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The Indian Mutiny of 1857: Causes of the Rebellion

The rebellion that came to be called the Indian Mutiny started on the 10th May 1857 with the soldiers of the Light Cavalry regiment and the Infantry of the Bengal army which was posted at Meerut shooting the British officers in the precincts of the army cantonment. They broke open the gates of all the lock ups and set on fire the buildings that housed the army officers and then marched to Delhi. After arriving there the next day they declared the aging Mughal ruler as their leader and went on a killing spree of all the Europeans that came their way. They proclaimed that the Mughal Empire will now be reestablished. Very quickly the Mutiny spread throughout the units of the Bengal Army and by June end; most of the northern part of the country was no longer under the control of the Empire. All the British civilians and soldiers had been either made to flee from the city or were held hostage. Such warfare continued up to the beginning of 1859 but despite the disturbances, there did not appear to be any dramatic threat to the sovereignty of the British.

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The immediate cause of the Mutiny was the introduction by the British of the new guns called Enfield rifles which had to be operated by using greased cartridges to fire them. It was unfortunate that the greasy lubricant was a concoction of cow and pig fat which was not acceptable to the sepoys who comprised Hindus and Muslims in the Indian Army. For Hindus it was not acceptable to use the cartridges greased with cow fat and the Muslims got much aggressive on realizing that they would have to use cartridges greased with pig fat. This inconsiderate choice in using the lubricants created fears amongst the soldiers that the British were trying to attack the two main religions in the country in attempts to convert them to Christianity. The British could not apprehend that such fears could lead to the indiscriminate killing of children and women in an armed resurrection. It was also interpreted by some in Britain that it was a signal of the brutality and irrationality by the Asians.

In what has been understood as the most lengthy and important speech on the Indian Mutiny, Benjamin Disraeli had spoken to the House of Commons in July, 1857 that “The decline and fall of empires are not affairs of greased cartridges. Such results are occasioned by adequate causes, and by an accumulation of adequate causes” (Hansard’s 147:475). Hence it is evident that there were in fact other causes also that were slowly proving to be provocative in causing the Mutiny. After the appointment of Warren Hastings as Governor General he undertook the task of expanding the size of the army. Originally the army was composed of soldiers from Bengal and since these were the very soldiers that had fought opposite the British forces in the Battle of Plassey, they were not fully trustworthy in his eyes and hence he recruited the higher caste Brahmins and Rajputs from Bihar and Oudh. However soldiers were also recruited from other religions and social groups to avoid friction and the British made efforts in adapting to the religious practices of the different groups. Different communities were given separate quarters and eating places and the Hindu festivals were officially recognized by the army. However such policies gave vent to and made the system vulnerable in that the soldiers adopted aggressive practices of protest whenever there was the slightest sign of their rights or prerogatives being infringed.

The Bengal Army had an overwhelming majority of high caste Brahmins who were much antagonized against the presence of a large number of Muslims and Sikhs within the rolls of the army. They also felt contempt against the British officers. Both Hindus and Muslims were viewed as being inferior by the upper caste Brahmins and the British were considered uninvited by them.

With the rapid speed with which British cultural and territorial acquisition of the Indian subcontinent was taking place there was much discontent amongst the soldiers in realizing that they were increasingly being made to bow down to English supremacy. The declaration of the Right of Lapse by Lord Dalhousie did not recognize the practice of adoption that was widely prevalent in India. After the British had annexed Oudh in 1856 most of the sepoys were disgruntled on account of losing their perks as landed owners. They were also unhappy because of the indiscriminate practices being adopted by the courts in increasing the land revenue payment as augmented by the annexation. As the jurisdiction of the East India Company expanded, the professional terms offered to the sepoys created much resentment amongst them. They were required to serve in unfamiliar regions such as Burma and were also not given the extra emoluments that they were previously entitled to for serving in foreign lands. The newly introduced General Services Act did not provide for pension for retired sepoys while there was a discriminatory angle in enabling the same facility to new recruits in the army. Additionally, sepoys in the Bengal army were given lesser salary as compared to those in the Bombay and Madras armies which further complicated the issue of fears in regard to pension. Other issues were also raised by way of lesser promotion avenues by ignoring the seniority of the soldiers and the increasing number of British soldiers and officers further reduced promotion opportunities.

