The chapter introduces students to the first war of independence: the rebellion of 1857 against the colonial power in India. It defines the causes and impact of the rebellion and its consequences. We highlight all the events that took place amid the disruption.
First War Of Independence
The Indian Rebellion of 1857 was a major, although ultimately unsuccessful, rebellion in India in 1857–58 against the control of the British East India Company, which acted as the British Crown's sovereign power.
The uprising began on May 10, 1857, with a mutiny of Company army sepoys in the garrison town of Meerut. It eventually burst into further mutinies and civilian rebellions, primarily in the upper Gangetic plain and central India, though there were also incidents of insurrection in the north and east.
The uprising constituted a significant danger to British dominance in the region, and it was only put down on June 20, 1858, when the rebels were defeated in Gwalior.
The British gave amnesty to those rebels who were not implicated in murder on November 1, 1858, however, they did not proclaim the war officially finished until July 8, 1859.
The Sepoy Mutiny, also known as the Indian Mutiny, is also known as the Great Rebellion, the Revolt of 1857, the Indian Insurgency, and the First War of Independence.
A pattern of the rebellion
The sequence of events in every cantonment followed a similar pattern. That as the news of these mutinies travelled from one town to another the sepoys took up their arms.
The sepoys began their action with a signal: in many places, it was the firing of the evening gun or the sounding of the bugle. They first seized the storeroom in which arms were kept and also plundered the treasury.
Afterwards, the government buildings – the jail, treasury, telegraph office, record room, bungalows were attacked & all the official records were burnt. Everything and everybody connected with the white man became a target.
Proclamations in Hindi, Urdu and Persian were put up in the cities calling upon the population, both Hindus and Muslims, to unite, rise and exterminate the firangis.
The targets of attack widened after the amalgamation of ordinary people.
Major Towns: Lucknow, Kanpur and Bareilly.
Peasants not only saw them as oppressors but also as allies of the British. In most places, their houses were looted and destroyed. The mutiny in the sepoy ranks quickly became a rebellion. There was general defiance of all kinds of authority and hierarchy.
Britishers had no answers against this rebellion in the initial months, they just saved their lives and of their families.
Lines of Communication
The reason between the planning and similarity of the revolt in different places is that there was communication between the sepoy lines of various cantonments.
After the 7th Awadh Irregular Cavalry had refused to accept the new cartridges in early May, they wrote to the 48th Native Infantry that “they had acted for the faith and awaited the 48th’s orders”.
Sepoys or their emissaries moved from one station to another. People were thus planning and talking about the rebellion.
They were to take decisions collectively; the matters were settled by the Panchayatcomposed of native officers drawn from each regiment. The panchayats were a nightly occurrence in the Kanpur sepoy lines.
The sepoys lived in lines and shared a common lifestyle and that many of them came from the same caste, it is not difficult to imagine them sitting together to decide their own future. The sepoys were the makers of their own rebellion.
Leaders and Followers
Fighting the British necessitated strong leadership and organisation. For these, the insurgents occasionally turned to persons who had previously served as commanders prior to the British invasion. The sepoys raced to Delhi, pleading with Bahadur Shah Zafar, the Mughal emperor, to accept their leadership of the insurrection.
It took a long time for leadership to be accepted. The first reaction of Bahadur Shah was one of terror and rejection.
Only after certain sepoys defied court protocol and entered the Mughal court within the Red Fort did the old emperor, knowing he had few options, agree to be the nominal head of the uprising.
Nana Sahib, the successor to Peshwa Baji Rao II, was forced to join the mutiny as its leader by the sepoys and the people of Kanpur.
In Jhansi, Rani Laxmi Bai was forced to lead the insurrection due to popular pressure. Kunwar Singh, a local zamindar in Bihar, had a similar experience.
In Awadh, where the annexation of the state and the relocation of the popular Nawab Wajid Ali Shah were still fresh in the minds of the people, the people of Lucknow celebrated the end of British control by proclaiming Birjis Qadr, the Nawab's young son, as their leader.
Peasants, zamindars, and tribals were also urged to revolt by local leaders. Shah Mal mobilised the peasants of Uttar Pradesh's pargana Baraut, and Gonoo, a tribal cultivator from Chotanagpur's Singhbhum, became a rebel leader of the region's Kol tribals.
Rumours and Prophecies
Rumours & Prophecies played an important part in the rebellion. As the sepoys who moved to Delhi with the issue they have with the bullets said that these bullets would corrupt their caste and religion.
