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Imperial Rule and The Sepoy Mutiny on The Indian Revolt

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In the year 1857 in India, one of the most extraordinary indigenous uprisings against European empire occurred (Mantena, 2010). Over 130 000 native soldiers, known as the Sepoys of the Bengal Army, rebelled against their British commanders and consequently created a shift in the imperial administrative ideologies of the colonisers (Mantena, 2010). Hence, this essay will aim to illustrate that the objectives of the imperialists were in fact ones that constituted a political agenda. It will aim to do so through explaining how the ideological justifications of the British Empire would shift in order to accommodate their imperial policies and rules, and how it was used as a disguise and as a tool to serve the colonial administrators.


The revolt was due to longstanding grievances, such as the British colonial authority’s disregard of the Indian people’s traditions and everyday practices (Mamdani, 2012). However, the final spark that ostensibly lead directly to the mutiny was due to the rumour that pig and cow fat was being used as a lubricant on the newly introduced cartridges for a rifle, which was obviously an insult to the Indian people’s religious beliefs (Marshall, 2011). Furthermore, the “suddenness” and degree of antagonism shocked the British colonisers to such an extent that it prompted for self-examination (Marshall, 2011). Thus, the Sepoy Mutiny encouraged the British to realise that the manner in which they were ruling for the last decade, was not as effective, nor as welcomed as what they originally assumed (Mantena, 2010).

Throughout 1757 and 1857 more than half of the continent of South Asia was brought under the authority of the British East India Company (Mamdani, 2012). During this century, the governing strategy of the British was based on liberal ideology- an idea which justified imperial governance on the basis of morality (Kirkby, 2010). In explanation, the British imperialists believed that they had a “moral duty” as human-beings to aid in the progress of less civilised subjects and to transform them according to the British ideals of civilisation (Kirkby, 2010). Thus, the imperial governance was justified by the notion of progress (Kirby, 2010). With that being said, the British Empire took it upon themselves to transform the “barbaric”, “backward” Indians into a highly regulated and anglicized society (Bodine, 2015). Therefore, the liberal imperial mission of the British rulers, prior to the Sepoy Mutiny, was in fact a civilising mission, which was accommodated by the governing strategy of direct rule (Bodine, 2015).

Direct rule was accomplished through the imposition of direct control by the British Empire, mainly through state institutions and English laws (Kirby, 2010). The British achieved this through the abolition of the Moghul court and the disintegration of the native institutions in order to discredit and replace Indian knowledge systems with “enlightened” English educational systems (Bodine, 2015). Thus, the imperial mission not only aimed at civilising the natives, but also included the project of assimilation (Mamdani, 2012). Hence, the British rulers hoped that by instituting their educational systems as well as their legal systems they would be able to transform the natives into what they regarded as civilised people and that the natives would eventually adopt the Western culture (Mamdani, 2012).

However, as previously mentioned, the practicing of direct rule was not as successful, as testified by the Sepoy Mutiny (Mamdani, 2012). As a result, the British rulers were forced to question the legitimacy of their imperial ideology and effectively, their governing strategy, which led to the critical reassessment, drew upon, most notably, by the comparative jurist and historian, Sir Henry Maine (Lushaba, 2012). Maine’s contribution to imperial policy debates was particularly significant in the reconstruction of imperial governance and ideologies, since his writings became mandatory readings for the colonial administrators (Lushaba, 2012). Maine believed that the existing knowledge about the Indian societies, at the time of the Sepoy Mutiny, was imprecise and vastly lacking (Kirkby, 2010). He argued that the administrators of direct rule failed to properly learn about the native society and therefore had no true way of understanding them, which lead to a sort of “culture clash” (Kirkby, 2010). This “epistemological” failure is what Maine grants as part of the cause of the rebellion (Kirkby, 2010).

