The Revolt of 1857

It is considered to be the first Independence war, few historians will agree, few not.

let’s concentrate from where it started,

11th May 1857, the city of Delhi had an unexpected and historical morning. A group of sepoys from Meerut who killed the European Officers on 10th May, crossed Jamuna and set the toll house on fire and came to Bahadur Shah II, the Last(weak) Moghul Emperor.

He never thought of becoming an emperor again, he thought he would remain as a pensioner of British. The sepoys forced him to become their Leader and out of optimism, he agreed to be a Leader and took the key role in the revolt.

He proclaimed the Shahenshah-e-Hindustan.

Actually, by his acceptance, the revolt got some political meaning, which gave confidence to the sepoys all over the India( Central and West India) and which led to the loss of his sons to British.

Now they got complete Delhi, all the public offices were destroyed or occupied. Several Englishmen Killed in Delhi in revolt.They got Meerut and Delhi.

The south kept quiet, central and west Indian Sepoys were revolting. Half of the total Sepoys were revolted against the British.

Within a month the revolt spread to various parts of the country,

  • Kanpur: Nana Saheb, Adopted son of Peshwa Baji Rao-II left Poona and settled in Kanpur.
  • Lucknow: Begum Hazrat Mahal
  • Bareilly: Khan Bahadur, a descendant of the former ruler of Rohilkandh, was placed in command. He was also a pensioner to British, in fact, he warned the Commissioner of the mutiny. But, once the revolt broke out he organised the army.
  • Bihar: Kunwar Singh, the zamindar of Jagdishpur. He was deprived of his estates and develop the grudge against British and unhesitatingly joined the Revolt.
  • Jhansi: Rani Lakshmi Bhai, She fought against the British as against to the Lord Dalhousie’s Doctrine of Lapse- refused to allow her adopted son to succeed the throne after her husband died and annexed the state.

These were the major states and they are many places where revolts took place.

Reasons to Revolt

1. Caste-based recruitment

It is certainly true that the conditions of service in the Company’s army and cantonments increasingly came into conflict with the religious beliefs and prejudices of the sepoys, who were predominantly drawn from the upper caste Hindus of the North Western Provinces and Oudh.

Caste distinctions and segregation within a regiment were not conducive to the cohesiveness of a fighting unit. To begin with, the administration thought of an easy way out: discourage the recruitment of Brahmins; this apparently did not succeed and, by the middle of the nineteenth century, the upper castes predominated in the Bengal Army.

2. Social Reforms

Demolishing the practice of Sati and allowing marriages of widows was not agreeable for the then conservative Societies.

3. Division of Hindu-Muslims and encouraging Christianity

it is well known that in these days all the English have entertained these evil designs — first, to destroy the religion of the whole Hindustani Army, and then to make the people by compulsion Christians. Therefore, we, solely on account of our religion, have combined with the people, and have not spared alive one infidel, and have re-established the Delhi dynasty on these terms’.

4. Postings to Burma

In 1824 when the 47th Regiment at Barrackpur was ordered to go to Burma. To the religious Hindu, crossing the sea meant the loss of caste. The sepoys, therefore, refused to comply. The regiment was disbanded and those who led the opposition were hanged.

5. Religion and Caste proved more Important/ Powerful

The religious sensibilities of the sepoys who participated in the Afghan War were more seriously affected. During the arduous and disastrous campaigns, the fleeing sepoys were forced to eat and drink whatever came their way. When they returned to India, those at home correctly sensed that they could not have observed caste stipulations and therefore, were hesitant to welcome them back into the Biradiri (caste fraternity). Sitaram who had gone to Afghanistan found himself out of his caste not only in his village but even in his own barracks. The Prestige of being in the pay of the Company was not enough to hold his Position in society; religion and caste proved to be more powerful.

6. Introduction of the Enfield rifle and fears of using cartridges

The reports about the mixing of bone dust in atta and the introduction of the Enfield rifle enhanced the sepoys’ growing disaffection with the Government.

