India has always been a source of great inspiration for the world at large for her fabulous wealth, abundant natural resources and her spiritual troves. It attracted both traders and invaders along with preachers and seekers in search of truth and salvation. All of them came through land routes by undertaking long and hazardous journeys which put a lot of stress and strain on their physique and nerves. Thus, the marauding hordes of Alexander mutinied and refused to march beyond the river Beas because of their weariness and fatigue in fighting and homesickness. Many invading tribes like Kushans, Hunas and Sakas in the ancient era and the Turks and Mughals during the medieval age, however, chose to make this land their home and merged themselves into the mainstream of Indian life. They attempted their best to bring more and more lustre to India’s glory and enriched her culture, heritage and tradition. It would not thus be quite inappropriate if we consider the long span of Muslim rule in India as an era of consolidation, unity and glory more or less similar to the reigns of Mauryas, Kushans and Guptas. By that criterion, Ashoka and Akbar were great national monarchs of India. They unified the country, gave it a stable administration and brought about harmony, peace and concord among various faiths, sects and communities.
Advent of Europeans
During the closing years of the fifteenth century, various European nations embarked upon new adventures to enrich themselves by establishing trade links with India through sea. Columbus made the pioneering attempt to sail for India in 1492 but he reached America in 1493. Six years later, Vasco da Gama reached Calicut in 1498 via the Cape of Good Hope. The Zamorin of Calicut received the Portuguese visitor with great warmth and cordiality; opening a new chapter of commercial and political relationship between Europe and Asia. This encouraged Vasco da Gama to make another visit to India in 1501 and establish a factory at Cannanore. The Portuguese were thus the first European nation to establish trade links with India with the avowed object to establish an empire. In 1580, Spain occupied Portugal and to ensure that both of them do not fight each other for supremacy in trade, Pope Alexander IV issued a papal bull dividing the world into two halves, the eastern half belonging to Portugal and the western half to Spain. The defeat of Spanish Armada in 1588 at the hands of Elizabethan England established beyond doubt the English naval supremacy over other European powers, making her a potential contender for establishing trade and empire in India. This encouraged the merchants of London to form the East India Company in December 1600 and obtain the Royal Charter to enjoy an exclusive right to trade with India for fifteen years and to maintain discipline over its members and employees. The Charter also authorised the Company to maintain an armed naval force consisting of six good pinnaces well furnished with ordnance and other munitions and five hundred mariners. The significance of the Charter lay in that the Company could trade with India and maintain a naval force.
The Company set up its first factory at Surat where Captain Hawkins succeeded in securing the necessary permission for its establishment from the Mughal Emperor Jahangir. In subsequent years, it established factories in Masulipatnam, Hiraharpur, Madras and Calcutta. The island and port of Bombay was given to the Company on the payment of an annual rent of £ 10 by King Charles II which he had received from the Portuguese King in dowry on his marriage with Catherine of Braganza. Thus, the Company was able to establish itself on important ports of India by the close of the seventeenth century from which it could carry on its trade with convenience and profit. The steady growth of the company synchronised with the death of the great Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb in 1707, which led to the erosion of the Mughal political supremacy on the political scene and rise of centrifugal forces. The weakness of the central authority led to the establishment of various petty kingdoms and principalities along with the declarations of independence by many provincial governors appointed by the Mughal Emperor. That was the situation for which the servants of the East India Company had been looking for so long. The collapse of political and commercial power of various other European nations like the Dutch, Danes and French in India emboldened the English Nababs, the title with which the servants of the Company were acclaimed on their return from India to England because of their highly accumulated assets and possessions, to dabble in the native political conflicts.
The author of this new adventurism was Lord Clive. His victory over Nawab of Bengal, Siraj-ud-daulah at the Battle of Plassey in 1757 did not make him an able General or a brave soldier but he became the kingmaker. He changed the rulers on the masand of Bengal playing one against the other. He took bribes and encouraged his subordinates to follow in his footsteps. An era of plunder ensued. The dubious game had to be intensified. The reward was Buxar. It made the East India Company the Dewan of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. It obtained the dewani rights from Shah Alam, the Mughal Emperor of India. The Company ceased to be a mere trading concern. It assumed the role of an empire builder. As Lord Palmerston said very truly, “The original settlers began with a factory, the factory grew into a fort, the fort expanded into a district and the district into a province.” The British Parliament declared in 1784 that “the pursuit of schemes of conquest and extension of dominion in India were measures repugnant to the wish, the honour and policy of the British nation”, but this declaration was negated by the events of the succeeding years. The Company aimed at not only adding more and more dominions to its fold but it became the paramount power introducing new measures like the system of Subsidiary Alliances and Doctrine of Lapse. The purpose of both was to reduce the power of Indian princes and enhance the territories of the Company. An era of aggrandisement, expansion, extension and annexation thus continued unabated until the Great Uprising of 1857 shook the British imperialism to its very foundations. The rule of the East India Company came to an end. The expansion of empire got a halt. The responsibility for the governance of the country was transferred from the Company to the Crown. Queen Victoria became the Empress of India.
