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The Revolt of 1857

There was a significant threat to British rule in India, when a number of Indian soldiers of the British Indian army rose in revolt in 1857 against their officers, and against the colonial regime in general. This revolt of the soldiers struck a sympathetic chord among many people who had their own
Any revolt of significance usually has a number of causes which fester for a number of years, yet there is that final spark that launches it. In the case of the 1857 Revolt, that spark came as the episode of greased cartridges.
reasons to be dissatisfied with the British rule. The Revolt of 1857 is a significant event in modern Indian history. The British took serious note of it, and considerably changed their policies in the wake of the Revolt. Some of the members of the ruling colonial elite chose to ignore the popular character of the revolt and labeled it merely as a 'sepoy mutiny.' Nationalist elite, which took shape in the last two decades of the nineteenth century to lead a successful anti-colonial political campaign, glorified it as the 'first war of Indian independence.' Memories of the Revolt had lain deep in the awareness of both colonial rulers and the Indian subjects.

British rule in India, which can be said to have come into being after the Battle of Plassey in 1757, was initially established in Bengal and then gradually spread to other regions. Being economically exploitative and destructive of the social fabric, it encountered resistance right from the beginning. There were innumerable peasant revolts which broke out in different parts of the country, some of the prominent ones being the Kol Uprising of 1831, the Santhal Uprising of 1855, and the Kutch Rebellion which lasted from 1816 until 1832. Dissatisfaction among the Indian soldiers of the British Indian army also had some history. Indian soldiers had grievances on economic, social and religious grounds. A significant mutiny to happen before the 1857 Revolt was the Vellore (Tamil Nadu, South India) Mutiny of 1806 which was brutally crushed by British officers and soldiers. Ever since the Vellore Mutiny, unofficial political committees of soldiers were a regular feature of army life in India.

As already noted, 1857 Revolt consisted both of rebellion by the sepoys or soldiers and reaction from sections of the general Indian population. Peasants were an important segment of Indian society. Uprising among the sepoys and peasants was even more directly related in that the sepoys were, in their origins, peasants with close ties with their kinspeople in the villages. Many of the sepoys came from Awadh, a region currently incorporated in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, a region that also saw massive peasant uprisings. Awadh, one of the main centers of the Revolt, was annexed by Lord Dalhousie, Governor General of India, in 1856. The British removed talukdars, traditional landowners of the region, promising a better deal for the peasants. But in reality, condition of the peasants only got worse. Heavy overassessment of land revenue impoverished them. While talukdars appropriated the surplus peasants produced, they were limited and constrained by the relations of mutual interdependence between the Raja and the peasant and the traditional worldview of social norms and obligations. British conquest assaulted this traditional worldview, and removal of the king had an emotional impact on the people of Awadh.

Awadh was only one of the regions where the Revolt took place. Other areas affected by the Revolt were Rohilkhand, Bundelkhand, parts of Bihar, parts of Punjab, and Central India. While northern, eastern and central regions of the country were affected by the Revolt, western and southern regions remained more or less aloof. The storm centers of the Revolt were Delhi, Kanpur, Lucknow, Bareilly and Jhansi. Bakht Khan was the rebel leader in Delhi and he took the fight to Lucknow. In Kanpur, Nana Sahib, adopted son of Baji Rao II, the last Peshwa of the Maratha kingdom, led the Revolt. The British had earlier refused to recognize Nana Sahib as the legitimate successor of the Peshwas. Tantia Tope, one of the loyal followers of Nana Sahib, is remembered for his valiant fight against the British. Revolt at Lucknow was led by the Begum of Awadh who proclaimed her young son Nawab. Young Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi joined the Revolt when the British refused to acknowledge her right to adopt an heir to the deceased local king. Kunwar Singh, a ruined and discontented zamindar near Arrah in the state of Bihar, was the chief organizer of the Revolt in the area. The Revolt carried on as late as 1859 in some instances before it was finally crushed. A number of these heroes and heroines of the Revolt have been immortalized through the folklorization of their valiant battles in modern and contemporary India.

Any revolt of significance usually has a number of causes which fester for a number of years, yet there is that final spark that launches it. In the case of the 1857 Revolt, that spark came as the episode of greased cartridges. The grease of the cartridges, whose end had to be bitten off before loading in the newly introduced Enfield rifle, was sometimes made from beef or pig fat, types of meat taboo to Hindus and Muslims respectively. Introduction of the new cartridges hurt the religious sentiments of the soldiers and made them suspect that the government was trying to destroy their religion. While this might have been the immediate spark, suspicion that the new government was out to destroy their religion and caste had plagued the Indian people for a long time. The government had undertaken some aggressive social reform measures in the first half of the 19th century. There were also numerous endeavors by the missionaries to spread Christianity in India, which the government did not seriously discourage.

