Everything You Need To Know About Revolt Of 1857
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Revolt of 1857

The Revolt of 1857 was one of the most significant watershed moments during British rule. During this revolt, various regions of north India spontaneously stood up against British rule. Garrison after garrison stood mutinied against their senior officers, and after the general public participation, it appeared that the British rule would end. However, the British forces were able to control the situation after bloody repression.

Everything You Need To Know About Revolt Of 1857

How did the revolt of 1857 happen?

By the middle of the 19th century, practically all of the Indian subcontinent was conquered by the British, from Punjab to Assam and from Ladakh to Sri Lanka. The old monarchy was made politically irrelevant, and an exploitative revenue system was introduced. The craft and the businesses were in ruins, and poverty-stricken society was brimming with frustration. It was already a bombshell that needed just a faint spark to explode.

In this context, a rumour spread that the British had introduced new greased cartridges, reportedly using beef and Pig fat that had to be opened with the mouth. This enraged both the Hindus as well as the Muslim soldiers. This episode provided the spark to the already simmering discontent. The sepoys started refusing to participate in daily drills and parades.

  • On 29th March 1857, Mangal Pandey, a 29-year-old soldier stationed at Barrackpore (West Bengal) in the Bengal Native Infantry, declared that he would rebel. When a British officer of his unit tried to investigate the matter, he fired at an officer, and several of the fellow sepoys refused to restrain him. For this, Mangal Pandey was executed on 8th April, and his regiment was disbanded.
  • Some days later, sepoys again refused to participate in the army drill using new cartridges. Eighty-five sepoys were dismissed from service and sentenced to 10 years in prison for disobeying orders.
  • In April, unrest spread to Agra, Ambala and Prayagraj (erstwhile Allahabad) cantonments.

How Delhi became the centre of the revolt:

  • On 10th May, an entire Indian garrison at Meerut revolted for similar reasons. After freeing their colleagues and killing the British officers, they decided to march to Delhi, which was still considered a centre of power.
  • In Delhi, the local infantry, including some of Bahadur Shah Zafar’s palace guards, joined the rebels and seized the city. In the ensuing riots and looting, even some Indian Christians were killed. At an Ammunition depot in Delhi, British officers opened fire on the rioters, after which three of them were killed in a blast, in which civilians were killed too.
  • As the news of these events spread, sepoys stationed around Delhi declared their open rebellion.

Zafar’s role in 1857’s revolt:

  • The rebels proclaimed the old Bahadur Shah as the Emperor of India. It was a recognition of the fact that due to the long reign of the Mughals, they had become the traditional symbol of India’s political unity.
  • The Mughals were stripped of all their powers by the British, and Bahadur Shah Zafar lived on British Pension. In his wildest dream, he never even imagined possessing an ambition to rule. Therefore, he hesitated when the mutinied soldiers came to him on 12th
  • Four days later, the sepoys and the palace servants killed 52 Europeans who were hiding in the city and were prisoners of the palace in front of Zafar’s palace. Zafar was indecisive and could do nothing to stop the lawlessness.
  • Such persistence forced Bahadur Shah to write to join the Mutineers.
    • He took ownership of all actions of the mutineers.
    • He wrote to all the rulers and chiefs of India, urging them to organise an association of Indian states to fight and overthrow the British regime.
    • He declared his son Mirza Mughal as the commander of the joint forces. However, sepoys rejected him due to his inexperience.

Impact of Zafar’s involvement

For at least a week, there was no reaction from any place apart from Delhi. But then, as the news travelled, a spurt of mutinies began. Regiment after regiment mutinied and took off to join other troops at nodal points like Delhi, Kanpur and Lucknow.

  • In the next month, the entire Bengal Army rose in Revolt. Here, 54 of the 74 military regiments mutinied.
  • Bombay Presidency had three mutinees in 29 regiments. Madras Presidency had no mutinies, but one of their regiment refused to participate in controlling the situation in the North.

Rebellion in the countryside:

  • The whole of North and North West India was up in arms against the British.
  • These revolts were also followed by a rebellion by the civilians in the city and countryside. In several places like Gwalior, Ghazis declared jihad against the British.
  • In the villages, the peasants and dispossessed zamindars attacked the moneylenders and new zamindars who had displaced them from the land. They burned down the government records and money lenders’ account books.
  • In central India, where the rulers, such as Indore and Gwalior, remained loyal to the British, the army revolted and joined the rebels.