The cartridges of the new rifle had to be bitten off before loading and the grease was reportedly made of beef and pig fat. The army administration did nothing to allay these fears, and the sepoys felt their religion was in real danger.

7.Unhappy with Emoluments

The sepoys’ discontent was not limited to religion alone. They were equally unhappy with their emoluments. A sepoy in the infantry got seven rupees a month. A sawar in the cavalry was paid Rs. 27, out of which he had to pay for his own uniform, food and the upkeep of his mount, and he was ultimately left with only a rupee or two.

8. Sense of deprivation

What was more galling was the sense of deprivation compared to his British counterparts. He was made to feel a subordinate at every step and was discriminated against racially and in matters of promotion and privileges. ‘Though he might give the signs of a military genius of Hyder,’ wrote T.R. Holmes, ‘he knew that he could never attain the pay of an English subaltern and that the rank to which he might attain, after 30 years of faithful service, would not protect him from the insolent dictation of an ensign fresh from England.”

9. Peasant  and New land Reforms

The sepoy, in fact, was a peasant in uniform,’ whose consciousness was not divorced from that of the rural population.

A military officer had warned Dalhousie about the possible consequences of his policies: ‘Your army is derived from the peasantry of the country who have rights and if those rights are infringed upon, you will no longer have to depend on the fidelity of the army . . . If you infringe the institutions of the people of India, that army will sympathize with them; for they are part of the population, and in every infringement you may make upon the rights of the individuals, you infringe upon the rights of men who are either themselves in the army or upon their sons, their fathers or their relations.’

Almost every agricultural family in Oudh had a representative in the army; there were 75,000 men from Oudh.
Whatever happened there was of immediate concern to the sepoy. The new land revenue system introduced after the annexation
and the confiscation of lands attached to charitable institutions affected his well-being. That accounted for the 14,000 petitions received from the sepoys about the hardships of the revenue system.

10. Huge Tax burden

Under the burden of excessive taxes the peasantry became progressively indebted and impoverished. The only interest of the Company was the realization of maximum revenue with minimum effort.

The Revolt of the sepoys was accompanied by a rebellion of the civil population, particularly in the North Western Provinces.  Government buildings were destroyed, the “treasury was plundered, the magazine was sacked, barracks and court houses were burnt and prison gates were flung open.”The civil rebellion had a broad social base, embracing all sections of society — the territorial magnates, peasants, artisans, religious mendicants and priests, civil servants, shopkeepers and boatmen. The Revolt of the sepoys, thus, resulted in a popular uprising.

11. Huge Settlements

Under the burden of excessive taxes the peasantry became progressively indebted and impoverished. The only interest of the Company was the realization of maximum revenue with minimum effort.

The revenue could not be collected without coercion and torture: in Rohilkhand there were as many as 2,37,388 coercive collections during 1848-56. Whatever the conditions, the Government was keen on collecting revenue.

12. Dispossessed Taluqdars

The traditional landed aristocracy suffered no less. In Oudh, which was a storm centre of the Revolt, the taluqdars lost all their power and privileges. About 21,000 taluqdars whose estates were confiscated suddenly found themselves without a source of income, ‘unable to work, ashamed to beg, condemned to penury.’ These dispossessed taluqdars smarting under the humiliation heaped on them, seized the opportunity presented by the Sepoy Revolt to oppose the British and regain what they had lost.

13. British’s Industrialisation

British policy discouraged Indian handicrafts and promoted British goods. The highly skilled Indian craftsmen were deprived of their source of income and were forced to look for alternate sources of employment that hardly existed, as the destruction of Indian handicrafts was not accompanied by the development of modem industries.

Was this revolt a spontaneous or planned revolt against British?

