Salute the Heroes of the 1857 Indian War of Liberation
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of what has been correctly described as the First Indian War of Independence (1857-1859). It was the largest anti-colonial uprising anywhere in the world in the 19th century, engulfing about 35 per cent of the territory of present-day India. The whole of north-western, north and central India, corresponding to the present-day vast Indian provinces of UP (Uttar Pradesh), Bihar and MP (Madhya Pradesh), with a population of 50 million, accounting for a quarter of the population of British India, passed over to rebel control.
The revolt of 1857 was the product of the predatory policy of the British intruders in India, combined with the barbarous methods of exploitation. The colonial plunder caused the collapse of whole branches of the Indian economy and the resultant impoverishment of the masses of this vast, ancient and wealthy land. By neglecting public works, without which agriculture in the east is impossible, the East India Company ruined agriculture in the territories ruled by it. The unbearably high taxes on the peasantry, hand in hand with extortion, violence, cruelty and torture applied by the tax collector, added to the pauperisation and misery of the broad masses. Torture became an organ of Britain’s financial policy in India, and yet no part of the taxes gathered was spent on public works. Beginning with the early decades of the 19th century, millions of artisans were condemned to starvation through the break-up of local industries, especially the hand-weaving and the hand-spinning, which stood little chance of competing with the flood of cotton fabrics manufactured in the mills of Lancashire. Added to all this was the rapacious policy of expansion, aggression and annexation of independent Indian principalities practised by the Company. All these factors made for an explosive mix, which burst forth like a volcanic eruption in 1857. The general indignation of all sections of Indian society, driven to desperation by the brutal colonial exploitation,, assumed the form of the sepoy mutiny, for the sepoy army were merely peasants in uniform and represented the discontent of the peasantry, which supplied the bulk of the soldiers. Consequently, the mutiny was an expression of the popular uprising of the Indian people against the despised colonial rule. The sepoys were merely the tools behind which stood the people of India, who rallied to the struggle and provided the motive power for it.
Outbreak of the revolt
The revolt first began in Dumdum in Bengal, in January 1857. Then Mangal Pandey staged the first daring act of defiance in March at Barrackpore. The flames of the revolt spread to Lucknow by early May, and on 9 and 10 May a full-blown revolutionary conflagration broke out in Meerut. The Meerut sepoys occupied Delhi on 11 May – the occupation acting as a prelude to the decisive signal for the entire army to revolt. By marching to Delhi, gaining possession of the traditional centre of the Mughal Empire, by placing Bahadur Shah Zafar, the descendant of Akbar, the great Mughal emperor, on the throne, the rebels helped to create the most powerful ferment for completely breaking up the Bengal army and “…
spreading the mutiny and desertion … and in shaking the British authority from one end of India to the other
” (Karl Marx, ‘Revolt in India’, 17 July 1857,in Marx and Engels,
The First Indian War of Independence,
FLPH, Moscow, p.47 – this volume is hereafter referred to as M&E). In his article, ‘The revolt in the Indian army’, this is how Marx captured the momentous events surrounding the outbreak of the revolt, the mood of the Indian soldiers and the deep discontent of the Indian masses underpinning the revolt:
It is the first time that sepoy regiments have murdered their European officers; that Mussulmans and Hindus, renouncing their mutual antipathies, have combined against their common masters; that ‘disturbances beginning with the Hindus, have actually ended in placing on the throne of Delhi a Mohammedan Emperor'; that the mutiny has not been confined to a few localities; and lastly, that the revolt in the Anglo-Indian army has coincided with a general disaffection exhibited against English supremacy on the part of the great Asiatic nations, the revolt of the Bengal army being, beyond doubt, intimately connected with the Persian and Chinese wars”
Of the 135,000 Indian sepoys of the Bengal army, then the most modern army in Asia and the largest army in the British empire, 128,000 rebelled, while a mere 7,000 remained loyal. How are we to explain this rebellion by almost the whole of the Bengal army – this sword of British colonialism in India as well as abroad? The revolt was proceeded by endless wars of expansion and conquest by Britain in the wake of the 1832 parliamentary reforms which brought the industrial bourgeoisie into dominance and power – a period which some modern writers have characterised as the imperialism of free trade. During this period, the Bengal army was used as cannon fodder not only for the conquest of the remaining parts of India but also in battlefields abroad, from Afghanistan to China and Crimea. The East India Company used the Bengal army in the First Afghan War (1839-1842), the war to conquer Gwalior (1843), the Sindh (1844), the Anglo-Sikh wars of 1845-6 and 1848-9, which resulted in the annexation of Punjab, the second Burmese war (1852), which ended in the conquest of southern Burma, the opium wars (1840-2 and again in 1856) and the Crimean war. As a result, the Bengal army had been engaged in continuous combat, without any rest, for 18 years from 1839 to 1857.
