Post by –

Amit Pathak, Amit Rai Jain,  K. K. Sharma

The Outburst

 

10th of May was a Sunday. It was a hot day of an Indian summer and Europeans residing in Meerut could never have fathomed the calamity that was about to befall upon him. There was a silent churning going on in the Indian half of Meerut cantonment. Under the apparent calm of routine cantonment life, a volcano was heating up to near eruption. It was noted that many Indian servants did not report for work in British homes on that fateful day. The warnings of few other servants to their British masters regarding the coming of a storm were neglected. It has been reported that a group of Indian sepoys had left for Delhi on the night of the 9th itself, to inform their comrades about the events that were about to take place in Meerut the following day.

On this Sunday evening, like any other, many British soldiers and officers had come down to Saddar Bazaar from the European half of the cantonment to spend time. A beer shop present here was an important attraction.

The Sunday church service had been postponed ??? for the evening due to the summer heat and many British officers and their families residing within the native half of the cantonment were beginning to move towards the European side, towards the St. Johns Church (page  ).

It was about this time, around 5.30 pm, that a rumour suddenly appeared in Saddar Bazaar according to which British regiments were coming to disarm the native regiments. This was the proverbial spark that lit the haystack. All hell broke loose.

People of Saddar Bazaar immediately started attacking every British soldier or officer who was present in the Bazaar at that time, led in some places by cantonment peons in uniform. The Indian policemen came out of the Saddar Kotwali with unsheathed swords, leading the crowds in their attacks, the Saddar kotwal Dhan Singh siding with them (page   ). The sepoys present in the Bazaar at that time immediately started running towards their lines. The War of Indian Independence 1857 had begun.

The sepoys in their lines broke the bells of arms and took control of their weapons and ammunition, the sowars of the 3rd Cavalry took their horses. A group of sowars rode towards the New Jail where their 85 comrades were imprisoned (page  ). Some of them ran straight towards it, but others entered the walled city of Meerut through the Kamboh gate. As soon as they entered the city they asked all the people to rise against the rule of the East India Company, their first announcement being –

One of the sowars of the 3rd Cavalry passed in front of the Tehsil which lay within Meerut city, at full gallop. He was holding a naked sword in hand and shouting –

`Brothers, Hindoos and Mussalmans, haste and join us, we are going to a religious war. Be assured, we will not harm those who join us, but fight only against the Government.

They then rode through the city shouting `deen deen’ (deen means religion) along the way. They rode out of the Shahpeer gate and reached the New Jail, a part of which they broke releasing their 85 convicted comrades by wrenching off the iron grills, but not releasing the rest of the convicts (page  ). The shackles of the jailed 85 sowars were cut there and then by blacksmiths, before all the sowars ran off to freedom and war. These sowars also did not harm the British jailer who resided near the compound of the New Jail.

In the meantime, few British officers of the native regiments reached the lines and parade grounds to control their men. These officers were told by the sepoys and sowars to go back.

Machenzie, an officer of the 3rd Native Light Cavalry says `To their credit be it said the men did not attack us, but warned us to be off, shouting that the Company’s Raj was over for ever…’ (2)

In all this mayhem Col. John Finnis, commandant of the 11th Native Infantry, was able to make his men listen to his orders and obey his commands. He then decided to ride towards the men of the other infantry regiment, 20th Native Infantry, both these regiments sharing a common parade ground. The sepoys of this other regiment were not ready to listen to his requests and did not pay heed to his commands. When he was returning back towards his own regiment after failing to convince the sepoys of the 20th NI, a sepoy of this regiment shot at him, first shooting his horse and then the colonel himself. The last orders which the colonel could shout were to inform the general about what was happening at this parade ground.

With the death of Col. Finnis, the remaining remnants of subjugation to British authority were also broken within the lines and parade grounds of the three native regiments. The sepoys started firing at their British officers, who in turn ran off towards the European side of the cantonment for safety, or tried to hide wherever they could within the native half of Meerut cantonment.

Some of these were able to save their lives or hide and survive the onslaught till British regiments reached this area late at night, but many more were killed on the roads or in the bungalows, mostly by residents of the bazaar and the city.

The sepoys and sowars, after taking control of their arms and horses, marched off towards Delhi, followed by many civilians (see chapter     ). The fakir who had incited the sepoys to act joined them in their march. The lines and parade grounds of the native regiments of Meerut cantonment were now vacant.

When the above described incidents were taking place, mobs from the slums that lay between the walled city and Saddar Bazaar attacked the bungalows of the British officers who were residing in the native half of the cantonment (mostly officers of the native regiments). The house of the commissioner of Meerut, H. H. Greathed, which was situated near the city, was also attacked and the story of his escape with his wife makes interesting reading. Burning and destruction of property held by British officers as well as civilians lasted a few hours till around midnight when, as stated earlier, a group of British soldiers was sent to collect the bodies of the dead from the native half of the cantonment.

