The revolution of 1857 marked an important turning point in the history the colonial British India – it ushered in the “British Raj.” It can be easily called the first war of India’s independence, triggered by the revolt of Indian soldiers in Meerut which soon spread to several parts of India. It permanently changed the relationship between the colonial masters and their subjects. The British now felt threatened by even the slightest display of Hindu-Muslim unity. This fear shaped all their policies until they departed in 1947.
Uprising of 1857 Shook the Foundation of British Empire
The 1857 revolt was easily the most remarkable single event in the history the colonial British India. What added to its importance was the participation of people from almost all sections of the society and the Hindu-Muslim unity. It also marked a new phase of struggle for freedom that continued for next 90 years. The 1857 Uprising was triggered by the revolt of Indian soldiers in Meerut which soon spread to several parts of India. Such was the force of the pent-up anger against the exploitation by the East India Company that by the time the British could bring back ‘normalcy’ in 1858 with the help of regiments from Madras and Bombay and loss of over 100,000 lives, they were severely jolted.
The summer of 1857 saw violence and brutality, perpetrated both by the Indians and the Britons, on an unprecedented scale. Never before in the history of British rule in India was there violence at such ghastly level. [The Forgotten Brutality of 1857 Revolt]
The “Corporate Rule” Over India was “Highly Unusual”
The conditions which gave the British East India Company (BEIC) political power in India were highly bizarre. The Company had just a handful of “permanent staff”, was terribly mismanaged even as a corporate, had to be bailed out by the British banks, and it needed political support back home to even get this bail out. The ‘Corporate Rule’ of the BEIC over the vast Indian empire of countless people was the worst form of governance, far worse than what we imagine today from the concepts of dictatorship, theocracy, monarchy, autocracy or even anarchic democracy. The BEIC officials were accountable only to the company’s board of directors and share-holders; they had no accountability towards the people even in slightest manner. In the capital market language, BEIC officials were only interested in ‘Maximizing the Profits for their Shareholders!’ By 1857, the corrupt Company had moved away from earning through trading to open plunder and savage exploitation of Indians living under their territorial control, and ended up making too many enemies in Britain.
After the 1857 revolt, the Crown rule (‘British Raj’) started. Now India was governed in the name of the Crown. It was still as exploitative and as racist as ever, but now it had to put-on the mask of being a ‘responsible government‘ and was directly answerable to the British Parliament through a special Secretary of State dedicated to Indian affairs. It was certainly not the kind of ‘absolute unaccountable tyranny’ under the despotic Company rule. Now Indians had the scope to negotiate laws in favor of Indians, although the concessions were always too late and too little.
Commenting on the BEIC rule an observer wrote: “Of all human conditions, perhaps the most brilliant and at the same time the most anomalous, is that of the Governor General of British India. A private English gentleman, and the servant of a joint-stock company, during the brief period of his government he is the deputed sovereign of the greatest empire in the world; the ruler of a hundred million men; while dependent kings and princes bow down to him with a deferential awe and submission. There is nothing in history analogous to this position …”
How the 1857 Rebellion Reshaped Governance in the ‘British Raj’
The atrocities committed by both sides in Revolt of 1857 greatly widen the gulf between the rulers and the ruled. The measures they took in the aftermath of the rebellion left them badly alienated and isolated from the Indians, both ruling princes as well as from the common masses. The British now began to openly display racial arrogance and assert racial supremacy. If the delusion of “Islamic Superiority” was the distinguishing feature of the 800 years of Islamic rule that oppressed the indigenous Hindus, the hallucination of “Racial Superiority” (master race) was the tyranny of the colonial rule – this time both for the Hindus and the ex-Hindus (Muslims). The colonial violence was on and off targeting specific groups and was political, but the racial humiliation was constant towards all Indians. Even the ‘brown British’ products of Macaulay education were derided as unworthy ‘babus’.
The uprising of 1857 hardened the British attitude and they even gave-up the deceptive narrative of bringing modernity and civility in this land of backward and worthless people. Now they were overly concerned about preventing revolt in the Indian army and uprising of the public. It forced them to indulge more viciously in the philosophy of “divide and rule”. It ushered in a new phase of hardened colonialism that lasted another 90 years, but the spark of rebellion and desire for autonomy only became stronger with time. The Queen promised many things to her ‘Indian subjects’ such as making the government jobs based on merit, irrespective of cast and religion – of course, they were no more than politically correct empty words. However, on a different note, the various Government of India Acts enforced during the Crown rule laid the legal foundation for India’s governance after independence.
