Zoya Ansari describes the widespread disturbances in the subcontinent
The revolt Of 1857 – 1857 was the watershed year in the history of the subcontinent ushering in a chain of events that ultimately ended the British imperial rule ninety years later. The revolt was the result of decades of pent up emotions of the subjugated communities, both Hindus and Muslims, who resented the foreign British dominance. The British rule had largely alienated the Indian socio-political mainstream and there was widespread dissatisfaction with many new laws and regulations brought in by the new rulers.
The new rulers were not only alien but also gradually became aloof from the indigenous people and cocooned themselves in their conclaves and hardly ever mixed with the common man. They had their own colonies, bazaars, entertainment areas, cantonments, hill stations, hospitals, educational institutions and services structures. The kind of violence that erupted was bound to take place and Indian army was instrumental in it was not surprising as it was the only body that could stand up to the mighty foreign rulers.
The British army comprised of three armies known as Bengal, Madras and Bombay Presidency armies controlled by respective commanders in chief having separate headquarters. They had separate recruitment policies and their personnel also hailed from different areas and belonged to disparate races. The socio-political opposition to the British rule appeared to be an end after Marhatta princes of India had retired into a sulky seclusion after their final defeat in 1818 but the wars against the Afghans and the Sikhs and then the annexations of Dalhousie alarmed remaining princes and outraged them.
Revolt Of 1857 And The Lost Of Muslims
The Muslims had lost the large state of Avadh; the Marathas had lost Nagpur, Satara Jhansi and the British were becoming increasingly hostile toward traditional survivals and contemptuous of anything Indian. There was, therefore, both resentment and unease among the old governing class, fanned in Delhi by the British decision to dispense away with the imperial title of the reigning king in Delhi as the Mughal ruler after the death of Bahadur Shah.
Economically and socially, there had been much dislocation in the landholding class all over northern and western India as a result of British land-revenue settlements, setting group against group particularly amongst the talukdars of Avadh. There was thus a suppressed tension in the countryside, ready to break out whenever governmental pressure might be reduced. The increasing British confidence gave way to introduction of Western innovations that created resentment in India.
Their educational policy aggressively westernizing with English instead of Persian as the official language; the practitioners of the old learning felt themselves slighted. Western inventions like the telegraph and railways aroused the conservative prejudice of a conservative race; the trains were crowded with passengers and loads of luggage was transported throughout the length and breadth of the country.
The uprising began in the Bengal army that consisted of nearly 130,000 Indian troops that comprised about 40,000 Brahmans as well as many Rajputs. The British had accentuated caste consciousness by careful regulations that allowed discipline to grow lax and had failed to maintain understanding between British officers and their men.
Revolt Of 1857 And British
In addition, British regulations required recruits to serve overseas if ordered, a challenge to the castes that composed so much of the Bengal army. Hindu caste traditions considered travelling by sea religiously illegal and anyone doing so was considered out of the pail of Hindu religion and the Bengal army was compelled to take cumbersome land routes to campaigns.
As happens mostly in history the revolt started due to a minor issue of the usage of a cartridge that ultimately developed into an existential matter proving to be catastrophic in nature. This cause was the greased cartridges supplied for the new breech-loading Enfield rifle that were to be bitten off before insertion and the British manufacturers had supplied a fat of mixed beef and pork–anathema to both Hindus and Muslims.
This mistake was retrieved as soon as discovered but the fact that explanations and reissues could not quell the soldiers’ suspicions suggests that the troops were already disturbed by other causes. Both Muslims and Hindu public opinion was deeply perturbed about the activity of missionaries that was by this time widespread.
Increasing this suspicion was that the government was ostentatiously neutral but an increasing number of its officers were friendly so that society was inclined to regard them as eroding society without openly interfering. In sum, this combination of factors produced, besides the normal tensions endemic in India, an uneasy, fearful, suspicious, resentful frame of mind and a wind of unrest ready to fan the flames of any actual physical outbreak.
When Revolt Of 1857 Start?
The only evidence for the poisonous atmosphere was the circulation from village to village of chapatti, a practice that, though it also occurred on other occasions, was known to have taken place at any time of unrest. The lack of planning after the outbreak rules out these two explanations, while the degree of popular support argues more than a purely military outbreak.
The actual outbreak of the revolt occurred when the Bengal army began in May 1857 at Meerut when Indian soldiers who had been placed in irons for refusing to accept new cartridges were rescued by their comrades. They shot the British officers and made for Delhi where there were no British troops. The Indian garrison at Delhi joined them and by the next nightfall they had secured the city and Mughal fort proclaiming the aged Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah their figure head.
There at a stroke was an army, a cause, and a national leader–the only Muslim who appealed to both Hindus and Muslims. This was a stroke of genius that catapulted a revolt into a movement underpinned a trained military force supported by a cross-section socio-political forces irrespective of religious creed and economic association. With the passage of time the events proved that the movement developed into something more than a military mutiny causing serious jitters within the British rulers both in India and Britain.
The intensity of the conflict made the British to fight them with their backs to the wall until relief arrived from Britain and sustained and tough efforts were required to regain the control over the lost areas and restore the writ of the government. They were made to end the Mughal Empire and never regretted doing that.
However, they learned their lesson with respect to the other princely states and never tinkered with their states and preserved them till they left the subcontinent in 1947. After quelling the revolt the British radically overhauled the army by combining all three presidencies armies into one British army naming it the British Indian army headquartered at Simla with its Commander-in-Chief also given a residence in Calcutta.
The recruitment of the army was shifted from west India to north-west India, northern areas and Himalayan delta meaning Punjabis, Pushtuns and Revolt Of 1857 Gurkhas. The artillery was taken away from the indigenous troops and was exclusively assigned to the British troops. The ratio of British to Indian troops was fixed at roughly 1:2 instead of 1:5–one British and two Indian battalions were brigaded together so that no sizable station should be without British troops. The officers continued to be British but they were instructed to be become more close to their local troops and maintain regular contact with them. The Weekender