The colonial policies of the East India Company destroyed the traditional economic fabric of the Indian society. Ruination of industry and increased the pressure on agriculture and land resulted in pauperization of the country.

  • Peasantry: Unpopular revenue settlement + loans from moneylenders/traders (led to their eviction from land).
    • Money lender new zamindaar ban gye.
  • Artisans and handicraftsmen: Loss of Patronage + British policy discouraged Indian handicrafts and promoted British goods.
    • The destruction of Indian handicrafts was not accompanied by the development of modern industries.
  • Zamindars: They were the traditional landed aristocracy, often saw their land rights forfeited with frequent use of a quo warranto (by what authority someone has an office) by the administration.
    • In Awadh, the storm center of the revolt, 21,000 taluqdars had their estates confiscated and suddenly trapped into extreme poverty.
    • These people were looking for opportunity which was presented by the sepoy revolt to oppose the British and regain what they had lost.


  • Loss of political prestige of East India Company due to their greedy policy and frequent breaking of pledges and oaths.
    • Policies such as ‘Effective Control’, ‘Subsidiary Alliance’ and ‘Doctrine of Lapse’.
    • The right of succession was denied to Hindu princes.
    • House of mughal was humbled : After Prince Faqiruddin’s death (whose succession had been recognized conditionally by Lord Dalhousie (1848-1856) ) in 1856, Lord Canning announced that the next prince on succession would have to renounce the regal title and the ancestral Mughal palaces, in addition to renunciations agreed upon by Prince Faqiruddin.
  • All these caused suspicion in the minds of almost all ruling princes in India.


  • Rampant corruption
  • Absentee sovereigntyship (i.e India was ruled by its British colonizers from England).
  • Above features gave foreign and alien look to in the eyes of Indians.


  • Racial overtones and a superiority complex.
  • The activities of Christian missionaries.
  • The attempts at socio-religious reform such as abolition of sati, support to widow-remarriage and women’s education → All these seen as interference in the social and religious domains of Indian society.
  • Government’s decision to tax mosque and temple lands
  • Religious Disabilities Act, 1856 → modified Hindu customs. It declared that a change of religion did not debar a son from inheriting the property of his heathen father.


  • British suffered serious losses—the First Afghan War (1838-42), Punjab Wars (1845-49), Crimean Wars (1854-56), Santhal rebellion (1855-57).
  • These had obvious psychological repercussions.


  • The conditions of service came into conflict with the religious beliefs and prejudices of the sepoys.
    • Restrictions on wearing caste and sectarian marks.
    • Rumors of proselytizing.
    • For Hindus crossing the seas meant loss of caste, But General Service Enlistment Act -1856, Required undertaking from new recruits to serve anywhere their services might be required by the Government
  • Emoluments << British counterpart.
  • More recently there was order that they would not be given the foreign service allowance (Matta) when serving in Sindh or in Punjab.
  • The annexation of Awadh (home of many of the sepoys) further inflamed their feelings.
  • The Indian sepoy was made to feel a subordinate at every step and was discriminated against racially and in matters of promotion and privileges.
  • The sepoy was a ‘peasant in uniform‘ whose consciousness was not divorced from that of the rural population.So, There grievances was not limited to matters of military. It reflected the general disenchantment with and opposition to British rule.
  • There had been a long history of revolts in the British Indian Army— in Bengal (1764), Vellore (1806), Barrackpore (1825) and during the Afghan Wars (1838-42) are few among many others.


Beginning (Immediate cause): The reports about the mixing of bone dust in atta (flour) and the introduction of the Enfield rifle enhanced the sepoys’ growing disaffection with the Government. Administration did nothing to allay these fears and the sepoys felt their religion was in grave danger.


