform such as abolition of sati, support to widow-remarriage
and women’s education were seen by a large section of the population as
interference in the social and religious domains of Indian society by
outsiders. These fears were further compounded by the Government’s
decision to tax mosque and temple lands and legislative measures, such
as the Religious Disabilities Act, 1856, which modified Hindu customs,
for instance declaring that a change of religion did not debar a son
from inheriting the property of his heathen father.
INFLUENCE OF OUTSIDE EVENTS
The revolt of 1857 coincided with certain outside events in which the
British suffered serious losses—the First Afghan War (1838-42), Punjab
Wars (1845-49), Crimean Wars (1854-56), Santhal rebellion (1855-57).
These had obvious psychological repercussions.
DISCONTENT AMONG SEPOYS
The conditions of service in the Company’s Army and cantonments
increasingly came into conflict with the religious beliefs and
prejudices of the sepoys. Restrictions on wearing caste and sectarian
marks and secret rumors of proselytizing
activities of chaplains (often maintained on the Company’s expenses)
were interpreted by Indian sepoys, who were generally conservative by
nature, as interference in their religious affairs. To the religious
Hindu of the time, crossing the seas meant loss of caste. In 1856 Lord
Canning’s Government passed the General Service Enlistment Act which
decreed that all future recruits to the Bengal Army would have to give
an undertaking to serve anywhere their services might be required by
the Government. This caused resentment.
The Indian sepoy was equally unhappy with his emoluments compared to his
British counterpart. A more immediate cause of the sepoys’
dissatisfaction was the order that they would not be given the foreign
service allowance (Matta) when serving in Sindh or in Punjab. The
annexation of Awadh, home of many of the sepoys, further inflamed their
The Indian sepoy was made to feel a subordinate at every step and was
discriminated against racially and in matters of promotion and
privileges. The discontent of the sepoys was not limited to matters
military; it reflected the general disenchantment with and opposition to
British rule. The sepoy, in fact, was a ‘peasant in uniform’ whose
consciousness was not divorced from that of the rural population. “The
Army voiced grievances other than its own; and the movement spread
beyond the Army”, observes Gopal.
Finally, there had been a long history of revolts in the British Indian
Army—in Bengal (1764), Vellore (1806), Barrackpore (1825) and during the
Afghan Wars (1838-42) to mention just a few.
BEGINNING AND SPREAD The reports about the mixing of bone dust in rtta
(flour) and the introduction of the Enfield rifle enhanced the sepoys’
growing disaffection with the Government. The cartridge of the new rifle
had to be bitten off before loading and the grease was reportedly made
of beef and pig fan The Army The Revolt of 1857
administration did nothing to allay these fears, and the sepoys felt
their religion was in grave danger.
The greased cartridges did not create a new cause of discontent in the
Army, but supplied the occasion for the simmering discontent to come out
in the open. The revolt began at Meerut, 58 km from Delhi, on May 10,
1857 and then, gathering force rapidly, 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 Meerut incident, there were rumblings resentment in
various cantonments. the 19th Native Infantry at Berhampur, which refused
to use the newly introduced Enfield rifle and broke out in mutiny in
February 1857 was disbanded in March 1857. A young sepoy of the 34th
Native Infantry, Mangal Pande, went a step further and fired at the
sergeant major of his unit at Barrackpore. He was overpowered and
executed on April 6 while his regiment was disbanded in May. The 7th
Awadh Regiment which defied its officers on May 3 met with a similar
fate. And then came the explosion at Meerut. On April 24, ninety men of
3rd Native Cavalry refused to accept the greased cartridges. On May 9,
eighty-five of them were dismissed, sentenced. to 10 years’ imprisonment
and put in fetters. This sparked off a general mutiny among the Indian
soldiers stationed at Meerut. The very next day, on May 10, they
released their imprisoned comrades, killed their officers and unfurled
the banner of revolt. They set off for Delhi after sunset. In Delhi, the
local infantry joined them, killed their own European officers including
Simon Fraser, the political agent, and seized the city. Lieutenant
Willoughby, the officer-in charge of the magazine at Delhi, offered some
resistance, but was overcome. The aged and powerless Bahadur Shah Zafar
was proclaimed the emperor of India.
Delhi was soon to become the centre of the Great Revolt and Bahadur
Shah, its symbol. This spontaneous raising of the last Mughal king to
the leadership of the country was a recognition of the fact that the
long reign of Mughal dynasty
6 A Brief History of Modern India
had become the traditional symbol of India’s political unity. With this
single act, the sepoys had transformed a mutiny of soldiers into a
revolutionary war, while all Indian chiefs who took part in the revolt
hastened to proclaim their loyalty to the Mughal emperor.
Bahadur Shah, after initial vacillation, wrote letters to all the chiefs
and rulers of India urging them to organize 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 East Punjab
shook off British authority.
