The Indian Rebellion of 1857 was a violent and bloody uprising against the British rule in India in 1857. It is also known by other names: the Sepoy Mutiny, the Indian Mutiny, the Indian Revolt of 1857, or the First War of Independence. It is interesting to observe how Britain, with a population of about 21 million in 1850, managed to control India having a population of at least 200 million. Superior weaponry, economic power, and Eurocentric confidence were the key factors which played a role in enabling Britain to control India from 1757 to 1947. The UPSC exam evaluates a candidate on their awareness of this much crucial period of Indian history. Here’s an example, choose the correct statements about the process of annexation of Indian states by the East India Company from 1757 to 1857:
- The Company often launched a direct military attack to annex an Indian kingdom.
- The Company used a variety of political, economic and diplomatic methods to extend its influence on Indian kingdoms.
The options are (a) 1 only (b) 2 only (c) Both 1 and 2 (d) Neither 1 nor 2. We can identify from our study that the Company rarely launched any direct military attack, instead they relied on various political, economic and diplomatic methods to extend its influence on Indian kingdoms, hence (b).
In 1857, thousands of Indian soldiers rose up against their British commanders. Native rulers and ordinary people also joined in a struggle that seriously threatened to destroy the British colonial power in India. It has always been portrayed in Britain and in the West in general, that it was a series of unreasonable and bloodthirsty uprisings triggered by falsehoods about religious insensitivity. But in fact it was far more complicated and interconnected with the greed of treasure and negligence of the British to the Indian culture. To understand this we need to travel back some time.
European Trade Intrusion – Trade in the Indian Ocean basin was flourishing in the medieval age 400 – 1450 CE. The Arabian peninsula, China, and even the Chola empire in southern India immensely benefitted and dazzled travelers with its wealth and luxury. Several major empires grew based on maritime trade between the Arabs and Chinese.
This continued for a long time, and around 1498, Portuguese sailors under Vasco da Gama ventured into the seas and joined the Indian Ocean trade since European demand for Asian luxury good was remarkably high. They were joined by ruthless and aggressive European powers with the Dutch East India company and the British East India company who wanted their own Asian trading posts. Thus turning Indonesia, India, and most of Southeast Asia into colonies. These colonies were exploited and started unilaterally delivering goods to Europe instead of the usual bilateral trade. The countries thus started getting poorer and collapsing.
The Battle of Plassey (1757) – Britain has been trading in India since about 1600, but things were restricted to trading until 1757, the Battle of Plassey. The battle was against 50,000 strong army of the young Siraj ud Daulah, Nawab of Bengal, against 3,000 soldiers of the British East India company led by Robert Clive. On June 23, 1757, heavy rain led to damage of the Nawab’s cannon powder. Also, Mir Jafar, the commander-in-chief of the Nawab’s army, was bribed, and the war was over in 11 hours leading to the Nawab’s defeat with a casualty ratio of 500 to 22. The British seized enormous wealth from the Bengali treasury and used it to enable further expansionist strategies. With the French already defeated in 1756 in the Battle of Chandannagar, the win at Plassey gave the East India Company an unprecedented control over the region, and also helped them instate puppet governments in various states of India. A key battle for the East India company was the Battle of Plassey which makes it important for the UPSC examination – the British were engaged in annexing several Indian kingdoms even before the Battle of Plassey – true or false? Now we know it is only after the Battle of Plassey the annexation began by political, diplomatic, and economic means.
The East India Company was primarily interested in the trades of cotton, tea, opium, and silk, but after the Battle of Plassey, it continued to act as a military authority in several areas of India. By 1770, enormous Company taxation and other policies were bleeding the local economy and had left millions of Bengalis impoverished. Let’s explore the different aspects how the British East India Company exploited and looted India. In the context of UPSC, it is important to take a note of the staple commodities of export by the East India Company from India.
Discontent – British officers in India inherently considered the Indians corrupt and untrustworthy. Indians were barred from holding high office in their own land. Even for the existing working Indians in Bengal, poor terms of service and pensions, bad pay, lack of promotion, and increased cultural and racial insensitivity by the British contributed to feelings of discontent. High caste Hindu sepoys were sensitive to the recruitment of lower caste Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims in the 1840s and considered it as a threat to their traditional social status. Combining every single factor, we have grievances in every layer of the society, and catalysts of a silence discontent giving rise to a serious affair.
Great Bengal Famine (1770) – The governance of a region also gets critical attention when over 1 million of the population dies in famine. In 1770, around 1.2 million Bengalis died in 6-7 months. Even though a failed monsoon of 1769 that led to widespread drought and two consecutive failed rice crops is attributed to this famine, the devastations from war, combined with exploitative and greedy revenue policies of the East India Company after 1765 crippled the economic resources of the rural population.
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