Although the revolt of 1857 was an extraordinary event in the history of India, it had very little chance of success against an organised and powerful enemy. It was suppressed within a year of its outbreak. There were many causes which led to the collapse of this mighty rebellion.
Narrow territorial base
The revolt of 1857 had limited territorial spread. It was not widespread and remained confined to North and Central India only. Even in the north, Kashmir, Punjab, Sind and Rajputana kept away from the rebels. The British managed to get the loyalty of the Madras and Bombay regiments and the Sikh states. Afghans and Gurkhas also supported the British.
The eastern, western and southern parts of India were more or less unaffected by the uprising.
Lack of unity
No broad-based unity emerged among the Indian people during the rebel. While sepoys of the Bengal army were revolting, some soldiers in Punjab fought on the side of the British to crush these rebellions. Adhesion of the Mughal emperor, turned the Sikhs of Punjab away from the rebellion, as they did not want to return to Islamic rule, having fought many wars against the Mughal rulers.
The Zamindars of Bengal Presidency were the creation of the British. They acted as break-waters to storm . Awadh Taluqdars also backed off, once promises were made by the British to restore their land and titles.
The modern educated Indians also did not support the revolt because, in their view, the revolt was backwards-looking. They believed mistakenly that the British would lead the country towards modernisation.
The main problem, however, was lack of unity in the ranks of rebels themselves. Their leaders were suspicious and jealous of each other and often indulged in petty quarrels. The Begam of Awadh, for example, quarrelled with Maulvi Ahmdullah, and the Mughal princes with the sepoy-generals. Thus, selfishness and narrow perspective of the leaders suppressed the strength of the revolt and prevented its consolidation.
Another major factor contributing to the failure of the revolt was the weak leadership of the movement. Indian leaders lacked organisation and planning. The rebels were poorly organised. The uprisings in different parts of the country were uncoordinated. Often the sepoys behaved in an uncontrolled manner.
The rebel leaders were no match for the British soldiers. Most of its leaders thought only of their own interest. They were motivated by narrow personal gains. They fought to liberate only their own territories.
No national leader emerged to coordinate the movement and give it purpose and direction. Rani Lakshmi Bai, Tantya Tope and Nana Saheb were courageous but were not good military generals. The rebels were lacking in discipline and a central command and they could not win against a powerful and determined enemy who planned its strategy skillfully.
Lack of proper arms and equipment
The rebels were short of weapons and finances. Whatever few weapons existed, were old and outdated. In many areas, rebels fought with swords and spears which were no match for the sophisticated and modern weapons of the British.
The telegraphic system and postal communication helped the British to speed up their operation. The English mastery of the sea enabled them to get timely help from England and crush the revolt ruthlessly.
Lack of unified vision and ideology
The rebellion swept off the British system of government and administration in India but the rebels did not know what to create in its place. They had no forward-looking plan in mind. The prominent leaders of rebellion like Nana Saheb, Begum of Awadh, Rani of Jhansi, etc., did not possess any unified programme.
For example, the sepoys of Bengal wanted to revive the ancient glories of the Mughals while Nana Saheb and Tantya Tope tried to reestablish the Maratha power. Rani Lakshmi Bai fought to regain Jhansi, which she had lost as a result of the British policy of Doctrine of lapse.
There were diverse elements among the rebels with different ideology, plan and motive. Most of the leaders of the revolt were fighting for personal gains and lack a coherent idea for modern India. Modern nationalism had not yet evolved in India. In fact, it was a concept unknown to the people.
By the end of 1859, the revolt was suppressed and the British authority over India was firmly reestablished. The revolt had finally failed. However, the revolt is remembered for the valour and the courage of its rebels. Even though they failed to achieve their objective they succeeded in sowing the seeds of nationalism among the Indians and paved the way for the future struggle for independence.