THE FARMER’S REVOLT OF BARAUT – BAGHPAT AND BABA SHAH MULL – Amit Pathak, Amit Rai Jain, K. K. Sharma
With the sudden outburst of the revolt within the Indian subcontinent on the evening of 10th May, 1857, every population group present in Meerut cantonment, the people of the bazaars, cantonment staff, the police of Sadar kotwali, the watchmen of bungalows, city dwellers as well as the residents of nearby villages, all jumped into the fire of the revolt.
The people of the villages around Meerut entered the events of the upsurge immediately after its outburst in Meerut cantonment. The villagers to the east of Meerut attacked the eastern limits of the cantonment and were also responsible for the breaking in and release of the general convicts housed in the New Jail at about 2 am (which was broken earlier in the evening to release the 85 condemned sepoys – page ). Rajput and Ranghar villagers around Sardhana, near Meerut, attacked the Sardhana Tehsil on the 11th of May. The fire of revolt then spread to villages all around Meerut region. The city quietened after 11th, except for the events of 16th May (chapter ), but this fire of revolt kept on burning in the villages throughout the length and breath of Meerut division and its surrounding districts of western part of Uttar Pradesh (United Provinces of Agra and Awadh), till the final fall of Delhi.
It was stated by the British officers that the authority of the British administration had ceased to exist beyond a few kilometres of Meerut cantonment because of the activities of these revolutionary villagers.
One of the greatest battles in the history of the War of Independence 1857 was fought in the region of Baraut and Baghpat to the west of Meerut. I call it one of the greatest battles not because of its scale, or its impact on the events of 1857. I call it great because here we see a direct confrontation between an army of peasants, mostly farmers, and the army of the East India Company which had all the three arms of the cavalry, infantry and artillery within it. This Company army was not just comprised of Indian irregulars led by British officers, as was the situation in many of the retaliatory military operations undertaken in the Indian countryside during 1857 by the British authorities. Here infantry soldiers of a crown regiment were sent in, supported by British artillery guns, to fight an army of simple peasants.
These farmers of Baraut, with limited means of warfare at their disposal, created an army of about 3500 men, mostly infantry, but also having a small cavalry segment, Shah Mal leading them on horseback. They must have possessed primitive muskets and weapons like swords and spears.
This small peasant army had become strong enough to force the Company authorities to mount an attack on it with a group of regular soldiers. This reflects on the character of these peasant fighters and the social organisation that they belonged to. They were mostly Jats, but the other social groups of this region like the Gurjars, Rajputs, Tyagis etc, both Hindu and Muslim, were also liberally represented.
There is no count of how many village folk died fighting in these battles. These simple farmers paid dearly for their audacity to stand up against the greatest power in the world of that time.
The Farmers of Baghpat – Baraut Region and 1857
An army fights on its stomach – this is a well-known adage. Cut the supply line of a military force and it is doomed. The sepoys and their comrades who captured and held on to Delhi also needed a large quantity of food and other resources to sustain them for an extended period of time. It was the people of Baraut and many other parts of Meerut who were the main suppliers of rations and other necessities to Delhi to sustaint the freedom fighters and their comrades in that difficult hour.
The proximity of this region to Delhi was one reason, but the upper Gunga – Yamuna Doab has also been the traditional breadbasket of Delhi. In the days of the upsurge of 1857, the villagers of this region accepted the additional burden of the difficult circumstances and maintained the supplies to Delhi. They also made sure, through various actions, that the revenue supply to the British administration present in Meerut cantonment was completely stopped. The British authorities had to launch continuous operations against the villages around Meerut to reverse this situation.
The villagers in all directions up to within a few miles of the Cantonment had become so bold, that the necessity of more active measures for their coercion, and for the restoration of authority and order be amicable to all. 1
The important role played by the villagers of Baraut in the events of 1857 was further enhanced by their working in coordination with the Delhi revolutionaries for tactical purposes. The bridge of boats across the Yamuna at Baghpat was the main communication link left between the British headquarters camp at Delhi and the British forces in Meerut cantonment, after the capture of Delhi by the Indian sepoys. This was because the British administration could not use the other bridge of boats for crossing the Yamuna that was situated beyond Ghaziabad on the main road to Delhi, as this bridge opened directly under the walls of Delhi Fort (Chapter ).
With the beginning of the upsurge, the direct line of communication between Delhi and Meerut had been broken, as can be understood from the fact that even Col. Archdale Wilson’s force, after the battle of Hindon on 30th and 31st May, 1857, had taken the second road and used the bridge at Baghpat to cross the Yamuna. As stated, the breaking of the bridge of boats at Baghpat was an important strategic move on the part of Shah Mull, as this led to the cutting off of the British headquarters camp at Delhi and the British forces stationed to the east of the Yamuna.
Shah Mull belonged to village Bijroul near the town of Baraut (Dist. Baghpat in north-western Uttar Pradesh, bordering Haryana state). He was a prosperous farmer of the area and held considerable standing in the region. He started operating and organising the farmers of his area against British rule just after the Meerut outbreak, but his activities started taking concrete shape around the last week of May 1857.