First general centre of resistance
With the conquest of Sindh and the Punjab, the British empire in India had reached its natural limits and, into the bargain, destroyed the last traces of independent Indian states. With the overthrow of the king of Oudh and the annexation of his kingdom in 1856 by the East India Company, in violation of all existing treaties, it was clear beyond doubt that the remnants of the so-called independent Indian principalities existed merely on sufferance. The result was that the East India Company “… no longer attacked one part of India by the help of another part, but found itself placed at the head, and the whole of India at its feet” (M&E p.41). Consequently, the sepoy army no longer had to be engaged in the extension of the Company’s dominion, but only to keep it intact. From being soldiers, the sepoys were transformed into policemen – 200,000 sepoys, officered by Englishmen, keeping 200 million natives in a state of subjugation. In turn, the sepoy army was kept under control by an English army numbering only 40,000. Thus it is manifestly clear that the loyalty of the Indian people rested on the “… fidelity of the native army, in creating which the British rule simultaneously organised the first general centre of resistance which the Indian people was ever possessed of” (M&E p.42). This is precisely why the Indian revolt did not “… commence with the ryots [peasants], tortured, dishonoured and stripped naked by the British, but with the sepoys, clad, fed, petted, fatted and pampered by them”, in just the same way as the first blow struck at the French monarchy during the Great French bourgeois revolution of the late 18th century “… proceeded from the nobility, not from the peasants” (Marx, ‘The Indian Revolt’, M&E, p.95).
A national revolt
The native army on which the British authorities relied wholly for underpinning their rule in India, apart from being afflicted with war-weariness and fatigue, had other grudges against the colonial rulers. They sepoys were badly treated, racially abused, religiously insulted, denied all dignity as human beings, paid only a fraction of the salaries of British soldiers and stood absolutely no chance of promotion. The occasion for the spread of dissatisfaction, which grew into an open revolt against British rule in India, was the apprehension on the part of the sepoys about government interference with their religion. The issue by the government of cartridges said to have been greased with pig and ox fat, the compulsory biting of which was considered by the Indian soldiers to be an encroachment on their religious beliefs and commands, acted as a signal for local disturbances towards the end of January 1857, which quickly spread from the cantonments near Calcutta (22 January) to several places, such as Behrampore (25 February) and Barrackpore (end of March). The month of April witnessed incendiary fires in many cantonments of the Bengal army at Allahabad, Agra and Ambala. There were also some signs of disaffection in the Madras and Bombay armies and a mutiny by the 3rd Regiment of light cavalry at Meerut. This was quickly followed by the crowning events of 10 and 11 May, resulting in the occupation of Delhi by the insurgents. Soon thereafter, the Bengal army in its entirety was in revolt.
Although the cartridges greased with the offending fat served as the trigger for the revolt, it would be entirely wrong to conclude from this that the Bengal army’s revolt was merely a religious war against those professing a different religion. After all, the same soldiers of the Bengal army, who were incensed to the point of revolt at having to bite cartridges greased with pig and ox tallow when ordered to do so by the Company, had no compunction in using the biting method when firing against the British forces during the rebellion. The rejection of the greased cartridges was merely an expression of the pent-up anger and cumulative racial and religious humiliations, to say nothing of the brutal exploitation and robbery that they and other section of Indian society had been subjected to. Nor was it purely a military mutiny. When the mutinous Bengal army seized control of the Red Fort in Delhi and proclaimed Bahadur Shah the Emperor of Hindustan, it was sending a clear message that the Mughal king was the legitimate ruler of India and a symbol of authority, while the British were usurpers who had to be defeated and expelled from the country.