The new administrative guidelines led to legal rights being given to the East India Company to automatically become heir to all the Indian princes and rulers that did not have a blooded descendant. Moreover the British had recently brought under their control the province of Oudh which was the main home of a majority of the soldiers. Most of the rebel soldiers belonged to the erstwhile Oudh region which now comprises the state of Uttar Pradesh. They were originally from land owner families and could not tolerate any longer the discrimination at the hands of the British. The movement received added strength with the support of the peasants, landlords, feudal nobility and tribal groups.

There was much annoyance amongst Indians with the British decision to ban in 1850, the practice of sati which was widely present and tolerated amongst the masses. In the same year, the British encouraged and made it very rewarding for people to convert from Hinduism to Christianity without suffering on account of losing on inheritance rights to family assets. There was an increasing spread of missionary activities all through the country which was receiving the patronage of the British army officers. Lord Canning, the Governor General officially connected with the conversion agencies and gave them full support. The work of the government began to be increasingly conducted in English which was not acceptable to the people. The speed with which English education was spreading in the country and the increasing introduction of railways and telegraph endangered the social and cultural structure in imposing British influence within the country.

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In efforts to establish its supremacy, the East India Company had started to restructure India on the lines of Europe which made the common man conclude that they were violating their rights and usurping the privileges that had been established over the centuries. In introducing the Doctrine of lapse Indians had begun to think that the British had begun to seize their states in rendering the Hindu custom of succession as illegal. This was taken very seriously by all sections of society and it was felt as an unjustified intrusion into their customs and the country’s legal structure that had been in existence over the centuries. The soldiers were recruited and made to serve in the most undesirable places which they had never been prepared for. The customs during the time did not favor large scale migration to serve the army in distant places since their primary motive was to serve their motherland. In being compelled to serve in worn torn areas they least expected that their jobs would require them to protect or fight for causes that were not associated with their country or society.

With large scale recruitment of sepoys in the different regiments, it became difficult for the British to control and discipline them as per army requirements and hence the army did not present a good example of a disciplined force. Promotion policy was based on time served instead of the ability and strength of individual soldiers which added to the discontentment and led to further indiscipline and inefficiency. There had been an endless friction for decades amongst the local population and the British in regard to the official British sponsorship of missionary efforts to convert Hindus and Muslims to Christianity. The people believed that it had become a government policy to encourage the missionaries who made hectic attempts to bring about conversions under the provisions of the Charter Act of 1813.

The large number of factors that brought about a strong sense of discontentment amongst the sepoys proved to be strong reason to aggravate the Mutiny and the introduction of the new pattern 1853 Enfield Rifle merely ignited the fire that eventually engulfed the entire northern part of India into large scale violence and disturbance. Sir Sayid Ahmed Khan, an eminent educationist during the time, aptly summed the causes of the Indian Mutiny of 1857 as, “I believe that there was but one primary cause of the rebellion, the others being merely incidental and arising out of it… [T]he Natives of India, without perhaps a single exception, blame the Government for having deprived them of their position and dignity and for keeping them down… Was not the Government aware that the Natives of the very highest rank trembled before its officers, and were in daily fear of suffering the greatest insults and indignities at their hands?” (Khan, 1859)


Albert Pionke, Representations of the Indian Mutiny in Victorian Higher Journalism, 2004, Web.

Christopher Hibbert, Great Mutiny: India 1857, 1980, Penguin Duff, Rev. Alexander. The Indian Mutiny; Its Causes and Results. In a Series of Letters. 2nd ed. London: James Nisbet and Co., 1858.

Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates. Third series 147 (1857). London: Thomas Curson Hansard et. al., 1857. 440-545. (Benjamin Disraeli’s speech on the Indian Mutiny)

Khan, Syed Ahmed (1859), Asbab-e Baghawat-e Hind”, Translated as The Causes of the Indian Revolt, Allahabad, 1873.

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Telegraph, Causes of the Indian Mutiny, 2007, Web.

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