When Mangal Pandey, a sepoy of 34th native infantry of Bengal Army, fired at sergeant Major at Barrackpore on March 29, 1857 (Bengal), he did not realize that he was creating history. Though he was executed and his regiment was disbanded but a few weeks later on 10th May, 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 ‘mutiny’ firstly used by Earl Stanley, later by T.R. Homes, 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 Hindu-Muslim conspiracy, especially Muslim conspiracy. Whereas Benjamin Disraeli, an important leader of the Conservative Party, termed it a ‘National revolt’.
The first Indian who wrote a book in 1857 was Sir Sayyed Ahmed Khan, In his book ‘Asbab-l-Baghawat-I-Hind’ (causes of the revolt of India) he tried to find out the real cause as 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 in 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 the embroyic stage.
A careful study of historical records, the mutiny papers, the police records, the contemporary literature especially under 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 center of the revolt. The poetry of Ghalib, Bahadur Shah Zafar, and letters of Mirza Ghalib known as ‘Khatut-I-Ghalib’ felt the pain of the people because of revolt.
The revolt broke on the issue of greased cartridges when the news spread that the cover of the cartridges is 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 too 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 discontentment among the soldiers was also because of the discriminatory pay package. The highest-paid Indian soldier was subedar, who was getting less than a raw English recruit. The sepoy in the infantry was getting seven rupees a month whereas a sawar 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 rumors about the conversion of sepoys into Christianity worsened the situation. The Christian missionaries were actively preaching in the cantonment and openly ridiculing the other religion. 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 is involved in the conspiracy against their religion and caste.
Often military cause, especially grease cartridges incident, was 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 ‘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’s soldiers were from Awadh, who had sympathy for their Nawab. The annexation of Avadh meant that the relative of these soldiers had to pay more taxes, since, new land revenue policy was introduced in Avadh. 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 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 to regain lost position and glory.
Apart from British revenue policy, their policy of discouraging the traditional industries was also related to the outbreak of revolt. Once, Indian states were annexed, virtually there was no one to patronise 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, 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 the property to all the members of the family. The company wanted to encourage conversion. A Christian, as they believed, is 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 the orthodox Hindus. Even Bal Gangadhar Tilak, later, opposed the Act.
The Muslim orthodox led by the Wahabis wanted to make India, especially Punjab as Dar-ul-Islam (land of peace) from Dar-ul-Harb (land of infidels). After the annexation of Punjab (1849), their struggle was directed against the British. When the revolt broke the Wahabis of Bihar especially of 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 world was not new.