The Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 Essay

Published: 2021-06-29 02:07:45
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As with any conflict or controversy there are always two sidesto the debate, and the events in India during 1857 are certainly noexception. Given the situation in India during the nineteenth centuryit is hardly surprising that such a polarisation of opinion existsregarding the context of the rebellious events during that year. TheBritish being in control of the subcontinent and their sense ofsuperiority over their Indian subjects, would naturally seek todownplay any acts of rebellion.
While the Indian subjects on the otherhand would arguably wish to exaggerate and over emphasise theimportance of these events, as a means of promoting the nationalistcause for self determination. The truth of the events themselves, doesit lie towards the British account or the Indian pro nationalisticside, or could there be a certain amount of truth in both sides of thedebate. Metcalf in his account cites three indisputable factors behindthe outbreak of rebellion in 1857. Primarily he sees `accumulatinggrievances of the Sepoy Army of Bengal’ as the most important factor. The reasons behind this `deterioration of morale’ amongst the army laywith several reasons. Much of the Sepoy army was comprised of`Brahmins and other high caste Hindus’ who assisted in promoting a`focus of sedition’.
The `generally poor standard of Britishofficers’, plus the lack of improvement to the overall position ofthose men serving in the army also increased the level of tension. Atthis point it should be remembered that the `Bengal Army differed fromthose of Bengal and Madras’, as the Bombay and Madras armies took nopart in the rebellion of 1857. But the more pronounced military factorwas the lack of British troops in the `Gangetic plain’ meant that manyareas were `virtually denuded of British troops’. These military grievances which although significant were notthemselves enough to incite rebellion, as it took a perceived attackon the Sepoy religious institutions to trigger of the rebellion. Thefirst of these perceived threats was that the British government waspreparing to dismantle the caste system and `convert them forcibly toChristianity’.
Although not based on fact the actions of some `piousBritish officers did nothing to dispel’ the rumours to the contrary. Added to this British lethargy was the Brahmins who tended to be`peculiarly watchful for potential threats to their religion andcaste’. Secondly, the introduction in 1857 of the `new Enfield rifle’with its distinct ammunition, which required the bullet to be `bittenbefore loading’. Rumours that the grease used on the bullets waseither from the fat of cattle or pigs, which either proved `sacred toHindus’ or `pollution to Muslims’, was interpreted as attacking at thecore of the Hindu and Muslim religious beliefs.
These rumours unlikethose regarding the conversion to Christianity and dismantling of thecaste system, did prove to have a factual basis, as the Britishgovernment `withdrew the objectionable grease’. This belated actionproved futile as the damage had already been done. However this only accounts for the military aspects of theuprising which display the version of events `accepted in officialcircles as basically army mutinies’. This version preferred by theBritish fails to acknowledge the level of `widespread unrest among thecivilian population’, who saw much of the British government’s actionsas amounting to interference and contempt for the `long establishedrules and customs’. Disraeli saw the causes of the uprising as not being the`conduct of men who were … the exponents of general discontent’amongst the Bengal army. For Disraeli the root cause was the overalladministration by the government, which he regarded as having`alienated or alarmed almost every influential class in the country’.
Yet other British saw the overall social situation andgovernment administration as having no effect in causing the uprising. For officials like Sir John Lawrence the `immediate cause of therevolt’ was the concerns held by Sepoys over the new ammunition forthe Enfield rifles. However, he sees this as just the triggerincident, with the root cause being the long term reduction indiscipline in the army and the poor standard of officers in command. The British standpoint is to regard the events of 1857 as amutiny.
This is correct as there was a mutiny by sections of themilitary, yet this fails to include the sections of the civilianpopulation who also engaged in civil unrest. For most of the Britishwriters and observers of the events, they are agreed in calling it amutiny because of the failings of the army, in terms of discipline andcommand. The term mutiny also conjures up images of relatively small,disorganised and not very widespread activities of disobediencetowards British authority. This is a more accurate description of theevents given that the `whole of India did not participate in therebellion’.
