1857 Indian War of Independence: Significance and Consequences

Shahid H. Raja
11 min readOct 18, 2021

Abstract

The 1857 Indian War of Independence, known as the Mutiny by the British, is a preeminent milestone in the modern history of the South Asian Subcontinent. It is the reference point for all subsequent historical narratives in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Thus, whether one wants to know the origins of Muslim separatism in India, which ultimately led to the partition of the Subcontinent and the creation of Pakistan, or the rise of the Military in the political economy of Pakistan, one has to start the narrative in 1857.

Similarly, if we are discussing the causes of the stronghold of the landed aristocracy in India’s body politic or that of Pakistan, we cannot escape the fact that the policies adopted by the post-rebellion British administrators of India had much to do with this present-day phenomenon.

This essay attempts to list some of the immediate as well as long-term consequences, of this momentous event

Introduction

In 1962, a Western journalist posted in Beijing asked Mr Chou en Lie, the then-Chinese Premier, a keen student of history, about his views regarding the effects of the 1889 French Revolution. “It is too early to adequately and properly assess its impact”, he replied.

Well, the same can be said about the 1857 Indian War of Independence. This uprising, known as the Mutiny by the British, is a preeminent milestone in the modern history of political, social, and economic trends and movements in the South Asian Subcontinent. It is the reference point for all subsequent historical narratives in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Thus, whether one wants to know the origins of Muslim separatism in India, which ultimately led to the partition of the Subcontinent and the creation of Pakistan, or the rise of the Military in the political economy of Pakistan, one has to start the narrative in 1857.

Similarly, if we are discussing the causes of the stronghold of the landed aristocracy in India’s body politic or that of Pakistan, we cannot escape the fact that the policies adopted by the post-rebellion British administrators of India had much to do with this present-day phenomenon. Indeed, history has a long shadow

Some of the immediate as well as long-term consequences of this momentous event are as follows:

1. Change of Masters in the Subcontinent

Along with the formal fall of the decaying Mughal Empire, the victor also exited. The East India Company, which had represented the British Government in India on the one hand and acted as the agent of the Mughals on the other, died a year later when it was disbanded by the British Government. In August 1858, by the Queen’s Proclamation of 1858, power was transferred to the British Crown, and a new British government department, the India Office, was created to handle the governance of India. Its head, the Secretary of State for India, was entrusted with formulating Indian policy, which was implemented by the Governor-General of India, who gained a new title, Viceroy of India. Bahadur Shah Zafar was tried for treason by a military commission assembled at Delhi and exiled to Rangoon, where he died in 1862, finally bringing the Mughal dynasty’s rule to an end. In 1877, Queen Victoria took the title of Empress of India.

2. Reorganisation of British Indian Armed Forces

Both, the native and the European armies of British India, were reorganized to obviate the possibility of any such occurrence in the future. The old Bengal Army almost completely vanished, replaced by new units recruited from the so-called Martial Races, such as Punjabi Muslims and Sikhs from Punjab, Pathans from the North-West Frontier Province, and Gurkhas from Nepal. It had far-reaching implications for one of the two successor states after the dissolution of the British Indian Empire in 1947, namely Pakistan.

Despite being the smaller of the two countries, Pakistan got a lion’s share in terms of manpower when the British Indian Army was divided. It was a too developed, organised, and powerful institution for a small post-colonial state as compared to other institutions. Consequently, it played a larger-than-life role in the political economy of Pakistan for much of its post-independence period. It ruled the country three times directly and the rest of the time indirectly for seven decades, and only recently has it taken a back seat.

Secondly, the Pakistani army had a scant representation of Bengali Muslims in its ranks and file due to the deliberate policy of the British to restrict their entry into the post-1857 British Indian Army. As Pakistani officers inherited the prejudices of their former senior British officers, it took too much time for Pakistan to give East Bengal adequate representation in her armed forces, one of the errors of omission and commission that ultimately led to the separation of East Pakistan from its western wing 114 years later, in 1971.