Maine found that the inadequacy of knowledge was due to the fact that the imperial rulers were studying the more urbanized Indians, instead of the more rural, traditional ones (Lushaba, 2013). Thus, he began to study the Indians in the rural areas instead, and his findings were what he began to associate with the native (Lushaba, 2012). In other words, in Maine’s attempt to recover the “true” idea of the native, he inadvertently illustrated a detailed representation of the native society, which was newly defined as “traditional” society (Lushaba, 2013). Moreover, the traditional society was of course more primitive in comparison to the society in the urban areas and therefore still retained what was considered as “primitive” characteristics- characteristics which were said to be reflective of ancient societies in Europe (Kirkby, 2012). Thus, according to Maine, traditional society was a remnant of ancient society in the contemporary world, and had to be ruled and treated accordingly (Mantena, 2010). Effectively, Maine’s work created a contrast between traditional society and modern European society, and Maine was convinced that the revolt had been caused by the demise of traditional Indian society under the invasion of Western modernity (Kennedy, 2013). Ergo, Maine believed that the Indian society was not yet ready for modernity and thus, they retaliated as per the mutiny (Kennedy, 2013).

Furthermore, Maine believed that unlike modern society, traditional society was considered to be a non-progressive, uncivilised society which was bound by custom (Mantena, 2010). Kin relations were specifically important in the characterization of a traditional society since Maine saw kinship as the central basis of the primary political community (Mamdani, 2012). Moreover, due to the communal aspect of kinship, traditional societies were said to be more corporate in nature, whereas modern societies were more individualistic (Mantena, 2010).However, the fact that traditional societies were organised through group relations, also meant that there were no prospects for individual liberties and rights because liberties and rights were organized according to families, or groups, instead of individually- as in modern society (Mamdani, 2012). Thus, kinship became a deciding feature in determining whether societies were traditional or modern and consequently whether they were progressive or non-progressive (Mantena, 2010).

In addition to that, Maine also claimed that because traditional society was bound to customs and religion, when other European societies began the process of codifying their laws, they did so in a manner which was civil or political as well as universal and open to criticism, whereas the Indians compiled their codes at an earlier stage when religion and customs were pivotal in forming the individual (Mamdani, 2012). As a result, the law of a traditional society was exceedingly rigid (Mamdani, 2012). Hence, Maine argued that the rigidity of the primitive, customary law of a traditional society continued to pin the society to the ways of ancient civilisation and therefore, they should not be ruled by the same belief of sovereignty, as per the British, since their laws and ways of living was different to the “modern” British society (Lushaba, 2013).

Therefore, Maine’s findings and definitions of traditional society were effectively what lead to the recognition of difference between modern society and traditional society (Mantena, 2010). Additionally, the imperial rulers were inclined to recognise that they would need to change their imperial policy of direct rule in order to accommodate the natives in a manner which would respect, understand, and preserve their traditional society, as conferred by Maine (Kirkby, 2012). Thus, Maine’s description of traditional society is ultimately what set the foundation for indirect rule (Mamdani, 2012).

Unlike direct rule which aimed to assimilate the “barbaric” natives into the Western culture and focused on the civilising mission as their imperial ideology, indirect rule instead aimed at embracing the difference of the natives as custom (Mamdani, 2012). One of the ways in which the implementation of indirect rule occurred was through the involvement of a shift in language; instead of using words which perpetuated exclusion (such as ‘civilised’ and ‘uncivilised’) the language shifted to use words which emphasized inclusion (such as “cultural difference”) (Mamdani, 2012). Thus, when put into practice, the imperial rulers were able to accept the difference between the traditional and modern societies as cultural difference and not as an attestation of anti-colonial rebellion- in that sense Maine’s work depoliticized the Sepoy Mutiny by centralizing “society” and highlighting cultural difference as the cause of conflict (Kirkby, 2012). Consequently the apparent ambition of indirect rule became the organisation and management of that difference (Mamdani, 2012).

