'More than a Mutiny, less than a War of Independence' - Do you agree with this description of the Events of 1857-8 in India?

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‘More than a mutiny, but less than a War of Independence’ – how far do you agree with this description of the events of 1857-8 in India?

The original outbreaks, of which the one at Meerut is typical, took place in an environment governed by military discipline. They were obviously and classically mutinies (so ‘more than a’ mutiny). The mutineers were later joined by others who were not soldiers or in any way bound by military rules. In that obvious additional sense the events were more than ‘mutinies’ or ‘a mutiny’, and to use that word to describe the whole is a mistake as well as a slur, intended or not, on the participants.

Was it a war? Not in the classic legal sense since there were just hostilities, with no formal declaration, but certainly, with armies of soldiers confronting each other, in the normal sense of the term. Was it a war of independence? One might argue that all wars are wars of independence: the participants seek, whatever the issues, to maintain their freedom of action with regard to them. To capitalise the phrase as ‘War of Independence’ is to make grander claims, and in this case we may reasonably assume that the claim is that it was a war of Indian national independence.

Was it national? Traditionally the 1857 events have been assigned to the Ganges valley, but recent writers have tried to suggest that they were ‘national’ because disorders were observed widely across the sub continent. In fact, although there were disturbances as far east as Chittagong, as far west as Peshawar and further south than Mumbai, a glance at the movements of the British relief armies shows them heading north from Chennai, north-east from Mumbai, south-east from Peshawar and west from Calcutta. The British did not err in believing that the revolt was essentially contained within north central India. In this sense it was ‘less than national’.

Because many Indians did not support the rebels, it has been argued that the revolts were regional, sectarian, or particularist rather than national, and thus not deserving of the grand title ‘War of Independence’. However the American War of Independence saw American ‘Empire Loyalists’ supporting the British, so the fact that some Indians (especially the Princes) supported the British does not mean that 1857 necessarily fails the test of a ‘war of independence’; one might say that the treason of the Americans prospered, so it shook off the tag ‘treason’, whereas the treason of the Indians did not prosper, so it took rather longer for them to achieve the same result. In the wide sense that all the participants were Indians, and that they were all anti-British, all of them were indeed engaging in Indian Wars of Independence against British rule.

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Should we reject both ‘mutiny’ and ‘war of independence’ in favour of ‘War of Religion’? There were religious issues in the military environment, such as the cartridges and caste threatening expeditions 'across the dark sea', and there were many other religious disputes which existed in the world beyond the barracks of which the sepoys were well aware (such as the activities of Christian missionaries and the generally contemptuous attitude of the British towards non-Christian religions). It was not just a war of religious independence because there were so many non-religious issues in it, but the French Wars of Religion had constitutional, ...

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