Machenzie (3) `Through the windows flashed brilliant light from the flaming houses on all sides. The hiss and crackle of the burning timbers – the yells of the mob – the frequent sharp reports of fire-arms – all formed a confused roar of sound…

 

Meerut after 10th May

 

By next morning all was quite again within Meerut cantonment and the city, though in the villages around, the fire of revolt was continuously spreading. The East India Company officers, British soldiers as well as civilians could not move out of the European half of Meerut cantonment for many days to come. Here they constructed an artificial fortification for the safety of their women and children called the Dum Duma.

Narrative of Events North Western Provinces, Meerut (Allahabad: 15, Nov, 1858), page 40, para 260 –

 

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.  

 

No direct confrontation took place between the British soldiers and Native sepoys in Meerut cantonment. The above fortification was never to be used and was pulled down completely after the revolt and no remains of it can be found today.

On the 15th of May, 1857, a detachment of Native Sappers and Miners came to Meerut from Roorkee. It was made to encamp near the artillery lines within the eastern part of the European half of the cantonment, very close to the barracks of British soldiers. On 16th of May, a sepoy of this detachment shot at the commanding officer of his regiment, Major Fraser. The exact reason was never known, but it could be because the close proximity of British soldiers unnerved the native sappers resulting in this reaction. The native sappers then immediately ran away, many towards the Kali Nadi. The British soldiers followed them and organised a cavalry charge on those who could be caught up with. A skirmish took place between them and the tail end of these escaping sepoys on the sand embankments that lay just beyond the cantonment. All the native sepoys who were involved in this skirmish were killed.

Karl Marx in New-York Daily Tribune, July 15, 1857 –

 

`Of the troops sent to the rescue of Meerut, where order had been re-established, six companies of 15th of May, native sappers and miners, who arrived on the murdered their commanding officer, Major Frazer, and made at once for the open country, pursued by troops of horse artillery and several of the 6th dragoon guards. Fifty or sixty of the mutineers were shot, but the rest contrived to escape to Delhi.’ 3

So, that was the end of the turbulent and major events of Meerut cantonment and city. But the fire of revolt rapidly spread throughout the countryside of Western Uttar Pradesh and from here it travelled district after district, till it had enveloped nearly the whole of northern, central and parts of eastern India, in no time taking the shape of a mass uprising of Indians against British colonial rule.

As was stated earlier, the European residents of Meerut could not move out beyond a few kilometres of the European half of Meerut cantonment (quote narratives   ). The villagers of Meerut revolted against the colonial forces and continued to fight with whatever means and methods that were available to them for many months. The British administration then began a series of reprisal attacks on the villages. The standard method followed in these attacks was to surround the village before daybreak, drive the women and children away, confiscate the cattle, burn the village and hang or slaughter all the men with or without trial by a kangaroo court. Thousands of poor villagers were killed in these reprisals and innumerable villages destroyed (chapters     ).

The kotwal of Meerut City Kotwali (Police Station), Bishan Singh, rebelled against the British administrative authority of Meerut a few days after all had become quite within Meerut cantonment and city. He saved the residents of the villages Gagol, Sisaree and Moorunugur who were to be `punished’ through a British reprisal for their participation in the revolt (see chapter   ). This he did by purposefully delaying the raiding party from reaching these villages and also informing the villagers about the raid that was about to come. For this action he was reprimanded by the British authorities. In the evening of the same day he pasted a message on the wall of one of the gates of Meerut city and went off to his hometown Narnaul which lies presently in the southern part of Haryana state. There he joined the army of the Yadav king, Rao Tula Ram and participated in the direct battles with British forces that took place in Narnaul on 16th of November, 1857, in which he died fighting.

The punishment inflicted on the farmers and peasants of Western Uttar Pradesh who had risen against colonial authority did not stop with the reprisal killings of 1857. After British authority had been re-established, the lands of those villages or parts of villages which had participated in the actions against British colonial authority were confiscated and handed over to those villages / villagers or families which had supported the British during 1857. Through this systematic redistribution of land and resources, the British administrative authorities condemned all those who had participated in the events of 1857 to suffer for generations for having the audacity to stand up to fight for their rights and freedom. As has been our personal experience in our work of the last few years, this suffering and condemnation is as prevalent today, in 2013, as it has been through all these years. Sadly, no agency has ever visited these people who have been condemned to a life of poverty and social depravity for generations together, even so many years after 1947.