  • In the absence of any reliable account left behind by the rebels it is difficult to be certain. The attitude and activities of the leaders hardly suggest any planning or conspiracy on their part and if at all it existed it was at an embryonic stage.
  • When the sepoys arrived from Meerut, Bahadur Shah seems to have been taken by surprise and promptly conveyed the news to the Lt.Governor at Agra. So did Rani Lakshmibhai of Jhansi who took quite some time before openly joining the rebels.
  • Whether Nana Saheb and Maulvi Ahmad Shah of Faizabad had established links with various cantonments and were instrumental in instigating Revolt is yet to be proved beyond doubt.
  • Similarly, the message conveyed by the circulation of chappatis and lotus flowers is also uncertain. The only positive factor is that within a month of the Meerut incident the Revolt became quite widespread.
  • Even if there was no planning and organization before the revolt, it was important that it was done, once it started.
  • Immediately after the capture of Delhi a letter was addressed to the rulers of all the neighboring states and of Rajasthan soliciting their support and inviting them to participate.
  • In Delhi, a court of administrators was established which was responsible for all matters of state. The court consisted of ten members, six from the army and four from the civilian departments. All decisions were taken by a majority vote. The court conducted the affairs of the state in the name of the Emperor. ‘The Government at Delhi,’ wrote a British official, ‘seems to have been a sort of constitutional Milocracy. The king was king and honoured as such, like a constitutional monarch; but instead of a Parliament, he had a council of soldiers, in whom power rested, and of whom he was no degree a military commander.’
  • In other centres, also attempts were made to bring about an organization. Bahadur Shah was recognized as the Emperor by all rebel leaders and orders were issued in his name. At Bareilly, Khan Bahadur Khan conducted the administration in the name of the Mughal Emperor. It is also significant that the first impulse of the rebels was always to proceed to Delhi whether they were at Meerut, Kanpur or Jhansi. The need to create an organization and a political institution to preserve the gains was certainly felt. But in the face of the British counter-offensive, there was no chance to build on these early nebulous ideas.

A Failure

For more than a year, the rebels carried on their struggle against heavy odds. They had no source of arms and ammunition; what they had captured from the British arsenals could not carry them far. They ‘were often forced to fight with swords and pikes against an enemy supplied with the most modern weapons. They had no quick system of communication at their command and, hence, no coordination was possible.

Consequently, they were unaware of the strength and weaknesses of their compatriots and as a result could not come to each other’s rescue in times of distress. Every one was left to play a lonely hand.

No Common-Leader 

The merchants, intelligentsia and Indian rulers not only kept aloof, but actively supported the British. Meetings were organized in Calcutta and Bombay by them to pray for the success of the British.

Almost half the Indian soldiers not only did not Revolt but fought against their own countrymen.

Man Singh, changed sides several times depending on the situation.

The End

British Dealt the revolt one place after one place.

Delhi is the main place where the revolt took place at peakBahadur Shah captured at Humayun’s Tumb and along with his wife deported to Burma.

Rani of Jhansi died fighting on 17th June, 1858. General Hugh Rose, who defeated her said,” There lay the women who was the only man among the rebels“.

Nana Saheb escaped to Nepal in the year 1859, hoping to restart the revolt.

Kunwar Singh, despite his old age, was too quick for the British troops and constantly kept them guessing till his death on 9 May 1858.

Tantia Tope, who successfully carried on guerrilla warfare against the British until April 1859, was betrayed by a zamindar, captured and put to death by the British.


The Rebels don’t have a clear vision about the future. The Bahadur Shah and Zeenat Mahal had no faith in the sepoys and finally negotiated with British for their Future.

If the importance of a historical event is not limited to its immediate achievements the Revolt of 1857 was not a pure historical tragedy. Even in failure, it served a grand purpose: a source of inspiration for the national liberation movement which later achieved what the Revolt could not.

Finally, we can interpret in either way

It can be called as the First Independence war and in other interpretations, we cannot call it as.

It’s the anti-colonial revolt but not the nationalist movement. All the participators joined only because they have regional interests. People of India were not ready to accept the revolt, it just considered as a militant action against the state.

Merchants, Intelligentsia and other Kings( Pensioners) took the side of British for various reasons as mentioned above, So we cannot call it as First revolt of Independence. – Change your answer according to the question and take every view you encounter.

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