The intricate and tumultuous relationship between Britain and India has spanned the course of hundreds of years. Contact between Britain and India and been steadily increasing since the 17th century. While at first both countries enjoyed varying levels of positive trade between them, Britain had soon expanded its growing empire to India and it became another British colony. Under the rule of the newly established East India Company, the majority of India and its respective people were British subjects. The Indian Mutiny was one of the first and major cracks in the structure and dominance of the British Empire. On May 9th, 1857, approximately eighty-five Bengal soldiers were chained and punished for refusing to touch the new Enfield rifles that had been distributed, on the account that the cartridges within the rifles had been greased with pig and cow lard.[1] Hindus are firmly against animal sacrifice especially for cows as they worship the animal, and any contact with a pig is sinful in Islam. This ultimately sparked the mutiny, as the following day on May 10th, 1857, the remaining soldiers in the unit rebelled and took many British officers hostage.[2] Lasting about two years, it exposed British corruption and ignorance in its matters with India. The most common question asked is whether or not the Indian Mutiny was the result of only religious conflicts between Britain and India, or, if other factors also contributed to it. Although the Indian Mutiny was most certainly a result of religious conflicts between the two, cultural and political interferences in India induced by Britain, also led to the polarization of Indian society that ultimately caused the outbreak of the Indian Mutiny.

Pre-colonial India was home to a very complex system of government. Hardly ever was there a single, centralized government that encompassed all of India since the start of the collapse of the Mughal Empire. Instead, local princes ruled over small municipalities and rarely had any influence or power over matters in other areas. This system was quickly overturned with the emergence of the East India Company, which had slowly transitioned from a trading company into a military and political representative of the British Crown in India.[3] Due to various internal conflicts in India, the EIC was awarded complete authority over most of India through the 1784 India Act.[4] This led to the start of many drastic political changes in India. Notably, Lord William Bentinck, the governor-general of India from 1828 to 1835 decided that western methods and culture must be introduced in order for India to fully develop. In order to accomplish this, Lord Bentinck made English the language of instruction and Christianity the main religion taught in all government funded, public schools.[5] To impose European ideas throughout India, he created more government funded schools and universities. Many Indians flocked to these institutions and the spread of Eurocentric ideas and thoughts threatened to ruin traditional Indian society as a whole. Furthermore, a later governor-general, Lord Dalhousie took many steps towards the emancipation of women in Indian society. For example, Hindu wives were not allowed to remarry if they were left widowed. Instead, they were regarded as abominations to their husbands family and often were blamed for their husbands death. Many of the upper-caste, aristocratic Indian families practiced this tradition -along with the tradition of child marriage- despite the majority of the lower castes allowing widowed women to remarry. This was especially troubling for child brides, most of whom had never consummated their marriage, because they were forced to live the rest of their lives in solitude, grief and were often subject to a tirade of abuse from their in-laws. Through the Hindu Widows’ Remarriage Act of 1856, Hindu widows’ of all castes were free to remarry, as long as their spouse was dead by the time that their second marriage occurred.[6] This caused an uproar in many of the upper-caste families, as they believed that the East India Company was again trying to implement Eurocentric ideas into Hindu society and in turn, was undermining the divine power that the upper-castes were believed to have been bestowed. Also, as the East India Company gained power and influence in India, they started to use their vast political power to encourage people to convert to Christianity. As missionaries were brought over to India, people were enticed with the prospects of land if they converted. As the EIC started taking land away from local princes, they would give these lands to promising Christian converts and hoped to eradicate the Hindu aristocracy and to instead, replace it with a loyal, Christian aristocracy.[7] This offer of land was especially tempting to lower-caste Hindus as they did not have a lot of opportunities to have success within the rigid and harsh caste system of Hinduism. This, in turn, led to an extreme polarization of the distribution of wealth and power between the Christian population, The EIC and everyone else in India at this time. Through various political reforms, the governance of the East India Company completely changed the construct of the Indian society and increased tensions between the Indian population and the British government, which would eventually lead to the outbreak of the Indian Mutiny in 1857.

The governance of the East India Company brought to light the sheer ignorance that the institution had for Indian religions and customs. Hinduism and Islam were the main dominant religions in India at the time and as the EIC expanded its hold on India, there was a great, underlying fear that the the company was trying to erase Hinduism and Islam from India completely. As previously stated, laws were being put in placed that benefited Christians and greatly suppressed Hindus and Muslims. The caste system was also being put under attack as the importance of it was frequently undermined. The Hindu caste system consists of four major groups. At the top are the Brahmins (priests and academics), followed by the Kshatriyas (warriors and kings), the Vaishya (merchants and landowners) and finally, the Sudra (commoners, peasants and servants).[8] Outside of the caste system are the Untouchables, who are believed to have sinned so much in their past lives that they do not deserve to belong within a caste. The caste system was at the backbone of Hindu society and was a major component of Hinduism; without the caste system, Hinduism does not exist. However, the British feigned ignorance and did not recognize the power of the caste system. For example, in the Indian army, caste marks were no longer permitted to be visible.[9] Although this led to a decrease in discrimination within the ranks and forced everyone to cooperate, it notably insulted many devout, upper-caste Hindus who believed that they were sinning by interacting with anyone outside of their caste. Also, many Christian, upper-class English women were being brought over to India with the hopes of marrying local princes. Not only would this enable more westerners to be involved within the Indian aristocracy, any children produced from these marriages would be baptized and declared Protestant, regardless of the fathers personal religion.[10] If these children were males, they were also entitled to any lands or titles that belonged to their father and assume the responsibility of them once their father passed away.[11] This ended up reducing the amount of power that Hindus and Muslims had, as their local rulers were slowly transitioning to Christian. This depleted the already lessened power of the upper-caste Hindus and created more tensions between both groups. Furthermore, the release of the new Enfield rifles was extremely important in the outbreak of the Mutiny. As the Crimean war was drawing to a close in 1857 and the British were victorious, they introduced the Enfield rifles to soldiers in the Bengal army because of the rifles effectiveness in the Crimean war. The most important and controversial part of the rifle was that it was that the cartridges used in order to reload the rifle had to be ripped open with teeth and were allegedly covered in grease made of the fat of pigs and cows in order to make reloading easier.[12] Pigs are considered unclean in Islam and cows are deified in Hinduism, so to have any contact with the fat of either animal was considered sinful. Although this rumor was later dispelled and the cartridges were proven to not have pig or cow fat on them, the damage had been done and soldiers from both religions had united against the East India Company. They soon rebelled and the event is widely regarded as the start of the Indian Mutiny. The blatant disregard of the Hindu and Islamic religions in India by the British government represents a great example of British dominance and shows that the belittlement of the various religious institutions of India all contributed to the outbreak of the Mutiny in 1857.