Somewhere between 6th of July and 16th July, 1857, Shah Mull attacked Baghpat and also destroyed the bridge of boats on the Yamuna, as stated earlier, the only direct communication between Meerut and the British Head-quarter Camp at Delhi.
During this time many people in north and north-western parts of Meerut region began to openly transfer allegiance to the king of Delhi and the authority of the Company authority got severely undermined.
The condition created through the activates of Shah Mal and villagers of Baraut was such that the British authorities at Meerut had to send an urgent message to Head quarter Camp, requesting them to send some soldiers over from there so that an attack could be mounted on the Baraut – Baghpat region. This was needed to open the direct communication link with Delhi, as well as to prevent supplies reaching the revolutionaries stationed at Delhi from this region. This request for regular soldiers was made because the armed peasants of this region were thought to be too powerful for the force of volunteers that was usually sent out of Meerut cantonment to attack villages in the district.
The Head-quarter Camp, in reply, gave permission for the deployment of British soldiers of active service posted at Meerut cantonment with the volunteer corps (the Khaki Risallah) to fight the peasants of Baraut, though no soldiers were sent from the Head- quarter Camp itself.
Attack on Baraut by the British Force
On 16th of July 1857, a mixed force of about 150 soldiers, consisting of forty soldiers of the 60th Kings Royal Rifles (infantry), District Volunteers (infantry), fifty Mounted Volunteers (cavalry) and soldiers of artillery with two mountain train guns, started from Meerut at 2 a.m. They were commanded by Major Williams.
They reached the Hindon River and encamped at village Dulhowra. They heard heavy firing ahead of them from the direction of village Deolah. They were informed that Shah Mull with about 3000 armed farmers was stationed at village Busodh, about two miles to the north and was about to attack village Deolah to punish it. The residents of Deolah were firing muskets in the air to frighten Shah Mull and his force.
It was difficult for the British force to cross the Hindon at this point and they were able to cross it much later after finding a suitable place between 1 and 2 a.m. on the 17th of July. A force of Mounted Volunteers was sent towards Busodh. Shah Mull had got information about the arrival of the British force. He decided to withdraw in a tactical retreat to organise a proper planned confrontation. He had left Busodh in the night itself; though in quite a hurry as many large cooking vessels used by his men were found here.
Brave people of village Busodh
After the withdrawal of Baba Shah Mull from Busodh, the villagers of Busodh, rather then running away or hiding, took up a fight with the advancing British force (chapter page ). The bravery of the villagers of Busodh can be estimated from the fact that people of this single isolated village, with their primitive weapons, fought organised British troops without aid from any quarter.
The residents of Busodh had sent their women and children away before attacking the British force. This demonstrates that their decision to face and fight the advancing British force was taken after due deliberation, and was not a reactive manoeuvre.
Dunlop (94) writes – `As the advance guard of our column swept round the place, matchlockmen and swordsmen, old and young, were streaming out of the doomed village.’
The people of Busodh paid a heavy price for this great act. These simple villagers, with their simple tools, had tried to resist an organised force of the British Army; they obviously stood no chance. All the males of the village were killed including two Ghazees from Delhi who were among them. The toughest fight took place in and around a mosque in the village, all the villagers fighting till death.
Dunlop (94) again states – `All men, therefore, able to carry arms were shot down or put to the sword, and their residences burnt. The only prisoners taken, some fifteen in number, were ordered our of camp and executed in the evening, by order of the Military Commandant of the expedition…’
The British force burnt down the village. There were huge stores of grain found here meant for the revolutionaries fighting in Delhi. The British tried to burn this grain, as they did not have the means to carry it off to Meerut, but the rain had soaked the thatches with which it was covered and the revolutionaries had also hidden gunpowder within the grain leading to explosions. The invading force thus left it untouched, thinking that it would naturally rot due to the wet season.
The brave villagers of Busodh were still ready for a fight, even after all that had happened in the past few hours in their village – even after they had seen so many of their relatives and friends lying dead on the streets of the village as well as in the village pond, and also hung from trees by the invading British force. As soon as the main body of soldiers marched out of Busodh, many villagers who had hidden themselves in the fields around the village came out and attacked Dr. Cannon and 10 soldiers who were left behind with him. The main British force immediately turned back and attacked these villagers; about 180 of them were killed in this second attack. The British force then returned to Deolah. The whole operation of Busodh took about —— hours.
Battle with the farmers of Baraut and the death of Baba Shah Mull
During the night of the 17th, villagers of Baraut came to know about the events of Busodh and messengers were sent to every village of the Chaurasee Des Khap asking for all men who could go to war to come out and join Baba Shah Mull. Requests were also sent to Delhi from Baraut for re-enforcements in the form of regular Native soldiers to face the advancing force.
Baba Shah Mull declared – `(he) would meet the pale-faced invaders (the Hindustani word probably used would be gora which literally means fair skinned) of his territory on the morrow, and annihilate the entire party, or die in the attempt.’
