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The revolt of 1857 broke out during the tenure of Lord Canning. It was the result of the exploitative policies of the colonial rule. Discontentment among the various sections of the population including the zamindars, peasants, traders, artisans, sepoys, pandits, maulvis and rulers of Indian states, broke out in a violent revolt which shook the very foundations of the British Empire in India.
The European Historians call the revolt a Mutiny while the Indian historians consider it as the First war of Independence.
Political Causes of the Revolt of 1857
- Lord Dalhousie's policy of Doctrine of Lapse caused uneasiness and suspicion throughout India. He had annexed Satara, Jhansi, Nagpur and other states on the pretext that their adopted sons would not be recognized as the rightful heirs. Nana Saheb and Rani Lakshmibai became bitter enemies of the British. Besides them, many other rulers also feared that their states would also be annexed sooner or later.
- Bahadur Shah, the Mughal emperor, lived in the Red Fort of Delhi but the British announced that on the death of the titular emperor, his successors would have to vacate the fort. This was a rude shock to the Muslims and hurt their sentiments.
- Oudh was annexed by Dalhousie on the pretext of misgovernment and its soldiers were dismissed. This created hatred in their hearts towards the British.
- The British confiscated the estates of the Zamindars and the Taluqdars. It created discontent among them.
- The high-handedness of the British authorities and their insults had become unbearable for the Indians.
Social and Religious Causes of the Revolt of 1857
- The British made a big mistake by interfering in the social customs of the Indians. By banning sati (1829), child marriage and polygamy and by legalising widow remarriage (1856), they hurt the sentiments of Indians for whom these were age-old customs.
- Western education was looked upon by the general public as a device to Christianise the Indians.
- The introduction of the railways and telegraph system created a suspicion in the minds of orthodox Indians who considered it to be the work of devils, done with the intention to defame their religion and propagate Christianity.
- The Christian missionaries began to convert Hindu and Muslims to their faith and openly denounced Hinduism and Islam.
- Lands belonging to temples and mosques were being taxed.
- The spread of western education was looked upon by the pandits and maulvis as a threat to their hold and influence.
- The Company further offended the Hindus by passing the Religious Disabilities Act 1856, enabling a Christian convert to claim his share in his ancestral property. This was looked upon as an insult by the Hindus.
Economic Causes of the Revolt of 1857
- The British rulers shattered the Indian economy. Under their rule, the economic condition of the Indian industries deteriorated rapidly.
- They carried away all the raw materials and brought back manufactured goods which were sold at high prices.
- The Indian textile industry could not match its foreign counterparts as heavy duty was imposed on the export of Indian textiles.
- Indian handicrafts were on the decline and the British did nothing to promote them.
- The taking over of rent free estates by Bentinck was a cause of unrest among the landlords.
- Peasants suffered the most while the landlords and the British fed on their hard labour. Poverty and frequent famines spread discontent among the masses.
- The soldiers of the disbanded armies were not given any alternative employment. They became sworn enemies of the British.
- Educated Indians were not appointed to high posts and were given very low salaries as compared to their British counterparts.
- Various revenue policies including Permanent Settlement, Mahalwari System, Ryotwari System, etc and heavy taxation impoverished the peasants and the discontent grew.
Military Causes of the Revolt of 1857
- The British rulers denied equal status to the Indian soldiers enlisted in the army and treated them with contempt.
- The Indian soldiers could not rise above the rank of a subedar and were not given decent salaries.
- The soldiers had religious and caste grievances also. A high caste sepoy never liked to serve overseas because crossing the sea meant loss of caste. But through the General Service Enlistment Act of 1856, Lord Canning made it compulsory for the Indian sepoys to serve outside India or wherever England was engaged in war irrespective of their religion or caste.
- The losses suffered by the British troops in the First Afghan War and the Crimean War emboldened the spirits of the Indian sepoys who realised that the British were not invincible.
- The disbanded soldiers were extremely eager to take revenge.
- The disparity in numbers between the British and Indian soldiers had been growing fast. The number of Indian soldiers was at least five times that of the British. This gave them the courage to take up arms against their commanders.
- Last but not the least, the Indian masses had a strong belief that Delhi changed its rulers after every hundred years. The Battle of Plassey had been fought exactly 100 years ago, i.e., in 1757.
Immediate Cause of the Revolt of 1857
The discontent among Indians was growing and the introduction of the greased cartridges was the last straw. The British had introduced a new type of rifle whose cartridges, it was rumoured, were greased with the fat of cows and pigs. The soldiers had to bite the ends of the cartridges before loading them into the rifles. The Hindu and Muslim soldiers looked upon this as a deliberate attempt to defile their religions. Lord Canning proclaimed that the rumour was false but the excited soldiers refused to use the cartridges and prepared to rebel.