Indian Revolt of 1857 and Global Response
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History & Culture
15th Jan, 2021
- The British rule over India, from 1757 to 1857, was characterised by imperialist and economic exploitation of Indians as well as disruption of their social and religious structure.
- The British, in their belief that they fully understood the psyche and requirement of the Indians, continued to exploit them for too long which finally led the Indians to rise in revolt.
- The Indian Revolt of 1857, that happened exactly hundred years after the Battle of Plassey, posed a very stiff and credible challenge to the British.
- The initial response of the British was slow due to their commitment in the Crimean War (1853-1856) and the Second Opium War (1856-1860). However, the British by virtue of centralised planning, availability of resources from a wider geographical area and better intelligence network were able to deploy larger forces and tackled the centres, in an efficient manner.
- The Revolt was also characterised by large scale participation of peasants, who joined as volunteers with the rebel forces. In spite of the lack of military training, these peasants fought bravely and earned praise for their sacrifice and valour
- Another feature of the fight by the rebels was the use of ‘guerilla tactics’.
Impact of Revolt of 1857
- Though militarily unsuccessful, the Revolt undermined the prestige of the world’s most powerful Empire and forever altered the supposition that the British Empire was absolute, infallible and invincible. It led to many far reaching changes, which included the abolition of the East India Company and the commencement of direct rule by the British Crown.
- The most important outcome was the introduction of numerous reforms, through the “Act for the Better Government of India 1858” and other acts, as a result of which the Indians were given more rights.
- It also led to a major restructuring of the sourcing of three Presidencies of the British forces. From then onwards, the British stopped expanding their territories in India.
- Lastly, the Revolt spawned the first seeds of nationalist aspirations and the first bonds of acommon nationality from where the freedom struggle by Indians of all religions, castes andclass commenced in the right earnest.
- The military perspective of this event can be summed up by highlighting four essentialaspects
- Firstly, this was a fight between two grossly uneven forces i.e. the British East India
- Company Forces with a structured and well-tested military hierarchical system along withgood intelligence and logistical backup on one hand, and on the other hand, the soldiers ofthe Bengal Army, who had revolted almost en masse and provided the core of the rebels’forces.
- Rebels thus lacked such an organisation and were mostly fighting isolated battles atmultiple locations with no means to either communicate or coordinate with each other.
- Secondly, the fight by the British East India Forces was based upon employment of tactics such as ‘use of mounted infantry operations by small columns’, ‘relentless pursuit of the opposing elements’ and ‘attack from multiple directions on key objectives’.
- Thirdly, the rebel forces— well aware of their own training and weaponry handicaps— relied on guerilla tactics with a view to maximise damage on the enemy forces. The guerrilla operations continued for another one year even though the bulk of the Rebellion was crushed by July 1858.
- Lastly, and most importantly, the revolters had better leaders at multiple locations who, through their isolated struggles in their respective areas of influence, led from the front and gave a stiff resistance to the British forces. It is because of the combined efforts of these leaders that the
- Indian rebellion continued for more than one year in spite of innumerable odds stacked against them
Global response to Revolt of 1857
- During the second half of the nineteenth century, British Empire was at its peak and had the maximum footprint across various continents; others such as the French, Spanish and Dutch empires were on the decline.
- The Indian Revolt of 1857 was one such landmark struggle, which not only shook the British Empire to its foundation, but also evoked huge response from the world over.
- The news about this historical event, travelled across the globe, which made it one of the first global media event.
- The revolt drew mixed responses from across the globe— some of which favoured the British while others favoured the Indians.
- The British account of the revolt was guided by their own political and imperial motivation,because they did not want it to impact other colonies in a negative way. Moreover, the aimwas to project the racial superiority of the British as well as the fact that the British wereattempting to educate and uplift the Indian society from its primitive and orthodox values.
- The British literature also exaggerated the violence by the Indians with a view to sensationalise the same, and thereafter arouse hatred amongst the British populace and eventually justify their own retribution against the Indians.
- Some British authors also blamed Russia for inciting the mutiny by claiming that the Russian agents had bribed Indian contractors to supply beef fat instead of mutton fat, which was used in the manufacture of the paper cartridges.
- The event of 1857 left a deep and lasting mark on the British psyche which led to increased fear and racism among the British.
- The events of 1857 were reported extensively in the European press. The IndianRevolt was portrayed in the French, Italian, Czech, Hungarian, Spanish, Portuguese and theGerman media in a divergent manner.
- The underlining characteristic of the coverage wasthat, each nation in Europe viewed the news from India highlighting whatever was in syncwith their history and ideology.
- German Response. As the event of 1857 unfolded in India, its coverage in the German press commenced simultaneously and continued to increase as the general German public in the nineteenth century was much interested in the happenings in India. Moreover, the reaction of German scholars was also expressed through numerous books, journals and other forms of writing.