  • The revolt began at Meerut on May 10,1857 and soon 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.
  • Sequence of events till capture of delhi :
    • at Berhampur Infantry refused to use enfield rifle and broke out in mutiny (feb-1857), regiment was disbanded → Mangal Pande (34th Native Infantry, Barrackpore) fired at the sergeant major. He was executed on April 6 and regiment was disbanded in May → 7th Awadh Regiment which defied its officers on May 3 met with a similar fate.
    • And then came the explosion at Meerut. On April 24, ninety men of 3rd Native Cavalry refused to accept the greased cartridges → On May 9, eighty-five of them were dismissed, sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment and put in fetters→ On May 10, Indian soldiers released their imprisoned comrades, killed their officers and unfurled the banner of revolt.
    • On 11 May 1857, a band of Sepoys from Meerut marched to the Red Fort. They made appeal to Bahadur Shah II to become their leader, thus, give legitimacy to their cause.
    • Below two events gave positive political meaning to the revolt :
      • Bahadur Shahwas proclaimed Shahenshah-e-Hindustan : the long reign of Mughal dynasty had become the traditional symbol of India’s political unity. With this single act, the sepoys had transformed a mutiny of soldiers into a revolutionary war, while all Indian chiefs who took part in the revolt hastened to proclaim their loyalty to the Mughal emperor.
        • Though Bahadur Shah vacillated as he was neither sure of the intentions of the sepoys nor of his own ability to play an effective role, He was however persuaded, if not coerced.
        • wrote letters to all the chiefs and rulers of India urging them to organize a confederacy of Indian states to fight and replace the British regime.
      • The sepoys captured delhi :
        • Simon Fraser, the Political Agent and several other Englishmen were killed. The public offices were either occupied or destroyed.
  • Storm centres and leadership: Thus, Delhi became the centre of the Great Revolt and Bahadur Shah its symbol. Within a month of the capture of Delhi, the revolt spread to different parts of the country.
    • Delhi: Real commmand was under General Bakht Khan, he had led the revolt of Bareilly troops and brought them to Delhi. Weak personality, old age and lack of leadership qualities of Bahadur Shah created political weakness at the nerve centre of the revolt and did incalculable damage to it.
    • Kanpur: Leader was Nana Saheb , the adopted son of the last Peshwa, Baji Rao II. He was refused the family title and, banished from Poona, was living near Kanpur. Nana Saheb expelled the English from Kanpur, proclaimed himself the Peshwa, acknowledged Bahadur Shah as the emperor of India and declared himself to be his governor.
    • Lucknow: Leader was Begum Hazrat Mahal took over the reigns at Lucknow where the rebellion broke out on June 4, 1857 and popular sympathy was overwhelmingly in favour of the deposed Nawab. Her son, Birjis Qadir, was proclaimed the Nawab.
    • Bareilly: Leader was Khan Bahadur, a descendant of the former ruler of Rohilkhand.
    • Bihar: the revolt was led by Kunwar Singh, the zamindar of Jagdishpur.
    • Faizabad: Leader was Maulvi Ahmadullah.
    • Jhansi: Leader was Rani Laxmibai.
  • The revolt of the sepoys was accompanied by a rebellion of the civil population, particularly in the north-western provinces and Awadh.
  • Real strength : It is the widespread participation in the revolt by the peasantry, the artisans, shopkeepers, day laborers, zamindars, religious mendicants, priests and ‘civil servants which gave it real strength as well as the character of a popular revolt.
    • Here the peasants and petty zamindars gave free expression to their grievances by attacking the moneylenders and zamindars who had displaced them from the land. They destroyed the moneylenders’ account books and debt records. They also attacked the British-established law courts, revenue offices (tehsils), revenue records and police stations.


