Revolt of 1857: Modern India
Baljit Dhaka

Revolt of 1857: Modern India

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Revolt of 1857: Modern India

The revolt of 1857 was a product of the character and policies of rule. 

In this article, we are going to discuss some important facts related to the Revolt of 1857 of modern India. 

In the UPSC history is considered to be the most important section.

Revolt of 1857: Modern India

  • 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.

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Economic Causes

  • The traditional economic fabric of the Indian society was destroyed by the colonial policies of the East India Company. 
  • Imposition of the new and a highly unpopular revenue settlement on the peasantry.
  • The emergence of moneylenders and traders as the new landlords.
  • The annexation of Indian states by the Company cut off their major source of patronage. 
  • Discouragement of Indian handicrafts and promotion of British goods. 

Political Causes

  • The East India Company's greedy policy of aggrandizement accompanied by broken pledges and oaths .
  • Policies like 'Subsidiary Alliance' and 'Doctrine of Lapse'. 
  • The right of succession was denied to Hindu princes.

Administrative Causes

  • Rampant corruption in the Company's administration, especially among the police, petty officials and lower law courts, Absentee sovereignty ship character of British rule.

Socio-Religious Causes

  • Racial overtones and a superiority complex 
  • The activities of Christian missionaries 
  • The attempts at socio-religious reform such as the abolition of sati, support to widow-remarriage were seen by a large section of the population as interference in the social and religious domains of Indian society by outsiders. 
  • Government's decision to tax mosque and temple lands
  • Legislative measures, such as the Religious Disabilities Act, 1856, modified Hindu customs.

Influence of outside events:

  • First Afghan War (1839-42)
  • Punjab Wars (1845-49)
  • Crimean War (1853-56)
  • Santhal rebellion (1855-57).
  • These had obvious psychological repercussions.

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 seemed to interference in their religious affairs.

The immediate cause of the sepoys' dissatisfaction:

  • No foreign service allowance (Matta) was given when serving in Sindh or in Punjab. 
  • The annexation of Awadh (home of many of the sepoys, further inflamed their feelings).
  • The discontent of the sepoys was not limited to matters military; it reflected the general disenchantment with and opposition to British rule.
  • The sepoy, in fact, was a 'peasant in uniform' whose consciousness was not divorced from that of the rural population. 
  • 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.
  • The introduction of the Enfield rifle enhanced the sepoys' growing disaffection with the Government. 
  • The cartridge of the new rifle had to be bitten off before loading and the grease was reportedly made of beef and pig fan

Beginning and spread:

The revolt began at Meerut, 58 km from Delhi, on May 10, 1857, and then, gathering force rapidly, soon embraced a vast area.

Spread in:

North: Punjab

South: Narmada 

East: Bihar

West: Rajputana

Resentment in various cantonments before the Meerut incident:

  • 19th Native Infantry at Berhampur: Refused to use the newly introduced Enfield rifle and broke out in mutiny in February 1857 was disbanded in March 1857. 
  • 34th Native Infantry: Mangal Pandey, fired at the sergeant major of his unit at Barrackpore.  He was overpowered and executed on April 6 while his regiment was disbanded in May. 
  • 7th Awadh Regiment: Defied its officers on May 3 met with a similar fate.
  • And then came the explosion at Meerut.
  • On April 24, ninety men of the 3rd Native Cavalry refused to accept the greased cartridges.
  • On May 9, eighty-five of them were dismissed, sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment.
  • This sparked off a general mutiny among the Indian soldiers stationed at Meerut. 
  • The very next day, on May 10, they released their imprisoned comrades, killed their officers and unfurled the banner of revolt. 
  • They set off for Delhi after sunset.
  • In Delhi, the local infantry joined them, killed their own European officers including Simon Fraser, the political agent, and seized the city.
  • Awadh, Rohilkhand, the Doab, the Bundelkhand, central India, large parts of Bihar and East Punjab shook off British authority.
  • The revolt of the sepoys was accompanied by a rebellion of the civil population, particularly in the north-western provinces and Awadh. 
  • Their accumulated grievances found immediate expression and they rose en masse to give vent to their opposition to British rule.

Who participated in the revolt:

  • The peasantry
  • The artisans
  • The shopkeepers
  • Day labourers
  • Zamindars
  • Religious mendicants
  • Priests 
  • Civil servants
  • Here the peasants and petty zamindars gave free expression to their grievances by attacking the moneylenders and zamindars who had displaced them from the land.

