The Revolt of 1857 is one of the most important chapters in the history of India’s struggle for freedom. There is a lack of consensus among historians and scholars regarding the nature of the revolt of 1857. Divergent views exist but broadly we can divide them into two categories. According to some scholars/historians the outbreak was a rebellion of the people rather than a mutiny of sepoys while others consider it a mutiny of sepoys though in certain areas it drifted into a revolt of the people. But there exist other viewpoints as well. All the important and varied viewpoints/opinions are enumerated below with objective interpretations:
(1) British historians, scholars, and officials like Sir John Lawrence, Seeley and Malleson called it a Sepoy’s Mutiny. They describe it as an unpatriotic and selfish mutiny of the Indian sepoys against the constituted government of the day with no native leadership and no popular support. But this interpretation is not acceptable because even though the revolt began as a military uprising it did not remain confined to the sepoys or army. Nor the army as a whole has joined the revolt neither the entire army fought on the side of the rebels.
(2) According to L. E. R. Rees, it was a religious war against Christians, but this interpretation also stands rejected. Because during the rebellion the ethical principles underlying the various religions had little influence over the combatants. Both sides quoted their religious scriptures to cover excesses but they were not fighting for religion.
(3) Captain J. G. Medley described it as a racial struggle for supremacy between the Blacks and the Whites. This interpretation is also unfit because even if it is true that all the Whites in India were pitted on one side, all the Blacks were not. To be more precise, it was a war between the Black rebels on one side and the White rulers supported by a good chunk of Blacks on the other side.
(4) A few English historians led by T. R. Holmes popularized the view that the Revolt of 1857 was a conflict between civilization and barbarism or a struggle between Oriental and Occidental civilization and culture. This viewpoint smells of a narrow racialist interpretation because during the revolt both the Europeans as well as Indians were found to be guilty of barbaric deeds.
(5) Some like Sir James Outram and W. Taylor viewed the revolt as an outcome of Hindu-Muslim conspiracy to overthrow the British rule. This interpretation is equally insufficient and non-satisfactory.
All the above opinions and viewpoints were an effort to prove the British role in India as morally correct. It is important to notice that that all the contemporary Indians like Kishori Chand Mitra, Durgadas Bandopadhyay, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, Moinuddin and Munshi Jiwan Lal, Some of whom occupied very high position in public life, unanimously agreed with the official British explanation that the Revolt of 1857 was a mutiny.
In contrast with the above opinions, some nationalists like V. D. Savarkar, K. C. Panikkar, J. C. Vidyalankar, and Ashok Mehta looked upon the Revolt of 1857 as a well-planned war of national independence, a general revolt of the people, and as the first war of Indian independence. The Indian national leaders, right from the beginning of twentieth century, started looking for ideals to arouse national consciousness among the people. They re-interpreted the uprising of 1857 as people’s revolt and its leaders as national heroes gifted with the vision of a free India. The important nationalist viewpoints are as enlisted below:
(I) V.D. Savarkar described it as a planned war of national independence in his book ‘The Indian war of Independence’.
(II) According to K.M. Panikkar, the aim of the revolt was the exit of the Britishers from India, and thus to establish a national state. In this respect this was a nationalist movement rather than just an uprising.
(III) Lala Lajpat Rai in ‘Young India’ described the Revolt of 1857 as both a political as well as a national uprising.
(IV) Subhash Chandra Bose also regarded the Revolt of 1857 as a national uprising rather than a sepoy mutiny.
Surprisingly, Benjamin Disraeli, a contemporary conservative leader in England also described the Revolt as a national uprising.
In recent years, some eminent Indian scholars like Dr. R. C. Majumdar, Dr. S. N. Sen, and Dr. S. B. Chaudhuri have done a lot of fundamental research on this topic by exhaustively studying all the available official as well as non-official records. It has greatly helped in countering the shrewd interpretations of many British historians and officials like Kaye, Malleson, and Holmes.
Dr. R.C. Majumdar and Dr. S.N. Sen differ in their interpretations of the events that occurred during the course of the Revolt of 1857. However, both agree that the Revolt of 1857 was not a result of careful planning nor were there any masterminds behind it. Both of them also agree that the Indian nationalism at this point of time was in its embryonic stage. The mere fact that Nana Sahib went to Lucknow and Ambala in March-April 1857 and the struggle started in May of the same year cannot be regarded an evidence of planning. During Bahadur Shah Zafar’s trial an effort was made to accuse him as a party to a pre-planned conspiracy, but during the course of trial itself it became clear that the uprising of 1857 was as much a surprise to Bahadur Shah as it was to the British.
In his book ‘The Sepoy Mutiny and the Revolt of 1857’ Dr. R. C. Majumdar gives his final viewpoint. He writes that “It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the so called National War of Independence of 1857 was neither First, nor National, nor War of Independence”. But he conceded that ultimately it led to the rise of nationalism.
On the other hand, Dr. S. N. Sen held the view that the Revolt of 1857 was a war of independence. He argues that revolutions are mostly the work of a minority, with or without the active support of the masses. According to him, when a rebellion can claim the sympathies of the substantial majority, it can claim a national character. He comes to the conclusion that “The Mutiny became a revolt and assumed a political character when the mutineers of Meerut placed themselves under the king of Delhi and a section of the landed aristocracy and civil population decided in his favour. It began as a fight for religion ended as a war of independence”.
Dr. S.B. Chaudhuri, in his book ‘civil rebellions in the Indian Mutinies (1857-59)’ regards the outbreak of 1857 as something close to a war of independence. He maintains the view that the outburst of 1857 was the coming together of two series of disturbances, the military and the civil each provoked by independent grievances.
On the basis of above discussion about the nature of the Revolt of 1857 it can be said that it was definitely something more than a mutiny because it saw the popular participation of many Zamindars, Jagirdars, Indian Princes and people of Awadh and other areas besides the soldiers. But it was also something less than the first war of national independence because the concept of modern nationalism had not yet emerged. Otherwise also, it remained confined majorly to North India. Therefore, it will be more rational to consider the Revolt of 1857 as the first major struggle or effort made by Indians to overthrow the British rule which paved the way for the rise of Indian nationalism. During the freedom struggle in the twentieth century it kept on inspiring the leaders and people alike. It proved to be a turning point in the history of Modern India.