As with any conflict or controversy there are always two sides to the debate, and the events in India during 1857 are certainly no exception. Given the situation in India during the nineteenth century it is hardly surprising that such a polarisation of opinion exists regarding the context of the rebellious events during that year. The British being in control of the subcontinent and their sense of superiority over their Indian subjects, would naturally seek to downplay any acts of rebellion. While the Indian subjects on the other hand would arguably wish to exaggerate and over emphasise the importance of these events, as a means of promoting the nationalist cause for self determination. The truth of the events themselves, does it lie towards the British account or the Indian pro nationalistic side, or could there be a certain amount of truth in both sides of the debate.
Metcalf in his account cites three indisputable factors behind the outbreak of rebellion in 1857. Primarily he sees `accumulating grievances of the Sepoy Army of Bengal' as the most important factor. The reasons behind this `deterioration of morale' amongst the army lay with several reasons. Much of the Sepoy army was comprised of `Brahmins and other high caste Hindus' who assisted in promoting a `focus of sedition'. The `generally poor standard of British officers', plus the lack of improvement to the overall position of those men serving in the army also increased the level of tension. At this point it should be remembered that the `Bengal Army differed from those of Bengal and Madras', as the Bombay and Madras armies took no part in the rebellion of 1857. But the more pronounced military factor was the lack of British troops in the `Gangetic plain' meant that many areas were `virtually denuded of British troops'.
These military grievances which although significant were not themselves enough to incite rebellion, as it took a perceived attack on the Sepoy religious institutions to trigger of the rebellion. The first of these perceived threats was that the British government was preparing to dismantle the caste system and `convert them forcibly to Christianity'. Although not based on fact the actions of some `pious British officers did nothing to dispel' the rumours to the contrary. Added to this British lethargy was the Brahmins who tended to be `peculiarly watchful for potential threats to their religion and caste'.
Secondly, the introduction in 1857 of the `new Enfield rifle' with its distinct ammunition, which required the bullet to be `bitten before loading'. Rumours that the grease used on the bullets was either from the fat of cattle or pigs, which either proved `sacred to Hindus' or `pollution to Muslims', was interpreted as attacking at the core of the Hindu and Muslim religious beliefs. These rumours unlike those regarding the conversion to Christianity and dismantling of the caste system, did prove to have a factual basis, as the British government `withdrew the objectionable grease'. This belated action proved futile as the damage had already been done.
However this only accounts for the military aspects of the uprising which display the version of events `accepted in official circles [as] basically army mutinies'. This version preferred by the British fails to acknowledge the level of `widespread unrest among the civilian population', who saw much of the British government's actions as amounting to interference and contempt for the `long established rules and customs'.
Disraeli saw the causes of the uprising as not being the `conduct of men who were ... the exponents of general discontent' amongst the Bengal army. For Disraeli the root cause was the overall administration by the government, which he regarded as having `alienated or alarmed almost every influential class in the country'.
Yet other British saw the overall social situation and government administration as having no effect in causing the uprising. For officials like Sir John Lawrence the `immediate cause of the revolt' was the concerns held by Sepoys over the new ammunition for the Enfield rifles. However, he sees this as just the trigger incident, with the root cause being the long term reduction in discipline in the army and the poor standard of officers in command.
The British standpoint is to regard the events of 1857 as a mutiny. This is correct as there was a mutiny by sections of the military, yet this fails to include the sections of the civilian population who also engaged in civil unrest. For most of the British writers and observers of the events, they are agreed in calling it a mutiny because of the failings of the army, in terms of discipline and command.
The term mutiny also conjures up images of relatively small, disorganised and not very widespread activities of disobedience towards British authority. This is a more accurate description of the events given that the `whole of India did not participate in the rebellion'. Added to this the `large bodies of Punjabi Sikh troops [who] served under British command' and some `of the Indian princes' it seems hard to justify the term used by the Indian nationalists to describe the events of 1857.
