The Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 holds important place in the history of freedom movement in India. This was the first struggle against the British rule to have support of a large section of public and was spread over a large area of the country. In this lesson, you will read about factors which incited people's anger to an extent that people shook the British Empire when the right time came. You will also read about the dramatic changes in equation of British rule in India after this revolt.
Since the mid-eighteenth century, the power of nawabs and rajas had been eroding. The authority and the honour which they earlier commanded were gradually waning away. The British had appointed Residents in many courts. The freedom of the Indian rulers was reduced and their armed forces were disbanded. The Company also took away their revenues and territories in stages.
Many ruling families tried to negotiate with the Company to protect their interests but they failed. Let us take the example of Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi. After the death of her husband, she wanted her adopted son to be recognized as the heir to the kingdom. Similarly, Nana Saheb who was the adopted son of Peshwa Baji Rao II, wanted his father’s pension when the Peshwa died. But the Company always turned down such requests.
A subsidiary alliance was imposed on Awadh in 1801 and it was fully taken over in 1856. Misrule by the nawab was given as the reason for annexation of Awadh.
The Mughals had ruled over a large part of the subcontinent for more than 200 years. Although the colonial rulers held the real power, Mughal Emperor was still holding titular title of the ruler of the country. The Company was also working on its plan to bring the Mughal dynasty to an end. It removed the name of the Mughal king from the coins. In 1849, it was announced by Governor General Dalhousie that after the death of Bahadur Shah Zafar the family of the king would be shifted out of the Red Fort. It was announced that they would be given another place in Delhi as residence. In 1856, it was decided by Governor General Canning that Bahadur Shah Zafar would be the last Mughal king. After his death, none of his descendants would be recognized as kings. They would be called princes.
The peasants were not happy with the high taxes and the rigid methods of revenue collection. Many peasants had lost the lands they had been tilling for generations because of their failure to repay their loans.
The Indian sepoys were not happy about their pay, allowances and conditions of service. Some of the new rules violated their religious sensibilities and beliefs.
The Hindus believed that crossing the sea would mean that they would lose their religion and caste. In 1824, when the sepoys were told to go to Burma by the sea route they refused to follow the order. However, they agree to go by land route. For this, the sepoys were severely punished. The Company passed a new law in 1856. The new law made it mandatory for a sepoy to agree to serve overseas if required.
Most of the sepoys were from rural background. They had families living in the villages. So, they also reacted to what was happening in the countryside.
The British took several steps to reform the society. New laws were passed against the practice of sati. A law was also passed to encourage widow remarriage. The Company officially promoted the English language. After 1830, Christian missionaries were allowed to function freely and they could even own land and property. In 1850, a new law allowed an Indian who had converted to Christianity to inherit property of his ancestors. This law made it easier to convert to Christianity.
A feeling was developing among most of the Indians that the British were trying to destroy their religion, social customs and traditional way of life. However, there were some others who wanted to get rid of many of the social evils.
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