The General Causes of Insurrection in 1857
In order to ensure the renewal of its charter, the East India Company worked hard to create the impression that the early nineteenth century was a period of slow but progressive improvement for India, but the truth was far removed from this. It was in reality a time of radical experimentation and desperate contingency in the development of a British system of government, which created widespread resentment. Apart from the administrative reforms described in the previous chapters, a host of other petty interventions by the Company's officials, such as the rounding up and incarceration of prostitutes whenever there was an outbreak of venereal disease among the troops, had promoted disaffection [Ballhatchet 1957, 1980]. One of the most widespread grievances concerned the increase in land tax, imposed in all of the newly ceded and conquered territories. This might have been bearable at a time of agricultural prosperity, but the early nineteenth century was a period of profound economic depression. British methods of collecting these taxes were also unpopular, involving as they did the introduction a European system of courts, whereby defaulters were arraigned before a magistrate and summarily deprived of their lands for failing to meet revenue payments. Such measures were novel, confusing, and illegitimate in the eyes of many Indians. The courts also greatly increased the powers of the sahukar or bania money lenders to whom many were indebted: a further cause of resentment [Hardiman 1996]. Most large land controllers, and many smaller ones, at this time, had acquired their positions because they were aristocrats or ulema (Muslim scholars), the educated elite who ruled the Mughal Empire, and had been appointed by the Emperor or one of his Governors or deshmukhs . But in the territories under Company rule, their authority was superseded by law courts, presided over by men in black frock coats and pants: the British who did not sit in judgement by right of descent, as aristocrats, or as kazis or pundits. They occupied posts in court because they had completed an examination in London and had been appointed to the East India Company's Indian Civil Service. To many Indians this was a strange way to govern a country. Above all, the decisions of the courts were resented because they were final. Tax collection had always been a matter for negotiation under the Mughals: those who could not pay might be threatened, but ultimately a compromise was often possible. Indian governors and zamindars also often made generous gifts of land, so-called inam lands, for the maintenance of temples and pilgrimage centres and as pensions to former public servants. But, imbued with Utilitarian ideals, and particularly David Ricardo's theories concerning agricultural rent, the Company's officials were taught that a rental charge imposed on the land, no matter how high, was not likely to undermine agricultural production and that the government's land tax was a form of rent. They did not see the surplus on agricultural production either as a form of subsistence or a reward for enterprise; they saw it as an unearned surplus, of which they could take as much as they pleased [Stokes 1959]; whilst the grants of inam land were regarded as a drain on the state's resources, to be curtailed. For this reason, the British were extremely inflexible in their revenue assessments, and were inclined to suspend privileged land holdings granted by former rulers [Stokes 1978, ch2]. Zamindars were expected to pay their dues to the government, and if they did not, lost their position. Furthermore, the success of British District Collectors and their promotion, depended on close accounting and their ability to raise yields. This was an entirely different logic from that of the traditional structure of landholding in India which was bound up with aristocratic right, and religious and social status [Cohn 1983].
The general uprising of 1857 has been characterised as anti-colonial because the changes from which people were suffering, in general were those effected by the colonial ruler, the East India Company. The problem was that there were many other causes for rebellion, and not all of those who took up arms were directly fighting against the colonial regime. Many rebels were hoping to restore a pre-colonial social order. They did not know who or what was responsible for the changes going on around them, but what they did want was to revive some form of traditional authority. With the collapse of British military power in North India in that year, others had no alternative but to turn to traditional leaders of one sort or another. Unfortunately, anyone who took to arms, even with the aim of self-defence, or restoring some sort of local order, was often regarded as a rebel by the British and ultimately pilloried, tried and executed [Brodkin 1972].
The Indian army mutineers themselves, who signalled the commencement of the wider insurrection, had mixed motives. Some wanted to revive the authority of the ailing Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah II, and the units of the British Army which mutinied at Meerut in May 1857 determined their fate at an early stage by deciding to march on Delhi to reinstall the Emperor rather than march, as they might alternatively have done, towards the British seat of power in Calcutta. In doing so, they immediately alienated the large number of Indians who had never recognised the authority of the Mughals, or who, like the Sikhs in the Punjab, had spent many generations struggling against the Mughal Empire. They also alienated Hindu rulers who were prospering under the East India Company's rule. Naturally, they did win the support of Mughal aristocrats in the North of India. A further advantage of marching to Delhi was that it gave the rebels a concrete aim, which was very needed for the obvious reason that India, at this time, lacked a truly powerful nationalist ethos. Those who took up arms were often fighting for their country against the British, but that country might be Gwalior, Bengal, Awadh, Indore &c. – it was not in the name of India itself. They were fighting, very often, for the reinstatement of kingdoms, patrimonies, and chiefdoms that had existed in the pre-British period, or for the revival of an empire which covered part of the subcontinent. They were by no means united in struggling for a single political alternative, and this is one of the reasons why the uprising of 1857 was ultimately successfully suppressed by the British. There was no overall strategy; though to say this is something of a truism, since it is absurd to suggest that there could easily have been one.