Causes of the 1857 War of Independence in British India

Shahid H. Raja
9 min readAug 13, 2019

Introduction

On April 27, 1857, eighty-five soldiers of a Bengal regiment of British East India Company, posted in Meerut, disobeyed to use of the new cartridges, allegedly encased in cow and pig grease. Harsh punishment was meted out to the disobedient soldiers and that too in front of their colleagues, resulting in the mutiny of several regiments and ultimately becoming a general uprising of the Indian people. It was ruthlessly quelled by the British with the help of their superior technology, techniques and support of local elites and regular armed forces.

Several names have been given to this event, depending upon which perspective one looks at it. Whatever name one gives, it is an important milestone in the history of India’s independence and Indian Muslims’ struggle for a separate homeland

Context

Every event has a context, the peculiar situation obtaining on the ground at that particular moment in history which gives the specific causes responsible for that event greater relevance than any other point in time. Without understanding this context, it is not possible to determine the relative significance or otherwise of these specific causes. Some of the peculiar features of the situation before the 1857 uprising can be

  • After more than two hundred years of rule over vast areas of India, the Mughal Empire was in its last stage of decay, gasping for survival and needed a small push to crumble down like a house of cards. This decay had created a political vacuum that the East India Company was eager to fill.
  • The French, the arch-rival of the British for regional hegemony in Europe and global imperialism, had been defeated on both fronts; at Waterloo and in India. The British were now consolidating their position as a paramount imperial power and could not afford the loss of India.
  • However, the humiliating defeat of British Indian forces in the First Afghan War of 1840 had shaken their prestige. Rumours of their disasters during the Crimean war further broke the myth of their invincibility.
  • Spread of western education and ideas, infrastructural development, technological advancements and a new system of governance introduced by the East India Company in the Indian Subcontinent had facilitated the connectivity of hence isolated communities and created a sense of unity among the Indians. Revolutions of the 1840s in Europe had kindled nationalistic feelings among the Indians educated from the same institutions the Company established to get a regular supply of ministerial staff for running India.
  • A belief thatthe English rule was approaching its end with the coming centenary of Plassey (1755) gaining currency. Frequent eruptions of fires and stories of chapaties being passed from village to village were being interpreted as a forerunner of mysterious order to come. Wandering faqirs and sadhus of both faiths spread these beliefs in the nook and corner of India, creating a sense of foreboding.

Causes

1857 War of Independence can be analyzed in terms of several sets of causative factors such as military unrest, religious tensions, social discontentment, economic frustration etc.

A. Economic Frustration

The occupation of India by the East India Company was not for any altruistic motives, but rather for pure mercantilist objectives. It was exploitative imperialism, pauperizing the colonies for the benefit of the centre. This exploitation through fiscal, monetary and commercial policies transferred huge resources from India leaving every section of society economically frustrated.

  • Business and commercial classes got frustrated due to the discouragement of Indian manufacturing through high taxes, large-scale import of manufactured goods from England and export of only minerals from India, all creating negative multiplier effects.
  • Systematic annexation of princely states by the East India Company through dubious means left hundreds of their soldiers jobless, adding to the pool of disgruntled Indians. These were joined by the pauperized nobility after the confiscation of their ancestral lands/ jagirs on one pretext or another.
  • The acquisition of freshterritory by the East India Company did not improve a lot for the peasants either. The new revenue demands by the Company were even harsher, in cash rather than in kind, and based on good years rather than average with no relief in lean years.
  • They were also asked to provide written proofs of ownership of land while farming communities were a class, largely illiterate, which had always placed greater reliance on the fact of possession, than on documents to substantiate their claims. As a result, thousands of petty right holders, whose families had received their grants for services rendered to the rulers of the states or Mughal Durbar, were dispossessed

B. Military Unrest

British Indian Army was the first and the best institution East India Company had introduced in India. Well-trained, well-equipped and well-paid Indian soldier, proud of being a servant of the Company Bahadur, was the vanguard of British imperialism in the Subcontinent. However, as the Company changed from a trading organisation to a ruling elite, the soldier lost his importance over some time. It also adversely affected his loyalty towards his employer. There were several reasons for this alienation of a common Sepoy of the Company;

