The Revolt of 1857: Causes, Nature, Failure and Impact

The Revolt of 1857, also known as the Indian Mutiny, the Sepoy Mutiny, or the First War of Indian Independence, was a major, but ultimately unsuccessful, uprising in India against the British East India Company's rule. Spanning several months from May 1857 to June 1858, the revolt was characterized by widespread but sporadic and uncoordinated insurgencies across northern and central India.

Causes of the Revolt of 1857

The causes of the revolt were multifaceted, involving military, political and economic grievances that had been simmering for years.

Military Cause

The revolt broke out over the issue of greased cartridges when the news spread that the covers of the cartridges were made of cow's and pig's fat. Most of the soldiers in the Bengal Army were Hindus or Muslims, especially of the upper Hindu caste. The soldiers had many more grievances. Some upper-caste Hindu sepoys had earlier revolted on religious issues. In 1852, the 38th Native Infantry refused to go to Burma, as crossing the sea meant losing caste for upper-caste Hindus. The discontent among the soldiers was also due to a discriminatory pay package. The highest-paid Indian soldier was a subedar, who was getting less than a raw English recruit. The sepoy in the infantry was getting seven rupees a month whereas a sawar got 27 rupees. The Chances of getting a promotion were almost nil for them. Many of them joined the army as Risaldar and retired as Risaldar. They were regularly humiliated by their officers. 'Suar' & 'Nigger' (black) were some of the common abuses. The rumours about converting sepoys into Christianity worsened the situation. The Christian missionaries were actively preaching in the cantonment and openly ridiculing other religions. A large number of soldiers in the Bengal Army were upper-caste Hindus. When the news of mixing bone dust in 'atta' (flour) and cartridges greased with fats spread, they were convinced that the company was involved in a conspiracy against their religion and caste.

Political Cause

Often military causes, especially the greased cartridges incident, were highlighted so much that the other important issues, i.e., political, economic, and socio-religious issues, went into oblivion.

An important reason for the outbreak of the revolt was the controversial and unjustified policy of the 'Doctrine of Lapse' imposed by Lord Dalhousie on Satara (1848), Jaitpur, Sambalpur (1849), Baghat (1850), Udepur (1852), Jhansi (1853), and Nagpur (1854). The adopted sons of these states were not recognized and they were annexed. But the most controversial annexation was the annexation of Awadh in 1856. The Nawab of Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah, was accused of misgovernance, although its ruler had always been faithful to the British government. A large number of company soldiers were from Awadh, who had sympathy for their Nawab. The annexation of Awadh meant that the relatives of these soldiers had to pay more taxes since a new land revenue policy was introduced in Awadh. A large number of taluqdars or zamindars also opposed British rule as their estates were confiscated. The company also stopped the annual pension of Nana Sahib, the adopted son of the last Peshwa Baji Rao II. He proved to be a deadly enemy of the British.

The annexation of native states meant that many Indians lost important administrative posts. Ever since English became the official language (1835), the Persian-Urdu elite, known as 'Ashraf,' suffered most as they were holding important assignments in judicial and revenue departments. When the revolt broke, they participated in the revolt with the hope of regaining lost position and glory.

Economic Cause

Apart from the British revenue policy, their policy of discouraging traditional industries was also related to the outbreak of the revolt. Once Indian states were annexed, virtually there was no one to patronize Indian industries as they were the largest consumers of Indian manufactured goods. The East India Company government only encouraged British goods. The ruin of Indian industries led to large-scale unemployment and when the revolt broke, they joined the rebellion.

The efforts of some reformists were also seen as a conspiracy against the Hindu religion and interference in the internal matters of Hindus. The Religious Disabilities Act of 1850 permitted a converted person to inherit property, contrary to Hindu social laws. There is no reason to believe that the company intended to give equal rights in property to all the members of the family. In fact, the company wanted to encourage conversion. A Christian, they believed, was more likely to accept British rule and products in India than Hindus or Muslims. The Widow Re-marriage Act of 1856 was also opposed by orthodox Hindus. Even Bal Gangadhar Tilak later opposed the Act.