With religious and political tensions rising in India, the East India Company also decided to get rid of many Hindu cultural practices. In Hinduism, a man was allowed to adopt an heir if he did not have a legitimate one and while this applied to all men in Hinduism, it was mostly used by local princes who did not have any sons to pass their leadership and lands onto. During his eight year tenure as Governor-General of India, Lord Dalhousie created and extensively used a method of annexation called the “Doctrine of Lapse”.[13] The doctrine of lapse method was a policy that he had introduced early in his term as Governor-General and in simplest terms, made adoption illegal in matters of political succession. Once a local prince had died, all familial claims to the throne were annulled and the area would revert to British rule. Using this policy, Lord Dalhousie managed to annex around seven independent municipalities which alarmed many other rulers in India, who feared that India would soon be taken over by the British. This also added further discontent towards the British government as these annexations were seen as dishonourable because most broke existing treaties.[14] Furthermore, the traditional practice of Suttee was made illegal by Lord Bentinck.[15] Suttee was a cultural tradition of the upper-caste Hindus for centuries, and it involved the burning of a widow on her late husband’s funeral pyre while his body was being cremated. The prominent belief at the time was that a wife was fully dependent on her husband and was thought to have no identity apart from him. She was supposed to obey and remain faithful, and for centuries widows had been burned alive alongside their late husbands. To make this practice illegal was shocking for a lot of the Hindu population and the Brahmin caste (priests and academics) objected strongly to the abolition of Suttee because it had been an ancient practice and to dispose of it would be another example as to how the British were trying to erase all traces of Hinduism from India. Also, the innovation of the railway forced people of all castes to travel together which deeply unsettled the Hindu population and offended many who were devout believers of Hinduism.[16] Although the caste system was very much rooted in religion, it had became more of a cultural practice and was deemed as a necessary component for Indian society to properly function. Due to the strict rules set in place, people from different castes were forbidden from interacting other than for necessary purposes. The implementation of the railway in India without separate train cars for each caste did not sit well many upper-caste Hindus who believed that their cultural practices were being infringed upon and grew increasingly frustrated with British rule. It is not surprising that the ignorance and carelessness that the East India Company had in its acknowledgement of various historically important cultural practices led to the outbreak of the Indian Mutiny.

Due to the frequent interference by the East India Company in matters of religion, culture and politics, the hostility and discontentment towards the British grew increasingly everyday. As each Governor-General created new restrictions on Indian culture and religion, widespread fear and paranoia struck a chord within the hearts and minds of the Indian people. The Mutiny exposed the East India Company’s inadequate governance of India and their reluctance to accept or acknowledge Indian society. The multitudinous amounts of political and cultural reforms support the fact that the Indian Mutiny was caused by more than simply religious conflicts between the British and India and was instead composed of cultural and political differences between the two groups along with religious interference.

[1] Lowe, Norman. 1989. Mastering Modern British History. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

[2] Lowe. Mastering Modern British History

[3] Malleson, George Bruce. 1878. History Of The Indian Mutiny. London: Allen.

[4] Lowe. Mastering Modern British History

[5] Lowe. Mastering Modern British History

[6] Lowe. Mastering Modern British History

[7] Kaye, John William, and G. B Malleson. 1889. Kaye’s And Malleson’s History Of The Indian Mutiny Of 1857-8. 2nd ed. London: W.H. Allen.

[8] Kaye, John William, and G. B Malleson  Kaye’s And Malleson’s History Of The Indian Mutiny Of 1857-8.

[9] Lowe. Mastering Modern British History

[10] Harris, John. 1973. The Indian Mutiny. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions.

[11] Malleson History Of The Indian Mutiny

[12] Palmer, R. R, Joel Colton, and Lloyd S Kramer. 2007. A History Of The Modern World. Boston: McGraw-Hill.

[13] Lowe. Mastering Modern British History

[14] Sampaolo, Marco. 2017. “The Indian Mutiny”. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/event/Indian-Mutiny.

[15] Lowe. Mastering Modern British History

[16] Lowe. Mastering Modern British History

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