The policies of the East India Company had adverse effect on all sections of Indian people. Since the mid-eighteenth century, nawabs and rajas had seen their power erode. They had gradually lost their authority and honour. The freedom of the rulers reduced, their armed forces disbanded, and their revenues and territories taken away by stages. Many ruling families tried to negotiate with the Company to protect their interests. For example, Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi wanted the Company to recognise her adopted son as the heir to the kingdom after the death of her husband. Nana Saheb, the adopted son of Peshwa Baji Rao II, pleaded that he be given his father’s pension when the latter died. However, the Company, confident of its superiority and military powers, turned down these pleas. Awadh was one of the last territories to be annexed. In 1801, a subsidiary alliance was imposed on Awadh, and in 1856 it was taken over. Governor-General Dalhousie declared that the territory was being misgoverned and British rule was needed to ensure proper administration.
The Company even began to plan how to bring the Mughal dynasty to an end. The name of the Mughal king was removed from the coins minted by the Company. In 1849, Governor General Dalhousie announced that after the death of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the family of the king would be shifted out of the Red Fort and given another place in Delhi to reside in. In 1856, Governor-General Canning decided that Bahadur Shah Zafar would be the last Mughal king and after his death none of his descendants would be recognised as kings – they would just be called princes. The peasants and the sepoys in the countryside peasants and zamindars resented the high taxes and the rigid methods of revenue collection. Many failed to pay back their loans to the moneylenders and gradually lost the lands they had tilled for generations. The Indian sepoys in the employ of the Company also had reasons for discontent. They were unhappy about their pay, allowances and conditions of service. Some of the new rules, moreover, violated their religious sensibilities and beliefs. The British believed that Indian society had to be reformed. Laws were passed to stop the practice of sati and to encourage the remarriage of widows . English-language education was actively promoted. After 1830, the Company allowed Christian missionaries to function freely in its domain and even own land and property. Many Indians began to feel that the British were destroying their religion, their social customs and their traditional way of life.
The Revolt of 1857
After a hundred years of conquest and administration, the English East India Company faced a massive rebellion that started in May 1857 and threatened the Company’s very presence in India. Sepoys mutinied in several places beginning from Meerut and a large number of people from different sections of society rose up in rebellion. Some regard it as the biggest armed resistance to colonialism in the nineteenth century anywhere in the world.
From Meerut to Delhi
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. 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. The soldiers were determined to bring an end to their rule in the country. They found the Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar as their leader and King. 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. His decision to bless the rebellion changed the entire situation dramatically. Soon 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. Nana Saheb, the adopted son of the late Peshwa Baji Rao who lived near Kanpur, gathered armed forces and expelled the British garrison from the city. He proclaimed himself Peshwa. He declared that he was a governor under Emperor BahadurShah Zafar. In Lucknow, Birjis Qadr, the son of the deposed Nawab Waj id AlIShah, was proclaimed the new Nawab. He too acknowledged the suzerainty of Bahadur Shah Zafar. His mother Begum Hazrat Mahal took an active part in organising the uprising against the British. In Jhansi, Rani Lakshmibai joined the rebel sepoys and fought the British along with Tantia Tope, the general of Nana Saheb.
The British were greatly outnumbered by the rebel forces. They were defeated in a number of battles. This convincedthe people that the rule of the British had collapsed for good and gave them the confidence to take the plunge and join the rebellion. Many new leaders came up. For example, Ahmadullah Shah, a maulvi from Faizabad, prophesied that the rule of the British would come to an end soon. 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. 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. In Bihar, an old zamindar, Kunwar Singh, joined the rebel sepoys and battled with the British for many months. Leaders and fighters from across the land joined the fight.
The Company Fights Back
Unnerved by the scale of the upheaval, the Company decided to repress the revolt with all its might. 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. The British forces initially found it difficult to break through the heavy fortification in Delhi. On 3 September 1857 reinforcements arrived – a 7- mile-long siege train comprising cartloads of canons and ammunition pulled by elephants. Delhi was recaptured from the rebel forces 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. 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. Hundreds of sepoys, rebels, nawabs and rajas were tried and hanged.
The British had regained control of the country by the end of 1859, but they could not carry on ruling the land with the same policies any more.
Given below are the important changes that were introduced by the British.
1. The 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. Through these measures the British government accepted direct responsibility for ruling India.
2. All 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.
3. It was decided that the proportion of Indian soldiers in the army would be reduced and the number of European soldiers would be increased. It was also decided that instead of recruiting soldiers from Awadh, Bihar, central India and south India, more soldiers would be recruited from among the Gurkhas, Sikhs and Pathans.
4. The land and property of Muslims was confiscated on a large scale and they were treated with suspicion and hostility. The British believed that they were responsible for the rebellion in a big way.
5. The British decided to respect the customary religious and social practices of the people in India.
6. Policies were made to protect landlords and zamindars and give them security of rights over their lands. Thus a new phase of history began after 1857.
Vishnubhat Godse (1827-1904) commonly known as Godse Bhataji was an Indian traveller. Godse is best known for his travelogue Majha Pravas (My Travels), which is notable for the description of his "true and unique" experiences of the Indian mutiny of 1857 during his travel in North India.
From Sepoy to Subedar
A book written by Subedar Sitaram Pande. Sitaram Pande was recruited in 1812 as a sepoy in the Bengal Native Army. He served the English for 48 years and retired in 1860. He helped the British to suppress the rebellion though his own son was a rebel and was killed by the British in front of his eyes. On retirement he was persuaded by his Commanding Officer, Norgate, to write his memoirs. He completed the writing in 1861 and Norgate translated it into English and had it published under the title “From Sepoy to Subedar”.
Foreigners. The term reflects an attitude of contempt.
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