7 March 2018
The Evolution of Warfare and the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny
Now known as the largest of its kind, the 1857 Mutiny of sepoy troops against East India Company and British rule was a large, devastating, and multifaceted conflict which exhibited not only fierce initial battles, but a lasting legacy of civilian terror and retribution. Remarkable in its scale and widespread destruction among the Indian countryside, it becomes clear that while revolutions against colonizing powers were not unheard of, in the case of the 1857 Mutiny we see a new style of warfare develop which had not previously been envisioned. In retrospect, the happenings of the Mutiny draw many comparisons to more modern conflicts which still occur, and truly set the stage for the now-widespread counter insurgency model, involving not only military clashes but also civilian participation.
Prior to 1857, most wars could be easily classified as being limited in scale. While wide ranging world conflicts certainly occurred, (the Napoleonic Wars being a prime example), the battles themselves were primarily limited to military participation. Clear cut classifications of combatants and non-combatants were typically made, largely functioning to separate the horrors of war from the occupants of the war-torn nation. While these wars certainly influenced the lives of the civilians who resided nearby, this was largely a function of secondary or tertiary effects. A conflict by nature often deprived the civilian populace of necessary goods, food supplies, and other items needed for normal function, however any civilian victims of a campaign would nearly always be a result of those very deprivations, as opposed to direct targeting by the occupying force. This preexisting model of limited warfare was cast aside with the inception of the 1857 Mutiny, for a variety of reasons.
Previous conflicts, at least in the European sphere, typically occurred amongst largely homogenous populations. While the French and English soldiery might dislike each other for nationalistic reasons, that doesn’t erase the irrefutable fact that they were sired in very similar communities, and often had more in common with each other than they might care to admit, resulting in an environment in which it was difficult to truly dehumanize the opposing side. Wars between European empires during this time could typically be characterized by a lack of true existential crisis, often occurring to simply expand regional control, or even to simply spite neighboring monarchial powers. Religious differences too were a factor, or rather a factor which was usually absent. While warring European nations might adhere to separate denominations, (Catholics versus protestants or orthodox), beneath those denominational differences the soldiers were still Christian, and as such shared core religious values and in many cases similar practices which helped to, in a way, alleviate the amount of chaos and devastation which was heaped upon the local citizenry and even each other.
In the case of the 1857 Mutiny however, no such similarities existed between the warring powers. Stemming at its core from religious slights, the sepoy troops and native combatants who opposed the EIC forces felt that they weren’t only fighting a war for control of their country, but rather they were fighting a war for their very national and cultural existence. This deviation from the previous European limited-warfare model helped to shape the conflict in ways that would ultimately lead to both increased civilian involvement, and as a result increased civilian suffering. Kaushik Roy explains this new phenomenon as a “Peoples War” in his article of the same title. No previously upheld norms were honored in the campaign, and one could posit that the initial vicious actions of the mutineers would incite the British forces to return the favor in kind, and in many ways far exceed such levels of barbarity in their following campaign of retribution.
The treatment of prisoners of war is one such norm which was immediately cast to the wayside. Of the follow-on actions of the seizure of Fort Jhansi by the mutineers, Roy writes, “Around 5 pm, the British surrendered on condition that their lives will be spared. As soon as they surrendered, the prisoners were put to the sword. The distinction between the combatants and the noncombatants vanished…”. These early actions truly set the stage for the vicious cycle which would follow. By immediately disregarding previous methods of warfare, both sides quickly cast aside any illusion of mercy. Along with captured soldiers, civilians too were often put to the sword, both sides implicitly and voraciously attacking civilians, damage which could not be classified as collateral but rather intentional. Modern comparisons can easily be drawn in the counterinsurgency actions which take place on a global scale. Daesh forces in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere regularly target civilians in an effort to influence the population via fear, driven by all too similar religious ideological motivations.