Furthermore, law became used as a tool in the policies of indirect rule by reproducing and managing difference in order to aid in the reproduction of the identities of the natives (Mamdani, 2012). Hence, one of the objectives of indirect rule was to regenerate the identities of the Indians into the framework of what the colonisers defined as “native” and thereby inadvertently creating a system of state-imposed discrimination and dividing the natives into organised political minorities (Mamdani, 2012). In further explanation, the colonisers used the work of Maine, particularly his notion of traditional societies as arranged in group relations and without the possibility of individual liberty, to justify their imperial ideologies (Mantena, 2010). They did so through institutionally labelling or “defining” the existing variety of groups in the traditional societies and then determining their group agency and group life (Mamdani, 2012).

In other words, the idea that conflict arose due to “cultural differences” and the fact that Maine considered traditional society a remnant of ancient society, as previously mentioned, was distorted and used as an excuse by the colonisers to justify their imperial ideology as one which recognized the need to respect those cultural differences by using different laws which governed the traditional society separately, and to “protect” and “conserve” the traditional society in order not to lose the last remains of ancient society (Mantena, 2010). Thus, the imperial ideology shifted from a “civilising mission” to one which claimed protection and conservation (Mamdani, 2012).

This was specifically accomplished through law enforcement (Mamdani, 2012). Mamdani (2012) uses the example of African colonies in the early twentieth century to explain how the legal system was used to as a tool to orchestrate indirect rule. He describes that in many African colonies, the census classified societies according to two groups: race and tribe (Mamdani, 2012). The deciding factor between race and tribe was indigeneity; people were classified as races if they were non-natives and as tribes if they were indigenous (Mamdani, 2012). Furthermore, these newly created identities of race and tribe had direct legal consequences since it determined under which law that person would be governed (Mamdani, 2012). Thus, new political identities were created (Mamdani, 2012).

People who were categorised as belonging to a race were ruled under one law: civil law (Mamdani, 2012). People belonging to tribes, however, were governed under customary law and since there were many tribal groups, the different tribes were ruled under different customary laws (Mamdani, 2012). Moreover, civil law and customary law were administered by different authorities; civil law operated within one legal system and implemented by one administrative authority (Mamdani, 2012). Customary law, on the other hand, was fragmented into separate legal systems, each with their own separate administrative authority (Mamdani, 2012). Additionally, the two legal systems were completely different in their orientation (Mamdani, 2012). For instance, English common law was presumed to adapt and change with the times- as assumed that the society which it governed, i.e. modern society, was dynamic and progressive (Mamdani,, 2012). Colonial customary law, however, was assumed to be inadaptable, based on the idea introduced by Maine that traditional societies are static (Mamdani, 2012). In sum, what indirect rule did was to define the natives and then to marginalise the natives according to the definition constructed and prescribed by the colonisers (Mamdani, 2012).


In conclusion, this essay aimed to illustrate how colonisers would mobilize certain scholarly ideas, such as Maine’s, to justify their methods of imperial action and to ensure that they are benefited throughout their ruling. Ergo, this essay aimed to illustrate that the ideology of colonialism had two primary effects in its occurring period: the first was to legitimize these actions in the minds of those who are undertaking them and then to convince the colonised subjects that those actions were taking place in good faith.


  • Bodine, J., 2015. Institutionalizing Colonial Identity: A Case Study On The Indian Partition. CUNY Academic Works .
  • Kennedy, D., 2013. Review of Mamdani, Mahmood, Define and Rule: Native as Political Identity. [Online]
  • Available at: 
  • Kirkby, C., 2012. Henry Maine and the Re‐Constitution of the British Empire. The Modern Law Review, 75(4).
  • Lushaba, L., 2013. Lushaba: Book Review. African Sociological Review, 17(1), pp. 139-145.
  • Mamdani, M., 2012. Define and Rule. s.l.:Harvard University Press.
  • Mantena, K., 2010. Alibis of Empire: Henry Maine and the Ends of Liberal Imperialism. s.l.:Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.
  • Marshall, P., 2011. BBC. [Online]

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