Causes of The Indian Rebellion of 1857 - Frictions


Some Indians came to believe that the British intended to convert them either by force or by deception (for example by causing them to lose caste) to Christianity. The British religious fashion of the time was Evangelism, and many East India Company officers took it upon themselves to try to convert their sepoys. This was strongly discouraged by the Company, which was aware of the potential for religion to become a flashpoint.

The Doctrine of Lapse, part of the British policy of expansionism, was also greatly resented. If a feudal ruler did not leave a male heir through natural process, i.e. his own child, not an adopted one, the land became the property of the British East India Company. In eight years, Lord Dalhousie, the then Governor-General of India, annexed many kingdoms including Jhansi, Awadh or Oudh, Satara, Nagpur and Sambalpur, adding up to a quarter of a million square miles (650,000 km²) of land to the Company's territory. Nobility, feudal landholders, and royal armies found themselves unemployed and humiliated. Even the jewels of the royal family of Nagpur were publicly auctioned in Calcutta, a move that was seen as a sign of abject disrespect by the remnants of the Indian aristocracy. In addition the Bengal army of the East India Company drew many recruits from Awadh; they could not remain unaffected by the discontent back home.

Indians were unhappy with the draconian rule of the British which had embarked on a project of rather rapid expansion and westernisation, that were imposed without any regard for historical subtleties in Indian society. Changes introduced by the British, such as outlawing Sati (the ritual burning of widows) and child marriage, were accompanied with prohibitions on Indian religious customs, seen as steps towards a forced conversion to Christianity.

Historian William Dalrymple asserts that the rebels were motivated primarily by resistance against a move by the East India Company, which was perceived as an attempt to impose Christianity and Christian laws in India. For instance, when Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar met the sepoys on 11 May 1857, he was told: "We have joined hands to protect our religion and our faith." They later stood in Chandni Chowk, the main square, and asked the people gathered there, "Brothers, are you with those of the faith?" Those British men and women who had previously converted to Islam such as the defectors, Sergeant-Major Gordon, and Abdullah Beg, a former Company soldier, were spared. On the contrary, foreign Christians such as Revd Midgeley John Jennings, as well as Indian converts to Christianity such as one of Zafar's personal physicians, Dr. Chaman Lal, were killed outright.

Dalrymple further points out that as late as 6 September, when calling the inhabitants of Delhi to rally against the upcoming British assault, Zafar issued a proclamation stating that this was a religious war being prosecuted on behalf of 'the faith', and that all Muslim and Hindu residents of the imperial city, or of the countryside were encouraged to stay true to their faith and creeds. As further evidence, he observes that the Urdu sources of the pre and post-rebellion periods usually refer to the British not as angrez (the English), goras (whites) or firangis (foreigners), but as kafir (infidels) and nasrani (Christians).

The justice system was considered inherently unfair to the Indians. In 1853, the British Prime Minister Lord Aberdeen opened the Indian Civil Service to native Indians; however, this was viewed by some of educated India as an insufficient reform. The official Blue Books, entitled East India (Torture) 1855–1857, that were laid before the House of Commons during the sessions of 1856 and 1857 revealed that Company officers were allowed an extended series of appeals if convicted or accused of brutality or crimes against Indians. The Company also practised financial extortion through heavy taxation. Failure to pay these taxes almost invariably resulted in appropriation of property.

Some historians have suggested that the impact of these reforms has been greatly exaggerated, as the British did not have the resources to enforce them, meaning that away from Calcutta their effect was negligible.

This was not the view taken by the British themselves after 1857: instead they scaled down their programme of reform, increased the racial distance between Europeans and native Indians, and also sought to appease the gentry and princely families, especially Muslim, who had been major instigators of the 1857 revolt. After 1857, Zamindari (regional feudal officials) became more oppressive, the caste system became more pronounced, and the communal divide between Hindus and Muslims became marked and visible, which some historians argue was due in great part to a British tactic of divide and rule.

Another important reason for the rebellion was the attitude towards Bahadur Shah Zafar. Lord Dalhousie, the governor-general of India at the time, had insulted the Emperor by asking him and his successors to leave the Red Fort, the palace in Delhi. Later, Lord Canning, the next governor-general of India, announced in 1856 that Bahadur Shah's successors would not even be allowed to use the title of Sultan. Such discourtesies were resented by many of the people and the Indian rulers.

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