3. Social Re-engineering of Indian Society

To punish the disloyal families, besides mass executions of their male members, all their properties were confiscated and they were made paupers. Out of these marginalized underclasses emerged the fundamentalists in all three major communities of India. According to Dalrymple, this plague of fundamentalism that we see in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh today, owes a lot to this mass-scale persecution of the Indians in general. On the other hand, those who remained loyal to the British were generously rewarded, and over some time, these loyalists became the social and political elite of India, openly sided with the British, and perpetuated the strength of the Empire for another 90 years. The Muslim faction of this elite initially joined the Unionists and other loyalist parties and jumped on the Muslim League bandwagon at the last moment, reserving their seat as the ruling elite of the independent state of Pakistan. Their Hindu counterparts did the same on the other side of the fence.

4. Start of Political Reforms in British India

Fear of another “mutiny”, forced the new British Crown to become more liberal and democratic while dealing with the Indians and provided them with some safety valves through which they could express their grievances and channel frustration and a sense of exclusion. It resulted first in the establishment of local government institutions and the municipal boards/corporations of Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras were created. This initial experiment with democratic empowerment at a limited scale ultimately led to the introduction of full-fledged parliamentary democracy which was inherited by all the post-colonial countries of the Subcontinent. Thus the democratic structures, culture, and processes we witness in Pakistan and other countries owe it to the 1857 rebellion.

5. Administrative Re-organisation of the Subcontinent

The East India Company had been ruling the areas under its control through the same Mughal administration with minor changes in nomenclature and redistribution of powers (District Officer instead of Zilla Dar/Mansabdar). After coming under direct British control, the Indian bureaucracy was reorganised and converted into one of the most efficient and effective institutions, known as “the Steel Framework”. The best of the Indian minds were recruited at a very young age through an extremely rigorous competitive examination and given extensive training inside India and at Britain’s best university, Cambridge. Once in service, they were the ears, eyes, and arms of the rulers, helping them successfully run a vast country like India. After the dissolution of the British Indian Empire, both the successor states inherited this structure, which helped them run the states.

6. British Imperial Expansion

The establishment of formal, direct rule by the Queen resulted in new power relations between India and Britain. India, under British colonialism. The East India Company had been running the Subcontinent as its fief; the British Empire turned this “Jewel in the Crown’ into a staging post for the expansion of its imperial designs. The real expansion of the British Empire took a boost from this period onward. Besides extracting resources and selling manufactured goods, it recruited hundreds and thousands of soldiers to fight for the expansion and defence of the British Empire in all corners of the world. Indian labour was extensively used to lay infrastructure in their different colonies all over the world for their imperial imperatives.

The Indian economy, driven primarily by its huge population working in agriculture and manufacturing, was the second-largest in the world. Accounting for more than 5th of the total GDP of the world in the 18th century, it exported many products including cotton textiles, spices, and diamonds. However, within one century, the East India Company and later on formal British imperialism drained out so much wealth from India that it exited the top ten richest economies of the world. Naroji Dadbhoy maintains that instead of outright plunder and carting away goods, Roman-style, the British drained the wealth away from India with due process of law.

While exorbitant regressive taxation shifted the bulk of revenue generated in India to Britain, it adversely impacted the peasants and the poor more than the rich Indians. Secondly, the payment of generous salaries/pensions to British officers, civil and military, who served in India, also resulted in the transfer of wealth from India. Upon retirement, they would spend the wealth they amassed during their careers in Britain and not in India. Thirdly, it was the systematic extraction of resources that ruined the Indian economy.

The pace of extraction naturally increased dramatically after the failed Indian War of Independence of 1857, partly because of the advent of the Industrial Revolution, which had gained momentum in the second half of the 19th century. The loss of cheap cotton imports from plantations in the United States of America in the wake of the Civil War forced British entrepreneurs to seek alternative places to grow that variety of cotton. India suited them the most-hence the massive infrastructural development in India. It benefitted them in three ways. Firstly, the bulk of the material for the construction of railways and allied services was imported from Britain at inflated rates.

Secondly, cotton and other raw materials could be transported cost-effectively and easily now, and thirdly, this huge infrastructure expanded the market for British manufactured goods, which faced tough competition in Europe and the USA because of the heavy protective walls erected by them. All these measures slowed India’s transition from cottage-industry manufacturing to large-scale industrial manufacturing as the Indian market was flooded with British goods.