Leaders of the Revolt

Everything You Need To Know About Revolt Of 1857

Delhi (Bakht Khan)
  • At Delhi, Bahadur Shah was only the nominal and symbolic head; the real power lay with the court of soldiers composed of Hindu and Muslim soldiers, headed by General Bakht Khan.
  • The emperor’s weak personality, lack of leadership, and old age weakened the Revolt.

Everything You Need To Know About Revolt Of 1857

Kanpur (Nana Saheb and
 Tantya Tope)
  • Nana Saheb (Dhondu Pant), the adopted son of Peshwa Baji Rao II, led the Revolt at Kanpur.
  • The rebellious sepoys expelled the British from Kanpur and declared Nana Saheb, who acknowledged Bahadur Shah as the Emperor of India, as Peshwa.
  • Tantya Tope (or Tatiya Tope) carried out most of the fight on behalf of Nana Saheb. He first defended Kanpur, then went to aid Rani Laxmibai. He resisted the British for the longest time. It was only in early 1859 that he was captured and executed.

Everything You Need To Know About Revolt Of 1857

Jhansi (Rani Laxmi Bai)
  • Laxmibai Newalkar/Manikarnika Tambe was the most outstanding leader of the Revolt. Her state, Jhansi, was annexed by Lord Dalhousie through the Doctrine of Lapse policy.
  • Even after such gross injustice, she remained loyal to the British. But on 12th June, Bengal Native infantry seized the Jhansi fort and massacred 40-60 British soldiers. Even at this point, the intention was just to defend Jhansi from lawlessness. However, when the British did not come to aid her forces, she and her advisors decided to dishonour the subsidiary alliance by declaring Independence.
  • When British forces returned in March 1858 and attacked Jhansi, it was well defended. Tatiya Tope, too, joined her after the fall of Kanpur. Laxmibai fought fiercely but had to flee from Jhansi to Kalpi, where she was defeated again.
  • Battle of Gwalior: Under Tatiya Tope’s leadership, the rebel forces occupied Gwalior’s strategic fort. The Maharaja Scindia fled to Agra, remaining loyal to the British. The British forces eventually charged and massacred the rebels, killing 5000 troops. It is said that heavily wounded Rani Laxmibai took her life in the end, refusing to surrender.

Everything You Need To Know About Revolt Of 1857

Lucknow (Begum Hazrat Mahal)
  • At Lucknow, Begum Hazrat Mahal, wife of the deposed Nawab, provided the leadership and declared his son Birjis Qadir as the Nawab.
  • Henry Lawrence, the British resident, was killed during the seizure of Awadh.

(Khan Bahadur)


  • Khan Bahadur was a descendant of a former ruler of Rohilkhand.
  • Unhappy with the pension offered by the British, he organised 40,000 soldiers and gave stiff resistance to the British.

Everything You Need To Know About Revolt Of 1857

Bihar (Kunwar Singh)
  • In Bihar, Kunwar Singh of Arrah led the Revolt.
  • In his 70s, he gave a good fight to the British and remained invincible till his death in April 1858.

Everything You Need To Know About Revolt Of 1857

Faizabad(Maulavi Ahmadullah)
  • Maulvi Ahmadullah emerged as one of the Revolt’s acknowledged leaders once it broke out in Awadh.
  • He was also known as Danka Shah, as he carried a drum along to persuade people to revolt, going village to village.

Everything You Need To Know About Revolt Of 1857

Rewari (Rao Tularam)
  • Rao Tularam was the Ahir King of Rewari. He raised a force of 5,000 and supplied war supplies to General Bakht Khan and other leaders who were fighting against the British in Delhi.
  • Even after the fall of Delhi, he continued his struggle. Even Mufti Nizamuddin issued a fatwa to support Rao Tularam’s war efforts.
  • He lost in Narnaul in Haryana and then escaped to Sikar in Rajasthan. Here, he joined forces with Tantya Tope and resisted for a year. After their defeat, he fled to Iran, where he tried to gather support from the Shah of Iran and Dost Mohammad of Afghanistan. He died of natural causes in Kabul in 1863.
 Western UP (Bulandsheher, Meerut and Bijnor)
  • Gurjars in the area declared Chaudhary Kadam Singh as their leader near Meerut.
  • Walidad Khan controlled Bulandshehr and Maho Singh Controlled Bijnor.
  • ShahMal led the Jats in Baraut in Baghpat district of UP against the British. He was a head of 84 villages in the region.
Everything You Need To Know About Revolt Of 1857
Revolt Of 1857

