Looking back at India's first war of Independence (1857-58): What led to the revolt, why it failed

The genesis and origin of this revolution can be traced to the battlefields of Plassey in 1757.

By Dr. Mohan Bhandari  Published on  4 July 2021 12:02 PM GMT
Looking back at Indias first war of Independence (1857-58): What led to the revolt, why it failed

'Dulce et decorum est pro patria mon'

Lovely & honourable it is to die for one's country.

- Odes (III.2.13) by the Roman lyric poet Horace.

The maxim 'divide et impera' is ascribed to Philip II of Macedon. It was the 'modus operandi' of both Julius Caesar and Napoleon (together with the maxim 'divide ut regnes'). Gilbert Elliot-Murray-Kynynmound - the 17th Viceroy of India - was openly demonstrative by giving provisions of separate electorates by creating a rift between Hindus and Muslims by promoting communal disharmony to break unity of the people.

The advice of Mountstuart Elphinstone, the erstwhile Lt. Governor of Bombay, was explicit to the British Government - thus: "Divide et Impera (Divide & Rule) based on the old Roman motto and it should be ours". ... .The result was that soon after 1858, the Indian Princes had begun increasingly to submerge into the pleats of the British government, so much so, that they started identifying their existence with the continuance of the British Raj.

It is pertinent to mention here that England had initially sent a company to trade with India in 1600. One more company was sent in 1698. Both companies merged in 1900 and were named the East India Company (EIC).

With the aforesaid 'mantra' given by Elphinstone, the EIC was earnestly engaged in taking advantage of conflicts and strife between the independent rulers and the declining days of the Mughal Empire. The British did not want Indians to join hands against them. At first it was Nizam against Arcot and Arcot against Nizam, then Mahratta against Muslim, and Afghan against Hindu. The courage, felicity, and adroitness of Shivaji had laid the foundation of the Maratha Empire; the brazenness and machinations of Raghunath Rao (Raghoba) precipitated its fall. Historian Grant Duff highlights the role of British envoy Mostyn specially appointed at Poona, who was tasked by the British government to foment all possible domestic dissensions and troubles to prevent the Mahrattas from joining Hyder Ali or the Nizam. Instead, he helped Raghoba to wage a war against Nizam and Hyder Ali.

Likewise, Rohillas' territory was conspired to be annexed between Nawab Vizier and the Governor General. Various pretences were, of course, found and Rohilkhand was invaded and after brave resistance, the Rohillas were defeated. Every man who bore the name of Rohilla was either put to death or forced to seek safety in exile.

Hastings had set the precedent of hiring out to the Rajas and Princes of Hindustan permanent bodies of British troops under the designation of subsidiary forces, thereby sapping the authority and independence of every one of them. So, the British policy stood crystal clear by setting one Indian ruler against another and ultimately defeating each one of them. Such sinister British onslaughts continued with astonishing and alarming regularity. Very soon Oudh was annexed. Tipu Sultan had already been defeated and killed and his kingdom also annexed. The Nizam had become an ally and ceased to be a source of danger or anxiety to the British. The Sikhs had established their kingdom in Punjab and the north-west. The Mughal emperor was emperor only in name and had practically ceased to rule any large tract of the country. This was the scenario in the beginning of the nineteenth century.

By 1857, the EIC was directly ruling about two-thirds of the subcontinent as the agent of the British government. The Indian princes had recognized it as the paramount power that controlled the third part. Imagine, all princely states were being advised by political representatives of the EIC and many princely states had raised armies that had EIC officers commanding the native troops. To police its own territories and to guard the British India Frontiers, now EIC possessed three separate armies - one each for the presidencies. In 1857, the total strength of three presidency armies was 45,000 European and native troops and regiments of the British Army stationed in India, by far the largest, with 24,000 Europeans and 130,000 Indians.

The 1857 revolution was the most crucial and important event in the history of British Raj. The genesis and origin of this revolution can be traced to the battlefields of Plassey in 1757. One of the many slogans raised during the 1857 revolution was, "We will take revenge of Plassey". So much so, that in the local Hindi newspapers of Delhi, it was forecast that the centenary of Plassey - 23 June 1857 - would witness the end of British Raj. This forecast was announced through various means across the length and breadth of India. No doubt, this announcement had an indelible effect on the minds and hearts of the revolutionaries and public in general.

The hapless Indians were getting extremely angry and disillusioned by the British Raj. Right from the time of Robert Clive, a clerk, to Dalhousie, indiscriminate sufferings, cruelties, and punishments were inflicted upon Indians and their families. Cottage and local industries were destroyed. Innocent begums, queens, and women were looted and dishonoured; zamindars and zamindaris were devastated. Lakhs of villagers of Gorakhpur and Benaras (Varanasi) were made landless and homeless. All this and more, injustices and cruelties inflicted were thus instrumental as catalysts in raising the fire of revenge in the hearts of the princes and local populace. Around 1780, Prime Minister Nana Fadanwis of Pune and Raja Hyder Ali of Mysore having joined hands with the Emperor of Delhi and other Indian princes, took the first initiative to throw the British from the soil of India.

