War of Independence 1857
The Battle of Plassey, which was fought in 1757, can rightly be considered the first phenomenal victory of the British East India Company (EIC) on the Indian soil as it laid the foundation of the British rule in India through EIC. This victory was further consolidated in the battle of Buxar in which EIC defeated the Mughal ruler Shah Alam II who was compelled to grant EIC rights of collection of revenue in the areas of Bengal, Bihar and Odisha. In next hundred years, their rule gradually extended to the whole of the Indian Subcontinent. In these hundred years, policies of the British EIC caused War of Independence (WOI) in 1857. These policies will be discussed in the following paragraphs.
High level administrative posts were occupied by the British. Lower level slots were for the locals, i.e. Indians.
British laws were extended to the Indian Subcontinent. English was made the official language.
Heavy taxes were imposed on agriculture. No exemption was granted even during the Famine of Bengal in 1770 which caused deaths of millions.
English was introduced as lingua franca. Status of official languages of Persian and Arabic languages was revoked.
Composition of military
British officers commanded the EIC military on senior positions whereas recruitments for lower ranks (e.g. sepoys) were made from the locals. Moreover, the General Services Enlistment Act of 1856 was passed by which the Indian soldiers may be ordered to serve outside India where the EIC wanted them to serve.
Lack of consultative policy
The government of EIC did not consult Indians in the governance matters. Rather their style was dictatorial.
The provisions of East India Company Act, 1813, or the Charter Act of 1813, permitted and encouraged Christian missionaries to preach Christianity in India. Attempts to impose Christianity and Christian laws created unrest in the Indian society.
Antagonism by the old aristocracy
Policies of the EIC antagonized the old aristocracy as their privileges were curtailed. For this reason, they also joined the WOI. One example of such policies was the Doctrine of Lapse which was passed in 1848. According to this doctrine, the princely status of the states under the suzerainty of the EIC would be abolished if its ruler was incompetent or if he died without a male heir. The adopted child could not inherit the status.
EIC’s Policies that clashed with the local Indian culture
The British Governor General of India from 1848 to 1856, Lord Dalhousie, passed the ‘Widow Remarriage Act of 1856’ which allowed Indian widows to remarry. Another policy was abolition of Sati – the cruel custom prevalent in Hindu society. There was a widespread belief among the Hindus that the British wanted also to do away with the caste system.
Resistance from Muslim religious scholars
Various Muslim scholars like Maulana Muhammad Qasim Nanautvi and Maulana Rashid Ahmad Gangohi took up arms against the colonial rule. Mufti Nizam ud Din, a renowned scholar of Lahore, issued a fatwa against the Company forces and called upon the local population to support the mutiny.
Role of Bahadur Shah Zafar
Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal Emperor, was compelled to issue proclamation in favour of war against EIC.
Immediate cause: Cartridges controversy
In February 1857, there arose a controversy regarding gunpowder cartridges for the Enfield rifles. Sepoys believed that the cartridges were greased with cow and pig fat. Loading the Enfield often required tearing open the greased cartridge with one’s teeth. Biting to load the cartridges greased with cow and pig fat was against the religious norms of both the Hindus and the Muslims. So, the local sepoys refused to load the Enfield rifles. The first Indian soldier who rebelled was Mangal Pandey, sepoy (infantryman) in the 34th Bengal Native Infantry (BNI) regiment of the British East India Company, who was executed on 8 April 1857.
Events of WOI
Meerut. Rebellion started in Meerut, a small town 40 miles northeast of Delhi, on May 10, 1857, from the local sepoys who were recruited in the army of the British EIC. On 06 May 1857, 85 out of 90 sepoys refused to bite cartridges with their teeth, and were consequently sentenced for 10 years’ imprisonment. This created resentment among sepoys who released the imprisoned soldiers and marched to Delhi where they reached on 11th of May 1857.
Other major centres of the WOI were the following areas:
ü The Central Provinces
ü The United Provinces
ü Cawnpore (Kanpur)
The WOI started from Meerut and Delhi among sepoys with violent attacks on the British officers in May 1857. Initially, the Indian rebels captured towns in Haryana, Bihar, the Central Provinces and the United Provinces. When the British forces responded, the rebels were easily defeated because they had no central command and control.
