Freedom Struggle                                                                                                                     Back to History Page    
The Revolt of 1857
Excerpted from India's Struggle for Independence and Modern India (NCERT Publication, 1971) by Bipen Chandra
It was the morning of 11 May 1857. The city of Delhi had not yet woken up when a band of sepoys from Meerut, who had defied and killed the European officers the previous day, crossed the Jamuna, set the toll house on fire and marched to the Red Fort. They entered the Red Fort through the Raj Ghat gate, followed by an excited crowd, to appeal to Bahadur Shah II, the Moghul Emperor  a pensioner of the British East India Company, who possessed nothing but the name of the mighty Moghuls  to become their leader, thus, give legitimacy to their cause. 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, to give in and was proclaimed the Shahenshah-e-Hindustan. The sepoys then set out to capture and control the imperial city of Delhi. Simon Fraser, the Political Agent, and several other Englishmen were killed; the public offices were either occupied or destroyed. The Revolt of 1857 had begun.

The Background
The Revolt of 1857 was the most dramatic instance of India's struggle against foreign rule. But it was no sudden occurrence. It was the culmination of a century long resistance to domination by the British whose scale, duration and intensity of plunder were unprecedented in Indian history.

In Bengal, for example, in less than thirty years land revenue collection was raised to nearly double the amount collected under the Mughals.  The old zamindars and poligars were deposed and replaced by new men of money  merchants and money lenders  who pushed rents to ruinous heights and evicted their tenants in case of non-payment. The economic decline of the peasantry was reflected in twelve major and numerous minor famines from 1770 to 1857. The very first one, soon after East India Company secured political control of Bengal in 1757 killed about 10 million people, the scale of death unknown in the history of India till then.

Not only was the old ruling elite displaced and the peasantry pauperized, the artisan class was annihilated. Indian goods, much valued in Britain, had to face imposition of duties as high as 80% so that the mills of Paisley and Manchester could keep running. The British manufactures, on the contrary, had virtually a free entry into India.

The rebellions began as soon as and wherever the British rule was established. From 1763 to 1856, there were more than 40 major rebellions. The Sanyasi rebellion of Bengal (1763-1800) was followed by Chuar uprising of Bengal and Bihar (1766-1772 and again 1795-1816); other uprisings in Eastern India such as Rangpur and Dinajpur (1783), Bishnupur and Birbhum (1799), Orissa zamindars (1804-1817) and Sambalpur (1827-1840).

In South India, the Raja of Vizianagram revolted in 1794, the poligars of Tamilnadu during the 1790s, of Malabar and coastal Andhra during the first decade of the 19th century, of Parlekamedi during 1813-1814. Dewan Velu Thampi of Travancore organized a heroic revolt in 1805. The Mysore peasants too revolted in 1830-1831. There were major uprisings in Vizagapatam from 1830-1834, Ganjam in 1835 and Kurnool in 1846-1847.

In Western India, the chiefs of Saurashtra rebelled (Kutch Rebellion) repeatedly from 1816 to 1832, the Kolis of Gujarat during 1824-1828, 1839 and 1849.Maharashtra was in a perpetual state of revolt after the final defeat of the Peshwa. Prominent were Bhil uprisings (1818-1831); the Kittur uprising, led by Chinnava (1824); the Satara uprising (1841); and the revolt of Gadkaris (1844).

Northern India was no less turbulent The present states of Western U.P. and Haryana rose up in arms in 1824; Bilaspur in 1805, the taluqdars of Aligarh in 1814-1817, the Bundelas of Jabalpur in 1842, and Khandesh in 1852.

The tribal people, who had depended on the forest for food, fuel and cattle-feed, and practiced shifting cultivation, witnessed the destruction of their livelihood and identity as they were brought into the ambit of colonialism. The colonial administration usurped forest lands and introduced the triumvirate of trader, moneylender and revenue farmer to exploit the tribals. The tribal uprisings were numerous, all marked by immense courage and sacrifice on their part and brutal suppression and veritable butchery on the part of the rulers.

Among the numerous tribal revolts, the Santhal hool or uprising was the most massive. The Santhals, who live in the area between Bhagalpur and Rajmahal, known as Daman-i-koh, called a meeting of 6000 Santhal representatives from 400 villages at Bhaganidihi on 30 June 1855. It was decided to mobilize the Santhals and throw out the dikus (outsiders) by force. Sixty thousand Santhals organised in bands of 1500 to 2000 participated in the insurrection. The colonial government responded by its own military mobilization under the command of a major-general. The rebellion which lasted as late as 1866 was crushed ruthlessly. More than 15,000 Santhals were killed while tens of villages were destroyed.

The Kols of Chhotanagpur rebelled from 1820 to 1837. Thousands of them were massacred before British authority could be re-imposed.

