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The Revolt of 1857

The Revolt of 1857

The Revolt of 1857:- In 1757, after the Battle of Plassey, the British laid the first step towards getting power in northern India. And in 1857 took place the major ‘Revolt’ which was a product of the character and policies of colonial rule after 1757, and after which noteworthy changes took place in the British policy of ruling over India.

Note :- This post will be available in Hindi soon

Simmering Discontent

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.

However, the period between 1757 and 1857 was not all peaceful and trouble-free; it saw a series of sporadic popular outbursts in the form of religio-political violence, tribal movements, peasant uprisings and agrarian riots, and civil rebellions. Enhanced revenue demands—even in famine years—caused anger. Many a times, movements against local moneylenders turned into rebellion against the Company rule as the moneylenders had the support of the police. British interference in native religious/traditional customs also caused resentment and resulted in rebellions. Almost from the very early days of the East India Company’s rule, rebellions and uprisings occurred for various causes in different regions. Some of the movements continued even after the 1857 Revolt. Major revolts took place in the south, east, west and the north-eastern regions which were suppressed with brutality by the Company.

The Revolt of 1857 : the Major Causes

The causes of the revolt of 1857, like those of earlier uprisings, 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.

Economic Causes

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. Impoverished by heavy taxation, the peasants resorted to loans from money-lenders/traders at usurious rates, the latter often evicting the former from their land on non-payment
of debt dues. These money-lenders and traders emerged as the new landlords, while the scourge of landless peasantry and rural indebtedness has continued to plague Indian society to this day. The older system of zamindari was forced to disintegrate.

British rule also meant misery to the artisans and handicrafts people. The annexation of Indian states by the Company cut off their major source of patronage—the native rulers and the nobles, who could not now afford to be patrons of the crafts workers. 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 existed, as the destruction of Indian handicrafts was not accompanied by the development of modern industries.

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.”
—Karl Marx, in 1853

The Indian trade and mercantile class was deliberately crippled by the British who imposed high tariff duties on Indian-made goods. At the same time, the import of British goods into India attracted low tariffs, thus encouraging their entry into India. By mid-nineteenth century, exports of cotton and silk textiles from India practically came to an end. Free trade—one way, that is—and refusal to impose protective duties against machine-made goods from Britain simply killed Indian manufacture.

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 centre 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 try to regain what they had lost.

The ruin of Indian industry increased the pressure on agriculture and land, which could not support all the people; the lopsided development resulted in pauperisation of the country in general.

Political Causes

The East India Company’s greedy policy of aggrandisement accompanied by broken pledges and promises resulted in contempt for the Company and loss of political prestige, besides causing suspicion in the minds of almost all the ruling princes in India, through such policies as of ‘Effective Control’, ‘Subsidiary Alliance’ and ‘Doctrine of Lapse’. The right of succession was denied to Hindu princes. The Mughals
were humbled when, on Prince Faqiruddin’s death in 1856, whose succession had been recognised 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 the renunciations agreed upon by Prince Faqiruddin.

The collapse of rulers—the erstwhile aristocracy—also adversely affected those sections of the Indian society which derived their sustenance from cultural and religious pursuits.

Administrative Causes

Rampant corruption in the Company’s administration, especially among the police, petty officials and lower law courts, was a major cause of discontent. Indeed, it is the view of many historians that the rampant corruption we see now in India is a legacy of the Company rule. Also, the character of British rule imparted a foreign and alien look to it in the eyes of Indians: a kind of absentee sovereignty.

Socio-Religious Causes

Racial overtones and a superiority complex characterised 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 socio-religious reform such as abolition of sati, support to widow-marriage 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 compounded by the government’s decision to tax mosque and temple lands and making laws 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), and the Crimean Wars (1854-56). These had obvious psychological repercussions. The British were seen to be not so strong and it was felt that they could be defeated.

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 rumours of proselytising activities of the chaplains (often maintained on the Company’s expenses which meant at Indian expense) 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 emolu-ments 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 (bhatta) when serving in Sindh or in Punjab. The annexation of Awadh, home of many of the sepoys, further inflamed their feelings.

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 military matters; it reflected the general disenchantment with and the 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 S. 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.

Vishal Singh

Vishal Singh

“Hi, I am Vishal Singh. I completed my Graduations in Physics in 2020 at VKSU, Arrah. Now I'm Preparing For Civil Service Exams. I'm Interested Physics as well as History, Polity, Geography, Technology & Science.

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