Licchavi Lyceum


Licchavi Lyceum

Revolt of 1857

The revolt of 1857 was an attempt to remove the foreign rule in India. The revolutionaries made Bahadur Sah Jafar their leader. The revolt started at Merrut and spread across north India and west India. South India remained unaffected by the revolt.

 Political Causes

  • Subsidiary Alliance (Wellesely): Nizam of Hyderabad was the first to fall under it. It made it mandatory for a ruler to – Maintain military force trained by company but paid by ruler and prohibition of establishing relation with other European nations
  • Refusal of Recognition as king: After demise of Bahadurshah Jafar, British refused to recognize his descendants as ‘Kings’ (but only as ‘Princes’). His name was also removed from coins.
  • Doctrine of Lapse of Dalhousie: Annexations and Loss of Sovereignty – In Jhansi, Lakshmibai declared her adopted son as heir of her kingdom. 
  • Ban on PensionNana saheb claimed pensions of on behalf of his father after his demise. However, company refused to entertain it.
  • Annexation of Awadh in 1856 caused much resentment and also created panic among local rulers, humiliation of their ruler, forced people to join the mutiny. 

Economic Causes

  • Peasant Dissatisfaction – Farmers were also dissatisfied due to oppressive farm loans by planters and coercive farm practices like beggar, high land revenues.
  • Permanent Settlement – Zamindari System also didn’t helped and it led to rise of Money Lenders Class and growth in indebtedness of farmers and atrocities of money lenders. It led to ‘absentee landlordism’ and rise of ‘tenancy’ and ‘share cropping’.
  • Drain of Wealth – This was later highlighted by likes of Dadabhai Naroji and R C Dutt and it was felt that British rule is to the detriment of Indians and Indian wealth was gradually drained to Britain.
  • Ruin of traditional and handicraft industry: Leading to unemployment. 

Religious Causes and Cultural Causes

  • In 1850, government enacted a law that enabled a convert to Christianity to inherit the ancestral property.
  • On religious front also, Indians resented British policies. Further, British – in a bid to reform the Indian society, promoted Christianity, this also resented people and were seen as an attack on religion. ‘Religious Disability Act’, 1856 was passed, it legalized conversion.
  • An 1856 Act was passed under which a new recruit was required to serve even overseas and it was anti-religion to Hindus.
  • Sati was banned, widow remarriage was allowed (Widow Remarriage Act, 1856) and reforms were seen as anti-religion campaign. 
  • Intrusion of missionaries was seen as interference in their religious beliefs.

Administrative Causes

  • Sepoys of the company were also discontented. They were unhappy about their pay, allowances and conditions of service. Sepoys also reacted to what was happening in the countryside. Many of them were peasants and had families living in the villages. So the anger of the peasants quickly spread among the sepoys. 
  • Racial nature and access to only menial jobs
  • Alien Rule – the very fact that British rule was alien hurt the self-respect of Indians.
  • Immediate Causes
  • Rumours of Bone mixed in flour, Cow/Pig fat coated cartridges in Enfield rifles.
  • Treatment of soldiers
  • Indian troops were in majority and European troops were also busy in war in Europe


On 29 March 1857, a young soldier, Mangal Pandey, was hanged to death for attacking his officers in Barrackpore. Some days later, some sepoys of the regiment at Meerut refused to do the army drill using the new cartridges, which were suspected of being coated with the fat of cows and pigs. (There were other rumours like British hatching a plan to mass corruption of religion of Hindus and Muslims, rumours of forced conversion were also doing round and this added fuel to fire.

People were already offended by the treatment meted out to their kings, customs and sentiments, arrival of missionaries and later rumours hasten the process of revolt). Eighty-five sepoys were dismissed from service and sentenced to ten years in jail for disobeying their officers. This happened on 9 May 1857. The response of the other Indian soldiers in Meerut was quite extraordinary.

