The Freedom Struggle of 1857



  • The outburst
  • Scope of the struggle
  • Leadership of the struggle
  • Crushing of the struggle 


Freedom Struggle of 1857:

The freedom struggle of 1857 was the result of mounting pressures because of increasing discontent of Indian soldiers in the British army and also political, social, religious and economic reasons. The treatment given to Indian soldiers and the restrictions imposed on them were at the root of their discontent. The soldiers felt hurt because of many reasons, such as cuts in their allowances, being compelled to cross the sea, frequent humiliation during the daily parade, partiality ruling large in matters of transfers, being left out during promotions, etc. On the civil front, Lord Dalhousie adopted the Doctrine of Lapse. It created discontent among the rulers of princely states who were subjected to his policy. By implementing this policy Dalhousie annexed the states of Satara, Jaitpur, Sambalpur, Udaipur, Nagpur and Jhansi to the British empire. The Doctrine of Lapse was an annexation policy followed widely by Lord Dalhousie when he was India’s Governor-General from 1848 to 1856. It was used as an administrative policy for the extension of British Paramountcy. Before the introduction of this doctrine, the princely states had a ritualised method of adoption practised for centuries  An heir apparent would eventually be selected from a pool of candidates, who were groomed for succession from an early age, called bhayats if no competent born-to son were produced (an obviously unsuitable or treasonous born-to son could be excluded from the succession).

Features of Doctrine of Lapse:

  • If the ruler died before adopting a successor, one of his widows could adopt an heir, who would immediately accede to the throne. The adoptee would cut all ties with his birth family. Once the Doctrine of Lapse came into place the following features were now faced by the Indian rulers.
  • According to this doctrine, any princely state under the direct or indirect (as a vassal) control of the East India Company, should the ruler not produce a legal male heir, would be annexed by the company.
  • This was not introduced by Lord Dalhousie even though it was he who documented it and used it widely to acquire territories for the British.
  • As per this, any adopted son of the Indian ruler could not be proclaimed as heir to the kingdom. The adopted son would only inherit his foster father’s personal property and estates.
  • The adopted son would also not be entitled to any pension that his father had been receiving or to any of his father’s titles.
  • This challenged the Indian ruler’s long-held authority to appoint an heir of their choice.

The annexation of the princely states put the soldiers in their army out of job. They returned to agriculture increasing the pressure on the cultivable land. Gradually, people also began to believe that through administrative policies the company government was trying to destroy their religion. Along with annexing the states the British Government also seized inherited landholdings, which had made a large number of Indians unhappy.

The British Government tried to introduce new land revenue systems like ‘Kayamdhara or Jamindari’ (permanent settlement), ‘Ryotwari’ and ‘Mahalwari’. These revenue systems were formed without any concern to the Indian tradition of revenue systems, Indian cropping cycle, and Indian climate. The new revenue systems introduced by the British made the common farmer penniless while making the government and the landlords rich. Earlier, the land tax could be paid by way of food grains and other commodities. Now the farmer had to pay it in hard cash. Despite of good or bad harvest, there was no option but to pay the tax. More so if there was a famine, the farmer was driven to a dire condition. Droughts, epidemics used to affect people and animals the most. However, the British outlook used to be absolutely unsympathetic. Thus, the farmer was caught between the governments and moneylenders. Earlier, the selling of agricultural land was not allowed. Now the British Government defined agricultural land as sellable. The farmers who were in difficult situations had no alternative but to sell portions of their land, forgetting some hard cash. Lands thus acquired, were brought under cultivation of cash crops like indigo by the British owners. The labourers employed on their plants were exploited to the utmost. Their conditions were miserable. Unemployment, despair, disbelief loomed large all over India, which had made the life of common people very difficult. Not only the monetary exploitation but also forced religious conversions, British policies with regard to Indian customs and traditions contributed to the increasing discontent among Indian people.

In the year 1856, Indian soldiers in the British army were given long-range Enfield rifles and new cartridges for loading in these rifles. A rumour spread in army camps that these new cartridges are smeared with cow and pig fat. In order to load the gun with a cartridge, one had to break it open with teeth. The idea of breaking a cartridge smeared with cow or pig fat, with one’s teeth was repugnant to Indian soldiers for religious reasons. The Indian soldiers who refused it were forced to do so by the British. Finally, in the month of March of 1857, Mangal Pandey, who was posted in Barakpur Cantonment, gave a vent to the rage of Indian soldiers. Mangal Pandey (19 July 1827 – 8 April 1857) was an Indian soldier who played a key part in the events immediately preceding the outbreak of the Indian rebellion of 1857. He was a sepoy (infantryman) in the 34th Bengal Native Infantry (BNI) regiment of the British East India Company. In 1984, the Indian government issued a postage stamp to remember him. His life and actions have also been portrayed in several cinematic productions. The British punished him by hanging to death. This escalated the fury among Indian soldiers. Soon after this incidence, the Indian soldiers in Lucknow Cantonment revolted, followed by the revolt of cavalry units in Merath. In the chaotic situation created by the sudden revolt, Indian soldiers broke into rampage killing British individuals and taking revenge on their families, at times turning it into a blind massacre, putting houses on fire, and so on. Some soldiers began to march towards Delhi.

On 12th May 1857, Delhi was captured and was completely under the control of Indian soldiers. They handed over the reins of the uprising to the Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah. He was reinstated as the ruling emperor of India, declaring him to be ‘Shahanshah-i- Hindostan’. However, he was the nominal leader of the uprising. Its de-facto leaders were Nanasaheb Peshwa, Tatya Tope, Rani Lakshmibai, Maulavi Ahmadulla, Begum Hazrat Mahal, Kunwar Singh and Senani Bakht Khan. The uprising was more intense in Delhi, Kanpur, Lucknow, Jhansi and some parts of West Bihar. Bakht Khan took the responsibility of assuring the safety of Delhi.