The Muslim orthodox, led by the Wahabis, wanted to make India, especially Punjab, a Dar-ul-Islam (land of peace) from a Dar-ul-Harb (land of infidels). After the annexation of Punjab in 1849, their struggle was directed against the British. When the revolt broke out, the Wahabis of Bihar, especially those from Sadiqpur, Patna, played a pivotal role. They were better organized and armed than the revolt itself. They declared the revolt as Jihad (holy war), which made it more energetic. The clash between the Islamic and Christian worlds was not new.

Nature of the Revolt 1857

When Mangal Pandey, a sepoy of the 34th Native Infantry of the Bengal Army, fired at Sergeant Major at Barrackpore on March 29, 1857, he did not realize that he was creating history. Though he was executed and his regiment was disbanded, a few weeks later, on May 10, the soldiers of Meerut defied and killed English officers and marched towards Delhi. The revolt of 1857 had begun.

For long, the colonial historians called it a 'mutiny,' a term first used by Earl Stanley, and later by T.R. Holmes, G.W. Forrest, M. Innes, etc. Sir John Lawrence, for instance, maintained that the mutiny had its origin in the army due to the use of greased cartridges (the cover of which was reported to be made of cow's and pig's fat). T.R. Holmes called it a conflict between civilization and barbarism. Sir James Outram and W. Taylor called it the revolt of a Hindu-Muslim conspiracy, especially a Muslim conspiracy. Whereas Benjamin Disraeli, an important leader of the Conservative Party, termed it a 'National revolt.'

The first Indian who wrote a book on 1857 was Sir Sayyed Ahmed Khan. In his book Asbab-I-Baghawat-I-Hind' (Causes of the Revolt of India), he tried to find out the real cause as the lack of political organization to represent the Indians. There was no political party that could have worked as a link between the government and the common people.

V.D. Savarkar—a revolutionary and ideologue of 'Hindutva'—called it India's first national war of independence in his book War of Indian Independence. Interestingly, R.C. Majumdar wrote that it was neither national nor a war of independence.

The views of both colonial and nationalist historians lack historical evidence. There is no doubt that the revolt began as a military mutiny but it was not confined to the army. It spread very soon to almost every section of society. But at the same time, it is premature to call it a national war of independence as the feeling of nationalism itself was in an embryonic stage.

A careful study of historical records, the mutiny papers, the police records, the contemporary literature, especially the literature of Delhi, Lucknow, and Patna, gives an insight into this revolt. No other literature captured the tragedy of 1857 as Urdu did because it was the language of both elite and commoners, especially in North India, the centre of the revolt. The poetry of Ghalib, Bahadur Shah Zafar, and the letters of Mirza Ghalib known as 'Khatut-I-Ghalib' felt the pain of the people because of revolt.

The Revolt of 1857

After firing on their senior officers, the soldiers of Meerut marched towards Delhi. After crossing the Yamuna River, they burnt the toll house and knocked on the southern gate of the Red Fort (Qila-I-Moalla). The last Mughal king, Bahadur Shah Zafar, an old and sick man, was reluctant to open the gate, but his wife Zeenat Mahal, with the help of the cook, opened the gate. The sepoys declared Bahadur Shah as 'Shahenshah' of India, who was, in reality, only Shahenshah of the Red Fort, not even Yamuna, flowing behind the fort, or Chandni Chowk, situated opposite the fort. Then they attacked Daryaganj, where a large number of Europeans lived. Within days, Delhi became a battleground; hundreds of people, first English and later Indians, were killed. Mirza Moghal, the Moghal Commander-in-Chief, failed to lead properly. Mohammad Bakhtawar Khan, a havaldar of the Barielly force, became the actual commander. But the city became chaotic, and criminals started dominating. It became difficult to find out who was guilty and who was innocent. Mirza Ghalib, a great Urdu-Persian poet and eyewitness of the revolt in Delhi, wrote to his friend: "Ab ki baar itne yaar mare ki ab jo mai marunga to koi rone wala na hoga" (This time I lost so many friends that when I die, no one will be left to cry for me).

