Causes of The First War of Indian Independence – 1857 Revolt

Sansar LochanHistory of India4 Comments


The revolt of 1857 has a extraordinary place in the history of India. This event is known by different names such as, “the Sepoy Mutiny”, “The Indian rebellion” and the “First war of Indian Independence”. This was the first joint revolt against the British. It was the end result of the already simmering discontent of Indians against the policies of East India Company. The British historians called it “Sepoy Mutiny”, whereas the nationalists termed it as the “First war of Indian Independence”. Let’s us discuss about the causes and nature of the 1857 revolt.

Causes of 1857 Revolt

Political Causes

The imperialist policy of the East India Company was an important factor. The Company interfered in the internal matters of Indian States and followed the policy of divide and rule. The subsidiary alliance and the Doctrine of Lapse of Dalhousie angered Indian Princes. The policy of Doctrine of Lapse was applied not only to Princes but also big Zamindars. Because of all these reasons Kings, Princes, their courtiers and disbanded soldiers and tenants were enraged with the British.

The expansionist policy of the British created distrust among the rulers of the then existing Indian States. They feared that, sooner OF later, their kingdoms would be snatched away from them by the British. Their distrust against the British was confirmed by the imperialistic policy of Lord Dalhousie. Therefore, it can be assumed that the native rulers, in turn, might have desired to uproot the British rule in India. The people of the states which were annexed to the British territory were also resentful. Many of them distrusted the British rule and many others could not tolerate the disrespect of their rulers and the members of their families at the hands of the foreigners. The Muslims had yet another grievance against the British. The British occasionally showed disrespect to the Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah. Lord Canning even declared that the title of the Mughal emperor would be abolished after the death of Bahadur Shah and his palace and fort would be taken over by the British. The Indian Muslims had always felt themselves involved with the honour of the Mughal emperor. Therefore, they developed a strong hatred for the British.

Administrative Causes 

The British introduced a new system of administration by which they replaced the traditional system. So many local administration personnel became unemployed and so turned against the British. The introduction of “Rule of Law” and “Equality before Law” was looked upon with suspicion by the traditional Hindus and Muslims, who were governed by the laws of Dharmshastras and Shariyat. Indians were not allowed to get higher jobs in the administration, and the salaries paid to them were far less than those of their English counter-parts. This was against the policy of equality before law which the Britishers professed.

The Indians disliked and distrusted the administration of the British. The British system had abolished several intermediaries like Jagirdars, Taluqdars etc. with whom the people had direct contacts and they drew certain advantages as well. Therefore, the system had not only created a section of dissatisfied people who wielded influence on the masses but also had created dissatisfaction among a large segment of the people themselves. The British system lacked the personal touch to which the Indians were habituated from the past centuries. The judicial system of the British was costly, mechanical and involved much time. The poor could draw no advantage from it. The rich disliked it because they could be brought to trial even by the appeals of the common men who had been subservient to them for centuries. The police system of the British was not effective by that time and the people always felt insecure with respect to their property, life and honour. The most affected part of administration was revenue under which the peasants and the Zamindars were deprived of their special privileges. The British excluded the Indians from all high civil and military jobs. In the army, the highest post which an Indian could get was that of a Subedar while the highest post in the civil services for which an Indian could qualify was that of a Sadar Amin. lt dissatisfied the educated Indians who expected to pet gainful employment in the service of the Company.

Economic Causes

The East India Company followed a policy of exploiting India economically. They utilized the sources and wealth of India for their own ends. After Industrial Revolution imports from England augmented. The British created monopoly on trade in their favour. They converted India into a supplier of raw materials and a market for their finished goods. This resulted in unemployment of Indian artisans and craftsmen. Thus traditional handicrafts suffered. The land revenue policies of the British were detrimental to the farmers.

The primary motive of the political domination of India by the British was her economic exploitation. The British utilized their political power for exploiting the economic resources and wealth of India for the benefit of Britain. The British established their political power first in Bengal and within a few decades drained off its resources to the extent that its people were not left even with the bare minimum for existence. That became the fate of the people at other places also where the British rule was subsequently established. The trade interests of the British resulted in the destruction of the cottage industries of India while their revenue policy reduced its agricultural production. That reduced the once rich and industrially advanced India to the position of a poor and backward country. The abolition of the Company’s monopoly of trade with India in 1813 and the acceptance of the policy of free trade by the government of India in 1833 aggravated further the exploitation of India by Britain which had started producing machine made goods particularly the cotton textiles. Ultimately India became a vast field for the production of raw materials to feed the British industries and a wide market to absorb the British manufactures. It reduced her to extreme poverty. Poverty in India remained limited not only to a particular section of the society. It enveloped all Indians alike, whether they were peasants, landlords, traders, industrialists, labourers or middle-class people. It was genuine grievance of all the Indians against the British rule in India.

Social and Religious Causes

The British considered that they belonged to a superior race and used to humiliate the Indians. They passed the Social Reforms Act which developed suspicion in the minds of both Hindus and Muslims. Because Hindus and Muslims thought that Sati, child marriage, animal and human sacrifices and purdah were part of their religion, so they were unhappy with the British.

