The Revolt of 1857 which is called ‘Sepoy Mutiny’, ‘Great Revolt’ and the ‘First War of Indian Independence‘ is the watershed in the history of pre-independent and early colonial India.
The various causes of the Mutiny of 1857 can be classified into several heads such as political, administrative, economic, Socio-religious, military and immediate causes. They have been briefly discussed here:
Discontent generated by East India Company’s Conquests
The East India Company created a lot of discontent and disaffection among the dispossessed ruling families and their successors by her conquest A large number of dependents on the ruling families who lost their means of livelihood and other common people were disillusioned and disaffected with the alien rule. Lord Dalhousie annexed the Punjab and added humiliation to the ruling family. Dalip Singh, the minor son of Ranjit Singh, the founder of the Sikh Kingdom of the Punjab, was deposed, and exiled to England. The properties of the Lahore Darbar were auctioned
Doctrine of Lapse
By applying the Doctrine of Lapse, Dalhousie annexed the principalities of Satara, Jaipur, Sambhalpur, Bhagat, Udaipur, Jhansi, and Nagpur. These measures manifested the lack of sensitivity of the British towards the ancient right of adoption among the Hindus.
Lord Dalhousie annexed the kingdom of Oudh in 1856 on the pretext of mismanagement. The dethronement of Wajid Ali Shah sent a wave of resentment and anger of throughout the country. The state was exploited economically and the Nawabs were reduced to a position of complete dependency on the British. Thus the Nawabs, neglected the administration of the state, which was used as an excuse by Dalhousie to merge it with the British Empire.
Humiliation of the Mughals
Since 1803, the Mughal emperors had been living under the British protection and their claims to honour and precedence were recognized. However, there was a gradual change in the relationship between the Mughal emperor and the governors-general. Lord Amherst made it clear to the emperor, that his Kingship was nominal; it was merely out of courtesy that he was addressed as King.
Moreover, the emperor was forced to give up residence in the Red Fort, and abandon his prerogative of naming his successor. The treatment meted out by Company to the Mughal emperor greatly alienated the Muslims who felt that the British wanted to humble their emperor. Thus, it was not surprising that the Muslims and the Hindus, felt resentful at the humiliation of the nominal Mughal emperors.
Suspension of Pension of Indian princes and rulers
The annual pension of Rani Jindan the Queen of Maharaja Ranjit Singh was reduced from 15,000 pounds to 1,200 pounds. The pension to Nana Sahib and of Lakshmi Bai, of Jhansi was suspended. The titular sovereignty of the Nawab of Carnatic and Tanjore was also abolished. This led them to oppose the British.
Bitter Taste of the Rule of Law
The British introduced the Rule of Law, which implied the principle of equality in the eyes of the law irrespective of the high and the low, the rich and the poor, the weak and the strong. This was a new system which resented by the rich and strong. On the other hand, the poorer and the weaker sections did not get any benefit from the new system due to complicated procedure of the British administration.
Unpopular British Administration
The English officials were not accessible to the people. Thus, the people could not place their grievances before them, as they did during the period of the Mughals. The people also disliked the new system of British administration which functioned as a machine and lacked personal touch. The English laws were quite strange and the common people could not understand them.
Exclusion of Indians from Administrative Posts
The British were of the opinion that the Indians were not suitable for the higher posts in their administrative structure. They lacked faith in the sincerity of the Indians. Contempt for Indian and racial prejudice were other reasons why the Indians were denied higher positions in the administration. Thus, complete exclusion of Indians from all position of trust and power in the administration, and the manning of all higher offices both in the civil government and the military forces by the British brought forth discontent and a sense of humiliation among the people.
Ruin of the Mercantile Class
The British deliberately crippled Indian trade and commerce by imposing high tariff duties against Indian goods. On the other hand, they encouraged the import of British goods to India. As a result by the middle of the nineteenth century Indian exports of cotton and silk goods practically came to an end.
Destruction of Indian Manufacturers
The British policy of promoting the import of cotton goods to India from England destructed all Indian manufacturers, in the cotton textile industry. When British goods flooded Indian market and threatened the outright destruction of Indian manufacturers, the East India Company’s government that ruled India did not take any step to prevent the tragedy. Several Englishmen were of the opinion that free trade and refusal to impose protective duties against machine-made goods of England ruined Indian manufacturers.
Pressure on Land
The millions of ruined artisans and craftsmen, spinners, weavers, smelters, smiths and others from town and villages, had no alternative but to pursue agricultural activity that led to a pressure on land. India was transformed from being a country of agriculture in to an agricultural colony of British Empire.