Added to this the `large bodies of Punjabi Sikh troopswho served under British command’ and some `of the Indian princes’it seems hard to justify the term used by the Indian nationalists todescribe the events of 1857. Although not accepted by all Indian historians, the traditionalIndian nationalist view of the events of 1857 are that it was not asthe British believe, a series of isolated and uncoordinated mutinies. It was a war of independence, the first act by Indians to gain selfrule. That year represented a turning point in which the `nationalistfeelings, long suppressed by the British occupation, flared intoviolence’. For half a century after 1857 the writing on the uprisingwere basically confined to British observers and scholars. The first nationalist interpretation appeared in 1909.
Savarkaris very passionate in his pro nationalist stance, he treats withcontempt the British assertion of the greased bullets as sparking the`war’. He questions that if the bullets were the cause why did thelikes of `Nana Sahib, the Emperor of Delhi, the Queen of Jhansi …join in’. To Savarkar the fact that these individuals participated andthe fighting continued after the `English Governor General issued aproclamation’ to withdraw the offending greased bullets, shows in hismind the fight was for an India free from British rule. To Savarkarthe real cause was the actions of the British in having `committed somany atrocities’.
As noted by others was the objective of the Indians to stop theBritish in their alleged `wicked desire to destroy our holy religion’. The nationalists sought to `restore state protection to Islam andHinduism’. Savakar’s rhetoric is of a somewhat ultra nationaliststandpoint, claiming God on the Indian side and national support torepel the European invader from the sub-continent. The ability towrite years after the event assists in Savakar’s ability to utilisethe nationalist sentiments of his contemporary early twentiethcentury campaign to promote this event from half a century earlier asthe foundations of the nationalist movement. Another view by Joshi adds to the nationalist picture of thetremendous detrimental effect the British had on India’s people andcivilization. Joshi regards the events of 1857 as certainly being awar, but he sees it as being more than a war of independence, it was a`social revolution’.
To both Joshi and Savakar the British weresuppressing the truth of the uprising, the British `exaggerated anddeliberately misrepresented the role played’ by religious factors. They used this argument as a means of further control and repressionof the Indian people after 1857. Joshi is highly critical of the`English educated Indian intellectuals’ for maintaining the Britishlie, who he regards as having `swallowed this imperialist thesisuncritically’. One view which leans towards the side if interpreting the eventsof 1857 as a war of independence, rather than a mutiny, is that ofGupta. Although he takes a less nationalist and more balancedapproach.
He argued the name of the events, which is what parties forboth sides have continuously argued over, are entitled to be calledthe `Great Indian Outbreak’. For Gupta the name is not being proIndian nationalist in the description of the events, which he regardsas having `possessed the hallmarks of a truly national uprising’. Hesought to equate these events on an equal footing with European eventsof a similar nature. `If the limited and unfruitful results of 1830and 1848 in Central and Southern European countries have been regardedas national uprisings’, Gupta sees the Indians as justifiably givingthe events of 1857 a similar title. The two accounts by Joshi and Savarkar are certainly for thepro-nationalist movement, who of course would wish to portray theevents of 1857 in a light that was directed towards the nationalistmovement’s objectives. Gupta although eluding to this viewpoint is farless pro nationalist and more balanced in his approach.
As Metcalf points out the `most pervasive legacy of the mutinycan be found perhaps in the sphere of human relations’. Quite simplythe way in which the British and Indians interacted, was especiallythe way the British felt towards the Indians altered markedly. While there is no question concerning the British as the rulers ofIndia for a century, the manner of administration prior to the mutinyof 1857 was less as the role of overlord. After the mutiny it becamemuch sterner with the British acting as `clearly an occupying power,garrisoning a hostile land’. The British saw the need to reduce therisk of a second rebellion and to reduce the prospect the `Governmentof India adopted the policy of creating division and disunion in thecivil ranks’.
In terms of interaction the mutiny saw `the romanticism oforientalists and the optimism of reformers giving way to apessimistic stance that emphasised military security and cautiouspolicies’. This saw the British drift `into insular littlecommunities’. As part of this different military and administrativeapproach there was a significant restructuring of the military, `theIndian element in the army was drastically reduced (from 238,000 in1857 to 140,000 in 1863) and the European part increased (from 45,000to 65,000)’. As part of restructuring personnel numbers, ratios wereintroduced where in the `Punjab the ratio of British to native troopsshould normally be one to two, … while in Bombay and Madras …one to three’. In an attempt to further reduce any chance of anothermutiny occurring the `native Artillery was abolished … and thecorps of Bengal, Madras and Bombay Artillery and Engineers wereamalgamated with the Royal Artillery and Royal Engineers’.
