People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 19

May 13, 2007

“Sepoy Mutiny” Or Popular Revolt


E M S Namboodiripad


THE British had once propagated that what took place during the years 1857 to 1859 in India was only a sepoy mutiny and that it did not have any support from the people of India.


Later on, when the national movement for independence gathered momentum, historians came forward with facts claiming that it was a freedom struggle and that it had widespread support of the people. Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, who had actively participated in the freedom struggle and who was convicted to a long term of imprisonment, had even written a book, entitled The Indian War of Independence in which he brought out several facts and authoritative documents that had not yet seen the light of the day.


Following Savarkar, several other political activists and scholars of history basing themselves on the stand of the nationalists, tried to evaluate the struggle of 1857-59. As a result of extensive research conducted by them, it came to light that the British officials who had either directly participated in those incidents or had witnessed them, were themselves divided on the character of the so-called Sepoy Mutiny. Col. G.B. Malleson, Sir John William Kaye, Charles Ball, Rev. Alexander Duff and many others had cited several instances of mass support that the insurrectionists had. According to Keye, there was none among the Hindus and Muslims from Ganga to Yamuna who was not against the British.


Malleson expressed the opinion that the majority of the people in Oudh (Ayodhya) Rohilkhand, Bundelkhand, Sagar and Narmada were against the British.


What is more, Disraeli, who later became the prime minister of England, participating in the deliberations in the House of Commons on July 27, 1857, disagreed with the official view that the Indian struggle was merely a “military mutiny.”


By 1947, as in the case of many other matters, a new impetus was given to research into the Indian freedom struggle. The centenary of the “freedom struggle” which the British authorities called “Sepoy Mutiny”, was celebrated under the auspices of the government itself. As a part of the celebrations extensive research work was organised. Committees were constituted under the direct leadership of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad who was then the Union minister of Education.


Prof Tara Chand’s History of the Freedom Movement in India, from which several quotations were given in the earlier chapters, was the result of this work. This was prepared under official auspices. A series of monographs was also published non-officially under the supervision of Dr R. C. Majumdar. Several other books, pamphlets and theses were also brought out. Yet although not in the same from as in the earlier days, two fundamentally differing approaches remained with the historians on the nature and contents of the struggle of 1857-59.


Although it is not correct to characterise it as a mere “Sepoy Mutiny” as the British administration had done earlier, it is not correct either to maintain that the sepoys or the civilians took up arms and fought against the government with the aim of liberating the country from the yoke of the British; their aim was selfish --- this was one opinion. In the view of another section of scholars, what took place in 1857-59 was a people’s revolt.


The most vociferous advocate of the former opinion was Dr Majumdar and of the latter Dr S B Choudhury. In between these two was Dr S N Sen, the author of Eighteen Fifty Seven published with an introduction by Maulana Azad. He opined that in Oudh and in the surrounding areas it was a people’s rebellion; while in other places it was merely a sepoy mutiny.


But it is important to note that even Dr Majumdar, who was opposed to the characterisation of 1857-59 as a freedom struggle, was not prepared to consider it as a mere sepoy mutiny. The very title of his book was “Sepoy Mutiny and the Revolt of 1857” justifying this title, he wrote: “I have selected the title ‘the Sepoy Mutiny and the Revolt of 1857’ as in my opinion it correctly describes the essential nature of the movements, whatever we might take of it. The word ‘revolt’ is used in its normal sense of casting off allegiance to the rulers, and does not convey any moral judgement such as disapproval or odium.”


Thus, it can be seen that even right from the British officials and historians referred to above to the Indian scholars of history like Dr Majumdar who have no sympathy for the objectives of the struggle, do concede the popular support to it.


One can say without hesitation that it was a rebellion in which millions of people in areas covered by the present Uttar Pradesh, and some parts of Bihar and Madhya Pradesh participated. At the same time, it was a movement without popular support in the entire South India, eastern India including Bengal, and in Punjab. Even scholars like Dr Choudhury who characterise it as a people’s struggle do accept this fact.


When we examine this struggle taking into consideration all the facts which are accepted equally by the scholars from both the camps, we arrive at the following conclusions.

  1. In the sense that it was the sepoys who played the main role in the anti-British revolt, it was a sepoy mutiny.

  2. However, behind the ‘sepoy mutiny’ lay the intense discontent of the people. Therefore, when the sepoys rose in revolt (in certain areas even before the mutiny started), the rural poor revolted against the rulers who were ruining their lives, and against the nouveau riche who were fattening themselves with the backing of the rulers. What the civilian rebellionists did was to destroy the government offices and official records and physically liquidate government officials, the nouveau riche usurers and traders. In this sense, the struggle of 1857-59 (at least insofar as the regions mentioned above) was a popular rebellion.

  3. Except in this limited area, however, there was not only no popular support for the struggle, but it faced the opposition of the educated new generation, who stood behind the British government. For this reason one cannot say unequivocally that what took place in 1857-59 was the “first struggle for independence” as claimed by the government and the nationalist political leaders and historians.


