The Revolt of 1857

As a student of history, i feel this a question which most of us have had at some point and it needs to be addressed now. Whether or not can we call the revolt of 1857 the first war of independence? Now, there are two viewpoints to this. I will introduce both the ideas to you all and then you can do your research to come to a well informed conclusion.

NOT A WAR OF INDEPENDENCE

VD Savarkar was among the first to call it a war of independence. Many of his contemporaries as well as later scholars have disagreed with him. It is argued that it was neither the first nor a war and nor was it a struggle for independence.

It was not the first such uprising because it was preceded by numerous tribal and peasant revolts at local level. The Santhal revolt preceded the Sepoy mutiny by two years. Pazzhasi Raja, a chieftain in the Malabar region of what is now Kerala, struggled against the British from 1793 till his death in 1805. These are, but two examples of armed rebellion against the East India Company’s rule.

It is also misleading to call it a war. In reality, history records the events as a series of localised battles, with little or no coordination among the mutineers spread across cantonments. Moreover, the revolt was restricted to the Bengal Army. The Bombay and Madras Armies remained largely unaffected.

The most inappropriate aspect however, is the argument that the mutiny was for independence. In fact, the Indian chiefs who joined in the mutiny primarily did so over personal grievances. Nana Sahib, who led the rebellion in Kanpur, was aggrieved because the British were cutting off his pension. Rani Lakshmibai, of Jhansi was mainly concerned that her adopted son be recognised as the ruler of Jhansi (under British suzerainty). Similarly, Begum Hazrat Mahal of Lucknow lent support to the mutineers in order protect the interests of her young son Birjis Qadir. Kunwar Singh, who led the revolt at Arrah, was motivated by his desire to protect his Zamindari rights.

In fact, this diversity of interests ensured that there was no unity of purpose among the leaders of the mutiny. This was a major reason for the failure of the revolt. While the Indian protagonists had widely varying interests, the East India Company fought with the sole objective of self preservation in a land where they were hopelessly outnumbered.

It would be more appropriate to remember the mutiny as one among many events that shaped the events of the next century.

WAR OF INDEPENDENCE

The Nationalist historians have a different story to tell. According to them the fact that Hindus and Muslims came together to fight against British oppression proves that it was the first war of independence. The Revolt was not successful but well it was the first every armed struggle of such a huge impact by the Indians against the British. Even though it did not necessarily lead to freedom from the British, it made the Indians realize that they could overpower the British and establish their independent rule.

The mutiny took place in 1857 and exactly 90 years later, in 1947 India did gain independence and we must not forget that after 1857, Indians never stopped their struggle for freedom and continued to fight against the British oppression. Thus we must not in any way undermine the events of 1857.

The amount of damage inflicted upon the British by the sepoys was enough to scare them off. This was the first time when the British realised that their Raj was not going to last forever and a very strong message was put across by the Indians.

The mutiny was magnificent display of Indian unity, power and might.

Thus, with this we can answer the question raised. I would request you all to read more and analyse the mutiny in greater detail and come up with your own unique answer.