119 Years of Trust Regional vignettes THE TRIBUNE
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Saturday, February 6, 1999




The grave of Rebecca, which has been vandalised.

A neglected reminder of the Raj
By Romesh Dutt

DAGSHAI cantonment is situated atop a 6,078-feet-high hillock, that stands, sphinx like, astride the Kalka-Shimla national highway at a point about 10 km from Solan. It was founded in 1847 by the East India Company by securing, free of cost, five villages from the Maharaja of Patiala, under whose domain large parts of the present district of Solan fell during the Raj. The names of these villages were Dabbi, Bughtiala, Chunawag, Jawag and Dagshai.

A view of Dagshai in winter The new cantonment was called after the last named village, as it was the largest and most strategically located. Standing atop Dagshai, one could mount surveillance on vast stretches of the highway as well as nearby towns. It was only 16 km from Shimla, 11 km from Kasauli and barely 1 km from Solan as the crow flies. On a clear night the lights of Kalka and Patiala were clearly visible.

Though no authentic records were available, the name Dagshai, according to a popular local legend, was derived from the Urdu phrase Daag-E-Shahi", which connotes a dark blotch branded on a person by Imperial Orders.

This practice, according to the same legend, was prevalent in the Moghul times, when hardened criminals were branded and sent packing to the then Dagshai village.

Perhaps the area must have been a Godforsaken place in those days like Kala Pani, (Andamans &Nicobar Islands) of the later British period. It must certainly have been very lonesome amidst a tinly populated, hard rocky terrain that characterised the hillock in those times. In any case the absence of ‘business’ possibilities for the deported robbers, thugs and the like must have been deemed a sufficient punishment in itself.

While the Moghul period legend could or could not be true, the British certainly neither branded criminals nor deported them to Dagshai. Their sole motive of creating a cantonment there was the tactical necessity of keeping a watch on possible ‘trouble makers’ amongst the chieftains and rulers of the hilly and neighbouring areas.

It may be mentioned here that the ‘honourable’ Company had emerged as the supreme power in the subcontinent around the time Dagshai cantonment was created. After the disintegration of the Moghul Empire and the reduction of Shah Alam as a mere puppet, the regions of Bengal, Orissa, Bihar and Awadh, Madras and Bombay had been annexed and the Marathas were finally subjugated after the Third Anglo-Maratha war (1817-18) by the ‘Company Bahadur’.

However, the Gurkha War (1814-16), despite it having been successfully culminated in favour of the British, had left the conquerors a bit uneasy. The military prowess of the Nepalese lead by the redoubtable General Amar Singh Thapa, had left an indelible mark on the British military planners. Before being driven back to Kathmandu by the Ludhiana-based General, Sir D. Ochtorloney, the Gurkha warrior had virtually come knocking on the doors of Ropar and even when defeated, Thapa organised his retreat in such a manner as to severely test Ochtorloney and his forces.

After the war the Company’s commanders had gone on record advising their political masters to buy a permanent peace with the Gurkhas or at least to ensure that the Gurkhas were never again found on the wrong side of the British, while taking every possible military measure to ensure that the Gurkhas never came knocking down to the plains of Punjab, where the growing power of Ranjit Singh had already become a cause of concern.

The Central Jail, Dagshai, showing T-shaped sheds.The Sikh overlord had extended his boundaries up to Peshawar and had not only employed French and other European officers in his army but had even started hobnobbing with Shah Shuja of Afghanistan. This, in the then prevailing context of fears of a Franco-Russian invasion of India through the north-west Himalayas, sent alarm bells ringing amongst the British.

Years later this fear was aptly reflected in the words of Sir John Lawrence, who rose to became the Governor-General of India, succeeding Lord Canning. While Canning did not seem to favour making Simla the summer capital of India, Lawrence advocated it strongly.

Lawrence, according to the official gazetteer of that period, had said that "here (in Simla) you are with one foot, I may say, in Punjab and the other in the North Western Frontier Province. Here you are amongst a docile population and yet near enough to influence the Awadh. Around you, in a word, are the warlike nations of India".

This was precisely the mindset that lead to the establishments of cantonments like Dagshai. It was born of British fears of the warlike ‘nations’ of the Sikhs, the Gurkhas and the Afghans. The salubrious climate and homely topography could have been an added attraction.

Once the decision was taken, the alien masters quickly set about the business of erecting the needed infrastructure for housing a full regiment and a convalescent depot. Offices, living quarters for both officers and men, play-cum-parade grounds, a hospital, schools came up in quick succession along well laid out roads. Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches were also erected for catering to the spiritual needs of the soldiery. A modern dairy farm soon followed. Two cemeteries were provided in due course of time.

