Dr Pramod K Nayar is the author of the just-released, must-read Penguin 1857 Reader. A professor at the Department of English, University of Hyderabad, he wrote this assessment of the events of that year excusively for India Abroad, the oldest and largest circulated Indian-American weekly, which is owned by rediff.com.
Empires, it is said, are not built in a day. But they do not collapse in a day either. Just as empires are built by the accretion of various acts -- military, economic, political and cultural -- the ends of empire are crafted in bits. The British Empire had its origins in an innocuous charter signed by Elizabeth I on the last day of the sixteenth century. It granted trading rights to a group of London merchants -- a group that would become the East India Company.
Act I of the most famous play in human history, Empire, was scripted with this charter. The play would have all the elements of great drama -- violence, romance, blood, intrigue, heroism, sacrifice, great victories, devastating reversals.
The dramatic metaphor to describe this charter is perfectly apposite, as it was signed in the same century during the course of which one William Shakespeare penned some of the greatest plays of all time.
With the Battle of Plassey (1757), the East India Company became a political force and established a full-fledged empire. Britain ruled India and, by the time Victoria came to the throne of England in 1837, 50,000 British personnel ruled over 90 million Indians. Massive social reforms, technological changes and political structures had been put in place.
The Rediff Special: 1857, the First War of Independence
The general Indian populace was unhappy, and the soldiers in the Company even more so because of poor pay and working conditions, the break down of caste barriers and controversial weaponry. Many believed their religious beliefs -- both Hinduism and Islam -- were under threat. A prophecy that the British would leave India 100 years after Plassey began to do the rounds.
One of the 'bits' that contributed to the end of the empire began to take shape around the early months of 1857. It took shape around the commonplace Chappati, circulating through villages and towns, possibly as a secret message for rebellion. After the first rumors of the 'greased cartridge' (where tallow from pigs and cows were used) began to appear, January 1857, unrest among sepoys was noticeable in Barrackpore.
Image: The hanging of two rebels: Albumen silver print by Felice Beato, 1858
Photographs: Wikipedia, Public Domain
Also see: The celebrations begin