- Italian Response. In 1857, Italy was going through a tumultuous phase on its journey towards an independent nation. The Italian periodicals mostly used the British, Indo-British and French press as sources to read about the Indian Revolt. The three main currents of the Italian political debates were the? conservative view (Austrian- Hungarian Empire and other monarchies of Italy), democrats’ view and the view of the moderates. The ‘conservative’ press saw the Revolt as an opportunity to denounce and delegitimize British power and expansionism. It claimed that the British had all the interest in downplaying the actual extent and severity of the uprising. The response of the Italian ‘democrats’ was derived from their own belief that the formation of a modern Italy, as a nation, should be achieved through national revolution by the people. Hence, the democratic view supported the Indian rebels.
- Spanish Response. In the nineteenth century, Spain was a declining colonial power and saw England as a rival colonial power. However, in the Spanish press, the British domination was justified and reactions were expressed against the Indians.
- Irish Response. In the second half of the nineteenth century, Ireland was fighting for independence from the British rule and their revolt for nationhood had also failed in 1848. In 1857, the news about the Indian Revolt was received in Ireland through newspapers, telegraphs and also personal letters. The happenings about the Indian Revolt were received by the Irish people with much hope and anticipation, that the rebels would be able to overthrow the British rule in India. The Indian Revolt provided an inspiration to many Irish nationalists to continue their fight for their Independence from the British.
- Indian Revolt and the American Civil War took place on the opposite sides of the globe witha time gap of three years. In the years preceding the American Civil War (1861-1865) the
- North grew in industrial power and population, while the economy of the South based onagriculture remained stagnant. The American press reported extensively about the Indian
- Revolt and analysed the possibility of it impacting the North-South divide in US. While New
- York Times justified the brutal retaliation by the British, other reports focused on theeconomic repercussions for America in case the revolt was not put down.
- News about the Indian Revolt was received in Russia with great interest as in 1854,Russia was defeated by the British in theCrimean War. Hence, the reports about the success of the
- Indian rebels against the forces of the British Empire in the initial stages of the revolt broughtmuch joy to the Russian people. Although, the Russian press had to rely on the British andthe French sources to get inputs from India, the happenings and the implications of the revoltwere correctly understood and reflected in the Russian press.
- As Russia was an independent nation pursuing the colonial policy of the Tsarist government in power at that point of time, the attitude of the government press underwent a change when it was realised that the Indian Revolt was not merely a mutiny, but a popular movement by all sections of the Indian society.
- RusskiyVestnik? an official journal? viewed the revolt as a struggle between ‘barbarism’ and ‘civilisation’ and hoped that the British would be able to overcome the Rebellion.
- In 1857 the people of China and India were engaged in fighting the Second Opium War (1856-1860) and the Indian Rebellion respectively, against a common aggressor i.e. the British.
- Moreover, there was no direct connect between the people of these two regions as regards the struggle was concerned. Notwithstanding this, the actions by the rebels in India in 1857 forced the British to take a back foot whereby they diverted their forces midway to India as against their intended destination in China, thereby helping the cause of China.
- The bulk of the writings on the India Revolt of 1857 by British authors were guided by their own political and imperial motivations, with an aim to project their racial superiority as well as heroism of their citizens against the Indian rebels.
- Perspective of the rebels could not be recorded in the manner the Britishers did, as in the second half of the nineteenth century, very few Indians were literate. Moreover, the availability of printing resources in Hindi/ native languages during that period was very limited. The situation got compounded further, as numerous Hindi authors and scholars, out of fear and survival, praised the British and gave incorrect versions of 1857.
- The first such writing giving out the Indian perspective was by V D Savarkar, who wrote The First War of Independence in 1908 in Marathi language. Savarkar termed the Indian Revolt of 1857-58 as a national struggle and highlighted how Hindus and Muslims had rallied together to fight their common enemy. Other Indian historians such as R C Majumdar, S N Sen and K KDatta also wrote about the event from a nationalist perspective.
- Post-Independence, many more Indian historians and scholars wrote books in Hindi as well as other vernacular languages. They termed the revolt as a milestone event which marked the beginnings of India’s struggle for Independence.
- The revolt saw the exceptional leadership of four most prominent military leaders, namely Nana Sahib, Rani Lakshmi Bai, Begum HazratMahal and Kunwar Singh —whosecombined efforts ensured that the fight continued for almost two years in spite of innumerable odds stacked against them.
- The Revolt of 1857 successfully ‘dented’ the prestige of the British to a large extent and also erased the idea of British invincibility.
- The Revolt found a detailed mention not only in public and political debates in countries like UK, USA, Russia, France, Germany, Italy, Hungary, but also stirred popular imagination which resulted in publication of numerous novels and other fictional accounts, decades after the event.
- It assumed importance because it inspired the people of other regions, faced with a similar situation, to fight against their colonial masters