The war of 1857 was much more than just a sepoy mutiny or a peasant revolt

It was an assertion of the sociocultural identity of Bharatiya society which was under attack by the British
India, Sepoy Rebellion (1857). One can say cultural nationalism was at the core of the first war of independence in 1857(UIG via Getty Images)
India, Sepoy Rebellion (1857). One can say cultural nationalism was at the core of the first war of independence in 1857(UIG via Getty Images)
Updated on Jun 03, 2019 09:35 PM IST
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ByArun Anand

The first war of independence, often termed as a mutiny by the Marxist and the British historians, had started on May 10, 1857. 162 years on, it is important to revisit what happened during those days as Bharat continues to bear the consequences of fault lines created by the British government in the post-1857 era. The origin of these fault lines lie in the fact that a concerted attempt was made to curb the cultural nationalism, which formed the core of the first war of independence.

The colonial school of historians deliberately undermined the significance of this uprising as a national event. It ignore the real factors which led to this nationwide uprising.

The historians from the colonial school that largely comprised British historians termed this event as mutiny of Bharatiya troops in British army while those following the Marxist school of history have termed it as an outcome of the distress among the peasants.

However, if we look at the facts, it emerges that it was a national uprising and the prime factor that led to this war was the way the East India Company and the British officials were attacking the cultural ethos of this nation and especially the Hindus.

None other than the prominent conservative leader, Benjamin Disraeli, who later became the Prime Minister of Britain (February 27, 1868-December 2, 1868 and February 20, 1874 - April 22, 1880) accepted in House of Commons on July 27, 1857, “The revolt was more than a mutiny of Indian troops.”(Mutiny at the Margins:New Perspectives on the Indian Uprising edited by Crispin Bates).

“Disraeli blamed EIC’s(East India Company’s) administration policies, the imposition of the settlement of the property and aggressive Christian missionaries for disrupting Indian society and thereby creating an environment conducive to revolt or resistance.”(Parliamentary Debates,3rd series, Vol. 147, July 27,1857, PP 440-472, (ed)Ainslee Embree).

Earlier speaking in the House of Commons on July 16, 1857, he said, “The Chancellor of the Exchequer has informed us that India at the present moment is suffering only from a momentary and unexpected impulse arising from superstitious causes. This insurrection, which extends from the Punjab to Calcutta, is, according to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the creation of a sudden impulse. Sir, I have heard, but I can hardly believe that such grave consequences have arisen from so accidental a cause. I can hardly believe that that class, of all others, in our Indian empire which, by its education and interests, and by every motive which can influence the loyalty of men, ought to be most devoted to our Government, should be suddenly found in a state of open insurrection, from the cause alleged by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I must be permitted to say that I believe the cause of the present state of India to be much graver and deeper than appears to be conceived by Her Majesty’s Ministers. I believe the present state of India has been occasioned by long years of misgovernment…”

Noted historian RC Majumdar in his monumental work ,The Sepoy Mutiny and the Revolt of 1857, that was prepared to mark the 100th anniversary of this event in 1957, wrote, “There were some special reasons for bitterness in the relation between the two communities. Englishmen in general regarded the Indians as barbarians, and the Christian Missionaries held in open contempt the idolatrous practices of the Hindus.” Warren Hastings wrote in 1784 that “a few years ago most of the Englishmen regarded the Indians almost as barbarians, and though the feeling has decreased it has not entirely disappeared”. The truth of this is proved by a book written in 1792 by Charles Grant, an officer of the East India Company, in which he remarks that Bengal hardly possesses any honest and conscientious men such as are to be found even in the most backward countries of Europe. He then proceeds to give a long list of the defects of Indian character. Even so late as 1855, a most slanderous libel on Bengali character, in the most objectionable language, was published in the Calcutta Review.

Majumdar also highlights the role played by Christian Missionaries as they went all out for conversions in a planned manner that resulted in a strong reaction from the society at that time. In light of these facts, it is clear that the first war of independence was much more than a sepoy mutiny or a peasant revolt, it was an assertion of the sociocultural identity which Bharatiya society had preserved for more than 5000 years and which was under attack from the British.

Thus, one can say cultural nationalism was at the core of the first war of independence in 1857. The British also realised it and hence divided Bharatiya society through a series of steps after 1857, by creating caste divisions in the army and other institutions, dividing troops into martial and non-martial races without any scientific evidence, destroying the community-run education system based on the Gurukul model, promoting minority institutions, relegating Hindi and other Bharatiya languages to the background, while promoting Urdu and Persian in administrative work.

In the garb of administrative reforms, the British created these fault lines as they realised that cultural nationalism is the strongest binding force for this nation. Unfortunately, not only have these fault lines existed, but under the influence of the Left intellectuals, they have been strengthened. It is time realise our follies, look back and understand the origin of these fault lines as it would help us to do away with them and have a more cohesive social order.

Arun Anand is CEO of Indraprastha Vishwa Samvad Kendra.

The views expressed are personal

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