Indian Revolt of 1857

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Indian Revolt of 1857

The Indian revolt of 1857 was a widespread Indian rebellion against British rule. The mutiny-rebellion has been the topic of fierce historical controversy. Whereas some see it as being caused by the insensitivity of the British military to the religion of its high-caste Hindu sepoys, others see it as an inevitable reaction to the British policy of annexation of heirless native states, the annexation of the province of Awadh in 1856, and the introduction of a revenue policy that disadvantaged India's landed classes. It began in Meerut city as a mutiny in the army of the English East India Company. In that year the Indian soldiers (sepoys) of the Bengal Army recruited by the English East India Company mutinied. The Company ruled India as a sovereign power until 1857. The Indian component of its army was the mainstay of its power. Thus it felt threatened as the mutinous sepoys spread the fire of protest to civilian areas. As rural India rallied around the sepoys a civil rebellion engulfed British India. The British crushed the rebellion in 1858. The Parliament did not renew the charter of the English East India Company as a result of its failure to prevent the rebellion. The Company lost its sovereign status in India. A fresh Act of parliament passed in August 1858 made the British Queen Victoria the sovereign of British India. Indians thus came directly under the rule of the British crown.

Social histories of the mutinous Bengal Army argue that the military and civil causes cannot be separated because the English East India Company had assiduously built a military culture that sustained a range of Indian traditions in its regiments. The Bengal Army included, for example, high-caste regiments, the cavalry regiments of Rohilla-Afghan freebooters, and the Gurkha regiments. This was in sharp contrast to the Madras and Bengal Armies also maintained by the English Company. These did not have such a wide-ranging cultural mix. This variety ensured a careful balancing between the army, polity, and society, and it stabilized East India Company rule in northern India.

From the 1820s, the status that sepoys and their families derived from this heterogeneous military culture began to be threatened. This was an age of financial strain for the English East India Company. Because most parts of north India were in its control, the company began to reduce its military establishment. This caused disaffection in military ranks. The already disgruntled sepoys were outraged when rumors spread that the new greased cartridges used in the Enfield rifle were made of cow and pig fat. This hurt the religious sentiments of Hindu and Muslim Sepoys. Their religion forbade them to kill and eat these animals, respectively. The introduction of greased cartridges in 1857 was merely the spark that ignited these larger resentments. The disgruntled soldiers made common cause with the Indian landed magnates and princes of the regions from which the soldiers had came.

It was the soldiers of Meerut that set the ball of mutiny rolling. On May 10, 1857, three infantry regiments of the city killed British officers and other Europeans. They burnt their bungalows and set off towards Delhi. Mutinies followed in eastern Uttar Pradesh and western Bihar, which were the major recruiting sites of the Bengal Army. In the Bundelkhand region, rebels in Jhansi took the lead. Rebelling soldiers from Jhansi then marched to Kanpur and Delhi, which became the center of much action.

In each of these regions the most striking change preceding the revolt was the sudden displacement of the English East India Company as the chief employer by the patrons of the rebel leaders, who began to offer the sepoys the material, political, and ritual inducements that the company had hitherto monopolized. In this context, the actions of rebel leaders like Kunwar Singh in the Shahbad district of Bihar, the rani (princess) of Jhansi in Bundelkhand, and Nana Sahib of Bithoor were reminiscent of the East India Company's efforts to project a Hindu image for the army so as to garner sepoy support. Whereas, in Delhi, very much like the promises of Mughal status that the company offered to its cavalry regiments recruited from this area, leaders like Bakht Khan furthered their military ambition by their promise to restore the Mughal emperor to the throne of Delhi.

The British suppressed the mutiny by use of force. The British sack of Delhi that followed was retribution for British casualties. Many mutiny leaders were killed in encounters with the British. The mutinous soldiers were subjected to court martial and publicly executed after being charged guilty. A transfer of power from the East India Company to the British Crown followed the revolt. The East India Company ceased to be the sovereign of India as a result of an act of parliament enacted on August 2, 1858. The new sovereign of British India was Queen Victoria. The inauguration of a new era of British rule had begun.

Nationalist historians see the 1857 rebellion as a full-blown nationalist movement that united all classes in India, but the historiography of 1857 does not substantiate this view. The consensus now is that the motivations of the rebels were both general and local, and riveted by class, caste, and family politics.

see also English East India Company (EIC); Indian Army; Sepoy.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Alavi, Seema. The Sepoys and the Company: Tradition and Transition in Northern India, 1770–1839. New Delhi and New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Roy, Tapti. The Politics of a Popular Uprising: Bundelkhand in 1857. New Delhi and New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Taylor, P. J. O., ed. A Companion to the Indian Mutiny of 1857. New Delhi and New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.