The Revolt
The discontent against the British had thus been accumulating for a hundred years. By 1857, the material for a mass upheaval was ready, only a spark was needed to set it afire. The episode of greased cartridges provided this spark for the sepoys and their mutiny provided the general populace the occasion to revolt.

The new Enfield rifle had been first introduced in the army. Its cartridges had a greased paper cover whose end had to be bitten off before the cartridge was loaded into the rifle. The grease was in some instances composed of beef and pig fat. The sepoys, Hindus as well as Muslim, were enraged. Many believed that the Government was deliberately trying to destroy their religion. The time to rebel had come.

The Revolt began at Meerut, 36 miles from Delhi, on 10 May 1857 and then, gathering force rapidly, it cut across Northern India like a sword. It 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.

Even before the outbreak at Meerut, Mangal Pande had become a martyr at Barrackpore. Mangal Pande, a young soldier, was hanged on 29 March 1857 for revolting and attacking his officers. On 24 April ninety men of 3rd Native Cavalry refused to accept the greased cartridges. On 9 May 85 of them were dismissed, sentenced to 10 years imprisonment and put into fetters. This sparked off a general mutiny among the Indian soldiers stationed at Meerut. The very next day, on 10 May, they released their imprisoned comrades, killed their officers, and unfurled the banner of revolt. They set off for Delhi after sunset. When Meerut soldiers appeared in Delhi the next morning, the local infantry joined them, killed their own European officers, and seized the city.

The entire Bengal Army soon rose in revolt which spread quickly. Avadh, Rohilkhand, the Doab, the Bundelkhand, Central India, large parts of Bihar, and the East Punjab  all shook off British authority. In many of the princely states, rulers remained loyal to their British overlord but the soldiers revolted or remained on the brink of revolt. Many of Indore's troops rebelled and joined the sepoys. Similarly over 20,000 of Gwalior's troops went over to Tantia Tope and the Rani of Jhansi. Many small chiefs of Rajasthan and Maharashtra revolted with the support of the people. Local rebellions also occurred in Hyderabad and Bengal.

The tremendous sweep and breadth of the Revolt was matched by its depth. Everywhere in Northern and Central India, the mutiny of the sepoy was followed by popular revolts of the civilian population. After the sepoys had destroyed British authority, the common people rose up in arms often fighting with spears and axes, bows and arrows, lathis and scythes, and crude muskets. In many places, however, the people revolted even before the sepoys did or even when no sepoy regiments were present. It is the wide participation in the Revolt by the peasantry and the artisans which gave it real strength as well as the character of a popular revolt, especially in areas at present included in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Here the peasants and zamindars gave free expression to their grievances by attacking the money-lenders and new zamindars who had displaced them from land. They took advantage of the Revolt to destroy the money-lenders' account books and records of debts. They also established the British-established law courts, revenue offices (tehsils) and revenue records, and thanas. It is of some importance to note that in many of the battles commoners far surpassed the sepoys in numbers. According to one estimate, of the total number of about 150,000 men who died fighting the English in Avadh, over 100,000 were civilians.

The storm-centers of the Revolt of 1857 were at Delhi, Kanpur, Lucknow, Bareilly, Jhansi and Arrah in Bihar. At Delhi the nominal and symbolic leadership belonged to the Emperor Bahadur Shah, but the real command lay with a Court of Soldiers headed by General Bakht Khan who had led the revolt of the Bareilly troops and brought them to Delhi. In the British army, he had been an ordinary subedar of artillery.  Bakht Khan represented the popular and plebian element at the headquarters of the Revolt. After the British occupation of Delhi in September 1857, he went to Lucknow and continued to fight the British till he died in a battle on 13 May 1859. The Emperor Bahadur Shah was perhaps the weakest link in the chain of leadership of the Revolt. He had little genuine sympathy for the humble sepoys who in turn did not trust him fully.

At Kanpur, the Revolt was run by Nana Sahib, the adopted son of Baji Rao II, the last Peshwa. Nana Sahib expelled the English from Kanpur with the help of sepoys and proclaimed himself the Peshwa. At the same time he acknowledged Bahadur Shah as the Emperor of India and declared himself to be his Governor. The chief burden of fighting on behalf of Nana Sahib fell on the shoulders of Tantia Tope, one of his most loyal servants. Azimullah was another loyal servant of Nana Sahib. He was an expert in political propaganda.

The revolt at Lucknow was led by Begum of Avadh who had proclaimed her younger son, Birjis Kadr, as the Nawab of Avadh. Helped by the sepoys at Lucknow, and by the zamindars and peasants of Avadh, the Begum organised an all-out attack on the British. Compelled to give up the city, the latter entrenched themselves in the Residency building. In the end, the seige of the Residency failed as the small British garrison fought back with exemplary fortitude and valor.

