The rebellion of May 1857 threatened the Company's very presence in India. The mutiny which started from the cantonment in Meerut engulfed a large part of northern and central India. People from different sections of society rose up in rebellion. Many historians regard it as the biggest armed resistance to colonialism in the nineteenth century anywhere in the world.
Execution of Mangal Pandey: Mangal Pandey was a young soldier at the cantonment in Barrackpore. He was the culprit of attacking his officers. On 29 March 1857, Mangal Pandey was hanged to death for his crime.
Within a few days, some sepoys of the regiment at Meerut refused to use the new cartridges during an army drill. It was rumoured that the new cartridges were coated with the fat of cows and pigs. For their refusal to obey the orders, eighty five sepoys were dismissed from service. They were sentenced to ten years in jail. This incidence happened on 9 May 1857.
The Backlash: The other soldiers in Meerut responded in extraordinary way. On 10 May, soldiers marched to the jail and released the imprisoned sepoys. They attacked and killed British officers. They captured guns and ammunition. They set fire to the buildings and properties of the British. They declared a war on the firangis.
Anointment of the New Leader: After creating mayhem in Meerut, the soldiers rode throughout the night of 10th May and reached Delhi the next morning. When the regiments in Delhi heard the news, they also rose up in rebellion. The soldiers gathered around the Red Fort and demanded to meet Bahadur Shah Zafar. The emperor was hesitant to challenge the might of the British but the soldiers persisted in their demand. They forced their way into the palace. They proclaimed the Badhshah as their leader.
The emperor had no choice but to accede to their demand. He wrote letters to all the chiefs and rulers of the country to come forward. He asked them to form a confederacy of Indian states to fight the British. This step of the emperor had great implications.
Political Importance of Bahadur Shah Zafar: It is important to remember that the Mughal dynasty had ruled over a very large part of the country for a long period. Most of the smaller rulers and chieftains had been ruling over their territories on behalf of the Mughal ruler. They hoped that if the Mughal ruler could once again resume power, they would also be able to rule their own territories once again.
The British had initially taken the revolt at Meerut quite lightly. But the decision by Bahadur Shah Zafar to support the rebellion had dramatically changed the entire situation. People were emboldened by an alternative possibility.
The rebellion gradually spread to other parts of the country. Various regiments mutinied and marched to join other troops at nodal points like Delhi, Kanpur and Lucknow. The people in the towns and villages also revolted and rallied around local leaders, zamindars and chief. For the local leaders, zamindars and chiefs it was an opportunity to assert their authority.
The British were greatly outnumbered by the rebel forces. They got defeat in a number of battles. The changing situation convinced the people that the British rule had collapsed for good. This gave them the confidence to join the rebellion. Widespread popular rebellion developed especially in the region of Awadh.
Rise of New Leaders: Many new leaders came up during the revolt. Ahamdullah Shah was a maulvi from Faizabad. He prophesied that the end of the rule of the British was imminent. A large number of supporters rallied behind him. He came to Lucknow to fight the British.
A large number of ghazis or religious warriors came together to wipe out the white people in Delhi. Bakth Khan was a soldier from Bareilly. He took charge of a large force. Kunwar Singh was an old zamindar in Bihar. He joined the rebel sepoys and battled with the British for many months.
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