The revolutionary significance of the crowning of Bahadur Shah by the rebellious Bengal army was universally recognised and described by Charles Ball in these words:
“The Meerut sepoys in a moment found a leader, a flag and a cause. The mutiny was transformed into a revolutionary war
, Vol. 1 p.644; P.C Joshi,
1857 In our History
, CPI Publications, p.16). In the words of the historian Bipinchandra: “
With this single act, the sepoys transformed a mutiny into a revolutionary war
). Bahadur Shah, far from being an energetic, charismatic and prepossessing figure was, on the contrary, a dull old man, but none of that mattered in the unfolding historical struggle. As the rightful descendant of Akbar, the great Moghul, he was looked upon by the Indian feudal chiefs, as well as the masses, as the traditional sovereign of India. It was in recognition of that fact that the British, after Lord Lake crossed the Jamuna on 15 September 1803 and British troops entered Delhi for the first time, decided to retrain him as the shadow of the Mughal dynasty, no matter how little authority he actually wielded. But when it became clear that
“… the British intended to close the succession and disperse their families, the deepest feelings of Hindus and Mohammedans were roused
“The English were living over a volcano ready to burst into deadly violence at any moment”
(Sir T Metcalfe, Two Narratives of the Mutiny at Delhi, pp.18-19, quoted in P C Joshi,
. p. 17).
It was precisely in recognition of the same fact that the rebellious Indian soldiery decided to confer the crown on Bahadur Shah. In doing so, while they deprived the British of the ability to use this traditional symbol as a means of controlling and subjugating the Indian people, they appropriated and used this symbol in furtherance of their war against British rule. A crowned descendant of the Mughal dynasty, backed up by a well-trained and powerful army risen in revolt against foreign rule, became a rallying centre for all the seditious sections of Indian society. A Delhi liberated from British rule, and with a Moghul sitting on its throne in the Red Fort, was bound to, as it actually did, become a potent war cry for an independent Indian national state. It is a pity that some Indian historians and intellectuals do not recognise this – although thankfully their number has become much shrunken over the last few decades. The British authorities recognised the significance of this for them the most dangerous development. This is why they invested Delhi with so much importance and considered storming it such a priority, even though from a military point of view it did not deserve that significance. And to achieve this aim, Lawrence was prepared to denude Punjab, only recently conquered and still restive, of all troops and most able officers and commanders for the capture of Delhi. Similar considerations lay behind Elgin’s agreement to let Canning, the Governor General of India, have the use of all the British soldiers meant for Britain’s second opium war against the Chinese people, and even personally came down to Calcutta to boost the morale of the British army and the administration.
Another liberated regional state centre had been established at Lucknow. As a result, Delhi and Lucknow came to acquire great strategic importance in the strategy of the revolutionaries and the British alike. In the words of Metcalfe, “
Each corner of India where the soldiers mutinied had a special history of its own; but around Delhi and Lucknow, the greatest interest was centred. Upon one of these centres in North India, the rebel soldiers gradually converged, as regiment after regiment mutinied, and it was at Delhi that the question of English supremacy was virtually decided (ibid.
It was not just Lucknow, the capital, but all of Oudh that was up in arms against the British. According to the writer of the Red Pamphlet, “
Not only the regular troops but 60 thousand men of the army of the ex-king, the Zamindars
and their retainers, the 250 forts – most of them heavily armed with guns – had been working against us. They have balanced the rule of the Company with the Sovereignty of their own kings and have pronounced, almost unanimously, in favour of the latter. The very pensioners who have served in the army have declared against us and to a man joined in the insurrection”
(quoted in V D Savarkar,
Indian War of Independence
p.260, in Joshi pp. 18-19). Thus in Oudh, the colonial regime was up against a popular armed uprising spearheaded by the rebellious soldiers determined to establish a regional state and restore the traditional ruling dynasty by ousting the Company’s oppressive rule.