Impoverishment of peasantry
Land being the chief source of income for Indians the East India company introduced various experiments and measures to extract the maximum share of agricultural produce. Various methods of revenue settlement led to the impoverishment and misery of the peasants. They were exploited by moneylenders, who usually confiscated their land for failure to repay their debt. English settlers monopolized plantation industries like indigo and tea. The inhuman treatment of the indigo cultivators by the European plantation owners was one of the darkest and most tragic episodes in the history of British rule in India. The economic policies of the British affected the interests of the Indian traders, the manufacturers, craftsmen and the peasants.
The British policy of social exclusiveness and arrogant manner towards the Indians created discontent among the Indians. The British forced every native to salute all Englishmen in the streets. If native was on horseback or in a carriage, he had to dismount and stand in a respectful position until the Englishman had passed him. This was an unwritten law through British India. The British could insult, injure, assault and even kill Indian subjects.
Lord William Bentinck abolished the practice of sati in 1829, with the support of educated and enlightened Indians such as Raja Ram Mohan Roy Lord canning enacted the widow Remarriage Act, drafted by Lord Dalhousie in 1856. These legislation were viewed by the orthodox sections in the society as interference by the British in their social and religious practice The two laws of 1832 and 1850, removing disabilities due to change of religion, particularly conferring the right of inheritance to change of religion, particularly conferring the right of inheritance to Christian converts, were quite unpopular among the Hindus.
There was a strong movement grew in England to spread Christianity in India and convert its Hindus and Muslims subjects to that faith. By the Charter Act of 1813, Christian missionaries were permitted to enter the Company’s territories in India to propagate their religion and spread Western education. The Christian missionaries took every opportunity to expose the abuses in the Hindu as well as the Islamic religion. They denounced idolatry, ridiculed the Hindu gods and goddesses and criticized the philosophy and principals of Hinduism and Islam. The teaching of Christian doctrines was made compulsory in educational institutes run by the missionaries. Thus, the interference of the British authorities in social customs and practices through social legislation and the encouragement given by the government to Christian missionaries in their proselytizing activities created a sense of apprehension and hatred in the minds Indians.
The sepoys in the East India Company’s army had a number of grievances, which led to the Revolt of 1857. The sepoys of the Bengal army, were Brahmins and Rajputs had special grievances of their own. Among them were unsatisfactory conditions of service, encroachment upon their religious customs, and offences against their dignity and self-respect.
They had a strong sense of resentment, as their scale of salary was very low compared to their English counterparts. In the guise of enforcing discipline, the British authorities prohibited the Hindus and the Muslim sepoys displaying their religious marks. They were forbidden to wear vermilion mark on their forehead, or turban on their head. The Muslims sepoys were forced to shave off their beard. These restrictions wounded the religious sentiments of the sepoys.
Dental of Allowances
The British authorities used to withdraw the allowances after the conquest and annexation of a province and post the same troops in those very provinces on reduced salaries. These measures naturally demoralized the sepoys. In 1844 four Bengal regiments had refused to move to Sindh till extra allowance was sanctioned Mutinous spirit was also displayed in 1849 by the sepoys in various provinces.
The General Service Enlistment Act
The Indian soldiers nursed grievances against the British as they were forced to go on expedition to Burma and Afghanistan, which violated their religious scruples.
To live among Muslims and to take food and water from them was disliked to their ancient customs. Besides, crossing the seas was prohibited by the religion as the one who crossed the forbidden seas was bound to lose his caste.
In order to prevent any kind of resistance from the sepoys against their deployment abroad, Lord Canning’s government passed the General Service Enlistment Act in 1856. By this act all future recruits to the Bengal army were required to give an undertaking that they would serve anywhere their services required.
These factors prepared a general ground for discontent and disaffection among different section of the Indian people, which required a mere spark to explode into a conflagration. The greased cartridges provided this spark. In 1856, the government decided to replace the old fashioned muskets by the Enfield rifles In order to load the Enfield rifle, the greased wrapping paper of the cartridge had to be bitten off by the soldier. In January 1857, a rumor began to spread in the Bengal regiments that the greased cartridges contained the fat of cows and pigs. The sepoys became convinced that the introduction of the greased cartridge was a deliberate attempt to defile their religion. The cow was sacred to the Hindus, and the pig was a taboo for the Muslims. The sepoys refused to use these cartridges. The authorities regarded this act of defiance of the sepoys as an act of insubordination. The action was taken against them.