We have also to specially mention here that a predominant section of Indian soldiers stood with the British in 1857-59 to suppress the revolt and they outnumbered many times the sepoys who rose in revolt. Had there been no assistance form the Indian solders, not only the British would not have been able to suppress the rebellion, but they would have had to pack up and leave the country. The bourgeois nationalists and nationalist historians are shutting their eyes to this truth when they characterise the 1857-59 struggle as the “first struggle for independence.”


Hence three important questions come up before one who studies history scientifically without pre-conceived notions and prejudices.


Firstly, how was it that in Oudh and the surrounding areas people’s revolt mingled with the sepoys’ mutiny and how could that rebellion last nearly two years, throwing a challenge to the British rule?


Secondly, why was it that only a sepoys mutiny without a people’s revolt burst out in regions outside these areas? What was the reason for any type of people’s struggle not coming up against the British in any other region?


Thirdly, why did a majority of the soldiers and the civilian population come forward to render help to the British to suppress the sepoys who started the mutiny?


Before answering these three questions it is necessary to make one thing clear. A revolt like the “Sepoy Mutiny” of 1857-59 with or without the backing of a people’s struggle was an indication of a very deep crisis of the existing society. In all revolutions, soldiers’ revolts such as this have played an important role.


In the famous terminology of Lenin, sepoys (or soldiers) are “peasants in uniform.” Their discontent presents itself during revolutionary stages in the form of quintessence of all contradictions in society. That was why Lenin gave the “Soviets”, which were the revolutionary organisations of soldiers as well as of the workers and peasants, a very prominent place in the advance of the Russian revolution.


In the socialist revolutions of recent times as in China, Korea, Vietnam and Cuba and in all other revolutions of the historical periods, the discontent amongst the ranks of the armed forces and the revolts that gave expression to this discontent have played a key role.


In India, the British had organised a military which was totally different in character from all types of military organisations that were in existence in India. Till then military organisation that were extant in India was one formed under the feudal lords who were holding a dominant position in all sectors of life, including social and cultural. The military hierarchy consisted of the emperor or the king at the top, with the feudal lord and the local chiefs below him, in that order who maintained relations, though exploitative, with the people. This relationship between them and the people was reflected in the military organisation also.


On the other hand, the British built a military organisation with a new kind of relationship between officers and rank based on pay and bureaucratic discipline, breaking the traditional set-up. Moreover, in this new organisation, officers at all levels were foreigners. Consequently, unlike in the earlier set-up, there remained absolutely no relationship between the officers and ranks touching upon the social and cultural aspects of life. The sepoys came to realise that the British rulers were utilising them to destroy all socio-cultural institutions that their predecessors had fondly built and also those who were heading those institutions. This naturally fostered anger and indignation in their minds.


This intense feeling first burst out as early as in 1806. The Vellore mutiny in the South was a forerunner of 1857-59, although it was relatively smaller in extent. Following this revolt, several small revolts of a similar nature had broken out in various parts of the country. Although each one of these was suppressed, the forces behind these struggles, namely, the social forces were born out of the contradictions between the official duties that the sepoys were forced to discharge as tools of foreign rulers and the reality that they belonged to that section of the people who were ruined day by day, being the victims of exploitation by the very same foreign dominators. The 1857-59 revolt was the outburst of these forces.


Considered in this light, the question once again comes up before us: Why did 1857-59 not spread all over India and why the majority of the sepoys themselves and the civilian population, except in Oudh and the surrounding areas, helped the British? A detailed answer to this question may be found in the chapters that follow. But let us note one point here. The contradiction inherent in the feudal military set-up in India before the British established their power in the country was far greater than the contradiction in the military organisation built by the British. In fact, although the Mughal Emperors declared themselves the rulers of India, neither under them nor in the earlier periods was there a State or military organisation which could be termed, really “Indian”. During the decades immediately preceding, various sections like the Sikhs of Punjab, the Hindustanis, Maharashtrians, South Indians and so on, had their own separate military organisations and chiefs. They were fighting amongst themselves, each one striving to dominate over the other. It was as part of these fights that they entered into military alliance and political relations with the foreigners.


This state of affairs was reflected in 1857-59 as well. The Rani of Jhansi, Nana Saheb and other recognised leaders of the revolt sought at one time or the other the assistance from the British in order to protect their own interests and to inflict defeat on their opponents. When they started their struggle against the British, their opponents sought the help of the British against them. No wonder, therefore when the leaders themselves acted in this manner, the ordinary soldiers and the lower ranks acted as tools of the British against the mutiny.


Briefly, the rebellion of 1857-59 was the outburst of the social contradictions that lay below the new military organisation and the state established by the British rulers in India. And behind the suppression of the rebellion lay the fundamental contradiction inherent in the pre-British Indian society.