A number of Muslim revivalist groups, Wahabis in particular, played an important role in the Revolt. Tipu Sultan of Mysore was well-known for his opposition to the British rule. Faraizis, a revivalist movement founded in Bengal in 1804, united the peasantry against the exactions of the new zamindars in the name of resuscitated faith. According to the traditional Muslim perspective, the whole land, from Delhi to Calcutta, had passed into the possession of the 'Nasranis' (the British), and India ceased to be the 'land of Islam'. It was henceforth considered 'enemy territory'. It was incumbent upon Muslims to wage a jihad or holy war against the British or migrate to some free Muslim country. There was broad unity among different sections of the Muslim community -- expropriated aristocrats, ruined handicraftsmen, frustrated Ulema and discontented soldiers -- in the sentiment against the British rule. The Wahabis enjoyed the backing of a network of organized centers spread all over northern India and moral influence over Muslim intelligentsia in the entire country. In the 1840s, Wahabi leaders formed contacts with unofficial political committees of soldiers in the British Indian army, and introduced to them techniques of conspiratorial work through a chain of hospices and secret agents. It was out of such traditions and contacts that elected committees of soldiers emerged in Delhi and Lucknow in 1857 which virtually took over the government. In the post-Mutiny period, belief about Muslim responsibility for the Revolt was so strong among the British officials that Sayyid Ahmed Khan had to wage active and incessant efforts to rescue Muslims of the stigma of disloyalty.

Hindus and Muslims united in their opposition to the British. The rebel government of Bakht Khan in Delhi abolished taxes on articles of common consumption, penalized hoarding, and as a gesture of goodwill to the Hindus, banned cow slaughter. Hindu rebel leaders reciprocated by accepting the proclamation of Bahadur Shah as the symbolic head of the rebel government and by maintaining all the Mughal state symbols. The emphasis was on pre-British Hindu-Muslim coexistence within the Mughal imperial framework. Bahadur Shah's proclamation emphasized the standards of both Muhammad and Mahavir. One group which kept away from trouble and opposition to the British was the English-educated Bengali intelligentsia. This group owed its ascendancy to conditions of the new rule, and some of its members were descendants of the new Bengali zamindars, a class of upstarts created by the Permanent Settlement in Bengal. It is curious to note that some members of this elite group would turn against the British later, thirty or forty years after the 1857 Revolt.

1857 Revolt was not a class revolt, as peasantry did not rebel against the landlords. Peasantry mainly directed attacks against money-lending grain dealers or the representatives / emblems of the British Indian government. British policies alienated aristocracy, priesthood as well as peasant proprietary classes. Rural magnates, or the landowning class of leadership, strongly influenced how any particular region as a whole was going to react. The Revolt, in Awadh as well as in other regions, was popular, in that it pertained to people as a whole and was carried out by them. Talukdars and peasants in Awadh fought together against a common foe. While we speak of the Revolt of 1857 as one revolt for reasons of simplicity, in actuality it was not one movement but many. The lineaments of the Revolt differed vastly from district to district, and even village to village. Variability of the Revolt was determined by the local specifics of ecology, tenurial forms, and variable impact of the colonial rule.

Marx was the earliest commentator to recognize the 'national' character of the 1857 Revolt. Writing in 1857 itself, he commented that the British in creating a native army had simultaneously organized the "first general centre of resistance which the Indian people was ever possessed of." He also noted that Muslims and Hindus had combined against their common masters by renouncing their mutual antipathies. Noting the sense of outrage in the British press regarding the atrocities committed by the Indian sepoys, Marx said that their conduct was only a reaction in a concentrated form to England's own record in India during the foundation of the empire and after. It was a kind of historical retribution. He noted the deliberate exaggeration of the outrages by Indians, while the English cruelties were related as acts of martial vigor.

Strictly speaking, Revolt of 1857 cannot be described 'national', for national would entail a reaction to colonial rule in modernist terms. Rebels of 1857 did not have that modernist vision. They did not fully comprehend the nature the new regime that overwhelmed India. They did not have a viable alternative program of action in the case of overthrow of the colonial regime. This lack of vision can be said to be the main reason for their defeat. But the Revolt can be described 'national' in another important sense. This was the first time that soldiers of the Indian army recruited from different communities, Hindus and Muslims, landlords and peasants, had come together for the first time in their opposition to the British. While unity in the above terms was not adequate to the task of overthrow of British rule, it certainly provided the necessary foundation that the later successful anti-colonial struggles could build upon.


  1. Chandra, Bipan. Modern India. Delhi, 1976.
  2. Joshi, P.C. (Ed)- Rebellion 1857: A Symposium. New Delhi, 1957.
  3. Marx, Karl and F. Engels, The First Indian War of Independence, 1857-1859. Moscow, 1959.
  4. Mukherjee, Rudrangshu. Awadh in Revolt 1857-1858: A Study in Popular Resistance. Delhi, 1984.
  5. Stokes, Eric. The Peasant Armed: The Indian Revolt of 1857. Oxford, 1986.

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Last updated: October 28, 2000 .