The cumulative effect of British expansionist policies economic exploitation and administrative innovations over the years had adversely affected the positions of all- rulers of Indian states, sepoys, zamindars, peasants,traders, artisans, pundits, maulvis, etc.
The simmering discontent burst in the form of a violent storm in 1857 which shook the British empire in India to its very foundations.
The causes of the revolt of 1857, like those of earlier uprisings, emerged from all aspects- socio-cultural, economic and political- Of daily existence of Indian population cutting through all sections and classes. These cause are discussed below.
- Economic Causes
The colonial policies of the East India Company destroyed the traditional economic fabric of the Indian society.The peasantry were never really to recover from the disabilities imposed by the new and a highly unpopular revenue settlement.Impoverished by heavy taxation, the peasants resorted to loans from money-lenders/traders at usurious rates, the latter often evicting the former from their land on non-payment of debt dues. These money-lenders and traders emerged as the new landlords, while the scourge of landless peasantry and rural indebtedness has continued to plague Indian society to this day. The older system of zamindari was forced to disintegrate.
British rule also meant misery to the artisans and handicrafts people. The annexation of Indian states by the Company cut off their major source of patronage—the native rulers and the nobles, who could not now afford to be patrons of the crafts workers. Added to this, British policy discouraged Indian handicrafts and promoted British goods. The highly skilled Indian craftsmen were forced to look for alternate sources of employment that hardly existed, as the destruction of Indian handicrafts was not accompanied by the development of modern industries.
The Indian trade and mercantile class was deliberately crippled by the British who imposed high tariff duties on Indian-made goods. At the same time the import of British goods into India attracted low tariffs thus encouraging their entry into India.
Zamindars, the traditional landed aristocracy, often saw their land rights forfeited with frequent use of a quo warranto by the administration. This resulted in a loss of status for them in villages. In Awadh, the storm centre of the revolt 21,000 taluqdars had their estates confiscated
- Political Causes
The East India Company’s greedy policy of aggrandisement accompanied by broken pledges and promises resulted in contempt for the Company and loss of political prestige, besides causing suspicion in the minds o almost all the ruling princes in India, through such policies as of ‘ Effective Control’, ‘ Subsidiary Alliance’ and Doctrine of Lapse’.
The collapse of rulers- the erstwhile aristocracy- also adversely affected those sections of the Indian society which derived their sustenance from cultural and religious pursuits.
- Administrative Causes
Rampant corruption in the Company’s administration, especially among the police, petty officials and lower law courts, was a major cause of discontent. Indeed, it is the view of many historians that the rampant corruption we see now in India is a legacy of the Company rule. Also, the character of British rule imparted a foreign and alien look to it in the eyes of Indians: a kind of absentee sovereignty.
- Socio-Religious Causes
Racial overtones and superiority complex characterised the British administrative attitude towards the native Indian population. The activities of Christian missionaries who followed by the British flag in India were looked upon with suspicion by Indians. The attempts at socio-religious reform such as abolition of sati, support to widow-marriage and women’s education were seen by a large section of the population as interference in the social and religious domains of Indians society by outsiders. These fears were compounded by the governments’s decision to tax mosque and temple lands and making law as such as the Religious Disabilities Act, 1856, a change of religion did not debar a son from inheriting the property of his ‘heathen’ father.
- Influence of Outside Events
The revolt of 1857coincided with certain outside events in which the British suffered serious losses- the First Afghan War (1838-42), Punjab Wars (1845-49), and the Crimean Wars (1854-56). These had obvious psychological I was felt that they could be defeated.
- Discontent Among Sepoys
The conditions of service in the Company’s Army and cantonments increasingly came into conflicts with the religious beliefs and prejudices of the sepoys. Restrictions on wearing caste and sectarian marks and secret rumours of proselytising activities of the chaplains (often maintained on the Company’s expenses which meant at Indian expense) were interpreted by Indian sepoys, who were generally conservative by nature,as interference in their religious affairs.
To the religious Hindu of the time, crossing the seas meant loss of caste. In 1856, Lord Canning’s government passed the General Service Enlistment Act which decreed that all future recruits to the Bengal Army would have to give an undertaking to serve anywhere their services might be required by the government. This caused resentment.
The Indian sepoy was equally unhappy with his emoluments compared to his British counterpart. A more immediate cause of the sepoys’ dissatisfaction was the order that theywould not be given the foreign service allowance (bhatta) when serving in Sindh or in Punjab. The annexation of Awadh, home of many of the sepoys, further inflamed their feelings. The discontent of the sepoys was not limited to military matters; it reflected the general disenchantment with and the opposition to Britishrule. The sepoy, in fact, was a ‘peasant in uniform’ whose consciousness was not divorced from that of the rural population.