It is clear from the above that those who participated in the 1857 revolt were motivated chiefly by a desire to oust the hated rule of the Company and replace it be a national sovereign state of their own. It is this hatred of theirs for foreign rule, and the determination to replace it by indigenous rulers, which explains why they sought to bring back dethroned emperiors and kings to their old thrones, why they restored the Mughal King, the Maratha Peshwa, and the Nawab of Oudh, as their rulers. PC Joshi is absolutely correct in observing that in “…
the then existing situation the broadest national unity against British domination could only be forged by allying with the disinherited Baashahs
Peshwas and Nawabs… It was a very healthy national feeling to prefer our own rulers to the foreign rulers and to have the strength and confidence to deal with the failings and limitations of our rulers in our own way and according to our own strength. This is exactly what the Indian revolutionary leaders of 1857 did. Of course, they did not have, as they could not have, the conceptions and the ideas which the Indian national liberation movement or other colonial movements imbibed during the twentieth century, but to judge the 1857 national uprising in terms of the modern national emancipatory movements is unhistorical and unscientific on any account”
The rebellion by the Bengal army was an expression of the contradiction that the sepoys, on the one hand, had to act as the instruments of alien rule in India and, on the other hand, that they hailed from a society and a country where every section of the population, from the peasantry to the feudal chiefs and artisans, were being ruined at an ever-accelerating pace by the same alien power the instruments of whose domination they were. The soldiers were, after all, no more than peasants in uniform. Nearly a third (40,000) of the Bengal army came from Oudh, whose ruler, Wajid Ali Shah, had only recently been taken prisoner by an invading British army, dethroned while his kingdom was annexed to the territories of the East India Company, in complete violation of the existing treaties between Oudh and the Company, as well as of every legal norm of the law of nations. Whatever their own contradictions with the ruler of Oudh, the soldiers of the Bengal army, as indeed the feudal chiefs, must have been incensed at the outrageous spectacle of the ruler of a sizeable Indian principality being made a nonentity overnight by an overbearing alien intruder.
The denial by the East India Company of the validity of treaties which had been acknowledged as governing the relations between it and the Indian states, the violent seizure by it of independent territories in flagrant violation of existing treaties, and the confiscation of all land in the entire country, all these
“… treacherous and brutal modes of proceeding of the British towards the natives of India”,
wrote Marx in May 1958, “
are now beginning to avenge themselves…”
Alarmed by the actions of the East India Company, quite a number of rulers of Indian principalities, albeit belatedly, joined the revolt and played an honourable and heroic role in 1857-9 war of the Indian people against British colonial rule.
Nehru, the fist prime minister of India, believed the 1857 uprising to be essentially “
a feudal outburst, headed by feudal chiefs and their followers, aided by widespread anti-foreign sentiment (Discovery of India, p.324).
Even more curiously, the late EMS Namoodripad, a veteran of the communist movement in India, treated with near contempt the “…
bourgeois nationalists and nationalist historians”
for characterising the 1857-59 struggle as the “
first struggle for independence”,
on the spurious ground that the Madras and Bombay armies, far from Joining the rebellion, helped the British to suppress it, and that the revolt did not spread to the southern and eastern parts of India. Such sad opinions, to paraphrase the words of PC Joshi, were merely reflective of a strong malevolent influence of British historiography on Indian thinkers and scholars and of the weaknesses in Indian thought then still to be overcome.
Not a military mutiny but a national war
However, perceptive observers, both bourgeois and proletarian, at the time of the momentous events of 1857 recognised the revolt for what it was – not a military mutiny but a national war of liberation. In his article ‘The Indian Question’, dated 28 July 1857, Marx reproduces a brief analysis made by Disraeli, the then leader of the opposition in Britain, during a speech in the House of Common on 27 July concerning the question of
“the decline of the Anglo-Indian empire”.
: “Does the disturbance in India indicate a military mutiny, or is it a national revolt? Is the conduct of the troops the consequence of a sudden impulse, or is it the result of an organised conspiracy?” (M&E, p.53)
Disraeli then went on to affirm that British rule in India was founded on the principle of divide and rule, but that principle was put into effect through respect for different nationalities of India, non-interference in their religions, and respect for their landed property. But lately, said Disraeli, a new principle had been adopted by the government of India – the principle of destroying nationality, the forcible destruction of native princes, of the disturbance of the settlement of property, and tampering with the religion of the people.
