The Second War of Independence
By Osman Sher
By the early nineteenth century the weakened country had accepted the foreign regime as its fate on the condition that the socio-religious fabric of the society, both Hindu and Muslim, was left untouched. Reaching the middle of the nineteenth century, however, the Indian society came deep in the throes of political, social and religious tension and stress. The reasons were many but the most severe and immediate irritant was the Doctrine of Lapse, introduced by the Governor General, the Marquess of Dalhousie (1848-56), that would bring those princely states under the British governance whose rulers would die without leaving a direct heir. In the course of eight years Dalhousie annexed eight states including two Maratha states and one Muslim state of Oudh on this pretext. To crown it all, he gave notice to the Mughal emperor at Delhi that his title as the sovereign of India would lapse at his death
Another provocation, though small but of serious nature, bearing religious sensitivities, put fuel on the smoldering restlessness of both Hindus and Muslims. The incident which flared it up related to the local soldiery under British employ. They had to bite off the end of a cartridge, greased with animal fat, for loading the Enfield rifle. It was rumored that it was filled with fat of cows, which was a taboo for the Hindus, and with that of pigs, a taboo for the Muslims. Both were now convinced that a calculated and concerted assault was being made on their religions. It was an impiety that no sepoy was prepared to commit.
The flame was up in the sky in 1857, and a war of independence started. The soldiers seized Delhi on 11 th May with the help of the local garrison, and proclaimed the eighty-two year old Bahadur Shah as the real Emperor of India. At that time the king was a prisoner of the British. On August 27, the Emperor issued a Proclamation recognizing the joint struggle of Hindus and Muslims to rid the country of the British rule: It is well known to all, that in this age the people of Hindoostan, both Hindus and Mohammedans, are being ruined under the tyranny and oppression of the infidel and treacherous English. It is therefore the bounden duty of all the wealthy people of India…to stake their lives and property for the well being of the public. With the view of effecting this general good, several princes belonging to the royal family of Delhi, have dispersed themselves in the different parts of India.
Soon the revolt of the sepoys turned into ‘a full-scale Anglo-Indian war’. It spread throughout northern India and the command was taken over by civilian leaders. Most notable among them were the deposed Rani of Jhansi; dispossessed Begum of Oudh; Nana Saheb, the adopted son of the ex-Peshwa and aspirant to the Peshwa’s gaddi; Tantia Topi of Gwalior; ex-zamindar Kunwar Singh of Bihar; and Khan Bahadur of Rohilkhand, another dispossessed scion. The British administration could not hold ground, and became virtually non-existent in north and central India. The British had to rely on their military reserves in India and, in the meanwhile, sent for re-enforcement from Britain. In September they recovered Delhi with the help of a Sikh force, which marked the beginning of the end of the War
Despite the fact that the natives had the fighting spirit they had no unified war leadership except that of a symbolic figurehead of the Mughal emperor. They had no concerted fighting strategy or a plan. On the other side, there were zamindars and talukdars, who were fashioned into bulwarks of the Empire. They had been pampered, and were beneficiary of the newly introduced feudal system. In a feudatory regime, the cultivators would only obey what the landlords would tell them to do; so the zamindars asked them not to lend support to the rebels.
As a result of the British victory, the Mughal monarchy was abolished andthe aged emperor was exiled to Rangoon. It was ‘the total extinction of a dynasty, the most magnificent that the world had ever seen.’ The administration of India was brought directly under the British Government, and Queen Victoria became the Empress of India.