As we said above that the British regarded the Indians as belonging to an inferior race. They, therefore, looked down upon them socially. Incidents were quite common when the British disrespected the Indians in public places, dishonoured their women and engaged in making physical assaults on them sometimes culminating in death. The Indians, in most of the cases, failed to get justice from the British judges against these atrocities perpetrated on their countrymen. The racial arrogance of the British went on increasing with the increase of their political power in India. It certainly antagonised the Indians.

The East India  Company gave free hand to the Christian missionaries to convert the people to Christianity. These missionaries were active in schools, hospitals, prisons and market places, in the spread of Christianity. They were intolerant towards Hinduism and Islam and openly critical of these religions. The spread of English education and culture through missionaries and convents alarmed the Indians who were now anxious about the survival for their religions. The religious preachers like Mullahs, Moulvies and Pandits played an notable role in spreading hatred against the British.

They feared that the English were attempting to convert them all to Christianity. Certainly, certain measures of the Englishmen particularly, the activities of the Christian Missionaries provided grounds for their apprehension. Prior to 1813, the British Government had not permitted the Missionaries to enter into India. But the Charter Act of 1813 abolished this restriction and the Missionaries started coming to India in large numbers.

The Indians felt that by providing such education to boys and girls of immature age meant nothing except pollution of their minds. The prisoners in Jails were also tempted to accept Christianity. Christian tenets were taught to the prisoners. The regulations framed by the government in its hospitals also created apprehension in the minds of the Indians. The missionaries, thus, used every means to get converts from among the Indians. They also offered them allurements of money, jobs and honour for accepting Christianity.

The Company’s government passed certain laws which also created distrust among the people. In this context, the people had misgivings even about useful social legislation passed by the British. William Bentinck prohibited the practice of Sati in 1829. It was supported by liberal Hindus as well. Yet, the people in general doubted the intentions of the government. In 1832 and 1850, laws were passed concerning succession of property. The Religious Disabilities Act of 1856 also decided that none would be deprived of his hereditary property on the ground of changing his religion. The people felt that these were meant to encourage conversions to Christianity. In 1856, Widow Remarriage Act was passed by Lord Canning and the Hindus felt that the government was interfering ‘n their social and religious affairs. Many contemporary writers gave vent to this fear of the people. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan wrote : “All persons, whether intelligent or ignorant, respectable or otherwise, believed that the government was really and sincerely desirous of interfering with the religion and custom of the people, converting them all, whether Hindus or Mohammedans, to Christianity, and forcing them to adopt European manners and habits.”

Military Causes

Indian soldiers in the British army were looked down upon by their English officers. They were paid low salaries and not promoted above the rank of subedar. According to the General Service Enlistment Act of 1856, Indian soldiers could be posted anywhere overseas in the British Empire. This was against their religious belief. Hindus believed that crossing the sea was a sin. The Indian sepoys  were more in number than the British soldiers which gave a sense of self-confidence to the Indians. There were more than 75000 soldiers in the British army from “Awadh”. These soldiers were enraged when Awadh was annexed to the British Empire on the grounds of maladministration by Nawab Wajid Ali.

The soldiers had also certain grievances against the British. They were paid very low salaries. The Bengal army was regarded the backbone of the Indian army of the British. Mostly it consisted of the Rajputs and the Brahmans. But, later on, the British started recruiting people of lower castes also in it. That created dissatisfaction among the soldiers. The annexation of Avadh was also repugnant to the soldiers because three-fifths of them belonged to Avadh. Not only was the dethronement of the Nawab distasteful to them but they also felt aggrieved because many among them indirectly lost certain privileges as their relatives were deprived of the patronage of the Nawab. The soldiers in general were dissatisfied because they were asked to go for fighting to distant places without any extra remuneration and were not assigned any honour or reward after the success in the battle as had been the case under the service of native rulers. In 1854, the soldiers were deprived of their privilege of postage-free letters. In 1856, Lord Canning passed the General Service Enlistment Act which not only decreed that all future recruits in the Bengal army wherein service was hereditary would be liable to be deputed anywhere but also that all those who would be found unfit for service in a foreign country would not be given pension but a job in the cantonment. The soldiers, therefore, felt that while their sons desirous of joining the army in all likelihood would lose their castes, then themselves had been deprived of a privilege to which they were entitled so far.

The proportion of the Indian soldiers as compared to the British soldiers had increased in the army. The morale of the English soldiers was also at low ebb because of the odds which the British had faced in the Crimean War in Europe. Under these circumstances, the Indian soldiers felt that if they stuck at the opportune time they had quite good chances to turn out the British from India. The Indian soldiers were spurred to revolt because of realization of this fact.

Immediate Causes

The British introduced new Enfield rifles. To operate these rifles the cover of the cartridges had to be torn with the teeth to load the cartridge into the rifle. There was a rumour that the cartridges were smeared with the fat of cow and pig. Cow was sacred to Hindus and pig was prohibited for Muslims. The Indian soldiers felt that the British were deliberately trying to spoil their religion. Therefore the Indian soldiers refused to use the rifles. But the British forced them to do so and threatened the Indian soldiers to use them. This resulted in massive revolt against the British.