On 10 May, the soldiers marched to the jail in Meerut and released the imprisoned sepoys. They attacked and killed British officers. They captured guns and ammunition and set fire to the buildings and properties of the British and declared war on the firangis.

However sepoys saw a leadership crisis post rebellion. The solution was seen in the aging Mughal emperor Bahadurshah Zafar. The sepoys of Meerut rode all night of 10 May to reach Delhi in the early hours next morning.

As news of their arrival spread, the regiments stationed in Delhi also rose up in rebellion. Again British officers were killed, arms and ammunition seized, buildings set on fire. 

Triumphant soldiers gathered around the walls of the Red Fort where the Badshah lived, demanding to meet him. The emperor was not quite willing to challenge the mighty British power but the soldiers persisted. They forced their way into the palace and proclaimed Bahadur Shah Zafar as their leader.

The ageing emperor had to accept this demand. He wrote letters to all the chiefs and rulers of the country to come forward and organise a confederacy of Indian states to fight the British. This single step taken by Bahadur Shah had great implications. British thought the disturbance caused by the issue of the cartridges would die down. But Bahadur Shah Zafar’s decision to bless the rebellion changed the entire situation dramatically. Often when people see, an alternative possibility they feel inspired and enthused. It gives them the courage, hope and confidence to act. 

The rebellion was seen as a war in which both Hindus and Muslims had equally to lose or gain. The ishtahars harked back to the pre-British Hindu-Muslim past and glorified the coexistence of different communities under the Mughal Empire. The proclamation that was issued under the name of Bahadur Shah appealed to the people to join the. It was remarkable that during the uprising religious divisions between Hindus and Muslim were hardly noticeable despite British attempts to create such divisions.

The fight was against everything that was British and there was an attempt to overthrow the existing hierarchy.

Rebellion Spreads

After the British were routed from Delhi, there was no uprising for almost a week. It took that much time for news to travel. Then, a spurt of mutinies began, Regiment after regiment mutinied and took off to join other troops at nodal points like Delhi, Kanpur and Lucknow. After them, the people of the towns and villages also rose up in rebellion and rallied around local leaders; zamindars and chiefs who were prepared to establish their authority and fight the British. 

  1. Kanpur – Nana Saheb, the adopted son of the late Peshwa Baji Rao who lived near Kanpur away from his Maratha kingdom, gathered armed forces and expelled the British garrison from the city. He proclaimed himself Peshwa. He declared that he was a governor under Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar. 
  1. Lucknow – In Lucknow, Birjis Qadr, the son of the deposed Nawab Wajid Ali Shah of Awadh, was proclaimed the new Nawab. He too acknowledged the suzerainty of Bahadur Shah Zafar. His mother Begum Hazrat Mahal took an active part in organizing the uprising against the British. 

III. Jhansi – In Jhansi, Rani Lakshmibai joined the rebel sepoys and fought the British along with Tantia Tope, the general of Nana Saheb.

  1. Ahmadullah Shah, a maulvi from Faizabad, prophesied that the rule of the British would come to an end soon. He was a native of Madras where he preached armed rebellion. He caught the imagination of the people and raised a huge force of supporters. He came to Lucknow to fight the British. In Delhi, a large number of ghazis or religious warriors came together to wipe out the white people. 
  1. Bakht Khan, a soldier from Bareilly, took charge of a large force of fighters who came to Delhi. He became a key military leader of the rebellion.
  1. Kunwar Singh from Jagdishpur, Bihar, joined the rebel sepoys and battled with the British for many months. Leaders and fighters from across the land joined the fight.

The pattern of rebel at places suggests that there was some form of communication and planning.

The British were greatly outnumbered by the rebel forces. They were defeated in a number of battles. This convinced the people that the rule of the British had collapsed for good and gave them the confidence to take the plunge and join the rebellion.

There was an attempt to restore the Mughal era order, revenue collection, administration etc. were tried to be restored. Orders were issued to stop looting and plundering. However this was short lived.


