Nature of the Revolt of 1857: Analysis

There are two major views regarding the nature of the Revolt of 1857. The British historians have treated the great uprising of 1857 as a sepoy mutiny. On the other hand, the staunch patriotic and nationalist Indian writers & historians regard the Revolt of 1857 as the First War of Indian Independence. However, the truth lies somewhere in between. In his Discovery of India, Jawaharlal Nehru maintains that the Revolt of 1857 was much more than a sepoy mutiny. Though initially it started as a mutiny of the Indian soldiers, the revolt spread rapidly and assumed the nature of a mass rebellion. Jawaharlal Nehru maintains that the Revolt of 1857 was essentially ‘a feudal uprising though there were some nationalistic elements in it’. Moderate historians also express similar opinion regarding the nature of the Revolt of 1857. There are some other views who described the Revolt as religious war or a racial struggle for the supremacy between the whites and the colored people a struggle between the oriental and occidental civilization, a Hindu-Muslim conspiracy to overthrow the British rule; a conflict between feudalism and imperialism. In order to understand the nature of the Revolt of 1857 it is important to examine the opinions of the different historians.

Whether it was a sepoys Mutiny?

The British historians Sir John Lawrence and Seeley, considered it nothing more than a sepoy mutiny. According to Seeley, the Revolt of 1857 was a wholly unpatriotic and selfish sepoys mutiny with no native leadership and no popular support. He further maintains that it was a rebellion of the Indian sepoys. Some states, which had grievances against their annexation, also joined the rebellion. However, the British government succeeded in suppressing the revolt.

This interpretation is not correct. Though the greased cartridges triggered the rebellion, it was only an immediate cause. As part of the Indian society, the sepoys had many other grievances than their service conditions. The Revolt of 1857 cannot be termed as a mutiny in the ordinary sense of the term. In many areas, the sepoys were joined by other elements of the society including Zainindars and orthodox sections of the Hindus and the Muslims, peasant, dispossessed princes and many other people.

Whether it was a Hindu-Muslim conspiracy to overthrow the British Rule?

Sir James Outram, described the Revolt of 1857 as the result of the Hindu- Muslim conspiracy. Malleson held the view that Maulavi Ahmadulla of Faizabad

Nana Sahib, and the Rani of Zansi had entered into negotiations before the uprising of 1857. The wide circulation of chapatis, regarded an important evidence in favor of the organized conspiracy. However, there is no reliable evidence to prove that there was a genuine Hindu-Muslims conspiracy against the British rule.

Whether it was a war of Races between the Blacks and the Whites?

Some English historians have described the Revolt of 1857, as a war of races, it was a struggle between the whites and the blacks. However, this view is also not correct No doubt; all the whites in India irrespective of their nationality were on one side, but not all the Black. As Captain J.G. Medley points out that there were many black people for every white man in the British camp. In the British war camps, Indians were employed as cooks, and palanquin-bearers-who carried the white wounded sepoys out of the danger zone. Moreover, there was a considerably large number of Indian solders in the company’s army that took part in the suppression of the rebellion, It would not be wrong to say that it was a war between the Black on one side and the White rulers backed by other Black on the other side.

Whether the revolt was a War between Feudalism and Imperialism?

Jawaharlal Nehru says that the Revolt of 1857 was essentially a feudal outburst headed by feudal chiefs and their followers and aided by the widespread anti foreign sentiments. There is no doubt that the people and the sepoys had a number of grievances against the British. However, their response was not uniform. It was varied from region to region) especially in the urban centers of Bombay, Madras and Calcutta where the intellectual ferment had its impact were generally less affected than the areas where the landed interest were predominant. This contrast in the attitude of the new educated elite and the landed class was observed as early as in 1828.

The Revolt of 1857 can be viewed as a conflict between a feudalism and strong imperialism. Theoretically, if the Revolt of 1857 succeeded in driving out the British from this country, they would have been replaced by the feudal class under the nominal emperor of Delhi. The Indian feudal order was the first to challenge, and declare war upon, the British trading company when it started assuming the imperialist role.

During the Revolt of 1857 also those among the ruling princes who were adversely affected by the application of the Doctrine of Lapse. The landed aristocracy, who were affected by the land laws introduced by the British, became active during the Revolt of 1857.

Whether it was the First War of India Independence?

