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Revolt of 1857

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From the previous chapters of modern history, it is easy to see that the cumulative effect of the British expansionist policies, economic exploitation and administration innovations over the years had adversely affected the positions of all be it rulers of Indian states, sepoys, zamindars, peasants, traders, artisans, pundits, maulvis, etc. This simmering discontent burst in the form of a violent storm in 1857 which shook the British empire in India to its very foundations. Battle of Plassey in 1757, marked the beginning of the political influence of the English East India Company, an influence which ended in 1858 when the Crown rule was established in British India. A decade short of a century later in 1947, India gained independence. So, it is sometimes regarded as the great divide in the colonial history of British India. The cause of the revolt emerged from all the aspects sociocultural, economic and political of daily existence of Indian population cutting through all sections and classes. The fact that its suppression was followed by some fundamental changes in the administration of India it can be regarded as a historic landmark. Even in failure it served a grand purpose of a source of inspiration for the national liberation movement which later achieved what the Revolt could not.

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Beginning & Spread

The greased cartridges did not create a new cause of discontent in the Army, but supplied the occasion for the simmering discontent to come out in the open. The Revolt began at Meerut, 58 km from Delhi, on May 10, 1857. The Revolt gathered force rapidly, and embraced a vast area from the Punjab in the North and the Narmada in the south to Bihar in the east and Rajputana in the west.

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The revolt at Meerut and the capture of Delhi was the precursor to a widespread mutiny by the sepoys and rebellion almost all over North India, as well as Central and Western India. In Bengal, it was basically the Bengal Army which was recruited from North Western Provinces especially Awadh, that rose up in mutiny. The Revolt embraced almost every cantonment in the Bengal and a few in Bombay. The sepoys were joined by the civilians from the North, Central and Western India. South India remained quiet and Punjab and Bengal were only marginally affected. Only the Madras army remained totally loyal. Also, the Gurkha and the Punjabi soldiers fought on behalf of the English to put down the rebels.

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Its cause can be categorized into the following broad classes: 1. Economic Causes 2. Socio-Religious Cause 3. Military Grievances 4. Political Causes 5. Agrarian Causes 6. Administrative Causes

Economic Causes
1) Heavy taxation and highly unpopular revenue settlement impoverished the conditions of the peasantry class of the Indian society. As a result, peasants resorted to loans from moneylenders/traders at usurious rates which often resulted in eviction of the former on non-payment of the debt dues. These moneylenders and traders emerged as the new landlords, while the curse of indebtness plagued the Indian peasantry. So, revenue policies of the British East India Company destroyed the traditional economic fabric of the Indian society. E.g. Permanent Settlement(1793); Ryotwari Settlement (1820). 2) Annexation of Indian states by the company led to cut off of the major source of patronage to Indian artisans and handcraftsmen. In addition to this, British policy discouraged Indian handicrafts and promoted British goods. The highly skilled Indian craftsmen were forced to look for alternate sources of employment that hardly existed as the destruction of Indian handcrafts was not accompanied by the development of modern industries.
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To stress on the fact, Karl Marx remarked in 1853: It was the British intruder who broke up the Indian handloom and destroyed the spinning wheel. England began with depriving the Indian cottons from the European market; it then introduced twist into Hindustan and in the end inundated the very mother country of cotton with cottons. 3) Zamindars, the traditional landed aristocracy, were often forfeited of their land rights with frequent use of quo warranto by the administration. Having lost their status, these dispossessed taluqdars, in order to regain their land rights, grabbed the opportunity presented by the sepoy revolt to oppose the British. For e.g. i. In Awadh itself, a major storm centre of the revolt, 21000 taluqdars had their estates confiscated and suddenly found themselves without a source of income. ii. The British ordered an enquiry into the title deeds of the landed estates in Bengal and its adjoining areas. Many people who had held lands before the coming of the British lost their lands under the reorganization of the land titles. 4) The British Land revenue settlements increased commercialization of agriculture i.e. peasants being forced to cultivate cash or commercial crops such as cotton, jute, indigo, opium, sugarcane etc. It is often referred to as coercive cultivation also. 5) Once, Indian states were annexed, virtually there was no one to patronize Indian industries as they were the largest consumers of Indian manufactured goods. The EIC (East India Company) government only encouraged British goods. The ruin
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of Indian industries led to large scale unemployment and when the revolt broke they joined the rebellion. In general, ruination of Indian industry increased the pressure on agriculture and land, the lopsided development of which result in pauperization of the country in general.

