The revolt of 1857 started on 10th May when the Company’s Indian soldiers at Meerut rebelled. Called the Sepoy Mutiny by the British, it is now recognised as the First War of Independence against the British rulers.
Indian soldiers killed their European officers and marched towards Delhi. They entered the Red Fort and proclaimed the aged and powerless Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, as the Emperor of India.
This rebellion was a major anti-colonial movement against the aggressive imperialist policies of the British. In fact, it was an economic, political and social struggle against the British rule. This severe outburst of anger and discontent shook the foundations of colonial rule in large parts of India.
1. Political Causes
The nature of colonial expansion through annexation became a major source of discontent among the Indian rulers. British wanted to acquire land and collect as much wealth for England as they could. Their policy of annexation called Doctrine of Lapse and Subsidiary Alliance led to a number of independent kingdoms being annexed to the British Empire.
These were states that were enjoying British protection but their rulers had died without leaving a natural heir to the throne. As a result their adopted sons could now no longer legally inherit the property or receive the pension which was granted to them by the British. In this way Lord Dalhousie annexed the Maratha States of Satara, Nagpur, Jhansi and several other minor kingdoms.
On the death of Baji Rao II, the pension granted to him was abolished and the claim of his adopted son, Nana Saheb, to receive this pension was denied to him. This interference by the East India Company was disliked by many Indian rulers. Before the policy of Doctrine of Lapse, the Indian ruler had a right to adopt an heir to his throne even if he was childless, but now they had to take prior consent from the British.
The policy of annexation affected not only the rulers but affected all those who were dependent upon them namely, soldiers, crafts people and even the nobles. Even the traditional scholarly and priestly classes lost the patronage which they were getting from these rulers. Thousands of zamindars, nobles and poligars lost control over their land and its revenues.
The annexation of Awadh on grounds of misgovernment was also resented by the Nawab who was loyal to the British. No alternative jobs were provided to the people who lost their jobs when the British took over Awadh. Even the peasants had to pay higher taxes and additional land revenue.
The continuous interference of the British in the basic way of living, traditional beliefs, values and norms was seen by the masses as a threat to their religion. The British administrators gradually became arrogant and gulf between them and the people widened.
2. Economic Causes
Another important cause of the Revolt was the disruption of the traditional Indian economy and its subordination to the British economy. The British had come to trade with India but soon decided to exploit and impoverish the country. They tried to take away as much wealth and raw material from here as they could.
The Britishers kept high posts and salaries for themselves. They used political control to increase their trade as well as export and import of foreign goods. All means were used to drain India of her wealth.
Indian economy now suffered under the British policies. Since they worked against the interests of Indian trade and industry, Indian handicrafts completely collapsed. The craftsmen who received royal patronage were impoverished when the states were annexed. They could not compete with the British factory made products where machines were used.
It made India into an excellent consumer of British goods and a rich supplier of raw materials for the industries in England. The British sold cheap, machine made clothes in India which destroyed the Indian cottage industry. It also left millions of craftsmen unemployed. The British also sent raw materials to England for the factories there. This left little for the Indian weavers.
The Britishers also imposed heavy duties on Indian made goods. Now they could reap huge profits as there was no competition for their goods. Thus, the British drained India of her wealth and her natural resources.
To buy raw materials and sell their finished goods they introduced steamships and railways. The railways opened a vast market to the British and facilitated export of Indian raw materials abroad. The railways connected the raw material producing areas with the exporting ports. As a result British goods flooded the Indian market.
Since land was the major source of revenue for them, the British thought of various means to get revenue from land. The colonial policy of intensifying land revenue demand led to a large number of peasants losing their land to revenue farmers, traders and moneylenders.
This was done through the Ryotwari and Mahalwari systems. Permanent Settlement of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa did not recognise the hereditary rights of the peasants on land. On the other hand, if they failed to pay 10/11th of the entire produce, their property could be sold off. To prevent this situation the peasants often borrowed money from the moneylenders at a high rate of interest.
Sometimes they even sold their property to the moneylenders. Even the officials harassed the peasants who dared not seek justice at the courts for fear of further harassment. The new class of zamindars that were created by the British became their political allies. They supported them in times of need and acted as buffers between the British and the people.
Some of them even supported the British against the freedom movement. The economic decline of peasantry and artisans was reflected in 12 major and numerous minor famines from 1770 to 1857. All these factors helped to spread an anti-British feeling which ultimately culminated in the revolt of 1857.
3. Social and Religious Causes
The British were not very sensitive to the feelings of the vast mass of Indian people. Social reforms against sati, female infanticide, widow re-marriage and education of woman, made many people unhappy.
With an objective to convert people the Christian missionaries opened schools and college. They also needed a population which was educated and modern enough to buy their goods, but not enough to prove detrimental to British interests. It made the people believe that the Government was in collusion with the missionaries to eradicate their religion and convert them to Christianity.
The passing of Act XXI of 1850 enabled converts to Christianity inherit ancestral property. The new law was naturally interpreted as a concession to Christian converts which further created anxiety and fear among the people.
The religious sentiments of the sepoys were hurt in 1806 in the Madras presidency. The Hindus were asked to remove their caste marks from their foreheads and the Muslims were asked to trim their beards. Though the sepoy uprising was put down, it was evident that the British neither understood nor cared for the Indian soldiers.
The loyalty of the sepoys was further undermined by certain military reforms which required them to serve overseas. This outraged their religious feelings. They had an aversion to overseas services, as travel across oceans meant loss of caste for them.
4. Discontent in the Army
The soldiers in the East India Company’s army came from peasant families which were deeply affected by the governments’ policies. Indian soldiers were not given posts above that of subedars. Some sepoys wanted special bhatta or allowance if sent on oversea duty. Sometimes they were paid, but most of the time they were not. Therefore, they started distrusting their officers.
These instances contributed in their own way to the revolt of 1857. The soldiers had other grievances too. They were paid salaries less than their English counterparts. As a result, the morale of the Indian sepoy was very low.
On the other hand, when the soldiers refused to cross the ‘black water’ that is oceans and seas because their religion forbade it, the British were ruthless on them.
5. Immediate Cause
Strong resentment was rising among the Indians and they were waiting only for an occasion to revolt. The stage was all set. Only a spark was needed to set it on fire. Introduction of greased cartridge in 1856 provided that fire.
The government decided to replace the old-fashioned musket, ‘Brown Bags’ by the ‘Enfield rifle’. The loading process of the Enfield rifle involved bringing the cartridge to the mouth and biting off the top.
There was a rumour among the Sepoys in January 1857 that the greased cartridge contained the fat of cow and pig. The cow is sacred to the Hindus and the pig is forbidden to the Muslims. The sepoys were now convinced that the introduction of greased cartridges was a deliberate attempt to defile Hindu and Muslim religion and their religious feelings.
This sparked off the revolt of sepoys on 29th March 1857.