Revolts in British India – Major Causes & Types


People’s Resistance

  • The peasants, artisans, tribes, ruling classes, military personnel, religious leaders, etc. fought for the protection of their interests, at times separately and at times together.
  • People’s resistance took in 4 forms before 1857
    • Civil rebellions
    • Tribal uprisings
    • Peasant movements
    • Military revolts



Major Causes of Civil Uprisings

  • Under the Company rule, there were rapid changes in the economy, administration and land revenue system that went against the people
  • Exploitation in rural society by growth of intermediary revenue collectors, tenants and moneylenders
  • Several zamindars and poligars who had lost control over their land and its revenues due to the colonial rule, had personal scores to settle with the new rulers
  • The ego of traditional zamindars and poligars washurt due to being sidelined in rank by government officials and a new class consisting of merchants and money-lender.
  • Ruined Indian handicraft industries due to
    • Promotion of British manufactured goods
    • Heavy duties on Indian industries
    • Export duties
    • Disappearance of their traditional buyers – princes, chieftains, and zamindars.
  • The priestly classes instigated hatred and rebellion against alien rule, because the religious preachers, priests, pundits, maulvis, etc., had been dependent on the traditional landed and bureaucratic elite.
  • The fall of zamindars and feudal lords directly affected the priestly class.
  • The foreign character of the British rulers, who always remained alien to this land, and their contemptuous treatment of the native people hurt the pride of the latter.



Tribal Revolts

  • Tribal movements under British rule were the most frequent, militant and violent of all movements
  • Land settlements of the British affected the joint ownership tradition
  • As agriculture was extended in a settled form by Company government, tribals lost their land
  • Shifting cultivation in forests was curbed and this added to the tribals’ problems
  • Exploitation by the police, traders and money-lenders
  • Some general laws were also abhorred for their intrusive nature
  • Movements of the tribes of the north-eastern frontier were different from the non-frontier tribal revolts in some aspects
  • Tribes which shared tribal and cultural links with countries across the border did not concern themselves much with the nationalist struggle
  • Their revolts were for political autonomy within India or complete independence
  • These movements were not forest-based or agrarian revolts as these tribals were generally in control of land and forest area
  • De-sanskritisation movements also spread among frontier tribals.


Characteristics of Tribal Revolts

  • Tribal identity or ethnic ties lay behind the solidarity shown by these groups
  • Resentment against the imposition of laws by the ‘foreign government’ that was seen as an effort at destroying the tribals’ traditional socioeconomic framework
  • Many uprisings were led by messiah-like figures who encouraged their people to revolt
  • Tribal uprisings were doomed from the beginning, given the outdated arms




Weaknesses of People’s Uprisings

  • These uprisings drew a large number of participants, localised and occurred at different times in different regions
  • They mostly arose out of local grievances
  • The leadership was semi-feudal in character, backward looking, traditional in outlook
  • Their resistance did not offer alternatives to the existing social set-up.
  • If many of these revolts seemed similar to one another in wanting to oust the alien rule, it was because they were protesting against conditions that were common to them.
  • These rebellions were centuries-old in form and ideological / cultural content
  • Those who were not so uncooperative or obstinate were pacified through concessions by the authorities.
  • Methods and arms used by fighters in these uprisings were practically obsolete compared to the weapons and strategy used by British



Peasant Movements After 1857


  • Colonial economic policies
  • Ruin of the handicrafts leading to overcrowding of land,
  • New land revenue system
  • Colonial administrative and judicial system.
  • The peasants suffered from high rents, illegal levies, arbitrary evictions and unpaid labour in Zamindari areas.
  • In Ryotwari areas, the Government itself levied heavy land revenue


Changed Nature

  • Peasants emerged as the main force in agrarian movements, fighting directly for their own demands
  • Demands were centered almost wholly on economic issues
  • Movements were directed against the immediate enemies – foreign planters and indigenous zamindars and moneylenders
  • Struggles were directed towards specific and limited objectives
  • Colonialism was not the target of these movements
  • It was not the objective of these movements to end the system of subordination or exploitation of the peasants
  • Territorial reach was limited
  • There was no continuity of struggle or long-term organisation
  • Peasants developed a strong awareness of their legal rights and asserted them in and outside courts



  • There was a lack of an adequate understanding of colonialism
  • 19th-century peasants did not possess a new ideology and a new social, economic and political programme
  • Occurred within framework of old societal order lacking a positive conception of an alternative society


Later Movements

  • Peasant movements of 20th century were deeply influenced by national freedom struggle



Military revolts


  • Discrimination in payment and promotions;
  • Mistreatment of the sepoys by the British officials
  • Refusal of the government to pay foreign service allowance while fighting in remote regions
  • Religious objections of the high caste Hindu sepoys to Lord Canning’s General Service Enlistment Act (1856)


Examples of Conflict

  • 1806, replacement of the turban by a leather cockade caused a mutiny at Vellore.
  • 1844, there was a mutinous outbreak of the Bengal army sepoys for being sent to far away Sind and Punjab.
  • 1824 the sepoys at Barrackpore rose in revolt when they were asked to go to Burma because crossing the sea would mean loss of caste.


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