It all started with a pile of discarded books outside a local library. It was 2004 and Amritsar-based amateur historian Surinder Kochhar was walking with his son when he came across the pile. “I picked up a few books at random including one titled The Crisis in the Punjab by Frederick Cooper.” Pages 158 to 162 of the book held a detailed description of the killing of over 250 Indian soldiers of the 26th Bengal Native Infantry battalion following their participation in the 1857 rebellion. But what caught Kochhar’s interest was that the incident described had taken place 20-odd kilometres from the city of Amritsar, in Ajnala.
In his book, Cooper describes holding the men overnight in the police station after they had been cornered. The unit, which was posted in Mian Mir, Lahore, had already been relieved of its arms in May following the start of the uprising, but the men rose in revolt only on July 30. By August 1, it was all over for them. The “corpses of the dishonoured soldiers,” Cooper went on to write, were to be discarded in a deep dry well, located within hundred yards of the police station. Kochhar was certain that present-day Ajnala is where the executions had taken place; there was even an old tehsil there which could well have been the police station where the men were imprisoned. But the town did not have a well. The locals had heard the story too; in fact, it was an integral part of their town’s lore, handed down over generations. However, in the absence of any concrete evidence, the tale of the execution was half-legend, half-myth. “We had heard the stories, of course, but it was only after Kochhar wrote an article in a local newspaper that we started considering the possibility,” says Kabal Singh Shapur, member of the Gurdwara Committee of Ajnala.
It took Kochhar six years of research and several fact-finding trips to ascertain that the soldiers’ remains were still in Ajnala, piled one on top of another in a “deep dry well”. Except that the well had been covered and a gurdwara built over it. Two years of negotiations with the Gurdwara Committee followed. “He [Kochhar] was confident but how could we take him at face value? Of course, we were ready to believe that it was somewhere in Ajnala but right here, underneath the gurdwara? That was tricky.” Kochhar was asked to dig around the gurdwara to prove if any signs of a well could be found. Once the evidence became obvious, the committee agreed. “To be honest, we were also uncomfortable with the idea of the Guru Granth [Sahib] being placed on top of a grave,” admits Shapur.
But a new gurdwara had to be built before the old one could be dismantled to begin digging for the well. “Finally, on February 28, 2014, 10 years after I had first read the book, we began digging. At 2:12PM of the same day, we found the first skeleton,” says Kochhar. In all, more than 90 skulls, elements of over 200 jaws, and other bone fragments were discovered. Kochhar admits that a lot of bones just turned to dust in the hands of the excavators, all of whom were local volunteers.
More than 90 skulls, elements of over 200 jaws, and other bone fragments were discovered from the dig, along with over 153 East India Company minted coins, 93 four anna coins, and three medals
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But history demands concrete facts rather than circumstantial evidence. As do governments and government departments. Repeated calls made by Kochhar, over the years, to the Indian Army and the Archaeology Department of Panjab University had gone unanswered. While politicians made a beeline to the spot within a day of the excavation, the bones were not taken away for forensic examination for over a month-and-a-half. Kochhar was convinced that the remains were those of the soldiers. The dig had yielded over 153 East India Company minted coins, 93 four anna coins, and three medals. Gold jewellery in the form of rings and bangles had also been recovered. “It was obvious,” says Kochhar. But conjecture does not equal facts. It could well be, it was opined, that these were the victims of Partition.
Eight years after the excavation, a study published in the journal Frontiers in Genetics in April this year has declared that the remains did, in fact, belong to people from the Indo-Gangetic plains, the region from where the troops of the 26th Bengal Native Infantry battalion overwhelmingly hailed. The study was conducted by the forensic department of Panjab University in collaboration with Hyderabad’s Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, the Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeosciences in Lucknow, and Banaras Hindu University.
Kochhar and his team of volunteers, who carried their own tools and food to the dig, set up the remains on beds sourced from local homes in a shed created by them. He is the first person to admit that neither the excavation nor the subsequent preservation followed any scientific technique but all his pleas for institutional support, he says, fell on deaf ears. The haphazard excavation meant that it took a long time for the teams working on the bones to isolate enough DNA, and even then, the quality was poor. Eventually, they focused on mitochondrial DNA which is crucial to understanding genetic history. Dental samples also played an important role in determining the diet of the deceased. All the evidence overwhelmingly pointed towards the men being the same as mentioned in Cooper’s book.
In Ajnala, today the site is revered as Shaheedon da Kuh (well of the martyrs). A circular two-storey structure has been built around the mouth of the well while a museum of sorts, complete with some bone relics, has come up. The memorial has been built by the Gurdwara Shaheed Ganj Committee and is managed by them. But Kochhar remains unhappy. “The first few months after the excavation, I was devastated. People had turned the well into a carnival site. A trend emerged, “selfie with skeletons.” It seemed as if these men, 167 years after their deaths, had become a public spectacle.” Even today, people are encouraged to seek “blessings” from the remains. The coins and jewellery, which were excavated, were handed over to the then Gurdwara Committee pradhan, who has since been removed. “Now, they are his personal property. He hasn’t returned them, and grave injustice is being done to these men. If the government were to step in and take over the task of honouring them, these problems will not arise.” Interestingly, the tehsil where the men were held, though in ruins, is an Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) recognised historical building.
