Perhaps the most important cause of the people’s discontent was the economic exploitation of the country by the British and the complete destruction of its traditional economic fabric.
Other general causes of revolt were the British land revenue policies and the systems of law and administration. In particular, a large number of peasant proprietors lost their lands to traders and most of the lenders found themselves hopelessly burden under debt.
The common people were hard hit by the prevalence of corruption at the lower levels of administration. The police, petty officials, and lower (law) courts were notoriously corrupt.
The middle and upper classes of Indian society, particularly in the North, were hard hit by their exclusion from the well-paid higher posts in the administration.
Displacement of Indian rulers by the East India Company meant the sudden withdrawal of the patronage and the impoverishment of those who had depended upon it.
Religious preachers, pandits, and maulavis, who felt that their entire future was threatened, were to play an important role in spreading hatred against the foreign rule.
The British remained perpetual foreigners in the country. For one, there was no social link or communication between them and the Indians.
Unlike foreign conquerors before them, they did not mix socially even with the upper classes of Indians; instead, they had a feeling of racial superiority and treated Indians with contempt and arrogance.
The British did not come to settle in India and to make it their home. Their main objective was to enrich themselves and then go back to Britain along with Indian wealth.
Munshi Mohanlal of Delhi, who remained loyal to the British during the Revolt, wrote that even “those who bad grown rich under British rule showed hidden delight at British reverses.” Another loyalist, Moinuddin Hasan Khan, pointed out that the people looked upon the British as “foreign trespassers.”
The British army suffered major reverses in the First Afghan War (1838-42) and the Punjab Wars (1845-49), and the Crimean War (I854-56).
In 1855-56, the Santhal tribesmen of Bihar and Bengal rose up armed with axes and bows and arrows and revealed the potentialities of a popular uprising by temporarily sweeping away British rule from their area.
The British ultimately won these wars and suppressed the Santhal uprising; however, the disasters British suffered in major battles revealed that the British army could be defeated by determined fighting, even by an Asian army.
The annexation of Avadh by Lord Dalhousie in 1856 was widely resented in India in general and in Avadh in particular. It created an atmosphere of rebellion in Avadh and in the Company’s army.
Dalhousie’s action angered the Company’s sepoys, as most of them came from Avadh.
The annexations rule of Dalhousie, created panic among rulers of the native states. They now discovered that their most groveling loyalty to the British had failed to satisfy the British greed for territory.
This policy of annexation was, for example, directly responsible for making Nana Sahib, the Rani of Jhansi, and Bahadur Shah their staunch enemies.
Nana Sahib was the adopted son of Baji Rao II, the last Peshwa. The British refused to grant Nana Sahib the pension they were paying to Baji Rao II, who died in 1851.
The British insistence on the annexation of Jhansi incensed the proud of Rani Lakshmibai who wanted her adopted son to succeed her deceased husband.
The house of the Mughals was humiliated when Dalhousie announced in 1849 that the Successor to Bahadur Shah would have to abandon the historic Red Fort and move to a humbler residence at the Qutab on the outskirts of Delhi.
In 1856, Canning announced that after Bahadur Shah’s death, the Mughals would lose the title of kings and would be known as mere princes.
An important role in turning the people against British rule was played by their fear that it endangered their religion. This fear was largely due to the activities of the Christian missionaries who were “to be seen everywhere — in the schools, in the hospitals, in the prisons and at the market place.”
The missionaries tried to convert people and made violent and vulgar public attacks on Hinduism and Islam. They openly ridiculed and denounced the long cherished customs and traditions of the people.
In 1850, the Government enacted a law, which enabled a convert to Christianity to inherit his ancestral property.
Religious sentiments were also hurt by the official policy of taxing lands belonging to temples and mosques and to their priests or the charitable institutions which had been exempted from taxation by previous Indian rulers.
The many Brahmin and Muslim families dependent on the religious activities were aroused to fury, and they began to propagate that the British were trying to undermine the religions of India.
The sepoys also had religious or caste grievances of their own. The Indians of those days were very strict in observing caste rules, etc.
The military authorities forbade the sepoys to wear caste and sectarian marks, beards, or turbans.
In 1856, an Act was passed under which every new recruit undertook to serve even overseas, if required. This hurt the sepoys‘ sentiments as, according to the current religious belief of the Hindus, travel across the sea was forbidden and led to less of caste.
The sepoys also had numerous other grievances against their employers. They were treated with contempt by their British officers.
The sepoys‘ dissatisfaction was because of the recent order that they would not be given the Foreign Service allowance (batta) when serving in Sindh or in the Punjab. This order resulted in a big cut in the salaries of a large number of them.
The dissatisfaction of the sepoys had, in fact, a long history. A sepoy mutiny had broken out in Bengal as early as 1764. The authorities had suppressed it by blowing away 30 sepoys.
In 1806, the sepoys at Vellore mutinied but were crushed with terrible violence.
In 1824, the 47th Regiment of sepoys at Barrackpore refused to go to Burma by the sea-route. The Regiment was disbanded, its unarmed men were fired upon by artillery, and the leaders of the sepoys were hanged.
In 1844, seven battalions revolted on the question of salaries and batta.
The sepoys in Afghanistan were on the verge of revolt during the Afghan War. Two subedars, a Muslim and a Hindu, were shot dead for giving expression to the discontent in the army.
Beginning of Revolt – Views
It is not yet clear whether the Revolt of 1857 was spontaneous, un-planned, or the result of a careful and secret organization.
The revolts have left behind no records. As they worked illegally, they perhaps kept no records.
The British suppressed any favorable mention of the Revolt, and took strong action against anyone who tried to present their side of the story.
A group of historians and writers has asserted that the Revolt was the result of a widespread and well-organized conspiracy. They pointed to the circulation of chapattis and red lotuses, propaganda by wandering as sanyasis, faqirs, and madaris.
The historians say that many of the Indian regiments were carefully linked in a secret organization which had fixed 31 May 1857 as the day when all of them were to revolt.
It is also said that Nana Sahib and Maulvi Ahmed Shah of Faizabad were playing leading roles in this conspiracy.
Some other writers equally forcefully deny that any careful planning went into the making of the Revolt. They point out that not a scrap of paper was discovered before or after the Revolt indicating an organized conspiracy, nor did a single witness come forward to make such a claim.
The truth perhaps lies somewhere between these two extreme views. It sterns likely that there was an organized conspiracy to revolt but that the organization had not progressed sufficiently when the Revolt broke out accidentally.