In the morning of May 11, 1857, sepoys from the Meerut Cantonment, who had disobeyed and killed a superior officer the previous day, entered the Red Fort, followed by an excited crowd. They appealed to Bahadur Shah Zafar - a pensioner of the Company, and a nominal Shehanshah then - to lead them. Zafar vacillated for a while, as he was unsure of his ability to make the movement a success. He was, however, persuaded by the sepoys to yield and was immediately declared the Shehanshah-e-Hindustan. Many Englishmen were killed and many offices burnt. Mangal Pande, a young sepoy, who had killed a superior, became the first martyr of the Revolt as he was the first one to be hanged by the British. Thus began the 1857 Revolt, a failed but heroic attempt to rid India of foreign rule.
The Revolt at Meerut was followed by similar movements in other cantonments especially in North India. Almost half of all sepoys revolted against the company, thus breaching the discipline and loyalty to the company.
Within a month of the capture of Delhi, the Revolt spread to different parts of the country. Prominent storm-centres of the Revolt were - Kanpur, Lucknow, Allahabad, Benares, Bareilly, Jagdishpur and Jhansi. In Kanpur, it was led by Nana Saheb while Beghum Hazrat Mahal took over in Lucknow. Of course, the most outstanding rebel leader was the Rani of Jhansi, Rani Lakshmibai, whose state had been annexed using the Doctrine of Lapse. After trying to regain her kingdom, she joined the sepoys and became one of the most fearsome rivals of the British in India.
It was prestigious to be in the Company’s Army; it provided economic stability. Then why did the sepoys revolt? Apart from the immediate trigger of the Enfield Rifle cartridges (The Enfield Rifle cartridges had to be bitten off before loading and rumours were that the wrapper had beef tallow, thus causing religious discontentment among the Hindu sepoys), discriminatory, oppressive revenue systems and poverty - all contributed equally to the sepoys’ discontentment and the Revolt. In the absence of any records, it is difficult to say whether it was methodically planned and executed or it erupted suddenly without any planning.
Despite all this, the Revolt quickly spread elsewhere within one month. Bahadur Shah Zafar was proclaimed the Emperor and a sort of government was established in Delhi. The rebels had a Court of Administrators, which worked. in Zafar's name. For more than a year, the rebels struggled against heavy odds to sustain the movement. Poorly armed, without any means of communication, they were fighting a losing battle against a much better-equipped enemy. Although they had public sympathy, the county as a whole was not behind them. The intelligentsia, the merchant class and the Indian rulers not only did not sympathise with them, but also actively helped the British to suppress them.
Barring some exceptions like the Rani of Jhansi, most rebels had poor leaders as they could not judge the significance of the Revolt. Zafar did not trust the sepoys and failed to provide effective leadership, and, in fact, negotiated with the British for his safety. But most importantly, the rebels had no future vision. Most were caught in their own past, fighting to regain their lost powers. It led John Lawrence to remark, "Had there been a single leader of ability arisen among them, we must have been lost beyond redemption."
Yet, the rebels showed exemplary courage and dedication. However, heroism alone cannot sustain movements. Delhi fell to the British on September 20, 1857 and Bahadur Shah Zafar was captured, tried and deported to Rangoon ( today’s Yangoon), where he ultimately died. The Rani of Jhansi died fighting on June 17, 1858. General Hugh Rose, who had defeated her, paying glowing tributes to her, said
"Here lay the woman who was the only man among the rebels."
Thus ended the most powerful challenge to the British rule in India. Despite the sepoys’ limitations, their effort to liberate the country was a patriotic act, and a progressive step. The Revolt of 1857 was not a pure historical tragedy. Even in failure, it had a grand purpose - of inspiring our freedom struggle which later achieved what the Revolt could not.