Storm Centers and leaders of the revolt:

  • At Delhi: General Bakht Khan (who had led the revolt of Bareilly troops and brought them to Delhi).
  • At Kanpur: Nana Saheb(the adopted son of the last Peshwa, Baji Rao II). 
  • At Lucknow: Begum Hazrat Mahal 
  • At Bareilly: Khan Bahadur, a descendant of the former ruler of Rohilkhand, was placed in command. 
  • At Bihar: Kunwar Singh, the zamindar of Jagdishpur
  • At Faizabad: Maulvi Ahmadullah (He was a native of Madras and had moved to Faizabad in the north where he fought a stiff battle against the British troops.) 
  • At Jhansi: Rani Laxmibai
  • Lord Dalhousie, the governor-general, had refused to allow her adopted son to succeed to the throne after her husband Raja Gangadhar Rao died, and had annexed the state by the application of the infamous 'Doctrine of Lapse'.

Suppression of revolt

  • The revolt was finally suppressed. 
  • The British captured Delhi on September 20, 1857, after prolonged and bitter fighting. 
  • John Nicholson, the leader of the siege, was badly wounded and later succumbed to his injuries.
  • Bahadur Shah was taken prisoner and was exiled to Rangoon where he died in 1862.
  • The royal princes were captured and butchered on the spot, publicly shot at point-blank range, by Lieutenant Hudson himself.
  • By 1859, Kunwar Singh, Bakht Khan, Khan Bahadur Khan of Bareilly, Rao Sahib (brother of Nana Saheb) and Maulvi Ahmadullah were all dead.
  • Begum of Awadh was compelled to hide in Nepal. 
  • At Benaras, a rebellion had been organized which was mercilessly suppressed, by Colonel Neil, who put to death all suspected rebels and even disorderly sepoys.
  • By the end of 1859, British authority over India was fully re-established.

Also Read: Rashtrakutas and Imperial Cholas- Frontier IAS

Causes of failure of the revolt

  • Limited territorial spread (The eastern, southern and western parts of India remained more or less unaffected).
  • Certain classes and groups did not join and, in fact, working against the revolt. 
  • Big zamindars acted as "breakwaters to storm"
  • Moneylenders and merchants suffered the wrath of the mutineers badly and anyway saw their class interests better protected under British patronage. 
  • Modern educated Indians viewed this revolt as backwards-looking and mistakenly hoped the British would usher in an era of modernisation.
  • The principal rebel leaders—Nanasaheb, Tatya Tope, Kunwar Singh, Laxmibai—were no match to their British opponents in generalship.
  • East India Company was fortunate in having the services of men of exceptional abilities in the Lawrence brothers, John Nicholson, James Outram, Henry Havelock, Edward, etc.
  • The mutineers lacked a clear understanding of colonial rule; nor did they have a forward-looking programme, a coherent ideology, a political perspective or a societal alternative.

Hindu-Muslim unity factor

  • During the entire revolt, there was complete cooperation between Hindus and Muslims at all levels: people, soldiers, leaders. 
  • All rebels acknowledged Bahadur Shah Zafar, a Muslim, as the emperor and the first impulse of the Hindu sepoys at Meerut was to march to Delhi, the Mughal imperial capital. 
  • Rebels and sepoys, both Hindu and Muslim, respected each other's sentiments. 
  • Immediate banning of cow slaughter was ordered once the revolt was successful in a particular area.
  • Both Hindus and Muslims were well represented in leadership, for instance, Nana Saheb had Azimullah, a Muslim and an expert in political propaganda, as an aide, while Laxmibai had the solid support of Afghan soldiers.

Nature of the revolt

Views differ on the nature of the 1857 revolt. 

  • Sir John Seeley: It was a mere 'Sepoy Mutiny' to some British historians-"a wholly unpatriotic and selfish Sepoy Mutiny with no native leadership and no -popular support"
  • However, it is not a complete picture of the event as it involved many sections of the civilian population and not just the sepoys.
  • Dr K. Datta: To have been "in the main a military outbreak, which was taken advantage of by certain discontented princes and landlords, whose interests had been affected by the new political order". 
  • Dr S.N. Sen: fight for religion but ended as a war of independence. 
  • Dr R.C. Majumdar: It is neither the first, nor national, nor a war of independence as large parts of the country remained unaffected and many sections of the people took no part in the upsurge.


  • It led to changes in the system of administration and the policy of the Government.
  • The direct responsibility for the administration of the country was assumed by the British Crown and Company rule was abolished.
  • The era of annexations and expansion ended and the British promised to respect the dignity and rights of the native princes.
  • The Indian states were henceforth to recognise the paramountcy of the British Crown and were to be treated as parts of a single charge.
  • The Army was thoroughly reorganised and British military policy came to be dominated by the idea of "division and counterpoise".
  • Racial hatred deepened.
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