This question is based on the most important debate of freedom movement: What Was the Nature of 1857 Revolt. You will get the idea of this debate in almost all history books and first chapter of Bipan Chandra’s Struggle for Independence is based on this very debate.
The main body of the answer should focus on proving the point that in 1857 revolts many other section of the population other than sepoys participated in the revolt so it cannot be called as Sepoy mutiny. At the same time, since, large section of population and regions (Gwalior, Nepal, South of Vindhyas, Punjab, Middle class, Zamindars) did not participate in the war, therefore it lacked national characteristics.
(You have to first discuss how it was not a mere sepoy mutiny and then point out how it fell short of becoming a national movement.)
In the conclusion, you have to end the answer that while it started as an act of mutiny, it engulfed a large part of northern India. But it lacked the support of various communities and regions and therefore could not form a truly nationalistic nature. Nevertheless, it started a process of defiance of colonial rule and gave a base to the Indian freedom movement.
There are two major views regarding the nature of the Revolt of 1857. While many people have treated the great uprising of 1857 as a sepoy mutiny; on the other hand, the staunch patriotic and nationalist Indian writers & historians regarded the Revolt of 1857 as the First War of Indian Independence. However, the truth lies somewhere in between. Though initially it started as a mutiny of the Indian soldiers, the revolt spread rapidly and assumed the nature of a mass rebellion.
Whether it was only a sepoy Mutiny?
- The Revolt of 1857 cannot be termed as a mutiny in the ordinary sense of the term. Therefore, this interpretation is not correct.
- Though the greased cartridges triggered the rebellion, it was only an immediate cause.
- As part of the Indian society, the sepoys had many other grievances than their service conditions.
- In many areas, the sepoys were joined by other elements of the society including orthodox sections of the Hindus and the Muslims, peasant, dispossessed princes and many other people.
- Moreover, there was a considerably large number of Indian soldiers in the company’s army that took part in the suppression of the rebellion.
- Though the sepoys were the chief players in the rebellion; a large number of Indians participated in this struggle of independence from an alien rule.
- The number of civilians killed was as large as that of the sepoys.
Whether it was a truly national uprising?
- Many people have tried to portray the Great rebellion as the “First Indian National War of Independence”.
- The leaders of the rebellion of 1857 looked beyond their own immediate circle, and showed a combination of wide vision and patriotic solidarity.
- But to ascribe the nature of the Revolt of 1857 as the first war of Indian independence may not be entirely correct.
- Though in certain areas the revolt assumed the character of popular rising and constituted a danger to the British power, it was poorly organized.
- Each of the leaders of the uprising fought for their regional or personal or class interests.
- In the middle of the nineteenth century, nationalism in India was yet in its infancy. There was no feeling of nationalism, as we know it today.
- In 1857, the Bengalis, the Punjabis, the Marathas the Madrasis, and Rajputs never felt even for a moment that they all belonged to one and the same nation.
- Bahadur Shah II was not a national King. He was in fact, ‘the king of no land”. He was compelled by the Indians sepoys to assume their leadership.
- Most of the leaders raised the banner of revolt to protect and promote their own interests.
- When the defeat of the British seemed imminent, the conflicting regional and class loyalties reappeared on the surface.
- Moreover, the greater part of India and the majority of the people remained apathetic and neutral.
- The absence of unity of purpose and cohesion among the different sections and local character of the uprising does not fully qualify the Revolt of 1857 as the first war of Indian Independence.
It is abundantly clear that the Great Rebellion was more than a sepoy mutiny but not wholly a war of Indian National Independence. It would not be wrong to say that it was a war between many native Indians on one side and the White rulers backed by other native Indians on the other side. What began as a right for religion of sepoys ended in a war of independence, for there is not the slightest doubt that the rebels wanted to get rid of the alien government and restore the old order. But it failed to evolve into a national movement encompassing all regions and all strata of the society. In spite of the limitations and weaknesses, the effort of the sepoys to liberate the country from foreign rule was a patriotic act. It paved way for the future course of national movement.