Suppression of the Revolt

The company fought back with all its might. It took the following steps to take control of the situation:

  1. Reinforcements were called from England and other areas, such as Rangoon.
  2. New laws were passed so that the rebels could be quickly convicted and then moved into storm centres of revolt.
  3. The prisoners were dealt with impunity and executed en mass. Hundreds of Sepoys, rebels, nawabs and rajas were tried and hanged. In Kanpur, captured sepoys were forced to lick the bloodstains from the walls. Traditionally, blowing from the cannon was the punishment for mutiny; often, the same was used on the captured prisoners.
  4. Ruthless action on Local Sympathisers: In one instance, on the pretext of the murder of the local British population, Lt. Col. Smith Neill ordered all villages on the Grand Trunk Road near Fatehpur to be burned and their inhabitants to be killed.
  5. British also tried their best to win back the people’s loyalty. They announced rewards for loyal landholders who would be allowed to continue traditional rights over their lands. Those who rebelled were told that if they submitted to the British and if they did not kill any white people, their rights would not be denied.

Recapture and establishment of control:

Recaptured Delhi in September 1857. Emperor Bahadur Shah was taken prisoner in Delhi, and the royal princes were shot before his eyes by Lieutenant Hudson. Bahadur Shah was sentenced to life imprisonment and was exiled together with his wife, Begum Zinat Mahal, to Burma, where he died in 1862.Everything You Need To Know About Revolt Of 1857

Bahadur Shah awaiting his trial in May 1858

However, the recapture of Delhi did not ensure the end of the revolt. British had to fight for two years to suppress the rebellion.

  • Sir Collin Campbell occupied Kanpur In December 1857. Nana Saheb was defeated and escaped to Nepal and was never seen again.
  • Lucknow was taken in March 1858.
  • Nana Saheb’s associate Tantya Tope escaped to the forests of Central India, was captured and put to death.
  • Rani Laxmi Bai of Jhansi died on the battlefield in June 1858. Sir Hugh Rose recaptured the Jhansi.
  • By 1859, Kunwar Singh, Maulvi Ahmadullah, Bakht Khan, and Khan Bahadur of Bareilly were all dead, while Begum of Awadh had to escape to Nepal.
  • Tantya Tope escaped to the jungles of central India and, with the support of Tribals and peasant leaders, kept on fighting a guerrilla war. He was captured, tried and hanged in April 1859.
  • Leaders like Rao Tularam could never be captured.

Just as spontaneous rebellions encouraged Mutinies, the defeat of rebels encouraged spontaneous desertions. The capture of Delhi further dampened the spirits of the rebels. The British rule over India was largely restored by the end of 1859.

Causes of the Revolt

It is startling that such a large-scale rebellion started spontaneously without a centralised leadership in such a wide region, from regions of Bengal to the regions of Rajputana.

It has been widely documented that there were rumours in the society at large that the British government was planning to make active efforts to destroy their religion, including the rumour that the newly introduced cartridge was greased with cow and pig fat.

  • These rumours spread from sepoy to sepoy through verbal and written communication, instigating them to rebel.
  • Secret messages were being shared within the civil society in the countryside. For example, in the region around Agra and Mathura, Chapatis were shared at night, which could have been used as an alibi to share messages.

But the enigma is, why was there so much simmering discontent that the civilians and the people in uniform were so ready to believe in any anti-British rumour? Historians have concluded various reasons for this revolt.

The exploitation of the peasantry

  • The East India Company devised new systems of land settlement, Permanent settlement, Ryotwari and Mahalwari to extract as much money as possible.
  • Under the permanent settlement system, the cultivators were turned into tenants. The new landlords, too, were not given absolute rights; they had to pay a large amount of the rent derived from the cultivators, and if they failed to do so, their property was sold to others.
  • In the event of crop failure, the peasants were compelled to take loans from money lenders at exorbitant interest rates.
  • This made the peasants so heavily indebted that they had no choice but to sell their land to these moneylenders.
  • The peasantry was also exploited by petty officials in the administration who extracted money on the slightest pretext.


  • British rule brought misery to the artisans and handicraft They lost the patronage of Kings and Nawabs due to the annexation of Indian states.
  • Indian trade was crippled by high tariff duties, while the British import to India attracted low tariffs.