Once Delhi was captured, the revolt spread to different parts of the country. Avadh became the real battle zone, as most of the sepoys were from this region. Lucknow, Kanpur, Bareilly, Allahabad, Banaras, Faizabad, Jhansi, Jagdishpur (Arrah), Danapur, and Patna were engulfed in fire. At Lucknow, the revolt started on 4th June, which was led by Begum Hazrat Mahal, who declared her son, Birjis Qadar, as the Nawab of Avadh. The British Resident Henry Lawrence was killed. Havelock and Outram also failed. Sir Colin Campbell was pressed into service, who, with the help of the Gorkha regiment, could save the Europeans.

Nana Sahib led the movement from Kanpur, supported by Tantya Tope. Sir Hugh Wheeler, the commander of the garrison, surrendered on June 27, 1857. Some Europeans, including their children, were killed. Later, in December, Sir Campbell captured Kanpur. Tantya Tope escaped and joined Rani Laxmibai.

Rani Laxmibai tried to reverse the decision of Lord Dalhousie when Jhansi was annexed after the death of her husband, and the adopted son was not recognized. When her efforts failed, she finally revolted. The soldiers declared the widow of Raja Gangadhar Rao, Rani Laxmibai, as the ruler of Jhansi. Tantya Tope also joined her. When Sir Hugh Rose captured Jhansi in April 1858, Rani and Tantya Tope attacked Gwalior. The Indian soldiers welcomed them, but the Scindia decided to be loyal to the British. He escaped to Agra. Gwalior fell in June 1858. Rani died fighting bravely on June 17, 1858. Later, Tantya Tope was arrested with the help of Scindia's men and was executed.

At Jagdishpur (Bihar), Kunwar Singh led the revolt, having been deprived of his estates. When the sepoys of Danapur (near Patna) reached Arrah, he led them from the front and defeated the British forces near Arrah. He also fought in Eastern U.P.

At Bareilly, the revolt was led by Khan Bahadur Khan, a descendant of the former ruler of Rohilkhand. In Faizabad, it was led by Maulvi Ahmadullah and in Patna by Maulvi Pir Ali. They were important leaders of the Wahabi movement. The Wahabis had already waged a Jihad against the British. Once the revolt broke, they joined enthusiastically.

Revolt Centre Leaders English Officer Fall
Meerut (10th May) Soldiers of Bengal army General Hewitt Nil
Delhi (11th May) Bahadur Shah Zafar, Bakht Khan Jon Nicholson and Lieutenant Hodson September 20, 1857
Lucknow (4th June) Bengum Hazrat Mahal Sir Colin Campbell March, 1858
Kanpur (5th June) Nana Sahib, Tantya Tope, Azim-ul-lah Khan Sir Colin Campbell December 6, 1857
Jhansi and Gwalior (June 1857) Laxmi Bai (widow of Raja Gangadhar Rao) Sir Huge Rose April 3, 1858 (Jhansi); June, 1858 (Gwalior)
Bareilly (UP) Khan Bhadur Khan Nil Nil
Jagdishpur (Arrah, Bihar) Maharaja Kunwar Singh Nil Nil
Faizabad (UP) Maulvi Ahmad-ul-lah Nil Nil
Patna Maulvi Pir Ali Nil Nil

Causes of the Failure of the Revolt of 1857

Most of the revolt centres fell by mid-1858. An important reason for its failure was that it was not an all-India revolt, though the British army was all over India. South India was not affected by this revolt. The Madras army remained completely loyal to the British. In fact, half of the company's troops did not join the revolt and fought against the Indians. Punjab, Sindh, Rajputana, and East Bengal remained undisturbed. The Gorkhas also helped the British cause.

Most of the Rajas and Nawabs also helped the British cause. In fact, only those Rajas/rulers participated in the revolt who lost their state or whose pension was stopped. Sir Dinkar Rao of Gwalior and Salar Jung of Nizam did everything to suppress the rebellion. It is no wonder that the British, for long, paid gratitude to the Nizams.