  • While the inflationary pressures had eroded the value of the local currency, his pay and perks were not increased accordingly. At its peak, Company had around 50,000 British officers and soldiers in its armed forces against more than 280,000 Sepoys. However, more than 50 % of the budget was allocated for the officers and soldiers of European descent while less than half of the budget went to pay and the perk of the native soldiers. Chances of his promotion were always scant but now they became bleak after the recruitment of British soldiers in greater numbers.
  • Another reason was the growing communication gap between the Indian soldier and his officer class. After the defeat of Tipu Sultan, the Company’s officers were forbidden to marry Indian ladies from whom they used to learn the language and the customs of the people and acquired a much more sympathetic understanding of the complexities of the Indian culture and society. With the coming of shiploads of white European ladies, due to the shortening of the sea voyage between England and India, the British officers lost touch with the Indian society and started behaving like true colonialists.
  • There was a common feeling among the native soldiers that the Company was introducing rules and regulations which went against the religious customs and beliefs of the Indian soldiers. Innovations in uniforms, and orders suppressing the wearing of caste marks on the forehead, or of earrings and even beards were interpreted as attempts to interfere with the faith of both Hindus and Muslims. The General Service Enlistment Act of 1856 requiring an ath from everyone to serve even out of India, greatly demoralised the Hindu soldiers who were averse to sea travel for religious reasons.
  • With the forward policy of the Company, the best officers opted for and were being sent on deputation to civil appointments to administer the newly annexed territories. It left young and inexperienced officers behind who looked down on the Indian soldiers as inferior human beings and treated the Indian officers with barely concealed contempt.
  • Expression of open resentment by the Sepoys had always been treated leniently in the old Mughal/state armies because the Indian soldier, however poor he may have been, regarded himself as a gentleman and that was how the rest of society looked at him. In Europe, soldiers came from working classes for which harsh punishments were necessary and were considered normal. The use of European draconian punishments to suppress any resentment by the Indian soldiers was one of the main reasons for this 1857 Mutiny which was not the first of its kind.
  • With the annexation of the native states, the Company increased its areas of jurisdiction and revenue but its sepoys discovered that they had also lost their privileged status. Before the annexation, these soldiers had the right to demand the resident’s intervention on their behalf in the domestic problems of their families vis-à-vis the state administration. Similarly, the annexation of Punjab and Sindh resulted in the discontinuation of Bhatta (extra ration) for the Sepoys who used to get this additional pay for serving in these foreign lands.
  • The last straw on the camel’sback was the widespread rumours that the cartridges of the new Enfield rifle were encased in paper greased with the fat of cows and pigs- offensive equally to Hindus and Muslims. The prescribed drill for loading the new rifle required the end of the cartridge to be bitten off by the soldiers, an act that would effectively pollute them. The whole purpose, according to the rumour, was that the polluted Sepoys should be left with no option but o embrace the Christian faith.

C. Religious Tensions

In a conservative and traditional country like India, religion was the last thing Company should have interfered with. There were several sources of this tension;

  • Though not official policy, officers keen to make India a Christian country for which they frequently made land grants to churches and missions out of national exchequers generally interpreted as a strategy to spread Christianity
  • Frequent famines left many orphans who were taken into Christian orphanages giving birth to rumours that famines were deliberately caused by the British to get the maximum number of children for their conversion to Christianity
  • The passing of a law in1850 whereby a change of religion would not dispossess the converted person of his share in ancestral inheritance also reinforced this belief
  • Sermons by the British officers to their subordinates were normally given privately but sometimes in officially organised functions also created this feeling

D. Social discontent

Not only the Sepoys and the social, economic and political elite of India was feeling alienated due to the high-handedness of the East India Company, but even the common man also had a grudge of his own against them for one reason or another. Some of these reasons were

  • The last MughalKing, though a figurehead and despite all his weaknesses and diminished position, was a symbol of what India stood before the British came. Over time, British Residents stationed in Delhi stopped paying him due respect and even sometimes showed overt disrespect. In a close and traditional society like Delhi, it was taken as a personal slight by every Indian. It was unbearable to nobility because he was the symbol of Indian pride
  • Another reason for general dissatisfaction with British rule was the introduction of the European civil and criminal justice system. In place of a simple, direct and fairly informal administration of justice, the new system was a highly formalized court procedure dependent on leaders. In a highly illiterate society, it was the biggest cause of frustration among the people
  • In Mughal India, great honour and prestige were attached to government service where ruling elites could rise to higher ranks. But under Company rule, all the higher government offices were reserved for Englishmen; only the lower-grade offices were open to the sons of the Indian middle class.
  • The introduction oftechnology is always disruptive and results in social dissonance. New procedures and practices introduced in India by the East India Company no doubt increased the efficiency and effectiveness of its administration, but they caused a lot of frustration and resentment among the general public.
  • Over time, the British residing in India in general and those in power started behaving like true colonialists. They openly scoffed at the social and cultural customs and religious beliefs and rites of the locals. Feeling proud of their colour, creed and technological advancements, hurling racial slurs became common.

E. Political discontent

Besides social and economic causes, political resentment among the political elite of India was also one of the main reasons for the 1857 uprising. Some of the reasons for this resentment were

  • Forcible annexation of Indian states on one pretext or another, particularly the annexationist zeal of Lord Dalhousie played havoc with the trust existing between the Company and the protected Nawabs. By applying the draconian ‘Doctrine of Lapse’, the claims of the princes adopted by the issueless Nawabs were rejected and the state annexed despite the vehement protests of the head of the house. Annexation also resulted in disbanding of state armies and confiscation of properties of the nobility, leaving thousands of elite as paupers, swelling the ranks of the disgruntled.
  • A subsidiary system ofgovernance, through British Residents, was the most effective way of controlling a multicultural, multi-ethnic and vast country like India. But it also had its pitfalls-British Residents used to become intoxicated with the power and prestige they enjoyed in these states and treated the rulers of the states as their subordinates.
  • In the Mughal period and even before that, nobility in India was awarded titles along with monetary rewards and land grants for the services rendered to the rulers. East India Company replaced those with titles like Khan Bahadur, Rao Sahib and the like which were purely decorative honorifics given to rich gentlemen who possessed the means to support these dignities and were usually awarded for services of a political nature. Unemployment of the nobility was not only an economic disaster and political marginalization; it was a social degradation of once Ashrafia (nobility)

Request

Thank you very much for reading the article

If you liked it, kindly express your appreciation by clicking the clap icon below as many times as you like

Why not share it with your friends on social media? Knowledge is a common heritage of us all

And, kindly, do follow me as well as subscribe to my newsletter may also like to read

  1. Causes of the failure of the 1857 War of Independence

2. Significance and Consequences of the 1857 War of Independence

--

--