In 1848, finding itself in financial difficulties, the Company had decided to augment its revenues by enlarging British territories at the expense of the native princes, resorting to this end to such measures as the refusal to recognise the right of adoptive heirs and annexing the territories whenever a native ruler died without natural heirs. Thus were forcibly absorbed in the Company’s dominions the Principalities of more than a dozen independent princes between 1848 and 1854, including the Principality of Berar, comprising 80,000 square miles of land and a population of 4-5 million, not to speak of its enormous treasures. Disraeli finished his list of forcible seizures with the annexation of Oudh, which brought the East India Company into collision with Hindus and Muslims alike. Since the principle of adoption was by no means the prerogative of the princes alone, but, on the contrary, applied to every Indian who had landed property and who professed the Hindu religion, all the land-holding sections of Indian society were terrified at the spectacle of the annexations of Principalities such as Satara and Berar.
“What man was safe?”,
asked Disraeli rhetorically (
In addition, the colonial government, again to augment its revenues, took it upon itself to examine the titles of Indian landed estates, consequent upon which the government resumed the estates from proprietors, which brought to the Company’s coffers additional revenues in excess of £1 million annually – an enormous sum for those days. Not content with forcible annexations of Principalities and the seizure of the property of the landholders, the government discontinued, in breach of its treaty obligations, the payment of pensions to native grandees.
said Disraeli, was
“… confiscation by a new means on a most extensive, startling and shocking scale
From the above premises, Disraeli arrived at the conclusion, quoted approvingly by Marx, “…
that the present disturbance
[the 1857 revolt]
is not a military mutiny, but a national revolt, of which the sepoys are the acting instruments only.”
Disraeli concluded by advising the government to make internal improvements in India instead of continuing along the course of aggression it was busy pursuing (see M&E p. 56).
Writing on 31 July 1857 (
Dispatches from India
), and emphasising the widespread scale of the revolt, the connection between it and the native princes, and the attempts of the British government to portray the rebellion as a mere military mutiny, Marx made the prescient observation: “
By and by there will ooze out other facts able to convince John Bull that what he considers a military mutiny is in truth a national revolt”
Marx ridicules all talk of the Indian masses sympathising with the British: “
As to the talk about the apathy of the Hindus, or even their sympathy with British rule, it is all nonsense”,
wrote Marx. He added that, while the princes were “
watching their opportunity”,
people in the whole Presidency of Bengal, where not kept in check by a handful of Europeans, are enjoying a blessed anarchy; but there is nobody against whom they could rise …”.
In any case, “…
that such a ramification of conspiracy as exhibited by the Bengal army could not have been carried on on such an immense scale without the secret connivance and support of the natives, seems as certain as that the great difficulties the English meet with in obtaining supplies and transports – the principal cause of the slow concentration of their troops – do not witness to the good feelings of the peasantry
(M&E, pp. 68-69).
The national character of the 1857 revolt was freely admitted to by some contemporary British historians and chroniclers. For instance, Justin McCarthy wrote: “
The fact was that throughout the great part of northern and north-western provinces of the Indian peninsula there was a rebellion of the native races against the English power. It was not the sepoy alone who rose in revolt – it was not by any means a merely military mutiny. It was a combination of military grievance, national hatred, and religious fanaticism against the English occupation of India. The native princes and native soldiers were in it. The Mohammedan and Hindu forgot their old religious antipathies to join against the Christian
” (Quoted in V D Savarker p.12; Joshi p.3)
In a communication, the secret committee of the Court of Directors of the East India Company wrote to the Governor-General on 19 April 1858 thus: “
war in the Oudh has derived much of its popular character from the sudden dethronement of the crown and the summary settlement of the revenue which deprived a large number of landlords of their lands.
“Under the circumstances, hostilities which have been carried on in Oudh have rather the character of legitimate war than of a rebellion” (
quoted in R C Majumdar,
The Sepoy Mutiny and the Revolt of 1857,
p.224; Joshi p.4).
