Harking back : Action in Lahore that saved the Empire

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, Jul 6 , 2014


“If Lahore is saved, the Empire is saved”, said Robert Montgomery on the 12th of May, 1857, while presiding over an emergency meeting in the new Mian Mir Cantonment. The uprising had started at Meerut a night earlier. How should they proceed?

Chief Commissioner John Lawrence was in Rawalpindi and was about to set off for the hills on a ‘health break’. The secret documents on the proceedings of that meeting, as well as subsequent reports, make interesting reading. My interest lay in discovering just how the decision-making process unfolded. Robert Montgomery, the Judicial Commissioner, assembled a meeting of seven senior civil and military officers. The Lahore Station commander, Brig Corbett, informed that a Sikh NCO in the Police Corps had informed that the entire ‘sepoy’ regiments were to mutiny, capture the Lahore Fort, release over 2,000 prisoners and plans exist to massacre all Europeans.

The brigadier was firm that all ‘native soldiers’ should be disarmed and restricted to their barracks. To disguise their intentions they planned a dance-ball of the officers of the 81st Queens Regiment, which was to go on till early the next morning. However, during the meeting there was some disagreement on whether everyone should be disarmed. One civil officer was of the opinion that no conspiracy existed to massacre every European. The military officers suggested that the risk of a conspiracy existing or not should not be taken, and they insisted their intelligence was very reliable.

As this discussion was going on, a message came through a ‘harkarra’ from Lawrence that every native ‘sepoy’, except the Sikh cavalry and the Punjab Police, were to be fully disarmed and restrained in their barracks. The civil officers were against complete disarming, for “they trusted their men”. Montgomery argued: “These men will take up arms if they see us as weak. If Lahore falls, the Empire falls. It is best to disarm them completely. As far as rebels go, no prisoners, we have no time or space for them”, says the transcript.

Once this decision was taken, the next decision was on tactics. The ‘sepoy’ to European soldier ratio was eight to one. So this had to be undertaken without the ‘sepoys’ knowing what was to follow. The dance-ball diversion was already in place. “There must be no sign of panic. Behave as you would normally”. The dance-ball in the middle of a mutiny seems surreal to us today, but then circumstances and delayed communications for locals made this a plausible ‘diversion’.

On disarming, it was decided that a grand parade was to take place early in the morning of the 13th of May, 1857, at the parade ground, where today stands the Fortress Stadium. The general headquarters barrack stood nearby, the famous ‘1851 Barrack’, a heritage building that was recently knocked down. There were four native regiments, they being the 16th, 26th and 49th Bengal Native Infantry, and the 8th Cavalry, all of whom were stationed at Saddar Bazaar. This made up for 2,500 men in arms.

At R.A. Bazaar was stationed the 81st Queens Regiment, which had two European horse-artillery troops. The entire European strength was 600 men. As per the plan to the right were stationed the European troops, which had a horse-artillery unit behind them. In the middle were positioned the four ‘sepoy’ regiments. To the left was the native cavalry with a European horse-artillery unit behind them. The plan was clear. At the dance-ball not even the native waiters had a clue what was planned for the morning.

Early on the 13th of May, 1857, the parade started. The entire action was over in five minutes. The order was called out “forward step”. Everyone except the horse-artillery moved. A gap had been opened up. Then followed the order “ground arms”. The ‘sepoys” looked confused, the archive documents say. The horse-artillery units with 12 canons were loaded with grape and their port fires were burning. The European troops had turned inwards ready to fire. The cavalry also turned facing inwards. The trap was complete. The ‘sepoys’ realised that if they disobeyed they would all be killed or blown away. All four regiments disarmed. Lawrence was to comment: “With that action I knew the Empire would now be saved”.

As the ‘sepoys’ were being disarmed, a unit of horse-artillery with four cannons had reached the Lahore Fort, where without a whimper all native ‘sepoys’ were disarmed. The massive ammunition dump of Lahore was secured. The disarmed native soldiers moved towards their quarters in Lahore’s Saddar Bazaar, where the insulted ‘sepoys’ of one regiment moved in force towards the Officers Colony in Saddar Bazaar. There they killed a major, a captain, a doctor and a priest.

Robert Montgomery acted with ruthless firmness. On the banks of the Ravi, near Mahmood Booti, he killed 150 fleeing ‘sepoys’ with the help of local villagers, mostly Sikhs. Lawrence was to comment: “It pleases me that these men were strangers in a strange land”. A few sepoys were blown up by cannon at different parts of Lahore. The local population had all locked themselves indoor.

The rest of the Lahore Cantonment soldiers were arrested and taken to Ajnala. There they were locked in a room. A lot died of suffocation. The rest were executed by Sikh villagers in groups of ten each. All these men were thrown in a well at a place called ‘kalain da khoo’. Recently nearly 262 skulls have been found near a ‘gurdwara’, which happens to be just one mile inside Indian territory near Wagah. Thus Lahore was secured.

To the west Lawrence was now worried about Peshawar. He moved to inform the Afghan ruler Dost Muhammad that if he assisted, he would be promised the entire land up to Attock. The greedy Afghan fell to this deception. The western side was reasonably secured.

The doors were now open for a decisive battle at Delhi, where all the rebels from all over India were gathering. It turned out to be a rebellion without a leader. The British eventually overcame, but the question remains: Will we ever honour these freedom fighters?

Published in Dawn, July 6th , 2014




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