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Understanding The 1857 Indian Uprising

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Any discussion on the reasons behind the Indian mutiny needs to be preceded by what the mutiny actually was. While mutinies and revolts were not uncommon in India at this time, they were usually largely uncoordinated. The mutiny of 1857 however, was different. Here was a major convergence of various strands of resistance, and an expansion of scale and new level of intensity . It is my purpose to discover why this was.

The Mutiny was initiated on the 10th May 1857 at Meerut by the XI native cavalry. The immediate issue was the greased cartridges of the new rifle which was being brought into use in India. Soldiers were expected to bite off the end of the cartridge to release the powder with which to prime the rifle. It had been suggested as early as 1853 by Colonel Tucker that the new grease might offend the religious sentiments of the Sepoys, but this warning had gone unheeded. This type of attitude was typical of the British who constantly underestimated the importance of Indian religion, and the failure to do so here was to have disastrous consequences.

In January 1857 a labourer at the Dum Dum arsenal near Calcutta, a low caste Hindu, taunted a high caste Sepoy who had offended him that You will soon lose your caste, as long as you will have to bite cartridges covered with the fat of pigs and cows . The news of this incident spread. As it was against Muslim and Hindu religion to come into contact with these meats, it would have been a disgrace for them to have had to use these rifles. However, it was not personal pollution that the Sepoys feared but, social ostracism, they feared they would be ex communicated by their own people. Furthermore, the whole incident appeared more sinister to the Sepoys , who already suspected the British had in mind to make them outcasts and convert them to Christianity. With this skepticism still rife, Colonel Carmichael Smith ordered his regiment at Meerut to parade for firing practice on 24th April 1857. He was aware the situation was tense, but there were new instructions to open the cartridges with fingers and not teeth. However, the men refused to take practice cartridges even though they were the old type, as they feared for their reputations.

The men were court marshaled, disgraced on parade and sentenced to imprisonment. The punishment took place on the 9th May, and the following day a disturbance broke out in the bizarre, and quickly spread to infantry lines and native cavalry. Angry Sepoys freed their colleagues and went on to massacre British residents. British officers were slow to react and by the next morning fifty Europeans and Eurasians were dead, including women and children. Indian shopkeepers were attacked and looted while the mutineers were on their way to Delhi with the purpose of offering their services to the pensioned Mogul emperor, Bahadur Shah.

There were no troops in Delhi, but all Christians and Europeans were hunted out and murdered. There were small abortive outbreaks afterwards, but it wasnt until the 21st May that serious trouble broke out all over Oudh and the North West provinces. On the 15th July at Allahabad, British women and children were brutally murdered, and Colonel Neill ordered that those responsible should be executed after being made to clean the room in which the murders had taken place. The close contact they would have to make with the blood was also another serious insult to the Indians.

It was 1859 before the last remnants of the Mutiny burnt out. As a result of the mutiny anti British feeling in India was greatly intensified , and the British government took permanent control of the territory from the East India company in an attempt to try and stop such an occurrence happening again. It would be possible to describe the events of the mutiny in much more detail, but here we need to look at the deeper reasons behind it.

The mutiny has been described as the countrys first war of independence, because it was the first major demonstration of national feeling and action against the British presence. Early twentieth century commentators, especially Indian have taken this view. For example, Marx portrays the mutiny as a national rising , but the circumstances under which he came to this conclusion need to be taken into consideration. Marx was writing for the New York Times , and his interpretation could be seen to be perpetuating the national sentiment of United States that colonialism was wrong. Marx was trying to win sympathy for the Indian people who he described as being economically exploited by the harshness of British rule, from which America had themselves had escaped from, thus if he had shown sympathies for the British colonists, then quite simply the American public would have not looked upon Marx in the same way. Thus his circumstances may greatly have influenced his articles.

Marx anticipated, or maybe influenced the present day Indian view of seeing it as the starting point of the independence movement, as Indian nationalists describe the mutiny as part of the national evolution and of course can be seen to be inclined to emphasise the patriotic resistance of their ancestors.. However, to view it as a war of Independence seems only possible with hindsight, or in looking at it in terms of what it achieved in years to come, as it could be that its memory helped and guided India to gain independence in 1847. E Stokes suggested that the mutiny momentarily revealed the structure of Indian rural society, and that it was not a universal decisive turning point in the history of British India .

Furthermore, the ill success of the movement provided the strongest argument for the subsequent British claim that they had not been confronted by a national war on independence at all, as if they had, then a larger percentage of the population would undoubtedly have become involved and thus the mutiny may have proved to be more successful. As it was the mutiny was limited in geographical area. 70,000 Sepoys joined the revolt, but not simultaneously , 30,000 remained loyal to Britain and 30,000 played no part at all, No community class or caste as such were entirely for or against the government .