Annexations of Indian states

  • During Lord Dalhousie’s tenure from 1848 to 1856, he annexed several states like Satara, Jhansi, Nagpur, etc., on the pretext of them not having any male heir. These annexations antagonised the rulers of the state.
  • Even its former ally, Awadh, was not spared and was annexed by Lord Dalhousie on the pretext of misgovernance.
  • Further, the British refusal to pay Nana Saheb‘s pension worsened the situation. The annexation of Awadh was also begrudged by the sepoys, most of whom came from there.

Alien nature of the rule

  • An important reason for people to dislike the British was the alien nature of their rule.
  • They did not mix with the Indian people and treated them with disdain. They had not come to stay in India but only to exploit its resources.

Alienation of the Middle and Upper class of Indians

  • The annexations of Indian states and their replacement by the British administration denied the Indians higher posts, which were now occupied mainly by the British.
  • The Indians now served only as subordinates and in other petty administrative positions.
  • Furthermore, the cultural personnel like poets, dramatists, writers, musicians, etc., who were earlier employed by the native states, were now thrown out. Maulvis and Pandits also lost all their former power and status.

Threat to Religion

  • The proselytising zeal of the missionaries and some British officials instilled fear in the people’s minds that their religion was in danger.
  • The conversion was made easier: For example, laws were passed that allowed a person who had converted to own inheritance. Traditionally, Indian laws allowed fathers to disown a son who got converted.
  • The social and religious reforms undertaken by the British were seen as interference in the religious affairs by the conservative elements.
  • The sepoys were not allowed to wear their caste marks. In 1856, an act (General Service Establishment Act) was passed under which every recruit had to undertake to serve overseas (the crossing sea was forbidden in Hinduism) if required.
Everything You Need To Know About Revolt Of 1857

Discontent among Sepoys

  • The conditions of service in the army increasingly came into the religious beliefs of the sepoys.
  • Lord Canning’s General Service Establishment Act of 1856 caused resentment in the army.
  • The Indian sepoys were unhappy with the emoluments given to them compared to their British counterparts.
  • Indian sepoys were discriminated against racially and in matters of promotions and privileges.
  • The discontentment of the sepoys also reflected the general disenchantment with British rule. They were, in fact, “peasants in uniform”, whose consciousness was not divorced from that of the rural population.

Causes of Failures of the Revolt

Lack of a unified ideology

  • The rebels did not have a clear understanding of colonial rule, nor did they have any forward-looking plan.
  • Most of the prominent leaders were representative of the old feudal system, which had lost its vitality and could not withstand the onslaught of the British.

Lack of Unity

There was a lack of unity amongst Indians, and the modern concept of nationalism was yet unknown in India.

  • While the soldiers of the Bengal army were revolting, some soldiers in Punjab and south India fought for the British to crush these rebellions.
  • The Sikhs did not support the rebels due to the possibility of the revival of Mughal authority.
  • Princely states like Kashmir, Hyderabad, Mysore, Travancore and Rajputana did not join the revolt; southern provinces were also untouched by it.
  • The Big Zamindars and Merchants did not join the rebels but supported the British.
  • The modern educated Indians also stayed away from the Revolt because, in their view, it was backwardslooking.
  • There was a disunity in the rank of the rebels They were suspicious and jealous of each other, and their selfishness and narrow perspective prevented the consolidation of the Revolt.
  • Caste-based segregation: The British used the help of local jats to take control of the situation in the modern-day western UP, where Gurjar leaders had taken arms against the British.

The military superiority of the British

  • While the British continued to have a constant supply of disciplined soldiers, war materials and money, the rebels lacked discipline and central command.
  • The prominent leaders of the rebellion were no match to their British counterparts.
  • The rebels generally fought with swords and had very few guns.
  • The electric telegraph kept the British informed about the movements and strategies of the rebels.

Was the revolt of 1857 the first War of Independence?

There is no consensus on the nature of the 1857 revolt. Most British scholars and some Indian scholars called it a mere sepoy mutiny.

  • John Seeley called it “a wholly unpatriotic and selfish sepoy mutiny with no native leadership and no popular support”.
  • Accordingto RC Mazumdar, It was neither the first nor national nor a war of independence“. He opined that it had no national character since a large part of the country remained unaffected. It wasn’t the first time a mutiny or a rebellion took place against the British, as we have seen in previous articles. Further, according to him, it was not a war of independence.