Undoubtedly the revolt in Oudh was more advanced than elsewhere. In Oudh it had struck deep roots with a broad base of support and swept everything before it. But in other places too the people were face to face with the same enemy, similar problems and issues. The participants in these places and their leaders were not that dissimilar from those in Oudh. The difference was merely one of degree. In view of this, to admit that, while the revolt in Oudh was a war of liberation but elsewhere it was not makes no historical sense. At the same time,
“… scientific methodology demands that the true character of an uprising in a transitional period like India in 1857 be studied where it assumed the most advanced stage as in Oudh”
Such was the hatred of the masses for the Company’s rule that Indian officials serving in the rebel districts who sided with the British were treated as outcasts. They were not merely shunned but risked their lives if they dared visit their villages. Not surprisingly, most of them joined the rebellion actively or adopted an attitude of benevolent neutrality towards the rebels. On the British sack of Lucknow, some of the Begums (women of high rank) fell into British hands. On being asked by the Captain “
Do you not think that the struggle has come to an end?”,
: “On the contrary, we are sure that in the long run you will be beaten”
, My Diary in India in the year 1858-59,
Such defiance and cheerful optimism even in the midst of a major defeat testifies to the revolutionary spirit roused by the great national revolt. Some of the Indian scholars, as for instance Dr R C Majumdar, engrossed with the records of shabby deals between colonial authorities and some of the feudal leaders of the rebellion, their vision blinkered by an obsession with these deals, go on to condemn and damn the entire leadership. They are totally oblivious to the fact that the revolt of 1857 produced some truly remarkable and heroic figures of which every protagonist of liberty should be proud. The names of feudal rulers and leaders of the rebellion such as Nana Sahib, Tantia Tope, Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi, Bakht Ahmad Khan, Kunwar Singh and Amar Singh of Jagdishpur, have passed into Indian folklore and are much honoured, cherished and remembered with great warmth.
Even British historians felt obliged to pay homage to some of the rebel leaders. Malleson paid tribute to Maulavi Ahmadullah of Fyzabad in the following effusive terms:
The Maulavi was a very remarkable man… Of his capacity as a military leader many proofs were given during the revolt… No other man could boast that he had twice foiled Sir Colin Campbell in the field! If a patriot is a man who plots and fights for the independence, wrongly destroyed, of his native country, then most certainly the Maulavi was a true patriot. He had not stained his sword by assassination; he had connived at no murders; he had fought manfully, honourably and stubbornly in the field against the strangers who had seized his country and his memory is entitled to the respect of the brave and true-hearted of all nations” (History of the Indian Mutiny,
Vol IV p.381, quoted in Joshi, p.8).
Ernest Jones, the prominent Chartist leader, wrote a series of articles on the 1857 revolt in his People’s Paper. These articles are in the finest traditions of proletarian internationalism, which the present-day proletarian movement in the centres of imperialism would do well to emulate. At a time when Anglo-American imperialism is waging predatory wars against the people of Iraq and Afghanistan, indulging in rapine and wholesale destruction of life and property, the words of Jones beckon the working class to live up to its internationalist obligations and side with those invaded and oppressed by their own ruling class. On 1 August 1857, Jones wrote that “
turns out to be, as we have assured our readers from the commencement, not a military mutiny but a national insurrection.”
Earlier, on 4 July, making the correct link between the cause of Indian liberation and the emancipation of the working class in England, he had issued this clarion call to his own countrymen: “…
You men of England will be called upon to spend your blood and treasure in crushing one of the noblest movements the world has ever known… Fellow countrymen! You have something better to do than helping to crush the liberties of others – that is to struggle for your own”.
Though the sepoy mutiny was of the utmost importance in the effort to free India from the clutches of British colonialism, it must never be forgotten that the sepoys were merely the instruments, expressing in a most concentrated form the hatred of all sections of Indian society against foreign intruders and robbers. The principal motive power behind the insurrection were the masses, who rose in vast numbers against unbearable colonial oppression. To the peasantry, hard pressed by crushing taxation, the revolt presented an excellent opportunity to throw off the tax collector. Not surprisingly, therefore, the
“agricultural labouring classes”,
i.e., the peasants, rather than
were the “
to the continuance of British rule and joined the revolt with real enthusiasm (see Karl Marx, 16 September 1857).
The East India Company not only imposed heavy taxation on the peasantry but also resorted to extortion, violence and systematic torture as a financial institution. In his article ‘Investigation of tortures in India’, Marx, having given an account of some of the “
of the East India Company
“carried to the last degree of extortion and violence”,
“We have here given but a brief and mildly coloured chapter from the real history of British rule in India. In view of such facts, dispassionate and thoughtful men may perhaps be led to ask whether a people are not justified in attempting to expel the foreign conquerors who have so abused their subjects. And if the English could do these things in cold blood, is it surprising that the insurgent Hindus
should be guilty, in the fury of revolt and conflict, of the crimes and cruelties alleged against them?”