Poor leadership, lack of coordination among them, and lack of a common plan were important reasons for the failure of the revolt. With few exceptions, most of them did not do enough. The weakest link was perhaps Bahadur Shah Zafar, who was more concerned for his own safety along with his wife Zeenat Mahal's. They had no faith in the sepoys, nor did the sepoys have great respect for him. They chose him as leader because there was no other unifying platform.

Besides, the rebels had no vision or forward-looking program. The revolt was led by old feudal lords, not the enlightened middle educated class. These people had already been defeated many times. They hardly had anything new to challenge the mighty British rule.

The moneylenders and zamindars were pro-British as their existence was based on British rule. They helped the British in times of crisis. The merchant class also supported the British as their economic interests were linked with the English traders and foreign trade.

The educated middle class also did not participate in the revolt. Firstly, they were small in number. Secondly, they saw British rule as an instrument for removing social orthodoxy and bringing modernization to India. Perhaps, they were also not sure about the outcome of the revolt. The revolt was not planned but spontaneous.

Impact of the Revolt 1857

The East India Company's rule came to an end after the revolt. Through Queen's proclamation, later through the Government of India Act of 1858, the crown's rule was established. A new post, 'Secretary of State for India,' was created with an India council which had 15 members. But this change was more formal than real, as the British government had already started regulating the company's rule ever since the Regulating Act of 1773 and Pitt's India Act of 1784 were passed.

The policy towards Indian states also changed. Queen Victoria announced in 1858 that the British government would not annex the Indian states. The loyalty of Nizam, Rajput, Maratha, and Sikh Chiefs was appreciated and they were duly rewarded through sanads and certificates. Many of them had personal relations with the monarch.

The army was reorganized as the revolt was started by the army. It was reorganized on the policy of division and counterpoise. The number of European soldiers was increased to 65,000 from 40,000, and the number of Indian soldiers was reduced to 140,000 from 238,000. In the Bengal army, the ratio between European and Indian soldiers was brought to 1:2, whereas in the Madras and Bombay Presidencies, this ratio was 1:3. To discourage nationalist feelings, caste and regional identities were encouraged in the army. The Gurkha, Sikh, Jat, Rajput, and Pathan battalions were strengthened. The artillery and important weapons were kept for Europeans only.

The Hindu-Muslim unity during the revolt had threatened British rule. After the revolt, they did everything to divide them. The Muslims were accused of causing the revolt, so they started discouraging them from government jobs. People like Sir Syed Ahmad Khan tried their best to prove that the Muslims were not anti-British. In fact, the revolt had affected Muslims both materially and culturally. The important literary centres like Delhi, Lucknow, and Patna were almost ruined in the revolt. Muslims and the Urdu language faced the catastrophe of the revolt.

But the revolt of 1857 had one positive impact too. The feeling of nationalism grew more rapidly after its failure, especially among the educated middle class. The formation of various political parties, like the East India Association (1866), Poona Sarvajanik Sabha (1867), Indian League (1875), Indian Association (1876), Madras Mahajan Sabha (1884), and Bombay Presidency Association (1885), and finally the formation of the Indian National Congress (1885), was the result of growing national consciousness.

Views on the Revolt of 1857

  • British historians like Lawrence, Holmes, Malleson, Kaye, Trevelyan, and Seeley called it 'a mutiny' (rebellion of the army).
  • Seeley: "The revolt of 1857 was a wholly unpatriotic and selfish Sepoy Mutiny with no native leadership and no popular support."
  • Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan was the first Indian who wrote on the 1857 revolt. In his book, Asbab-i-Baghawat-i-Hind (Causes for the Revolt of India) (Urdu), he wrote that the lack of political representation of the people led to the revolt.
  • L.E.R. Rees: "A war of fanatic religionists against Christians."
  • Captain J.G. Medley: "A war of races, a struggle between the White and the Black."
  • T.R. Holmes: "The revolt of 1857 was a conflict between civilization and barbarism."
  • Sir James Outram and W. Tayler: "The outbreak was the result of a Hindu-Muslim conspiracy."