The Indian Mutiny of 1857-1858: Causes and consequences By David A Granger
Stabroek News
April 15, 2007

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Almost exactly one hundred and fifty years ago in May 1857, the conflict which came to be known as the Indian Mutiny (also as the Indian Revolt, the First War of Indian Indepen-dence and the Sepoy Mutiny) erupted. The mutiny was a prolonged period of armed uprisings against British occupation.

The British presence in India, at that time part of the Moghul empire, began in the 17th century when the East India Company acquired its first territory in Bombay. Over the years, the company extended its control and expanded its territory, eventually expelling the French after the Battle of Plassey in 1757, exactly 100 years earlier. The company's army comprised British officers who commanded Indian soldiers, called sepoys (sepahi).

The conflict, the cumulative effect of several causes developing for a hundred years, was complex in character. These causes arose largely out of the British policy of westernisation which accelerated markedly in the decade after 1848 during the regime of the Marquess of Dalhousie, the young, authoritarian and impetuous Governor-General. The main causes could be described broadly as political, economic, social, military and geographical in nature.

Politically, the most serious issue arose out of the British introduction of the British 'Doctrine of Lapse.' This doctrine permitted the British to extend their imperial domain at the expense of Indian princes by forbidding the inheritance of states by persons who were not natural heirs; it was also extended to pensions and princely titles. The result was that several states - Udaipur, Jhansi and Nogpur and, finally in 1856, the state of Oudh - lapsed into British sovereignty.

In addition, the policy of excluding Indians from high civil and military offices and from having a real role in the running of India rankled. This was aggravated by the fact that, by the doctrine of lapse, several Indian princes and nobles were rendered redundant and found no place to fit their rank or expectations under the British system.

Economically, the British agrarian policy created widespread distress. Sale Laws enforced against defaulting zamindars and landholders and the resumption of rent-free holdings resulted in the dispossession of thousands of families and individuals from their estates and farms. This was coupled with a new form of direct assessment of heavy rates on land which many could not afford and, therefore, were evicted from the land. The British import and export policy also disrupted the Indian economy. British manufactured goods glutted the markets, undermining the sale of Indian cottage and craft commodities.

Socially, both Hindu and Muslim leaders feared that, as part of its modernisation and westernisation programme, the British intended to replace their traditional customs and religions with Christianity. Thus, the Religious Disabilities Act of 1856 which protected the inheritance rights of converts, the suppression of certain practices - particularly saathi, child marriage and infanticide - and granting permission for the remarriage of widows, were all regarded with alarm. The unrestricted entry of Christian missionaries that was permitted under the Charter Act, especially in prisons, orphanages and the army, at the same time was perceived as threatening.

Geographically, the greatest impact of some of these British policies was felt in one part of the North - including Oudh and the North-Western provinces. Even some technological improvements - such as the construction of canals and railways and the introduction of the telegraph which occasionally necessitated the demolition of a temple or shrine or trespassed across sacred ground - were regarded as unwanted and unwarranted intrusions.

Finally, the military causes of the mutiny were most directly responsible for igniting the conflagration. The ratio of Indians to Europeans in the armies of the three presidencies was about 6:1 (240,000 to 40,000 approximately). Indians were abused and treated badly, however; their pay was inadequate and conditions of service were harsh.

By the General Services Enlistment Act of 1856, new recruits were required to serve anywhere in India or overseas. Some sepoys felt that this would result in their becoming polluted, and losing caste. Their religious prejudices had already been offended by earlier regulations requiring the removal of caste marks and beards and the wearing-of turbans with cockades made of leather (which might have been made either from cowhide or pigskin).

Worse was the introduction of the new breech-loaded Lee-Enfield rifle which fired a .303 calibre cartridge that had to manually loaded before firing. Priming involved biting the end of the cartridges which the sepoys felt had been greased with the fat of cows or pigs, before inserting them into the chambers of the rifles. This was sacrilegious to Hindus and Muslims alike and although their British officers realised their mistake and changed the grease to vegetable oils, suspicion persisted. It was this last imposition which triggered the mutiny at Meerut on the morning of May 10, 1857, which was the spark which ignited the mutiny.

The causes of the mutiny, therefore, were several and had been simmering for a long period of time but especially from 1848 to 1857. Many of the innovations were introduced by Lord Dalhousie. They might have been intended to modernise India but, at the same time, irritated and alienated some conservative elements who lost property, prestige and power by these measures.

With the fall of Gwalior on June 20, 1858, thirteen months after the Meerut Mutiny of May 10, 1857, the British effectively suppressed the conflict. The consequences, however, lasted over ninety years right up to the time of Indian independence in 1947, and beyond. Like the causes, the consequences were political, economic, social and military in nature.

Politically, the British government changed its entire administrative strategy for controlling India in the aftermath of the mutiny. These changes were embodied for the most part in the Government of India Act of 1858, the main provision being the transfer of power from the 'Company' (ie, the East India Company) to the 'Crown.'

The Indian rajahs (traditional rulers) were assured that treaties made with them would be observed and that territorial annexation would be curtailed. The people of India were promised collectively that their traditional and religious rights would be respected, that there would be no interference with their customs and that they would not be discriminated against. Although the life of the titular Moghul emperor Bahadur Shah was spared, he was deposed and, with this, ended some 200 years of Muslim Moghul rule in India. Queen Victoria was proclaimed empress in 1877 and the Governor-General was appointed Viceroy.

The spurious Doctrine of Lapse that Lord Dalhousie introduced was repudiated, and the right of adopted children to succeed to the titles of their princely parents was recognised. By the Indian Councils Act of 1861, the Viceroy's Council was strengthened and the central legislature was expanded to permit the inclusion of Indians. By these measures, the British began the process of admitting Indians into the higher echelons of administration.

Economically, a new agrarian policy was introduced to guarantee security of tenure and to fix rent for lands. This policy freed cultivators from tedious settlements and excessive demands of the state. The Bengal Rent Act of 1859 served as a model for this enlightened approach to an age-old, but vexatious problem. In addition, a revenue policy was introduced to levy new taxes - personal income tax, professional license tax and a tobacco tax - which helped to augment revenues. The financial system, also, was decentralised by entrusting some items of taxation to local governments.

These measures, although helping to stabilise agriculture, stimulate production and develop public works, also accelerated the export of raw materials to, and the import of industrial manufactures from, Britain.

Socially, a major consequence of the mutiny was the rise of a conservative gentry of rajahs and other prominent Indians who had remained loyal to the British. They were embraced as a 'docile and dependable' class. They even included in their numbers some taluqdars and zamindars who became a buffer between the British ruling class and the Indian masses. The mutiny also caused a marked rise in racial consciousness and extremism as the British, seeking to prevent a recurrence of the violence, ensured that Indians were not placed in positions of power or influence to threaten British rule again.

In military terms, the consequences of the mutiny were also far-reaching. The old 'company' army was demobilised and new regular forces raised. These were based on the recruitment of soldiers from the so-called martial races - Sikhs, Jats, Pathans and Gurkhas - who had remained loyal to the British during the mutiny, in preference to Brahmins and other groups who were regarded as troublesome. The ratio of Indians to Europeans was fixed at 2:1 and Indians were precluded from manning the artillery and from entering certain scientific branches of the army.

In general terms, the most significant consequences were a break with the old imperial system and the rise of a conscious Indian national movement. The social, political and economic changes which took place in the wake of the mutiny opened a new chapter in Indian history leading to the stimulation of agricultural and industrial development, the stirring of political democracy and the struggle for independence.