The Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 As with any conflict or controversy there are always two sides to the debate, and the events in India during 1857 are certainly no exception. Given the situation in India during the nineteenth century it is hardly surprising that such a polarisation of opinion exists regarding the context of the rebellious events during that year. The British being in control of the subcontinent and their sense of superiority over their Indian subjects, would naturally seek to downplay any acts of rebellion. While the Indian subjects on the other hand would arguably wish to exaggerate and over emphasise the importance of these events, as a means of promoting the nationalist cause for self determination. The truth of the events themselves, does it lie towards the British account or the Indian pro nationalistic side, or could there be a certain amount of truth in both sides of the debate. Metcalf in his account cites three indisputable factors behind the outbreak of rebellion in 1857.
Primarily he sees `accumulating grievances of the Sepoy Army of Bengal’ as the most important factor. The reasons behind this `deterioration of morale’ amongst the army lay with 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 ezdard of British officers’, plus the lack of improvement to the overall position of those men serving in the army also increased the level of tension. At this point it should be remembered that the `Bengal Army differed from those of Bengal and Madras’, as the Bombay and Madras armies took no part in the rebellion of 1857.
But the more pronounced military factor was the lack of British troops in the `Gangetic plain’ meant that many areas were `virtually denuded of British troops’. These military grievances which although significant were not themselves enough to incite rebellion, as it took a perceived attack on the Sepoy religious institutions to trigger of the rebellion. The first of these perceived threats was that the British government was preparing to dismantle the caste system and `convert them forcibly to Christianity’. Although not based on fact the actions of some `pious British 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 and caste’. Secondly, the introduction in 1857 of the `new Enfield rifle’ with its distinct ammunition, which required the bullet to be `bitten before loading’. Rumours that the grease used on the bullets was either from the fat of cattle or pigs, which either proved `sacred to Hindus’ or `pollution to Muslims’, was interpreted as attacking at the core of the Hindu and Muslim religious beliefs. These rumours unlike those regarding the conversion to Christianity and dismantling of the caste system, did prove to have a factual basis, as the British government `withdrew the objectionable grease’. This belated action proved futile as the damage had already been done.
However this only accounts for the military aspects of the uprising which display the version of events `accepted in official circles [as] basically army mutinies’. This version preferred by the British fails to acknowledge the level of `widespread unrest among the civilian population’, who saw much of the British government’s actions as amounting to interference and contempt for the `long established rules 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 overall administration 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 and government administration as having no effect in causing the uprising.
For officials like Sir John Lawrence the `immediate cause of the revolt’ was the concerns held by Sepoys over the new ammunition for the Enfield rifles. However, he sees this as just the trigger incident, with the root cause being the long term reduction in discipline in the army and the poor ezdard of officers in command. The British ezdpoint is to regard the events of 1857 as a mutiny. This is correct as there was a mutiny by sections of the military, yet this fails to include the sections of the civilian population who also engaged in civil unrest. For most of the British writers and observers of the events, they are agreed in calling it a mutiny because of the failings of the army, in terms of discipline and command.
The term mutiny also conjures up images of relatively small, disorganised and not very widespread activities of disobedience towards British authority. This is a more accurate description of the events given that the `whole of India did not participate in the rebellion’. Added to this the `large bodies of Punjabi Sikh troops [who] served under British command’ and some `of the Indian princes’ it seems hard to justify the term used by the Indian nationalists to describe the events of 1857. Although not accepted by all Indian historians, the traditional Indian nationalist view of the events of 1857 are that it was not as the British believe, a series of isolated and uncoordinated mutinies. It was a war of independence, the first act by Indians to gain self rule.
That year represented a turning point in which the `nationalist feelings, long suppressed by the British occupation, flared into violence’. For half a century after 1857 the writing on the uprising were basically confined to British observers and scholars. The first nationalist interpretation appeared in 1909. Savarkar is very passionate in his pro nationalist ezce, he treats with contempt the British assertion of the greased bullets as sparking the `war’. He questions that if the bullets were the cause why did the likes of `Nana Sahib, the Emperor of Delhi, the Queen of Jhansi .. join in’.
To Savarkar the fact that these individuals participated and the fighting continued after the `English Governor General issued a proclamation’ to withdraw the offending greased bullets, shows in his mind the fight was for an India free from British rule. To Savarkar the real cause was the actions of the British in having `committed so many atrocities’. As noted by others was the objective of the Indians to stop the British in their alleged `wicked desire to destroy our holy religion’. The nationalists sought to `restore state protection to Islam and Hinduism’. Savakar’s rhetoric is of a somewhat ultra nationalist ezdpoint, claiming God on the Indian side and national support to repel the European invader from the sub-continent.
The ability to write years after the event assists in Savakar’s ability to utilise the nationalist sentiments of his contemporary early twentieth century campaign to promote this event from half a century earlier as the foundations of the nationalist movement. Another view by Joshi adds to the nationalist picture of the tremendous detrimental effect the British had on India’s people and civilization. Joshi regards the events of 1857 as certainly being a war, but he sees it as being more than a war of independence, it was a `social revolution’. To both Joshi and Savakar the British were suppressing the truth of the uprising, the British `exaggerated and deliberately misrepresented the role played’ by religious factors. They used this argument as a means of further control and repression of the Indian people after 1857. Joshi is highly critical of the `English educated Indian intellectuals’ for maintaining the British lie, who he regards as having `swallowed this imperialist thesis uncritically’. One view which leans towards the side if interpreting the events of 1857 as a war of independence, rather than a mutiny, is that of Gupta. Although he takes a less nationalist and more balance …