By Chaman Lal
A terrible happening had taken place near Ajnala in Amritsar district on 31st July-1st August 1857, as part of India’s first war of independence. The incident had remained engraved on the memory of the people and pricking their conscience for long and an historic event is again taking place at that very place where this terrifying event took place 157 years ago. 282 sepoys of Indian army, who rebelled against British colonial occupation of India in May 1857, were massacred here and dumped into a dry well 100 yard away from Ajnala police station. The remains of those martyred in brutish manner on 1st August 1857, the day of Bakrid(Id-ul-Fitr), were dug out recently by the town people themselves, without any governmental help and are now being cremated with full religious rituals on same day-1st August-157 years later! In spite of that, Government has until date not even allotted them the cremation place, which has to be turned into martyr memorial monument in due time!
This was not the only brutal event in those days. For almost a year or more hundreds of terrible events had taken place all over India-from Calcutta to North India, but excluding South and North East India. Cruelties were part of this war on both sides, innocent women and children had also been victims of this terrifying war, but the rebellious and loosing side’s cruelties were nowhere even close to occupying winner colonial side-British cruelties, that too in the name of ‘justice’!. Rebellious Indian sepoy’s cruelties were result of being pushed to the wall in compelling circumstances, whereas British colonial cruelties and brutalities were committed massively with vengeance and with a victor’s arrogance of teaching a lesson and to instil terror among its colonised subjects.
About this particular incident near Ajnala, two versions are available-colonial version of Deputy Commissioner of Amritsar district of those days- Frederic Cooper, whose book-‘The Crisis in Punjab’-from 10th May to the fall of Delhi- was published in 1858 itself from London. The nationalist version is of Giani Hira Singh Dard, a respected Punjabi writer and historian, editor of Punjabi magazine ‘Fulwari’ from Amritsar in 1920’s. His version was carried with photographs in November 1928 ‘Fansi ank’(Execution issue) from Allahabad, later included in nationalist historian and editor Pt. Sunder Lal’s proscribed book-‘Bharat Men Angrezi Raj’(British Rule in India). Giani Hira Singh Dard had recorded even the eyewitness account of Baba Jagat Singh, who was nearly 95 years of age in 1928 and was of about 20-25 years in 1857, at the time of the terrible happening! The common factor between both accounts is the facts of the event; however, the same facts have naturally been interpreted from different angles/perspectives!
As per Cooper’s account of whole Punjab in 9 chapters of his book, many thousand ‘Poorbeah’ among different units of Bengal Native Infantry took part in rebellion, who were disarmed in May 1857 in Meean Meer Cant of Lahore, after rebellion broke out in Meerut on 10th May, 21 days in advance of the decided date of 31st May. Rebellion spread in different regions of Punjab such as Lahore, Umritsur, Phillour, Jhelum, Sealkote, Jullundur, Ferozepore, Sirsa, Hote Mardan, Peshawur, Loodhianah(as spelled by Cooper), etc. British Govt. with support from feudal chieftains of Patiala, Jind, Kapurthla and Kashmir, hundreds of mutineers were ‘slaughtered’ in the term used by Cooper himself in different areas of Punjab. Cooper proudly and teasingly counts the killings of mutineers in August 1857 in Peshawar area to 659- “Some idea may be gathered of the terrific and swift destruction, when it is remembered that the strength of the regiment before the mutiny amounted to 871. The Punjab Infantry shot and killed 125; Captain James's party killed 40; Lieutenant Gosling's party killed 15. The Peshawur Light Horse, the villagers, and H. M.'s 27th and 70th killed 36. By sentence of drum-head court-martial, on the same day, there were executed by H. M.'s 87th, 187; and by a similar summary tribunal, on the 29th of August, 167; also on the same date, 84; one thanahdar killed five: total, within about 30 hours after the mutiny, no less than 659!(The Crisis in Punjab, Frederic Cooper, Page 177, Elder and Son, Smith, London, 1858) !