The Vellore revolution of 10 July 1806 was a harbinger of this fire. It was the first instance of a large-scale opposition by Indian sepoys against the EIC, predating the Indian War of Independence of 1857 by half a century. The revolutionaries had seized the Vellore fort and killed or wounded 200 British troops. The insurrection was subdued by cavalry and artillery from Arcot. Total deaths amongst the revolutionaries were approximately 350; with summary executions of about 100 during the suppression of the outbreak - followed by formal court-martials of many.

This War of Independence that spread all over India was planned meticulously over a period of time but the British obfuscated people of the world by declaring it as a 'mutiny or gadar' by citing some accidental reasons like introduction of the greased cartridges in the army. Some Indian historians, too, toed this British line. It should not be forgotten that Maulvi Ahamdulla Shah, Nana Saheb, Jhansi ki Rani, Emperor of Delhi, and Khan Bahadur Khan of Ruhelkhand had taken active part throughout. So the mere use of greased cartridges was NOT the only reason. Most of the rajas and maharajas, sadhus and faqirs, rich and poor and other peace-loving people had also supported this revolution. When Nawab Wazid Ali Shah of Avadh was imprisoned in Calcutta, all sects, castes, and creeds exhorted the inhabitants of Avadh to join in the crusade.

The single most important 'raison d'être' of any country rests upon maintaining the sanctity of its independence, religion, and self-respect. When the independence of Bharat was snatched by deceit and religions of her people tarnished, these were good enough reasons to put on the altar of sacrifice one's life to safeguard Bharat's independence and religions of her people. The Emperor of Delhi Bahadur Shah said, "Oh sons of Bharat ! If we get together, have our aims right and are determined to win over the evil, we will surely destroy the enemy, protect our religion and country from slavery and fear". This was the 'Mool Mantra' and psychology of the First War of Independence of 1857. British historian Justin McCarthy in his book 'History of Our Own Times' has also echoed the same sentiments.

Lord Dalhousie was singularly responsible for all political and administrative ills. On the religious front, social customs and traditions, the British had started interfering openly –both with Hindus and Muslims - causing great dissatisfaction to the common man. The tradition of the old education system was totally demolished. England had started its industrial revolution in the 19th century. Indian markets were flooded with British goods and raw materials. This had a cascading impact on Indian industries. As a result, cottage and village industries almost ceased to exist. On the economic front, India became a 'Kamdhenu' for them. The 'Golden Bird' was exploited to the hilt.

In the EIC army, the strength of Indian soldiers was much more than the British soldiers. But Indians got a paltry pay and were given no rank beyond a Subedar (even these were hardly any), that too at the whims and fancies of the 'Gora Saheb'. British ill-treated Indian soldiers. In the Bengal Army, Avadh had maximum army representation. Therefore, once Avadh was included in the British empire, the soldiers were highly enraged. Officers of EIC did not bother about the welfare, pay and perks of Indian soldiers. Their self-esteem was greatly affected and they developed hatred and anger towards the British.

February 1857 saw new cartridges being issued to Unit 19 at Barrackpore. Indian soldiers refused to even touch these. As the British saw this as an act of mutiny, a British unit was quickly summoned to control the situation .It was decided to disarm the Indian unit and dismiss the soldiers. No sooner this was known to Indian soldiers, they decided to start the revolution. One young soldier Mangal Pandey jumped with his loaded gun during the parade on 29 March 1857 and exhorted his fellow soldiers to join suit. Major Husan ordered Mangal Pandey to be arrested but no one moved forward to do so. In the meantime, Mangal Pandey shot Major Husan and Lt. Wagh. As the British soldiers moved to arrest Mangal Pandey; the latter shot himself and was injured. He was court martialled and awarded a death sentence by hanging on 8 April.

With the aforesaid background, let us now look at the broad sequence of events.


1. On 22 January, one part-time worker employed at Dum Dum Musketry Depot, Calcutta, confided with a high caste Sepoy that the British had intentionally pasted cow and pig fat over new Enfield cartridges. During this month, news of circulation of chapattis in central and northern India was also received. This irritated the British to no less degree. It was indeed an effective weapon of psychological warfare against colonial rule. 19 Behrampur Infantry in Bengal started their armed disobedience movement .Sepoy Mangal Pandey of 34 Native Infantry shot two British officers at Barrackpore. 19 Native Infantry was disbanded at Barrackpore on 31 March 1857. Mangal Pandey was hanged on 8 April at Barrackpore followed by disbandment of seven Coys of 34 Native Infantry on 6 May 1857. Light cavalry skirmishers at Meerut on 8 May were court martialled and awarded sentences from five to seven years. They were shackled and put in Meerut Civil Jail.

