Sunday, 8 May 2016

1857 - First War of Independence: The Retrospect

“Among the many lessons the Indian mutiny conveys to the historian, none is of greater importance than the warning that it is possible to have a Revolution in which Brahmins and Sudras, Hindus and Mahomedans, could be united against us…”
~ George William Forrest, British historian

What British call the 'Sepoy Mutiny', was the first war independence for India. On 10th May 1857, commenced this war from which many revolutionaries drew their inspiration in the later period. Whether it was mutiny or war, whether it was failed or not, one thing is certain - it changed the course of politics in British India. That is what makes this war an important event in the India's struggle for independence. Let us have retrospect of this war.

Why it happened:
The immediate reason is well-known. The Company introduced new Enfield rifle, which required to bite the cartridge for loading the rifle. The grease used on these cartridges had (or was rumoured to have) tallow derived from beef which was offensive to Hindus and pork which was offensive to Muslims. Mangal Pandey refused to use the rifle and was hanged for his defiance. This made a way for the unrest among the soldier. In several other military cantonments,Indian soldiers refused to use new cartridges. In Meerut, 85 men were court martialled and humiliated on 9th May. The next day, the Indian troops led by 3rd Bengal Light Cavalry broke into revolt. They freed the 85 comrades from the jail and 800 other prisoners. After taking over the Meerut, they headed straight for Delhi.

But this was just an incidental reason. In reality, there was unrest among soldiers as well as civilians. There were rumours about Government's secret designs to promote conversions to Christianity. The official-missionary nexus gave credence to it. In some cantonments, missionaries were permitted to preach openly and their diatribe against other religions angered the soldiers.

Moreover, soldiers were unhappy with their emoluments. This was further aggrieved by the sense of deprivation compared to his British counterpart. Indian soldiers were made to feel subordinated and were discriminated against racially and in matters of promotion and privileges.

The grievances of peasants added to the unrest. Every soldier was the peasant in uniform. As the situation of peasants was worsening, it was getting reflected into the unrest among soldiers.

All this added to the incidental reasons commenced the war, which spread rapidly to the north Indian regions.

Role of Nobility:
British had antagonised princes, by greatly depriving their rights. 'Doctrine of Lapse' refused to recognise adopted children of princes as legal heirs. Due to this, many princes lost their titles. In areas of Central India, where such losses of privilege had not occurred, the princes remained loyal to the Company.

This is why nobility was ready to take the leadership of the revolt/war. In fact, there is one school of history which believes that the war was not merely a mutiny, but a planned conspiracy against the British rule initiated by Indian princes.

On 11th May, after capturing Delhi, soldiers appealed to the Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah II, to become their leader, thus giving legitimacy to their cause. Similarly, Nana Saheb, the last adopted son of Peshwa Baji Rao II, was leading in Kanpur. Begum Hazrat Mahal took the reigns at Lucknow. In Bihar, 70-years old Kunwar Singh, the zamindar of Jagdishpur, was leading the soldiers. The most outstanding leader of 1857 was Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi. The valour shown by her in the war made her name immortal.

Why it failed:
Though revolt spread rapidly in North India, it remained confined to the North. Most of the south India was indifferent. Even in the North India, Punjab and Bengal were not much affected. It is even said that British could not have won the war if Sikh soldier had not remained loyal to the Company. Almost half of the Indian soldiers not only did not revolt but also fought against their own countrymen.

For more than a year, soldiers carried on their struggle against heavy odds. They had no source of arms and ammunition. They were often forced to fight with swords and pikes, whereas their enemy had most modern weapons. They had no quick communication systems due to which no coordination was possible. Consequently, they were unaware of the strength and weaknesses of their compatriots. Everyone was left to play a lonely hand.

With such odds, there was never a chance for a victory. But still soldiers carried the struggle for more than year.

Indian soldiers were brutally killed without any trial.  The exaggerated figures of atrocities by Indian soldiers appalled the Brtish public who felt British actions as just. Bahadur Shah was tried and exiled to Rangoon.

The rebellion saw the end of the East India Company's rule in India. In August, by the Government of India Act 1858, the company was formally dissolved and its ruling powers over India were transferred to the British Crown. A new British government department, the India Office, was created to handle the governance of India, and its head, the Secretary of State for India, was entrusted with formulating Indian policy. The Governor-General of India gained a new title, Viceroy of India.

British Crown wanted to make sure that no such uprising would happen again. British minimized the religious intervention. To increase the consultation between ruler and ruled, they introduced some political changes drawing Indians into government at a local level. Of course, this was on a limited scale.

And the most importantly, British reorganized the army. The Bengal army dominated the Indian army before 1857 and a direct result after the rebellion was the scaling back of the size of the Bengali contingent in the army. The Brahmin presence in the Bengal Army was reduced because of their perceived primary role as mutineers. Before the rebellion, each Bengal Native Infantry regiment had 26 British officers, who held every position of authority down to the second-in-command of each company. Now there were fewer European officers, but they associated themselves far more closely with their soldiers while more responsibility was given to the Indian officers. The British increased the ratio of British to Indian soldiers within India. From 1861 Indian artillery was replaced by British units, except for a few mountain batteries. The post-rebellion changes formed the basis of the military organisation of British India until the early 20th century.

Had it been succeeded:
We can do just a guesswork here. Bahadur Shah was recognized as the Emperor by all rebel leaders. This would have helped to hold India with unity. In Delhi, the court of administrators was established during the war which was responsible for all the matters of state. All decisions were taken by the majority vote. British official described it as a constitutional monarchy. So India could have expected to get rid of slavery as well as a dictatorship. Ruled by natives, the industrialization might have started early, the famines might have been managed better and overall economy could have flourished.

On the flip side, we can't be sure for how long the unity would have remained intact. It is perfectly possible that once the foreign power was eliminated, all princely states would have fought each other leading to a war-ridden country. India would have again been disintegrated into princely states who were at each other's throat.

But these are all imaginations now. Both sides have written an innumerable account of the war (sometimes exaggerating the atrocities committed by opponents). The only truth which certain is that Indian soldiers showed unprecedented valour, rose up against the mighty empire, fought fearlessly and were ruthlessly crushed in the end. 

First war of independence witnessed many gems like Tatia Tope, Nana Saheb, Rani Laxmibai and all those unsung heroes of the war who sacrificed their lives for the freedom.

Salute to those brave hearts!

  • India's Struggle for Independence by Bipin Chandra
  • 1857 war of independence by Sawarkar

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