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History of India - The First War of Independence

India's First War of Independence was a revolt of Indian soldiers and people against the British rule. Historians have used the terms like the Indian Mutiny or the Sepoy Mutiny to describe this event. The rebellion by Indian troops of the British Raj started in March 1857 and continued for months. It had diverse political, economic, military, religious and social causes.

Under the Doctrine of Lapse introduced by Lord Dalhousie as part of the British policy of expansionism, if a feudal ruler did not leave a male heir through natural process the land became the property of the British East India Company. In eight years Lord Dalhousie annexed many kingdoms including Jhansi, Awadh or Oudh, Satara, Nagpur and Sambalpur to the company's territory. The feudal landholders and royal armies found themselves unemployed and humiliated. Even the jewels of the royal family of Nagpur were publicly auctioned in Calcutta, a move that was seen as a sign of abject disrespect by the remnants of the Indian aristocracy.

In the Bengal Army, the 140,000 Indians who were employed as sepoys were completely subordinate to the roughly 26,000 British officers. These sepoys bore the brunt of the First Britsh-Afghan War (1838-42), the two closely contested Punjab Wars (1845-6, and 1848-9) and the Second Anglo-Burmese War. They were shipped across the seas to fight in the Opium Wars against China (1840-42) and (1856-60) and the Crimean War against Russia (1854). Although at constant risk of death, the Indian sepoy faced very limited opportunities for advancement and all positions of authority were monopolized by the Europeans.

Many of the sepoys in the Bengal Army came from the Hindi speaking plains of Northern part of India where the British had enforced the "Mahalwari" system of taxation which involved constantly increasing revenue demands. In the first half of the 19th century - tax revenues payable to the British increased 70%. This led to mounting agricultural debts with land being mortgaged to traders and moneylenders at a very rapid rate. This inhumane system of taxation causes dissatisfaction against the British among the agricultural communities.

By bankrupting the nobility and the urban middle class, the demand for many local goods was almost eliminated. Also the local producers were confronted with unfair competition from British imports. As a result the weavers, the cotton dressers, the carpenters, the blacksmiths, the shoe-makers and others lost their livelihood. British policies virtually eliminated Indian artisans and products. As Thomas Lowe noted, "the native arts and manufactures as used to rise for India a name and wonder all over the western world are nearly extinguished in the present day; once renowned and great cities are merely heaps of ruins..."

Even as official taxation was back-breaking enough, British officers routinely used their powers to coerce additional money, produce, and free services from the Indian peasants and artisans. And courts routinely dismissed their pleas for justice. In the first report of the Torture Commission at Madras presented to the British House of Commons in 1856, this was acknowledged along with the admission that officers of the East India Company did not abstain from torture, nor did they discourage its use. Desperate communities had often no choice but to resist to the bitter end.

The rebellion started over a new rifle issues to sepoys throughout India. In order to load the new rifle, soldiers had to bite the cartridge open and pour the gunpowder it contained into the rifle's muzzle, then stuff the cartridge case, which was typically paper coated with some kind of grease to make it waterproof, into the musket as wadding, before loading it with a ball. It was believed that the cartridges that were standard issue with this rifle were greased with pork fat which was regarded as unclean by Muslims, or beef fat, regarded as sacred to Hindus.

The revolt of the sepoys was soon accompanied by a rebellion of the civil population, particularly in the North Western Provinces and Oudh. The masses gave vent to their opposition to British rule by attacking government buildings and prisons. They raided the "treasury", charged on barracks and court houses, and threw open the prison gates. The civil rebellion had a broad social base, embracing all sections of society - the territorial magnates, peasants, artisans, religious mendicants and priests, civil servants, shopkeepers and boatmen.

The British rulers poured in immense resources in arms and men to suppress the struggle. The superior weaponry, brutality of the British in defending their empire and the betrayal of some Indian rulers let the British prevail. British barbarity in suppressing the uprising was unprecedented. As Frederick Engels commented, "The fact is there is no army in Europe or America with so much brutality as the British. Plundering, violence, massacre - things that everywhere else are strictly and completely banished - are a time honored privilege, a vested right of the British soldier ...” Thomas Lowe wrote, "To live in India now was like standing on the verge of a volcanic crater, the sides of which were fast crumbling away from our feet, while the boiling lava was ready to erupt and consume us".

India's First War of Independence was a major event in the history of modern India. The Parliament of the United Kingdom closed down the British East India Company. The United Kingdom started ruling India directly through its representative called the Viceroy of India. It made India a part of the British Empire.

The British sent Bahadur Shah II, the last Mughal Emperor, out of India, and kept him in Yangon (then called Rangoon), Burma where he died in 1862. The Mughal dynasty, which had ruled India for about four hundred years, ended with his death.

It also ended the Hindu-Muslim unity in India. After 1857 the British embarked on a furious policy of "Divide and Rule", fomenting religious hatred as never before. By spreading rumors and falsehoods, they deliberately recast Indian history in highly communal colors. They practiced malicious communal politics to divide the Indian masses. That legacy continues to plague the sub-continent today.

The British also took many steps to employ Indian higher castes and rulers into the government. They stopped taking the lands of the remaining princes and rulers of India. They stopped interference in religious matters. They started employing Indians in the civil services but at lower levels. They increased the number of British soldiers, and allowed only British soldiers to handle artillery.