The revolt of the sepoys was accompanied by a rebellion of the civil
population, particularly in the north-western provinces and Awadh. Their
accumulated grievances found immediate expression and they rose en masse
to give vent to their opposition to British rule. It is the widespread
participation in the revolt by the peasantry, the artisans, shopkeepers,
day laborers, zamindars, religious mendicants, priests and ‘civil
servants which gave it real strength as well as the character of a
popular revolt. Here the peasants and petty zamindars gave free
expression to their grievances by attacking the moneylenders and
zamindars who had displaced them from the land. They took advantage of
the revolt to destroy the moneylenders’ account books and debt records.
They also attacked the British-established law courts, revenue offices
(tehsils), revenue records and police stations.
According to one estimate, of the total number of about 1,50,000 men who
died fighting the English in Awadh, over 1,00,000 were civilians.
Within a month of the capture of Delhi, the revolt spread to different
parts of the country.
STORM CENTRES AND LEADERS OF THE REVOLT
At Delhi the nominal and symbolic leadership belonged to the Mughal
emperor, Bahadur Shah, but the real command lay with a court of soldiers
headed by General Bakht Khan who
THE Revolt of 1857 7
had led the revolt of Bareilly troops and brought them to Delhi. The
court consisted of ten members, six from the army and four from the
civilian departments. The court conducted the affairs of the state in
the name of the emperor. Emperor Bahadur Shah was perhaps the weakest
link in the chain of leadership of the revolt. His weak personality, old
age and lack of leadership qualities created political weakness at the
nerve centre of the revolt and did incalculable damage to it.
At Kanpur, the natural choice was Nana Saheb, the adopted son of the
last Peshwa, Baji Rao II. He was refused the family title and, banished
from Poona, was living near Kanpur. Nana Saheb expelled the English from
Kanpur, proclaimed himself the Peshwa, acknowledged Bahadur Shah as the
emperor of India and declared himself to be his governor. Sir Hugh
Wheeler, commanding the station, surrendered on June 27, 1857.
Begum Hazrat Mahal took over the reigns at Lucknow where the rebellion
broke out on June 4, 1857 and popular sympathy was overwhelmingly in
favour of the deposed Nawab. Her son, Birjis Qadir, was proclaimed the
Nawab and a regular administration was organized with important offices
shared equally by Muslims and Hindus. Henry Lawrence, the British
resident, the European inhabitants and a few hundred loyal sepoys took
shelter in the residency. The residency was besieged by the Indian
rebels and Sir Henry was killed during the siege. The command of the
besieged garrison devolved on Brigadier Inglis who held out against
heavy odds. The early attempts of Sir Henry Havelock and Sir James
Outrarn to recover Lucknow met with no success. Finally, Sir Colin
Campbell, the new commander-in-chief, evacuated the Europeans with the
help of Gorkha regiments. In March 1858, the city was finally recovered
by the British, but guerrilla activity continued till September of the
At Bareilly, Khan Bahadur, a descendant of the former ruler of
Rohilkhand, was placed in command. Not enthusiastic about the pension
being granted by the British, he organized The Revolt of 1857. An army of 40,000 soldiers and offered stiff
resistance to the British.
In Bihar, the revolt was led by Kunwar Singh, the zamindar of
Jagdishpur. An old man in his seventies, he nursed a grudge against the
British who had deprived him of his estates. He unhesitatingly joined
the sepoys when they reached Arrah from Dinapore.
Maulvi Ahmadullah of Faizabad was another outstanding leader of the
revolt. He was a native of Madras and had moved to Faizabad in the north
where he fought a stiff battle against the British troops. He emerged as
one of the revolt’s acknowledged leaders once it broke out in Awadh in
The most outstanding leader of the revolt was Rani Laxmibai, who assumed
the leadership of the sepoys at Jhansi. Lord Dalhousie, the governorgeneral,
had refused to allow her adopted son to succeed to the throne
after her husband Raja Ganbadhar Rao died, and had annexed the state by
the application of the infamous ‘Doctrine of Lapse’. Driven out of
Jhansi by British forces, she gave the battle cry—”main apni Jhansi nahi
doongi” (I shall not give away my Jhansi). She was joined by Tantia
Tope, a close associate of Nana Saheb, after the loss of Kanpur. Rani of
Jhansi and Tantia Tope marched towards Gwalior where they were hailed by
the Indian soldiers. The Scindhia, the local ruler, however, decided to
side with the English and took shelter at Agra. Nana Saheb was
proclaimed the Peshwa and plans were chalked out for a march into the
south. Gwalior was recaptured by the English in June 1858.
