The mid nineteenth century India, under the British rule, experienced monumental changes in both its socio-economic and political scenes that laid the foundation for the Indian National Movement, which became the precursor to the eventual ouster of the British rule and establishment of an independent India. Ninety years before gaining independence from the British by peaceful means - largely due to the tenacity and perseverance of one man, Gandhi – the concerted effort to remove the British had begun by an armed and bloody revolt by the Indian soldiers serving under the British army. This event of 1857 - 58 came to be known as the Sepoy Mutiny - implying a failed attempt by armed thugs who were biting the hands of the legitimate overlords that fed them (the term Sepoy - originally Sipahi – referred to soldiers of Indian origin who served in the British armed forces). However, the uprising was more a revolt than a mere mutiny against the British. The British had found great success with little bloodshed in amassing substantial acreage of land in India, and were busy with implementation of ‘reforms’ in order to civilize the ‘barbaric natives’ at an accelerated pace. The decade between 1848 and 1858 was an event filled one that altered the course of the British history in India.
Hindu widows were allowed to remarry, by decree. Earlier in the century sati (the practice of immolation of the wife in the funeral pyre of her dead husband) and thugi (ritual murder by strangling and highway robbery in the service of Mother Goddess Kali) had both been abolished by William Bentinck with the assistance of Rajaram Mohan Roy. The princely states, which thus far had been loyal allies of the British, were systematically stripped of their privileged domains, and their lands were annexed under the pretext of “lapse” and “paramountcy.” The treaties between princely states and the John Company were ignored especially if there was no natural “heir and successor.” The long standing Hindu practice of adopting a son to succeed the throne, if no natural male heir was available was outlawed with the stroke of a pen and old treaties were torn apart. If the land belonging to princely states could not be acquired by this means, other excuses were invented such as depravity of citizens and inept administration by the princes etc. Another wily tact was also followed when the pensioner’s titles and pensions awarded to princes and other land owners as compensation for lands seized from them were also allowed to “lapse” and not renewed.
James Andrew Broun Ramsay, Marquee of Dalhousie (1812 – 1860) had been appointed the governor - general of India by the Company in 1848. He was on a mission to unify India and control it. He earnestly believed that more of India annexed by the British the better it was for the Indians. First order of business was to let the internal feud in Punjab fester and then wage war with the ruler at Lahore. The master mind of Punjabi Empire, Ranjit Singh had died leaving behind weak replacements. After subduing the Sikh army, Dalhousie quickly annexed their lands, including Kashmir that was under their rule. Kashmir was then sold to Gulab Singh, who once was a feudatory of the mighty Ranjit Singh. The kingdom of Kashmir would enjoy relative independence until the next one hundred years and the progeny of Gulab Singh. Only after the Indian independence, would Hari Singh, the last maharaja of Kashmir aligned himself with India, which in turn set the stage for the struggle in Kashmir that even rages today.
Dalhousie started his cunning annexations in the year 1848 and the social reforms were shoved down the throats of Indians. Both Hindu and Muslim orthodoxy had always been viewed as barbaric, and social reforms were passed as laws with little sensitivity towards ancient religious practices of both Hindus and Muslims. It had also not gone unnoticed by the Hindus and Muslims that a slew of missionaries had appeared in India in the early part of 19th century. Conversions of Hindus were carried on without much objection, though there was much discomfiture among the orthodox Hindus. Moreover, a large contingent of young British men eagerly coveted positions in the company, solely for the purpose of infusing “civilization” to the misdirected “heathen natives.” By mid century full blown discrimination was practiced by giving preference in civil jobs and other monetary rewards to those who converted to Christianity.
Dalhousie and the company were basking in glory in the aftermath of their success in Punjab, which was now firmly under the control of British after the treaty with the Sikhs. Revenues from the fertile soil of Punjab had exceeded their wildest dreams. The company stockholders in London were very pleased. The English language had been chosen as the language in schools and colleges over few objections. Sanskrit and other common native languages had been relegated to secondary and minority status. This had created a class of Indian intelligentsia which was vying for education in the English language both at home and abroad in England. A new class of Indians was developing that was in little touch with native languages and cultures and consider themselves more English than Indian.
Dalhousie did not confine himself to social reforms. He had visions of unifying the entire country through railroad. His goal was to connect the major British residencies in Madras, Bombay and Calcutta by rail. Construction began in 1850. The first was built in Calcutta, a 150 mile long railroad track connecting Howrah (opposite Calcutta on the right bank of River Hughly) to the coal mines of Raniganj. Another was built in Bombay, a shorter route of only 21 miles between Bombay and Thana. Dalhousie considered railways to be the greatest boon to India ever conferred by England. Two other modes of communication were also considered equally important by Dalhousie in modernizing India. Telegraph and postal services throughout India were both started under his watch. First telegraph lines were laid in 1851 by the brilliant and ingenious Dr. William O’Shaughnessey in Bengal. Soon work was begun to connect Madras, Calcutta, Agra, Lahore and Bombay by wire. As the construction of thousand mile links were completed in 1854, Dalhousie took personal pleasure in receiving telegraphic messages from O’Shaughnessey. 2500 miles of telegraphic wires had been laid out in a single year in 1854.