Even though each building had been built on grandiose lines, it was left to the Central Jail — a unique T-shaped, part stone masonry edifice — to find a place in the history books. Constructed in 1849 at a cost of Rs 72,873, a sum considered fabulous in those days, it was provided with 54 cells. Each of these measured six feet by 12 feet with the ceilings placed at a height of nearly 20 feet. The ventilation was provided by a single 1x2 feet, heavily barricaded window and underground vents that drew air from a pipeline with an opening into the outer wall.

The Central Jail today stands as a living testimony to the farsightedness of the British rulers. It came in handy when in 1857, the Gurkhas of the famous Nasiri regiment, then garrisoned at Kasauli, Subathu and Jutogh revolted. After the rebellion had been put down, some Gurkhas were brought to Dagshai, and put up in jail, before being executed.

The jail shot into fame when an undisclosed number of Irish freedom fighters, that had taken up service with the British India Government purely for the purpose of spreading discontent amongst fellow Irishmen serving the British, were imprisoned and later summarily executed in it.

This event had created an uproar in the country and prompted a stalwart like Mahatma Gandhi to rush to Dagshai to make an on the spot assessment. The summary executions of fellow white men appeared to have ominous forebodings for the Indian freedom fighters.

Soon after this incident, four of the ‘Kamagata Maru’ revolutionaries were brought to Dagshai and executed there. It was not certain whether the misdeed was perpetrated inside the Central Jail or in the building presently housing the Dagshai Public School. Most local persons insisted that it was done inside the jail. A senior citizen even says that he had personally seen a wall of the jail bearing several bullet marks which were subsequently filled up. (Kamagata Maru was a Japanese ship that ferried a band of non-resident Indian revolutionaries from the American continent to a well chosen spot near the Bombay coast. A mole’s misdeed lead to the capture of the revolutionaries).

Sadly, the execution of the Indian revolutionaries brought forth no reaction from the local population certainly not of the type that gripped the people of Uttar Pradesh when Ram Prashad Bismil was hanged to death or when Bhagat Singh and his associates were meted out similar fate in Punjab. The reasons for this was simple. Dagshai’s entire population consisted of the British garrison, the ‘native’ traders and government employees — none of whom could be expected to voice his feelings against the dastardly act.

While no official records were available, some of the older citizens say that the Central Jail was also used to lodge German and Italian prisoners of war in 1944.

Pretty soon the British increased the strength of the Dagshai garrison to two regiments. This factor attracted a large number of traders from far and wide who were given every kind of patronage by the white masters.

Old timers claimed that there were over 400 shops, including a large number of wholesale ones that catered to the entire needs of not only the cantonment but of the neighbouring district of Sirmour and parts of present district of Solan during the British days.

They say that at a time, in 1881, when the population of Solan was a mere 63 souls, Dagshai boasted of 3,642. In those days the prosperity of Dagshai was matched only by that of Subathu. The twin cantonment towns had emerged as the largest centres of trade in Shimla hills.

The decline of the cantonment town started with the dawn of Independence and exodus of the white soldier. Even though a temporary reprieve was granted to it, when the Punjab government shifted some of its offices and the famous Vaccine Institute from Lahore to Dagshai in 1947, things took a sad turn for the town’s inhabitants, when each one of the new establishments were shifted away to some other places. The nadir in the downward trend was reached in 1986 when the Defence Ministry decided to make the cantonment a single, instead of the earlier permanent two-regiment station.

This, the residents claimed, was done to make room for the setting up the Army Public School there. The offces of one of the regiments were handed over to the new school. The citizens who had been making repeated petitions to the powers that be for the restoration of the town’s glory, initially thought that the proposed school was being set up in response to their prayers. They hoped that the school would help revive their town’s sagging business. However, owing to a combination of factors which included a blanket ban on school students shopping in the bazaar, nothing of the sort materialised and the downward slide continued.

Out of the earlier 400 odd shops that once did flourishing business, only 26 had survived as of now. Almost each one of these was run by persons well past their prime and hence unable even to think of moving to some other place. Utter desolation and despondence rules the place that once throbbed with hope and life today.back


No civic management worth the name

THE district administration celebrated the silver jubilee of the foundation of the district of Solan in 1997 with great fanfare. The 150th anniversary of the creation of Dagshai, as we know it today, fell in the same year. The latter event went unsung and unnoticed even by the residents of that cantonment town.

This, in a nutshell, summarised the present plight of Dagshai, which once bid fare to be one of the most prosperous places of Himachal Pradesh. Today it looked a picture of utter desolation, wrought, not by some natural calamity, but by official apathy.