For more than a year the rebels carried on their struggle against heavy
SUPPRESSION OF REVOLT
The revolt was finally suppressed. The British captured Delhi on
September 20, 1857 after prolonged and bitter fighting. John Nicholson,
the leader of the siege, was badly wounded and later succumbed to his
injuries. Bahadur Shah was taken prisoner. The royal princes were
captured and butchered on the spot, publicly shot at point blank range,
by Lieutenant Hudson himself. The emperor was exiled to Rangoon where
he died in 1862. Thus the great House of Mughals was finally and
completely extinguished. Terrible vengeance was wreaked on the
inhabitants of Delhi. With the fall of Delhi the focal point of the
One by one, all the great leaders of the revolt fell. Military
operations for the recapture of Kanpur were closely associated with the
recovery of Lucknow. Sir Colin Campbell occupied Kanpur on December 6,
1857. Nana Saheb, defeated at Kanpur, escaped to Nepal in early 1859,
never to be heard of again. His close associate Tantia Tope escaped into
the jungles of central India, was captured while asleep in April 1859
and put to death. The Rani of Jhansi had died on the battlefield earlier
in June 1858. Jhansi was recaptured through assault by Sir Hugh Rose, By
1859, Kunwar Singh, Bakht Khan, Khan Bahadur Khan of Bareilly, Rao Sahib
(brother of Nana Saheb) and Maulvi Ahmadullah were all dead, while the
Begum of Awadh was compelled to hide in Nepal. At Benaras a rebellion
had been organized which was mercilessly suppressed, by Colonel Neil,
who put to death all suspected rebels and even disorderly sepoys.
By the end of 1859, British authority over India was fully reestablished.
The British Government had to pour immense supplies of men,
money and arms into the country, though Indians had to later repay the
entire cost through their own suppression.
CAUSES OF FAILURE OF REVOLT
Limited territorial spread was one factor; there was no all-India
veneer about the revolt. The eastern, southern and western parts of
India remained more or less unaffected.
Certain classes and groups did not join and, in fact, worked against the
revolt. Big zamindars acted as “breakwaters to storm”; even Awadh
tahacildars backed off once promises of land restitution were spelt out.
Moneylenders and merchants suffered
the wrath of the mutineers badly and anyway saw their class interests
better protected under British patronage. Modern educated Indians viewed
this revolt as backward looking, and mistakenly hoped the British would
usher in an era of modernisation. Most Indian rulers refused to join and
often gave active help to the British. By one estimate, not more than
one-fourth of the total area and not more than one-tenth of the total
population was affected.
The Indian soldiers were poorly equipped materially, fighting generally
with swords and spears and very few guns and muskets. On the other hand,
the European soldiers were equipped with the latest weapons of war like
the Enfield rifle. The electric telegraph kept the commander-in-chief
informed about the movements and strategy of the rebels.
The revolt was poorly organized with no coordination or central
leadership. The principal rebel leaders—Nana Saheb, Tantia Tope, Kunwar
Singh, Laxmibai—were no match to their British opponents in generalship.
On the other hand, the East India Company was fortunate in having the
services of men of exceptional abilities in the Lawrence brothers, John
Nicholson, James Outram, Henry Havelock, Edward, etc.
The mutineers lacked a clear understanding of colonial rule; nor did
they have a forward looking programme, a coherent ideology, a political
perspective or a societal alternative. The rebels represented diverse
elements with differing grievances and concepts of current politics.
The lack of unity among Indians was perhaps unavoidable at this stage of
Indian history. Modern nationalism was yet unknown in India. 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
HINDU-MUSLIM UNITY FACTOR
During the entire revolt, there was complete cooperation between Hindus
and Muslims at all levels—people, soldiers,
The Revolt of 1857
leaders. All rebels acknowledged Bahadur Shah Zafar, a Muslim, as the
emperor and the first impulse of the Hindu sepoys at Meerut was to march
to Delhi, the Mughal imperial capital. Rebels and sepoys, both Hindu and
Muslim, respected each other’s sentiments. Immediate banning of cow
slaughter was ordered once the revolt was successful in a particular
area Both Hindus and Muslims were well represented in leadership, for
instance Nana Saheb had Azimullah, a Muslim and an expert in political
propaganda, as an aide, while Laxmibai had the solid support of Afghan
Thus, the events of 1857 demonstrated that the people and politics of
India were not basically communal before 1858.
NATURE OF THE REVOLT
Views differ on the nature of the 1857 revolt. It was a mere ‘Sepoy
Mutiny’ to some British historians—”a wholly unpatriotic and selfish
Sepoy Mutiny with no native leadership and no -popular support”, said
Sir John Seeley. However, it is not a complete picture of the event as
it involved many sections of the civilian population and not just the
sepoys. The discontent of the sepoys was just one cause of the
Dr K. Datta considers the revolt of 1857 to have been “in the main a
military outbreak, which was taken advantage of by certain discontented
princes and landlords, whose interests had been affected by the new
political orc:er”. The last mentioned factor gave it an aura of a
popular uprising in certain areas. It was “never all-Indian in
character, but was localised, restricted and poorly organized”. Further,
says Datta, the movement was marked by absence of cohesion and unity of
purpose among the various sections of the rebels.