India’s first Post Office Act had been enacted in 1837 but the completion of telegraphic links gave an additional impetus to it. Dalhousie again took personal interest in modernizing the inefficient postal system and soon the half-anna letter was able to reach many remote corners of India. Within three months of its implementation, the number of letters delivered by the postal service increased by 50 percent. Communication within the country was revolutionized. One-anna newspapers, a uniform price throughout the country increased the opinion making potential at all levels.
What Dalhousie had explicitly pronounced in his summary minutes to the directors of the company on the eve of his departure to India had come to fruition. “Three great engines of social improvement, which the sagacity and science of recent times had previously given to the Western nations – I mean Railways, uniform Postage and the Electric Telegraph,” he had said would harness India’s bullock-cart civilization. In short, Dalhousie had succeeded in implementing sweeping reforms in India in an attempt to create a Europe-like society in a single decade in the mid 19th century.
Dalhousie’s plan for modernizing and unifying the country was indeed a selfish one. The railways could speed the process of exporting raw materials to Manchester textile mills. Swift transportation of the military to potentially troubled spots was another reason. After all, a country with a population of 200 million was being controlled by a mere 40,000 strong British troops with 232,000 Sepoys under their command. With all the annexations the country was getting too large to be safely administered without the tools of modern communication and transportation. Any miscue on the administration’s part could result in quick riot and revolt that could not be contained by the minority British rulers. This was the same reason he pushed for the expensive proposal to implement telegraphic links. Dalhousie was not prescient of the upcoming mutiny of 1857 but nevertheless, his plan of connecting the country through telegraphic wires might have saved the British Empire in India, as the news was swiftly transmitted to other areas before trouble began. In some areas, preemptive actions were taken by the British that prevented the mutineers from inflicting more damage.
The railways had been a huge success with the general population. Travel by train increased by leaps and bounds. The improved communication and transportation also connected Indians in many ways. Soon a nationalistic movement would be born but the triad of Dalhousie’s ventures was not the sole cause for adding fuel to the fire that was burning among the Sepoys. It was more because of the social reforms that had been enacted at breakneck speed which threatened the very core of the existence of orthodox Hindu and Muslim societies.
Hindu and Muslim Discontentment
Dalhousie annexed Oudh with ease in February of 1856 under some pretext and complaint about the corrupt and capricious king of Oudh being not fit to rule. King Wajid Ali handed over his kingdom without any armed resistance. He petitioned Dalhousie in Calcutta, who by now was totally disinterested. Wajid Ali then traveled to London to appeal to the British authorities, but only succeeded in addressing stone faced men who were not interested in hearing his cause. He returned to India and started a conspiracy with the Brahmins and Kshatriya soldiers of Oudh, who had formed the backbone of the Sepoy Army of Bengal.
The straw that broke the camel’s back was when the British introduced modern weaponry of breech-loading Enfield rifles to the army. New cartridges were greased with animal fat and lard and the soldier had to bite off the tip before loading it on to the rifle. Rumors of cattle and pig fat being used in the cartridges spread slowly and the British had paid little attention to the complaints. This was sacrilegious for Hindus who considered cows as sacred, and for Muslims handling of pigs had been considered irreligious. The “barbarians” with their archaic practices did not deserve to be heard, and sensitive matters of religious taboos were completely ignored. Soldiers who refused to load the rifles with cartridges tainted with animal fat were summarily dismissed and shamefully made to walk home without pay or pension.
Dalhousie had returned to England in 1856, a lonely and sick man, and Lord Charles James Canning was the new governor – general. Canning had enacted several unpopular measures when he took office. Most distressing was a new law called the General Services Act that forced Sepoys to be deployed away from homeland, especially to Burma. This Act alone had produced dissatisfaction among the soldiers. Brahmins and other high caste Hindus considered it pollution if made to cross the “dark waters.” Dalhousie had already enacted the Caste Disabilities Act of 1850 that permitted converts to Christianity to inherit property. This had appeared as a concerted Christian conspiracy to shake the foundations of the Hindu orthodoxy. In 1856 another law allowing Hindu widows to remarry was passed by Canning that added more discord among Hindus. Sati had already been banned since 1829, and this additional meddling into Hindu customs was not welcomed in high caste Hindu society.
Rumors started by the conspirators about dead pigs in the water supply and ground cow bones in sugar added more fuel to the anger of Sepoys. A quiet recruitment, especially by people loyal to Wajid Ali and Peshwa Nana Sahib of the Marathas, went on for the first five months of 1857. Members of Bahadur Shah’s (the last Mughal Emperor in Delhi) court and Dost Muhammad’s agents from Kabul were also silently recruited. For five months the Sepoys organized quietly, with the aid of disgruntled monarchies which had been either dethroned or marginalized by the British.
