Debate over the National Character of the Revolt 1857

Historians remain divided on whether the rebellion can properly be considered a war of Indian independence or not, although it is popularly considered to be one, particularly in India.

Arguments against

  • A united did not exist at the time in political terms;
  • The rebellion remained confined to the ranks of the Bengal Army (which nonethless was largest of the armies in India) and in North- Central India;
  • The mutiny was put down with the help of other Indian solders drawn from the Madras Army, the Bombay Army and the Sikh regiments;
  • Many princes and maharajas did not participate in the rebellion. those that did were basically interested in reviving and reclaiming their own principalities and fiefdoms, not creating a United India.
  • The Army and Princes, who were the principal instigators of the rebellion of 1857, played no part in the Nationalist movement as it emerged in the 1880s.

A second school of thought while acknowledging the validity of the above-mentioned arguments opines that this rebellion may indeed be called a war of India’s independence.

Arguments for

  • Sepoys set out to revive the old Mughal empire, that signified a national symbol for them, instead of heading home or joining services of their regional principalities, which would not have been unreasonable if their revolt were only inspired by grievances;
  • There was a widespread popular revolt in many areas such as Awadh, Bundelkhand and Rohilkhand. The rebellion was therefore more then just a military mutiny, and it spanned more then one region.
  • The sepoys did not seek to revive small kingdoms in their regions, instead they repeatedly proclaimed a “country-wide rule” of the Moghuls and vowed to drive out the British from “India”, as they know it then. The objective of driving out “foreigners” from not only one’s own area but from their conception of the entirety of “India”, signifies a nationalist sentiment;

In short, we may summarize the discussion in following terms.

  • If the criterion of a National War of Independence is set as “a war (or numerous conflicts) spread all over the nation cutting across regional lines”, rebellion in that case does not qualify as a war of India’s independence.
  • If The criterion for a National War of Independence is set as “a war. which even if geographically confined to certain regions , is waged with the intention of driving out from the complete national area a power perceived to be foreign”, then it was a war of national independence.

Popular Views

  • A Planned war of Independence (by VD Savarkar in his book “The Indian War of Independence”)
  • It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the so-called First National War of Independence of 1857 is neither first, nor normal, nor war of independence (R.C. majumdar)

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