The deep impact of the 1857 Revolt can be seen from the following observations:
1) End of Company Rule: It led to fall of the Company rule. By a new act of the British parliament (the Government of India Act 1858) the British government took charge of the Indian Territory from the Company. The authority over India was now passed to the Secretary of State for India aided by a Council. The Secretary of State, being a member of British Cabinet, was responsible to the Parliament. The Governor General of India since 1833 under the Company rule now became the Viceroy and Governor-General of India after 1858. As the Governor General he headed the central government of British India which administered the provinces – Bengal, Punjab, Bombay, Madras, United Province, etc. As Viceroy, he represented the Crown and exercised his authority over the hundreds of Princely States, which did not come under the British government.
As the Secretary of State became the controlling authority of the Indian administration, the Viceroy was steadily reduced to a subordinate and figurehead status in his relation with the British government. Thus, the ultimate controlling authority came to reside in London, thousands of miles away from India. In such a situation, the opinion of Indians almost lost impact on the policy making than before. At the same time, the voices of British businessmen, bankers and industrialists and politicians became much influential. Thus, the colonial administration became even more reactionary than it was before 1858 shedding even the pretense of liberalism.
2) Arousal of Nationalistic feeling among Indians: This was the biggest achievement of the 1857 revolt. It created a kind of spontaneous “national oneness” among Indians against a common enemy. It was symbolized in the choice of Mughal king Bahadur Shah Zafar (although just a namesake Mughal King) as the leader of the revolting Indians. The Azamgarh Proclamation of 1857 gave a call to people of all classes to unite against the British tyranny. It appealed to both “Hindoos and Mussalmans” to unite by addressing them as the “people of Hindustan”. It also taught them that collectively they can take on the mighty British Empire. Widespread involvement of the peasantry (from where most Indian soldiers came) was unique; it highlighted the feeling of exploitation of the poorest class of Indians.
3) Change in the Administrative Mindset: The British attitude changed for the worse after the 1857 revolt. While earlier they talked of educating Indians (of course, only to create clerks for the administration) and modernizing India, but now they became apprehensive and began following reactionary policies. In terms of historian Percival Spear, “the Indian Government’s honeymoon with progress was over!” Earlier they at least they tried to create a perception that the British were ‘training’ and ‘preparing’ Indians for self-governance and power would be eventually transferred to them. But now they became openly derogatory – that there are inherent social and cultural ‘defects’ in the Indians and thus they can never rule themselves. Therefore, the British rule must continue forever. Many policies reflected this mindset.
4) Increase in Hostility towards Educated Indians: Under the Company rule, spread of European education among Indians was encouraged after 1833 so that they could act as interpreters between the British and Indian public. It was Macaulay’s educational ideology that aimed to create Indians (cut off from their cultural roots) who would be ‘Indian in blood and color, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect’. Universities were set up in Calcutta, Madras and Bombay in the 1850s and higher education spread rapidly. Many British officials praised educated Indians who refused to participate in the 1857 revolt. But after 1857, they started to see them with suspicion because many of them had started to see the double standard of the British and how the foreigners were exploiting them. They also began to demand participation in the administration but the policies were not encouraging.
In frustration, more and more educated Indians began to join nationalistic movement. It was the beginning of “organized nationalism” in India. Dada Bhai Naraoji started the East India Association in 1866 in London with the aim of informing the British parliament about needs of Indian people. Satendra Nath Banerjee and Anand Mohan Bose started the Indian Association in Bengal in 1876 to highlight misrule of the British Government. Entry into Civil Services was another issue for the educated Indians due to the discriminating government policies.
In 1885, the Indian National Congress was founded, on the initiative of few Britishers with the aim of gathering educated Indians on a loyal platform from where they would advocate government policies. However, after initial honeymoon, it turned into a platform of nationalistic voices. The rulers could not tolerate Indians talking of freedom, justice and equality. Such sentiments were a serious threat to their colonial imperialistic goals.
5) Restrictions on the Press: The British had introduced the printing press, initiating a modernizing step in India. During the Company rule in 1835, the Indian Press was freed of restrictions and it was welcomed enthusiastically by educated Indians. It was one of the reasons why they had, for some time, supported the British rule in India. They had recognized that the Press was a wonderful medium of ideas exchange and also to arouse nationalistic consciousness among the people and that it can play a great role in shaping public opinion and influencing government policies. The press gradually became a major weapon of the nationalist movement.
Thus, the British brought the Vernacular Press Act in 1878 to curb the freedom of the Indian press. This Act put serious restrictions on the freedom of the Indian language newspapers. But widespread protests forced them to repeal the Act in 1882. Then for nearly 25 years the Indian press enjoyed considerable freedom. But again the colonial authorities brought laws to restrict press freedom in 1908 and 1910 to curb the Swadeshi and Boycott movements.