7. Birth of Indian Nationalism

One of the biggest offshoots of the 1857 uprising was the increased rift between the two major communities of India-Hindus and Muslims, leading to the consciousness of their being two separate nationalities. It started the process of creating ‘Indianness’ among the Hindus, a consciousness of being a separate identity that ultimately culminated in the independence of India in 1947.

8. Birth of Muslim Separatism

On the other side, systematic persecution of Muslims led to their subconscious development as a separate nation. An official report by Sir William W. Hunter (1840–1901) on whether Muslims could be expected to give loyal service to the Queen concluded that they could not be expected to do so but were bound by their faith to rebel. This impacted how Muslims were treated in British India. This rift was successfully exploited by the British to prolong their hold on India, but it ultimately ended in the partition of the Subcontinent 90 years later. The moderates thought that the British were here to stay for a long time and that their violent overthrow was impossible. They, therefore, advocated the acquisition of modern Western knowledge and stressed cooperation with the British to safeguard their rights. These were the people who were at the forefront of the Indian Muslims’ awakening and initiated the Indian Muslim’s separatism, leading to the establishment of Pakistan.

9. Origins of Muslim Bengali Separatism

Bengal was punished for its alleged pioneering role in the uprising. Not only was the economic development of this region neglected, but Bengalis in general and Bengali Muslims, in particular, were also systematically kept out of the decision-making processes in Colonial India after the cataclysmic events of 1857. On the other hand, regions, and nationalities of northern India, which played the decisive role in crushing the rebellion, got very preferential treatment in terms of their increased representation in institutions responsible for policy formulation and implementation.

Resultantly, East Bengal remained a comparatively more underdeveloped region and the Bengali Muslims had scant representation in state organs like armed forces, law enforcement agencies, civilian bureaucracy, etc. during the colonial period. Pakistan inherited this vast disparity in terms of economic development and political/administrative representation between her two wings. It took too much time for Pakistan to rectify this historical anomaly-one of the main grievances leading to the separation of East Pakistan from Pakistan and becoming an independent state of Bangladesh in 1971.

10. Widening of the Gulf between East and West

Ideologically, the Rebellion dramatically increased racial antagonisms between the Britons and the Indians. On the British side, this was in large part because English language accounts of the Rebellion framed it in terms of a savage attack on British women and children, who were allegedly being raped and murdered by fanatic soldiers in alarming numbers. Thus, public outrage over the violation of ‘innocent’ Britons fuelled an emotive and vengeful response to the Rebellion. On the Indian side, widespread British atrocities against both revolting soldiers and Indian civilians left little doubt that British notions of justice and due process did not always apply to colonial subjects. Indeed, the violence of colonial rule in India was at its most exposed during the Rebellion.

11. Rise of Agriculturist Lobby

As increased taxation which seriously affected the large landholders had been a principal cause of participation of the large landholders in the rebellion, for the sake of preserving their colonial hold on India, the British administrators adopted a policy of not taxing the feudal in particular and the agricultural classes in general as leniently as possible. This policy of appeasement towards agriculturists made them an important force in the body politic of United India and continued even after the exit of their benefactors. Agriculturalists are still exempt from payment of tax on the income they earn from agriculture in India, Pakistan, and other countries of the Subcontinent.

12. Alienation of Urban Middle Classes

On the other side, to compensate for this loss on account of preferential treatment and concessions to the farming community, the British successively increased taxation levied on the professional and trading classes in the larger towns. This led to increased participation of the urban classes in anti-British parties like Congress etc. This explains why the professional and business classes became more and more anti-British after 1858 and till 1947.

13. Origins of the Political Islam

Although the 1857 uprising was a common struggle of the Indians with Hindus playing an equal, if not a more powerful role than their Muslim compatriots, to topple the government, the ultimate blame for this event was laid on Muslim’s shoulders. They were singled out, individually and collectively, by the English for retribution which ranged from personal persecution to outright denial or limited access to economic opportunities, social esteem, and political participation for two decades after the uprising. This blatant discrimination against the Indian Muslims inevitably resulted in creating Islamists, who ascribed the fall of the Mughal Empire to the deviation of the Muslims from their religion, advised aloofness from mainstream social and political life for Muslims, and tried to revive the old Islamic spirit of jihad through religious education. They can be called the forefathers of the present-day fundamentalists and jihadists who sowed the seeds of Muslim militancy and present-day political Islam and terrorism.

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