Sunday, August 5, 2012

Nature of the Revolt of 1857

The nature of the 1857 uprising aroused fierce controversy from the very outset. Between the 1950s and 1960s historians much of their attentions on whether the revolt was a sepoy mutiny, national struggle or a manifestation of feudal reaction.

Anxious to minimize Indian grievances, for many years, British historians had maintained that the revolt had been nothing more than a sepoy mutiny, hence the name. The official British explanation was that only the Bengal army had mutinied and civil disturbances were caused by the breakdown of law and order machinery.

[caption id="attachment_1327" align="aligncenter" width="500"]The Nature of the Revolt of 1857 The Nature of the Revolt of 1857[/caption]

Many officials thought that it was only a mutiny. Such accounts generally narrated: details of the greased cartridges, the activities of rebel sepoys, and the British campaigns of 1857-1858 that suppressed the revolt. Not only was the rebellion of the people made light of, but the civil rebellion was attributed to merely the selfish interests of landholders and princes. In essence, this interpretation ignored the colonial context in which the revolt had occurred and of which it was a reflection.

But this view was challenged by Benjamin Disraeli, the conservative leader, in July 1857. He said: "The decline and fall of empires are not affairs of greased cartridges. Such results are occasioned by adequate causes and by the accumulation of adequate causes". Then he enquired: "Is it a military mutiny or is it, a national revolt?"

The official view was challenged by a section of the British community in India also. Colonel G.B. Malleson, who later completed J.W. Kaye's History of the Sepoy War, challenged the official theory of simple mutiny: "The crisis came: At first apparently a mere military mutiny, it speedily changed its character, and became a national insurrection."

With the emergence of national agitations against the colonial government the revolt of 1857 came to be looked upon as part of that struggle and the focus shifted form the greased cartridges to the oppressions of the British.

V.D. Savarkar's The Indian war of Independence of 1857 published anonymously in 1902 remained banned in India almost till the end of British rule. V.D. Savarkar, who gave a nationalist interpretation to the uprising, asserted that it was the "Indian War of Independence". Savarkar's views were supported by S.B. Chaudhary, who in his writings demonstrated that 1857 was a "rising of the people." In fact, the historiographic tradition in India soon accepted this line of argument. A discordant note was however, struck by R.C. Majumdar. He refused to recognize 1857 as a war of Independence. His view was that "to regard the outbreak of 1857 as either national in character or a war of independence of India betrays a lack of true knowledge of the history of Indian people in the nineteen century".

Some historians have held that the Muslim elite were responsible for inciting the trouble. Outrum regarded the revolt as a "Muslim conspiracy exploiting Hindu grievances". Yet another school of thought believes that during the revolt the people were fighting not only against the British but also against the feudal structure. The backsliding of these feudal chiefs led to the collapse of the revolt.

Later Historiography, though accepting the popular character of the Revolt, laid emphasis on its backward - looking character. Bipin Chandra has stressed this point: "The entire movement lacked a unified and forward looking program to be implemented after the capture of power"

Tara Chand was more explicit when he wrote that the Revolt of 1857 was the last attempt to recover its departed glory.

However, several works coinciding with the centenary year of the revolt argued variously:that the absence of a general plan of rebellion went against such an interpretation, that the leaders were not imbued with national sentiment and 'would have put the clock back', that 1857 was not the inauguration of a freedom movement but 'the dying groans of an obsolete aristocracy'.

On the other hand there were objections to the restrictive use of the term 'national' and the implicit minimization of the anti-imperialist content of the revolt and of the evidence of the Hindu-Muslim unity during 1857-1858. More recently it has been noted that though the rebel mission may not have been 'national', their political horizon was not restricted to their ilaqas. Also that the aim of the rebels was not so much an attempt to establish a new social order as to restore a world that was familiar i.e. the traditional world of hierarchy, lineage, patronage and deference.


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