Although not accepted by all Indian historians, the traditional Indian nationalist view of the events of 1857 are that it was not as the British believe, a series of isolated and uncoordinated mutinies. It was a war of independence, the first act by Indians to gain self rule. That year represented a turning point in which the `nationalist feelings, long suppressed by the British occupation, flared into violence'. For half a century after 1857 the writing on the uprising were basically confined to British observers and scholars.
The first nationalist interpretation appeared in 1909. Savarkar is very passionate in his pro nationalist stance, he treats with contempt the British assertion of the greased bullets as sparking the `war'. He questions that if the bullets were the cause why did the likes of `Nana Sahib, the Emperor of Delhi, the Queen of Jhansi ... join in'. To Savarkar the fact that these individuals participated and the fighting continued after the `English Governor General issued a proclamation' to withdraw the offending greased bullets, shows in his mind the fight was for an India free from British rule. To Savarkar the real cause was the actions of the British in having `committed so many atrocities'.
As noted by others was the objective of the Indians to stop the British in their alleged `wicked desire to destroy our holy religion'. The nationalists sought to `restore state protection to Islam and Hinduism'. Savakar's rhetoric is of a somewhat ultra nationalist standpoint, claiming God on the Indian side and national support to repel the European invader from the sub-continent. The ability to write years after the event assists in Savakar's ability to utilise the nationalist sentiments of his contemporary early twentieth century campaign to promote this event from half a century earlier as the foundations of the nationalist movement.
Another view by Joshi adds to the nationalist picture of the tremendous detrimental effect the British had on India's people and civilization. Joshi regards the events of 1857 as certainly being a war, but he sees it as being more than a war of independence, it was a `social revolution'. To both Joshi and Savakar the British were suppressing the truth of the uprising, the British `exaggerated and deliberately misrepresented the role played' by religious factors. They used this argument as a means of further control and repression of the Indian people after 1857. Joshi is highly critical of the `English educated Indian intellectuals' for maintaining the British lie, who he regards as having `swallowed this imperialist thesis uncritically'.
One view which leans towards the side if interpreting the events of 1857 as a war of independence, rather than a mutiny, is that of Gupta. Although he takes a less nationalist and more balanced approach. He argued the name of the events, which is what parties for both sides have continuously argued over, are entitled to be called the `Great Indian Outbreak'. For Gupta the name is not being pro Indian nationalist in the description of the events, which he regards as having `possessed the hallmarks of a truly national uprising'. He sought to equate these events on an equal footing with European events of a similar nature. `If the limited and unfruitful results of 1830 and 1848 in Central and Southern European countries have been regarded as national uprisings', Gupta sees the Indians as justifiably giving the events of 1857 a similar title.
The two accounts by Joshi and Savarkar are certainly for the pro-nationalist movement, who of course would wish to portray the events of 1857 in a light that was directed towards the nationalist movement's objectives. Gupta although eluding to this viewpoint is far less pro nationalist and more balanced in his approach.
As Metcalf points out the `most pervasive legacy of the mutiny can be found perhaps in the sphere of human relations'. Quite simply the way in which the British and Indians interacted, was especially the way the British felt towards the Indians altered markedly. While there is no question concerning the British as the rulers of India for a century, the manner of administration prior to the mutiny of 1857 was less as the role of overlord. After the mutiny it became much sterner with the British acting as `clearly an occupying power, garrisoning a hostile land'. The British saw the need to reduce the risk of a second rebellion and to reduce the prospect the `Government of India adopted the policy of creating division and disunion in the civil ranks'.
In terms of interaction the mutiny saw `the romanticism of orientalists and the optimism of reformers [giving] way to a pessimistic stance that emphasised military security and cautious policies'. This saw the British drift `into insular little communities'. As part of this different military and administrative approach there was a significant restructuring of the military, `the Indian element in the army was drastically reduced (from 238,000 in 1857 to 140,000 in 1863) and the European part increased (from 45,000 to 65,000)'. As part of restructuring personnel numbers, ratios were introduced where in the `Punjab the ratio of British to native troops should normally be one to two, ... [while] in Bombay and Madras ... one to three'. In an attempt to further reduce any chance of another mutiny occurring the `native Artillery was abolished ... [and] the corps of Bengal, Madras and Bombay Artillery and Engineers were amalgamated with the Royal Artillery and Royal Engineers'.
