In this article we will discuss about the Great Revolt of 1857 also called the first war of Indian independence, was a major event in the history of India, both as a step forward in the process of constitutional development and awakening of the people.
Causes Responsible for the Great Revolt of 1857:
Though British Parliament had been passing Acts renewing the Charters of the Company, from time to time, yet no Indian was associated in the whole process.
Accordingly there was no mechanism by which Indian opinion or aspirations could be known to the Governor-General or his Council. Thus, many Acts were passed and steps taken which were much against the wishes of the people of India and highly resented by the masses.
Then the British Parliament had been on record that Indians will be given increasing share in the running their own administration. The people of India had also been assured that in recruitment to all services ability and not religion or birth of the candidate will be the sole criteria.
But this remained a wishful thinking. In the services Indians remained where they were and they were practically allowed no entry to services. No Indian was ever appointed on any high job. It was taken for granted that Indians had no administrative ability or merit.
The Charter Acts had provided for the entry of Christian Missionaries to India. They had government support. Soon they spread their activities all over the country. There was a wide-spread feeling among Indians that these missionaries were converting them to their own religion and disgracing and dis-reputing their original culture and civilisatoin for which the natives had maximum regard.
Then came Lord Dalhousie’s policy of annexation. His doctrine of lapse was a constant threat for the princes and they found that the only solution to the problem was end of East India Company’s rule in India.
East India Company was following policy of dumping in Indian market goods manufactured in their own country. These were both cheap and beautiful goods. The result was that Indian manufacturers and handicraft workers lost their jobs and they became unemployed.
Thus, in the country on the one hand was exploitation of Indian masses whereas on the other was ever increasing poverty and unemployment. This created great discontentment among Indian masses.
The intelligentsia in India was also greatly upset and brewing with discontentment because their worth was not being appreciated and they were not being given due respect and recognition. They had been denied higher jobs in Company’s services. There were no avenues of their intellectual growth under Company’s rule.
Not only this but the East India Company in India followed policy of racial discrimination in which Indians were always considered an inferior race. Indian culture and traditions were seen with great contempt and the rulers believed that everything that was Indian must be hated. This created popular resentment against the rulers.
East India Company in India followed policy of conquests and as such Indians were always at war with it in one part of the country or the other. The whole nation had become sick of these wars and wanted to decide its fate in one way or the other.
Indian army was not at all satisfied with East India Company. The soldiers were very low paid. Indians were not allowed to occupy high positions in the army even though they very much deserved these. The Company also annoyed the last Mughal ruler Bahadur Shah by refusing him the tide of the ‘King’.
As the time passed Indians cottage and small-scale industries which provided employment to millions were killed. There was wide spread poverty and unemployment both among the educated, undetected, skilled and unskilled workers. Indians were groaning under the pangs of poverty and unemployment, which was rapidly increasing day-by-day and no relief was in sight.
East India Company did nothing for the welfare of Indian masses. It only ruthlessly, economically exploited them. The servants of the Company suffered from superiority complex and injured self-respect of Indians at each stage by their arrogant behaviour. In fact, they always reminded Indians that they were a subordinate nation.
In this way there was no section of Indian society, which was happy with the policies which the Company was following in India. There was sufficient discontentment in the country which could engulf the nation on little pretext and this came out when soldiers in the army were asked to use greyed cartridges.
It proved a signal and revolt began on January 23, 1857. It spread in several parts of the country. The leaders of the revolt were Rani Laxmi Bai of Jhansi, Tantia Tope and host of others who held the banner of revolt and tried to make it a mass movement. The revolt spread to Delhi, Meerut, Kanpur, Calcutta and many other parts of the country.
The Company, of course, could suppress the revolt with the help of its superior armed strength and active cooperation of some native princes yet a as an eye awakening for the British government.
In the words of G.N., “In restoring order, however, the British committed great atrocities, the memory of which rankled in Indian mind long after the revolt was suppressed and produced consequences whose significance escaped recognition till only recently.”
Nature of Revolt:
What was the real nature of revolt? The British historians and supporters of the East India Company have tried to establish that it was not a revolt but only a sepoy revolt which had the backing of some dispossessed and disgruntled native princes who extended their support to the soldiers. It was, thus, according to them, not at all a revolt.
According to some others it was a revolt which had been engineered by the intelligentsia to air their grievances and to focus Company’s attention to meet their demand of additional share in their administration. Still others come with the argument that it was an engineered movement of landlords of the country. It is also claimed that it was not national because it simply spread in some pockets of the country.
But this does not appear to be true. It was real revolt in the sense that in its spread the landlords, the princes, the soldiers, the intelligentsia, and even common people, including artisans and agriculturists, actively contributed. Many historians, however, strongly believe that it was India’s first war of independence. By this revolt Indians made it clear that they were not ready to keep foreign yoke on their shoulders.
The movement could not spread throughout the country, because Indians had no quick means of transportation and communication at their disposal. They also did not have the requisite military strength and training to face the East India Company. There was also lack of leadership. There was serious shortage of finances as well.
Abolition of East India Company:
The revolt established beyond doubt that Indians wanted a new political system, in which they should have their own share. They proved that they were politically conscious and thus, could not be manhandled by their rulers.
Then as Keith has pointed out, “Inevitably the blame for the debacle fell on Company and its rule was doomed.” The British government, therefore, decided to take over India’s administration in its own hands and give the country a new political system.
In February 1858, Lord Palmerston introduced a bill in British Parliament for the abolition of East India Company. This was ably opposed by J.S. Mill, who supported the cause of the Company. According to him the affairs of East India Company were being regularly reviewed by the Parliament since 1783. The Company had all along submitted its reports to the Board of Control.
It had created an empire in India by making all sacrifices. But Palmerston pleaded, “I see no reason either on the score of principle or on the score of augmentation of patronage or on the score of time or constitutional danger, why we should not at once pass the measure.”
On March 26, 1858, Bill was introduced in the House of Commons to take over the administration of India by the British government from the Company. There were many changes in the proposed Bill and ultimately it became an Act on August 2, 1858.