In this particular incident occurred near Ajnala, nearly five hundred disarmed sepoys of 26th regiment of Bengal Native Infantry, as mentioned by Cooper, rebelled on 30th July and one Prakash Singh alias Prakash Pandey killed Major Spencer with Major’s own sword and they all fled toward south, only to be trapped near Ajnala, by Tehseeldar Dewan Pran Nath’s agents, who alerted district administration and which sent armed force, which started shooting them, nearly 150 fell to bullets in river near village Daddian, nearly fifty jumped in river to be drowned. Others were taken to Ajnala police station, which could accommodate 237 only, nearly 66 were confined in newly come up Tehseil building in a dungeon. Deputy Commissioner Cooper had ordered a long rope to execute, but had made simultaneous arrangement of 50 Sikh sepoys to kill them with shooting. They were to be killed 31st July night itself, but due to rains, it was postponed until next morning, which was Bakrid that year. On 1st August morning, 237 rebel sepoys were taken out and killed in turns of ten each by shooting in open ground in front of police station. When other 66 dumped in dungeon did not turn up, it was found 45 of them were already dead or half-dead by suffocation. A dry well was there about a hundred yard away from police station. 237+45=282 dead bodies with some not fully dead were thrown into the well, which was filled with sand from above. Cooper called it ‘rebel’s grave’ and wanted to be written in Persian, Goormookhie and English. At two places in his book, he refers the Hollwell’s controversial Black hole of Calcutta of 1756 and well of Cawnpore of 1857, where rebels had dumped British official’s dead bodies and compares them to this place and incident, clearly showing his glee of revenge- There is a well at Cawnpore, but there is also one at Ajnala!(Same-page 167). This ironically reminds Praveen Togadia’s recent statement against Muslims-‘They may have forgotten 2002 Gujarat, but they may be remembering 2014 Muzaffarnagar!”
The well was in place till 1972 with a writing as ‘Kalian Wala Khuh’(The well of Blacks). In 1928, it looked like a raised sand hill. In 1957, centenary celebrations of 1857 were observed here in the presence of then Chief Minister Pratap Singh Kairon. CPM MLA of earlier days Dalip Singh Tapiala of this region used to hold meetings here. However, in 1972, villagers built a room over the well and turned it into Gurdwara. In 2007, 150th anniversary of 1857 was observed at Gurdwara site. In 2012, town people formed an 11-member committee of all practising Sikhs, led by trade unionist Amarjit Singh Sarkaria to honour the martyrs by digging out the well and taking out their remains. They built the new Gurdwara very near this place and took up the digging of the well from 28th February 2014. Before beginning digging work, they tried their best to involve state and Central Government in this project, but their efforts bore no fruit as none of their agencies like Archaeological survey of India showed any interest. As the well was well known, so within three days of digging on 28th February and 2nd March 2014, ten feet deep walls came out and nearly hundred human skulls, more than five thousand human teeth and other parts of bones came out. Hundreds of volunteers took part in the digging and thousand gathered to see it. Many medals, jewellery items, coins etc. are also came out. Electronic local media covered it widely, so was regional print media. Officials from administration and Archaeology deptt. did turn up and boxes of human remains were handed over to them for DNA testing. The managing committee renamed ‘Kalian wala Khuh’(Well of Blacks) as ‘Shaheedan wala khuh’(Martyrs Well) and appealed to Government of Punjab and India to allot them nearby vacant land under the control of army to cremate the remains of martyrs with full religious rituals and erect a memorial therein afterwards at the same place like Jallianwalabagh memorial in Amritsar, 25 kilometres away, where the mass killings had taken place on 13th April 1919 and similar well existed there, where dead bodies were found. Another incident of this kind took place in 1872 at Malerkotla, where then Deputy Commissioner Cowan had got summarily shot dead 66 Kukas in two days, who were followers of Baba Ram Singh.
London based eminent historian of Indian movements-C A Bayly had a dig at colonial regime on Ajnala discovery as it reminds ‘how panic had spread among British officials in Punjab in 1857 and how they were prepared to use extreme violence’(Hindustan Times, Chandigarh-14/3/2014)
No DNA testing of the martyr sepoys had been done until date; neither land has been allotted to Martyrs Memorial committee until now. Committee is going ahead with its plan to cremate the remains of martyrs recovered from the well by organising religious rituals of Hindus, Islamic and Sikhism, as the sepoys could belong to all three religious backgrounds, though large numbers of them could be from Hindu religion. Punjab Govt. seems to have been stuck in politicisation of the issue by certain Sikh fundamentalists, who wish to ignore the issue ‘as being of Poorbeahs verses Sikhs, Sikhs being on the side of British colonialism then’! Govt. they formed a committee, which included some Guru Nanak Dev University Amritsar scholars too, who never took trouble to visit the site just 25 kilometres away, knowing well the non-interest of the government! But it was only feudal Sikhs like Maharajas of Patiala, Jind and Kapurthala , who were with British colonial regime, not the ordinary Sikhs, many of whom took part in rebellion and even in Delhi, Britishers were afraid of Sikhs, who were considered anti British in large numbers!
*Chaman Lal, retired Professor from JNU, New Delhi is presently Professor-Coordinator of Centre for Comparative Literature at Central University of Punjab, Bathinda and author of recent book-‘Understanding Bhagat Singh’.
- Title image of book The Crisis in Punjab
- 66 sepoys confinement cell Ajnala
- Eye witness Baba Jagat Singh of Ajnala-1928
- The well in 1928
- The well in 1960’s
- Gurdwara over well after 1972
- Dug up well 2014
- Jewellery medals in digging
- Skulls from well 2014
- Digging watch in 2014