On 27th May 1857, the British army attacked Delhi with an intention of recapturing Delhi. They staked their entire strength on this purpose. Brigadier John Nicolas was killed in the battle. Ultimately, the British could conquer Delhi because of Sir John Lawrence, a British diplomat and the Sikh platoon. British General Hudson was the one who arrested Bahadur Shah. After arrest, Bahadur Shah was sent to Rangoon (Burma/ Myanmar). He died there in 1862. Prior to the capture of Delhi, the feeling of dissatisfaction had spread in many places and the riot was quickly intensified in Ayodhya, Lucknow and the Northwestern province. Very soon it spread like a wildfire in Aligarh, Itawa, Mathura, Bareli, Azamgadh, Faizabad, Kanpur, Jhansi, and Ahmadabad.

The Indian soldiers at Jalandhar, Ludhiyana, Multan, Sialkot in Punjab actively responded to the uprising. Similar instances took place in places like Gwalior, Indore, Mhow and Sagar in Madhya Pradesh. The uprising reached Nasirabad Cantonment and rest of Rajasthan. The uprising also reached Dhaka, Chittagong and Madariganj, presently in Bangladesh and Bhagalpur in Bihar. In Bihar, the soldiers at Dinapur, near Patna revolted under the leadership of Kunwar Singh who was a landlord from west Bihar. Kunwar Singh also received a good response from places like Hazaribagh (presently in Jharkhand) and Deogarh, Sambalpur in Odisha.

Nanasaheb Peshwa led the uprising from Kanpur. General Havelock went to Kanpur to suppress the uprising. Nanasaheb Peshwa and Tatya Tope made an unsuccessful attempt of keeping their hold on Kanpur. Sir Colin Campbell, the British Commander-in-Chief, defeated Tatya Tope and regained the control over Kanpur.

In this war, Tatya Tope and Begum Hazrat Mahal were initially on the winning side. The British army under the leadership of Havelock and Outram was not very successful, to begin with. Then the King of Nepal Jang Bahadur, arrived with his Gurakha platoons to help the British. Maulavi Ahmadulla led the army of Indian soldiers. Colin Campbell with his military skills and experience conquered Lucknow.

Governor-General Lord Canning ordered Colonel Neil to march to Banaras (Varanasi) and Allahabad. The revolting soldiers had great backing in these cities. Colonel Neil used canons to answer the rifles of Indian soldiers. His tactics took a cruel turn when he ruthlessly massacred and hanged many people. Hearing the news from Varanasi, the soldiers in Allahabad reacted by taking revenge on the Europeans in the city. Many Europeans were killed there. When Colonel Neil came to know this, he straightaway proceeded to Allahabad and indiscriminately killed the Indians. The British atrocities reached its climax.

In Jhansi, the Indian soldiers rose against the British. They got organised under the leadership of Nanasaheb Peshwa, Tatya tope and Lakshmibai, the Queen of Jhansi. Field Marshall Sir Hugh Rose put Jhansi under siege. Tatya Tope came to the queen’s rescue but he was defeated by Hugh Rose. The British also conquered Kalpi. Lakshmibai, the queen died in the battlefield. Sardar Mansingh of Gwalior handed over Tatya Tope to the British by treachery. Tatya Tope was hanged to death in 1859. Nanasaheb Peshwa, wife of Bajirao Peshwa II and nephew Raosaheb escaped to Nepal and settled there permanently.

In Maharashtra, Rango Bapuji Gupte attempted to organise a rebellion at Satara but he was unsuccessful. His associates were punished for it. Babasaheb Bhave, the ruler of the Nargund state joined the uprising in 1858.

The British Government got a whiff of the plan of revolt in Mumbai. Immediately the people, who were involved in the plan were blown to death by tying them to a cannon. The Bhils in Khandesh also joined in the revolt. Their leaders Bheema Naik and Kajarsingh Naik seized a government treasury worth seven lakhs. The Bhils and the British confronted each other at Ambapani (Jalgaon District).

At Kolhapur, Ramji Shirsat, who was awaiting the news of the uprising in the north, took charge of the government treasury and began to organise the soldiers and others under his leadership. In response to the uprising, Chimasaheb, a member of the royal house of Kolhapur, also joined and took over the leadership of the rebels. The uprising was supported well by the people in Kolhapur, Belgaon and Dharwad. The nationwide rage created by the war of 1857 could not be quelled in a short time. It continued for more than a year. The number of soldiers, involved in the war at Delhi, Merath, Kanpur, Lucknow, Gwalior and some other places was considerably large, around one lakh. They were adequately armed. They possessed the right state of mind, also not lacking in valour, and yet they were defeated.

Queen Victoria of England acknowledged the rage of Indian people, which gave rise to the war of 1857. To establish peace, she addressed the issue by publishing a charter, known as the ‘Queen’s Proclamation’. She declared that all Indians were her subjects and she wanted to assure them of a few things. Her assurance included a promise of no discrimination on the basis of race, creed (faith system), caste and birthplace, employment on the basis of qualification and skills, no interference in religious matters, fulfillment of the agreements with the rulers of princely states, etc.

The war of 1857 also had a deep impact on the Indian society. Provincial and communal loyalties were gradually replaced by a feeling of being united as a nation and national loyalty. It was dawned on Indian people that they cannot win in armed combat with the British and a need was felt to find more innovative methods to counter the British rule. Becoming aware of the power of united Indian people during the 1857 war, the British adopted a policy of ‘divide and rule’ in later years of their regime.

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