It was at the beginning of the twentieth century that the 1857 revolt
came to be interpreted as a “planned war of national independence”, by
V.D. Savarkar in his book, First War of Indian Independence. Dr S.N. Sen
in his Eighteen FiftySeven considers the revolt as having begun as a
ttfight for religion but ended as a war of independence. Dr R.C.
Majumdar, however, considers it as neither the first, nor national, nor
a war of independence as large parts of the country remained unaffected
and many sections of the people took no part in the upsurge.
According to Marxist historians, the 1857 revolt was “the struggle of
the soldier-peasant democratic combine against foreign as well as feudal
bondage”. However, this view does not stand scrutiny in the light of the
fact that the leaders of the revolt themselves came from a feudal
The revolt of 1857 is not easy to categorise. While one can easily
dismiss some views such as those of L.E.R. Rees who considered it to be a
war of fanatic religionists against Christians or T.R. Holmes who saw in
it a conflict between civilisation and barbarism, one cannot quite go so
far as to accept it as a war for independence. It had seeds of
nationalism and anti-imperialism but the concept of common nationality
and nationhood was not inherent to the revolt of 1857.
One may say that the revolt of 1857 was the first great struggle of
Indians to throw off British rule. It established local traditions of
resistance to British rule which were to pave the a y for the modern
The revolt of 1857 marks a turning point in the history of India. It led
to changes in the system of administration and the policy of the
(i) The direct responsibility for the administration of the
country was assumed by the British Crown and Company rule
was abolished. The assumption of the Government of India by
the sovereign of Great Britain was announced by Lord Canning
at a durbar at Allahabad in the ‘Queen’s Proclamation’
issued on November 1, 1858.
(ii) The era of annexations and expansion ended and the British promised
to respect the dignity and rights of the native princes.
The Revolt of 1857 13
(ii) The Indian states were henceforth to recognise the
paramountcy of the British Crown and were to be treated as
parts of a single charge.
(iii) The Army, which was at the forefront of the outbreak, was
thoroughly reorganised and British military policy came to
be dominated by the idea of “division and counterpoise”.
(v) Racial hatred and suspicion between the Indians and the English was
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the so-called Firs
National War of Independence of 1857 is neither First, not
National, nor War of Independence.
R.C. Majumdar, The Mutiny became a Revolt and assumed a political
character when the mutineers of Meerut placed themselves under the king
of Delhi a section of the landed aristocracy and civil population
decided in his favour. What began as a fight for religion ended as a war
of independence. S.N. Sen had a single leader of ability arisen among
them (the rebels), we must have been lost beyond redemption. John
Lawrence, The revolt of 1857 was a struggle of the soldier-peasant
democratic combine against foreign imperialism as well as indigenous
Here lay the woman who was the only man among the rebels.
Hugh Rose (a tribute to the Rani of Jhansi from the man who defeated
It was far more than a mutiny, yet much less than a first war of
independence. taniey vvolpert
14 A Brief History of Modern India
Revolt—a product of character and policies of colonial rule.
Heavy taxation under new revenue settlement,
Discriminatory tariff policy against Indian products,
Destruction of traditional handicrafts industry, and
Absence of concomitant industrialisation on modern lines that hit
peasants, artisans and small zamindars.
Greedy policy of aggrandisement,
Absentee sovereigntyship character of British rule,
British interference in socio-religious affairs of Indian public.
Discontent among sepoys for economic,
Psychological and religious reasons,
Coupled with a long history of revolts.
CENTRES OF REVOLT AND LEADERS
Delhi – General Khan Kanpur – Nana Saheb Lucknow –
Begum Hazrat Mahal Bareilly – Khan Bahadur Bihar –
Kunwar Singh Faizabad – Maulvi Ahmadullah Jhansi – Rani
THE BRITISH RESISTANCE
Delhi — John Nicholson,
– Lieutenant Willoughby,
Lieutenant Hudson – Sir Hugh Wheeler, Sir Colin Campbell – Henry
Lawrence, Brigadier Inglis,
Henry Havelock, James Outram, Sir Colin Campbell – Sir Hugh Rose –
Colonel James Neill
CAUSES OF FAILURE
Limited territorial and social base.
Crucial support of certain sections of Indian public to British
Lack of resources as compared to those of the British.
Lack of coordination and a central leadership.
Lack of a coherent ideology and a political perspective.
Not quite the first war of independence but sowed the seeds of
nationalism and quest for freedom from alien rule.
Crown took over.
Company rule abolished.
Queen’s Proclamation altered administration.
Racial hatred deepened.