The experience of the British Rule in India was unique by itself. The rulers never bothered about the welfare of the ruled. They impoverished India to make England rich. They also accumulated personal wealth and possessions by hitting at the bellies of the hungry people. “India,” remarks Chatham, “teems with iniquities so rank as to smell heaven and earth.” Edmund Burke lamented over the misrule of India by the East India Company in Parliament. There were many benevolent rulers like William Bentinck, Lord Ripon and Lord Attlee. They cared for the welfare of the Indian people and endeared themselves to them. Allan Octavian Hume, who founded the Indian National Congress in 1885, was perhaps of that mould. He designed it to serve as a safety valve but it soon developed sharp teeth. It started to bite. It carried on a long drawn-out struggle for freedom of the country. The Second World War came as a boon to India at whose conclusion, the British rulers thought it wise to hand over power to the Indians. Independence came on August 15, 1947 when Lord Attlee was the Prime Minister of England. The history of the struggle for our independence is an enchanting study from which we can learn as much as we can. Human nature does change. Problems appear and disappear in one form or the other. The present is always intelligible in terms of past with a vision for future. The freedom struggle has thus many facets from study and understanding of which we can attempt to face our present situation with greater courage and determination.
In 1856, Lord Canning succeeded Lord Dalhousie as the Governor-General of India. The reign of Dalhousie had been quite momentous for the Britishers as he had pursued a policy of territorial aggrandisement and extended the dominions of the empire. The reign of his successor witnessed a big conflagration—the Great Revolt of 1857. It was the cumulative result of the misrule and oppression of the East India Company over a span of hundred years. The Great Revolt was so meticulously planned that the Company rule would have totally collapsed but for the fact that the revolutionaries did not have the backing of all sections of the people.
As Abraham Lincoln once remarked that there was no nation good enough to govern another; the revolutionaries were fully justified in waging a war against the unscrupulous East India Company for freedom of their country and protection of their religion. The Britishers crushed them with brutality for perpetuation of their despotic rule. If we look at the events in retrospect, the revolutionaries could be hailed as messengers of future. They fought against slavery, economic exploitation and religious conversions. All those who did not support them, stood for status quo and the oppression of their own people by an alien government. Since no foreign rule, however beneficial, could substitute itself for the self-rule by the community, the revolutionaries were great patriots by every criterion. It is, therefore, quite appropriate to call the Great Revolt of 1857 as the First War of Indian Independence, as rightly hailed by that great revolutionary Veer Savarkar.
The revolutionaries had their day for quite a long period. They had not the good fortune to see their final triumph. They were, however, able to explode the myth that the alien rulers were invincible. The British Rule in India was shaken to its foundations. They read the writing on the wall that India could no longer be taken for granted. The rule of the East India Company came to an end. The policy of annexation was abandoned. The missionary zeal of bringing about mass conversions to the Christian faith was given up. The British Crown took over the governance of India and an Act for the better governance of India was passed in British Parliament in 1858.
Causes of Revolt
What were the causes of this mighty revolt of 1857 ? The East India Company started its trade during the heyday of the Mughal Empire. It did not acquire the empire of India by any conquest or military victory. It snatched one territory after another from the native princes by interfering illegally in their internal conflicts and employing dubious methods—deceit and diplomacy. In all these endeavours, the Company created a large number of its opponents. In administering the acquired dominions, the servants of the Company were partisans. They cared for the trade and wealth of the Company and their personal benefits but neglected altogether the welfare of the people. They ruined both agriculture and industry of India. Millions of peasants and artisans were thrown out of employment. They crushed the Indian handicrafts in order to promote the industrial growth of England. They introduced a new revenue system which snatched the land from the cultivator and gave it to the moneylender or trader. It produced hatred against the rule of the Company among all people, rich and poor, prince or soldier, peasant or artisan, pandit or maulvi. It was this discontent which burst forth in the form of a mighty revolt against the rule of the firangee.