However, by the start of the 20th century, it started to be interpreted as a war of national Independence.

  • VD Savarkar, in his book, The Indian War of IndependenceIndependence, 1857, called the revolt of 1857 the first war of Indian Independence.
  • Dr S.N. Sen considers the Revolt to have started as a fight for religion but ended as a struggle for independence.
  • Colonel G.B. Malleson, an English officer, challenged the official theory of simple mutiny, “At first apparently a mere military mutiny, it speedily changed its character and became a national insurrection.”

Marxist and Socialist scholars considered the Revolt an attempt by feudal elements to regain power.

  • N. Roy considered the Revolt as the last ditch stand of feudalism against commercial capitalism.
  • Jawahar Lal Nehru considered it essentially a feudal uprising, though there were some nationalistic elements in it.

Some historians have held that the Muslim elite was responsible for flaming the fans of the trouble. For example, Sir James Outram regarded the Revolt as a “Muslim conspiracy exploiting Hindu grievances.”

The Revolt of 1857 is not easy to classify from a particular point of view. It had seeds of nationalism and anti-imperialism in it. Still, during that time, there was no clear understanding of the nature of the colonial rule, nor did the feeling of common nationhood.

It would not be fair to call it a mere sepoy mutiny since many classes of people came together to challenge a foreign power. It can be said that the Revolt of 1857 prepared the groundwork for a national freedom movement.

Significance of the Revolt

Despite its failure, the revolt of 1857 has left an indelible impact on the Indian history. The Revolt of 1857 brought to the surface the real reactionary nature of British rule in India.

  • It opened the eyes of the Intellectual class: It made most Indians realise that the British rule in India was essentially anti-people, and it was bound to be oppressive and hostile to their national interest. The violence perpetrated by the British shocked the Indian intellectuals, who saw British rule as a blessing in disguise.
  • Hindu-Muslim unity: There was complete cooperation between the Hindus and the Muslims during the Revolt. The rebels, both Hindus and Muslims, recognised Bahadur Shah, the Mughal emperor, as their leader. The rebels respected the sentiments of both communities. For example, Cow slaughter was banned in several areas where the Revolt was successful.

The aftermath of the Revolt

For the British, the Revolt showed them the conspicuous shortcomings in the administration and the army, which they rectified promptly through a series of reforms.

Transfer of Power

  • The power to govern came into the hands of the British Crown through the Act for the Better Government of India in 1858.
  • The act declared Queen Victoria the sovereign of British India. The Secretary of State for India was made responsible for the governance of India. He was to be aided by a Council.
  • The company rule was abolished, and the British Crown assumed the administration of the country.

New policy for the Indian state

  • The earlier policy of annexation was abandoned, and the rulers of such states were now allowed to adopt heirs.
  • The British promised to respect their dignity and rights.
  • The Indian states were supposed to recognise the paramountcy of the British Crown.

Changes in the Military organisation

  • Measures were taken to prevent any further revolt by the Indian soldiers.
  • The number of European soldiers increased, particularly in the Bengal army. The ratio of British soldiers to Indian soldiers was 1:2 in Bengal and 2:5 in Madras and Bombay.
  • The European troops were kept in crucial geographical and military pos The vital branches of the army, like artillery, were put exclusively in European hands.
  • The policy of divide and rule was adopted in the organisation of Indian troops. Regiments were created based on caste, community and region to prevent the development of any nationalistic feelings among the soldiers.
  • They classified the castes on the basis of Martial and nonmartial More soldiers would be recruited from Sikhs, Pathans and Gurkhas.

The policy of Divide and Rule

  • This “divide and rule” policy was also introduced in the civilian population.
  • Since the British thought the Revolt was a conspiracy hatched by the Muslims, they were severely punished and discriminated against in public appointments.
  • However, later, the British realised that the Muslims were a numerical minority and easy to win over; hence, they started the policy of appeasement.
  • This policy contributed to the growth of communalism and weakened the national movement.

Thus, it would be fair to say that the revolt of 1857 achieved little in terms of political control. Instead, it gave the British government an opportunity to take over power from the East India Company completely. The reforms taken by the British government allowed it to rule India for nearly a century without much trouble.

For the Indian nationalists, it was clear that no level of violence could bring freedom from British rule unless there was a feeling of unwavering nationalism cutting across the caste, religious and geographical lines.

Everything You Need To Know About Revolt Of 1857

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