1857 Indian War of Independence: Causes of Failure

Shahid H. Raja
6 min readOct 15, 2021


On April 27, 1857, 85 soldiers of a Bengal regiment of the British East India Company, posted in Meerut, disobeyed the command of their senior British officer, to use the new cartridges for the newly introduced Enfield rifles, allegedly encased in cow and pig grease. Harsh punishment meted out to the disobedient soldiers, and that too in front of their colleagues, resulted in the mutiny of several regiments and ultimately became a general uprising of the Indian people. It was ruthlessly quelled by the British within six months. The movement could not succeed in achieving any of its objectives due to the following reasons:

1. Lack of Vision, Strategy, and Planning

Although the ground was ripe for such an eventuality, the uprising itself was a spontaneous and, hence, unplanned act. According to Malleson and Wilson, the revolutionaries had planned to start the War throughout the country on May 31, 1857. However, the cartridge incident resulted in its premature outbreak. It was doomed to fail right from the start because of this lack of vision, strategy, and planning on the part of the rebel forces.

2. Leadership Failures

Lack of strong political and capable military leadership played the most crucial role in this fiasco. The rebellious forces selected a dying, frail man as their political leader, who had no desire to play the role. He was neither a brave general nor an astute leader of the people. The same was the case with the military leadership of the rebels, which was no match for the brilliant British leadership. On top of it was the non-existence of any well-managed centralized command and control system that could provide the proper guidance and plan to the rebel forces.

3. Technology and Techniques

The British proved to be formidable foes, largely due to their superior weapons, training, and strategy, which play a decisive role in any military contest. The very Enfield rifle that the rebels had refused to operate became their nemesis for its accuracy. Similarly, the use of wireless by the British played a key role in their success, as they were able to convey the news about the outbreak of rebellion to their field commanders in all the areas under their control. Once informed, the respective governors took effective measures to arrest the spread of the uprising. As luck would have it, the main arsenal of the rebels in Delhi was destroyed in a fire, either accidentally or by the traitors, leaving the defending forces with a limited quantity of ammunition. Attempts by the rebels to collect modern equipment from Russia failed, as their one member delegation (Rao Tularam) sent to Russia for this purpose died on the way.

4. Internal Rifts

After the euphoria of the initial revolt was over, inter-communal, inter-racial, and inter-regional rifts started among the rebels. The battle cry of the Muslims to wage Jihad became anathema for the Hindus. Many Indians supported the British, due to their dislike of the idea of the return of Mughal rule. Durbar intrigues and personal rivalries precluded any common strategy of war. The role played by the favourite wife of the Mughal King, Zeenat Mahal, was quite dubious. The same was the case concerning the loyalty of several of his confidants, particularly Ahsanullah Khan. In Awadh, Sunni Muslims, perceiving it to be a Shia rebellion, refused to join it as they did not want to see a return to Shiite rule. Instead, they declared Haji Imdadullah their Ameer, who led the Sunni forces against the British in the famous Battle of Shamli.

5. Desperate Fight

The British were fighting with their back against the wall because they knew there was no option for them. It was a do-or-die situation for them. Once the British got a foothold, they mustered all their resources and made a big assault on Delhi with full force.

6. Lack of Response

Only three other big cities rebelled, with the result that the British didn’t have to fight on different fronts. If the rebels had been successful in getting similar revolts and uprisings in a dozen cities across the country, the situation would have been different. Most of southern India remained passive, with only sporadic and haphazard outbreaks of violence. Many states did not take part in the war as these were ruled by the Nizams or the Mysore royalty and were thus not directly under British rule.

7. Local Support

Finally, the moral, political, financial and physical support extended by the feudal elite as well as the rulers of the states played a decisive role in crushing the uprising of the lower middle classes of Bengal. The Sikhs, who wanted to avenge the annexation of Punjab 8 years ago by the British with the help of the Bengalis, fought with a vengeance. Similarly, Pathans from the North-West Frontier Province and Potoharis from Northern Punjab supported the British and helped in the capture of Delhi. The Gurkhas of Nepal, who were known for their valour and ferocity on the battlefield, fought alongside the British, although Nepal remained an independent country throughout the rebellion.

8. Unequal Fight

In the last analysis, it was an unequal fight between a decaying agricultural empire and a rising industrial empire, in which the die was cast before the battle started. Although India used to produce 25% of world GDP in the 1600s, more than 80% of her income was produced by the agricultural sector. Her growing population ensured that there was enough supply of labour force, obviating the necessity to use machines in agricultural operations or its value addition. Consequently, her industrialization process was painstakingly slow, keeping her status as an agricultural empire that did not produce enough surpluses to be ploughed into R&D and technological advancements. An agricultural empire is inherently weak when pitted against the industrial one, which has sufficient resources and needs for technology.

From the book “Milestones of Pakistan Movement: 1857–1947,”, published by Amazon and available at


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