On 18th the above British force started marching along the Eastern Yamuna Canal towards Baraut. During the march itself, the British force had a first hand experience of the degree of revolutionary zeal among the villagers around both sides of the canal. The farmers were sending the message to organise through beating of drums whose sound could be heard all around and emanating from every village. The few overzealous British officers who tried to move away from the advancing column and go out into the countryside were immediately attacked by the villagers and had to flee for their life. The farmers were also seen moving out to collect at a point to face and fight the advancing colonial army.
The Bichpuri village, which was mostly inhabited by Gurjars, had been an active supporter of Shah Mull. When Dunlop entered this village to catch the headman of the village, he found many armed men leaving this village to join the main force that was getting collected to fight the advancing British column. Dunlop ordered one of the Nujeebs (armed Native guard) to catch hold of one of the residents and ask him where the headman was, but the farmer that the Nujeeb tried to hold attacked him and cut him in two places. Dunlop and the other Nujeeb with him then fired and killed the farmer.
When Dunlop reached the village Burka, he was informed that the whole of the Chaurasee Des Khap was coming out to stand and fight with Baba Shah Mull. While he was getting this information, a lot of noise was heard from village Huldwanie and a group of farmers, under the leadership of Bugda, nephew of Baba Shah Mull. Dunlop had to escape for his life after a short skirmish with Bugda.
A force was sent out from Delhi to Buraut to help Shah Mull, consisting of two native regiments, one hundred and fifty sowars (horsemen) and four 9-pounder artillery guns. As the British force had left Deolah in the night at around midnight, the Native force that reached Deolah from Delhi on the 18th did not find any trace of it in the village or around, and thus returned back to Delhi via Ghaziabad.
When the British force was nearing Baraut, its advance guard was attacked by a group of farmers from Mullutpur who were heading towards the location where Baba Shah Mull was preparing to fight the British force. Out of these farmers, thirty lost their lives in this initial skirmish.
When the British force tried to enter Baraut and go towards the Tehsil, they were fired upon by people of the town from rooftops. They were led by an old white-bearded Sikh, a resident of Mullutpur, who was after a few months arrested and killed by the British colonial administration for taking part in the revolt of Baraut.
Shah Mull had taken position in a large orchard. He then personally led an attack on the British force with about 3500 farmers. As stated earlier, one thing should always be remembered here, a group of farmers with primitive weapons was trying to fight an organised military force led by officers and armed with the best weapons of that age, including artillery.
The British infantry, the 60th Rifles, advanced into the orchard onto the army of the farmers. This action led to them breaking out of the orchard into a field of corn standing behind it, the cavalry i.e. the Mounted Volunteers then charged them after encircling the orchard.
The farmers were using old matchlocks, where were not match to the Enfield rifles of the 60th Rifles. These matchlocks were also spent after an initial round of firing and then the farmers were involved in a fight with small arms.
Shah Mull and his companions gave a hand-to-hand fight but died fighting. He had been killed by A. Tonnochy, aided by Native soldiers working under his command. A. Tonnochy was also injured by the thrust of a spear in this fight by one of the aides of Shah Mull, narrowly surviving the attack.
Dunlop (106) – `I happened to be on the left bank, but those on the right had the good fortune to come up with Sah Mull himself and several of his relatives. The former was killed by a young Volunteer, by name Tonnochy, assisted by an Irregular horseman…’
Mutiny Narratives (43, para 284) – …it was found that Sah Mull himself was one of the slain, having been killed by Mr. A. Tonnochy, aided by two of the native troopers.
Even after the death of their leader Shah Mull, the farmers did not fall back as would be expected in any battle after the death of the leader. They charged a third time on to the British force from a new direction. But this time their spears and swords had to take on the might of British artillery (mountain train guns), followed by an advance of British soldiers. The overall battle lasted more then 3 hours in which about 150 farmers lost their lives fighting.
On the night of the 18th the British force encamped on the right bank of the Yamuna Canal. The head of the great leader Shah Mull was publicly exhibited, being stuck on a pole.
Retreat of William’s Force
No force could instil fear into the minds of the brave farmers of this region, however harsh the reprisals against them may have been. They were organising themselves for another bigger and more powerful attack on the British force on the morning of 19th July. Baba Shah Mull’s nephew had gone to Sisauli to collect a larger body of farmers, specially the Jats, for this purpose. The Chaurasee Des khap was also being reorganised for a new attack.
The commander of the British force, Major Williams, was informed about this through intelligence and this must have unnerved him due to the experience of the past two days. He therefore decided to march off towards Meerut in the night of 18th July itself, using darkness as a shield. He also requested the Meerut station to provide additional forces to protect his passage beyond Hindon in view of the threat of the farmers.
The sleeping men of the British force were silently woken up at midnight and in an hours time they had left Baraut to march towards Harra. They had a tough time travelling through the countryside, as it was flooded, this being the monsoon season in India. The farmers had also ploughed the road and sown crops over it, according to Dunlop (109) `probably in order to show their hatred of made roads as a Firanghee institution…’
The British force crossed the rivulet of Krishni and then the river Hindon to camp on its other bank at Harrah.
After the massacre of village Garhee near Sardhana on the 22nd of July (chapter page ), the force returned back to Meerut Cantonment.