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Nature of Revolt of 1857

The Revolt of 1857, commonly called as the Sepoy Revolt, was the first
organised revolt against British rule in India. It was the culmination of the
manifold grievances that Indians had against the East India Companys
rule. It was to a great extent a popular revolt led by exiled princes and
displaced landlords. The revolt was largely confined to North and Central
India. The transfer of the Indian administration from the English East
India Company to British Crown was the important result of the Revolt.
The revolt has been hailed as the watershed or the great divide in the
colonial history of British India.
The nature and character of this revolt remained a controversial subject
both among the contemporary British writers and the present ones.
Historians have written treatises full of complex arguments on this
The historiography of the revolt is as old as the event itself. Almost all the
earlier books and accounts of the events of 1857 were written by
Englishmen. They have dubbed Indians as traitors and mutineers while
they have praised the role of the Englishmen. The Indians did not dare to
write anything because during the period immediately following the
revolt, great atrocities were committed by the British and the Indians
were crushed brutally.
Ever since the publication of the book First War of Independence by
Vinayak Damodar Savarkar in 1909, the nature and character of the
revolt has been debated among the nationalists and historians.
The main strands of debates on the nature of the revolt of 1857 can be
understood by four main questions.
The first question is Was it merely a Sepoy mutiny or a civil
The more dominant contemporary official interpretation of the revolt of
1857 was that it was primarily a Sepoy mutiny, the civil unrest being a
secondary phenomenon, which happened as the unruly elements took
advantage of the breakdown of law and order.
Charles Ball and J.W. Kaye were among the pioneers who wrote about
1857 from the Sepoy mutiny perspective. Both attached tremendous

importance to caste status, which the sepoys thought were undermined in

the cantonments. They also represent the outbreak of 1857 as an
organized campaign to drive away the British from India.
However, according to Talzim Khaidun, the revolt was a civic rebellion
as he points to prolonged continuation of resistance to the British well
after the latters reoccupation in regions like Chakradhpur and Sambalpur
bordering Bengal.
The second question is Was it a revolt or the first war of Indian
V. D. Savarkar claimed that the revolt was war of independence, which
aimed at mobilizing people in the emerging freedom movement. It was a
planned war of national independence.
However, according to R.C. Majumdar, the revolt took different aspects
at different places. It was neither First nor National or War of
independence. He states that it would be a caricature of truth to describe
the revolt of the civil population as a national war of independence.
National it certainly was not, for, the upsurge of the people was limited to
a comparative narrow region of India. R.C. Majumdar is doubtful about
the national character of the 1857 rebellion. According to him, even
though the sepoys and local people fought together against the English,
one misses that real communal harmony which characterizes a national
The third question is Was it popular or elitist in character?
Karl Marx believed it to be popular and identified the peasantry as the
revolutionary force.
According to Talmiz Khaldun, the revolt was developing into a peasant
war against indigenous landlordism and foreign imperialism.
P.C. Joshi identifies the elitist nature of leadership. The peasants fought
against the new type of landlords who were created by the policies of the
British and not against the traditional landlords.
The fourth question is Was it secular or religious?
British officials serving in the North West Provinces were convinced of
the Islamic character of the revolt. It was felt that the old Muslim elite
had conspired to arouse political rebellion among the masses.

Contemporary Englishmen regarded the revolt as a handiwork of the

J. Outram holds that it was result of Muhammaden conspiracy making
capital of Hindu grievance, and the cartridge incident merely precipitated
it and it broke out before this military uprising had been thoroughly
planned and adequate arrangements for its simultaneous outbreak at
important political centres of the country had been finalized. However,
the causes of the revolt show that Hindu-Muslim alike had grievances
against the British.
According to C. A. Bayley, the rebellion of 1857 was a set of patriotic
revolts. The rebels demanded the restoration of the Indo-Mughal patrias.
Within the broader constellation of Mughal legitimacy, animated by
mutual respect and a healthy balance between lands and people.
According to S. N. Sen, what began as a fight for religion ended as a war
of independence for there is not the slightest doubt that the rebels wanted
to get rid of the alien government and restore the old order of which the
king of Delhi was the rightful representative.
According to Jawaharlal Nehru, it was essentially a feudal outburst
headed by feudal chiefs and their followers and aided by the widespread
anti-foreign settlement. MN Roy regarded 1857 revolt as the last ditch
stand of feudalism against commercial capitalism. RP Dutt recognized
the significance of the revolts of the peasantry against foreign
domination, even as he saw it as a defense of the old feudal order.
On the basis of various arguments forwarded by different authors, it may
be concluded that the revolt of 1857 was anti-imperialist and nationalist,
because both Hindus and Muslims participated in equal measure and in
close cooperation, and both sepoys and the civilians wanted to overthrow
the imperial rulers.