Continuing from the previous post..
So, we have a weak, ineffectual, but a rather nice king, a population representing a rather interesting hindu-muslim culture..
The sepoys violently changed the prevailing order in Delhi by riding in from Meerut and killing every single christian they could find. It is interesting that none of the europeans who had converted to islam (of which there were many) were touched. To properly understand the sepoys' motivations, we must see what the british, their employers had been doing.
When we say 'The British', we of course, mean The British East India Company, which was one of the earliest MNCs. Imagine, if you will, Pepsico, or Microsoft, running a country with the only motive being their bottomline. That's essentially what the BEC was doing to India (and Sri Lanka and Burma) with the marked lack of empathy that is the defining characteristic of a Corporation(then, as now).
The British East India Company had got their foothold in hindustan (bengal, bihar, UP and MP) by obtaining the mughal's permission to collect taxes on their behalf. As the mughal power waned, and it had been waning for a while now, two other kingdoms had become powerful, the Marathas and the Sikhs. As 1857 rolled by, the british had defeated both, and were on the path towards ruling India. Their main tool was the native army, which was recruited from hindus and muslims (especially from the groups that the british considered 'martial races) and trained in the european way. The initial group of the british interacted with the indians on quite convival terms. The officers fraternized with the troops, became quite fluent in local languages and aware of local customs. Many of them acquired indian wives and lived rather indian lives (complete with separate harems for their hindu and muslim wives :-) ). Many of these british were fluent in indian languages and some were actually accomplished poets in those languages. This was news to me. Apparently the extent to which the first-generation british had integrated themselves into indian society is not stressed by the indians or the british :-) When the revolt exploded, this would save some of their sons and daughters as former servants and soldiers of these men saved their children from certain death. The sepoys of the old-style officers also permitted their officers and their families to escape, out of loyalty.
As more and more british started coming in, this stopped and a divide grew between the british and the men they commanded. They looked upon the older group who had 'gone native' with horror and derision. The new class of british that came in were also quite religious and saw in India a vast opportunity to 'reform' the 'natives' of their superstitions and convert the country to the 'One True Faith' of christianity. The 'natives' who had their own 'One True Faith's didn't take very kindly to it and this was to become one of the biggest reasons for the revolt. This extreme religiousity also ensured that the British were particularly insensitive to the sepoys' concerns about the greased cartridges which became the proximate cause of the revolt.
At this point, the East India Company had made the move of invading and occupying Avadh, a rich indian state that was also home to many of its sepoys. Avadh was a friendly state to the British. This sent out a loud message to other states in India that your disposition towards the british didn't matter to them, they would take you over anyway. It also inflamed the sepoys who had to aid in the takeover of their own state by the foreigner.
The british were also the de facto power in Delhi and had a say in who would be the next mughal emperor. They were also plotting to eliminate the Mughal line and move the survivors out of Delhi. In this, they had the collusion of Bahadur Shah's favorite wife and other courtiers.
The revolt, thus, had different complexions in different parts of the country. In some places (like in Jhansi), it was against the attempted land-grabs of the british. In others, like Delhi, it was certainly a religious war.
Once the revolt started, the sepoys killed their officers and promptly marched on Delhi. They went to Bahadur Shah and asked him to lead them. He was not willing in the beginning, but as he began to see the possibility of maintaining his line, he agreed. So, now, you had a group of sepoys, predomninantly hindu, not just accepting, but demanding that the mughal emperor lead them.
Though he was the titular head, there was no one who could actually provide leadership. None of the sepoys had an experience of leading more than hundred, since the officer class had all been european. As mentioned previously, the court was working against itself. If there had been a strong leader, he(or she) would have been able to weld the sepoy regiments into an army. That was not to be. For a long time, the sepoys outnumbered and outgunned the british but couldn't defeat them just because they had no one who could maneuver them like an army. Instead, they charged the british in battalions and were promptly crushed. What they lacked was not courage or weaponry, but leadership. The first shot at some kind of unified leadership came when Bakht Khan of the Bareilly Brigade marched in and tried to bring some kind of leadership and order. But ego-clashes amongst other leaders of the sepoys quickly put paid to that hope.