Similarities with modern counterinsurgencies can also be pulled from the level of involvement which the civilian populace played in opposing the British forces. With combatant and noncombatant delineations being absent, Queen’s Royal and EIC soldiers would oft find themselves staring down not only muskets held by uniformed sepoy mutineers, but also those held by local women or children who, previously, had no military experience or involvement. Roy demonstrates this as he writes “The Nizam of Hyderabad had two battalions of female sepoys of 1,000 each. . .In 1857, the most famous female warlord to emerge on the Indian side was the Wajid Ali’ s beautiful Begum Hazrat Mahal”. Not only did women and other formerly classified noncombatants participate in the fighting, but in the case of Mahal, actually commanded large military elements which met the British forces in battle.
This evolution, while important, shouldn’t be interpreted as simply being indicative of a totally unified Indian force. As argued by Sabyasachi Dasgupta the opposite was actually the true case. While sepoy mutineers certainly spearheaded the conflict, their goals didn’t necessarily fully align with their civilian counterparts. While a sense of shared cultural and religious bonds was certainly in play, the sepoys made up a very distinct group within the greater movement’s ideological basis.
Sepoys, while still tied to their home regions through family and friends, were likely heavily shaped by their military service as servants to the Company. Viewing themselves as high caste individuals they sought not only to free themselves from British dominion, but also to leverage that high status for their own gain. Of course, a sepoy will view the people of his home village as being key figures in his upbringing, but that sense of kinship was somewhat muted due to the shared bond he held with his fellow soldiers.
The military lifestyle to this day creates a culture of its own. Bringing together people from far flung regions who have no other ties with each other, the shared hardships and environment of military service to the company led to many sepoys viewing those bonds as being more important than the ones held prior to their service. This shift in attitudes was seen most vividly in the sepoy treatment of native citizens post-mutiny. While one might assume that they fought for a common cause, that cause did little to prevent the sepoys from handing out abuses on not only the British, but any person who might stand in the way of their own insular ambitions. This is described by Dasgupta in the sepoy occupation of Delhi. Angered by perceived injustices prompted by unwanted looting, “The sepoys peeved at being robbed took their anger out on the innocent people of the locality and indulged in a large-scale massacre.”
Dasgupta believes, seemingly correctly, that while the sepoy mutineers and local militants shared an overarching ideology, the end state was likely much different in the eyes of the sepoys. Seeking to maintain their hierarchical positions, the sepoys likely had no intention of truly returning to the preexisting cultural norms of the day, but rather sought to free themselves of British dominion only to implement a new system of their own making. The rejection of many cultural norms by the sepoys supports this assertion. At the coronation of Birjis Qadr, the sepoys demonstrated their lack of respect for preexisting societal norms, “They noisily commented on the appearance of Birjis Qadr, some drew mocking parallels with the god Krishna, others urged him not to succumb to the pleasures of wine and women.” Had the sepoys been ultimately successful in their rebellion against the British, it’s very possible that the conflict would have turned inwards, pitting sepoy revisionists against the very citizenry who aided them in the initial fighting. Traditional Hindu culture, largely tied to the hierarchal systems of the caste and bound by respect, seemed at odds with this “new elite” class of sepoy.
Ultimately, the sepoy mutiny of 1857 is noteworthy for a variety of factors. By revolutionizing the methods of warfare and expanding its scope, all future conflicts would begin to reflect the chaotic processes first seen in the vicious campaign for independence. These massive shifts and societal cleavages would continue to resonate throughout both world history and the eventual national development of a unified Indian nation, forever changing the political and martial fields, making it an important study in human conflict.
Roy, Kaushik. “The Beginning of ‘People’s War’ in India.” Economic and Political Weekly 42, no. 19 (2007): 1720-728. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4419576.
Sabyasachi Dasgupta. “The Rebel Army in 1857: At the Vanguard of the War of Independence or a Tyranny of Arms?” Economic and Political Weekly 42, no. 19 (2007): 1729-733. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4419577.
1 Kaushik Roy. “The Beginning of ‘People’s War’ in India.” Economic and Political Weekly 42, no. 19 (2007): 1720-728. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4419576. 1720.
 Roy, ‘Peoples War’, 1722.
 Sabyasachi Dasgupta. “The Rebel Army in 1857: At the Vanguard of the War of Independence or a Tyranny of Arms?” Economic and Political Weekly 42, no. 19 (2007): 1729-733. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4419577. 1731.
 Dasgupta, ‘The Rebel Army’, 1732.