The Sepoy mutiny of 1857, popularly known as the Revolt of 1857 was the first major attempt at overthrow of the British rule from India led by disgruntled sepoys or army jawans and later joined by various sections of the society like princes, zamindars, peasants, etc. for different reasons. There were economic, administrative and socio-religious causes that resulted in the Revolt of 1857 which are highlighted below.
Economic Causes of Revolt of 1857
The economic policies of British impoverished the countryside while creating a new class of moneylenders at the expense of traditional zamindars and peasants. The peasants were pushed to penury and they borrowed at heavy rates of interest from the moneylenders just for survival. British rule also meant misery to the artisans and handicraftsmen. The annexation of Indian states by the British East India Company cut off their major source of patronage. These skilled workmen were also forced into agriculture as labourers for the sake of survival.
The Zamindars experienced alienation from their land due to forcible acquisition of their land by the British which resulted in resentment among this previously landed gentry.
Political Causes of Revolt of 1857
In order to seize control of the princely kingdoms the British invented the Doctrine of Lapse by which any Indian princely state under the suzerainty of the British East India Company, as a vassal state under the British subsidiary system, would have its princely status abolished (and therefore annexed into British India) if the ruler was either “manifestly incompetent or died without a male heir”. Although this Doctrine of Lapse is most closely associated with Lord Dalhousie, it was applied to the proud house of Mughals by Lord Canning after the death of Prince Faqruddin in 1856, who announced that the next successor to the Mughal throne would have to renounce the regal title and the ancestral Mughal palaces. Although the proud house of Mughals was a spent force by 1856, it still had a special place in the hearts of the masses who looked upon it as the symbol of India’s past glory. Annexing the Mughal throne led to resentment among the supporters of the aristocracy.
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Socio-Religious Causes of Revolt of 1857
The interference in the conservative customs and traditions of the Hindus and Muslims by the British rulers was resented by the masses. The conversion activities of Christian missionaries was looked upon with suspicion and fear. The Religious Disabilities Act of 1856 modified the existing Hindu customs by declaring that a change of religion did not debar a son from inheriting the property of his heathen father. This was seen as an attempt to encourage conversion from Hinduism without losing the right of property inheritance.
Administrative Causes of Revolt of 1857
The Indian sepoys were unhappy that the foreign service allowance (bhatta) which they were entitled to while serving in the Singh or Punjab was withdrawn. Further, they were also apprehensive about serving overseas since this meant a loss of their caste according to their beliefs. They were also paid less in comparison to the British sepoys and were also subjected to racial maltreatment. The maltreatment also extended to matters of promotions and privileges.
The immediate cause of the Revolt of 1857 was the incident of the greased cartridge. The British East India Company had recently introduced the Enfield rifle; the cartridge of the new rifle had to be bitten off before loading and the grease was reportedly made of beef and pig fat. The administration did nothing to mitigate these fears and Hindu and Muslim sepoys felt their religion was in grave danger. This served as the tipping point to the boiling pot of water which finally resulted in the beginning of the sepoy mutiny or revolt on May 10, 1857 at Meerut and then spread over a vast area over Northern India in the coming months.