  • The revolt was finally suppressed. The British captured Delhi on September 20, 1857. John Nicholson,the leader of the siege later succumbed to his injuries. Bahadur Shah was taken prisoner, The royal princes were captured and butchered on the spot. With the fall of Delhi the focal point of the revolt disappeared.
  • Nana Saheb, defeated at Kanpur, escaped to Nepal in early 1859, never to be heard of again. His close associate Tantia Tope escaped into the jungles of central India, was captured while asleep in April 1859 and put to death.
  • The Rani of Jhansi had died on the battlefield earlier in June 1858.
  • By 1859, Kunwar Singh, Bakht Khan, Khan Bahadur Khan of Bareilly, Rao Sahib (brother of Nana Saheb) and Maulvi Ahmadullah were all dead, while the Begum of Awadh was compelled to hide in Nepal.
  • By the end of 1859, British authority over India was fully reestablished.
  • The British Government had to pour immense supplies of men, money and arms into the country,Indians had to repay the entire cost through their own suppression.
  • Limited territorial spread: The eastern, southern and western parts of India remained more or less unaffected.
  • Certain classes and groups did not join and, in fact, worked against the revolt.
    • Big zamindars acted as “breakwaters to storm”; even Awadh tahacildars backed off once promises of land restitution were spelt out.
    • Moneylenders and merchants suffered the wrath of the mutineers badly and anyway saw their class interests better protected under British patronage.
    • Modern educated Indians viewed this revolt as backward looking, and mistakenly hoped the British would usher in an era of modernisation.
    • Most Indian rulers refused to join and often gave active help to the British (e.g Scindhia). By one estimate, not more than one-fourth of the total area and not more than one-tenth of the total population was affected.
  • Poorly equipped Indian soldiers.
  • Better communication among british: The electric telegraph kept the commander-in-chief informed about the movements and strategy of the rebels.
  • The revolt was poorly organized with no coordination or central leadership: The principal rebel leaders—Nana Saheb, Tantia Tope, Kunwar Singh, Laxmibai—were no match to their British opponents in generalship.
  • The mutineers lacked a clear understanding of colonial rule; nor did they have a forward looking programme, a coherent ideology, a political perspective or a societal alternative. The rebels represented diverse elements with differing grievances and concepts of current politics.
  • Lack of unity among Indians: Modern nationalism was yet unknown in India.
    • In fact, the revolt of 1857 played an important role in bringing the Indian people together and imparting to them the consciousness of belonging to one country.


  • During the entire revolt, there was complete cooperation between Hindus and Muslims at all levels—people, soldiers, leaders. All rebels acknowledged Bahadur Shah Zafar, a Muslim, as the emperor.
  • Rebels and sepoys, both Hindu and Muslim, respected each other’s sentiments.
    • Immediate banning of cow slaughter was ordered once the revolt was successful in a particular area.
  • Both Hindus and Muslims were well represented in leadership
    • Nana Saheb had Azimullah, a Muslim and an expert in political propaganda, as an aide,
    • Laxmibai had the solid support of Afghan soldiers.
  • Thus, the events of 1857 demonstrated that the people and politics of India were not basically communal before 1858.


>A) Different views:

  • Sir John Seeley( and some other British historians) : A mere ‘Sepoy Mutiny’ —”a wholly unpatriotic and selfish Sepoy Mutiny with no native leadership and no popular support”.
    • However, it is not a complete picture of the event as it involved many sections of the civilian population and not just the sepoys. The discontent of the sepoys was just one cause of the disturbance.
  • Dr K. Datta: “in the main a military outbreak, which was taken advantage of by certain discontented princes and landlords, whose interests had been affected by the new political order”. He also says, the movement was marked by absence of cohesion and unity of purpose among the various sections of the rebels.
  • V.D. Savarkar (in his book, First War of Indian Independence): planned war of national independence.
  • Dr S.N. Sen: The revolt as having begun as afight for religion but ended as a war of independence.
  • Dr R.C. Majumdar: “Neither the first, nor national, nor a war of independence” as large parts of the country remained unaffected and many sections of the people took no part in the upsurge.
  • Marxist historians: “the struggle of the soldier-peasant democratic combine against foreign as well as feudal bondage”.
    • However, this view does not stand scrutiny in the light of the fact that the leaders of the revolt themselves came from a feudal background.
  • Conclusion: The revolt of 1857 is not easy to categorise. It had seeds of nationalism and anti-imperialism but the concept of common nationality and nationhood was not inherent to the revolt of 1857. One may say that the revolt of 1857 was the first great struggle of Indians to throw off British rule. It established local traditions of resistance to British rule which were to pave the way for the modern national movement.


The revolt of 1857 marks a turning point in the history of India. It led to changes in the system of administration and the policy of the Government.

  • The direct responsibility for the administration of the country was assumed by the British Crown and Company rule was abolished.
    • Lord Canning at a durbar at Allahabad in the ‘Queen’s Proclamation’ (1858) announced the assumption of the Government of India by the sovereign of Great Britain.
  • The era of annexations and expansion ended and the British promised to respect the dignity and rights of the native princes.
  • The Indian states were henceforth to recognise the paramountcy of the British Crown.
  • The Army, which was at the forefront of the outbreak, was thoroughly reorganised and British military policy came to be dominated by the idea of “division and counterpoise”.
  • Racial hatred and suspicion between the Indians and the English was aggravated.
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