The peasants and the sepoys
In the countryside, peasants and zamindars resented the high taxes and the rigid methods of revenue collection. Many failed to pay back their loans to the moneylenders and gradually lost the lands they had tilled for generations.
The Indian sepoys in the employ of the Company also had reasons for discontent. They were unhappy about their pay, allowances, and conditions of service. Some of the new rules, moreover, violated their religious sensibilities and beliefs.
Did you know that in those days many people in the country believed that if they crossed the sea they would lose their religion and caste? So when in 1824 the sepoys were told to go to Burma by the sea route to fight for the Company, they refused to follow the order, though they agreed to go by the land route.
They were severely punished, and since the issue did not die down, in 1856 the Company passed a new law which stated that every new person who took up employment in the Company’s army had to agree to serve overseas if required.
Sepoys also reacted to what was happening in the countryside. Many of them were peasants and had families living in the villages. So the anger of the peasants quickly spread among the sepoys.
Responses to reforms
The British believed that Indian society had to be reformed. Laws were passed to stop the practice of Sati and to encourage the remarriage of widows. English-language education was actively promoted.
After 1830, the Company allowed Christian missionaries to function freely in its domain and even own land and property. In 1850, a new law was passed to make the conversion to Christianity easier. This law allowed an Indian who had converted to Christianity to inherit the property of his ancestors.
Many Indians began to feel that the British were destroying their religion, their social customs, and their traditional way of life. There were of course other Indians who wanted to change existing social practices.
A Mutiny Becomes a Popular Rebellion
Though struggles between rulers and the ruled are not unusual, sometimes such struggles become quite widespread as a popular resistance so that the power of the state breaks down.
A very large number of people begin to believe that they have a common enemy and rise up against the enemy at the same time.
For such a situation to develop people have to organize, communicate, take initiative and display the confidence to turn the situation around. Such a situation developed in the northern parts of India in 1857.
After a hundred years of conquest and administration, the English East India Company faced a massive rebellion that started in May 1857 and threatened the Company’s very presence in India.
Sepoys mutinied in several places beginning from Meerut and a large number of people from different sections of society rose up in rebellion. Some regard it as the biggest armed resistance to colonialism in the nineteenth century anywhere in the world.
From Meerut to Delhi
On 29 March 1857, a young soldier, Mangal Pandey, was hanged to death for attacking his officers in Barrackpore. Some days later, some sepoys of the regiment at Meerut refused to do the army drill using the new cartridges, which were suspected of being coated with the fat of cows and pigs.
Eighty-five sepoys were dismissed from service and sentenced to ten years in jail for disobeying their officers. This happened on 9 May 1857. The response of the other Indian soldiers in Meerut was quite extraordinary. On 10 May, the soldiers marched to the jail in Meerut and released the imprisoned sepoys.
They attacked and killed British officers. They captured guns and ammunition and set fire to the buildings and properties of the British and declared war on the firangis. The sepoys of Meerut rode all night of 10 May to reach Delhi in the early hours the next morning. As news of their arrival spread, the regiments stationed in Delhi also rose up in rebellion.
Again British officers were killed, arms and ammunition seized, buildings set on fire. Triumphant soldiers gathered around the walls of the Red Fort where the Badshah lived, demanding to meet him.
The emperor was not quite willing to challenge the mighty British power but the soldiers persisted. They forced their way into the palace and proclaimed Bahadur Shah Zafar as their leader. The aging emperor had to accept this demand.
He wrote letters to all the chiefs and rulers of the country to come forward and organize a confederacy of Indian states to fight the British. This single step taken by Bahadur Shah had great implications.
The Mughal dynasty had ruled over a very large part of the country. Most smaller rulers and chieftains controlled different territories on behalf of the Mughal ruler.
Threatened by the expansion of British rule, many of them felt that if the Mughal emperor could rule again, they too would be able to rule their own territories once more, under Mughal authority.
The British had not expected this to happen. They thought the disturbance caused by the issue of the cartridges would die down. But Bahadur Shah Zafar’s decision to bless the rebellion changed the entire situation dramatically.
Often when people see an alternative possibility they feel inspired and enthused. It gives them the courage, hope, and confidence to act.
The rebellion spreads
After the British were routed from Delhi, there was no uprising for almost a week. It took that much time for the news to travel. Then, a spurt of mutinies began. Regiment after regiment mutinied and took off to join other troops at nodal points like Delhi, Kanpur, and Lucknow.
After them, the people of the towns and villages also rose up in rebellion and rallied around local leaders, zamindars, and chiefs who were prepared to establish their authority and fight the British.
Nana Saheb, the adopted son of the late Peshwa Baji Rao who lived near Kanpur, gathered armed forces and expelled the British garrison from the city.
He proclaimed himself Peshwa. He declared that he was a governor under Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar. In Lucknow, Birjis Qadr, the son of the deposed Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, was proclaimed the new Nawab. He too acknowledged the suzerainty of Bahadur Shah Zafar.
His mother Begum Hazrat Mahal took an active part in organizing the uprising against the British. In Jhansi, Rani Lakshmibai joined the rebel sepoys and fought the British along with Tantia Tope, the general of Nana Saheb.
The British were greatly outnumbered by the rebel forces. They were defeated in a number of battles. This convinced the people that the rule of the British had collapsed for good and gave them the confidence to take the plunge and join the rebellion.
A situation of widespread popular rebellion developed in the region of Awadh in particular. On 6 August 1857, we find a telegram sent by Lieutenant Colonel Tytler to his Commander-in-Chief expressing the fear felt by the British: “Our men are cowed by the numbers opposed to them and the endless fighting.
Every village is held against us, the zamindars have risen to oppose us.” Many new leaders came up. For example, Ahmadullah Shah, a maulvi from Faizabad, prophesied that the rule of the British would come to an end soon. He caught the imagination of the people and raised a huge force of supporters. He came to Lucknow to fight the British.
In Delhi, a large number of ghazis or religious warriors came together to wipe out the white people. Bakht Khan, a soldier from Bareilly, took charge of a large force of fighters who came to Delhi. He became a key military leader of the rebellion. In Bihar, an old zamindar, Kunwar Singh, joined the rebel sepoys and battled with the British for many months.