One of the great leaders of the Revolt of 1857 and perhaps one of the greatest heroines of Indian history, was the young Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi. The young Rani joined the rebels when the British refused to acknowledge her right to adopt an heir to the Jhansi gaddi, annexed her state, and threatened to treat her as an instigator of the rebellion of the sepoys at Jhansi. She fought like a true heroine; tales of her bravery and courage and military skill have inspired her countrymen ever since. Driven out of Jhansi by the British forces after a fierce battle in which "even women were seen working the batteries and distributing ammunition," she administered the oath to her followers that "with our own hands we shall not Azadshahi (independent rule) bury." She captured Gwalior with the help of Tantia Tope and her trusted Afghan guards. Maharaja Sindhia, loyal to the British, made an attempt to fight the Rani but most of his troops deserted to her. Sindhia sought refuge with the English at Agra. The brave Rani died fighting on 17 June 1858, clad in the battle dress of a soldier and mounted on a charger. Besides her, fell her life-long friend and companion, a Muslim girl.

Kunwar Singh, a ruined and discontented zamindar of Jagdishpur near Arrah, was the chief organiser of the revolt in Bihar. Though nearly 80 year old, he was perhaps the most outstanding military leader and strategist of the Revolt. He fought the British in Bihar, and, later joining hands with Nana Sahib's forces, he also campaigned in Avadh and Central India. Racing back home he defeated the British forces near Arrah. But this proved to be his last battle. He had sustained a fatal wound in the battle and he died on 27 April 1858 in his ancestral house in the village of Jagdishpur.

Maulavi Ahmadullah of Faizabad was another outstanding leader of the Revolt. He was a native of Madras where he had started preaching armed rebellion. In January 1857 he moved towards the North to Faizabad where he fought a largescale battle against a company of British troops sent to stop him from preaching sedition. When the general revolt broke out in May, he emerged as one of its acknowledged leaders in Avadh. After the defeat at Lucknow, he led the rebellion in Rohilkhand where he was treacherously killed by the Raja of Puwain who was paid Rs. 50,000 as a reward by the British.

The greatest heroes of the Revolt were, however, the sepoys many of whom displayed great courage in the field of battle and thousands of whom unselfishly laid down their lives. More than anything else it was their determination and sacrifice that nearly led to the expulsion of the British from India.

Even though spread over wide territory and widely popular among the people, the Revolt of 1857 could not embrace the entire country or all the groups and classes of Indian society.  Most rulers of the Indian states, and the big zamindars, selfish to the core and fearful of the British might, refused to join in. On the contrary, the Sindhia of Gwalior, the Holkar of Indore, the Nizam of Hyderabad, the Raja of Jodhpur and other Rajput rulers, the Nawab of Bhopal, the rulers of Patiala, Nabha, Jind and Kashmir, the Ranas of Nepal, and many other ruling chiefs, and a large number of big zamindars gave active help to the British in suppressing the Revolt. In the words of Governor-General Canning these rulers and chiefs "acted as breakwaters to the storm which would have otherwise swept us in one great wave." Madras, Bombay, Bengal and Western Punjab remained undisturbed, even though the popular feeling in these provinces favored the rebels. In fact, no more than one per cent of the chiefs of India joined the revolt.

Lacking central authority and coordination, a unified and forward looking program, modern weaponry, and unable to unite all classes and all regions behind it, the Revolt failed. The British Government poured immense supplies of men, money, and arms into the country, though Indians had later to repay the entire cost of their own suppression. The rebels were dealt an early blow when the British captured Delhi on 20 September 1857 after prolonged and bitter fighting. The aged Emperor Bahadur Shah was taken prisoner. The Royal Princes were captured and butchered on the spot. The Emperor was tried and exiled to Rangoon where he died in 1862.

With the fall of Delhi, the focal point of the Revolt disappeared. One by one, all the great leaders of the Revolt fell. Nana Sahib was defeated at Kanpur. Defiant to the very end and refusing to surrender, he escaped to Nepal early in 1859, never to be heard of again. Tantia Tope escaped into the jungles of Central India where he carried on bitter and brilliant guerrilla warfare until April 1859 when he was betrayed by a zamindar friend and captured while asleep. He was put to death after a hurried trial on 15 April 1859. The Rani of Jhansi had died on the field of battle  earlier on 17 June 1858. By 1859, Kunwar Singh, Bakht Khan, Khan Bahadur Khan of Bareilly, Rao Sahib, brother of Nana Sahib, Maulavi Ahmadullah were all dead, while the Begum of Avadh was compelled to hide in Nepal.

By the end of 1859, British authority in India was fully reestablished, but the Revolt had not been in vain. It was the first great struggle of the Indian people for freedom from British imperialism. It became a source of inspiration for the later freedom struggles and its heroes became household names in the country.