2. Indian troops rose at Meerut and joined by local garrison headed straight for Delhi. Bahadur Shah was proclaimed as the new Moghul emperor. Garrison at Lahore was disarmed. Indian troops rose at Ferozpur on 13 May followed by rising of 9 Native Infantry at Agra on 20 May followed by disarming of Peshawar Garrison. On 25 May, 55 Native Infantry rose at Hoti Mardan in the north-west frontier.

3. Indian Sepoys located at Nasirabad, Rajputana, rose against British atrocities on 28 May. This was followed by the rising in Lucknow Garrison on 30 May 1987. The British had partial success on Hindon river. Indian Sepoys rose at Shahjehanpur and Bareilly in Rohilkhand on 31 May. Indian Troops rose across Oudh, North Western Provinces, Central India, Rajputana , Punjab, Sitapur, Neemach, Benaras, Cawnpore (Kanpur), Jhansi, Allahabad, and Jullunder. Nowgong and Gwalior saw bitter fights between the revolutionaries and the British.

4. A British camp was established on the Ridge North of Delhi on 8 June. Oudh revolutionaries defeated British at Chinhut near Lucknow. Siege of Lucknow Residency began. On 1 July 1857, Nana Saheb was proclaimed as the new Peshwa at Bithur. Indian troops rose at Indore, Mhow, and Sagar. But Indian revolutionaries suffered reverses at Cawnpore and Nana Saheb was defeated. Cawnpore was retaken by the British. On 25 July, Danapore Garrison rose and joined Raja Kunwar Singh but was defeated by the British on 2 August.

5. Now the British started concentrating on Oudh and Delhi. Massive British assault began on Delhi. Delhi was cleared of revolutionaries by 20 September 1857. On 20 September, Hodson's Horse was employed in following up the retreat of the revolutionaries from the city. The unit succeeded in capturing the King of Delhi. On 22 September, three of the Shahzadas - sons of the king - were captured by Captain Hodson and mercilessly shot dead.

6. Indore and Mhow were recaptured by the British on 10 October.

7. In the battle of Cawnpore between 6-12 December, Tatya Tope was defeated.


1. January and February saw the British amassing troops to relieve siege of Sagar, recapture Khudaganj and start planning to recapture Lucknow. Simultaneously, the British tried Bahadur Shah finding him guilty of rebellion, treason, and murder. He was exiled to Rangoon in Burma.

3. By 21 March, Lucknow was cleared of revolutionaries.

4. The British defeated a vastly superior army of Tantya Tope on Betwa and captured Jhansi but Rani Lakshmi Bai managed to escape to Kalpi. By 7 May, both Tatya Tope and Rani Jhansi were defeated.

5. Rani Jhansi was killed by British troops near Gwalior city. Gwalior was recaptured.


1. Few remnants of revolutionaries succeeded in crossing over to Nepal. These included Nana Saheb, Jwala Prasad, Hazrat Mahal, Khan Bahadur Khan and a few others .While some minor operations continued here and there, the Oudh revolution was almost over.

2 With Tatya Tope hanged at Sipri, the British government declared a 'State of Peace' throughout India.

Reasons for failure of the First War of Independence

Beginning of the nineteenth century saw EIC in almost total and indomitable control over India. They were in full command of states such as Bengal, Bombay Presidency, Madras Presidency, Punjab, Hyderabad, Mysore, Travancore, and Kashmir. The great Mughal empire of India existed only in name. Bahadur Shah, the Mughal emperor, had neither any territory nor power. He had no experience of fighting a war either.

There was utter lack of strategic leadership. The revolt was not organized. Major states such as Bombay, Bengal, Madras, and Kashmir did not participate in the revolution.

The southern states showed no interest in the revolution. Had they joined like Awadh, possibly, the story would have been different.

The British succeeded in finding many traitors.

The Sikhs did not participate in the revolution because Bahadur Shah was declared as the emperor. So, Punjab, instead of supporting the revolutionaries, supported the EIC in suppressing the revolution.

Scindia, Holkar and other princely states of Rajputana also did not support the revolutionaries even when they were invited by Bahadur Shah to take part in the War for Independence.

The revolutionaries were not unified. They lacked cohesion and group dynamics. At best, most of the leaders fought to only free their own territory.

The revolutionaries were operating on a shoestring budget. They did not possess modern weapons. While on the other hand, the British Army possessed modern arms, ammunition and accoutrements. They had enough finances and administrative support to back them.

Impact of the revolt

After the revolution of 1857, the British Parliament passed an Act that marked the end of EIC Rule in India and the power was transferred to the Queen of England.

The British continued to follow the policy of "Divide and Rule" in India. Now they focused their attention on creating dissent and separation between Hindus and Muslims in the name of religion by destroying the national fabric of India.

The 1857-58 war of Independence may not have succeeded, but it shook the British Empire. In the ultimate analysis, this war, no doubt, was instrumental in India attaining her freedom in 1947.

Next Story
Share it