The decades prior to the mutiny saw no attempts by the British to classify the Indians into `racial categories or rank them as superior or inferior'. But by the middle of the nineteenth century the divisions of `race was a popular topic in Victorian England'. The concept of superiority and inferiority reached such levels that the `concept of permanent racial superiority ... underlay much of post-Mutiny British thought about India'.
The basis for these views were no longer regarded as simply being `emotional sentiment, it was a scientific fact', or more accurately pseudo-science. While the theories of racial superiority were nothing new to the people of Victorian England. The racially based ideas were given much greater credence to those who supported them, by the `publication in 1859 of Charles Darwin's, Origin of the Species [which] accelerated this shift from the commonalities of the human race to a differentiation of races'.
These racially based beliefs in superiority and inferiority were the basis, for the supporters of such beliefs, in the reason behind the British victory in 1857, as the `white race was dominant because it was more advanced and adaptable'. The moves by the British towards acknowledging the various racial groups in India and therefore the qualities of each was an area which having been neglected before the mutiny became an area of keen interest. The `martial races became a concern immediately after the outbreak of the Sepoy Rebellion'. The British administration the `Peel Commission concluded ... had been unaware of the true martial attributes possessed by various Indian ethnic groups'.
The willingness of the British to admit to the beneficial qualities of certain ethnic groups showed that, although they did not regard such groups as being anywhere near the equal of the white race. They could be categorised as being the superior members of an inferior race. The findings of the inquiry saw the British place certain racial groups out of favour, while providing greater acceptance of others.
The Brahmins were characterised as `scheming and dishonest', and it was the `high caste Hindus of Oudh and neighbouring areas ... adjudged responsible for the undermining of discipline of the sepoys of the Native Army'. While others like the `Guhkas, Sikhs, Marathas and Rajputs ... understood the meaning of honour, and duty', therefore the British administrators saw these races as being `India's truly martial peoples'. The recruitment into the army of members of these social groups was made government policy and `a series of handbooks on the martial races [produced] for the benefit of recruiting officers'.
Aside from the overall deterioration in relations between the British and their Indian subjects after the rebellion, there was also an impact on the Indians themselves. With the Muslims losing much of the influence and power they held before the rebellion, and the Hindus filling the vacuum left by the Muslims. While the British attitude changed radically towards the Indians the `most bitter and widespread hostility was reserved for the Muslim community'. They were blamed by the British for much of the rebellious activity, which the British saw as an attempt to `restore the authority of the Moghul emperor'.
Because `Muslims stood prejudiced against western education' they `had to remain in the background for some time', while the Hindus who were more favourable in the adoption of this western style of education and learning English benefited under the government. An example which shows how the Muslims declined so heavily and the Hindus benefited after the mutiny, is in the case of `judicial positions open to Indians'. `Although Muslims comprised only 12 per cent of the population in the North Western Provinces, they held 72 per cent of positions' prior to 1857. The post 1857 effects saw this disproportionate share of judicial position diminish to a situation where in `1886 they could claim only 9 posts out of a total of 284'. This situation of a Muslim decline in influence had long term effects on the Muslim community right up until the early part of the twentieth century.
As each side of the debate is so fixed in their opinion on this subject that no consensus ever seems likely to be reached. For the Indians the events assist in enhancing the nationalist theme of ridding the sub-continent of the British. To the nationalists the events of 1857 are the first step in a process that took ninety years to achieve the goal of an India ruled by Indians. However the evidence of the events clearly comes down on the side of the British opinion. The events were not a war of independence but a military and civilian mutiny.
Given that the `entire south of India took no part in the rebellion' it seems impossible to justify the claim that the events were a war of independence. Added to this, the assistance provided by certain elements of Indian society to the British further reduces the nationalist claims. The lack of central co-ordination amongst the rebels hardly inspires confidence in them engaging in a conflict to gain independence. Clearly the debate comes closer to the British viewpoint of 1857 being a year of mutinies in the Indian sub-continent, and not the first attempts by the Indians to seek independence.