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Old Thursday, April 17, 2008
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Post Sepoy Rebellion.

Sepoy Rebellion

Sepoy Rebellion (1857-1859), also known as the Indian War of Independence, uprising against British rule in India begun by Indian troops (sipahi or sepoys) in the employ of the English East India Company. The rebellion was the first concerted attempt by the people of South Asia to overthrow the British Indian Empire.

By the 1850s the English East India Company had established control over present-day India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), and Sri Lanka. By conquest or diplomacy, the company had overrun numerous autonomous Indian kingdoms during the previous two decades. It had also reduced the emperor of the moribund Mughal Empire, a vast empire that had ruled the subcontinent for more than 300 years, to a pensioner in his palace in Delhi. A small elite of British civilian officials and an army of 160,000 men, only 24,000 of them British, controlled the vast division of British India known as the Bengal Presidency. This area stretched from Burma in the east to Afghanistan in the west and included huge territories in central India.

The Indian troops employed by the English East India Company felt that British rule often failed to respect their traditions of religion and caste. The sepoys’ discontent came to a head in late 1856, when rumors began circulating that the cartridges for the newly-issued Lee-Enfield rifles were greased with the fat of cows, which are sacred to Hindus, and pigs, which Muslims believe are unclean. If this rumor were true, any Hindu or Muslim soldier would be ritually polluted when he bit off the end of a cartridge, as was necessary before loading the rifle. There were several isolated cases of soldiers in the Bengal army refusing to use these cartridges, but the issue exploded in Meerut, a military town northeast of Delhi in the Ganges River valley. There, 85 men of the 3rd light cavalry refused to use the cartridges on April 23, 1857. They were convicted of mutiny, sentenced to prison terms, publicly fettered, and stripped of their military insignia.

In response to this harsh treatment of their fellow soldiers, members of the 11th and 20th infantry regiments revolted on the evening of May 10. They freed their comrades along with hundreds of civilian prisoners, and the rampaging mob slaughtered 40 British officers and civilians in Meerut. The sepoys then marched to Delhi, where other Indian regiments joined the mutiny. They massacred dozens of British there, and reinstated the 82-year-old Mughal emperor, Muhammad Bahadur Shah. The news of these events triggered mutinies throughout the Bengal army, rapidly igniting a general anti-British revolution in north and central India. Among those joining the sepoys in the uprising were Indian princes and their followers, whose territories had been annexed by the English East India Company, and people whose ways of life and sources of income had been disrupted by British trade, missionary activities, or social reforms.

Unprepared for and paralyzed by the mutiny at first, the British eventually rallied. To control the uprising in the Ganges valley, British commanders disarmed the sepoys in the nearby province of Punjab and assembled a small army that marched on Delhi, occupying a position outside of the city. The British command in Calcutta (now Kolkata) was able to contain the rebellion in the east while retaining control of the Ganges River and communications lines as far upriver as Allahābād. In central India, a British army of several thousand engaged in dozens of battles with forces led by several local princes and Rani (Queen) Lakshmibai of Jhānsi. The rani was fighting against annexation of her kingdom by the company after the death of her husband, the last ruler of Jhānsi.

In the central part of the Ganges River valley, the recently-annexed state of Oudh became the focal point for rebellion. On May 30, rebel forces besieged Europeans along with loyal Indians at the British Residency, the official residence of British administrators in the capital, Lucknow. A few days later the British garrison at Cawnpore (now Kānpur) also came under attack, enduring a siege that lasted until June 27. On that day, the survivors were attacked while evacuating to boats on the Ganges River under an agreement of safe passage negotiated with the rebel leader, Nana Sahib. Most of the British soldiers were killed. The women, children, and wounded who lived through this disaster were later murdered in prison. These events provided a rallying cry for British forces and a rationale for widespread atrocities committed against Indian combatants and noncombatants alike.

After many inconclusive battles fought before the walls of Delhi, the reinforced British army attacked the city on September 15 and overran it after five days of ferocious fighting. A relief force reached the Lucknow residency on September 25 but became pinned there until late November, when a second relief force broke the siege and evacuated the survivors. The British returned to Oudh in February 1858 with an army of more than 30,000 men, including troops lent by the kingdom of Nepal. The city of Lucknow fell on March 23 and the rebel forces in north India scattered. The fort at Jhānsi fell in April, and the rani was later killed in battle.

For the next year British forces engaged in running fights with ever-smaller rebel forces, finally capturing their most skillful opponent, Nana Sahib's general Tantia Topi. With his execution in April 1859, the revolt ended. The war had far-reaching consequences for India. The British government officially abolished the Mughal Empire and exiled Muhammad Bahadur Shah to Burma. The British crown also ended the administration of the English East India Company, assuming direct rule of India in 1858. Military policies altered dramatically. New recruits were sought primarily in Punjab and Nepal, where troops had remained loyal during the rebellion, and emphasis was placed on a doctrine stressing the hierarchy, prestige, and authority of the British officer corps. Thereafter the British administration displayed a pronounced distrust of its Indian subjects and a reluctance to share power or strategic technologies, an attitude that damaged relations with an emerging nationalist movement later in the century.
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