The mutiny has also been described as a nationalist uprising. Bose and Jalal describe the Mutiny as being infused was a major sense of patriotism if not nationalism , to the extent that it had the shared objective of putting an end to colonial rule. The legends of bravery and massacre were later surreptitiously introduced into Indian nationalism. While the delegates to the first Indian national congress ritually denounced the revolt as reactionary, by the time of the extremist movement of 1905-10, images of the Rhani of Jhansi were seen decorating the floats during the Ramillila festival of northern Indian cities .

However, to describe the mutiny as nationalistic could be criticised for failing to take into account the massive diversity of the stratas of Indian society, be it religious, by caste or geography. Furthermore, Chamberlain states that there was no real national conscious above religious or social issues .

In Marx and Imperialism it is suggested that that only Hindustan, the Hindu speaking areas of the Gangetic valley, wanted an India, but this also was too big and diverse a place, and its memories too were more of being part of an empire, rather than any national uprisings against them . Furthermore, even here there was no debate on national issues to give a political consciousness, and Marx can be criticised for over estimating the degree of national unity and under estimating the force of religious decisions. The mutiny has often been reproached for being too much an insurrection of soldiers, too little one of nation . India really know too little about itself as a nation for the mutiny to be classified in this sense.

A third way in which the mutiny has been described is that of a post pacification revolt. A simplistic description of this is that of a type of revolt which occurs after pacification in result of a conquest is over. That is, once a country, in this case India, is defeated in a battle in which they resisted a period of pacification by the victorious power follows-colonial rule. During this time there occur various upsurges or revolts due to policies of the colonial power which have disturbed long term indigenous social construction. This explanation would dispose of the need for any specific national unity in a strong sense of the word

E stokes in his account offers a sophisticated economic analysis of the mutiny whilst offering some concessions to caste analysis. Stokes sees the problem as being land ownership changes under British colonial rule which was to the disadvantage of some . The British changed the laws of inheritance in 1856 to enable them to make more territorial gains, such as banning the inheritance of land by adopted children. This rule especially effected the Nawab of Awadh which was the province were the mutiny broke out, who was unable to pass on land to his adopted son on death, and would have seen the land pass to the British This then could be one example which could support Stokes view that the mutiny was economically motivated . He stresses that he does not consider this mutiny to have been nationalistic, that there was no social conscious of shared norms and values which resulted in a uprising against the British.

When E Stokes began writing, post pacification was a term given to agrarian unrest, and revolt was attributed to whole classes, such as the rich peasant . Stokes gradually modifies these categories and saw the notion of caste groups in themselves as appropriate basis units of analysis of revolt. Stokes saw a widespread distrust and dislike of the British for their undermining of religion. The British also imposed high land taxes and rents on the peasantry, and due to this often decreased landholders political standing a honour in their districts in relation to neighbouring clans. Thus, they disrupted the natural balance of society.

However, clashes were not always anti British. Conflicts which arouse as a result of disparities between more recently settled Afgans and older Rajput lords erupted in local fights for succession to the British rule. Afghans were labelled rebellious as they often moved first and were perceived as the biggest threat to British rule. In this sense, Brodkin suggests that the scale of the mutiny was actually have been exaggerated by the British, who labelled particular groups as rebel or loyal without there being any evidence of them being so . Furthermore, members of caste gropes could be found on both sides during the revolt, and most groups were multi caste. Stokes suggests that the revolt was down to relative material deprivation, which could be seen to be due to British intervention .

As can be seen, the debate over the nature and causes of the mutiny still rages. There is difficulty in escaping from the terminology of the period as the British were eager to punish and reward friend and foe, thus terms loyal and rebel have become firmly attached, and this simple categoristion mainly confuses as the dividing line can be very obscure. At the time, the British thought the troubles could be attributed to Muslim instigation, thus viewed the Hindus as loyal. The traditional rivalry though, was considered in an artificial framework.

It appears that for whatever reason the uprising actually started, such as religious unrest or economic reasons, other factors actually became evident once it had begun, thus to determine a single cause becomes increasingly difficult. For example it could be suggested that although it was not part of a general conspiracy, it was not completely spontaneous and unforeseen either, and was the result of some limited conspiracy . It would seem fair to argue that there may have been a kind of conspiracy within the army. That the mutiny originated within the instrument that the British were using to keep power, and thus once the army had shown they were no longer supporting Britain, people would not fear reprisals in broaching problems that they had against British rule, and also use the mutiny as an attempt to elevate themselves to greater power and status.

To adequately describe the mutiny seems to call for the answer that in many senses of the word it was not one mutiny, but many, all occurring for different reasons in a domino effect, started for one reason, but quickly moving on to another agenda as it moved through the country. The actual mutiny itself started from a relatively minor occurrence, but its continuance portrays an expression of broader discontent among the ordinary people of India, although it cane be seen there were no clearly defined aims involved. Furthermore, the fact that there was no move away from westernism directly after the mutiny dispels more from any argument of a war of Independence or a national uprising. Thus if the mutiny has to be characterised at all, which has been shown is particularly hard, and maybe even undesirable, then it would have to be described as some type of post pacification revolt.

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Understanding the 1857 Indian Uprising. (2019, March 12). GradesFixer. Retrieved January 27, 2023, from
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