6) Renewed focus on ‘Divide and Rule’ policy: Threatened by the display of unity during the revolt, the British now more actively indulged in the policy of divide and rule. They would not miss any opportunity to pit province against province, caste against caste, group against group, but most viciously they provoked Hindus and Muslims against each other. After the 1857 revolt they went after the Muslims (perhaps due to Zafar becoming rebel’s leader) and suppressed them, took away their properties and lands. But after 1870, they changed tactics and tried to pamper Muslims and turn them against the nationalist movement. Partition of Bengal in 1905 (though reversed in 1911) was the worst form of dividing Indians on religious basis. They also discouraged Muslims from joining the Congress by calling it a ‘Hindu party’ and promoted creation of the Muslim League in 1906 with entirely communal agenda. [Ultimately, this filthy gimmick led to communal partition of India in 1947.]
An immediate fall out was the punitive division of Delhi State for its role in the revolt. The Western part (Haryana) was made part of Punjab and the Eastern part (Western UP) was added to the United Province.
7) Changes in the Army: The Indian army went through a careful reorganization, largely to prevent another revolt. Charles Wood, the Secretary of State for India, wrote to the Viceroy Canning in 1861: “I never wish to see again a great army, very much the same in its feelings and prejudices and connections, confident in its strength, and so disposed to rise in rebellion together. If one regiment mutinies, I should like to have the next regiment so alien that it would be ready to fire into it. Thus the Indian army remained a purely mercenary force.”
The ratio of Europeans to Indians in the army was raised. The European troops were kept in key geographical and military positions. The crucial branches of artillery, tanks and armored corps were put exclusively in European hands. The Indians were strictly excluded from the higher posts. In fact, till 1914, no Indian could rise above the rank of a subedar.
The Indian section of the army was organized along the policy of ‘divide and rule’ so as to prevent any potential united uprising against the British. In the recruitment, discrimination on the basis of caste, region and religion was widely practiced. An arbitrary division of Indians into categories of ‘martial’ and ‘non-martial’ was created. Thus, soldiers from Awadh, Bihar, central India, and south India, who had initially helped the British conquer India but later took part in the Revolt of 1857, were declared ‘non-martial’!! Their numbers were consciously reduced in the army.
On the other hand, Punjabis, Gurkhas, and Pathans who had assisted the British suppress the Revolt, were declared ‘martial’ and were preferentially recruited in large numbers. By 1875, half of the British Indian army was recruited from Punjab. In addition, Indian regiments were consciously created with a mix of various castes and groups so that soldiers don’t bond together easily. The narrow loyalties of caste, tribe, region and religion were encouraged among the soldiers in order to prevent rise of nationalistic sentiment. Thus, caste and communal companies were introduced in most regiments. Every effort was made to isolated soldiers from the normal social life by preventing access to newspapers, books, nationalistic literature etc.
However, over time as their oversea ventures multiplied the Indian army became a costly affair. In 1904, it consumed around 52% of the Indian revenue. Of course, this burden was shouldered by the subject Indians.
Approximately 1.3 million Indian soldiers served in World War One, and over 74,000 of them lost their lives. They served the very British Empire that was oppressing their own people back home. These forgotten heroes fought “the War to end all wars” against enemies they did not know. They believed in the British promise to deliver progressive self-rule at the end of the War, not knowing that British would break their word. However, the British did constructed a triumphal arch known as India gate in 1931 to commemorate the War. Today, hundreds visit it daily without knowing that it salutes the Indian soldiers who died in the WW1. [Explore Why the Indian Soldiers of WW1 were forgotten]
About 2.3 million Indian soldiers participated in the WW2 and around 89,000 died serving. We can’t ignore the fact that up to 3 million Bengalis died of famine in the same period, as the British government gave preference to feed its war machinery.
8) Changed Relation with Princely States and Zamindars: After reversing the Doctrine of Lapse, the British decided to use the Princely States as pillars of the colonial rule. In 1876, Queen Victoria assumed the title of the Empress of India and Lord Curzon made it clear that the Princes ruled their States merely as agents of the British Crown. The Princes accepted the proposal and willingly became junior partners of the empire because they were assured of their privileged status and existence. But as paramount power, the British actively interfered in the day-to-day functioning of the States through the Resident under the pretext of modernizing the administration. Their prime motive was to use the rulers to suppress the nationalistic movements.
Likewise, they decided to use the Zamindars and landlords as shields to protect from popular uprisings and nationalistic movement. They were hailed as the traditional and ‘natural’ leaders of the Indian people. As their interests were protected they also became firm supporters of the British Empire.
9) Boost to communication and transport: It started an expansion spree of railway and road networks in India. Although done for quick movement of troops and faster transport to further colonial interests, it also gave Indians the opportunity to come together.
10) Foreign policy: As India came under the British government rule in 1858, a new dimension of foreign policy came into picture. It brought into picture neighboring countries. It would be wrong to call it a new dimension because the Company officials were doing the same thing. Of course, the cost was borne by India; Indian soldiers had to shed their blood and the ‘subject taxpayers’ had to pick up the price tag.
Abundance of Indian soldiers in the colonial India of too many people and scope for enormous economic exploitation made India their most lucrative venture in the Imperial colonialism.