The fact that the sepoys had killed all europeans had the effect of making the british bloodthirsty for revenge. Breathless tales of how the women had been raped and killed spread. The fact of the matter was that not one woman had been raped (they had all been killed though, so I guess it is small comfort). They saw their role as 'delivering God's justice on the heathens'. The british response took on an extremely religious overtone. The british felt that they had been betrayed by the indians to whom they were trying to bring culture and civilization and by God, they were going to shed some blood to show who was boss. This essentially made it a religious war. With christianity on one side and the hindus and muslims on the other.
Of all the conquering peoples, the british must be truly unique for their consistent stand that all of it was done for the benefit of the conquered. I am sure that when Genghis Khan was building his tower of skulls, or the Romans, were destroying Carthage, selling its inhabitants to slavery and sowing salt in the land (so nothing would grow there) weren't saying to their victims 'But why did you resist us? All we were trying to do was bring you culture!'. The british on the other hand, saw it as their God given duty to 'civilize' their colonies. It permitted them to do really horrific things self-righteously.
For instance, when the british re-took Delhi, they killed indiscriminately, men, women and children. On the march to Delhi, locals were randomly executed. Thousands of the citizens of delhi were killed out-of-hand, regardless of whether they had helped the sepoys or the english. The british used short-ropes for hanging the indians (if you hang someone with a long-rope, it is the fall and neck-snap that kills. A short rope kills slowly by strangulation.). Remember the ones who collaborated with the british? They didn't get much of a better deal. The city was looted, and about eighty percent of Red Fort destroyed. All this, of course, to civilize the heathens. But, I digress.
To get back to the story, once the british got their wits together, they disarmed all native troops that seemed rebellious, and hired auxiliaries from amongst the sikhs and the pathans and marched on Delhi. The british also had a superb spy system which they used to great effect. It is in this time that characters like Hodson and Nicholson made their name (for great brutality and courage). The actions of some (like Theo Metcalfe who was known for his indiscriminate hanging of indians) disgusted even the british.
The looting, the mismanagement and the choking of Delhi by the gujjar tribesmen caused severe supply problems for the sepoy army and they started slipping out of the city. When the british finally stormed the city, there were not many left (Bakht Khan had slipped away with his army to Lucknow). Once in Delhi, the british wreaked a tremendous revenge, extinguished the line of the Mughals and sent Zafar into exile to Rangoon. The only reason his life was spared was because Hodson had promised Zinat Mahal, his wife that his life would be spared in exchange for her cooperation during the rebellion. After the rebellion, the muslims were treated much worse than the hindus were (since the british saw this as an attempt by the muslim mughals to reassert themselves) which laid the foundation for their alienation from the hindus and the eventual partition. This also comprehensively destroyed the Delhi Renaissance that was occurring under Zafar.
Dalrymple details all this, and brings to life all these characters and more. Like I mentioned previously, this gives great insight into the causes of the revolt. Was it a religious war? Was it a war waged by hindus and muslims to restore the mughals to power? Was it a mutiny? Was it a war by the indians against an encroaching foreign power? The answer is all of the above. It was not exactly a war of independence as claimed by V.D. Savarkar. It was not exactly the matter of a mutiny, as claimed by the british.
We need more such looks at indian history that focus on the facts and not on the political, social or religious leanings of the historian. Also, we tend to idolize leaders and events. It is understandable because we are emotionally invested in it. Unfortunately that prevents us from cold-bloodedly examining our history and learning from it. This book, perhaps because it is not written by an Indian, steers clear of that, and we get to see what everyone does. Actually, it is not completely fair to say that Dalrymple is emotionally disconnected. He obviously loves Delhi and this book is in a way an elegy to the Delhi that was. A cosmopolitan, polished place where hindus, muslims and christians, indians and europeans hung out, went shopping in bazaars, wrote and listened to poetry, watched courtesans dance, ate at roadisde fastfood joints and had a generally wonderful time. Until History intervened.