(28 August 1857, M&E p. 80).
As stated above, the bulk of the Oudh talukdars (big landlords) and some princely courts weighed in on the side of the rebels. The princes, angered by the Company’s ceaseless expansion and the annexation of Oudh, the zamindars (large landowners) and peasants alike by revenue settlements and extortionate taxation, swelled the ranks of the rebellious. Under the Mahalwari system of revenue, Oudh became the most heavily taxed area of the country since 1822. Under this system the rate of land tax could be changed at any time and the peasantry were held collectively responsible for its payment, with the result that non-payment by a peasant could result in the forfeiture of the property of other peasants in the area even if the latter had not defaulted on their own revenue payments.
In addition, the peasantry resented the British judicial system, with its endless litigation and paperwork, extortionate legal costs, the corruption and venality of the law courts and the fraudulent practices and complex procedural tricks which were a bonanza for the lawyers, court officials and money-lending sharks, but spelt ruin and loss of property for the masses of the peasantry. So, 1857 was a time of liberation and an opportunity for the labouring masses of the countryside to settle accounts with their oppressors and exploiters. This is why during the revolt the Indian people gave vent to their hatred by the wholesale destruction of law courts, police stations, treasuries, armouries and offices containing revenue records.
The artisans of towns all over India, but especially in Oudh, were in the grip of dire poverty: consequent upon the dethronement of the Nawab of Oudh and the disbanding of the court, these craftsmen lost work opportunities. The situation was made worse by the flooding of India by British factory-produced commodities, against which the Indian craftsmen stood no chance of competing. “
That the Lucknow people should rise against us was a very probable event… We had done very little to deserve their love and much to merit their detestation”,
wrote L E S Rees, an English eye witness to the events at Lucknow in 1857 (quoted in Ifran Habib,
, 28 January 2007). In 1813, the East India Company’s commercial monopoly had been abolished, making way for the ‘Free Trade’ invasion of India, resulting, after 1833, in the
“wholesale extinction of Indian handloom weavers”
amounting to a
“destruction of the human race”,
shattering the union of agriculture and industry and imposing unspeakable misery upon scores of millions of people of India.
Even small sections of the educated in the towns, increasingly imbued with modern ideas, sympathised with the revolt and helped in the production of rebel newspapers, pamphlets, leaflets and appeals.
Not so long before, the East India Company had discharged 60,000 sepoys from the Bengal army, most of whom came from the area of Oudh. The sections of society from which the sepoys were recruited were increasingly adversely affected as a result of the wholesale resumption by the Company after 1833 of tax free (mafi) lands, which had been granted to them in pre-British times. As a result, the revolt found popular response from all classes adversely affected by the policy and practices of the British intruders. Everywhere the British rulers were seen as the destroyers of the livelihood and way of life of the Indian people; they had shattered entire village economies and opened them up to loot and robbery by an alien power; the effects of revenue settlements, changes in crop cultivation, and de-industrialisation consequent upon the saturation of the Indian market by cheap factory goods from Britain, and the resultant pauperisation of the Indian masses, were only too visible everywhere.
However, the contradiction between British colonialism and the Indian people at that moment was at its sharpest in those areas from where the Bengal army was mainly recruited – Oudh. The mutiny by this army thus expressed the most intense hatred by all sections of society in Oudh for the rule of the Company, and a burning desire on their part to overthrow this rule. By extension, the Bengal army’s revolt expressed similar hatred of British rule, and an ardent desire to be rid of it, on the part of tens of millions of Indians over a much larger area. This alone explains the speed with which the revolt spread to a vast territory, accounting for as much as a third of India’s surface, comprising a quarter of its population. It was a revolt waiting to happen
“as soon as provocation may combine with opportunity”,
as Frederick Halliday, the Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal was to observe later in 1858.
To be continued:
In the next and concluding part, we shall deal with the suppression of the revolt by the colonial authorities, the terror unleashed by them in the aftermath of the suppression, the causes of the failure of the uprising, and the legacy of this exhilarating enterprise of the Indian people.