The British military power in India comprised two elements – the Native Armies of the East India Company and British Army units. The armed forces were controlled by the Governor General, an official of the company, appointed with the approval of the crown. In 1857, the three Presidency Armies of Bengal, Bombay and Madras consisted of 2, 33,000 Indian and 36,000 British troops, who were commanded by British officers.
By the middle of the century India had become directly or indirectly subject to British rule. The introduction of a uniform philosophy of jurisprudence, a common civil service and judiciary had generally been welcomed after the chaotic period following the Mughal period. But change had also bred certain reactions and created resentment. The attention of the British had shifted to the outlaying areas of Punjab and beyond, and they were taking their hold on the heartland of Oudh and Bihar a little for granted. The bulk of the troops were recruited from this area, and this shifted attention was resented.
The British had grown over confident and complacent about the handling of sensitive issues relating to the Bengal Army, and disaffection in it spread like wildfire. There had been rumours about forcible conversion to Christianity, a deep distrust in the introduction of cartridge having animal fat greasing and a general resentment to stoppage of allowances. The distrust and discontent had grown over some year and the British officer had been unmindful.
Progressively, the trend of increasing British officers and NCOs control on Indian troops had grown, ignoring Indian sensitivity in the matter. Besides blocking avenues of promotion to deserving Indians, it bred an atmosphere of shifted honour and failing confidence.
The revolt first broke out in the Bengal Army garrison at Meerut on 10 May 1857, after some troops were disgraced and imprisoned. At a time when most British unit personnel were at church, the Indian soldiers released their imprisoned brethren and killed as many British officers, men and family members they could lay hands on. Before the British troops could retaliate, the rebels had fled.
Towards the latter part of 1856 the upheaval was centered on Oudh, the principal recruiting area of Bengal Presidency, but later extended to include Delhi and southwards to Indore and Jabalpur.
On reaching Delhi the next day, that is 11May, the rebels were joined by many more troops of the native garrison who, with the help of the city rabble, began to kill every European that they chanced upon. The British reaction was delayed, as most of the British unit was spending their summer in the nearby hill stations.
The revolt soon spread to Lucknow and Kanpur where British male residents were murdered and their women and children imprisoned. From July 1857, however, the tide turned. The British organised their forces and rushed to the relief of Delhi, Lucknow and Kanpur. The siege and capture of Delhi cost the British in all 3,537 killed and wounded. With the capture of the capital, the trust and belief of the people of India in the ultimate success of the uprising disappeared.
After bitter fighting, particularly at Lucknow and Jhansi their equally hard earned victory at Gwalior by June next year ended the revolt. The heroic tales of outstanding valour of Tantia Tope and the Rani of Jhansi are household lore throughout India today.
Almost three-fourths of the Bengal Army was involved in the uprising. The British managed to control the spread of the uprising to the Madras and Bombay Army units. This control of spread was carried out by other Indian troops who only some years earlier had been the bitterest enemies of the British, that is the Sikhs, Gorkhas, troops of the Punjab Frontier Force and Punjabi Irregulars. The British were quite ruthless in the suppression of the uprising, and their brutalization lingered on against all Indian nationalist movements – as the event at Jalianwala Bagh in 1919 illustrates.
While mopping-up operation continued, very harsh repressive measures were adopted by the British against the rebels and suspects. On 1 September that year the governance of India was transferred to the British Crown, ending the centaury-old rule of East India Company.