Between July and September 1857, the company forces laid siege to Delhi. After heavy casualties, the Company forces retook the city. After that, Bahadur Shah Zafar was arrested, and his sons Mirza Mughal and Mirza Khizr Sultan, as well as his grandson Mirza Abu Bakar were killed. British forces then recaptured Agra and Cawnpore. In Cawnpore, many British men, women and children were killed – the massacre is remembered as Bibighar massacre.
When the Raja of Jhansi died without any legal heir, his Jhansi state was annexed to the British Raj by the Governor General of India. His widow Rani Lakshmi Bai, popularly known as Rani of Jhansi, joined the rebellion. In March 1858, the Company forces laid siege to Jhansi and finally captured it. Rani was later killed in the Battle of Gwalior on June 17, 1858. The Company forces recaptured Gwalior. In Punjab, Rai Ahmad Khan Kharal led rebellion in September 1858 but he was killed by the Company forces and three months after that, the rebellion was finally crushed. In Punjab, the Sikh princes helped the British with men and money.
End of WOI
The EIC was able to defeat the rebels in Gwalior on June 20, 1858. However on July 8, 1858, hostilities were formally declared to be ended. On November 1, 1858, the EIC granted general amnesty to all the rebels who were not involved in heinous offences like murder.
Why WOI failed?
ü Leaderless; as Bahadur Shah Zafar had no control over the mutineers
ü No central command-and-control system
ü Violence against civilians which displeased them and they stood in favour of the EIC whose concern was to restore law and order.
ü No unity among the rebels in political, ethnic and cultural terms. Nana Saheb, a prominent leader in the Indian Mutiny of 1857–58 – although he did not plan the outbreak, yet he assumed leadership of the sepoys – only wanted the withdrawal of the Doctrine of Lapse. Rulers of many states supported the British. The ruler of Kashmir supported the British with his army. The then Governor General, Lord Canning, declared that if any rebel gives up rebellion, he will be forgiven.
ü All soldiers did not revolt. As much as 80 percent of the Company forces comprised Indians. The rebellion was put down by the Indian soldiers drawn from the Madras army, the Bombay army and the Sikh regiments.
ü The British were more organized and powerful than the rebels. They had already conquered Sind and Punjab which did not support the revolt. The Company army had more sophisticated weapons.
ü The revolt was largely limited to the North and Central India. Following states remained calm:
Effects of the WOI
ü Heavy death toll: Atrocities against civilians were committed by both sides. In Oudh alone, the death toll is estimated to be around 150,000 out of which 100,000 were civilians. When the Company forces recaptured certain cities, they carried out general massacres. General Neill of the EIC massacred thousands of Indians. The rebels murdered more than one hundred British women and children at Cawnpore. This Cownpore massacre outraged the Company forces and they responded by ruthlessly killing the rebels. Approximately 6,000 of the 40,000 British living in India were killed. Many Indian women were subjected to sexual violence and rape by the Company soldiers. Some British officers adopted the policy of no prisoners, i.e. everyone who was captured was to be killed.
ü End of Mughal Dynasty: The last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar was arrested on his alleged involvement in the mutiny, and was tried, thereupon, for treason. He was exiled to Rangoon where he died in 1862.
ü The EIC was dissolved with the passing of Government of India Act, 1858, that established direct British rule in India. The ruling power of the Company was transferred in the name of the Crown. A new department called India Office was established by the British government, and its head, who was called the Secretary of State for India, was tasked with formulating the British government’s India policy. The Governor General of India gained the new title of the Viceroy of India whose task was to implement the policies chalked out by the India Office.
ü Reorganization of the British army: Size of the Bengali contingent was decreased. The ratio of the British officers to the Indian soldiers was increased.
ü The life of the Muslims became very difficult as they were blamed by the British to be responsible for the mutiny.
ü The Doctrine of Lapse was reversed, and the annexed lands were given back to Indians.
Different names for the revolt
ü The Sepoy mutiny
ü Indian Mutiny
ü The Great Rebellion
ü Revolt of 1857
ü War of Independence
WOI or Indian mutiny?
From the perspective of local population, which were Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, it was War of Independence which they fought in order to get rid of cruel policies of the EIC.
From the point of view of the EIC, it was mutiny on the part of the soldiers who were joined by local population against the sitting government of the British EIC.
Though it was a failed attempt to get rid of the tyrannical rule of the British EIC, it had far-reaching effects on the Indian history. A new era of the history of the Indo-Pak Subcontinent started which lasted for almost 90 years.
The writer is a civil servant, belonging to Police Service of Pakistan (PSP).