Meanwhile, the political climate in India was changing rapidly. The Mughal empire had collapsed and was being replaced by a variety of regional states, though this did not produce a situation of anarchy and chaos. Some of the regional states maintained stable rule and there was no marked overall economic decline in most of India. There were, however, conflicts within some of the new states. Contestants for power in certain coastal states were willing to seek British support for their ambitions and the British were only too willing to give it. To an extent, they acted on behalf of their companies.
“By the 1740s rivalry between the British and the French, who were late comers to Indian trade, was becoming acute. In southern India the British and the French allied with opposed political factions within the successor states to the Mughals to extract gains for their own companies and to weaken the position of their opponents. Private ambitions were also involved. Great personal rewards were promised to the European commanders who succeeded in placing their Indian clients on the thrones for which they were contending.” (Frykenberg)
The Company’s rule practically came to an end exactly 100 years after its conquest since 1757, when in 1857 the Indian Mutiny took place, known to many Indians as the “First War of Independence”, where many of the Company’s Indian soldiers were armed against their British commanders, after a period of political unrest triggered by a number of political events. One of the pivotal factors was the introduction of the Pattern 1853 Enfield rifle, which used animal-fat lubricants. Eating cow fat was prohibited for the Hindu soldiers, while pig fat was forbidden for the Muslim soldiers. Although it was insisted that neither cow fat nor pig fat was being used, the rumour circulated and many soldiers refused to follow their orders and use the weapons.
Another important event was the execution of the Indian soldier Mangal Pandey who was hanged for attacking and wounding his British superiors, possibly out of insult for the introduction of the Pattern 1853 Enfield rifle and similar reasons.
In May 1857 soldiers of the army of Bengal revolted against their British officers, and marched on Delhi. Their mutiny encouraged rebellion by considerable numbers of Indian civilians in a broad belt of northern and central India – roughly from Delhi in the west to Benares in the east. For the following months the British presence in this area was reduced to beleaguered garrisons, until forces started their counter-offensives that had restored imperial authority by 1858.
British public was quite shocked by the scale of the uprising and by the loss of life on both sides, which involved the massacre by the rebels of captured Europeans, including women and children, and the ruthless killing of Indian soldiers and civilians by the avenging British armies. This inevitably resulted in much self-examination, out of which emerged an explanation of these terrible events. This explanation has exercised a powerful influence over opinion in Britain for the decades to come.
It goes like this: Indians were perceived to have been a deeply conservative people whose traditions and ways of life had been disregarded and disrespected by their British rulers. Reforms, laws, advancement of technology, even Christianity, had been forced upon them. They found these deeply offensive and had no option but to resist them with violence.
“These factors combined with a number of other reasons resulted in the Mutiny, which eventually brought about the end of the British East India Company’s regime in India, and instead led to 90 years of direct rule of the Indian subcontinent by Britain, after the British East India Company was dissolved. The period of direct British rule in India was known as the British Raj, when the regions now known as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar would collectively be known as British India.”(Minault)
Now, the British accepted from the department of finance and of war from their predecessors, but they completely neglected the area of public works. Hence agriculture started to deteriorate. The oppressive effect of this neglect of agriculture, bad as it is, could not be looked upon as the final blow dealt to Indian society by the British intruder, had it not been attended by a situation of quite different significance. However volatile the political aspect of India’s past may appear, its social condition had remained unaltered since its remotest antiquity, until the first decennium of the 19th century. The hand-loomers spinning the wheel and producing their regular myriads of spinners and weavers, were the defining members of that society.