The infamous battle of Indian Sepoy Mutiny
In the mid 19th century and the revolts in India, one cannot forget the war of the Indian Sepoy Mutiny. A revolt, where the world first observed heroics of several great leaders such as Mangal Pandey, Rani Lakshmi Bai, and Nana Sahib. It was one of the major but unsuccessful rebellions of India from 1857–58 against the British East India Company. Started over the feud of tallow cartridges, it was the first rebellion against British Raj in Indian history.
Begun in Meerut by Indian troops (sepoys) in the service of the British East India Company, it spread to Delhi, Agra, Kanpur, and Lucknow. In India, it is called The First War of Independence. Let’s take a look at the glorious history of independence against British Rule.
The Expansion of East India Company
The mid 19th century was a time when India wasn’t even a country but was ruled by independent rulers. In easy terms, India was a cluster of several independent kingdoms, and two-third of the country was heavily governed by the British Raj. Initially arrived for trade purposes, the East India Company soon owned provinces of Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras and eventually their armies. By the 18th century, the Mughal Rule was collapsing and a new empire rose to power the ‘British Raj’. And in the year that followed, the company quickly gained access to several territories including their armies, providing them even more power.
For the first half of the 18th century, the British Raj wasn’t as cruel as later, in fact, they were not ruling as kings instead were forming a government. They attempted to improve the Indian economy and legal systems. They made one of the major reforms such as abolishing ‘Sati Pratha’ and child marriages. During the tenure of Lord Dalhousie, he strictly introduced a bill to remove any obstacles in Widow Remarriage. Though these cultures have a deep meaning in Indian Culture, the British however, disregarded them. In a long run, these amendments did benefit the society, but considering the era of the 18th century- these were not acceptable for the traditional Indians.
British also allowed open conversions to Christianity which led to widespread fear of religious intolerance. During this time, the British were also trying to replace the Indian aristocracy in the princely states which meant there weren’t any Indian say in the government. They also prohibited Hindu rulers without a natural heir to rule after the ruler died or was overthrown. There were many more such amendments that made Indians insecure leading to a huge rebellion.
It was during this time that a new Enfield rifle was introduced in the army. In order to load the guns, the sepoys had to remove lubricated cartridges using their mouth. A rumor spread that the lubrication used in cartridges was made out of pigs and cows lard. Consuming a cow for Hindus and pigs for Muslims was religiously unacceptable. This increased the level of sepoy discontentment among the army. Both Muslims and Hindus saw it as a deep insult to their religious beliefs. Colonel Richard Birch, the Military Secretary, soon ordered that no such materials were used for lubrication. However, this was not enough to convince the soldiers otherwise.
Indian Rebellion of 1857
The civilian distress led to the formation of three groups- the feudal nobility, rural landlords called taluqdars, and the peasants. The nobility consists of those nobles who had either lost their titles or were upset with the policies. Rebel leaders such as Nana Sahib and the Rani of Jhansi belonged to this group. The second group of taluqdars had lost half their landed estates to peasant farmers. The third group was the peasants who were unhappy with the new land reforms introduced by the Company.
Several months of increasing tensions coupled with various incidents preceded the actual rebellion. In 1857 a sepoy named Mangal Pandey attacked the British forces in the military garrisons and shot Sergeant-Major James Hewson. The 29 years old declared that he would rebel against his commanders. He managed to incite a few of his fellow soldiers who indirectly supported him. However, Mangal Pandey was soon arrested and was court-martialled on 6 April, and hanged two days later. Later in April sepoys at Meerut refused the Enfield cartridges and as a punishment, they were thrown in the prison. The punishment led the local sepoy garrison to join the Meerut men, and by nightfall, the pensionary Mughal emperor Bahādur Shah II had been nominally restored to power by a tumultuous soldiery.
The rebels soon reached Delhi where several British officials, local shopkeepers, and Indian Christians were killed. Huge massacres were carried out in Kanpur and Lucknow by the Indian rebels. In 1857, the Bengal Army had 86,000 men, of which 12,000 were British, 16,000 Sikh, and 1,500 Gurkha. There were 311,000 native soldiers in India altogether, 40,160 British soldiers, and 5,362 officers. But soon the many of them were either mutinied or broke up.
Islamic scholars too such as Maulana Muhammad Qasim Nanautavi and Maulana Rashid Ahmad Gangohi took up arms against the British rule. The Sikh community partially supported the British as they feared the reinstatement of Mughals and also due to the aftermath of the Anglo-Sikh Wars. Initially, the Indian rebels managed to push the British Forces back and the Company was also slow to strike. Huge massacres were taken out such as the Bibighar massacre. The killing of the women and children hardened British attitudes against the sepoys.
A war broke out in Jhansi and it quickly became the center of the rebellion. Rani Lakshmi Bai managed to gather troops including women and fought against the Colonial rule. During the war, she tied her infant son behind her back which later made her one of the strongest and bravest women in Indian history whose courage was also applauded by many British officials themselves. The Rani died on 17th June. The war soon reached many more Indian provinces such as Bihar, Gujarat, Orissa, Bengal, and Punjab.
Though the East India Company won the war what happened in the aftermath of the rebellion was far more cruel and brutal than the rebellion itself. The British performed huge atrocities against the Indians. Many were hanged to death and others were blown from cannon, a rather cruel method of tying the victim over the mouths of cannons and blown to pieces. Muslim or Hindu rebels were forced to eat porks and beefs or licking the bloodstains from the ground. Others were seared with hot irons, dipped in rivers to suffocation, putting red chilly and pepper in the eyes and private parts, nipping the flesh with pinners, and many more.
Indian women too were not an exception. Women were being raped by the British or being hanged when retaliated. They took their revenge on Indian civilians by committing atrocities and widespread rapes. In terms of sheer numbers, the casualties were much higher on the Indian side.
In the end, the Company won the war it simultaneously triggered general housecleaning of the Indian administration. The East India Company abolished direct rule without any say of Indians in the government. The Legislative Council soon had Indians in it to fill the widened gap of Indian opinion. Because the rebellion ended with either the death of several Indian rulers or the rest being overthrown, this heightened sense of Indian nationalism across the nation and India was no longer the cluster of kingdoms.