The decades prior to the mutiny saw no attempts by the Britishto classify the Indians into `racial categories or rank them assuperior or inferior’. But by the middle of the nineteenth century thedivisions of `race was a popular topic in Victorian England’. Theconcept of superiority and inferiority reached such levels that the`concept of permanent racial superiority … underlay much ofpost-Mutiny British thought about India’. The basis for these views were no longer regarded as simplybeing `emotional sentiment, it was a scientific fact’, or moreaccurately pseudo-science. While the theories of racial superioritywere nothing new to the people of Victorian England.
The raciallybased ideas were given much greater credence to those who supportedthem, by the `publication in 1859 of Charles Darwin’s, Origin of theSpecies which accelerated this shift from the commonalities of thehuman race to a differentiation of races’. These racially based beliefs in superiority and inferiority werethe basis, for the supporters of such beliefs, in the reason behindthe British victory in 1857, as the `white race was dominant becauseit was more advanced and adaptable’. The moves by the British towardsacknowledging the various racial groups in India and therefore thequalities of each was an area which having been neglected before themutiny became an area of keen interest. The `martial races became aconcern immediately after the outbreak of the Sepoy Rebellion’.
TheBritish administration the `Peel Commission concluded … had beenunaware of the true martial attributes possessed by various Indianethnic groups’. The willingness of the British to admit to the beneficialqualities of certain ethnic groups showed that, although they did notregard such groups as being anywhere near the equal of the white race. They could be categorised as being the superior members of an inferiorrace. The findings of the inquiry saw the British place certainracial groups out of favour, while providing greater acceptance ofothers. The Brahmins were characterised as `scheming and dishonest’, andit was the `high caste Hindus of Oudh and neighbouring areas …adjudged responsible for the undermining of discipline of the sepoysof the Native Army’. While others like the `Guhkas, Sikhs, Marathasand Rajputs … understood the meaning of honour, and duty’, thereforethe British administrators saw these races as being `India’s trulymartial peoples’.
The recruitment into the army of members of thesesocial groups was made government policy and `a series of handbooks onthe martial races produced for the benefit of recruiting officers’. Aside from the overall deterioration in relations between theBritish and their Indian subjects after the rebellion, there was alsoan impact on the Indians themselves. With the Muslims losing much ofthe influence and power they held before the rebellion, and theHindus filling the vacuum left by the Muslims. While the Britishattitude changed radically towards the Indians the `most bitter andwidespread hostility was reserved for the Muslim community’. They wereblamed by the British for much of the rebellious activity, which theBritish saw as an attempt to `restore the authority of the Moghulemperor’.
Because `Muslims stood prejudiced against western education’they `had to remain in the background for some time’, while the Hinduswho were more favourable in the adoption of this western style ofeducation and learning English benefited under the government. Anexample which shows how the Muslims declined so heavily and the Hindusbenefited after the mutiny, is in the case of `judicial positionsopen to Indians’. `Although Muslims comprised only 12 per cent of thepopulation in the North Western Provinces, they held 72 per cent ofpositions’ prior to 1857. The post 1857 effects saw thisdisproportionate share of judicial position diminish to a situationwhere in `1886 they could claim only 9 posts out of a totalof 284?.
This situation of a Muslim decline in influence had long termeffects on the Muslim community right up until the early part of thetwentieth century. As each side of the debate is so fixed in their opinion on thissubject that no consensus ever seems likely to be reached. For theIndians the events assist in enhancing the nationalist theme ofridding the sub-continent of the British. To the nationalists theevents of 1857 are the first step in a process that took ninety yearsto achieve the goal of an India ruled by Indians.
However the evidenceof the events clearly comes down on the side of the British opinion. The events were not a war of independence but a military andcivilian mutiny. Given that the `entire south of India took no part in therebellion’ it seems impossible to justify the claim that the eventswere a war of independence. Added to this, the assistanceprovided by certain elements of Indian society to the British furtherreduces the nationalist claims. The lack of central co-ordinationamongst the rebels hardly inspires confidence in them engaging in aconflict to gain independence.
Clearly the debate comes closer to theBritish viewpoint of 1857 being a year of mutinies in the Indiansub-continent, and not the first attempts by the Indians to seekindependence.

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