Scholars have held divergent views about the nature of the revolt of 1857.
British scholars like Kaye, Trevelyan, and Lawrence in addition to many eye witnesses like Munshi Jiwan Lai, Durgadas Bandopadhya, Syed Ahmad Khan etc. have held that it was 'a mutiny'. Other described it as a 'racial struggle'. Still others doubt it as a clash of civilization, while the nationalists call it as the first War of Indian Independence. Following are the major views of scholars.
John Lawrence and Seeley thought it to be a Sepoy's mutiny. John Seeley describes the revolt as a 'wholly unpatriotic and selfish Sepoy mutiny with non active leadership and no popular support'. Though it is true that it began as a military rising, yet it was not everywhere confined to the army.
Even the army as a whole did not join it and a considerable section fought on the side of the government. In fact, the rebels came from almost every section of the population. In the trials of 1858-59, thousands of civilians, along with the soldiers, were held guilty of the rebellion and were punished.
The views of L.E.R. Rees that the revolt was 'a war of fanatic religionists against Christians' are also erring. During the heat of the rebellions, the ethical principles underlying the various religions had little influence on the complaints. Both sides quoted their religious scriptures to cover their cases over the other party.
Though the Christians fought the war and won it, but not the Christianity. True, Christianity like western science has influenced the Indian mind but the Christian missionaries had no astounding success in the work of proselytization. It was also not a 'war of races'.
True, all the whites in India, whatever their nationality, were ranged on one side, but not all the blacks. Leaving the non-combatants out of account, there was a high proportion of Indian soldiers in the Company's army that took part in the suppression of the rebellion. To be more correct, it was a war between the black rebels on one side and the white ruler supported by blacks on the other side.
T.R. Holmes held that it was 'a conflict between civilization and barbarism'. The explanation smacks of narrow racialism. During the rebellion both the Europeans and the Indians were guilty of excess. Infact, vendettas took the better of men, on both sides. No nation or individual which indulges in such horrible atrocities can claim to be civilized. Sir James Outram and W.
Tayler described the outbreak as the result of Hindu-Muslim conspiracy. Outram held that 'it was a Mohammedan conspiracy making capital of Hindu grievances'. Benjamin Disraeli, a contemporary conservative leader in England had described it as a 'national rising'. He contended that the so called mutiny was 'no sudden impulse but was the result of careful combinations, vigilant and well-organised, on the watch to an opportunity. Such rebellions are occasioned by accumulation of adequate causes.
Early national leaders like V.D. Savarkar in his book, eThe Indian War of Independence, to arouse national consciousness, described it as 'a planned war of national indepen-dence'. Later on, national leaders further developed them to cite it as a shining example of the perfect accord and harmony between the Hindus and the Muslims.
Dr. R.C. Majumdar and Dr. S.N. Sen agree that the uprising of 1857 was not the result of a careful planning nor were there any masterminds behind it. The mere fact that Nana Saheb went to Lucknow and Ambala in March-April 1857 and the struggle started in May of the same year cannot be regarded as an evidence of planning.
Even the stories of the circulation of messages through echapatiesi and lotus flowers do not prove anything. During the trial of Bahadur Shah, efforts were made to prove that he was a party to a pre-planned conspiracy. Infect the course of trial made it clear that the uprising was as much surprise to Bahadur Shah as to the British.
Also, both of them agree that the Indian nationalism in the middle of the 19th century was in an embryonic stage. India, at that time was not a nation and the leaders of the rebellion were no national leaders. Bahadur Shah was no national king. Infect, self motivation and profit worked as an energizer to the rebel leaders. Different groups participated different in the revolt because of reasons. The Taluqdars of Awadh fought for their feudal privileges.
Attitudes of the leaders were mutually jealous. The condition of the masses was no better. The majority of the people remained apathetic and neutral. In his book (the Sepoy Mutiny and the Revolt of 18571, R.C. Majumdar argued that the uprising of 1857 was not a war of independence.
He maintains that the revolt took different aspects in different region. Somewhere it was a Sepoy mutiny joined later by disgruntled elements eager to take advantage of anarchy, somewhere it was a Sepoy mutiny followed by a general revolt in which, civilians, disposed rulers, tenants and other took part.
He also contends that the Sepoys were mostly inspired by the desire of material gains than any political or even religious contradiction. However, he concedes that ultimately these all gave birth to nationalism.
On the contrary, Dr. Sen believes it to be a war of independence by arguing that revolutions are mostly the work of a minority, with or without the active sympathy of the masses. He contends that when a rebellion can claim the sympathies of the substantial majority of the population, it can claim a national character.
Dr. S.B. Chaudhari, in his book eCivil Rebellions in the Indian Mutinities 1857-1859 (has confined his attention to the detailed analysis of the civil rebellions which accompanied the military insurrection of 1857. He maintains that the revolt of 1857 can be bifurcated into mutiny and rebellion and the outburst of 1857 was the coming together of two series of disturbances.
Marxist scholars contend that the struggle was a soldier-peasant democratic combine against foreign as well as feudal bandage which failed because of feudal betrayal. There seem to have been no ideology or programme behind the revolt as argued above.
Lala Lajpat Rai in Young Indian has described the revolt of 1857 as both political as well national. Subhash Chandra Bose also conceded that it was not merely a Sepoy mutiny but a national uprising. Eric Stokes believes that in rural areas the revolt was essentially elitist in character. The mass of the population, appear to have played little part in the fighting or at most timely followed the local leadership. According to them, it was basically an unarmed rebellion.
The revolt of 1857 gave a several jolt to the British administration in India and made its reorganisation inevitable. The Government of India's structure and policies underwent significant changes in the decades following the Revolt. But more important for change in Indian economy and Government was the inauguration of a new stage of colonialism in India.
An act of Parliament in 1858 transferred the power to govern from the East India Company to the British crown. The British had divided India for administrative convenience into provinces, three of which - Bengal, Madras and Bombay - were known as Presidencies. Local bodies were first formed between 1864 and 1868. The Indian army was carefully reorganised after 1858, most of all to prevent the recurrence of another revolt.
The rulers had soon that their bayonets were the only secure foundation of their rule. Several steps were taken to minimise, if not completely eliminate, the capacity of Indian soldiers to revolt. Firstly, the domination of the army by its European branch was carefully guaranteed.
The proportion of Europeans to Indians in the army was raised and fixed at one to two in-the Bengal Army and two to five in the Madras and Bombay armies. Moreover, the European troops were kept in key geographical and military positions.
The crucial branches of the army like artillery and later in the 20th century, tanks and armored corps were put exclusively in European hands. The older policy of excluding Indians from the officer corps was strictly maintained. Till 1914 no Indian could rise higher than the rank of a suborder.
Secondly, the organisation of the Indian section of the army was based on the policy of 'balance and counterpoise' or 'divide and rule' so as to prevent its chance of uniting again in an anti-British uprising. Discrimination on the basis of caste, region and religion was practiced in recruitment to the army.