The Sepoy Uprising
On Saturday May 9, 1857 eighty-five Sepoys were shackled and marched to prison in Meerut because they refused to load their Enfield rifles with cartridges tainted with lard. The other Sepoys silently watched the spectacle but this event served as the battle cry for the revolt. Next morning, which was on Sunday, armed Sepoys marched against their British superiors. Most of them were dragged out of churches and killed. The prisoners were released and the frenzied mob marched thirty miles south to Delhi, shouting “Chalo Dilli” (“Let’s go to Delhi”). The Mughal king Bahadur Shah II was a reluctant accomplice as he had grown old in his throne. However the revolutionists elevated him to “Emperor of India” status, and with little resistance from the British in Delhi, declared it “liberated” on May 11.
Soon the entire Ganges belt, the heartland of Hindustan, was lost to the British. Oudh (Lucknow) was well defended by chief commissioner Sir Henry Lawrence until he could get reinforcements in November. Cawnpore (Kanpur) however was a disaster. Four hundred men, women and children could only hold out for eighteen days but then surrendered to Peshwa Nana Sahib. A deal was struck for safe passage to Allahabad along the river, but when the British families climbed into waiting boats, they were all massacred. This event triggered so much anger among the British that it served as a lightning rod for future atrocities by the British against the Indians, following their regaining control of Indian heartland.
Illustration of the Revolt from
London Printing Company Limited
The victors failed to unite among their various factions of Muslims, Marathas and other Hindu soldiers. Moreover, the revolt failed to catch fire in the south. Madras and Bombay were quiet and showed no interest in joining forces with their northern brothers. In addition to Muslim rulers of Oudh and Delhi, local rulers like Devi Singh in Mathura and Kadam Singh of Meerut became heroes of the revolt and rallied the peasants to join in their cause. But only Delhi, Lucknow and Cawnpore remained the centers of revolt, which soon lost steam from lack of sustained strategy against the British and lack of cooperation between the mutineers.
The land owners in the countryside were not too enthusiastic about the revolt as they feared losing their lands to new owners and increased burden of taxation. Bickering fights and jealousies among local rajas and nawabs, and the failure of the revolutionists to pacify traditional landowners spelt doom for the sustenance of the revolt.
British never feared a total loss, especially when the initial fury of the revolt was not maintained. Once widespread revolt was held in check, they just waited for the internal feud among the participants to fester. While they never doubted their ability to gain back control of the Ganges heartland, a fury and vengeance was well under way against the Indians. Men who were known for their patience and balanced approach towards the natives had suddenly turned into raging murderers. Indiscriminate killing of all classes of Indians began as soon as the opportunity arose. Long serving domestic servants of British families were executed under suspicion of seditious activities. Suspects were tied to the cannons and blown away. Live flaying of unsuspecting villagers and peasants was advocated. One hundred years of building bridges of confidence and trust between the British and the Indians were being abandoned only because of unfounded suspicion and innuendo.
The print media, while very vocal about the atrocities of the Sepoys in Cawnpore and Lucknow, were now silent about the barbaric execution of innocent people without any proof of wrongdoing or any trial. Near Cawnpore, entire villages were burnt and the people killed. Delhi was recaptured by the British, with the help of Sikh regiment by September 20, 1857 and Bahadur Shah II was exiled to Burma. His sons were murdered in cold blood, and the Emperor himself died in 1858 in exile, thus bringing an end to three hundred years of glorious Mughal history in India.
Pockets of resistance from smaller groups went on until summer of 1858. Rani Laxmi Bai of Jhansi put up a gallant fight along with Tantia Topi, the artillery expert of Peshwa Nana Sahib. The Rani had lost her kingdom due to the “lapse and paramountcy” of Dalhousie, as she had no male heirs and her adopted son was not recognized as a legal heir. The Rani died fighting on her horse and Tantia Topi was captured and hung along with many other rebels.
The revolution was not as small as the British would have liked to characterize as a mutiny. However, it was much smaller than an independence struggle, as the Indians would like to call it. But it did bring about monumental changes in India. It proved to be the nail on the coffin of the Mughal Empire, independent Oudh and the rule of the Maratha Peshwas. There was discontent in Britain about so many British citizens losing their lives and above all the whole episode of Sepoy uprising costing so much revenue to control it. It had cost England a full year’s worth of Indian revenue - 36 million pounds. A debate ensued whether Dalhousie’s zeal for accelerated pace of reforms or the antiquated administration of the company were to be blamed for the unfortunate turn of events. The company was the scapegoat and the administration of India came into the hands of British Crown, under Queen Victoria.
In August 1858, the British Parliament passed the Government of India Act, transferring all rights that the company had over India to the British Crown, thus effectively ending the rule of the Company Raj, which had lasted one hundred years since the Battle of Plassey, when Robert Clive defeated Siraj-ud-daula, the nawab of Bengal on June 23, 1757. Last governor-general of the company, Lord Canning, stayed on as the first viceroy of India ruled by the British Crown.