This discontent was further aggravated by the ridiculous attempts of the Christian missionaries to force their religious beliefs upon our people. They wished the empire to become not only the brightest jewel of the Crown, but also to be the Christian jewel. They ridiculed the tenets of Hinduism and Islam. They advocated that Christianity alone was the gospel of truth and salvation. The government confiscated the jagirs of temples and mosques granted to them by the native rulers, but paid high salaries to the bishops and clergymen. Mangles, the Chairman
of the Board of Directors of the Company, openly proclaimed that his mission as ordained by the Providence was to make every Indian Christian from one end to the other. The government abrogated the ancient Hindu law depriving a convert from Hinduism of his right to property. It enacted a new law in 1850 which enabled the convert to Christianity to inherit his ancestral property. The new converts also got preferential treatment in government services. All this left no doubt in the minds of people with regard to what their rulers wanted to achieve.
Fate of the Emperor
On obtaining the grant of Diwani of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa from Shah Alam on August 12, 1765, the East India Company acknowledged the Mughal emperor as the symbolical head of the empire. It paid him a tribute of rupees twelve lakh annually for his maintenance and personal use. It issued its coinage in the name of the emperor. The Governor-General described himself as the emperor’s faithful servant, Badshah-Ka-Fidwi-i-Khas. He presented nazars—gifts as mark of subordination to the emperor on his birthday as well as on Nowroz (New Year Day) and Id either personally or through the President or the Commander-in-Chief. This was as long as the Company was not the supreme power in India. When it was able to wipe out its adversaries and was in a position to proclaim itself the paramount power, it changed its attitude towards the emperor. Many humiliations were heaped upon the Mughal emperor one after the other but the old man was too feeble to do any harm to the supreme power of the land. The last straw on the camel’s back came in 1856 with the announcement by Governor-General Lord Canning that the successors of Bahadur Shah would lose their title and be known only as princes. This made Bahadur Shah the sworn enemy of the British Rule.
When the head rolls down on the ground what shall happen to the arms could be easily imagined. The Company was also not kind towards various other native princes, most of whom were not able to offer any resistance. The symbolic head of the Maratha Confederacy Baji Rao II lived on the Company’s annual pension of rupees eight lakhs on the jagir of Bithoor near Kanpur. When he died in 1852, the Britishers deprived his adopted son Dhondupant, called Nana Sahib, of his father’s pension. All his prayers and protests, both before the Governor-General and the English authorities at London, proved of no avail which obviously turned him hostile towards the Britishers. Likewise, the annexation of Jhansi hurt the sentiments of Rani Lakshmibai when her husband Raja Gangadhar died childless in 1853. Both Nana Sahib and Lakshmibai played conspicuous roles later in the Revolt of 1857.
The Britishers were not unkind to the native princes alone. They also looked down upon the Indian sepoys who had helped them to win an extensive empire. They paid them an extremely low salary, Rs. 7 per month, and expected them to work like animals from dawn to dusk. They abused them as a nigger, suar or pig. To add insult to the injury, some British officers ridiculed their religious beliefs and rituals and openly preached the Christian virtues to them. The annexation of Oudh in 1856 by Lord Dalhousie to which the soldiers of Bengal army largely belonged, further embittered them.
The Greased Cartridge
Conditions were now ripe for a mass upsurge. The minds of Indians from prince to peasant were full of resentment, distrust and hatred for the English. Only a spark could make the situation ablaze. This was soon provided by the new English rifles. Their cartridges had a greased paper cover whose ends were required to be bitten off by teeth before use. This grease was believed to be composed of beef and pig fat. The sepoys came to know of this first of all at Barrackpore. They rushed to the nearby factory to know the truth. Their doubts were confirmed. This soon became the news of the day. The sepoys communicated it from one person to another and it spread all over the country. It infuriated the sepoys. For the Hindu sepoys, since the cow was sacred, beef was a taboo and for Muslim soldiers, pig fat was an anathema. The authorities vehemently contradicted these reports and decided to enforce full discipline. The new cartridges were issued to the sepoys of XIX Indian Infantry at Barrackpore in February 1857. They refused to use them but the officers did not relent. As there were no English soldiers at that time, they did not press the matter. As soon as
the white soldiers arrived from Burma, they decided to disband the XIX Infantry.
This was the background under which Mangal Pandey raised the banner of rebellion and fired at his adjutant, Major Hudson on March 29, 1857. He also called upon his comrades to declare war on the firangees. But none responded.