They were referring to the cartridges of the Enfield rifles which had just been given to them. The British tried to explain to the sepoys that this was not the case but the rumour that the new cartridges were greased with the fat of cows and pigs spread like wildfire across the sepoy lines of North India.
Captain Wright, a commandant of the Rifle Instruction Depot, reported that in the third week of January 1857 a “low-caste” khalasi who worked in the magazine in Dum Dum had asked a Brahmin sepoy for a drink of water from his lota.
The sepoy had refused saying that the “lower castes” touch would defile the lota. The khalasi had reportedly retorted, “You will soon lose your caste, as ere long you will have to bite cartridges covered with the fat of cows and pigs.”
There was also a rumour that the British government was attempting to eradicate Hindu and Muslim castes and religions.
Rumours circulated that the British had put cow and pig bone dust into the flour sold in the market. Sepoys and simple people in towns and cantonments refused to touch the atta.
Fears and suspicions abounded that the British were attempting to convert Indians to Christianity. Men were compelled to act as a result of their worries.
The prophecy that British control would end on the anniversary of the Battle of Plassey, on June 23, 1857, bolstered the response to the call to action.
Chapatis were also provided in several communities throughout North India; however, the purpose of the distribution of chapatis is still unclear.
What made the people believe in rumours?
When examined from the perspective of the British policies adopted from the late 1820s, the rumours in 1857 begin to make sense.
The British established policies aimed at "reforming" Indian society by bringing Western education, ideals, and institutions under the leadership of Governor-General Lord William Bentinck. They established English-medium schools, colleges, and universities, teaching Western sciences and the liberal arts, with the help of many parts of Indian society.
The British passed rules allowing Hindu widows to remarry and abolishing practices such as sati (1829).
The first kingdom to be annexed was Awadh, followed by Satara and Jhansi.
These states were also annexed as a result of mismanagement, and they imposed their own administrative policies.
In 1851 Governor-General Lord Dalhousie described the kingdom of Awadh as “a cherry that will drop into our mouth one day”.
Five years later, in 1856, the kingdom was formally annexed to the British Empire. The conquest happened in stages.
The Subsidiary Alliance( By Lord Wellesley) had been imposed on Awadh in 1801 due to which the Nawab had to disband his military force, allow the British to position their troops within the kingdom, and act in accordance with the advice of the British Resident who was now to be attached to the court.
The Nawab became increasingly dependent on the British to maintain law and order within the kingdom. He could no longer assert control over the rebellious chiefs and taluqdars.
Britishers also considered Awadh important because the soil there was good for producing Indigo and cotton and the region was also located in the principal market of upper India.
All the major areas of India had been conquered: the Maratha lands, the Doab, the Carnatic, the Punjab and Bengal. The takeover of Awadh in 1856 was expected to complete a process of territorial annexation that had begun with the conquest of Bengal almost a century earlier.
Exile to Calcutta
Lord Dalhousie’s annexations created disaffection in all the areas and principalities that were annexed.
Nawab Wajid Ali Shah was dethroned and exiled to Calcutta from Awadh on the plea that the region was being mis governed.
The British government also wrongly assumed that Wajid Ali Shah was an unpopular ruler. On the contrary, he was widely loved, and when he left his beloved Lucknow, there were many who followed him all the way to Kanpur singing songs of lament.
There was no street or market and house which did not wail out the cry of agony in the separation of Jan-i-Alam.”.
The removal of the Nawab led to the dissolution of the court and its culture. Thus a whole range of people – musicians, dancers, poets, artisans, cooks, retainers, and administrative officials lost their livelihood.
Firangi Raj and the End of the World
The revolution in Awadh became a symbol of people's resistance to an alien order. Not only the Nawab was displaced by the annexation. It also expropriated the region's taluqdars. The countryside of Awadh was littered with the estates and forts of taluqdars, who had ruled over land and authority in the area for many centuries.
Before the arrival of the British, taluqdars kept armed retainers, erected forts, and had some autonomy as long as they accepted the Nawab's suzerainty and paid their taluks' revenue.
The British were unwilling to accept the taluqdars' dominance. The taluqdars were disarmed and their forts were razed shortly after the conquest.
The taluqdars' position and authority were weakened by British land revenue policies.
The first British tax settlement, known as the Summary Settlement of 1856, was predicated on the premise that the taluqdars were interlopers who had established their grip over land via force and deception.
The taluqdars were removed from the Summary Settlement wherever possible. In pre-British times, taluqdars controlled 67% of Awadh's total number of villages; by the Summary Settlement, that number had dropped to 38%.
The taluqdars of southern Awadh were the hardest hit, with some losing more than half of their previously controlled villages.
