During the ongoing year of 1856, the circumstances attendant upon the denial of the 38th Regiment N. I. to proceed by sea to Burma had caused Lord Canning to look up an Act, which had already been drafted. The act's primary object was to alter the terms of the enlistment of the sipahi (soldier) as to make, in the future, every regiment available for service across the seas. The Act did not affect the interests of sipahis already enlisted. It referred basically to those who might enter the service henceforth. In July 1856 that Act became law. In itself the Act was a just and righteous Act. Issued at any other time, it would have caused no feeling whatsoever. The men of the six regiments already enlisting for general service were of as high a caste, as were the men who employed only to serve locally. But the minds of the sipahis were agitated. The annexation of Oudh had caused them to lose faith in their foreign masters. And it is quite possible that the alteration, which did not escape the watchful eyes of the men who were stirring up disorder, acted as an additional argument to prove that gradual steps were to be taken to deprive them of their caste.
The legendary action of the Maulavi of Faizabad was instrumental in creating and increasing the undercurrent of hostility to British rule through Bengal and the North-west Provinces. It is impossible, however, to leave this subject without mentioning the action of the son of the ex-Peshwa, Baji Rao, and his agent, Azimullah Khan. The case may thus be stated. The Peshwa had been, by virtue of his title, the lord of all the Maratha princes. Of all the Peshwas, Baji Rao had been the most fraudulent to his own countrymen, and the worst. But for many years he had been loyal to the British. Tempted, however, in 1817, by the rising of Holkar and the war with the Pindaris, and hoping to recover the lost authority of his House, he had risen, had been beaten, and, in 1818, had thrown himself to the mercy of the British. He was deprived of his dominions, and granted a pension for life of eight lakhs of rupees. He took up his residence at Bithor, near the military station of Kanpur, adopted a son, and lived a quiet life till his death in 1851.
The Government of India permitted his adopted son, whose name was Dhundu Pant, but who was generally known as Nana Sahib, to inherit the savings of Baji Rao, and they presented to him the fee-simple of the property at Bithor. But Nana Sahib had to provide for a very large body of followers, handed down to his care by Baji Rao; and the two British Commissioners who, in succession, oversaw the administration of the estate supported the proposal made from Bithor that a portion of the late ex-Peshwa's allowance should be kept for the support of the family. They had some reason for their suggestion, for when, some little time before his death, Baji Rao had petitioned the Home Government that his adopted son might succeed to the title and pension of Peshwa, the grant of the title was refused absolutely. The question of the pension was refused for future consideration, i.e., until the seat of the ex-Peshwa should be vacant.
The high policy should have shown some consideration for the heir of one who had been the lord of Western India, and whose territories the British had usurped. A slight relaxation of the hard and fast policy characteristic of Lord Dalhousie's rule might have saved the British from many future hassles. When, in 1844, the House of Sindhia, defeated in battle, was at the feet of Lord Ellenborough, the nobleman imposed upon it no penalisation. His unselfishness bore splendid fruit in 1857-58. The effect was far removed from the result of the policy pursued towards Nana Sahib. Lord Dalhousie declared the recommendation made by the two Commissioners in his favour to be 'uncalled for and unreasonable'. He directed that 'the determination of the Government of India may be explicitly declared to the family without delay'. The determination was consequently so declared.
Nana Sahib appealed to the Court of Directors against the decision of the Governor-General of India. His appeal was cast in logical, temperate, and convincing language. He asked why the heir to the Peshwa should be treated differently from other native princes who had failed before the Company. He illustrated the case of Delhi and of Maisur (modern day Mysore); and with reference to the hypothesis made in argument against him that the savings of his father were sufficient to support him, he asked whether it was just that the economical foresightedness of the father should militate against the moral claims of the son. The argument, which would have been accepted in any native Court in India, which was convincing to the two hundred and fifty millions who inhabited that country, had no effect whatever on the minds of the western rulers who governed the country from Leadenhall Street. They directed the Governor-General to inform the memorialist 'that the pension of his adoptive father was not hereditary, that he has no claim whatever to it, and that his application is wholly inadmissible'. The date of the reply was May 1853. It bore its fruit at Kanpur in June 1857.