Local demands for these men to be recognised as freedom fighters have not made any headway so far. In 2017, officers from the Garhwal Rifles regiment of the Indian Army travelled to France to bring back the bodies of two soldiers which had been unearthed near Dunkirk. “We have given a proper send-off to our men who fought in the big wars, but the men of 1857 have been completely forgotten. Many were sent to Cellular Jail in the Andaman Islands, but poor recordkeeping meant that we don’t have the names of all,” says Meerut-based historian Amit Pathak, who has a special interest in 1857. According to Pathak, the world over, there is no confusion over who qualifies as a freedom fighter. “But in India, freedom fighters signify 20th-century individuals.”
It can be argued that the lens of modern-day interpretation of terms cannot be applied to events from nearly 200 years ago. The rebellion of 1857 is better understood today rather than just a broad brushstroke narrative of the soldiers’ displeasure over greased cartridges. Until that fateful year, the British maintained three presidential armies in India—Bengal, Bombay and Madras. “Recruitment in the Bengal army was primarily based on caste, and most of its troops were Brahmins, Rajputs and Muslims.
Madras and Bombay presidential armies did not recruit on the basis of caste. As a result, there was no hegemony, so to speak,” says military historian and Indian Air Force veteran, Rana Chhina.
The narrative of 1857 has quite a few heroes, from Mangal Pandey to Rani of Jhansi, but the backbone of the uprising was the hundreds and thousands of Bengal Native Infantry troops, many of whom continue to be unsung
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The area where they were recruited is present-day Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Haryana. A fertile stretch of land, this area was also heavily taxed by the British during that period. Revenue rates were cruel and the penalty for non-payment was high. Landowners and peasants alike were united in their unhappiness with the British. But Pathak cautions against using these reasons as a sweeping denouement of the men’s intentions behind the uprising. “The flames spread from West Bengal to Lucknow to Meerut and Delhi. Eyewitness accounts from Meerut at that time suggest that the sepoys said “Company Raj is over.” These men knew and understood the concept of foreign rule and it was an uprising against that.”
The narrative of 1857 has quite a few heroes, from Mangal Pandey to the Rani of Jhansi, but the backbone of the uprising was the hundreds and thousands of Bengal Native Infantry troops, many of whom continue to be unsung. The men at Ajnala participated in the uprising, but there are no grand actions subscribed to them. They barely had a day before they were apprehended. There is no record of their names, though Cooper mentions in his book that their names were taken as they were brought out in batches of 10 to be shot at. He writes about the vast range of deportment the men exhibited as they were marched out, ranging from astonishment, and rage to “the most stoic calmness.” It is easy to put together a picture of their last moments, especially when Kochhar shares tiny details. “One man had seven one-rupee East India Company coins coiled in his fist. Did he think he could still make an escape? Another man had a ring in his mouth. Was it safekeeping? Was it his way of holding onto that one thing of his loved one which would stay with him forever? We can ascribe motives to these final acts, but these men don’t need this to make them more human or their fate poignant,” says Kochhar.
The unit, which was posted in Mian Mir, Lahore, had already been relieved of its arms in May following the start of the uprising, but the men rose in revolt only on July 30. By August 1, it was all over for them
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Ajnala was not an exception. The British response to the uprising was brutal and incidents of hangings and being blown by a canon are recorded across the country. In fact, it was the skull of one such soldier who was blown to death by a canon, his skull then stripped clean and taken to England, that formed the bedrock of historian Kim Wagner’s book, The Skull of Alum Bheg: The Life and Death of a Rebel of 1857. In his interviews about the book, Wagner had expressed the hope that he had “prepared the ground for Alum Bheg to finally find some peace, some 160 years later.” Wagner has been trying to get the skull back to India.
The 1857 uprising may have been quelled within months, but its impact was felt through the entirety of India’s colonial occupation. In fact, historians like Wagner have argued that the Jallianwala Bagh massacre was a culmination of colonial violence shaped by the Empire’s fear of the reprisal of 1857. The British also re-organised the army after the uprising as the homogenous nature of the Bengal regiment was a key factor in the outbreak. “No single caste or class was allowed to dominate or command another caste or class. To avoid unity among native soldiers, the Peel Commission Report recommended that “the Native army” should be composed of different nationalities and castes, and as a general rule, mixed promiscuously through each regiment,” writes SHS Soherwordi in a 2010 paper for the School of History and Classics, University of Edinburgh. A long-lasting legacy also was the shift in recruitment from the regions that traditionally sent men to the Bengal army to Punjab and Northwestern Frontier Province. This was also to reward the “loyalty” of Punjab in the uprising. The term British Indian Army came into usage in 1903 and the Bengal regiment ceased to exist. But there are regiments in the Indian Army even today that can trace their lineage back to the Bengal Native Infantry.
The British did not allow Indians to be commissioned as officers in their own army till the end of World War I, during which the Indian soldier had proven himself to be exceptional when it came to courage and valour. “The British mistrust of the Indian in a uniform, be it police or the army, was a direct result of the 1857 uprising. They knew that the day the Indian soldier would rise again is when the Empire would be in serious trouble,” says Pathak. The Naval Mutiny of 1946 served as a very strong reminder. In fact, Pathak conjectures that one of the reasons India was able to gain its Independence in 1947, far earlier than other colonies, was partly because the British realised they could not count on the forces anymore.
The men at Ajnala will probably continue to remain nameless though JS Sehrawat of the Department of Anthropology, Panjab University, has expressed hope that they can trace their lineage. But almost two centuries after the ignoble manner in which they were killed, a memorial stands in commemoration, trying to restore some of the dignity that they were denied for so long.