By Aditi Tandon

The Tribune 10 May 2007

It has often been asserted that Punjab didn't participate in the First War of Independence and Punjabis worked against the cause. But Chandigarh-based eminent scholar of Punjabi studies Harnam Singh Shaan has found irrefutable evidence showing that Punjab not only participated in the War, but also its people smilingly laid down their lives. Only they were never saluted for their role.

A striking proof that the War, as elsewhere, started in Punjab on May 10, 1857, comes from the accounts of Frederic Cooper, the then Amritsar deputy commissioner, whose book titled "The Crisis in the Punjab from 10th May to the Fall of Delhi, 1857" is revealing. It was published in London in 1858 and contains details of the execution of Punjabi soldiers ordered by Cooper in 1857.

On the night of July 30, 1857, a band of 500 Punjabi patriots, were camping on the banks of the Ravi, six miles from Ajnala. The British spotted and surrounded them. Cooper ordered the killing of 150 soldiers. While receding, several patriots were overpowered by the unsparing currents of the Ravi. The remaining, about 282, were sent to Ajnala jail. Several were brought out in groups of 10 and shot down on the streets. Of those in jail, 45 died of suffocation and thirst. Their bodies, instead of being cremated, were bundled up and thrown into a nearby well which was covered with earth, by Cooper's orders. The well still exists near Ajnala and is called "Kaliyan da Khuh". The martyrs never got any memorial but their death sparked protests in "Bangar Desh" (now Haryana).

References to Punjab's role in the uprising also emerge from the accounts of poet-historians of that age. In "Jagnama Dilli", Khazan Singh refers to 1914 (Bikrami calendar) which corresponds to 1857 (Christian year). He writes, "Saal unin sau chaudhavan vartada si, sare desh de vich fatur paie; Kavi Singh aakhe ehnan kalian ne, topan bir ke morche aan laei."

Seeds of revolt were actually sown when the British captured Punjab after Ranjit Singh's death. National poet of Punjab Sayed Shah Mohammad also referred to the battle between British India and Punjab. In "Jangnama Singhan te Phirangian", 1846, he wrote: "Jang Hind Punjab da hon laga, doven badshahi phaujan bharian ne, Shah Mohammad ik sarkar bahjon, phaujan jit ke ant nun harian ne" (the Sikhs lost in the absence of Ranjit Singh)

Ten years after Mohammad's echoes, the War opened. In his records, Khazan Singh wrote of how the British wanted to Christianise their forces. "Jang Nama Dilli", the manuscript Shaan researched, talks about Lord Canning's arrival in Ambala from Calcutta and of how Canning asked the local subedars to surrender. The Punjabis were at first hesitant to support "Poorbia" (from East India) soldiers as they thought the Poorbias helped the British conquer Punjab. Later, however, the Punjabis rose up to the challenge. Of Punjabi soldiers, Khazan Singh writes, "Asian maran ge teg di tab agai, jang karan ge morche lae ke ji, Asin bhaj ke kite na javna hai, tainun chhaddan ge Sindh tapae ke ji".

The rebellion further spread to Ferozepur where many soldiers were killed. From there, Punjabi soldiers marched on towards Jhelum, Atak, Ambala and Ferozpur cantonments. When they reached Gurdaspur, the British officer in charge was so anxious, he asked Lahore to send additional forces.

"Ghadar di Var", the 1858 manuscript, records the incident: "Jang kamai kaliyan, Jhelum Atak sipah, Sardar bajar te chhavni, lut leya Sialkot nu jah, thar thar kambda Sialkot, Gurdaspur val aiye, Likh pawrana Smith sahib bhejia, Pharangi takhat Lahoron phat pahunchaiye…"