Army Public School of the town.As one walked past row upon row of abandoned shops and dilapidated houses, in the deserted, cobbled bazaars, one could imagine that, were anybody to fire a gunshot from the far corner of any one of these, (there were four of them; Lal Kurti, Saddar Bazaar, the Upper Bazaar and Charring cross market) it, in all probability, it would hit someone in Kumarhatti, about 3 km away.

All the bazaars wore a deserted, forlorn look throughout the day. The majority of the 20 odd surviving shopkeepers were often seen basking in the sun or sitting huddled around a fire gossping about God knows what. Barring a few who had been employed in the Military Engineering Services against civilian post, most able bodied inhabitants went out to nearby places like Kumarhatti and Dharampur, and Solan to work in offices, shops and factories there. They generally brought the items of daily need from the markets of those places while returning from work.

The only customer that patronised the local shops were either those who were short of cash and wanted goods on credit or a handful of those who, for some reasons of age or lack of unemployment, did not go out for work in other places. The citizens complained that local shopkeepers charged higher prices than their counteparts in nearby towns. The shopkeepers in turn say that their abnormally low turnover left them with little choice.

So the vicious circle went on and on endlessly with the economy of the little place coming under ever increasing threat.

A day-long survey conducted by this correspondent during which he met a cross-section of people mainly pointed to the need of revising the cantonment board system of civic management in the light of the realities of Independent India.

The laws governing the cantonment boards were passed sometime in the 19th century by the British. It went without saying that the former rulers enacted these laws keeping their own peculiar needs paramount in their minds.

As of now, nobody, not even the state government, could raise or repair any building or similar structure without the permission of the cantonment board, which in any case was seldom granted, the board had next to no powers to provide for the welfare or development of the town. It generally confined itself to maintenance of roads, streets, power and water supplies and of course sanitation.

The main bazaar of Dagshai wears a deserted lookThe rural agriculturists, whose lands fell within cantonment boundaries, were deprived of subsidies and other welfare measures instituted by the state government, as the town was directly under the Central Government. Similar was the position in times of natural calamities like draughts and heavy rains. In all such cases the farmers received some kind of compensation for the losses suffered by them from the state government but the same facility was denied to farmers owning lands in Dagshai.

Given a choice the Dagshaiites would want to either get rid of the cantonment board "lock, stock and barrel", or see to it that it was made more responsive to the people’s needs. As things stood today while the Army area looked spick and span, as every human habitat should, the civilian quarters looked like the dwellings of poor country cousins. Stones jutted out unequally, and a bit hazardously for the unwary pedestrians at several places in the cobbled bazaars that were laid over a century ago.

The road leading from the Kumarhatti bazaar was full of potholes and appeared to be sinking at three places. The dispensary run by the board lacked basic equipment like the X-ray and a pathological laboratory. It had only one male doctor, a pharmacist and a safai karamchari on its staff. There was neither a lady doctor nor a female nurse.

A post office that had functioned near the police post for over a century had been shifted to another village, leaving the residents of the civilian quarters to trek a 2 km long distance to the main post office at Charring Cross for availing of the postal services.

Scant attention was being paid to restore the forest cover, which was substantial during the Raj days. A large number of pines could be seen uprooted or axed along the road leading from Dharampur. Some offices and houses still used firewood for heating purposes. This correspondent saw a thick log of wood stacked in the verandah of a board establishment while a smaller one burned in the fire place in the room of the officer in charge. There was no shop in Dagshai that sold firewood.

A doctor residing in Dagshai underscored the need for not only preserving the existing forest cover but also for increasing it manifold, adding that higher altitude places like Dagshai were always in need of a higher oxygen content in the atmosphere. He said that he had noticed an ever growing incidence of upper respiratory diseases in the area.

The board was, of course, helpless in meeting the demand of the citizens for adequate bus connections to different places in the neighbourhood. In the absence of any local public transport system, anybody who fell ill or had to undertake an emergency journey, had to fend it for himself either by slogging it on foot down to Kumarhatti or Dharampur bazaars, 3 to 4 km, away in all kinds of weather, or call for a taxi and pay exorbitant charges for hiring those. The poor were often seeing carrying their seriously ill relatives or friends on piggy back.

The citizens demanded that a regular bus service connecting Dagshai with Nahan via the newly constructed road via Kauli should be introduced at an early date. Their other demands included the upgradation of the local high school to the senior secondary level and setting up some large public or private sector institute or industrial undertaking to provide job opportunities to local youth and business to the languishing traders.

— R.D.


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