Socio-Religious Causes
1) From the early decades of 19th century, British had abandoned its policy of non-interference in the socio-religious life of the Indians. Abolition of Sati in 1829 under Lord Bentinck, the Hindu Widow Remarriage Act of 1856, and women education all led to disruption in the social world of the people of Indian society. 2) The activities of Christian missionaries who followed the British flag in India were looked upon with suspicion by Indians 3) Racial overtones and a superiority complex characterized the British administrative attitude towards the native Indian population. 4) The fear of interference in the social and religious domains of Indian society by outsiders were further compounded by the governments decision to tax mosque and temple lands and legislative measures such as Religious Disabilities Act (1856), which modified Hindu customs, for instance declaring that a change of religion did not debar a son from inheriting the property of his heathen father.

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Military Causes
1) Bengal Army had high proportions of high caste men recruited from North-West provinces and Awadh, Bhumihar Brahmins and Rajputs of the Ganges Valley. In the early years of the Company rule, the British tolerated the caste privileges and customs within the Bengal Army. But by 1820s, these customs and privileges were threatened by the modernizing forces and thus, the conditions of service in the companys army and cantonments increasingly came into conflict with the religious beliefs and prejudices of the sepoys. For e.g. Restrictions were on Caste and sectarian marks, Growing of beard, Wearing turbans etc. 2) Secret rumors of proselytizing activities of chaplains were interpreted by Indian sepoys, who were generally conservative by nature, as interference in their religious affairs and attempt to convert to Christianity. 3) To the religious Hindu of the time, crossing the sea meant loss of caste. This clashed with the need to defend the growing British Empire outside India. In 1856 Lord Cannings Government passed the General Service Enlistment Act(1856) which compelled the sepoys to serve abroad if required by the company. 4) The Indian sepoy was equally unhappy with his emoluments compared to his British counterparts. A more immediate cause of the sepoys dissatisfaction was the order that they would not be given the Foreign Service allowance (bhatta) when serving outside their own regions. This affected the extra pay of the sepoys. But the English soldiers in the Indian Army continued to receive this allowance. Also, the Indian sepoys were
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discriminated against in terms of promotion and salary. While the sepoys outnumbered the European soldiers, the former were not promoted to higher posts in the Army. The Indian sepoy was made to feel a subordinates at every step and was discriminated against racially and in matters of promotion and privileges. 5) The discontent of the sepoys was not limited to matters military; it reflected the general disenchantment with and opposition to British rule. The sepoy, in fact, was a peasant in uniform whose consciousness was not divorced from that of the rural population. 6) The reports about mixing of bone dust in atta and the introduction of the Enfield rifle enhanced the sepoys growing disaffection with the Government. The cartridges of the new rifle had to be bitten off before loading and the grease was reportedly made of beef and pig fat. In fact, these reports proved to be the triggering agent of the revolt in Meerut.

Political Causes
1) The EICs greedy policies of aggrandizement accompanied by broken pledges and oaths resulted in loss of political prestige for it, on the one hand and caused suspicion in the minds of almost all ruling princes in India, on the other. For, e.g. policies of Effective Control, Subsidiary Alliance and Doctrine of Lapse. The right of succession was denied to Hindu princes.The collapse of rulers- the erstwhile aristocracy also adversely affected those sections of the Indian society which derived their sustenance from cultural and religious pursuits.

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