The Indian historians like V.D. Savarkar, in his book The Indian War of Independence and Ashok Mehta in his book, 1857 The Great Rebellion describe the Revolt of 1857 as a planned war of national independence.  The sepoys were the chief players in the rebellion. A large number of Indians participated in this struggle of independence from an alien rule. Several national leaders further elaborated the perfect accord and harmony between the Hindus and the Muslims for freedom from the British domination. They have presented the following arguments in support of their view:-

  • They point out that millions of Indians actively participated in this rebellion. The number of civilians killed was as large as that of the sepoys. They joined the rebellion with the sole intention of liberating their country from the tyranny of the British rule.
  • Those who helped the British in suppressing the revolt had to face social ostracism, and those, who could not join the Great rebellion, did not cooperate with the British.
  • The decisive evidence showing the national character of the rebellion is the communal harmony it struck in both the Hindus and the Muslims of the time. Even the British Government found it very difficult to separate the two communities from each other.

Thus, both Vir Savarkar and Ashok Mehta have tried to portray the Great rebellion as the “First Indian National War of Independence”. In the words of Dr. S. B. Choudhury, the leaders of the rebellion of 1857 looked beyond their own immediate circle, and showed a combination of wide vision and patriotic solidarity. Even a contemporary Conservative leader in England, described the Revolt of 1857 as a national uprising.

To ascribe the nature of the Revolt of 1857 as the first war of Indian independence may not be entirely correct. Though in certain areas the revolt assumed the character of popular rising and constituted a danger to the British power, it was poorly organized. Each of the leaders of the uprising fought for their regional or personal or class interests. The absence of unity of purpose and cohesion among the different sections and local character of the uprising does not fully qualify the Revolt of 1857 as the first war of Indian Independence.

1857 Mutiny was example of the struggle for freedom without any communal bias.

According to Maulana Azad, “Two facts stand out early in the midst the tangled story of the Rising of 1857. The First is the remarkable sense of unity among the Hindus and the Muslims of India in this period. The other is the deep loyalty which the people felt for the Mughal Crown’. The ‘Friendly relationship’ exhibited by the Hindus and Muslims during the uprising of 1857 was a significant phenomenon, in India at that time. Loyalty to Babadur Shah II as the emperor of India and issued all orders in his name as his suhhdar.

The Revolt was not wholly a National War of Independence

Dr. Mujumdar and Dr. Sen agree that, in the middle of the nineteenth century, nationalism in India was yet in its infancy. There was no feeling of nationalism, as we know it today. In 1857, the Bengalis, the Punjabis, the Marathas the Madrasis, and Rajputs never felt even for a movement that they all belonged to one and the same nation. Dr. Sen, in fact went to the extent of saying: “India in the first half of the nineteenth century was a geographical expression. This is proved by the few facts.

  • Bahadur Shah II was not a national King. He was in fact, ‘the king of no land”. He was compelled by the Indians sepoys to assume their leadership.
  • Nana Sahib raised the banner of revolt only when his envoy, failed to get for him the pension, which had been sanctioned to Baji Rao II, the Maratha Peshwa
  • Rani Lakshmi Bai revolted because of the annexation of Jhansi. The Rani, no doubt, died a hero’s death, but at no stage did she ever suggest that her cause was the national cause.
  • Nawab of Oudh could never think of assuming national leadership. He stooped so low that he placed his turban at the feet of the English.
  • The Taluqdars of Oudh raised the banner of revolt for the revival and restoration of their feudal privilege and those of the Nawab of Oudh and not for any national cause.

Most of them raised the banner of revolt to protect and promote their own interests. When the defeat of the British seemed imminent, the conflicting regional and class loyalties of the rebel leaders and the masses reappeared on the surface, which weakened the anti-British front. Moreover, the greater part of India and the majority of the people remained apathetic and neutral. It is abundantly clear that the Great Rebellion was not wholly a war of Indian National Independence Dr. Sen, however, has pointed out that national revolutions are mostly the work of a minority, with or without the active support of the masses. Such was the case with the French Revolution From that point of view; the Great rebellion can claim a national character.

The Revolt was more than a mere sepoy Mutiny

S.N. Sen and Dr. R.C. Mujumdar have given an objective and balanced view that the sepoy mutiny assumed the character of a revolt and assumed a political dimension when the mutineers of Meerut after proceeding to Delhi declared the restoration of the Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah II, and the landed aristocracy and civil population declared their loyalty in his favor. What began as a right for religion ended in a war of independence, for there is not the slightest doubt that the rebels wanted to get rid of the alien government and restore the old order of which the Mughal emperor was the rightful representative.

Prof. Bipan Chandra is of the view that the revolt of the sepoys was accompanied by a rebellion of the civil population particularly in the Northwestern Provinces and Oudh, the two regions from which the sepoys of the Bengal army were recruited. The civil rebellion had a broad social base embracing all sections of the society and the revolt of the sepoys thus, resulted in a popular uprising In spite of the limitations and weaknesses the effort of the sepoys to liberate the country from foreign rule was a patriotic act.


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