Can we accept 1857 Revolt as a war of Indepedence?

Dr. Majumdar says that many scholars are prepared to accept every armed struggle of the Indians against the English as a freedom fight. But should we accept their view? If we accept their view then the struggle of Santhaals, the Wahabis and many others against the English should also be accepted as freedom struggles. But we do not accept then as such. It means that every struggle or fighting of the Indians against the English cannot be accepted as a war of Indepedence. He argues that the only criterion of accepting a struggle of the natives against the foreigners as the war of Indepedence is that it should be motivated simply by the desire of turning out the foreigners from their home land.

The revolt of 1857 was not fought on this criterion. Even at the central places of the revolt, many people were not in favour of the Mutineers. The Hindus and the Muslims were not inspired to fight against the foreigners but to protect their respective regions. In fact, after the foreigners but to protect their respective religions. In fact, after the rising of the sepoys, the 1857 revolt was pursued simply to fulfil selfish interests of either the individuals or groups. The events during the period of 1857 revolt, in no way prove that the aim of the mutineers was to turn out the foreigners to gain Indepedendce.

Therefore, Dr. R.C. Majumdar refuses to accept the revolt of 1857 as the War of National Indepedence. He concludes : “It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the so-called first National war of Independence of 1857 is neither first, nor national, nor a war of indepedence.”


Revolt 1857 Causes

Several causes as follows were responsible for the great rising:

  1. The fear of the native rulers that their states would be taken over by the English, the resentment of the people of the annexed states and the occasional disrespect shown to Bahadur Shah, the Mughal emperor by the English constituted the political causes.
  2. The impersonal nature of the British administration and Judiciary, the ineffectiveness of the police-system, the rigours of the revenue-system and keeping away of the Indians from the services had created a sense of general discontent among the people.
  3. The worst effect of the British rule was the impoverishment of the Indian people because Indian handicrafts were destroyed, foreign trade was monoplised by the English and the peasants suffered because of the high demand of the revenue.
  4. The racial arrogance of the English, the activities of the missionaries, the passing of social legislation, etc., created distrust among the people and they feared that the English were best upon polluting their religion and society.
  5. The low salaries of the Indian soldiers, recruitment of soldiers of all castes, deprivation of the faculty of postage free letters, the passing of General Service Enlistment Act 1856 etc., created discontent among the soldiers.
  6. The introduction of the Enfield rifle, the use of the fat of pig and cow in greasing its cartridges and the insistence of the English on using them by the soldiers led to the outbreak of the revolt in May 1857.
  7. The 1857 revolt began with the soldiers at Meerut and then, after the capture of Delhi, people joined it in large numbers.
  8. Dr. Ishwari Prasad, Dr. Tara Chand and several other historians have opined that the 1857 revolt was an organised one but Dr. S.N. Sen and Dr. R.C. Majumdar have refused to accept their view.

Points to remember

  1. The revolt of 1857 was the result of the culmination of popular discontent that had been building up for a long time against the British
  2. The immediate cause of 1857 was provided by the revolt of soldiers.
  3. Historians have expressed divergent views about the nature of the revolt.
  4. It has been described as the “Mutiny of the Sepoys” a “religious war against the Christians”, a “war between the black and white races”, etc., but mostly these views have been rejected.
  5. However, even Dr. Sen and Dr. Majumdar who have done latest researches in the field have failed to be unanimous in their conclusion.
  6. Both scholars have agreed on many facts, e.g., the 1857 revolt was not organised, it had no national character, etc.
  7. Yet, Dr. Sen says that it was a war of Indian Indepedence because both the soldiers and the citizens, may be in miniority, tried to turn out the English from India.
  8. On the contrary, Dr. Majumdar says that as the revolt was limited only to a part of India, several native rulers supported the English, large number of Indian soldiers including the Sikhs and the Gurakhas remained loyal to the English, a large majority of the Indian people did not like it, the relations of the Hindus and the Muslims did not remain cordial and the mutineers mostly fought for their respective selfish interests, it was “neighter first, nor national, nor a war of indepedence.”

Source used : NCERT, Tamil Nadu Board, IGNOU Modern History, NIOS textbooks. Wikipedia notes for UPSC exam.

Tags : PDF for UPSC exam short notes on 1857 revolt causes. When it occured? Causes and result of the first indepedence war.

Questions for UPSC mains :

How far is it correct to say that revolt of 1857 was the first war of Indian indepdence?


“The revolt of 1857 was anything but a war of indepedence.” Discuss.


Discuss the causes and nature of the Revolt of 1857.

If you want to know about real heroes of this revolt then click >> Indian Rebellion Leaders 

All Indian History Notes Here>> Indian History

Content has been updated on 7th March, 2020.

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4 Comments on “Causes of The First War of Indian Independence – 1857 Revolt”

  1. Thank you for the information. This is a great help for me for my studies.And it helped me for my project,which gives internal points.

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