The British land revenue agents thought that by removing taluqdars, they would be able to settle land disputes with the true owners of the land and therefore eliminate peasant exploitation, but this did not work out.
The state's funding streams have increased.
The taluqdars were oppressors in pre-British times, but many of them also appeared to be kind father figures: they exacted various dues from the peasantry but were often considerate in times of need.
The peasant was immediately subjected to over-assessment of taxation and inflexible collection procedures under the British.
There was no longer any promise that the state's income demand would be decreased or collection postponed in times of hardship or crop failure, or that the peasant would receive the loan and help that the taluqdar had previously supplied.
The combat was conducted by taluqdars and their peasants in areas like Awadh, where resistance was fierce and long-lasting in 1857.
Many of these taluqdars were loyal to the Nawab of Awadh, and they fought alongside Begum Hazrat Mahal (the Nawab's wife) at Lucknow, and some even stayed with her in defeat.
A considerable number of sepoys were recruited from Awadh villages, where they had complained for decades about low pay and the difficulty of leaving.
Relationship with the Sepoys
White officers made it a point to keep amicable connections with the sepoys in the 1820s. They wrestled with them, fenced with them, and went out hawking with them as part of their leisure activities.
Many of them spoke Hindustani fluently and were familiar with the country's customs and culture. These officers served as both disciplinarians and father figures.
This began to shift in the 1840s. The officers developed a sense of superiority and began treating the sepoys as though they were their ethnic inferiors, disregarding their feelings.
As a result of increased abuse and physical violence, the gap between sepoys and officers widened. Suspicion took the place of trust.
The Bengal Army recruited the vast bulk of its sepoys from the villages of Awadh and eastern Uttar Pradesh. Many were Brahmins or members of the "higher" castes.
Awadh was also called the “nursery of the Bengal Army’’.
What The Rebels Wanted
The Vision of Unity
The rebel proclamations in 1857 repeatedly appealed to all sections of the population, irrespective of their caste and creed.
The rebellion was seen as a war in which both Hindus and Muslims had equally to lose or gain.
The ishtahars harked back to the pre-British Hindu-Muslim past and glorified the coexistence of different communities under the Mughal Empire.
The Britishers also tried to incite the Hindu population against the Muslims (Bareilly Uttar Pradesh, December 1857), this attempt also failed.
Against the symbol of oppression
The proclamations completely rejected everything associated with British rule. They condemned the British for the annexations they had carried out and the treaties they had broken.
The people were enraged by the fact that the British land revenue settlements had dispossessed landholders, both big and small, and foreign commerce had driven artisans and weavers to ruin.
Every aspect of British rule was attacked and the firangi was accused of destroying a way of life that was familiar and cherished. The rebels wanted to restore that world.
The widespread fear that the British were bent on destroying the caste and religions of Hindus and Muslims and converting them to Christianity – a fear that led people to believe many of the rumours that circulated at the time.
People were urged to come together and fight to save their livelihood, their faith, their honour, their identity.
The search for alternative power
Once British rule collapsed, the rebels started to establish some kind of structure of authority and administration.
This was, of course, short-lived but the attempts show that the rebel leadership wanted to restore the pre-British world of the eighteenth century.
The leaders went back to the culture of the court. Appointments were made to various posts, arrangements made for the collection of land revenue and the payment of troops, orders issued to stop loot and plunder.
Side by side plans was made to fight battles against the British. Chains of command were laid down in the army.
The administrative structures established by the rebels were primarily aimed at meeting the demands of war.
The British council established a series of regulations before sending troops to retake North India.
Not only was the entirety of North India placed under martial rule by the Acts passed in May and June of 1857, but military commanders and even ordinary Britons were given the right to try and punish Indians suspected of rebellion.
Ordinary legal and trial procedures were suspended, and it was announced that there would be only one punishment for rebellion: execution.
As a result, the British launched a two-pronged assault. One force advanced from Calcutta into North India, while the other advanced from Punjab, which was mostly calm, to retake Delhi.
British attempts to reclaim Delhi began in earnest in early June 1857, but the city was not taken until late September. On both sides, there was a lot of fighting and a lot of losses. The fact that rebels from all over North India had gone to Delhi to defend the city was one explanation for this.
The British used massive amounts of military might. They didn't just use this instrument, though. The British attempted to break up the unity by pledging to return the estates to the wealthy landowners in significant sections of modern-day Uttar Pradesh, where huge landholders and peasants had offered concerted resistance.
Rebellious landowners were evicted, while loyalists were rewarded. Many landowners died in battles with the British or fled to Nepal, where many died of disease or famine.