Company’s Response

It brought reinforcements from England, passed new laws so that the rebels could be convicted with ease, and then moved into the storm centres of the revolt. Not only the police and military personnel, but ordinary Britons were empowered to punish the Indians suspected of rebellion. Rebellion had only one punishment – Death.

Delhi was recaptured from the rebel forces after 4 months in September 1857. The last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar was tried in court and sentenced to life imprisonment. His sons were shot dead before his eyes. He and his wife Begum Zinat Mahal were sent to prison in Rangoon in October 1858.


Bahadur Shah Zafar died in the Rangoon jail in November 1862.

The recapture of Delhi, however, did not mean that the rebellion died down after that. People continued to resist and battle the British. The British had to fight for two years to suppress the massive forces of popular rebellion. They used not only military force to suppress rebellion, they also used divisive tactics, and they promised landlords to give them their lost land back.

Lucknow was taken in March 1858. Rani Lakshmibai was defeated and killed in June 1858. Tantia Tope escaped to the jungles of central India and continued to fight a guerrilla war with the support of many tribal and peasant leaders. He was captured, tried and killed in April 1859.

Just as victories against the British had earlier encouraged rebellion, the defeat of rebel forces encouraged desertions. The British also tried their best to win back the loyalty of the people. They announced rewards for loyal landholders would be allowed to continue to enjoy traditional rights over their lands. Those who had rebelled were told that if they submitted to the British, and if they had not killed any white people.

Causes of Failure

  1. Apathy of Many Indian Rulers – like Scindia and Holkar. If Sindhia would have revolted all Maratha forces would have joined against British, situation would have been different. Similarly, Nizam of Hyderabad sided with the British.
  2. Lack of leadership was also there, Bahadur Shah Jafar was an accidentally made reluctant leader.

III. There was a lack of popular support also.

  1. Middle class and upper class was critical of the revolt.
  2. Since moneylenders were chief targets also, hence they sided British. Similarly, Zamindars also remained loyal to the British.
  3. Unorganised nature of the revolt

VII. Dated weaponry

Nature of the Revolt

Two views are prominent on the nature of the revolt –

  1. Nationalist School – Termed the revolt as a true nationalist movement and the first war of Indian Independence. They said that since it united India more or less under a single ruler – Bahadur Shah Jafar – it was a true assertion of nationalist identity of whole India. Sarkar, Tilak viewed the revolt so.
  1. Apologistic School – They argue that till that time India didn’t have a true nationalist identity and princely states had their own separate identity and parochial interests in the revolt. Revolt was spontaneous and everyone had his or her own vested interests. Education class and urban areas largely stayed away. South India also did not participate.

It is commented by some that the movement didn’t had a uniform ideology and goal. The sepoys were fighting for their caste and religion, the chiefs for their kingdoms, the landed elite for their estates, masses against the fear of conversion and Muslims wanted to restore the old glorious order.

As a result, once the movement was suppressed, there were no attempt to reunite, as there was no common goal.

Aftermaths of the Rebellion

Following were the prominent changes that were brought about –

  1. Power Transfer & End of Company RuleThe British Parliament passed a new Act in 1858 and transferred the powers of the East India Company to the British Crown in order to ensure a more responsible management of Indian affairs.

A member of the British Cabinet was appointed Secretary of State for India and made responsible for all matters related to the governance of India.

He was given a council to advise him, called the India Council. The Governor-General of India was given the title of Viceroy, that is, a personal representative of the Crown and he was put under Secretary of State.

Through these measures the British government accepted direct responsibility for ruling India.

Queen’s ProclamationAll ruling chiefs of the country were assured that their territory would never be annexed in future. They were allowed to pass on their kingdoms to their heirs, including adopted sons. However, they were made to acknowledge the British Queen as their Sovereign Paramount. Thus the Indian rulers were to hold their kingdoms as subordinates of the British Crown.

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