Since the mid-eighteenth century, the power of nawabs and rajas had been eroding. The authority and the honour which they earlier commanded were gradually waning away. The British had appointed Residents in many courts. The freedom of the Indian rulers was reduced and their armed forces were disbanded. The Company also took away their revenues and territories in stages.
Failed Negotiations of Ruling Families:
Many ruling families tried to negotiate with the Company to protect their interests but they failed. Let us take the example of Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi. After the death of her husband, she wanted her adopted son to be recognized as the heir to the kingdom. Similarly, Nana Saheb who was the adopted son of Peshwa Baji Rao II, wanted his father's pension when the Peshwa died. But the Company always turned down such requests.
Annexation of Awadh:
A subsidiary alliance was imposed on Awadh in 1801 and it was fully taken over in 1856. Misrule by the nawab was given as the reason for annexation of Awadh.
The Company was also working on its plan to bring the Mughal dynasty to an end. It removed the name of the Mughal king from the coins. In 1849, it was announced by Governor General Dalhousie that after the death of Bahadur Shah Zafar the family of the king would be shifted out of the Red Fort. It was announced that they would be given another place in Delhi as residence. In 1856, it was decided by Governor General Canning that Bahadur Shah Zafar would be the last Mughal king. After his death, none of his descendants would be recognized as kings. They would be called princes.
The peasants were not happy with the high taxes and the rigid methods of revenue collection. Many peasants had lost the lands they had been tilling for generations because of their failure to repay their loans.
The Indian sepoys were not happy about their pay, allowances and conditions of service. Some of the new rules violated their religious sensibilities and beliefs.
The Hindus believed that crossing the sea would mean that they would lose their religion and caste. In 1824, when the sepoys were told to go to Burma by the sea route they refused to follow the order. However, they agree to go by land route. For this, the sepoys were severely punished. The Company passed a new law in 1856. The new law made it mandatory for a sepoy to agree to serve overseas if required.
Most of the sepoys were from rural background. They had families living in the villages. So, they also reacted to what was happening in the countryside.
Responses to Reforms
The British took several steps to reform the society. New laws were passed against the practice of sati. A law was also passed to encourage widow remarriage. The Company officially promoted the English language. After 1830, Christian missionaries were allowed to function freely and they could even own land and property. In 1850, a new law allowed an Indian who had converted to Christianity to inherit property of his ancestors. This law made it easier to convert to Christianity.
A feeling was developing among most of the Indians that the British were trying to destroy their religion, social customs and traditional way of life. However, there were some others who wanted to get rid of many of the social evils.
Mutiny to Popular Rebellion
The rebellion of May 1857 threatened the Company's very presence in India. The mutiny which started from the cantonment in Meerut engulfed a large part of northern and central India. People from different sections of society rose up in rebellion. Many historians regard it as the biggest armed resistance to colonialism in the nineteenth century anywhere in the world.
From Meerut to Delhi
Execution of Mangal Pandey: Mangal Pandey was a young soldier at the cantonment in Barrackpore. He was the culprit of attacking his officers. On 29 March 1857, Mangal Pandey was hanged to death for his crime.
Within a few days, some sepoys of the regiment at Meerut refused to use the new cartridges during an army drill. It was rumoured that the new cartridges were coated with the fat of cows and pigs. For their refusal to obey the orders, eighty five sepoys were dismissed from service. They were sentenced to ten years in jail. This incidence happened on 9 May 1857.
The Backlash: The other soldiers in Meerut responded in extraordinary way. On 10 May, the soldier marched to the jail and released the imprisoned sepoys. They attacked in killed British officers. They captured guns and ammunition. They set fire to the buildings and properties of the British. They declared a war on the firangis.
Anointment of the New Leader: After creating mayhem in Meerut, the soldiers rode throughout the night of 10th May and reached Delhi the next morning. When the regiments in Delhi heard the news, they also rose up in rebellion. The soldiers gathered around the Red Fort and demanded to meet Bahadur Shah Zafar. The emperor was hesitant to challenge the might of the British but the soldiers persisted in their demand. They forced their way into the palace. They proclaimed the Badhshah as their leader.
The emperor had no choice but to accede to their demand. He wrote letters to all the chiefs and rulers of the country to come forward. He asked them to form a confederacy of Indian states to fight the British. This step of the emperor had great implications.
Political Importance of Bahadur Shah Zafar: It is important to remember that the Mughal dynasty had ruled over a very large part of the country for a long period. Most of the smaller rulers and chieftains had been ruling over their territories on behalf of the Mughal ruler. They hoped that if the Mughal ruler could once again resume power, they would also be able to rule their own territories once again.
The British had initially taken the revolt at Meerut quite lightly. But the decision by Bahadur Shah Zafar to support the rebellion had dramatically changed the entire situation. People were emboldened by an alternative possibility.
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