Nana Sahib accepted it with apparent composure, but it ate into his bosom. To prosecute his claims he had, early in the year, despatched to England a young Muhammadan in his service, Azimullah Khan by name, of a pleasant presence and a taking address. Before Azimullah could reach England, judgment had already been recorded. Being in the receipt of an adequate allowance from his master, the young man stayed in England, and entered freely into the pleasures of English life. But he always had an eye to the interests of Nana Sahib. Whilst he was yet in England the Crimean war broke out. Shortly afterwards there came from the seat of war those stories of suffering which, had hugely perturbed the mind of Azimullah Khan. The imaginative mind of the young oriental came to the conclusion that some terrible disaster was about to befall the British army. If this was to happen, there might be some hope for Nana Sahib. Azimullah proceeded, then, to the seat of war, entered into communication with foreigners of diverse nations, and from his conversations with them, and from his own personal inspection, came to the conclusion that England, which had asserted herself with so much haughtiness in India, was on the brink of destruction, that it would require but a united effort on the part of the princes and people of her great dependency to 'push her from her stool.' With these convictions fresh and strongly rooted in his mind Azimullah Khan returned, in 1856, to the Nanaat Bithor. Shortly after his return, the Nana paid a somewhat mysterious visit to Lucknow, accompanied by Azimullah and a considerable following.
Whilst the province of Oudh and the district of Bithor were thus fast becoming hotbeds of conspiracy, a similar process was taking place through the length and breadth of the North-west Provinces. The English, guided by the reckless hand of Mr. Thomason, had rushed in the village provinces. The result was that throughout the districts over which he had ruled, in Juanpur and Azamgarh, in Agra, Kanpur, and the adjoining districts, throughout Bundelkhand, there reigned a restlessness which lent itself very readily to the schemes of the major conspirators. The advocates of Mr. Thomason's reforms have endeavoured, under the screen of anonymous criticism, to refute this assertion.
Not very far distant from Agra there was a powerful chieftain who, from causes similar to those which had influenced Nana Sahib, regarded herself as having been grievously wronged, and who therefore hated the English with all the bitterness of a woman who had been scorned. This chieftain was the Rani of Jhansi. She was largely gifted, possessed great energy, had borne 'a high character,' being 'much respected by everyone at Jhansi'. But the hand of the plunderer had lashed her into a fury, which was not an instance to be tamed. Under Hindu law, the Rani possessed the right to adopt an heir to her husband when he passed away childless in 1854. Lord Dalhousie refused to her the exercise of that right, and declared that Jhansi had lapsed to the paramount power. In vain did the Rani dwell upon the services, which in olden days the rulers of Jhansi had rendered to the British Government, and quote the affectionate acknowledgments made by that Government. Lord Dalhousie was not to be moved. With a stroke of his pen he deprived this high-spirited woman of the rights, which she believed, and which all the natives of India believed, to be hereditary. That stroke of the pen converted the lady, of so high a character and so much respected, into a veritable tigress so far as the English were concerned. For them, thereafter, she would have no mercy. There is reason to believe that she, too, had entered into negotiations with the Maulavi and Nana Sahib before the explosion of 1857 took place.
Such, then, were the conspirators, who took the initiative to disintegrate the princely kingdoms. The inhabitants of Oudh, directed principally by the Maulavi and a lady of the royal House known as the Begum, the inhabitants of the North-west Provinces, spurred into bitter hostility by the action of the Thomasonian system, and the Rani of Jhansi. The executive council of this conspiracy had arranged, in the beginning of 1857, to act upon the sipahis (soldiers) by means of the greased cartridge, upon the inhabitants of the rural districts by the dissemination of chapatis. This dissemination was intended as a warning that the rising was imminent. It was further decided that the rising of the sipahis should be simultaneous, and more than once the actual day was fixed. Providentially, something always happened to prevent the explosion on that day. The splutterings, which occurred on such occasions, served to give well-timed warning to the Government. The delays, which followed the warning, were partially utilised. It was not, however, till the rising actually took place at Mirath (Meerut) that the Government gauged the real nature, though not the full extent, of the danger.