The Indian Mutiny: "A Nationalist Revolt?"

  Category: Early Modern Era

The Secundra Bagh, 1857. Lucknow, showing the Breach and Gateway. 

The Indian mutiny, or the sepoy rebellion, began within Indian troops near Delhi in 1857 and quicjkly spread to other parts of the country. Today it is portrayed by many as a 'nationalist' uprising against British rule in India, even though prior to British rule India had not been a single nation. After a near run struggle, the British managed to subdue the mutiny, however it had a lasting impact on both British and Indian attitudes.

The fact that a mutiny began within Indian troops, or Sepoys, is often seen as unsurprising. Out of arrogance or ignorance the British administration had failed to heed too many cultural factors in their rule. India had originally been a caste-based society where everyone had their place in society since birth and many of the Indian soldiers were angered by the fact, that the British recruited soldiers from other castes than the traditional warrior castes, the Rajputs and Brahmins. The British administration also intended to replace the native Indian princes, and put an end to the Mogul Dynasty, which had ruled in India since the 16th century. The most famous reason of all is that the Indian sepoys, who were both Muslim and Hindu, refused to use British cartridges because they contained pig and cow fat. This was offensive to both Muslims and Hindus respectively. The British imposed radical change upon a society, which had traditions going back over a thousand years. The forced and fast westernization by the British led to widespread disapproval among the native population.

Interior of  the Secundra Bagh after the Slaughter of  2,000 Rebels by the 93rd Highlanders and 4th Punjab Regiment. First Attack of Sir Colin Campbell in November 1857,  Lucknow.

The unrest began in earnest in Meruut on the 10th of May, 1857. The soldiers of XI Native Cavalry of the Bengal Army mutinied and went on to free other sepoys, who had been imprisoned the previous day and sentenced to ten years hard labour. The rebels then proceeded to kill all Europeans and Christians they could find. After they marched on Delhi where they were joined by locals and Again killed all Europeans and Christians they could find. In Delhi, the rebels demanded that the Mogul Shah, Bahadur Shah Zafar II, reclaim his throne and become the leader of the rebellion. As the rebellion continued more Indians joined the cause, many because of religious reasons, both Muslims and Hindus. The Rebellion remained mostly in the North and Central parts of India, while the south did not get involved. There were also those who did not want to join the rebellion and fought on the British side. These were mainly Sikhs who did not want the Mogul dynasty to be re-instated and the Sunni Muslims who saw the rebellion as being a Shiite rebellion. These was a key to British victory.
As more and more cities joined the revolt, the British were forced to send in troops from other parts of the world. Both sides took few prisoners and the prisoners they took were often executed later. The British wiped out entire villages on their way to relieve besieged cities or to retake captured cities. The fighting continued for over a year, and the last rebel stronghold of Gwalior fell on June the 20th, 1858. Sporadic fighting around the country continued to 1859, but the revolt had been subdued, at a terrible cost.


Lakshmibai, Rani of Jhansi. Made into a modern Nationalist symbol of the revolt

So, was the mutiny a nationalist rebellion? In my opinion, it was partially one, but many factors would speak against it. Yes, it was a nationalist rebellion in the sense that the rebels responded to the destruction of their culture and cultural values, and the rebels demanded to be ruled by the Mogul dynasty, which was very much a symbol of national unity and of the nation in general. However, I feel that a factor of the rebellion, which exceeded nationalism in importance, was religion. The mutiny was in large part led by religious leaders, such as Ahmedullah Shah, who called for a Jihad against the British. The mutiny also began as a reaction to British arrogance towards the cultures and religions of the natives. Many of the rebels also believed, that one aim of the British administration was to convert all of India into Christianity. The Sunni Muslims, for example, did not join the rebels in what they perceived was a Shiite rebellion. The fact that India was (and still is) fragmented by so many different ethnicities, that would not fight side by side, made it less of an ‘Indian’ rebellion. It had many nationalistic features to it, but it failed to appeal to Indians as a people. The mutiny was more of a reaction to the destruction to their culture and traditions, which triggered an angry response. One could also argue that in India, where society has traditionally been divided into castes, the lower casts have always been ruled by those above them, and the fact that they were now ruled by the British made little difference. However, the higher castes were being stripped from titles and land, and their place in society. It was the warrior caste, which has traditionally held considerable power in India, that started the rebellion.
In conclusion, I would argue that although the Mutiny of 1857 had many nationalistic features in it, it was not a nationalist revolt. It was mainly of two cultures on a collision course. Had the British given more heed to the traditions and culture of the natives, instead of their vigorous westernization, they would have avoided the mutiny in the first place. It was not a matter of a people rising up to form their own nation with a nationalist agenda, but rather a case of a displaced aristocracy, if you like, and a displaced social system which was seeking to bring back the old ways. Religious factors also played a very important role in the Mutiny. The insensitive treatment from the British administration sparked up religious zeal in Hindus and Muslims alike. Although it is today known as The First War of Independence to Indians, it was not a nationalist revolt.