To understand the nature of the uprising of 1857, it is necessary to examine the historiography, divergent in opinion among the contemporary British historians and Indian historians as well as the present ones.
There have been nationalist, imperialist and Orientalist depictions of the 1857 uprising. But to really understand what happened in 1857, one has to study the 'native' sources and oral histories.
Barely 50 years ago, at the initiative of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, the well-known work on 1857 was written by the then director of the National Archives, Dr Surendra Nath Sen. And with the publication of William Dalrymple's book, The Last Mughal, the controversy is very much alive even today.
Joseph Mazzini, an Italian patriot, described the uprising of 1857 in India as an insurrection of the first magnitude, which shook the foundation of British rule in India. Charles Raikes regarded it as primarily and essentially a mutiny of sepoys.
The same view was expressed by Kishori Chand Mitra, Sambhu Chandra Mukhopadhyaya, Harish Chandra Mukherjee and Sir Syed Ahmad. Some contemporary Englishmen viewed the uprising mainly as handiwork of the Muslims. Roberts, Coopland, Alexander Duff and many others regarded it as a long concocted Mohammedan conspiracy against the supremacy and rule of the English in India.
John William Kaye and C B Malleson were of the view that the rebellion as a joint endeavour of the two great communities -- Hindus and Muslims. John Bruce Norton regarded the uprising as a rebellion of the people rather than merely a mutiny of the soldiers. Many English writers, such as Malleson and Kaye, subscribed to this view and considered the uprising of 1857 as an organised campaign to drive away the English from India.
Benjamin Disraeli, the British prime minister, while speaking in the House of Commons, recognised the real character of the upheaval and declared the movement as a national revolt. V D Savarkar and Pandit Sunder Lal were the first Indian writers who claimed the uprising of 1857 as the First War of Independence.
The two historians, Tara Chand and S N Sen described it as 'a war of independence'. Jawaharlal Nehru also wrote: 'It is much more than a military mutiny and it spread rapidly and assumed the character of a popular revolt and a war of Independence'.
However, R C Majumdar expressed a radically different view. He said that the 'so- called First National war of Independence in 1857 is neither First, nor National, nor a war of Independence'. He holds the view that a general revolt or a war of Independence necessarily involves a definite plan and organisation, broad in perspective. The uprising of 1857 was however limited only to a greater part of UP and a narrow zone of its east, west and south.
In October 2006, the Speaker of the Lok Sabha, Somnath Chatterjee, said: 'what the British sought to deride as a mere sepoy mutiny was India's First War of Independence in a very true sense, when people from all walks of life,
Historians remain divided on whether the rebellion can properly be considered a war of Indian independence. Arguments against this include the fact that a united India did not exist at the time in political terms or that the rebellion remained confined to the ranks of the Bengal army (which nonetheless was the largest of the armies in India) and in North-Central India.
Arguments in favour say that even though the rebellion had various causes (sepoy grievances, British high-handedness, the Doctrine of Lapse, etc), most of the rebel sepoys set out to revive the old Mughal Empire, which signified a national symbol for them, instead of heading home or joining services of their regional principalities, which would not have been unreasonable if their revolt were only inspired by grievances. However, it is clear that most of the Indian people accept the latter view and consider it as the First War of Independence.
After 1857, the British scaled down their programme of reform, increased the racial distance between Europeans and native Indians, and also sought to appease the gentry and princely families, especially Muslims, who had been major instigators of the 1857 revolt.
After 1857, the zamindars (regional feudal officials) became more oppressive, the caste system became more pronounced, and the communal divide between Hindus and Muslims became marked and visible. This as some historians argue, led to the policy of 'divide and rule'.
Marx's position is that the Indians were victims of both physical and economic forms of class oppression by the British. In his analysis, the clash between the soldiers and their officers was the inevitable conflict that resulted out of capitalism and imperialism. Local industry, specifically the famous weavers of Bengal and elsewhere, also suffered under British rule. Tariffs were kept low in accordance with the traditional British free market sentiments. Indigenous industry simply could not compete.
Whereas once India had produced much of England's luxury cloth, the country was now reduced to growing cotton for Britain's textile industry, the finished products of which were subsequently marketed back to India.
In conclusion I would say that the movement of 1857 was in expanse and significance greater than just a mutiny in the army. To my mind its most significant characteristic was the unity of the Hindu and Muslim communities in the struggle against foreign rule.
The last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah II himself in his proclamation emphasised the necessity for unity between Hindus and Muslims. Further, in the battleground in 1857, the sepoys of both the communities fought shoulder to shoulder. The ultimate defeat of the movement does not in any way detract from the significance of the united struggle.
Today, in particular, when some forces in our country tend to erode the very basis of unity of the Indian people and, in particular, the harmony between the two larger communities, it is necessary to bear in mind the glorious example set by the heroes of 1857.
Professor D N Tripathi is a former chairman of the Indian Council for Historical Research. This article first appeared in the ICHR newsletter and appears with kind courtesy ICHR.